The End of Something

I think this is the second time I’ve used this title in this very blog. I’m sure that has some significance, such as suggesting that it’s easier for me to recognize and contemplate things that are ending rather than things that are beginning. After all, isn’t that how we end up gaining a few pounds, drinking too much, letting project deadlines slide? We often don’t identify things in their nascent state, which is why they sneak up on us and wallop us with stark realizations when we’re least expecting them.

Endings seem to be easier to recognize and identify. And this particular ending is about as subtle as a Supreme Court ruling. Having made a big deal about my foray into mathematics–the beginning of a wonderful journey–it’s a real shame, and to be honest, an embarrassment– to have to announce the effective end of said journey. For the moment, at least, I’ve come to the end of the line. At some future point, I may find another angle by which to approach mathematics, but for now, I have to admit I’ve reached an abrupt and finite closure. (Pardon the puns, but for consolation I’m diving headfirst back into the world of language, whose chief form of amusement is wordplay.)

Let me be succinct and direct. Reader, I failed.

Well, I didn’t really fail, but I came very close to doing so. That test I mentioned last entry? I scored not a C-, but a D- on it. That in itself is an indication of real trouble, but what’s worse is that I didn’t anticipate such a low score. Of course, when I saw my grade I did the responsible thing and went to meet with the professor, who is not only a former colleague but a friend of mine. And I don’t think it’s just because she’s a friend that she suggested I drop the course. I think she’d have given this excellent piece of advice to any of her students in my situation.

The reason is this: while I had done well in my previous math class (College Algebra), which is the prerequisite for this class (Trigonometry), there are some significant gaps in my knowledge. To wit, all of geometry. This should come as no surprise, since the last geometry class I took was in 1979, when I was a sophomore in high school. I have had no real use for the things I learned in that class (sorry, Miss Fenton!), and so I’ve papered over that knowledge with other, more pertinent things which have been more relevant to my life and my career–for example, the number of sonnets Shakespeare wrote, the telephone number of my closest pharmacy, and Ulysses S Grant’s middle name (trick question–it’s Hiram. Thank you, Jeopardy!).

I know what you’re thinking: I should sign up for a course in Geometry. Unfortunately, no such course exists at the community college near me, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed into the high school to take such a course. Perhaps I can catch up by reviewing it on my own, with some help from a friend, but I’m old enough and just wise enough to know that when you set something aside for a short time, no matter how good your intentions, it’s very likely that you’ll be leaving it for good.

I feel a sense of loss and frustration, certainly, but this essay by Freddie deBoer has taken some of the sting out of my failure. It’s possible I’m being re-directed to things that are more important for me to spend my time on. After all, Nanowrimo starts soon, and I have some knitting and crocheting projects that are calling out to me. I have a new grandson, too, and his charms are far more enticing than those offered by sine curves and pythagorean identities.

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that this is probably my Farewell-to-Mathematics post. It was fun while it lasted, and it showed me some new ways to look at the world around me, so I don’t regret trying to learn math. I really think the experiene, short-lived as it was, changed my perspective on a few things, which is always good, especially at my age.

And, as a special bonus, it’s supplied me the perfect name for this beautiful tri-partite tree in my back meadow. Seen below in its autumnal glory is the majestic maple tree I will henceforce call “Sohcahtoa.” It was just too good a name to waste.

An Idea for Math Teachers: Learning Logs

Image taken from a Guardian article

It’s been a busy summer for me, and I’m just getting into the swing of the school year. Some of my readers may recall that last year, for some strange reason, I decided to send myself back to school to acquire the math knowledge I never managed to master as a young adult. It’s been a struggle, but I haven’t given up yet, probably for three reasons: first, I’m a non-traditional (old) student, so I have a lot of experience being a student as well as a teacher; second, I have more patience than I did as a young person; and third, I have a lingering professional interest in how students learn. It occurred to me today, after a particularly frustrating experience which involved a trigonometry test and my concomitant inability to answer what seemed to be the most basic questions, that one thing math teachers could do is something we writing teachers have been doing for quite a few years now: asking our students to submit journals on their learning experiences. I actually think this is a somewhat brilliant idea, so, to test it out, I decided to try it out here, on my blog. So from here on out, I guess I should consider this my first entry in my math learning log.

But before I get started, a brief warning. I am horrifically bad at keeping journals. I am probably even worse at journaling than I am at math, and that’s saying a lot. From the outset, I warn any reader of this math learning log that there will huge lacunae here, because I often start a journal and then completely forget about it. Nevertheless, I am going to forge ahead with this journaling idea, because one of the reasons I started this whole math learning process in the first place was to see what happened when a person of normal intelligence but sparse math knowledge attempts to learn enough math to get to calculus. Is such a progression–from basic College Algebra to Calculus I–possible? Today, after my test this morning, I have serious doubts. But I have to set those doubts and my growing frustration aside, and remember to regard myself not as a frustrated and humbled learner who knows she should have been able to do better on this test, but as a subject in an experiment. In a sense, I’m like that scientist in a black-and-white film who decides to test out a vaccine, or an antivenom, on himself. I need to maintain a sense of calm detachment, even while knowing that the results of this test could be disastrous. And, getting back to the journaling idea, documenting my journey through writing may well be more instructive than documenting it through grades.

For the moment, I will not mention my other reason for taking math courses–the existential, ideological, philosophical, or, if you like, the religious reason for this foray into mathemaltical studies. However, I write about it here.

Now, on to the subject at hand: the trig test on basic functions. I thought I had mastered about 2/3 of the concepts for this test, but I was wrong. Even those concepts I felt sure of slipped away from me as I began the test, in exactly the same way the memory of a dream evaporates upon our waking. By the end of the test, working frantically against the clock (and I have to add here that although I’ve always been a relatively fast test-taker, today I worked up to the last second), I was both frustrated and ashamed. Yet, to be fair, my poor performance (I do expect to pass the test, but only because of partial credit and because I wrote down everything I thought that could be pertinent to each problem), is due neither to laziness nor to disinterest. I had to miss four classes because I was taking care of my grandson in a different city (okay, so that was a delightful experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, to be honest). I did go to the tutoring center when I got back, but after an hour or so there, I deluded myself into thinking that I actually understood what had been covered. I also watched about three hours total of various YouTube videos (Khan Academy, Organic Chemistry Tutor, Dennis Davis’s series) about the trig concepts covered, but in the end, I think they might have hurt me, making me think I understood things when I really didn’t.

