Contented Reader

just point me toward the nearest library

Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

How to lose weight cheaply and effectively

leave a comment »

I liked Roger Ebert’s The Pot, which is about cooking with a rice cooker, and M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, which is about eating reasonably well on little or no money (specifically, during the era of World War II food rationing).  Using them, I have developed a weight loss/ money-saving eating plan.  If you follow my plan, you will lose weight, be healthier, and spend very little money on food.  The one problem is that you may need to give up the idea of getting pleasure from food, but life has many pleasures, doesn’t it?

At the beginning of the week, in a large pot or rice cooker, cook up a big batch of brown rice.  As it’s cooking, add a bag or two of frozen vegetables and one cut-up sausage.  Mix it all together thoroughly.  When it’s done, measure it into half-cup servings and put it in the freezer.  Viola!  Healthy, cheap food for the week.

Now just eat that.  Two or three times a day, whenever you’re hungry, take one or two out of the freezer and microwave it.  Put some bottled sauce on it to make it more palatable if you like.

I can’t think of any reason that this wouldn’t work to make a person healthy and fit while costing a laughably tiny amount of money.

You’d just need to make the choice that you were going to find your pleasures in other things, and when you eat, you’re just going for nutrients to keep you from dying.

No, I’m not planning to adopt this plan at this time.  But it’s nice to know it’s an option if times get hard.


Written by Contented Reader

January 17, 2013 at 7:25 am

Posted in Opinions

Before my first Zelazny novel

leave a comment »


It appears that the Memorial Guest of Honor at the upcoming Readercon is Roger Zelazny.

I’ve never read a book by Zelazny before, and it isn’t exactly by accident.  I’m a reasonably well-read person, with a fairly broad spectrum of taste.  I’ve seen Zelazny’s books before.  My brain gives me a memory of a long line of yellow-spined, thin paperbacks on the bottom shelf of the SF section of the bookstore, something about them sending out a ‘This is for teenaged boys’ vibe.  I’ve never been tempted to pick one up.

On the other hand, the Readercon programmer people are some thoughtful and well-read people, in general, whose taste I have some respect for.  And I’ve read authors I like and respect talk about Zelazny lately as an important influence.  Wikipedia says that he was an important part of the ‘new wave,’ which I don’t know anything about but am willing to learn about.

So, I say, I’ll give him a try.  Various people seem to point to the ‘Amber’ series as an important part of his work, so I reserve the first book at the library.  Yesterday, it arrives, and I pick it up, and it is… this.

I mean, look at it.  Are you looking at it?  Look at this thing.

Here we have an extremely stalwart man, long hair blowing in the wind, holding a sword, wearing a cape.  In thigh-high black leather boots.  He is leaping from nowhere to nowhere out of fire or clouds or mist.  Or maybe flaming misty clouds.  The first question that springs to mind is, “Is that man wearing pants?”  The answer, on close inspection, is, “Yes, but they are improbably tight pants, which he appears to have been sewn into.”  And, oh, look.  Gauntlets.  He is leaping into danger that might threaten his hands, but not his ass, apparently.  The second question is, “Which way is the wind blowing?”  His cape seems to be blowing straight up, while his hair is blowing back.  The cover screams, “15-year-old repressed gay boys, this way!”

I would never, ever pick up a book with this ridiculous cover, if it hadn’t come so highly recommended by people I respect.

So I turn to the back.

Exiled to the Shadows for centuries, a man more than mortal awakes in an Earth hospital with no memory of his past- and surrounded by enemies who hunger greedily for his destruction.  For Corwin is of The Blood- the rightful successor to the throne of the real world.  But to rule, he must first conquer impossible realities and demonic assassins… and survive the ruthless machinations of the most insidious malevolence imaginable: his own family.

Riiiiight.  I’ll get right on that, then.

Is this really a book I’m going to read on purpose?  Is it really possible that hiding in this ridiculous, lurid cover is something that people I respect have seen as excellent?  I confess to looking at this object and feeling deeply skeptical.

But I have it.  And once I finish Master and Commander, I’ll cautiously give it a try.

