Archive for November, 2010


Driving while Dumb

I’m wondering if I’m the only person who believes that people should have to pass IQ and personality tests before being given a driver’s license.

I “commuted” 180 miles round trip 2 days a week for 5 years, and found that my faith in humanity was drastically undermined by the behavior I witnessed on the road. People behave in such a way as they never would if waiting their turn in line or dealing with someone face to face. Couple that with a generalized lack of attention, and the road is a dangerous place to be indeed.

For example, today, on my 9-mile drive from work to home:

1. Driver #1 sits in the lane for the duration of the green left-turn arrow, then zips out at the last second and dives into the far right lane, turning right on a red light without stopping first (apparently, since he/she had stopped at a green light, she/he was then granted one go-at-a-red-light pass).

2. Driver #2 proceeds down busy 3-lane road at ~ 7 mph under the speed limit, then turns on her left turn signal, pulls into the right (parking) lane, and turns right.

3. Driver #3 merges onto the highway at a blistering 37 miles per hour.

4. Driver #4 changes lanes, from the right to a left, in the middle of an intersection, proceeds in the left lane ~13 mph under the speed limit for approximately 1/2 of a mile, and then goes back into the right lane to turn right (this is not the same as driver #2, alas).

What is wrong with these people?

Nobody knows how to merge, people either don’t use their turn signals or use them too late to be of any use to anyone, most people seem to be driving cars without cruise control and are completely unable to maintain a consistent speed on the highway, and way too many people cross center lines at random or hug one line or another, seeming to indicate an intention to change into a different lane, but failing to actually do so.

Many of these drivers are talking on their cell phones, and apparently have forgotten that a) they are driving a car, and/or b) they are not the only person on the road. Besides DWD (Driving While Dumb) we have DWD2 (Driving While Distracted), DWoCP (Driving while on a Cell Phone), DWT (Driving While Texting), DWO (Driving While Old) and DWY&C (Driving While Young and Clueless).

A few weeks ago a man driving a large pickup, and pulling a VERY long trailer, simply merged onto the highway and into my lane without looking at me once. If I had not been able to get into the left lane instantly he would have “taken me out.” He never noticed — he was talking on a cell phone, which he was holding up to his left ear, the result of which a) he couldn’t see me and b) he didn’t notice and/or c) he didn’t care.

Various surveys show 4 out of 10 accidents being caused by people driving while on a cell phone or texting and compares the reactions of 20-year-olds while on a cell phone to those of 70-year-olds in general. Other surveys show that driving while on a cell phone is more dangerous than driving drunk and include using a hands-free phone in these statistics, some studies showing that these are even MORE dangerous.

In general people seem to be getting away with worse and worse driving abilities and habits, although maybe this is just my opnion.

In any case, it would be good for everyone if people drove smarter and stopped treating their car like a living room or a phone booth. Remember:  Your primary job is to a) drive your car safely and b) be considerate of everyone else on the road. If you can’t do those two things, please stay home, or at the very least, stay out of the driver’s seat.

Think of it as your Christmas gift to the world.



This young man:

is suspected of having murdered this young woman

the day after her return home from college for Thanksgiving break, following 18 months of an “on-again-off-again,” apparently troubled, relationship.

Now of course, he is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and maybe I should avoid “jumping on the bandwagon” by writing about this, but I have children, and can only imagine the pain both of these sets of parents must be feeling at this point.

What crucial emotional piece is missing that would allow anyone to do such a thing?

I’m going to go hug my children now.



more thanksgiving

So, my kids are at their dad’s until tomorrow; my husband’s kids are with their mom until tomorrow; tomorrow the hordes descend and we will have 7 people in a 1600 square foot house for 3 days heavenhelpus.

Today, though, we slept in (10), and have been puttering around all morning. The pumpkin is roasted for the pie, the Christmas cake is in the oven (recipe below), hubby is doing extensive research on the life of Saul Bellow after I read a review of his new book of letters in the NYTimes Review of Books.

We still need to wash sheets and towels, clean the bathroom, get the porch furniture off the, well, porch (and the tiki torches; tiki torches still out on November 25!), and I need to practice for hours to prepare for Sunday’s concert (Franck Sonata for PIANO and violin).

But a good day.

I’ve been thinking, as I putter, about the holidays past, especially those of my adulthood, and the wonderful friends I’ve shared them with.

JF and countless Thanksgivings (to her mother’s great chagrin) — we had a tradition of making butter cookies cut out in the shape of turkeys and elaborately decorating them with orange, yellow, red, and brown frosting; then we would make Christmas cookies together and she would take some home with her. Her mother, a terrific food snob, would refuse even to touch the cutouts, and if she wanted a pfeffernuse or springerle or schnecken which happened to be nestled under a cutout, would ask J to move the cutout out of the way for her. Last night J texted me for wine advice for the best stuffing recipe ever (New Basics Cookbook), and when we see each other we go to the bookstore and buy each other’s children books for Christmas, even if it’s August.

