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.

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!

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 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.

Zero and God

Warning: this is a philosophical, and deeply weird, post. If I’m lucky, it will go unnoticed in the holiday rush and I won’t have to answer any difficult questions; if not, I can just say that the end of the year has always been the time when I am most prone to consider deep and philosophical thoughts. (Of course, that is patently untrue; deep thoughts, ones about the meaning of life or the passage of time or the inexorable approach of death, come to me at the most inopportune times, such as when I’m watching repeats of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or when I’m ironing a shirt.) At any rate, the thought I’m about to articulate in this post is a doozy, even for me, so you might want to put on some heavy waders, because we’re about to plunge into some fairly deep shit.

First, a little background. Some months ago, I listened to an episode of the BBC’s fantastic radio show In Our Time that focused on zero. Full disclosure here: I have not really considered mathematics seriously in any capacity since, well, since ever. It has always been a tool for me, something that I have to do in order to cut a recipe in half, average students’ grades, or create a grading system with weighted assignments. So why I listened to this podcast, other than simple curiosity, is a bit of a mystery. But listen to it I did, and I have to admit it fascinated me. I learned all sorts of things about zero: when it was invented and who invented it and when it came into general use in the Western World. I mean, to start with, I didn’t realize zero actually had to be discovered; I always thought it just appeared, like the rest of the numbers, with all of its properties neatly attached to it. But apparently zero was invented, or discovered, by the ancient Babylonians, who needed it to keep track of tax records, as a place-keeper along with numbers that were set out in rows for easy and quick addition and subtraction.

You can listen to the podcast to find out more about the number zero, or you can read a book I just finished, Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife, which provides a thoroughly understandable overview of the subject. I find it all interesting, intriguing even, but what got me really thinking was how useful zero is without actually being anything. Calculus and physics, for example (not that I know anything about them) are apparently impossible without a concept of zero. The ancient Greeks and early Christians were averse to considering zero, being terrified of the idea of nothingness; Babylonian and Indian culture had no problem dealing with the idea of a void, so they ran with the idea of zero. It would take the Western world until the middle of the Renaissance to really begin to experiment with the concept of zero, and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions simply couldn’t begin until zero became accepted as a legitimate number.

For the first time in my life, I could see that zero is really, really important. And here’s the interesting thing about zero: it means nothing–literally. It is nothing. But without the idea of it, things just don’t work right. We can’t achieve a level of mathematical knowledge that allows us to have computers, space travel, medical breakthroughs–almost anything we associate with the kind of lives we live today. Zero, while being nothing, is a critical idea around which the entire universe as we encounter it seems to hang.

So I began to think about this, and how intriguing it is that the our concept of the universe depends on something that isn’t there. Maybe my age is showing–I went to graduate school during the heydey of deconstructive criticism, after all–but I find this to be a really satisfying conundrum. Zero is nothing. Yet it is in fact incredibly important, and without a concept of it, we can’t really understand anything beyond elementary mathematics; without it, we can only make fairly simple and elementary natural observations. In short, the nature of zero is a puzzle, and it’s so contradictory that I find it pleasant and satisfying to consider it.

But thinking can be dangerous, especially if you have a lot of time on your hands and allow your mind to wander. Thinking about zero in this way led me to another idea, one that is heretical but at the same really intriguing, namely, what if the concept of God is analagous to the concept of zero? In other words, what if having God as a kind of moral placekeeper is more important than having God as a real entity? God, in this scenario, would be nothing–an evanescent, empty idea–but the concept of God would be all-important. Without this concept of God as simple place-holder, nothing works as it should. The idea of empathy, of ethics, of morals, of duty, or of simply “doing the right thing for the right reason,” these things are easily jettisoned without a belief in or a sense of a higher being. The concept of God as a placekeeper, though–that could be just as useful, and perhaps less prone to corruption and deviance, as the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful divinity.