Written by Contented Reader

December 5, 2012 at 7:34 am

Posted in Opinions

Why I teach the five-paragraph essay

leave a comment »

First of all, ‘five-paragraph essay’ is a name for an essay that isn’t necessarily five paragraphs long.  But I do teach my students how to write an essay that has an introduction that clearly states a main idea, several body paragraphs, each focused on one specific aspect of the main idea, and a conclusion that sums up the main idea.

No literary writing is anything like that.  No one every reads essays or books for pleasure that are structured that way.  The structure screams, ‘I wrote this for school.’

My students do it anyway.  It isn’t the only thing they do, but I expect every one of them to master it.


Because the skills it teaches are important.  The basic concept ‘Have a point, and write about it,’ is not at all obvious or easy for twelve-year-olds.  Someday, they will write good essays.  But first, they have to learn the basic concept that an essay is about something, and that focus is a thing.  Someday, they will build beautiful buildings.  But first, they have to know how to make bricks.

And because most of them, in their adult lives, won’t be called upon to entertain or inspire people with their writing.  A few of them will, and they will learn from their reading how to do it.  But most of them, when they write, are going to be called upon to write when they need to clearly communicate something to someone else.  They don’t need to know how to make a reader laugh, or cry, or change her life philosophy.  They need to know how to explain to the client what they are going to do to fulfill the assigned project, what materials and steps are involved, and how much time and money will be involved.  They need to know how to communicate with their employees, what their expectations are.  They need to send an email that will clearly communicate what the slow-witted and easily bored boss needs to know, before she stops reading and goes back to playing Angry Birds.

They need to know how to clearly state what they are trying to say.  They need to know how to choose the right information to explain that thing.  They need to communicate clearly.  And the ‘five-paragraph essay’ is a good way to learn those skills.

Some of them, some day, will master higher, better forms of writing.  Some of them will learn them in high school and college.  The ones who become great writers will get what they need from their reading.  But all of them need the simple, basic, not-nearly-common-enough commonsense skill of getting their damn point across clearly to another human being.

So don’t roll your eyes and disparage the person who teaches the ‘five-paragraph essay.’  When one of my students is your boss, or your employee, or your tax advisor, you’ll be glad I did.

Written by Contented Reader

November 3, 2012 at 8:53 am

Posted in Opinions

Evidence first

leave a comment »

There’s a standard school writing assignment, the persuasive essay.  It’s part of students’ experience from elementary school to high school.  Almost every American adult has written a few of these; many have written nearly a dozen.  And I think they might be what’s wrong with our country.

In textbooks and in classrooms, here’s the way the assignment goes.

  1. Choose an opinion you hold strongly.
  2. Gather evidence that supports your opinion.
  3. Organize what you’ve learned in a persuasive essay, to try to get others to agree with you.

The problem, of course, is that this is exactly the worst possible thing to do with an opinion.  And after twelve years of schooling, people go out into the world thinking that this is what you do with an opinion.  Politicians argue this way. Even Presidents do it.  Adults think that all opinions are equally valid, and that, if they can find evidence to support their opinion, it shows that their opinion is good and true.

The Common Core State Standards are improving a little bit on this, by strongly emphasizing the importance of evidence, but the Common Core doesn’t emphasize that the traditional structure for writing persuasively is not just wrong, it’s dead wrong.

Imagine a world in which every child, from its earliest writing experiences, was instead taught to approach persuasive writing this way:

  1. Choose a subject you think is important.
  2. Gather information about that subject, including opinions from more than one perspective and the evidence those people use to support their opinions.
  3. Fact-check, using the best, most reliable sources you can find to determine which evidence is based in real fact, which is false, and which is misrepresented or misunderstood.
  4. Based on the most reliable evidence, form an opinion.
  5. Write a persuasive essay in which you explain what position you took, and why.

The evidence-gathering should come before forming the opinion, not after.  A strong opinion should grow out of the best available evidence- we shouldn’t form opinions first and then try to justify them.

If even half of Americans took this approach, our country would be radically different, and much improved.

Teachers could accomplish this within a single generation.  We could change the world with our teaching.

