March Book Log

March 31, 2009

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (5.0/5): I loved and was disturbed by this book. It was my first exposure to McCarthy, and now I will probably have to read all of his stuff. I understand all the biblical comparisons, and find them apt for the most part. The most moving part of the book for me was the way that a seemingly meaningless journey collected so much meaning almost out of nowhere. A perfect ending as well.

2. The World According to Garp by John Irving (2.0/5): I loved Owen Meany and was expecting something good here as this is Irving’s most talked about book. I was sorely disappointed. This book is pure, pointless sensationalism. I fear I am doomed to periodically read a 600 page book that I end up hating even though I feel compelled to finish it.

3. Naked by David Sedaris (4.0/5): It didn’t feel quite as personal as Corduroy and Denim, but it was a bit lighter. I almost always enjoy Sedaris. His voice and tone are always refreshing. This was a wonderful pallet cleanser after Garp, though it wasn’t a true pallet cleanser as it left a very enjoyable aftertaste.

4. The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff (4.0/5): Cate and I have been on a Pooh binge for a month or so as we prepare for Simone’s arrival. I read this because I’m also a bit of a Taoist (that is, I’m not really a Taoist, but I’m probably more a Taoist than anything else) and like reading about it from time to time. Hoff does a good job using Pooh to explain Taoism and vice versa. The book is light and easy, though he gets a bit grumpy here and there.

5. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (4.5/5): Jebus. I was already pretty upset about the current state of American food consumption. This pretty much put me over the edge. We already frequent the farmer’s market weekly and try to stay away from the processed stuff, but now I’m even more inclined to eat as locally as possible. A couple of wonderfully written narratives also appear in this book with fully fleshed out and likable character. The only flaw is Pollan’s occasional tendency to go on a bit too much. Wonderful book.

6. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (5.0/5): Just reminding myself by rereading this book. I doubt I can say anything about it that hasn’t been said. It’s only 81 pages and you should read it if you haven’t if for no other reason than it’s historical importance.

Book Queue Update:
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Drown by Junot Diaz
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Eustress and Naturalism

March 28, 2009

Our internet has been down or very spotty for over a week, so I apologize for a lack of posts lately. I am, however, glad the internet went down for a bit because it led to me working on my book and spending some time at my desk in front of my desktop (I do my normal internet puttering and blog posting from the laptop I have for work). Sitting there reminded me of something I guess I had forgotten. It reminded me why I want to be a professional writer. This may take a moment to explain.

I like my job teaching high school English to sixteen-year-olds. It makes me feel useful and like I contribute to the world in an important way. However, it can be, and often is very stressful. I mean distress, not eustress. It generates a lot of mindless work (grading) that needs to be done at home after the workday is over, and when you are at work, there is no downtime. You do not get to have an “off” day where you aren’t quite hitting on all cylinders. You have 25 to 30 students all day and they do not care if you are sick or tired or just having a bad day. You have to be on all day every day. It’s exhausting. I like it, but it wears me out.

Writing is entirely different. It also stresses me out, but in an entirely positive way. When I am writing, I feel driven to write more. Of course, I have frustrating moments here and there. Times when I have to force it. There’s always editing and revising, which take longer than I want them to, but in the end it feels good. If I spend three or four or five hours in front of the computer, I always feel like I’ve accomplished something positive. There is stress, but it is eustress. It gives me the opportunity to use an imagination that has always been overactive anyway, and in the process soothe my painfully overactive brain. Teaching does this, but only in very limited quantities. It doesn’t matter what students you give me, it only taxes my brain so much to come up with something to teach them, the rest is just crowd control. And once you get the hang of crowd control it requires very little thought or creativity. I would gladly write everyday in lieu of any other work. I am aware that I am not alone in this feeling, but that is hardly the point. The point is, in the limited time I’ve had to live a writer’s life (about four months), I never found my work to be stressful in a negative way. I worked seven days a week and never got tired of it. I reported to no one but myself, but rarely ever slacked off. It was a nice feeling. It didn’t leave me with any of the unease that every other job (however satisfying) I have ever had left me with. When I am writing I feel as though I am in my natural state, and that is a wonderful thing.

I am reasonably sure this post comes off as pretty ridiculous. I’m sorry if that’s the case. Mostly, I think I wrote as a public record so that, in the event that no graduate schools accept me (still waiting on several), I am reminded to bust my ass in the ways necessary to try and get some things published.

Dear Doctor Douchebag

March 14, 2009

The following is a letter I am sending to a doctor I saw once almost two years ago:

Dear Dr. M-,

Almost two years ago I came into your office seeking advice for treatment of my shoulder. Your office did not have a negotiated agreement with the insurance company I had at the time, but the doctors I had already consulted with insisted that you were the best in the area, so I bit the bullet and paid $150 up front with the understanding that the rest would be paid by my insurance.