Consider: God is zero. It seems like nothing, but without this zero, the entire trajectory of human existence simply doesn’t work right. Belief in God would then represent not a belief in a traditional deity with superhuman powers, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of God, which in turn grounds human experience in a meaningful way. I think Seife comes close to saying something like this early in his book when he writes: “Yet through all its history, despite the rejection and the exile, zero has always defeated those who opposed it. Humanity could never force zero to fit its philosophies. Instead, zero shaped humanity’s view of the universe–and of God” (p 3). My theory is similar but not exactly identical to Seife’s, however. Rather than suggest that our concept of God was shaped by our view of zero, I’m arguing that zero and God could, with a little bit of imagination, occupy the same location in their respective theoretical frameworks.

Ultimately this theory is important only to those people who, like me, struggle with a belief in God. It’s easier for me to think of God as a function or a place than as an omnipotent Being. But I think my theory might be fun for anyone to think about , even those with a strong traditional faith. It turns traditional religious ideas upside down, which, after all, is always fun.

At any rate, I’ve thought about this idea long enough to cause me to change my behavior in a real, and hopfully, a positive way. I’ve actually signed up for a college algebra class at the local community college this coming semester. That in itself is nothing short of a veritable Act of God, which I owe to a belief in the power of zero.

Thanks, Meredith, for encouraging me!

Forest Bathing Can Save Your Soul

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to transform myself from a retired academic to a smallholder. (A “Smallholder” refers to someone who owns or manages an agricultural plot that is smaller than a traditional farm. It is the term the British use; I prefer it to the American term, “hobby farmer,” which has a hollow ring to my ears.) The problem is, I’m essentially a city girl who was born in Brooklyn at the tail end of the Baby Boom, back when it was definitely not cool to be from Brooklyn. My knowledge of rural life is meager, and although I’ve been working on expanding it for the past twenty years, I have more to learn than I have time left to learn it in.

Why should I be invested in this self-transformation? That, in fact, is what I’d like to try to examine in this post. I have always been attracted to the outdoors; one of my earliest memories is of trying to make a fishing pole out of a paper clip and some string and tossing it into the shallow waters of a lake–perhaps it was just a fountain–in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Twenty years ago I opted out of urban living by moving from Houston, Texas, to rural Northern Michigan, a move towards my present state of mind. But several things have compelled me to reinvent myself during the last five years, a curious blend of events that left me forging a new path, and perhaps a new identity as well.

The first step towards my present state of mind occurred six years ago, when I retired from my job as a community college professor. It was an early retirement, but definitely a good time for me to go. Because of falling enrollment, I was able to teach fewer of the courses I really enjoyed, and I knew there were other people who wanted–and needed–the job more than I did. It seemed only right for me to move out of the way and let them have a go. So I did, and fairly quickly I found myself foundering. What was I, if not an English professor? My purpose in life seemed inextricably bound up with my identity as a teacher. With that identity receding quickly into the rear view mirror of life, I felt destabilized and adrift.

The next thing that happened was the election of 2016. Without going into details (you can find many posts on this blog from that period that reveal my state of mind), I’ll just say that I felt as if the entire world was falling to pieces. In the midst of political unrest and sorrow at the state of my country, I struggled to find something solid to hold onto. The world, I told myself at one point, had become a caricature of itself, something like the world of Voltaire’s Candide, a work I’ve never really felt comfortable with. But then I remembered the end of the story. Disappointed with life after all his adventures, dealing with his own sense of loss and languishing in what I’ve begun to call the “Peggy Lee Stage of Life,” Candide asks his teacher what he should do with the time remaining to him. The answer was simple: “Cultivate your garden,” says Master Pangloss. I decided then that this could be good advice, and I too, like Candide, began to work at gardening.

And there was yet another force at work as well. At this time, I was working on a novel that was set in southern England. I was trying hard to make the landscape a large part of the novel, as its effect on the protagonist worked its way into her psyche. To get myself into a frame of mind in which I could describe the trees and fields around my character, I tried to immerse myself in the forests close at hand, here near my home. It worked, to a degree, but gradually something unexpected happened. In the course of trying to drink in the feel and look of the forest in order to write about it and weave it into my story, I found that I had accidentally fallen in love with forests myself.