Tammyguck (Tammy + Chuck through the mouth of a 2-year old, now 20) — every holiday from around 1986 to 1996 was shared in one way or the other. We were there one Halloween evening while Guck had Phantom of the Opera on really loud on the stereo and some trick-or-treaters were afraid to come to the door. They live in California now (Tammyguck, not the trick-or-treaters); saw Tammy for the first time in 8 years last summer. She looks exactly the same as she did in 1986. Despite this, I was very happy to see her.

These thoughts lead me to thoughts of other wonderful friends, many of whom have gotten me through some pretty difficult times in my life — JK, MS, especially. I don’t know what I would have done without you.

One has only to click here to see some of the articles talking about how psychologically and physically beneficial it is to have close friendships. Even Oprah thinks so, so it must be true. They provide emotional support, honesty and advice and sympathy and recipes, they let you know that you are not alone in the world. I’m very lucky, and very grateful for my friends, and hope that I have been as good a friend to them as they have been to me.

And now for the recipes:

The Best Turkey Stuffing Ever, from The New Basics Cookbook

Cut a large loaf of bread into 1″ squares; spread in a pan for 10-12 hours to dry out. Put in large mixing bowl.


3 c. chopped celery, with leaves

2 c. chopped onions (good if 1/2 is a sweet onion)

in 2 T. vegetable oil over low heat until softened but not browned, ~ 10 minutes. Put veggies in the large mixing bowl with the bread.

Brown 1 lb. bulk sweet Italian sausage in pan from the vegetables, breaking into chunks. Add to mixing bowl.

Add to the bowl:

2 tart apples, cut into 1/2″ cubes

1 c. toasted and chopped hazelnuts

1 c. dried pitted cherries

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 tsp. dried sage leaves

freshly ground black pepper.

Toss together.

Mix 1 c. tawny port (or Gamay Beaujolais, or Marsala) and 1 c. chicken stock.

Add liquid to dressing and toss, smush together with hands until “stuffing” consistency.

Stuff the turkey (but not until right before ready to put it in the oven), and put the remaining stuffing in a bowl and cover with foil.

Roast the turkey at 325˚ on a bed of celery ribs, carrots and onion, basting occasionally with melted butter + 3/4 c. tawny port or the wine you used above, every 15 minutes for the last hour. Roast the remaining stuffing for the last hour, basting with turkey juices once in a while.

Sheriji’s Christmas Cake (adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

This recipe has the unique and wonderful direction near the end; it’s how I recognize that I’ve found the recipe every year when I’m trying to remember which cookbook it’s in (I have several, dozen).

And all candied fruits must be removed from the premises before beginning. It would truly be tragic if any accidentally made their way into this cake, for all involved, directly or indirectly.

Put 2 sticks of butter into your mixer and turn it on at medium speed. Allow to beat for a long time so the butter is really smooth and creamy.

While you’re waiting for this, sift together:

3 c. flour (I use a scant 3 c. of whole wheat)

1 tsp. each: baking powder, cinnamon, grated nutmeg

1/2 tsp. each: baking soda, mace, ground cloves

1/4 tsp. salt

When butter is smooth and creamy, add 2 c. dark brown sugar, and beat 3-5 minutes until lighter in color and texture. Scrape the sides of the bowl at least once so that you are sure all of the butter and sugar are fully incorporated.

Add: 1/2 c. dark molasses, and the grated zest and juice of an orange and a lemon.

When well blended, add the flour mixture in 3 parts alternating with 3/4 c. brandy in 2 parts, beating on low speed and scraping occasionally to make sure everything is worked in.

Then add, gently:

2 c. currants

2 c. raisins (regular or golden)

2 c. dried figs cut into small pieces

You can also add 2 c. walnuts and 2 c. dates, but I don’t like either of these, so I just leave them out.

Put into 3 8-1/2″ bread pans that have been well buttered. Bake at 300˚ for 3 hours. “The cake may appear done at 2-1/2 hours; simply ignore this.” It does say that if the cakes are starting to brown significantly at 2-1/2 hours you can make a foil tent over the top of them. I have done this.

Cool in the pan on the rack for an hour, then remove from the pan. Be very careful about this — they tend to fall apart.

These are good right away, but even better if you make in November, wrap them in cheesecloth, and brush the cheesecloth with brandy every week or so for a month to get them good and drunk just in time for Christmas.

Thanks for reading! I have almost 200 regular visits each day now, and am really enjoying the comments and conversation.

Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

May your turkey brown perfectly, may your champagne fizz delightfully, and may your J, Z, or Q be useful on a triple-letter or triple-word score.

Ah, scrabble. (Click on and watch — it’s one of the funniest things ever.)


dumber than a sack of . . . ? (fill in the blank)

The other side of the story:

For this one, skip to 2:37


And now, an opportunity for her to speak for herself.  This has to be the only politician who can be made fun of merely by quoting her directly.


functional illiteracy iii



stupid and transparent!

I wonder how long her publicists had to work on her responses to these questions.

And Gretchen Carlson looks like she wants to kill herself. (Can you blame her?)

Did Sarah Palin just compare herself to Moses?

Oh, Sarah, how I loathe you.


stuff I’m thankful for

(Getting a head start on the holiday.)