The frustration is real. At my age (62), learning something new can be unfamiliar, and it’s easy to see why this is so. We oldsters found out what we are good at and what we like long ago, and we have kept doing those things for decades, getting better and better at them through the years. We tend to forget how hard it is to learn, how much energy and commitment it takes, and most of all, how very frustrating and embarrassing it can be. In other words, learning something new from scratch, without any context to fit things into, is not only intellectually challenging but also emotionally draining. I suspect young people learn more easily not only because they are quicker and more resilient, but also because they don’t know any better. Because they don’t know yet what it feels like to have actually mastered something, not mastering or “getting” concepts doesn’t produce as much cognitive dissonance in them as it does in us oldsters.

Whatever my grade on the test this morning, and I don’t expect it to be good, I have to say that I don’t think studying more would have helped me, because I know I wasn’t studying the right things in the right ways. (That’s probably where that missed week of classes hurt me.) And although I was incredibly frustrated when I turned in the test, I feel less so now, a couple of hours later, because I realize that I don’t have to pass this class to obtain knowledge from it. In fact, I know I can take the class over next semester whatever grade I get this time, and that doing so is no great dishonor or waste of time. I have the luxury of taking my time with this, and although that’s really hard to remember when I’m in the throes of studying and test-taking, it’s the way all learning, in a perfect world, should be.

The Best Dickens Novel You’ll Never Read

Maybe that title is a little risky. I mean, a lot of people don’t like Victorian literature, and maybe a lot of people haven’t read any Dickens novels, or maybe they hate every Dickens they’ve ever read, which means that there simply can’t be any “best” Dickens novel. Be that as it may, I often champion lesser-known books by famous authors (one day I’ll do a blog on why C.S. Lewis’s last novel is better than anything he ever wrote before it), so today I’m going to go to bat for Dickens’s fifth novel, Barnaby Rudge.

Few people have read this novel, even among Victorianists. It actually seems to have been a bit of a flop from the get-go. Dickens had planned this novel at the outset of his career, back in 1836. If he’d gone ahead and written it, it would have been his first novel; instead, he completed The Pickwick Papers, and then went on to write Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop first, and he didn’t get around to writing it until 1841. Incidentally, he actually wrote it concurrently with The Old Curiosity Shop as a serial novel, an incredible accomplishment. Perhaps this accounts for Rudge’s lack of popularity; The Old Curiosity Shop was extremely popular. Indeed, the first thing one reads about it in its Wikipedia entry is that New Yorkers stood on the docks of the city waiting for the final installment of the novel to be delivered by steamship. So it’s a real possibility that Barnaby Rudge was eclipsed by Dickens’s other, more popular creative work, its twin sibling, so to speak, from the moment of its birth.

And that’s unfortunate, because while The Old Curiosity Shop has not stood the test of time–most readers find it sentimental and melodramatic today–Barnaby Rudge is a novel for the present time. In fact, it’s been really interesting to read it as the January 6 hearings are taking place, because at the heart of the novel lies a riot, an insurrectionary movement perceived as so dangerous that it threatened the rule of order in England. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel (2002), John Bowen begins by saying that “Barnaby Rudge is the most untimely of historical novels.” However, perhaps it isn’t the novel that has to find its time, but rather the time that must find its novel. In other words, I’d argue that Barnaby Rudge may not have been the novel for its time, but it is the novel for our time, a novel whose time has, after nearly two hundred years, finally arrived.

Throughout his career, Dickens wrote only two historical novels–this one and, of course, A Tale of Two Cities, another novel that has eclipsed it, perhaps only because it’s shorter and easier to put on a high school syllabus. But instead of pitting Dickens’s novels against each other, let me just explain why Barnaby Rudge is worth reading:

  • As I’ve already indicated, it contains striking parallels with our own time. The central action of the novel (though not necessarily its focus) is the Gordon Riots, a period of anti-Catholic unrest in June of 1780, which resulted in anarchy in London for several days. Prisons were attacked and their prisoners released; stores, residences, foreign embassies and Catholic chapels demolished by frenzied mobs; and the army had to enter London to restore order. Trials and executions ensued. All this, mind you, a full nine years before the French tried the same thing–successfully–at the outset of the French Revolution.
  • The eponymous hero of the novel, Barnaby Rudge, is seriously mentally challenged. His mind is disordered and his development delayed. Although 23 years old, he is “simple,” something that almost everyone around him both understands and accepts. I am not aware of any author trying this before Dickens: perhaps my readers can shed more light on the depiction of the intellectually disabled in a somewhat positive light. Dickens’s portrayal of Barnaby is much more sympathetic, on the whole, than one would expect of a Victorian writer, and making him the centerpiece of the novel is an act of creative genius.
  • Barnaby has a pet raven named Grip (Dickens himself also had a pet raven named Grip) who so “gripped” the imagination of another writer across the pond that he wrote an entire poem about a raven. No kidding–quoth the Raven, nevermore.
  • Dickens examines the origins of the riots a little, but what he excels at most is in demonstrating that the people who participate in riots have their own individual aims and desires, few of which have have much to do with the general cause at hand. This is important because when we look at history, we tend to forget this; Dickens makes it clear in this novel that historical movements are created from many disparate people pulling together into one action for a limited period of time.
  • There are the usual loveable (or despised, depending on your view of Dickens’s work) plot points and characters: the thwarted lovers, the carping wife, the happy and bluff old father figure offset by several really rotten father figures, the sassy beauty, the wheedling servants. Dickens paints good portraits of them all.
  • In addition, there are a surprising number of physically disabled people in the novel (two), a fact with which I could do all sorts of things in terms of theorizing about amputation and the body politic, but since I’m retired, and since someone else probably has done it or is doing it better than I care to at the present time, I’ll just leave it at that.
  • There are all the usual themes about secrets: murders; survivals; illegitmacy; nature versus nurture; generational conflict. These are themes we see in other Dickens novels, and they’re all here, pretty much right on the surface. It’s as if Dickens wrote this as a blueprint for many of his other novels, which makes it all the more interesting for anyone who’s read them.

I could go on, but I want to end by emphasizing how reading this novel now, at this moment in U.S. history, has affected the way I’m watching the January 6 hearings. I think I understand better how small people can get caught up in large events, and how people who have nothing but a sort of odd charisma can get others behind them in such numbers that really frightening things can ensue.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the novel is that in the world that Dickens creates, the story has a somewhat (but not totally) happy ending: people are punished, order is retored, and most of the good characters live somewhat happily ever after. Barnaby Rudge may not be a Bleak House, but I think it’s a better, more interesting novel than The Old Curiosity Shop. I predict that in about ten years’ time, we’ll see a brave soul who recognizes its value decide to stop working on endless re-makes of (something resembling) Jane Austen novels and try a film version of this novel, which would be a wonderful thing, in my opinion.