Within a couple of years, my husband and I found a piece of land for sale relatively close by our house and bought it. We had no plans to farm–we just wanted a change from our life in a small town. We were attracted by the hilltop house overlooking eight cleared acres abutting the winding front road; the hidden treasure, however, was the rich forest that stretched behind it. Old logging trails wound through a tangle of beeches, maples, hemlocks, and ironwood trees. In the first few years, it was quite possible for me to get lost back there. But during the last couple of years I’ve spent many days walking the paths, working on making new ones, and learning the smells, sounds, and general feel of the woods, and I don’t think I could get lost there now.

I have made a discovery. Owning a forest is like owning a cat. You don’t own it at all; rather, it owns you. You’re there merely to take care of it and appreciate it. You develop protective, nurturing feelings for it, while respecting its wildness and independence. Sometimes you watch from a distance, awed by its power and majesty; other times you simply want to gather it in your arms and hold it tight, protecting it from all harm. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have learned to love the trees and the wildlife they shelter with a devotion that I’d once saved for the works of literature I studied from my early adult years. And the things I’ve learned in this time! For example, I know now that the forest can look completely different from one day to the next, much less from one season to the next. In the last few years, I’ve thrown myself into reading books about ecology, about natural science, about biology–things I’ve not studied since I was a high school student. And I’ve learned to appreciate what the forest gives me: wicker baskets full of delicious mushrooms, colorful trillium and Dutchmen’s britches covering the hillsides in spring time, a rare glimpse of a deer’s back as it passes by, and chipmunks growing bolder in my presence.

My transformation is not yet complete. It may never be complete. I still have difficult days when I wonder what my purpose is. Often I feel useless. And, like Candide, I still have those Peggy Lee days, when I wonder if that’s really all there is. But the forest is always there, ready to pull me into its ageless world when I walk through it, no matter the weather, the season, or the time of day. And in the final analysis, while I can trace how I came to love the forest so deeply, I know that this rational exploration doesn’t stop me from counting myself lucky to have discovered such a sweet and pervasive passion so late in life.

University Days–Redux

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

When I was teaching college English courses, my best students, the ones who really paid attention and were hungry for knowledge and ideas, would often come up to me after a class and say something like, “You brought up the French Revolution today while we were talking about William Wordsworth. This morning, in my history class, Professor X also talked about it. And yesterday, in Sociology, Professor Y mentioned it, too. Did you guys get together and coordinate your lectures for this week?”

Of course, the answer was always “no.” Most professors I know barely have time to prepare their own lectures, much less coordinate them along the lines of a master plan for illustrating Western Civilization. It was hard, however, to get the students to believe this; they really thought that since we all brought up the same themes in our classes, often in the same week, we must have done it on purpose. But the truth was simple, and it wasn’t magic or even serendipity. The students were just more aware than they had been before, and allusions that had passed by them unnoticed in earlier days were now noteworthy.

I’ve experienced something of this phenomenon myself in recent days, while reading Colin Tudge’s book The Tree and listening to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies–two books, one on natural science and the other on philosophy, that would seem to have few if any common themes. In this case, the subject both authors touched on was nomenclature and definitions. Previously, I would have never noticed this coincidence, but now I find myself in the same position as my former students, hyper-aware of the fact that even seemingly unrelated subjects can have common themes.

There’s a good reason why I am experiencing what my students did; I am now myself a student, so it makes sense that I’d see things through their eyes. All of which leads me to my main idea for this post: University Redux, or returning to college in later life. It’s an idea that I believe might just improve the lives of many people at this very strange point in our lives.

I happened upon the concept in this way: after five or so years of retirement, I realized that I had lost the sense of my ikigai–my purpose in life. I am not exactly sure how that happened. When I took early retirement at the end of the school year in 2015, I had grand ideas of throwing myself into writing and research projects. But somehow I lost the thread of what I was doing, and even more frightening, why I was doing it. The political climate during the past few years certainly didn’t help matters, either. And so I began to question what it was that I actually had to offer the wide world. I began to realize that the answer was very little indeed.

Terrified at some level, I clutched at the things that made me happy: gardening, pets, reading. But there was no unifying thread between these various pursuits, and I began to feel that I was just a dilettante, perhaps even a hedonist, chasing after little pleasures in life. Hedonism is fine for some people, but I’m more of a stoic myself, and so the cognitive dissonance arising from this lifestyle was difficult for me to handle. And then, after drifting around for three or four years, I discovered a solution.