1. A healthy body and mind, for myself and my family.

2. My husband

3. Coffee

4. An apparent end to my 8-day bout with insomnia

(hmm, interesting juxtaposition, that)

5. Wine, chocolate, risotto, and a kick-ass stuffing recipe

6. Technology

7. Gainful employment, for myself and my family

8. The poetry of Merwin, Billy Collins, Jane Kenyon, and Shakespeare

9. People who take turns merging on the highway, use their turn signals, and don’t tailgate

10. The Onion and The New Yorker

Your turn.


11. Terrific colleagues — esp. DP, YW, and KB.

And FRIENDS; should have been #3! I’m a loser!!! Will try to make it up to you. . .stay tuned.


employment and disadvantaged teens

In “The Ethicist” column of the November 5 New York Times, a woman living in Mumbai, India asks Randy Cohen if it is ethical to employ a 14-year old girl as household help. The prospective employer recognizes that most children of this age, in this country, will seek such employment, and admits that she would be extremely considerate of the girl’s age in the tasks which she would require the girl to complete. Her concern is twofold: 1) should she “encourage” what she considers to be exploitation by employing the girl? and 2), how she would feel about this girl working while her son is “studying and playing”?

Cohen advises the writer that such employment could only be seen as an advantage, especially if she, the employer, demonstrated fairness in encouraging the girl to go to school and complete her homework, and if she stuck to her commitment to only asking her to complete age-appropriate tasks.

According to the article:

Jacqueline Novogratz, C.E.O. of the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit that takes an entrepreneurial approach to combating global poverty, suggests: “The employer could help the girl pay for school fees so that she can attend school and then have her come afterward to help clean the house. The combination of part-time work with full-time schooling provides the girl’s family with a sense of dignity, and it gives the girl greater choice in her life.”

Despite this, the woman later writes to Cohen confessing that she did not hire the girl, despite the likelihood that the girl would work elsewhere, and potentially not be treated as well as the woman would have treated her, out of concern for the guilt she would feel watching the girl work while her son was not.

I have a lot of trouble with this decision, for two main reasons.

First of all, what’s wrong with the idea of a 14-year old working? I had part-time jobs at 14; had actually grown up working on my father’s farm from a VERY young age, but worked at an ice-cream shop in the summers so I could have some spending money. The motivation for this young girl to work so she can help her impoverished family is much more noble than my desire for a pair of Adidas sneakers (white, with green stripes), a new pair of Levi’s, and Heart (the one with Crazy on You on it) and REO Speedwagon (You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish) albums.

Secondly, what does this have to do with the woman’s guilt? Can she really be so selfish that she can allow this to be a bigger concern than the well-being and potential opportunities available to this girl through such employment, especially if she followed Novogratz’s advice as quoted above?

And isn’t it possible that this could have been a GOOD example to her son, on all accounts?

I wish this woman could have looked a little bit further outside herself and her own superficial feelings. Much good could have been done, for many.


is “feminism” to blame?

In a comment after my recent post “Functional Illiteracy” a woman proposed that feminism was to blame for the decline in the literacy of our children. Her argument is that if mom isn’t at home when the kids get home from school, full of energy and ready to help them with their homework while providing a plate of warm cookies and a nice pot of stew bubbling on the stove, then all is lost. (She also bemoaned the fact that all those women working only served to make the world more expensive, the direct result of which she and her family spent their first seven years living in a “trailor” and were only now able to own a home because of the real estate crash.)

To paraphrase: What children need is discipline, supervision, and structure, and none of these things can be provided if mom works.

My first reaction won’t be quoted directly here, but when I stopped tearing at my hair and screaming, I decided I wanted to propose this as a possibility just to see what the world’s reaction was.


According to the Department for Professional Employees, the number of working women has risen from 5.1 million in 1900 to 65.7 million in 2005, and is expected to reach 76 million by 2014. In 2004 nearly half of all job-holders were women, although more women than men still work part time, and make 55-75% what their male counterparts do in most fields. (This is shameful, btw, but I won’t go off on a tangent.) The usual fields are also still well represented by women: teaching, nursing (82-98%) vs. engineering (10%) or airline pilot (3%). It is also noted that most mothers, even of young children, participate in some way in the work force.


My grandmother divorced her husband when my mom was in 1st grade. He was an alcoholic, and abusive, and my grandma decided she’d had enough. She had worked as a secretary before getting married, but had stopped upon her marriage. Once divorced, and not being paid any child support despite a court order, she had to go to work to support herself and her two daughters.

My mother-in-law was a public school teacher in Canada while my father-in-law was in seminary when she found herself unexpectedly expecting First Son (my husband). When she informed her principal of this upcoming blessed event, she was told that he would do her the “favor” of allowing her to continue until Christmas. As she would probably be “showing” before then it was important that she disguise this fact as much as possible so as not to make any of her colleagues or students “uncomfortable.” I can’t help but wonder if this principal also called each student’s parent and advised them against having any further children, as this could also cause some “discomfort” for the already-present children. Somehow I doubt it.