Finally, there are a couple of really good podcasts on the novel by Dominic Gerrard and guests. Look for Charles Dickens: A Brain on Fire on Apple podcasts. https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/charles-dickens-a-brain-on-fire/id1599241462

A Speech

I’ve been absent from this blog for the past few weeks, but it hasn’t all been basking in the glory of my math prowess. In fact, I barely had time to celebrate the fact that I had actually passed my College Algebra course when I came down with Covid, despite getting all recommended vaccines and being oh-so-careful. At any rate, I’m just about back to normal now, but Covid is not a walk in the park. The initial symptoms aren’t too bad–pretty much the same as the side effects from the vaccine–but the aftermath of fatigue, lethargy, and depression lasted for a few weeks. My takeaway is that it’s definitely worth taking all the precautions now that most of the rest of the world seems to have blithely abandoned in order to avoid getting Covid.

At any rate, I emerged from my Covid quarantine a few weeks ago, just in time to address the local League of Women Voters unit at their annual meeting. My days of being a candidate are behind me, but that makes me all the more appreciative of the people who are still active and who are working to improve the political landscape of the United States. To be honest, I feel more than a little guilty at not joining in their efforts more actively, so the least I could do, I told myself, is to speak to them when they ask me to. Then I decided that my speech, such as it was, could make a good blog post, so here goes. The topic is, as the Belle of Amherst would call it, that “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”

We face many problems in our world today: a lingering pandemic, mass shootings, long-standing prejudice, violence, partisan hatred… the list goes on and on. But perhaps the most serious one, because it affects so many others, is the decay of democracy in our country. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but for now, I just want to say that even though this is a humdinger of a problem, the message I’d like to give today is that there is good reason to hope for change, because change is always possible. Good things as well as bad things are happening in the world, and so optimism should not be banished from the range of emotions we feel as we confront our future. Hope, as author Rebecca Solnit points out in her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, is one of many viable responses to the dire problems that we face. We must not be afraid to hope. It’s easy to be attracted to pessimism when we are afraid to hope. Hope is frightening, because we realize that when we hope for the best, we might well be proven wrong when our hopes fail to materialize. And yet we must not be afraid of being proven wrong. Frankly, the world would be a much better place if we all were more willing to take a chance on being wrong. After all, fear of being proven wrong often prevents us from acting to make the changes we so desperately need and desire.

I also want to point out that the problems with democracy that we’re now experiencing should come as no surprise to us. There’s a kind of odd comfort in realizing that as far back as 1840, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville identified some serious issues in democracy in his book Democracy in America. He pointed out that while popular sovereignty (or democracy) could work very well at the local level, where people find it easy to be well informed on issues and where power is limited, three problems lie in wait at the national level to mar the democratic experiment:

  1. Competent people are willing to leave politics in the hands of less competent people;
  2. People’s belief in the idea of innate equality could give them a false sense of their capabilities and a dangerous sense of omnipotence;
  3. Excessive individualism and the pursuit of material wealth could result in apathy.

I think it’s fair to say that we have seen all three things come to pass in recent years. And I, like many other people, have often been tempted to throw my hands up in disgust and divorce myself from the political realm. But, as Naomi Klein says in her book This Changes Everything, “If we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy — the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.”

But here’s the interesting thing: that picture of humanity as innately selfish and greedy is beginning to change. We’re beginning to realize that it’s an imperfect picture, one that was built on a misunderstanding, or at the very least on an overemphasis, of a Darwinian belief in the survival of the fittest. We need to offset this view of human nature with Peter Kropotkin’s view, as he presented it in his work Mutual Aid, of evolution depending as much on cooperation as on competition. Scientists and philosophers are now working on amending our view of nature to correct this faulty emphasis on competition; for example, biologists like Suzanne Simard (Finding the Mother Tree) have shown that natural systems are much more physically connected than previously thought, just as primatologist Frans de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society) has demonstrated that empathy and cooperation have contributed as much, if not more, to the survival of humanity through the ages.

So there is reason to hope for change, for a different perspective. What we need right now is enough hope, and determination, and endurance to get us through these rapidly changing times. We need to remember that while we ourselves might not be around to enjoy the things these changes will bring, our children will, and so will their children. And we need to be willing to lay the foundation for those changes right now.

Change is something that can be difficult to navigate. Back in 1952, Edna Ferber wrote a passage in her book Giant (so much better than the movie) in which the main character’s wise father talks to his daughter, who is troubled by all she’s seen and experienced in Texas:

“The world will [change]. It’s changing at a rate that takes my breath away. Everything has speeded up, like those terrific engines they’ve invented these past few years… Your [husband] won’t change, nor you, but your children will take another big step: enormous step, probably. Some call it revolution, but it’s evolution, really. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Horrible to be caught in it, helpless. But no matter how appalled you are by what you see…, you’re still interested, aren’t you?”

“Fascinated! But rebelling most of the time.”

“What could be more exciting! As long as you’re fascinated, and as long as you keep on fighting the things you think are wrong, you’re living. It isn’t the evil people in the world who do the most harm, it’s the sweet do-nothings that can destroy us. Dolce far niente–that’s the thing to avoid in this terrible and wonderful world….

So first of all, we need to buckle in for a wild ride while true change has a chance to occur. But we also need nurture a fierce belief in the possibility of this change actually happening. And for that, I’ll point to another writer who gives me the tools to hope: Rutger Bregman. In his book Utopia for Realists, he has this to say about the power of belief, which is closely linked to our ability to hope:

Those who swear by rationality, nuance, and compromise fail to grasp how ideas govern the world. A worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in.

If we want to change the world we live in, then, we need to apply that pressure constantly, relentlessly, until we begin to destroy those walls, that fortress of belief that prevents us from restoring the democratic values we believe in. As Bregman says, “if we want to change the world, we need to be unrealistic, unreasonable, and impossible.”

And yet, as important as it is to hope, to believe in this change, Robert Reich reminds us that “hope is not enough. In order for real change to occur, the locus of power in the system will have to change.” Nevertheless, Reich himself is hopeful about the future. In his book The System: Who Rigged It and How We Fix It, he explains why:

History shows that whenever we have stalled or slipped, the nation’s forward movement has depended on the active engagement and commitment of vast numbers of Americans who are morally outraged by how far our economy and our democracy have strayed from our ideal and are committed to move beyond outrage to real reform.

He goes on to remind us that we need to “be organized and energized, not just for a particular election but for an ongoing movement, not just for a particular policy but to reclaim democracy so an abundance of good policies are possible.” What we need, he argues, is “a common understanding of what it means to be a citizen with responsibilities for the greater good.” He ends the book with a rousing pep talk: “Your outrage and your commitment are needed once again.”

These are powerful words, and they are therapeutic in restoring a sense of hope. I can do little more than echo them. So I’ll just leave you with the following few thoughts.

For those of you engaged in the fight to restore our democratic values, I urge you to stay engaged, enraged, and determined to change the structure of American politics from the ground up.