But in order for that to happen, most teachers would need to learn how to start with the evidence before forming the opinion.  And right now, we’re just ordinary Americans, graduates of the same school system we are teaching in, and, I learned in my most recent Common Core State Standards training, there aren’t enough teachers who understand this concept to pass it on in the way that would change the world.

And my own quiet voice, and my blog with its tens of readers, isn’t going to be enough to do the job.

Written by Contented Reader

October 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Opinions

Taking notes

leave a comment »

Ever since I stopped going to church, I’ve developed a Sunday morning ritual of my own.  I make a cup of tea and ensconce myself in my library with a serious book, one I hope will make me a better, wiser person.  I’ve been very very slowly reading my beloved set of Britannica Great Books, using the Ten Year Reading Plan that Mortimer Adler added to the set back in 1952, and then switching to my own literary hero, Mark Twain.  It is often my favorite part of the week.

This week, I tried adding note-taking to the ritual.  I sat in my Comfy Reading Chair with my book and a composition book, and as I wrote, I took notes on what was significant to me, sometimes pausing to write in more detail what I was thinking about it.

It added a dimension, for sure.  There was a small logistical issue related to note-taking in a cushy reclining chair, but darn it, Sunday Morning Reading Time doesn’t want to be relocated to a table or a desk.  It wants to be in the library, on the comfy chair.  That was a fairly small challenge, though, and perching the notebook on one knee, shifting it as I turned pages, was not too onerous.

I followed Aristotle’s Poetics much better while note-taking and writing reflectively.  I got more from the experience of reading it, too.  I’m certain that I would have found it much less interesting and much less readable if I weren’t writing while I read.  It did slow down the reading, but that, too, may be an advantage.  I can burn paper when I want to, but it’s good to add a mechanism for slowing down and savoring what I’m reading.

I think that my Sunday Morning Reading Ritual is going to include writing next week, too.

Written by Contented Reader

September 11, 2012 at 6:33 am

Posted in Opinions

Avoiding the teachers’ lounge

leave a comment »

‘Ms. Bento’ lunch jar, just like the one I’m bringing to school every day.

It’s going to be a good year, because I’ve made the decision to skip the teachers’ lounge, and enjoy a sack lunch in my own classroom, with a good book.

Don’t get me wrong; I have colleagues who I like and respect.  But in the teachers’ lounge, I don’t get to choose just their company.  Instead, I get to spend my all-too-brief thirty minutes with whichever teachers choose to lunch there.  Along with the smart, dedicated, positive teachers, I also get to lunch with the angry, bitter, negative ones.  In fact, those are the ones who seem to most enjoy the teachers’ lounge.  They wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to loudly protest whatever terrible thing has been done to them today.

They hate the administrators, with their unreasonable demands on their time.

They hate the parents, with their angry phone calls.

They especially hate the children, in general and specific, for their noisy disrespect.

Of course, administrators will always ask us to do things we don’t feel like doing, parents will always call when they are unhappy,  and there will always be a few students who are louder and ruder than their classmates, and there will always be good students having bad days.

But for some teachers, every time this happens, it seems, not like part of the job, but like an unreasonable and unexpected attack.

And so they feel the need to tell me about it.  At length, and at top volume.

When I was a student teacher, way back in the Pleistocene, my mentor was one of a small group of teachers who chose to spend the lunch bell watching ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’  Day after day, year after year, a set of VHS tapes played in 30-minute segments while the teachers quietly ate their lunch and watched.  I think that’s healthy.  That’s restful.  Angry yelling isn’t restful.

My choice does mean I’m going to miss out on knowing interesting and important information that other teachers know.  I won’t know which of my former students has gotten pregnant, or which colleague is in hot water with the administration, or who is teetering on the brink of being fired.  I won’t know which student got arrested this weekend, or what parent chaperoned a field trip stoned.  I guess I’ll miss knowing those things.

But I won’t miss it very much.  I think I can manage to carry out my professional responsibilities satisfactorily without knowing any of it.

So look for me in my classroom, in the back, by the window, with my leftovers and my book.  I think I’ll be a happier person.

