February Book Log

February 29, 2012

Well, I only read three books this month and didn’t get much writing done to speak of. On the other hand, we did welcome our son, so perhaps the lack of productivity can be excused. Lots of books I want to read next month. We’ll see how that goes with two children.

First, a note on a book I didn’t finish: Everything Is Illuminated, I tried with you, I really did. I picked you up three different times over the last five years. When you first came out, everyone loved you. Lately, you’ve fallen a bit in esteem, but you’re still generally admired, but it just isn’t meant to be for us. I find your first twenty pages grating and uninviting and so I’m crossing you off my list and sending you out into the world. You don’t really need me anyway.

1. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy (5/5) – This was the first book I tackled from Cate’s list, and I loved it. I had only read a few stories before I started trying to figure out where I could teach some of them. Meloy has a fabulous, unadorned voice that fits her characters and environments perfectly. The best part about these stories, however, is that they are not predictable at all. I thought I knew what was going to happen in several of them and I didn’t, at all. I couldn’t have guessed. That’s no small accomplishment.

2. Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (5/5) – I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I am a fan of Colum McCann. These short stories are great. I am continually amazed at how many different voices he can take on. The characters in each story are so radically different from each other it boggles. He does equally magnificent turns with the simple and perfect descriptions of his settings and the situations he places his characters in. Beautiful writer.

3. The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (5/5) – This book was a finalist for the Pulitzer last year, and I think I enjoyed it more than the book that won (A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I did also love). What struck as most remarkable about this book is how constantly sad and yet continually compelling it is. You can’t check out from the characters, no matter how much you may want to. I also always appreciate Lee’s overt feminism. He does not take women for granted in his stories, and it’s wonderful to see from such a prominent male writer.

Winter/Spring Book Queue Update:

This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann*
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee*
Run by Ann Patchett*
The Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt*
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood*
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Bits and Pieces

February 27, 2012

There are several things I could write full blog posts about right now, but it’s not going to happen. Instead, I offer you the following semi-worthwhile snippets.

1. We had a new child! James Atticus was born last Thursday. He is named for my dad and for the character you’re all thinking of (if you’re not thinking of the character – go read a book, slacker!). Everyone is home and happy and Cate and I are adjusting to a two-child household. Mercifully, he’s been easy to get along with so far, so we probably won’t have to take him back to the baby store. Frankly, I couldn’t take all the pecking. Those storks are brutal with the high-pressure sales-tactics.

In semi-seriousness: I’m quite happy and it’s very odd to have a baby around the house again. I have lots and lots and lots of things to say about attempting to raise a man who respects women and doesn’t buy into the misogynist nonsense of our culture. That will come in time.

2. I taught my advanced writing class for the first time today. I walked into the room, said I’d been looking forward to this class all year and immediately had several students respond that they had, too. It was so gratifying. I love writing and I love teaching writing. This class is pretty much why I got into teaching in the first place. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it.

3. There has been a movement afoot on the internets to encourage men to speak up about the birth control nonsense going on right now. I feel compelled, and so I have to speak up. The ridiculous bullshit being spouted by a handful of conservative men who believe they should have the right to control women’s reproductive choices is simply absurd. It is born of a hatred for a women and I find it sickening. If we really want to start making moral arguments, I want to start talking about all the places I don’t want my money to go.

That’s beside the point, though. The point is women are just as capable of making decisions as men. It’s absurd that we’re still having this conversation in 2012. I look forward to watching Republicans be crushed in the upcoming elections.

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently about the evils of homeschooling. My hackles were especially gotten up by one saying liberals shouldn’t home school because home schooling runs counter to liberal values. At the moment, Cate and I intend to home school both our children, so I thought I’d take a moment to dispense with all the major arguments against homeschooling while providing an educator’s viewpoint on why it can sometimes be a necessity.