When the chair of the music department at the small, liberal-arts college where I used to teach and work as staff accompanist found out that I was going to be adopting a child and starting my doctorate he decided that it was “inappropriate” for me to continue teaching as, and I quote, my “attentions should be directed elsewhere.” I was promptly removed from the list of any courses I had been teaching, although it was determined that it would okay for me to continue to accompany students on juries and recitals.  (Isn’t this illegal?)

Anyway. . .


Kant once wrote that it was so offensive for women to speak in public that they might as well grow a beard.


I find myself being drawn down the path from the idea of men society deciding whether it’s appropriate for women to work or not, as well as deciding which endeavours are appropriate (teaching, nursing) and which not (engineering, math, science) to the fear and villification of women’s bodies throughout history. Women and their “parts” and processes are evil, unclean; we are temptresses and witches. “. . .men. . .defined by the lofty spheres of reason and intellect, while women, with their mysterious biological cycles, represent the base, dark, stormy, unpredictable realms of nature and emotion. . .” (Caroline Knapp, Appetites, p. 92)

So many tangents, so little time.


Just one more.

My husband and I just watched Forty Shades of Blue, made in 2005. Dina Korzun plays Lara, a Russian girl who had met the successful and influential, but volatile, music producer Alan James (Rip Torn), when he was in Moscow on a business trip. They now have a 3 1/2 year old son, and live in his house in Memphis, although they are not married until the end of the movie. Lara is lost, an empty shell. Our first sight of her is as she strolls like an automaton through the aisles of a swank department store; later in the movie she stands, drunk and helpless, on the street, trying to figure out how to get home while the father of her child is upstairs in a hotel room with one of “his” singers. She’s unhappy, and she knows it, but as she explains to Alan’s mostly-estranged son, played by Darren Burrouws, she “has more than anyone [she] knows; [she] doesn’t have a right to want more.”

This idea, that we don’t have the right, is probably more common than we think. I’ve felt that way myself.

Forty Shades of Blue, Sabina Sciubba


I can’t believe that, in the 21st century, we still have to walk down this road.

Sure, if the family is stressed and running in 65 different directions and no one’s “driving the ship,” then the children’s homework might suffer. But that could be as much a result of poor planning, disorganization, or over-scheduling poor little Junior or Juniorette; or perhaps “dad” is a little bit useless around the house. According to a British study, women spend an average of 3 hours per day on housework, men an hour and 40 minutes; this is considered a drastic improvement. I imagine it might help the cause even more if men were aware of the studies which show that those who “help” (how offensive is this? They help?) with the housework have more sex.

Is it time now to take a deep breath and hearken back to the “good ol’ days,” when men were considered superior and a woman’s Place Was in the Home?

Perhaps what we need, instead, is a society which supports our right, and ability, to do both.

Caroline Knapp again:

If only we lived in a culture that made ambition compatible with motherhood and family life, that presented models of women who were integrated and whole: strong, sexual, ambitious, cued into their own varied appetites and demands, and equipped with the freedom and resources to explore all of them. If only women felt less isolated in their frustration and fatigue, less torn between competing hungers, less compelled to keep nine balls in the air at once, and less prone to blame themselves when those balls come crashing to the floor. If only we exercised our own power, which is considerable but woefully underused; if only we defined desire on our own terms.

And what is the cost to us as women if we spend our lives denying our very selves? Being made to believe that we aren’t good enough, smart enough, capable enough, responsible enough, articulate enough, valuable enough to make a contribution to society other than the one that is prescribed for us?

I fear this post has devolved into rambling incoherence. There are so many thoughts and ideas competing for my attention, I find myself writing and deleting much that seems too tangential. I’ll leave you with a few parting clips as my closing thoughts.


I clicked “publish,” decided I was going to avoid one more tangent, started to write this out as a separate post, and then decided it absolutely HAD to be included in this one. This probably isn’t very “professional” of me, but so far no one’s paying me to be here, so I guess it’s okay.

Caroline Knapp, one more time:

. . .a dash of Hegelian despair can be a useful thing, a check against consumer culture’s blaring strains of false promise, and also fodder for a deeper kind of acceptance. To know that hunger is an essential part of what it means to be human, that it’s possibly epic and anguished and intrinsically insatiable, is at least to muffle the blare, to introduce a sense of proportion.

And yet proportion is hard to hold onto, and may be particularly hard for women. During an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Connection,” conducted following the publication of her 1999 book, “The Whole Woman,” feminist Germaine Greer described something she sees with increasing frequency: the weeping woman, the woman stopped at a traffic light with tears streaming down her face, or exiting a stall in the ladies’ room with red-rimmed eyes, or slumped in her seat at the movie theater, clutching a handful of Kleenex. The weeping is always private, indulged on the sly, and Greer sees the sorrow behind it as a cultural phenomenon as well as an individual one, a reaction to the lingering understanding among women that despite several decades of social change, the world remains largely indifferent, disdainful, even hostile to their most defining qualities and concerns.