Written by Contented Reader

September 3, 2012 at 6:27 am

Posted in Opinions

Writing in the margins

leave a comment »

I’ve read several Serious Professional Readers whose opinion I respect talk about the importance to them of taking notes in the margins of books.

I was a dedicated note-taker in college.  Once I got over the initial horror of writing in a book, I immediately saw the value in engaging with a book as if I were having a conversation with it.  The process of taking notes in a book helps me understand it, helps me remember it, helps me enter it on a deeper level and engage with it.

The problem is that I love to re-read books.  And when I re-read books that already have my notes in them, the notes irritate me immensely.  The conversation that was, on my previous reading, like having a conversation with the book, is now like having someone else in the room talking while I’m trying to read.  Occasionally, the notes are helpful.  I was reading a short story from Kessell’s The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, and next to one sentence, I saw that my own handwriting said, ‘from Twain.’  I had completely forgotten the bit of Twain that Kessell was quoting, and I wouldn’t have recognized it this week- I just happened to be reading the Kessel last time not long after the Twain.  But often, I’m horrified by how stupid and awkward and inane the comments written in my margins are.  What was useful while I was doing it makes me shun that copy of a book as if it had some sort of contagion.

So I’ve pretty well stopped writing in margins.

This week, I’ve been reading the young-adult level books that I assigned for summer reading.  As an experiment, while I reread The Graveyard Book and “Mowgli’s Brothers,” two pieces I assigned to be read together, I took copious notes in a composition book.  I just wanted to have the notes to refer to during class discussion, and to use the process of note-taking to help my memory a bit.  I noted character names and important plot points.  Also, I found myself noting allusions, connections, opinions, comments to the characters, quotations I loved… all sorts of things.  I enjoyed the process of note-taking away from the margins.  I have a composition book now with my reactions and thoughts, but I don’t have to have them right there when I want to re-read the book.

I wonder how this process would work if I applied it to personal reading?  What if I used it when I’m reading slowly and thoughtfully?  I have a little Sunday morning ritual; I shut myself up in my library with a book of the ‘classic’ or ‘serious’ type, and read for several hours straight.  It might be very interesting to add some writing and note-taking to that ritual this Sunday, and see how my reading is affected by it.

Written by Contented Reader

August 28, 2012 at 7:07 am

Posted in Opinions

On worry

leave a comment »

A conversation I had with my girlfriend made me think about worry, and my past and present with it.

I’m a worrier.  Many of the people I know like myself, people who read a lot and think a lot, are worriers.  I think it might be one of the disadvantages of having an active mind and a good imagination; we can vividly imagine a very wide range of ways things might go wrong.

I used to be a much worse worrier than I am now.  I was in a job that was too difficult for me, and lacked the knowledge and skills to do it well.  My boss was actively gathering data to support firing me, and made no secret of it.  I was struggling with growing doubts about my religion, and with growing certainty about my gayness.  I was struggling to pay off some big credit card debts, and my student loans.  I was living in a community where I didn’t have any friends or much of a peer group.  I worried all the time.  Often, I didn’t sleep well, or at all.  I walked around in a haze of misery; in the middle of class, I’d have to discreetly slip out of the room to cry for no reason.

Here are the things I would do when I felt worried:

  • Stare out of the window and brood
  • Stare out of the window and think about good suicide methods
  • Stare out of the window and cry
  • Eat large quantities of junk food

I was aware this wasn’t a good way to live, and I didn’t want to be miserable.  So I went to talk to a psychologist.  He wasn’t that useful, really.  He didn’t practice ‘cognitive behavioral therapy,’ which, from what I’ve heard, would have been super-helpful for me.  He pretty much just listened to me as I talked out all the things that were making me worried.

But going to the psychologist was, at least, taking an action.  If I could do that, I could take another action. I started really aggressively paying toward my debts- and it took me quite a few years, but I paid them off.  I realized that I wasn’t indentured to my terrible job, and sought a different one in a larger city.  I moved.  I made some friends.  I explored what I believed in a serious and honest way.  I came out, to myself, then my friends, then my family, then everyone including strangers on the internet and my elderly grandmother.