Argument 1: Your kid will be poorly socialized/School socializes your kids

Certainly, this is true of some kids, but that has more to do with the parents than anything else. If you want to cloister your kids, you certainly can, but you don’t have to. This is not the goal Cate and I have. We fully intend to have our kids involved in a number of activities. They’ll get plenty of socialization that way. And frankly, school often only teaches kids what it’s like to be constantly picked on by assholes. I can do without my kids encountering that and the negative consequences that can come with it.

Argument 2: You’re afraid of exposing your children to outside views and unfairly indoctrinating them

This is certainly the case for some, especially religiously motivated home schoolers. That doesn’t mean everyone approaches it that way. I find it absurd, however, that people believe public schools aren’t involved in indoctrination. Public schools tend to push a particularly simplistic and devotional version of patriotism that, while consistent with the goals of a government organization, isn’t good for critical thinking and an honest assessment of the society in which we live. Correspondingly, many students come out of school with ridiculous views about the benefits of capitalism and the risks of socialism. The current Obama as socialist panic is a good example of this kind of nonsense.

Argument 3: You aren’t qualified to teach your child

You might not be, but I am and so is Cate. We’re educated and fairly intelligent people. To an extent that’s our luck/privilege, but it’s also reflective of our values. If you don’t value education and don’t make an effort to constantly educate yourself, then no, you should probably not home school your children. In our household, it’s just about impossible to imagine our children surpassing Cate and me in the humanities, especially English and history, before they turn 18. It’s more imaginable that they’ll best us in science and math, but if that happens, there are other routes we can take to get them the education they need. We’re not afraid to outsource. And we won’t be unschooling. We’ll allow our children more room and time to explore those things that interest them most, but they will cover all of the basic subjects and there will be dedicated school time on a daily basis.

The other implication with this argument is that a high school education is highly advanced. In many, many schools and for many, many students, it isn’t. In fact, recent education reforms have mostly had the effect of forcing focus onto the lowest performing students (who are typically low performing for reasons that have nothing to do with teachers and schools and curriculum) and diverting it away from the highest performing students who could really excel in an area or two before reaching college. (aside: I’m not saying we shouldn’t divert extra resources to kids who need them, I’m saying we shouldn’t do it at the expense of other kids and in the useless way testing currently forces upon us.)

Argument 4: When parents home school, it lowers the quality of public schools

This is completely true. In an ideal world, school populations are ethnically, socially, and economically diverse. They are not testing focused. All children go to public schools. This isn’t an ideal world. A much bigger issue is the percentage of children in private schools and the way affluent Americans are able to congregate around the best public schools thus condemning many schools to high percentages of at-risks students and all the educational difficulties that come with that. As soon as there is genuine effort at educational reform that addresses the inequality inherently built into the educational system, I will totally get on board and send my children to a public school. However, as long as educational policy makers continue to live with their heads in the sand, I will be keeping my children out of the system.


Most teachers and administrators struggle daily to educate students under duress from higher authorities. I can tell you from experience, it sucks. A lot of teachers also utilize homeschooling and private schooling because we fully understand the problems inherent in the system and realize that sacrificing our children to such a system accomplishes little to nothing. I am a teacher because I believe that education is important and that I am reasonably good at educating kids even in our flawed system (though I would be better if we could get rid of pretty much all current policy). I understand that many people can’t home school and that their children still deserve a good education. By teaching, I am trying to do right by those children. I am, however, also a parent and I’m going to do what’s best for my children until the rest of the world gets on the same page and starts doing right by the public education system.

What About Boys?

February 13, 2012

We are expecting the birth of our son any day now – literally. Over the weekend we spent nearly 24 hours in labor and delivery as Cate went into and then, vexingly, out of labor. It’s caused some exhaustion around the house and I don’t know how much I’ll be writing anywhere for the next week or two. I did want to chime in on another of those things people do that bother me.