On a personal note: Take care of yourself. Pace yourself. Do what you personally can, and don’t feel badly about what you cannot do. Don’t focus on the negative. And take time to remind yourself of the successes you’ve had, no matter how small. Be willing to celebrate and share them.

And most of all, have hope! We are all, in a variety of ways, fighting the good fight. And in this fight, hope may well be the most important weapon we have. In the words of the Welsh literary critic Raymond Williams:

To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.

Thank you for your commitment to democracy. Keep up the good fight, and keep hoping for positive change.

Adventures in (Senior) Learning

my math exercise book

I am happy to report that I have completed my math class, and that I passed it. But it wasn’t always pretty, and it often resulted in frustration, anger, and broken pencils. I may or may not have broken a few other small items as well, in the heat of working on homework problems that I should have been able to solve but couldn’t. But that’s all water under the bridge. It’s over now, and I made it. In my darkest days as a student, I promised myself that pass or fail, when I completed the class I would write about my experience here, and although summer is beginning and I have a host of tasks that I’ve put off during the last few weeks as I studied for my final, I am trying to fulfil that promise now.

And so here is my first discovery: All teachers should be granted time off (course load reductions) every few years to take a course that is completely out of their area of expertise. In other words, every teacher should experience what I did last semester, because learning something completely new provides a critically important window to show teachers how their students feel and what they encounter as learners. My greatest regret about the whole experience of taking math as a retiree is that I cannot put what I’ve learned to use in my own classroom. Would I have changed my teaching methods if I’d had this experience earlier? Perhaps not. But I would have been more sympathetic to students’ complaints and frustrations in learning new material. I would have worked harder to find alternate delivery methods to make sure that material was accessible. I wouldn’t have been so quick to shrug off my students’ inability to master content by assuming they simply weren’t taking the class seriously enough. I’m absolutely sure that the taking a class like this (assuming that it was not simply added onto my other duties, but rather that my teaching load was reduced to allow me adequate time to engage in the class) would have made me a better teacher.

Good teachers, those who are engaged with their subjects, tend to be intuitive learners in their area of expertise. But this is a problem for their teaching, because many students they encounter will not be intuitive learners in that area. Taking a class out of my area of knowledge forced me to pay attention to how I learn. Certainly we teachers have been aware of different learning styles for decades, but there is a real difference in awareness of a thing and direct experience of it. If we are really interested in teaching, in transmitting not only knowledge but critical thinking skills, then we teachers need to immerse ourselves in a fresh learning experience every so often to enable us to check our assumptions, to experience failures, and, when necessary, to adjust our techniques–and our expectations. And the closer that learning experience comes to our students’ experience, the better.

Another important thing I learned is that there is a difference between showing someone something and teaching them something. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what that difference is. I think it has to do with paying close attention to feedback from the student–and not just verbal or written feedback but nonverbal cues as well. This is an area that deserves more study and observation.

On a purely personal level, I believe I had a better chance of success in this class today, as a senior citizen, than I would have had as a young adult, and not just because I have much more free time at my disposal. Given that my most recent math class was in 1979 (it was called “Terminal Math” — not because it killed you, but because it was a curricular dead end), one would think that I might have struggled with memory problems. The truth, however, is that I was a much more experienced learner and was therefore able to contextualize information in a way that wasn’t possible for me in my twenties. I was aggressive in using YouTube videos for additional learning, and I was far more focused and determined than I had been in my younger years. In other words, whatever I have lost in terms of memory function, I have gained in terms of experience and critical thinking ability.

Pure bull-headedness helped me pull through as well. So, in addition to a larger reserve of learning experience and critical thinking skills, a greater store of patience also helped me to progress through the class (snapped pencils and crumpled paper notwithstanding). These assets are all important factors in student success. All of them are something that young adults typically lack, however, which makes you wonder about how successful college learning really can be.

I had one final asset that helped me make it through the class. A superpower, if you will: I was willing to fail the course and take it again if necessary. But most traditional college students do not have this option. The clock is running, and they just want to get through, tick off the class, and proceed to the next one. As long as education is seen as an economic good and learning institutions mere factories to produce workers (and, unfortunately, to produce debt as well–something that is inherent in the capitalist control of the state), education will be mistakenly conflated with job training, and we will limit our learning throughout life.

At points throughout the semester, frustrated by the frenetic pace of the class, which in turn is dictated by powers beyond the control of individual professors–because all math classes have to align to assure transferability, and if they don’t then the colleges that mess with course content stand to lose students, funding, and revenue–I declared that the community college or university is the last place a person should go for an education. Now, having gotten through the class intact, I see that this is a harsh judgment, but there is nonetheless some truth in it. Our institutions of higher learning have become, as I said above, factories, and if we stop the production line or try to slow it down, we risk gumming up the whole process. And we all know what happens when that occurs:

I’ve often told my students that education is wasted on the young. But we can remedy this if we want to. The tragedy is not that so few of us actually go back to complete our education when we finally have the time and resources to do so, but that we limit the amount of learning all students can achieve, even in the place that is supposedly the most conducive to learning: the university. I hope in the years to come we begin to see the limits of higher education as we’ve fashioned it, and remediate these ill effects.

As for me, I’m celebrating my success, such as it is, and picking up the threads of my life. More adventures in math to come next fall, as I proceed to Trignometry.

Random Thoughts about TV Shows

A few random thoughts about television shows this morning, since the end of a long winter is in sight, and I have survived it largely by knitting, reading, and–you guessed it–watching television shows and movies.

On Mindless Murder: Why do detective shows always, without fail, focus on murder? Based on the detective shows I watch (admittedly, most of them are British), it seems that all cases in which both police and private detectives are called are murders. Hence the Cabot Cove paradox: a small town, Cabot Cove, Maine, has the highest murder rate in the world, because Jessica Fletcher lives there and she must solve a new murder every week. (Don’t get me wrong–I love Murder, She Wrote, but I think that if a detective is good at solving murder cases, she ought to be good at solving other kinds of cases as well.) What about the cases in which no murder has occurred? Much of a detective’s job, after all, involves sitting and watching people, trying to get evidence of adultery, or perhaps finding a missing person (who often, I would hope, turns out not to be murdered). Even Sherlock Holmes occasionally worked on cases that did not involve a murder of any kind. I would love to see a detective show that doesn’t focus exclusively on that most brutal of crimes. In fact, I find it deeply troubling that so much of our entertainment comes from postulated murder, as if the only way we can amuse ourselves is by imagining the ultimate violence done to another human being. If detective shows would only sprinkle some non-murderous episodes in with their usual fare, I think it would be more realistic, for one thing, as well as more humane, and it would do those of us who watch them a lot more good.