Fixing the things that were actually wrong in my life did a world of good in decreasing the amount of worrying I was doing.  But it took a long time to fix them.  Years.   Along the way, I developed some strategies for worry that worked a little better than my ‘stare out the window’ suite of responses.

Now, I try to be aware of my thought processes, so when I start to worry, I can immediately divert myself by engaging my mind and/or my body in something that will distract me.  It doesn’t always work.  But I’m getting there.  Late at night is the hardest thing- I try to get enough exercise that I’ll go to bed tired.  If I find myself lying awake worrying, and can’t divert my mind, I’ll get out of the bed and go do something for an hour, because being alone  in my mind with my anxieties is a terrible awful feeling that I avoid at all costs.

I’m still, by nature, a worrier.  I still find myself lying awake at night, at least once every week or two, rehearsing conversations I might have, listing people who may not like me, thinking of ways it might all fall apart. I still have lots of days when I feel my mind circling around the same worry, when I feel my chest tightening and my throat closing up.  But now, I have a longer list of things I do when I start to feel that way.

  • Take a walk
  • Meditate
  • Read something highly engaging and light
  • Clean
  • Put in a DVD and cross-stitch
  • Go for a swim
  • Make a list of the things that are worrying me, with boxes to check off when I solve them
  • Make a list of actions I can take about my worries, and take one of them
  • Log onto Wikipedia and improve something
  • Roller skate
  • Log onto Distributed Proofreaders and proofread a few pages of some future Project Gutenberg book
  • Grab a sketchbook, go outside, and find something to draw
  • Find an interesting piece of writing, and hand-copy or type it
  • Play a game online.
  • Re-organize or alphabetize something.
  • Study Esperanto- memorize vocabulary, or pull out the dictionary and grammar book and translate something
  • Work out at the gym, with my iPod playing something entertaining
  • Go for a wander at a library or a bookstore
  • Write about what’s worrying me, in a positive way that emphasizes what I’m learning from it or what I can do about it
  • Plan a trip somewhere new

I suppose I’ll always be a worrier.  Maybe that’s the price some of us pay for being thinkers.  I frighten myself, sometimes, with how easy it is to make myself stunningly and world-shatteringly unhappy with nothing more than the contents of my own mind.  I’d love to be the kind of person who can sit, idle and at peace, someday.  But for now, the only thing I know that works for me is keeping mind and body very active, because if I slow down too much, my worries catch up.

Ten years ago, I was a worrier who could describe in intimate sad detail the view out my window.  Today, I’m a worrier who can rollerskate without falling, lift 25-pound weights and do 40 squats in one workout, and draw something in a way that doesn’t completely suck.  Because I’m a worrier outrunning my worry, I am moderately proficient in Esperanto, with a green belt in karate, a baroness of the court in the Society for Creative Anachronism, an administrator on Wikipedia, and more well-read than many of my acquaintances.  Most of my tiny accomplishments are simply a result of me trying to stay a step ahead of my worries.

What’s my point?

  • I think it’s possible that being a thoughtful and introspective person might go hand-in-hand with anxiety and worry.
  • For me, keeping my mind deeply engaged in something is the best way to stay ahead of worry.
  • The things I’ve done to distract myself from worry have enriched my life in a wide variety of interesting ways- and I probably wouldn’t have done them if I weren’t such a worrier.

Written by Contented Reader

August 1, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Posted in Opinions


leave a comment »

I went to a student’s bar mitzvah today.  Kids invite their teachers to their bar mitzvahs, out of respect for education.  I think it’s a nice tradition.  This student turned out to be Orthodox, so I was startled to find myself sitting in the women’s section, on the other side of a screen from the actual service, where I could hear but not see.

AND the men got the windows.  I don’t care much about the service, but I’m definitely bitter about the windows.  It was a very pretty fall day out the windows.  Ask a man; they could tell you how pretty the trees were.

My student’s portion of the Torah was the story of Noah and the flood.  He read it in Hebrew, of course, which I don’t speak, but that’s okay, because I know the story.  God realizes that the people of the world are wicked and evil, and decides to wipe out the whole world with a flood.  But he recognizes Noah as good, and decides to spare him and his family, on an ark with breeding stock for all the world’s animals.