Women weep, Greer believes, because they feel powerless, and because they are exhausted and overworked and lonely. Women weep because their own needs are unsatisfied, continually swept into the background as they tend to the needs of others. They weep because the men in their lives so often seem incapable of speaking the language of intimacy, and because their children grow up and become distant, and because they are expected to acquiesce to this distance, and because they live lives of chronically lowered expectations and chronic adjustment to the world of men, the power and strength of a woman’s emotions considered pathological or hysterical or sloppy, her interest in connection considered trival, her core being never quite seen or known or fully appreciated, her true self out of alignment with so much that is valued and recognized and worshipped in the world around her; her love, in a word, unrequited.

In a nod to the diminishment of outrage that began to take hold in the eighties, Greer told her interviewer, “We tried to mobilize women’s anger. We spent years telling women to get in touch with their rage, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s just not enough rage to go around. Women don’t get angry enough. What women do is get sad.”

This sentiment stayed with me for a long time. I was driving from Boston to Rhode Island while I heard it, to visit a friend for the weekend, and I spent much of the trip thinking about the steady press of sorrow in a woman’s life, the feeling of discord that may run through her days, the singular loneliness of living in a wrld that emphasizes and rewards so many qualities that may run counter to her central humanity: independence instead of interdependence; distance instead of closeness; self-seeking instead of cooperation; the external world instead of the internal world; glamour and wealth and celebrity instead of kindness and generosity and warmth. I thought about the private pain of women, expressed with so much wordless anguish: the anorexic, isolated and terrified and working so relentlessly to starve away her own hunger; the shoplifter, trying to compensate for what she never had with a Clark bar; the self-cutter, lashing at her own skin instead of out at the world; the bulimic, hunched over a toilet bowl, retching out a river of need. I thought about thwarted connections–a girls’ from her mother, a woman’s from her culture–and then I did something I almost never do: I pulled my car over to the side of the road, and I sat there, and I wept.


Can’t embed the audio clip I want, so go to:  and click on the little speaker next to Origami.


lost opportunities

In the October 25 issue of the New Yorker, Lauren Collins writes about David Cameron’s goals for a “Big Society” in England. She begins the article by writing about a picturesque hamlet in central Dorset, which is, ironically, “bisected by a brook that was once used as a latrine.”  The residents of this town recently each voluntarily contributed to the purchase of a replacement marker after all (3) of their town markers had been stolen over a 5 month period in 2008. Understandably, the residents were determined that the replacement sign would not be subject to the same fate, and have used a one-and-a-half ton hunk of limestone as the new marker.

This is all well and good, but I think they should have taken advantage of this now lost opportunity and, since all physical evidence had been removed, changed the name of their town. Instead, they are, and will remain to be, Shitterton, Dorset.


to smoke or not to smoke. . .

Apparently, as Americans learn that smoking is bad for you and they shouldn’t do it, cigarette companies are being forced to cast high and low for new markets.  These efforts include suing other countries for “excessive regulations.”

In a related story, Indonesia is resisting this anti-smoking tide, as it continues to refuse to sign a global tobacco treaty and targets women and children in their advertising.

The effects of this attitude are made manifest in a “viral” video of this chain-smoking toddler:

I’m not making this up.

His parents apparently started him smoking at the age of 18 months, although the report does not say why. One could speculate, I suppose:  calmed him down after a tough day in the sandbox, helped him develop those handy steering-the-toy-tractor-with-one-hand skills so crucial to child development. I guess, since he’s not wearing any clothes, it’s unlikely that he would set himself on fire, so that takes care of what would have been one of my main concerns.

You will all be relieved to note that the toddler has kicked the habit.

Now if only he could take care of his drinking and gambling addictions, he could get into that prestigious preschool.

Okay, that part I made up.


My response to your response to “Functional Illiteracy”


I never saw it coming.

As some of you may have noticed, this is a fairly “young” blog, competing with hundreds of thousands of blogs, which averaged 20-60 hits on its best days.

I’ve had over 6,000 hits since I posted “Functional Illiteracy” yesterday morning. When I was writing it, I was just seeing it as yet another rant in a series of rants about the state of education in the 21st century, but it has obviously really struck a nerve.

I’ve really enjoyed the ensuing conversation — exactly what I wanted when I started the blog in the first place — so many people feeling the same frustration; so many articulate and well-thought-out responses, it did make me wonder if maybe the situation isn’t as dire as I thought. 🙂

I have had many thoughts in the past 24 hours as I watched the post and comments “go viral,” and hope you don’t mind my sharing them with you.

There have been many mentions of the influences of technology on the 21st-century student as well as the importance of parents and their role. I would like to expand on both of those a bit.

Yes, there are a lot of cultural influences on our children which are either completely foreign to our experience, or which we adopt without allowing them to “pervert” our use of language or monopolize our time, because we’ve already learned to use language and manage our time. I agree that children shouldn’t have cell phones or access to facebook until they are old enough to see the impact these potential addictions could have on their lives. I worry about cell phone usage in young children with thinner skulls and the potential for tumors, and I also have grave concerns about cyber-bullying; with a 9-year old daughter and all of the requisite “friend” drama, there’s no facebook until middle or high school and then only if I’m a “friend.”