On Evil Collectives: Why is a collective always represented as something bad? Take Star Trek: Voyager. While I find the Star Trek series creative and thoughtful, the Borg (a hive-mind collective that forcibly assimilates/absorbs all entities it encounters) quickly becomes a predictable and hackneyed antagonist. Of course, someone had the brilliant idea of “rescuing” 7 of 9 and integrating her into Voyager’s crew–kudos to whoever came up with that one–but the problem remains that we seem to be unable to imagine a collective association of human beings as anything but profoundly threatening to creativity, kindness, and mutual aid. Perhaps this stems from our Western distrust of collective societies and our American horror of communism. Yet this cannot be only an American issue, since Daleks–from the Dr Who series–are also portrayed as an evil, voracious collective society. My question is this: is it possible to imagine a non-threatening collective, one that is humane and caring? Why is it that we never see such a collective portrayed on television or in films? If we could imagine one (and of course non-agressive collective societies do indeed exist in nature, among bees, for example, and many other kind of animals so we needn’t go far for inspiration), perhaps we could aspire to replicate this kind of mutual aid society in our world.

On Emo SciFi: While I’m on the subject of science fiction, here’s a question that I’ve often pondered: Why are science fiction shows almost always dark? Of course, there’s a really easy answer to this question: it’s dark in outer space. I get that, but why is it that we can only imagine space travel as something in which disasters, emergencies, and threatening events occur? Wouldn’t it be more realistic to sprinkle some humor into the plot of a scifi show sometimes? I realize that we’re living in difficult times, as we move closer to tyranny and nuclear war threatens to erupt in Europe, but isn’t that itself a reason to provide entertainment that is uplifting and amusing as well as thoughtful? For that matter, why must “thoughtful” always mean “something dire is about to happen and the whole crew, or planet, or species could die?” I would very much like to see a science fiction show that occasionally has an episode focusing on disagreements between crewmates (because God knows that would happen on a long voyage–just ask any sailor who’s ever been on deployment), on equipment malfunctions, on anything but the mission ending in a fiery ball of disaster due to an out-of-control collective that is intent on committing murder.

In other words, it would be nice if someone out in TV Land got hold of a new blueprint for their plots instead of recycling the same old trite themes. But maybe that’s my own problem for expecting real creativity from an overburdened medium….

It’s pretty bad when one has to resort to doing math problems to get exposure to new ideas!

This is Your Mind on Math, or How I Got Hooked on Mathamphetamines

Picture from Wikipedia

Note: I enrolled in a College Algebra class this semester as part of my revisionist education project. One of the assignments is to read a book on mathematics and write about it. Being quite busy with learning all I’m supposed to be learning right now, I haven’t time to write much on this blog, so I thought I’d post my book review here as a short-term solution. I hope to post here at greater length about my mathematical journey in a few weeks.

FLATLAND, A ROMANCE OF MANY DIMENSIONS by Edwin Abbott Abbott

Flatland, by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926), was the perfect book to start my mathematical journey, for several reasons. Abbott lived pretty much right in the middle of the Victorian age, which is the period of literature I know best. This means that while his book is mathematical in nature and seems strange and alien in its subject (at least to me), its wordiness and heavy, formal style are somehow comforting at the same time. Aside from the oddness of the subject itself (life in a two-dimensional world), some of the themes in the novella were essentially Victorian. Take, as one example, the upward mobility of shapes, going from triangles, to squares, to pentagons and hexagons as generations “improve” themselves, which reflects the Victorians’ belief in the perfectability of human nature over time, as well as the ability to move from one socioeconomic status to the next higher one. While we think of social mobility as a purely American invention, it was surely present in nineteenth-century England. One need only point to Patrick Bronte, father of the Bronte sisters, who was born in squalor in Ireland but managed to secure a scholarship to Cambridge University and become a clergyman, or to Charles Dickens, whose grandparents were servants in a rich household, to demonstrate that a Victorian might be born a square, or even a triangle, but could hope one day to have hexagonal grandsons.

In other words, while the things Abbott wrote about were unfamiliar to me as far as the two-dimensional world he created goes, many of the accompanying characterizations were not. Moreover, there were some really enjoyable surprises within the book as well. I was particularly amused by the portrayal of women as vicious lines who, through their raging fury or even simple inattention to their relative positions, could maim or destroy their more mild-mannered mates, offspring, as well as innocuous bystanders. (How any offspring was ever produced in this world, however, was never covered in Flatland. Some things, I suppose, are better left unimagined.) In addition, the power struggle between the chromatists and the opposition, the traditionalist, anti-color party, was reminiscent of all political struggles, and so quite familiar as well. In short, Flatland, while a bit difficult to read, was intriguing and creative, and I am glad I read the book to its conclusion.

To be clear, I ended up liking the book, and I give it four out of four stars, not for its plot, or for its characterization, and certainly not for its verbose and weighty style, but because it became a symbol for my own journey into the study of mathematics. As I began the course, I had to quickly relearn concepts and skills that had been buried for well nigh fifty years, beneath Shakespeare plays and Elizabethan sonnets, Victorian novels, and Romantic poetry. As soon as I had dusted off my meager mathematical skills, however, I was deluged with other, new concepts that demanded all the brainpower I had to digest them. Then, while I was busy learning these new concepts, I found I had forgotten the older ones that I should have known all along and had just re-learned. It was all very frustrating and, frankly, an embarrassing exercise in intellectual humility. To be honest, early in the semester, I had to make up my mind to stick with the course even if that meant failing it—something I’d never done in my life up to this point.

Enter Edwin Abbott Abbott with his two last names and his strange little book. Once I began reading it, I quickly came to realize that my journey as a reader and my journey as a student were similar. Look at it this way: In signing up for Math 130 (College Algebra), I had entered an unusual world, one that had rules and laws that I knew very little about. I had to immerse myself in them, barely understanding them, simply trusting that they would become clearer and more understandable as I proceeded through the course. The same was true of reading Flatland. The only way to get through this book, I’ll maintain, is to buckle up and settle back for a very strange ride. I’d say the same is true for studying College Algebra.

When, after a week or so of starting the book and concentrating on my math homework, I began to have dreams about equations, square roots, and graphing polynomials, I realized something very interesting was happening in my brain: I was changing my perception of the world. In fact, one night I dreamt that my husband, to whom I often go for help as he studied Electrical Engineering (albeit some 40 years ago), gave me an edible and a magic mushroom, both of which I ate without question and was immediately rewarded by understanding everything I needed to about math. Yet I’ll argue the dreams were not just amusing; I believe they were my brain at work, struggling to adapt to new information and new perceptions. Indeed, I take them as a sign that I was beginning, with oh-so-tiny baby steps, to see the world from a more mathematical perspective. It’s a lot like those three-dimensional pictures that you have to concentrate on not concentrating on to be able to see. It takes a bit of work to see an interesting scene rather than zig-zagging blocks and shapes, but the effort is well worth it in the end, when you are rewarded with a three-dimensional view somehow transcribed onto a flat piece of paper. I hope that the same will be true of Math 130.  

