Contented Reader

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Archive for January 2016

Books are magic

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When I say that books are magic, I don’t just mean that as some sort of pretty metaphor.  I’m completely literal here.  Books are magic.

I can scratch some basic shapes – just lines and curves – and put a thought directly into the brain of anyone who sees them.  They don’t have to be in the room with me, or even on the same continent.  Just those little shapes give the power of telepathy to anyone who cares to use it.  Draw enough of them, and you can cause your telepathic receiver to hallucinate huge, epic stories, or transmit wisdom, or skill, or joy.

Not only do books allow ordinary humans to experience telepathic power, they also are the best form of time travel we have access to.  On my bookshelf, I have a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Do you know how bizarrely, fantastically long ago that book was written?  I have zero context from which to imagine what it would have been like to live in 2100 BC.  But I open the book, and there I am – in telepathic contact, mind-to-mind, with a real human being who lived 4000 years ago.  I am communicating with the dead.

Absolutely and perfectly literally, I have the power to read minds, travel in time, and communicate with the dead, as long as I’m holding a book.

Now tell me that ‘books are magic’ is a metaphor.

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January 24, 2016 at 6:00 am

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Some animals I saw today

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A white pit bull, on a walk in the park.  It was wearing a sweater in the precise colors of a sock monkey.

A calico cat, with an orange face.  It is the new shop cat at the neighborhood pet food, chicken feed, and garden shop.  I asked it, “Are you a kitty?” but it wasn’t willing to commit itself.

A very small, very nervous dog in a sweater.  It was newly adopted, recently free of the puppy mill, and terrified of being left alone, so it sat on its person’s lap and trembled with nervous excitement during Sip-n-Stitch night at the cross stitch shop.


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January 23, 2016 at 6:00 am

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A student’s sense of justice

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Children have a powerful drive for justice and fairness.

It’s a little strange, that they do.  From the moment they enter the world, their lives are controlled by adults, huge and powerful and making decisions using logic that children don’t understand.  The children are powerless, and the adults sometimes act capriciously and arbitrarily.

So why do they so ardently expect that they should be treated fairly?

And yet, somehow, they do.

As we read Tangerine, by Edward Bloor, aloud in class, two big plot points happened.  A likeable character died, struck down by a random act of nature.  And the main character was cut from the soccer team, even though he played soccer well and hadn’t broken any rules.

My students were surprised by the character death.  There were a few gasps, in the classroom, when we read that part aloud.  But they didn’t have much to say about it.

But they were outraged when Paul was cut from the soccer team.  It wasn’t fair, they told me, and every hand went up, voices interrupting each other to earnestly explain that this just wasn’t right.

Many of my students haven’t even experienced life as fair – many of them live in poverty, some of them have parents whose parenting style can only be described as unpredictable, and yet nearly all of them seem to have this fundamental sense of fairness that is outraged when justice is violated.

Could it be innate?  Could their brains just know what justice is, and tell them that the world should be just?

If that’s the case, then there might be hope for my species after all.

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January 22, 2016 at 6:00 am

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Secret socks

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Why not secretly wear socks that make you happy, knowing that no one else will see them?

Today I’m wearing brown.  Brown pants, a brown tweed jacket, boots, all very middle-school-teacher-on-a-cold-day.

No one can see my socks at all; they’re tucked under my pants and into my boots.

No one, looking at me, would have any idea that my socks are dancing with happy pink hedgehogs and yellow flowers, hugging my legs with hedgehoggy joy.

But knowing they’re there makes me smile to myself.


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January 21, 2016 at 6:00 am

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Snow Day

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Regularly scheduled days off from work are important.  Saturday and Sunday, every week, each with its own routine.  On Saturdays, one looks for something fun to do outside the house – family time, shopping, a dinner out.  Or else, it’s a time for doing work that hasn’t been done, like cleaning, or laundry, repairs, or grading papers.

Holidays are even better, because they don’t have their own routine.  It’s a bonus day, to add some pleasure to the week that wouldn’t fit into the usual weekend.

Best of all is a snow day.  A snow day feels like a gift from the universe.  We go to bed on time, ready to get up with the alarm and go to work in the morning, and in the morning, the roads are blanketed in snow and ice and everything is cancelled.  There’s no possibility of going out, the week’s jobs are done, and there’s literally nothing at all that needs to be done.

It’s a day to celebrate laziness, with no guilt at all to feel about watching TV all day, or reading a good book straight through.  I read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon from cover to cover this morning, and drank four cups of tea – that’s right, four.  Why not?  I couldn’t go out if I wanted to.  Look at how icy and hostile the world is.  In an icy, hostile world, where even the air could kill you, better to wrap up in a down comforter and have another cup of tea and another episode of Doctor Who.

There really is very little in this world better than a snow day, and so few adults get to enjoy them.  It’s one of the good parts of being a teacher.

Written by Contented Reader

January 20, 2016 at 8:18 pm

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Season one of Penny Dreadful has an episode in which Vanessa is possessed by a demon, and an exorcism is needed.  It’s a very popular scene; I feel like I’ve seen it many times.

It’s a fantasy, which is why we write about it over and over again.

No, not the possession.  We all know what it feels like to have our hands take actions we had determined we wouldn’t take, or to hear our voices say words we would never say.  Sometimes, it feels as if that’s what is happening most of the time, and our actual decisions about our own words and actions are few and far between.

No, the beautiful fantasy is the exorcism.  That some expert could be called in, who will say some appropriate words, light a few candles, shout passionately in Latin, and in an instant, the bad spirit will be banished, and we’ll be ourselves again, the selves we believe ourselves to be, our words and actions perfectly aligned with our character as we see it.

Wouldn’t that be lovely?

At church, they tell the same story that they tell in the horror movies, but they call it ‘conversion.’  Someone says the right words, perhaps there’s a brief and touching ceremony, and a light enters our heart, and from that moment, we are that best self we imagine ourselves to be, with no more moments when our hands do harm and our voices speak hate, even though we really believed we were good.

In real life, outside of the stories, that isn’t how it works.  Changes do happen, sometimes, and we find our way to better actions and kinder words, but they don’t happen in an instant, and they aren’t caused by some pastoral hand.  Changes come when we spend months, years, decades, trying and failing and trying again to change a single painful habit, until one day, we look back and realize, “Hey, I haven’t done that in a long time.”

And we are pleased.  But we still tell stories about how nice it would be if we could become less awful people in a faster, easier way.

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January 19, 2016 at 8:20 pm

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Essays in Idleness

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Essays in Idleness and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon are collections of tiny personal essays.  In Japan, they’re called zuihitsu.  They’re charming because each essay is so tiny and so personal.  They can range from thoughts about ethics and ideas to thoughts about fashion, art, and individual anecdotes, and it’s easy to imagine their authors sitting down, in a quiet moment, to reflect on whatever they’ve been thinking about today.

Marcus Aurelius, who couldn’t have read either of those books, sat down in his quiet moments to write Reflections, tiny personal essays on how to live his best life and be his best self.

These little windows into the soul, from people who aren’t afraid to be earnest, are irresistible.  They are also an interesting model of what a blog might be.  A blogger could be a person who sits down in a moment of quietness to write a tiny essay, or maybe just a few sentences, about what is good, what is beautiful, what is wise, what is useful, and how one blogger tries to live a good life.

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January 18, 2016 at 8:12 pm

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