Given the brief descent into labor, I’ve had lots of conversations with people about the forthcoming child. Everyone seems to be under the impression that we are lucky to be having a boy. The implication is that boys are easy because they are so low-maintenance. Or something. It’s all left me wondering, once again, why our society seems so set up to hate women. The worst you’ll ever hear about boys is that they are rough and tumble. But girls are whiny. Girls talk too much. Girls can’t play rough. Girls cause drama.


Simone has been part of our family for almost three years. Has she created drama? Of course. Has she been whiny? Of course. She’s two. Show me a two-year-old who doesn’t whine. I’ll say this though, Simone can rough house with the best of them and she is a quiet, often contemplative, child. In other words – not the stereotype.

I know this echoes a lot of stuff I’ve written before, but it amazes me how much baggage society lays at our feet before we are even born. I don’t know who James is yet. He may be a very easy child or he may be difficult. Either way, his gender won’t have anything to do with it. I don’t know if he will like girly things or manly things. Frankly, I don’t care. I suspect, however, that like all actual people, it will be a mix. Certainly, in our house, we’ll keep doing our best to let our children be whatever kind of children they want to be.

Telling Students the Truth

February 5, 2012

I run a small creative writing program at the high school where I teach. Obviously, this results in me spending a lot of time thinking about how to teach writing. It’s harder than you think. I am often reminded of a quote from the film version of Wonder Boys (I don’t think it’s in the book, but that one is due for a reread soon):

Nobody really teaches a writer anything. You tell them what you know. You tell them to find their voice and stay with it. You tell the ones that have it to keep at it. You tell the ones who don’t have it to keep at it because that’s the only way they’re gonna get where they’re going.

That’s true enough, I think. Of course, there are things you can teach, but mostly it’s editing. How to be critical. How to hold yourself to a standard. And that’s where I have disagreements with others from time to time.

There are people who believe that young writers should only ever be encouraged. A pat on the head and a “keep at it” and that’s enough. I don’t think it is. I have found that what students want more than anything, is to be taken seriously, and that means telling them the truth, or at least part of it.

Very, very rarely, for instance, will I tell a student they are a good writer. If they ask, I will tell them that being good is not the point yet. I tell them that the people we think about as good have often been working on writing for longer than this student has been alive. Good doesn’t just happen. Talent matters, but so does practice. I will find something good in their writing to talk about because I don’t want them to stop. I want them to keep at it and get where they are going, but I don’t want them to think they are done.

High school students almost all want to grow up too fast. They want to be done when they are nowhere near done. I try to get this across to them. When it comes up, I have been known to tell entire classes that I do not expect them to be good because they are young and when you are young, you are supposed to be bad. Being bad is a requirement for becoming good. I expect them to work. I expect them to try and get better, but I don’t expect them to win literary awards.

Which brings me to something else I occasionally have disagreements about  — I will not tell a student they are good when they are really only good for high school. I have had several, very serious writers who were very, very good for high school and even pretty good for college. They have only ever had teachers gush over them. When I tell them their writing is not perfect, that there is room for improvement, and then point out things to work on, they are always — always — thrilled.

Why? Because they do not need me for positive feedback. If they are serious about writing, they have shown things to parents and friends and those people have told them they are good. They do not lack confidence. When a grown up who writes seriously and reads a lot of books and takes them seriously asks, “Do you want to be good for high school, or just good?” they are thrilled. Because they do want to be good and they know, deep down, all the praise is a little too good to be true. They are lost, as we all are at times, and grateful to have someone who is willing to show them part of the way. Who wants to grope through a dark forest alone?

None other than my lovely wife has told me that she hated how teachers never gave her useful feedback on her writing. Writers want to be taken seriously, and giving them blanket approval does just the opposite. Even struggling writers need a bit of criticism. If you tell them they are good, they don’t believe you. Instead, it’s best to start by pointing to what they do well. There is almost certainly something. But then, you tell them something to work on because if you don’t, they won’t respect you and they won’t listen to other things you have to say.

My job is to encourage, and I do that, but it is also to help. Often, help requires the truth.