It’s a story that makes a good children’s toy.  Pairs of giraffes, pairs of cows, pairs of elephants.  But rarely pairs of sloths.  I’ve become very interested in sloths lately.  They move slowly, live their whole lives in trees, and are very solitary, coming together only to mate.  If I believed it ‘spirit animals,’ I think mine would be a sloth.

As an invited guest, my place is to sit quietly and politely through two and a half hours of Hebrew chanting on the other side of the screen, congratulate my student on his rite of passage, eat some very strange food, and then go on with my day.  And that is what I did.  Here’s what I didn’t say:

“Let’s suppose that I am truly fed up with how my class is behaving.  They are very disruptive and rude, and rarely completely assignments.  It’s my professional opinion that, no matter how hard I work, I am not ever going to be able to teach them what they need to know to be high school graduates or happy, useful citizens.

“So I decide, in my authority as teacher, to kill the whole class.  I bring a semiautomatic gun to school, ready to kill the whole class.  But as I think about it, I remember that you are a pretty good student, well behaved, with good work habits.  So I tell you that I’ve decided to spare you, because you are the good one.  And then I kill every single one of your classmates.

“Would this make you worship me?  Honor me?  No, of course not.  It would make you hate me, because I would be a monster.  You would be the first person testifying against me at the trial which would end in my entirely justified death sentence.  And I would never, ever, ever do that, no matter how bad my class was.

“Shouldn’t a God worthy of worship be more moral than your junior high school English teacher?”

Written by Contented Reader

October 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Posted in Opinions

Teaching, and not teaching

with one comment

Today, I did two things that weren’t exactly teaching.

One thing I did was pass out Scholastic book club flyers.

The other thing was attended a meeting about state test results and school goals.

One of them was a lot more useful than the other.

The state is now penalizing schools who don’t meet the state’s goals, which every year get higher and higher, rising rapidly to reach the No Child Left Behind goal of 100% of students passing standardized tests in 2014.  Like a lot of schools, my school is very good, and educating students well.  This year, we got an ‘Excellent’ rating from the state.  Next year, or the year after that at the latest, we won’t- not because we are getting worse, but because the goals are becoming less and less reasonable.

But nevertheless we go through the motions of working to achieve the impossible goal, though the unhelpful technique of staring blankly at last year’s test results, broken down by skill, by subgroup, by grade level, as if there is some magical secret in the numbers that we can’t see with the simple human act of people teaching other people.

We leave the meeting, and none of us are better teachers than we were when we walked in.  We haven’t learned a new teaching technique, or a way of providing useful feedback to hundreds of students every day, or how to manage a classroom that contains people who didn’t learn how to manage their own behavior from their families.  We have accomplished nothing at all but being able to say, later, that we had a meeting.

I love Scholastic.  I’m proud to use their resources in my classroom, because they’ve done more for helping children love to read than any other organization in the country, most definitely including the public school systems.  I pass out a bright, cheerful, kid-friendly flyer that offers really first-rate books at low prices.  My students smile when I pull out the flyers.  “Yay!  Book orders!  I love these!”  They chatter happily about the books they’ve read, and the authors they like, and the books they hope they can get this week.  Rich kids persuade their parents to buy absurd piles of books.  Poor kids hoard their lunch money and turn in a handful of quarters and dimes to get one of the $1 or $2 books.  In a few weeks, the books will arrive in the mail, and the kids will clutch them like the treasures they are.  And I’ll get ‘bonus points,’ which I’ll redeem for books that I’ll fill the classroom with, books the kids really want to read.  They love the Bone series, by Jeff Smith- I have to periodically replace stolen volumes.   They love science fiction, and fantasy, and books about science and history, and, yes, vampire romances.  They buy collections of jokes, and scary stories, and poetry.

You might be surprised at how many young poets there are.

So, No Child Left Behind causes anxiety for me, my colleagues, my bosses, and my students.  It doesn’t actually cause better teaching; just the anxiety.

Scholastic Book Clubs, though?  That definitely makes the world a better place.

Written by Contented Reader

October 3, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Posted in Opinions