Our children will need to live in the world in which they live. I text using textspeak because it’s faster to type on that tiny little keyboard, but I don’t use textspeak in any other situation. Children can, and should, learn the difference. Facebook is fun; I enjoy posting jokes or links to The Onion or a youtube video of a 3-year-old conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but I can ignore it when I want to, hide people who insist on posting incessantly about what they are eating or who like to berate those who don’t agree with them, and don’t need to check it 100 times a day to feel like I’m “keeping up.” I had a good friend who very strictly regulated the amount of time her sons were allowed to play computer games; her eldest son then went off to a very expensive private college and flunked out because he sat in his dorm room all day and played World of Warcraft. Wouldn’t it be better for them to learn to manage their time and responsibilities and interests when the stakes are a little smaller?

I also think the parent’s role is quite important, but probably not in the way many of you think. I always checked if my children had homework, made sure they had a plan for when they were going to do it, and was happy to look it over at the end to see how they had done. I didn’t feel it was in their best interests for me to correct it for them and have them redo it — if the teacher doesn’t know that my kid is struggling with the material, how will the teacher know he/she needs to spend more time on the topic? I was also pretty sure I wasn’t going to go to college with them, and thought it was important that they learn to structure their time and responsibilities themselves. I did make sure to write a note on the homework if it wasn’t done because my child just didn’t understand it; I also made sure to encourage the teacher to build in some natural consequences if it wasn’t done, i.e. the child sits at his/her desk at recess completing the homework.

And I don’t think we can change our children’s fundamental tastes and personalities. I am an avid reader, as is my oldest son. I read with both of my sons until they were well into middle school. My second son reads the books he needs to for school, and enjoys them, can talk articulately about them, and will not read another one until he has to. I can’t change that, and if I tried to Make him into a reader, he would read, and enjoy it, even less.

While parent’s roles and influences are very important, so, too, are teachers’. My eldest son, now a physics major at Case who scored 33 on his ACT, barely gave a rip about school from first grade until after he had graduated high school. When he was in kindergarten he LOVED it — he had a nurturing, imaginative teacher who enjoyed and indulged his curiosity and complied with his desire for daily “homework.” His first grade teacher was pinched and unimaginative and should have retired 10 years earlier. She would complain to me that First Son worked too slowly, too meticulously, asked too many questions, wanted to “handle” things rather then sitting in his desk with his hands folded learning via The Worksheet. When I requested that she merely send the work home with him, as he loved “homework,” she refused. By the end of the year his work was careless and sloppy. He went from coloring his butterfly with every color in the box in an elaborate mosaic to scribbling over it with a black crayon in 5 seconds. This attitude changed somewhat in 6th grade, with another wonderful teacher who recognized his intelligence and abilities and always challenged him to do better, but the child who would score a 33 on his ACT, with a  perfect score in science and only 1 point off in math didn’t have a high enough GPA to get into Northwestern or the University of Michigan — his top two choices. Case took a chance based on his standardized test scores, and gave him a scholarship based on his GPA which he can’t afford to lose. He is finally waking up to a sense of discipline and responsibility. No matter what I did, what I said, how I fought, he was not convinced that it mattered. I couldn’t do it for him.

Parents and teachers need to support, encourage, provide healthy learning opportunities and environments, and help students realize that THEY are responsible for what they learn, not the other way around.  What good would it have done for me to force him to comply to a standard I set, only for him to get into a college at which he’s not willing or able to succeed?

The passive learning attitude we see so often is a direct result of exactly that — parents, teachers, “teaching” the child that they are not responsible. This has to change.

Teachers also need to be qualified, and some simply are not. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten syllabi from high-school teachers filled with grammatical and punctuation errors. If we aren’t providing a good example for our students, how can we realistically expect good work from them?

I often think also that the bar is set too low. The Vice Principal of First Son’s middle school was overheard saying once that his job was just to get them through the day. This premise is ridiculous. If students are challenged, interested, stimulated, they will get themselves “through the day.”

And testing, especially today’s standardized testing, is making it worse; Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” does leave them behind, because it fills the teacher’s day with the broadest base of factoids known to man and requires them to cram it down their students’ throats. This leaves no time to be sure students actually understand, or can apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate this information — in other words use this information to further their own understanding. Because teachers have to teach only to Bloom’s lowest level of learning, there’s no depth to the knowledge — it consists merely of factoids, information, to be memorized and regurgitated. This is a mistake and has to change.

Students are also not taught to respect those in positions of authority. One comment touched on exactly that — parents need to be parents first, friends later (as in when their children are in their 20s). And if parents are demanding respect but the teachers are not, children will constantly challenge that authority.

When I was a Masters student, back in the 80s, and needed to contact my piano teacher, it was suggested to me that I call him. Call him? Really? I could do that? I still call my piano teacher from my undergraduate days Mrs. V_______; she has asked me numerous times to call her by her first name. I just can’t. I’ve had students call me to my face, and in email, by my first name, despite the fact that I name myself Dr. (Lastname) in the syllabus and in every email. I’ve had students email me to challenge the fact that I have information on the review sheet that I said wouldn’t be on the test; I’ve been told that she (the student) didn’t “like my attitude.” Technology allows for this; I would hope at least that most students wouldn’t dare say such a thing to my face. But the fact that they can say it at all astounds and disturbs me.