Frankly, I found your consultation to be entirely useless. You seemed completely unwilling to listen to what I, a patient who had dealt with various shoulder issues for eight years (now ten) and knew a great deal about my condition and my experience with it, had to say. You spent about five minutes with me. During that brief visit, you told me only things that I already knew not to be true. I left your office dissatisfied, but figured that sometimes that just happens. Every doctor isn’t going to be helpful, and that’s okay.

Later, I had a great deal of success with occupational therapy (you told me this would be ineffective. That is, you were wrong). I considered the matter closed. A short time after my visit, I moved and I didn’t feel the need to inform your office as I had paid you and had no interest in seeking your medical advice again. About a year and half later, I received a bill for about $37. Though I assume this bill had not taken that full year and a half to be forwarded to me, the due date on the bill had already passed by the time I received it. Also, I had already paid you $150 dollars and was sure this was a mistake. I called your office and spoke to a lovely woman who, after doing some investigating, told me that my insurance had not come through with all of the payment, but since I had already paid $150 and since your office had taken a year and a half to bill me, these last charges would be dropped. This seemed entirely reasonable to me, as I think it would to anyone.

Today (six months after the incident I just described), I received the bill from you, yet again, but this time it informed me that you were reporting me to a debt collection service. How wonderfully professional of your office. I cannot recall ever having a more unpleasant experience with a doctor’s office (and I have had many, many experiences). I have no interest in ruining my credit rating over $37. Enclosed, please find the check. I now consider the matter closed. Please do not contact me again unless you want to explain how five minutes of not listening to a patient is worth $187.



Fixing Education

March 5, 2009

I’ve been in a few debates recently about the problems with educational system. The current line of thinking seems to be that the problem begins and ends with teachers. This is bullshit. So, without further ado, if I were an all powerful dictator, here is what I would do to fix the school system.

1. Make parents accountable. How? Honestly, I don’t know. This is the one place where I really don’t have a solution to offer, but the single biggest problem in most school systems is a lack of parental involvement. Get parents to actual care about their kids and the kids will do better. I know, this seems obvious, doesn’t it? And it has nothing to do with teachers being terrible, but it would help. Maybe we could give a tax break if kids make good grades or something. Anyway, onto the more practical.

2. Realize that school is not for everyone. There is also a belief going around right now that everyone should go to college. This is stupid. It is the nature of our society that we need plumbers and electricians and hair dressers and even service workers. College is expensive. How pissed would you be if you were working the counter at JC Penney with $25,000 in student loan debt? Yeah, that’s what i thought.

So here’s what you do: Institute vocational programs right away. Require two years of high school and, after that, if you know it’s not for you, you can enroll in a vocational program that will teach you to be a carpenter or plumber or whatever. You will make good money doing a job you like and you don’t have to spend two more years doing something that you know is not for you. I love literature and science, but everyone does not need to know how to analyze literature or explain the formation of black holes. We have specialization in our culture for a reason. Now, of course, there will still be kids who slip through the cracks, but that’s always going to happen. No system is perfect, but this would make things a lot better for teachers and students.

3. Ditch most standardized testing. It isn’t helpful and is almost always poorly executed. Give the ACT or SAT and let that be it. Those test do a reasonably good job of testing your general knowledge, and they do it in a day. You want to require a minimum score for graduation? Fine, but let’s drop the whole two weeks of testing thing. Last year, I lost 30 days of instructional time to testing and test prep that was required of me. This is not the best use of my or the students’ time.

4. Revise technology standards. I’ve yet to see a study that shows that the use of technology helps kids learn about anything other than technology, but we are required to use it all the damn time. I love technology, and I’m pretty damn tech-savvy, but I barely use more than PowerPoint which, less face it, is the new version of overheads. So add a year or two of technology classes. People need to know about technology in today’s world, so let’s actually teach them about that instead of expecting there English and Math teachers to do it. Then the English and math teachers can go back to, you know, teaching English and math.

5. Accept that not all children are going to be interested in everything. Okay, this isn’t really a reform, but seriously, I would really like it if the world would stop expecting me to engage 120 students every damn day. Can you keep 120 people who are only in the room with you because they are required to be interested for an hour everyday for 180 days? I bet you can’t. And if you can, you are a very, very highly paid speaker and do not have time to spend in high school classrooms. I try to make my lessons interesting most of the time, and I always have at least a few students really engaged, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. It just doesn’t work. Subject-verb agreement is boring, but you still need to know how it works.