Learning math, for those of us to whom math is not second nature, demands that we forge new perceptions and that we learn to see and think in totally new ways. This is easy to posit, but very hard to accomplish. I suspect it’s easier the younger one is, but no matter one’s age, it is difficult to craft new perceptive tools with which to look at a changed world. In other words, studying math is a trippy experience—we might as well admit that—and Flatland is a trippy little book, and for this reason, it turned out to be the perfect start to Math 130 for me.

Searching for the Most Beautiful Word

Stephen Hunt/ Getty Images , from Redbook

I find it odd that J.R.R. Tolkien believed that the most beautiful sound in the English language was the words “cellar door.” To be honest, I just can’t agree with him: to me, at least, these words don’t sound lovely or inviting. Mysterious? Yes. Intriguing? Perhaps. But certainly not beautiful.

So I’ve tried my best to identify a word I do consider beautiful, and I think I’ve found one: “senescence.” I love the way the sibilant “s” sound eases through my lips. I had a serious lisp as a child, going to speech therapy throughout my early elementary school years, so maybe the word “senescence” has the attraction of forbidden fruit to me. Whatever the reason, I find “senescence” to be an elegant word, yet at the same time both humble and understated. It truly is a lovely word, with a soft, inviting sound that charms the ear.

The unpleasant reality rests in the meaning of the word: “the condition or process of deterioration with age.”

Oops. Looks like I’ve picked a word as fraught with problems as Tolkien’s “cellar door.”

But since I’m on the subject anyway (see how I did that?), let me discuss the most moving story about senescence I’ve ever encountered. Surprisingly, it’s not about human beings, but rather about octopuses. (And yes, the plural of “octopus” is “octopuses,” not “octopi.” This short article explains why, while cleverly pointing out the irony in the whole debate, since octopuses live as solitary creatures and so presumably one might never really need to use the plural of the word in a natural setting.)

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus must be a good book, because I still remember it clearly, several years after I listened to an audio version of it. The part that I found most memorable is Montgomery’s discussion of the senescence of her octopus friend. It is one of the most beautiful, and one of the saddest, descriptions of the natural world I’ve ever encountered.

While octopuses don’t have a centralized nervous system or a brain, as we do, they seem to experience consciousness. Recent films, for example, have documented the friendships that certain octopuses have formed with human beings. Clearly, they have the capacity to make memories, as well as other complicated mental functions. For example, this video segment shows an octopus dreaming. The takeaway here is that despite its alien appearance, the octopus is much more than a scary-looking sea monster; it is a creature with feelings and opinions, at least as much as the other animals we live with, such as dogs and cats .

But an octopus has a very short lifespan, living only three or so years. And the last thing a female octopus does, as it enters this final stage of life, this period of senescence, is to produce a collection of lacy, bundled eggs and festoon her den with them. Below is an image of an octopus with her eggs from an NPR article:

Stuart Westmorland/Corbis

The octopus will then spend the rest of the time remaining to her caring for these eggs, and then, with her last bit of energy, her final breath, so to speak, she will launch these eggs into life, just as she herself leaves it.

Now here’s the thing about Sy Montgomery’s book: the octopus that Montgomery befriended was a female, so she produced eggs and draped them in her aquarium home, but they were never fertilized, because she was acquired too early in her life to have been able to fertilize them. Yet that made no difference to her. She cared for those empty egg sacs just as assiduously as if they had had baby octopuses within them.

Perhaps she just didn’t know the difference. But I choose to believe that there is a powerful lesson here. That octopus did what she had to do: her drive to create was inborn, and she could no more resist that urge to lay eggs and then to take care of them than she could resist the urge to eat, or to sleep, or, when the time came, to die. And here’s where I find an important parallel between the octopus and us, one that has nothing to do with our role as parents, but rather as creators.

Look at it this way: one of the functions of human beings is to create things, all sorts of things, depending on who we are and what kind of gifts we develop in ourselves. We might create stories, as Shakespeare did, or important bodies of research, as Jane Goodall has, or structures, like the Great Wall of China. We might create an epic poem, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, or we might make a baby blanket out of yarn and a set of knitting needles. We might build a beautiful bench, or craft a powerful speech. We might create relationships that continue into the next generation. It doesn’t matter what shape it takes; one thing that humans do, without fail, is create. The least talented of us cannot go through this life without having created something at some point during the time allotted to us on this earth.

The problem is, many of us don’t honor our creations. We don’t think our creations could possibly matter, so we fail to protect and nurture them. We throw them away, making them disposable, ultimately discounting their importance.

But the octopus teaches us a different lesson. She shows us that whether there are baby octopuses within the eggs or not, it’s important to treat them all with respect. She demonstrates that it’s the act of creation and our response to that act that matters, and not whether the product of our creative urge is a success or a failure.

This realization hit me powerfully when I first listened to Montgomery’s book. In fact, walking down a sunny street in Dallas, tears coursed down my cheeks, and I didn’t care whether the other people on the path around White Rock Lake noticed or not. I cried at first because the futility of the octopus’s gesture struck me like a gale-force wind. It all seemed so useless, so empty. Was life really so cruel and hopeless?

But within a few minutes I realized that the important thing here was the act of creation, not the product of creation, and there’s a big difference. It didn’t stop my tears, but it did change the cause of them. The octopus’s actions seemed so selfless, so beautiful, that her death made me ache as if I’d known her myself. Her senescence, her final actions, these seemed to me worthy of a Verdi opera or tenth symphony from Beethoven.

Because the beauty of the octopus’s dying gesture more than balances the tragedy of it.

And now, some years later, entering my own period of senescence, I realize what we human beings share with that octopus. Some of us create viable things that go on to have a life of their own; some of us create the equivalent of empty egg sacs. But it doesn’t matter. We all have engaged in the act of creation, and that’s what makes us alive.

I might never achieve an existence as beautiful as that of an octopus, but I can keep the memory of her–of her senescence combined with her act of creation–in my mind so as to give me a sense of peace as I go about my own small acts of creation, and as I proceed with my own decline into old age.

In short, I’ve discovered that senescence can be beautiful both in its sound and in its meaning as well. Take that, Mr. Tolkien!

Dream Novels

Communardes, Wikimedia

I’ve now been keeping this blog for about a decade, and I have to admit that I feel a sense of accomplishment for some degree of consistency in writing. True, I haven’t been consistent about my posts–indeed, sometimes long gaps stretch between them–but I have so far always returned to this site to write yet another mini-essay on a subject of my own choosing. It all began, I recall, when I realized that it wasn’t exactly fair of me as a composition instructor to ask my students to write on-demand essays for me when I wasn’t at least prepared to produce my own essays. So I set myself the task of writing, in a sort of public way, to honor the commitment I’d hoped my students would feel for their writing classes. After all, as Daniel Stern (the writer, not the actor) once told me, “A writer is someone who conducts their education in public.”