Students don’t move their feet when I walk between them in the hallways. Students have failed to write down what was going to be on a test, or failed to show up to an exam, and then gone to my department head and lied, telling him that I “changed my mind” or wasn’t where I said I would be. Sometimes the chair supports me, sometimes I get a long email explaining how I need to be more student-centered. This lack of support by administration, and giving students the benefit of the doubt over teachers, needs to change.

I could write for at least this long over the loss to our students as arts and music programs are cut while the football team gets new uniforms and trips to away games that cost thousands of dollars. If there is anything that teaches comprehensive, evaluative, synthetic thinking, it is literature, arts and music. Not to mention “building” adults who are automatons, unable or unwilling to recognize or understand beauty, music, or poetry.

To get back to the point of the original post, the problems I see in writing aren’t merely of this type: lacking of capitalizations and textspeak and using “what” instead of “was.” Students don’t know the difference between there their and they’re, write “could of” instead of “could have,” don’t bother (or don’t know how) to have their verb tense match the rest of their sentence, or the subject is plural and the verb is singular or vice versa. While this isn’t “functional illiteracy,” as I can interpret what they mean, it is a definite problem that should be being addressed in 4th grade, not a college humanities class.

Thank all of you so much for your interest and contribution to this important discussion and topic. This is obviously a source of great concern for many. Knowing this, NOW what do we do?


functional illiteracy

A recent email exchange with a (college) student:

im emailing u because i need a grade from you on my progress report tomorrow or else i cant play sat if you could do that i would gladly appreciate it….also while i was looking at my grades on blackboard i saw a E for the folk and religious music quiz…i was wondering did i miss that day or did i just not get any points on the quiz

Your current grade is a D+.
Your grade for the quiz was 13 out of 24 (this information was included on the grade center site he was consulting).

what the quiz points added in with the total?

I don’t know what you’re asking me.

im asking was those 13 points included in with the total points because it had an E for the grade i was just wondering


This is a native-born American student who has apparently graduated from an American high school.  He/she is functionally illiterate, and seems to be either unable to interpret the information on a simple spreadsheet or unaware that 13 points out of 24 is not sufficient to pass.

How can MFA not realize that we are ALL going to pay the price when our children grow up to be adults who can’t read, speak, or write?

Statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics have found that the U.S. seems to be spending about the same amount of money per student as other developed countries, and that students are staying in school for as long on average.

But we’re not measuring up.

According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 4th graders in the United States tested behind Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Kazakstan, the Russian Federation, England, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Lithuania in mathematics achievement, and behind Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, Russian Federation, Latvia, and England in science achievement. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the achievement of students in science has declined in the US over the past 12 years, while it has improved, sometimes dramatically, in every other country ahead of us except Japan. Adults who can’t read or write at a proficient level cost the country hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost productivity and unemployment benefits.

Those of  you who have been following my blog know I’ve ranted about this before, just click here to read the archives. I believe these discussions already include mention of the disturbing trend among 21st-century students where learning is seen as a passive endeavour — they show up, sit there, what else do they need to do? Not to mention their inability to function in face-to-face situations, their lack of respect for authority, and their dependence on technology to the point of obsession (facebook, texting — to the point where whole papers are written in textspeak — no commas, no apostrophes, no capitalizations).


I’m including this in the “Who Cares?” category, because I would like to know if anybody does. I doubt it’s just me. But what can we do?



Got a catalog in the mail the other day — no surprise there. But it’s for bras. And the name of the company is “Bounce.”

This doesn’t stop making me smile.


sire, by W. S. Merwin,

Here comes the shadow not looking where it is going,

And the whole night will fall; it is time.

Here comes the little wind which the hour

Drags with it everywhere like an empty wagon through leaves.

Here comes my ignorance shuffling after them

Asking them what they are doing.


Standing still, I can hear my footsteps

Come up behind me and go on

Ahead of me and come up behind me and

With different keys clinking in the pockets,

And still I do not move. Here comes

The white-haired thistle seed stumbling past through the branches

Like a paper lantern carried by a blind man.

I believe it is the lost wisdom of my grandfather

Whose ways were his own and who died before I could ask.


Forerunner, I would like to say, silent pilot,

Little dry death, future,

Your indirections are as strange to me

As my own. I know so little that anything

You might tell me would be a revelation.


Sir, I would like to say,

It is hard to think of the good woman

Presenting you with children, like cakes,

Granting you the eye of her needle,

Standing in doorways, flinging after you

Little endearments, like rocks, or her silence

Like a whole Sunday of bells. Instead, tell me:

Which of my many incomprehensions

Did you bequeath me, and where did they take you? Standing

In the shoes of indecision, I hear them

Come up behind me and go on ahead of me

Wearing boots, on crutches, barefoot, they could never

Get together on any doorsill or destination —

The one with the assortment of smiles, the one

Jailed in himself like a forest, the one who comes

Back at evening drunk with despair and turns

Into the wrong night as though he owned it — oh small

Deaf disappearance in the dusk, in which of their shoes

Will I find myself tomorrow?


Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse

Just had a food orgasm.

The filet was like butter, topped with an au poivre sauce with whole green peppercorns and butter; the mushrooms expertly sautéed in brandy and butter; the onion rings were so good I will probably never have another onion ring anywhere because it couldn’t possibly live up to this precedent; the shiraz a perfect complement to every bite. The cup of decaf and raspberry sorbet was a delightful punctuation to a really good meal, and thankfully did not come with more butter. The service was terrific.

But I am so full I can’t possibly imagine eating again until 2012. I asked the waiter, as he was bringing the coffee and sorbet, if they served Crestor in little dishes with the dessert. He thought I was kidding.

I was thinking, as we exited the restaurant, of the little cameras they have set up at crucially frightening points of roller coaster rides, so that you can see, and take home, pictures of yourself as you scream your head off. I was wondering if they had similar cameras set up so we could see how we looked after we had been beaten by a food club.

We walked all the way around the block to get back to the hotel so I could try to walk off some of the meal. To think I put a bag of Gardettos back at the Subway/Convenience store at lunch time because of the 7 g. of fat.

There isn’t enough Metamucil in the world to undo what I’ve just done to my body.

Unfortunately, Second Son will now have to go to community college given the size of the tab. Every single thing you eat there is priced à la carte, which is apparently a fancy way of saying really really expensive. I think they might have charged us for every time we used our napkin. The waiter did brush up our crumbs, and asked politely if it would be okay if HE put the leftovers in a box for us.

The reservation for tomorrow night’s dinner at the symphony is for 6.

Bon appétit!



I don’t even know where to begin.

I’m so disappointed.

I can’t help but wonder if it hasn’t occurred to MFA that if corporations are so interested in supporting the Republican party, maybe the Republican party isn’t all that interested in the needs and desires of the average American PERSON.

We’re “taking the country back.” From ?

How is it that our attention span is so insertexpletivehere short that we think the best solution to our problems is to vote DEMOCRATS out of office?

Bush Jr. and the Republicans got us into this mess —

Deregulation: which allowed many of MFA to be in mortgages they couldn’t afford, or refinance mortgages to buy stuff they couldn’t afford, which artificially drove up housing prices to the breaking point. Now many of MFA owe more on their house than it is worth.

Taxes are cut to the point that education budgets are cut. But what MFA don’t seem to realize is that WE STILL PAY. Either the schools don’t do what we need them to do, or we write checks for every activity our child participates in from a physics lab to a football team to Drama class and have to mortgage our, or their, future to pay for our children’s college educations.

The costs of health insurance rise and rise and rise; and in the interests of the “market” insurance companies are allowed to decide who and what they will and won’t pay for in the name of “Health Maintenance”.

Exhibit A:  I had a cyst at the base of my brain for 2 years, undiagnosed for 1, ignored for another, and was denied access to ANY other health care network until I had made my way through every neurologist and neurosurgeon in the practice and finally found one that deemed it suitable to actually OPERATE ON IT. (It solved the constant dizziness and buzzing in my head; thanks for asking.) Meanwhile my very young children were two years older, and I lost two years of my life as a contributing member of society.

Exhibit B: A very good friend of mine, who finally has insurance after years without it, has just received a hospital bill for $5,000 for a few hours of treatment in an emergency room for a kidney stone. Her insurance isn’t paying because she also had one a year or two ago so it’s a “preexisting condition.”  What’s to keep them from denying care on fibroid tumors, genetically-related breast cancer, heart disease? These are all, in some form, preexisting conditions.

Exhibit C: My husband has high cholesterol, but our insurance doesn’t pay for his blood work because they call it “screening.” So we pay out of pocket, or we hope the Crestor is doing its job.

The Republican health care plan: don’t get sick; if you do, die quickly.

If Americans are polled, they agree with each element of the new health-care plan. If asked what should be the most important thing for the new Congress to do, it’s to repeal the new health-care plan.

It’s insertexpletivehere hopeless. I give up.

It actually kind of makes sense: what intelligent, sane, reasonable person, would be interested in running the country in any capacity?


that thing with feathers

There are those who believe

that we live it all over and over

again until we get it right;

others, that everything happens

for a reason, or that we are all

just living according to Plan.




All I know is that I walked, for a

while, as if through water,

and all I knew was what I told

myself to be true despite all

evidence to the contrary.


Herotodus says that we only

have to speak

the truth we don’t

have to believe it.


I like that.


But this I know:

There are people and voices and reasons

that were not there before

and even the days that blacken

and fill with despair have this

sheen around the edges;


hope — that thing with feathers

which shouts in its silence.


Can you hear it?


Generation Z apathy

They just don’t care.

They sit and stare.

I’m doing all the work,

expending all the energy.

I’m quite sure I have better things to do.

But do I dare?

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