6. Reform the teacher hiring/pay system. You can do one of two things: 1. Continue to require master’s degree, eliminate tenure and pay all teachers at least $50,000 to start. Now, you can hire and fire as you like, but you do have to pay the same as other jobs that require similar educations. That the upside to tenure. Job security will get you a cheaper labor force. 2. Stop requiring master’s degrees and pay based on performance. I think it would be a good idea to let any competent person with a bachelor’s degree give it a shot as there is not data whatsoever to suggest that a master’s degree makes you a better teacher. The pay based on performance stuff makes me nervous though because, let’s face it, a teacher at the worst school in the state with the most difficult student population is not going to perform as well as he or she would at a swanky suburban school where the parents are all involved and give money to the school like it’s going out of style. There is a solution to this last bit, though…

7. Homogenize school populations with regard to socio-economic status and funding. Basically, this means that every school has roughly the same amount of rich kids and the same amount of poor kids and making sure each school has equivalent funding on a per student basis. Right now, in my district, there are school with 10% at risk populations and schools with 80%. This isn’t good for the teachers (stress), the district (high turnover), or the kids (to many bad examples). Mix them together a little better and watch the kids perform better. I have seen this work. One set of the population can pull another set up to its level as long as the numbers are done right. You can’t have to many at risk kids, but if you did it right, this could make a huge difference. And no, I am not saying all rich kids do better than all poor kids, but if you look at the numbers, that is the general trend, and it’s a pretty strong correlation. Further, most schools are funded on local property taxes this means that schools in good neighborhoods get lots of money while schools in bad neighborhoods get very little. That is the definition of unfair.

8. Fix up schools. I have shitty old desks, dirty floors, and broken down bookshelves. Why? There is no money. Make the schools into nice places and the kids will start to feel better about being there. Think about where you work and live. Doesn’t the appearance of the place affect your attitude?

9. Lower class sizes. I don’t really even think this is necessary, but more can get done if you have 15 or 20 kids than if you have 30 or 35. But again, I think we’re fine as long as we don’t get much above 30 kids in a room.

Okay, there you go, that’s my plan. Now, whoever reads this, please stop with the teacher BS. Sure, there are things that can be done to the system to make teachers better, and I don’t mind if you do those things, but there are plenty of other things that also need to be done, and many of them can be done relatively cheaply.

Women Who Write

March 4, 2009

On occasion I follow this blog over at Slate. It’s not the greatest thing ever, but they do come up with decent links here and there, and a bit of insight every great once and a while. Lately, however, they have been having a “discussion” about why more women haven’t written books that are considered “Great American Novels”. I put discussion in quotation marks because I have no idea what any of them are talking about. As far as I can tell, they have two “arguments” (again, notice the quotes).

1. Big thick books written by men get more attention than slender but “no less accomplished” books by women. — The problem with this argument is that there are too many variables. There is a mildly long tradition of people griping about how the biggest prizes go to the books that are physically large. We can have that argument if you like, but it isn’t the point. If you are discussing women in writing vs. men in writing, you need to compare books that, aside from the gender of the author, are alike. The Awakening is wonderful, but to compare it to Moby Dick or All the King’s Men or Kavalier & Clay is pointless. Those books are enormous. There is way, way more going on in the longer books than there is in The Awakening. Yes, the longer books I mentioned are written by men, but they are would be no more comparable if they were written by women.

If, however, you decide you want to, I don’t know, have your comparisons make sense, you could compare something like The Awakening to Winesburg, Ohio or The Road. Suddenly, the comparison seems a bit more reasonable, doesn’t it? In fact, it strikes me that The Awakening and The Road are actually quite comparable. Similarly, you could compare The Poisonwood Bible or Gone with the Wind or Ahab’s Wife to any of the long books I mentioned above that were written by men. But that would make sense, and we wouldn’t want to make sense.

It seems to me, that with this argument, they are really trying to say that women don’t get enough recognition on “books you have to read” lists. Fine. Fine. But, you know, if you want to make that argument, make it. And make reasonable comparisons.

2. “Great American Novels” are usually about journeys/quests/adventures and women write about domestic things. — Man there are a ton of problems with this argument. At the top of the list would be that it is terribly sexist with it’s slotting of male and female writers into neat little stereotypes. But even if you accept the comparison it fails because what it really says is that domestic novels don’t get as much attention as adventure/quest/journey novels.

Conclusion: These people are idiots. I’m not arguing that women aren’t discriminated against. They are. It’s absurd that Barbara Kingsolver, for example, doesn’t get more recognition. To my knowledge, she hasn’t won much in the way of literary awards desptie being a fabulous writer. Jane Austen gets unfairly dismissed as chick-lit while Hemingway gets glorified. And what about Margaret Atwood? Why don’t more people know about her? It’s unfair. It is. And it’s good to point out unfairness. All I ask is that people do it with some level of competence.