Over the last few years I have been doing that on steroids, so to speak. I’ve tested out strange and new ideas I’ve had here, and I’ve revealed my determination to put myself back to school in order to complete, or at least to remedy, what I consider a half-hearted education. (Hence my decision to take a math class at the local community college where I once taught English and Speech–a decision which accounts for my inconsistency in posting [as if I need an excuse!]. Algebra, it turns out, is quite time-consuming–but more on that and what I’m learning in a future post.)

Perhaps part of my original motivation in starting this blog was to try to garner readers for my self-published novels. Yet that motivation has fallen by the wayside; I’m no longer interested in trying to expand my reader base, and in fact, I’m not sure I actually want to write any more novels. I say this not from any kind of pique or bitterness, but more from laziness. If I can outline the story, in other words, and tell it to myself, what need have I to write it down and spoil it all? Yet there’s also an element of humility playing into this. The older I get, the less I feel compelled to throw in my two cents. Moreover, the older I get, the less certain I feel of anything, particularly my potential to contribute to the vast array of written works already out there. It seems just as good a use of my time to read more stories, stories that people have forgotten by obscure authors who haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. (Perhaps this deserves a future post as well!)

And yet….

And yet there are stories I’ve thought of and have sketched out in my mind, and I hold them dear. They’re like unfinished sweaters I’ve knitted. I think I know what they’d look like if I finished them, but I’m not sure about all the intricate details. I don’t know how exactly they’d fit, either. So when I think of these “dream novels” (I’m adapting a term from the essayist Charles Lamb, from his essay “Dream Children: A Reverie,” a lovely piece of old-fashioned writing), it’s with a certain degree of wistfulness as well as some real curiosity, to see what they would become if I ever did write them. After all, as most writers know, one can never know exactly what one thinks until one sees what one has written.

Anyway, the rest of this post will be spent in listing my Dream Novels and sketching out their plots, just so that someday, when I have too much time on my hands and more confidence in my possession, I can consider coming back to one or two of these ideas. They are listed in no particular order below.

  1. A novel about Princess Charlotte–not the present one, but rather the daughter of George IV (1796-1817), the heir to the throne of England, whose early death in childbirth (along with her infant son) precipitated the hereditary crisis that would result in the the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne a generation later. Her death changed history. But she was also a really interesting character, and she married Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who would later, long after her death, become the first king of the Belgians. He was a huge influence on European politics, despite being a relatively unknown and unimportant German prince. And he was incredibly handsome, and was, to all appearances, heartbroken at the death of Charlotte. My twist on the narrative, however, would be that Charlotte’s life story is narrated by Cornelia Knight, who served as Princess Charlotte’s companion/governess, and who saw a great deal of the world, especially for a spinster in the early nineteenth century.
  2. A novel about one of the survivors of the the Paris Commune, an historical interlude about which most Americans know very little, if anything at all. At the end of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (disastrous for the French, that is), the victorious Germans were set to enter into Paris, but the citizens revolted against their own government and refused to surrender, at which point the French government declared war against the Parisians, who had decided to rule themselves. From March until May, 1871, Paris was under siege and existed as a Commune–an experiment in democracy that bears, at least for Americans, an unfortunate name. Women were essential to this experiment, and when it was defeated by the government, they were blamed for much of it. My story follows one of these women into anonymous exile in London, where she gets involved in another political movement, all while a journalist and his sister attempt to identify the mysterious French teacher who lives down the street from them in Bloomsbury.
  3. On the lighter side, a murder mystery involving a community band in a small town. One of the musicians gets himself murdered–it would be the first chair trumpet player, for obvious reasons. (If you don’t know what obvious reasons I’m referring to, then you have clearly never played in a community band.) The detective would be, naturally, a woodwind player (I’m partial to clarinets), and would weave in and out of the idiosyncrasies of the various musicians in order to solve the mystery.

That’s all I have for now. Any one of these stories could consume my creative life for the next several years, if I allowed it to do so, but I can’t quite convince myself that it’s worth the effort. After all, there’s so much to observe in this world, so much to study, so much to absorb, that I’m simply not sure that I should commit to work of this sort. And yet, while work of this sort is apparently self indulgent and ultimately pointless, I know well enough that the product of that work isn’t always the point, and it’s what one learns while undertaking it that matters.

There are so many ways of learning, and I find it sad that as a retired teacher I’m still learning so much about the whole process. Ultimately, when I’m ready for the learning that these projects offer–assuming I ever am–I’ll take a stab at it and perhaps come up with something worthy of posting here, in installments.

Until then, it’s back to studying Algebra!

Private Clavel: My Private Marathon

One of the things that kept me going through the dark days of following Trump’s election was translating an entire French novel, as I wrote about here. I started my translation at the end of November, 2016, and finished it in December of 2017, so it took slightly more than a year of work. Yet I never knew quite what to do with my translation. I made a few half-hearted attempts to publish it, submitting a chapter to several reviews, but nothing took, and so I put it high up on my shelf and tried to forget about it.

However, last summer I discovered that a translation of the book had been published, back in 2019. I greeted this news with mixed feelings, as can well be imagined. I had long determined that no one else was interested in Leon Werth’s Clavel Soldat, that it was too dated or obscure for publication. I also knew that I was a novice translator, and that my chances of publication were very slim. But seeing that someone else had managed to get their version into print still evoked a spasm of writerly envy–short-lived, true, but envy nonetheless–and made me, for the about a day or so, sullen and bitter.

Then, however, I did what any honest writer/translator would do: I ordered the book from its publisher, Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd. Then, in the brightest days of summer, I crushed my sour, envious attitude, and when the book arrived, I placed it on my desk, determined that when winter came and I wasn’t busy with gardening, hiking, mushrooming, and visitors, I would read Michael Copp’s translation (which he calls Private Clavel’s War on War) and compare it to mine, word for word. I was convinced that there would be much to learn from this exercise, and I felt that Mr. Copp, as well as Leon Werth, deserved this much attention from me.

For the last two months, I’ve been engaged in this activity, and I have indeed learned a great deal. True, there are times when I thought it seemed a pointless exercise, but then I realized that many people engage in pointless activities for fun and for health. As an example, consider running. Lots of people run several times a week, working to increase their endurance. What was I doing, if not working to increase my mental endurance, my ability to use every atom of intelligence and memory and reasoning I had in my poor, beleaguered brain in order to make it stronger? So I compared what I was doing to training for a marathon. After all, most runners never expect to win the marathon races they enter–merely finishing is the point. For me, finishing my translation of Clavel Soldat had to be the point, not publishing it, and reading Copp’s translation in conjunction with mine would prove that I had, indeed, completed my own private marathon.

I have indeed learned a great deal from this exercise. First of all, on a purely practical level, I learned to use the Immersive Reader / Read Aloud tab on MS Word. This function allowed me to listen to my version of the translation at the same time that I read Copp’s book, speeding up the whole process. I can see how the Read Aloud function would be a real benefit to anyone proofreading their own work and I’m sure I’ll use it again.

As far as the actual translation goes, here are a few things that I’ve learned. Most important, translation is an art, not a science. This is a truism, but it bears repeating here. I will just post two versions of the same passage from Chapter VII (page 182 of the original) to illustrate:

The next day, Clavel receives a package of newspaper clippings. He knows. Those who write far from the front lines fight in their logical citadels, everyone for his or her own lie. He knows now that there is nothing but an immense vertigo within a great cataclysm. He is in the midst of this cataclysm that the people look at from a distance, like a tourist watching the eruption of a volcano from several kilometers away.

The next day Clavel received a packet of newspaper cuttings. He knows. Those who write in the rear carry on their fight in their citadel of logic, each one supplying his own lie. He now knows that there is only a great frenzy in a great catastrophe. He is in the middle of the catastrophe that the people in the rear contemplate, as a tourist contemplates the eruption of a volcano from a distance.

And another, longer, passage, this one from the last page of Chapter XV (page 300) of the original:

The division headquarters, with its gleaming officers and its clerical workers. A field near the cemetery is chosen for the execution of Private P., from the colonial infantry.
“What did he do?...”
“He didn’t want to go into the trenches…”
It is dawn. Six hundred men are lined up: his company and parts of other units.
An ambulance wagon has been prepared in case Private P.  faints or resists.
The wagon is not needed. Private P. walks to his spot. Twenty men, bayonets at the ready, escort him. He has just as much the look of a soldier as the other men. The only difference is that he doesn’t have a rifle. He looks straight ahead. He has the face of a sick man being taken out of the trenches. 
Private P. and his escort come to the field where the troops are waiting at attention. 
Private P. is there with the other twenty men. No one has come yet to take him. 
A warrant officer orders: “Left side, line up…”
Then, “Right side, line up…”
And Private P., who is going to die, seems bothered only by not knowing how to stand. He turns his head to the right, puts his left fist on his hip. Private P. follows the order “Right side, line up” with the other soldiers.
Twelve soldiers have fired. Private P. is dead.
It's the division with its gleaming officers and its pen-pushers. A field near the cemetery has been chosen for the execution ceremony of soldier P.... of the colonial infantry.
'What did he do?'...
'He didn't want to go to the trenches'...
It is dawn. Six hundred men are drawn up; his company and parts of other troops.
An ambulance has been prepared in case soldier P.... should faint or resist.
The vehicle is not needed. Soldier P....marches to his rank. Twenty men, with fixed bayonets, escort him. He looks a soldier, just like the others. He has no rifle, that's all. He looks straight ahead. A sick man, coming back from the trenches, has this look. 
Soldier P...is there with the other twenty. They haven't yet come to take him. 
An adjutant gives the order: 'Left turn'...
Then: 'Right turn'...
And soldier P...., who is going to die, seems bothered by not knowing where to stand. He turns his head to the right, puts his left fist on his hip. Soldier P...., along with the others, carries out the order: "Right turn."
Two soldiers fired. Soldier P... is dead.

The differences are minimal, but they are there. The only major difference is a bona fide mistake in the second selection, where the French “douze” is translated as “two.” This is something I noticed by comparing translations: mistakes do happen. Sometimes words are mistranslated, and not only when there is debate or obscurity about what the word means. Even more unsettling, sometimes whole lines or short paragraphs are left out: both Copp and I are guilty of this error. Translating an entire novel is a laborious task, so it makes sense that such mistakes happen.

But this led me to another discovery, one that unsettled me more, if possible, than finding that someone else had beat me to the punch and had published an English translation of Clavel Soldat. Mistakes such as the ones I noted above are inevitable in a long scholarly work, but editors should be able to find and eliminate them; after all, that’s what they’re payed to do. Why had this not happened in Copp’s translation? The answer is simple: I believe Copp had no editors, because it turns out that Grosvenor House Publishing Limited is what was once called a “vanity press”: it is essentially the same as self publishing on Amazon (which I have done myself and, to a certain extent, now regret), and there appears to be little quality control. This discovery floored me, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But regarding the errors in the text, I’d still argue that Copp did an excellent job on his translation. The fact that it differs from mine attests to the finesse and subtlety required in translation itself. Like so much in life, there are no right or wrong answers, and it is important to remember that diversity is a gift, not a curse. What this does mean, however, is that any time we read works that have been translated, the translator has made choices, most of them unconscious, that reflect how he or she sees the world, and this inevitably skews the purity, so to speak, of the original words. Again, that is not necessarily a problem; it’s just important to be aware of it when reading literature in translation. When a translator creates a translation, it’s as if all his or her past reading, thinking, even life experiences, work to color the words he or she chooses, and so it makes sense that each translation would be as individual as the person who produced it.

What more have I learned from this grand, marathon-like exercise of mine? I still think Clavel Soldat is a good book, and an important one. Leon Werth created a character who despised war and dared to write about it during the war. His depiction of life at the Front in 1914 is ruthless in its clarity and in the sense of betrayal Clavel feels as he witnesses both the horrors of war and the hypocrisy of those participating in it. I understood the First World War much better after reading the novel, and so I am despondent and, to be honest, disgusted about the fact that its translation appears to be unpublishable today and that self publishing is the only recourse for a novel of this type. Consequently, few English speakers will ever read it. My conclusion — which I hope is not the result of a sour-grapes attitude — is that publishing, like so many things today, is a grand game of popularity and attention-grabbing. In times past, there was room for less popular works, if they were deemed important. Now, however, we live in an attention economy, and important works are bypassed for those works that get a bigger, louder splash.

We lose so much by this. History fades away, covered up by the clamor of contemporary voices, all competing for the biggest slice of an economic pie that really doesn’t matter in the long run. What we lose by this is access to history, is the abililty to understand, so to speak, what the long run is and how it affects us. We become more provincial in our thinking and less capable of forming big ideas because we are only able to access those works deemed most liable to get the biggest bang for publishers’ bucks. It’s a tragic situation, and I’m not sure what we can do to fix it.

In the end, I have to be selfish and say that I’m glad I spent a year plowing through Clavel Soldat, as well as the six additional weeks comparing my translation to Michael Copp’s. True, it may be time that I’ll never get back, but it was time well spent, because it has enriched my knowledge of history, literature, and not least of all, the art of translation. All of these things are valuable, and because of that, I’m satisfied.