A little background information first: I have a Ph.D. in English, and my dissertation was on the representation of female insanity in Victorian novels. I’ve published a small number of articles, but as a community college professor, I did not have the kind of academic career that rewarded research. (I should say I tried to throw myself into academic research as a means of finding my ikigai, to no avail. I wrote about that experience here.) As a professor, I taught freshman English, as well as survey courses, at a small, rural community college. Most of my adult life revolved around the academic calendar, which as a retiree ususally left me feeling aimless, even bereft, when my old colleagues returned to campus in the fall, while I stayed at home or headed off on a trip.

A year and a half ago, however, I found my solution, and although I’ve had a few bumps in the road, I am generally satisfied with it. Armed with the knowledge that I was, intellectually at least, most fulfilled when I was a college student, I have simply sent myself back to college. Now, I don’t mean by this that I actually enrolled in a course of study at a university. I did, in fact, think about doing so, but it really made little sense. I don’t need another degree, certainly; besides, I live in an area that is too remote to attend classes. Yet I realized that if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was how to create a course. I also knew how to research. So, I convinced myself that living in the world of ideas, that cultivating the life of the mind, was a worthy pursuit in and of itself, and I gave myself permission to undertake my own course of study. I sent myself back to college without worrying how practical it was. I relied on my own knowledge and ability (Emerson would be proud!), as well as a certain degree of nosiness (“intellectual curiosity” is a nicer term), and I began to use my time in the pursuit of knowledge–knowing, of course, that any knowledge gained would have no value in the “real” world. It wouldn’t pay my rent, or gain me prestige, or produce anything remotely valuable in practical terms.

This last bit was the hardest part. I was raised to believe, as are most people in American society, that one must have practical skills, the proof of which is whether one can gain money by exercising them. If you study literature, you must be a teacher of some kind. If you play music, you must get paying gigs. If you like numbers, then you should consider engineering, accounting, or business. The rise of social media, where everyone is constantly sharing their successes (and academics are often the worst in this respect), makes it even more difficult to slip the bonds of materialism, to escape the all-consuming attention economy. My brainwashing by the economic and social order was very nearly complete: it was, in other words, quite hard for me to give myself permission to do something for the sake of the thing itself, with no ulterior motives. I had to give myself many stern lectures in an effort to recreate the mindset of my twenty-year-old naive self, saying for example that just reading Paradise Lost to know and understand it was enough; I didn’t have to parlay my reading and understanding into an article, a blog, or a work of fiction. (Full disclosure: having just written that, I will point out that I did indeed write a blog about Paradise Lost. You can’t win them all.) One additional but unplanned benefit of this odd program of study is that it fit in quite well with the year of Covid lockdown we’ve all experienced. Since I was already engaged in a purposeless aim, the enforced break in social life really didn’t affect me that much.

What does my course of study look like? Reading, mainly, although I know YouTube has many fine lectures to access. I read books on natural science (trying to fill a large gap produced during my first time at college), as well as history; this year, the topic has been the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. I study foreign languages on Duolingo (German, French, a bit of Spanish) while occasionally trying to read books in those languages. I have participated in a highly enjoyable two-person online reading group of The Iliad and The Odyssey (thanks, Anne!) Thanks to my recent discovery of Karl Popper, I foresee myself studying philosophy, perhaps beginning with Plato and Aristotle. I’ve taken FutureLearn classes on Ancient Rome, Coursera classes on The United States through Foreign Eyes, and several others. I’ve listened and re-listened to various In Our Time podcasts. I have taxed the local library with my requests for books from other network libraries, and I swear some of those books haven’t been checked out in a decade or more. To be honest, I don’t understand a good part of what I read, but this doesn’t bother me as it used to do the first time around. If I’ve learned one thing from serving on the local city council, it’s that you don’t have to understand everything you read, but you do have to read everything you’re given. Sometimes understanding comes much later, long after the book is returned–and that’s okay.

I’m not sure where this intellectual journey will lead, or if it will in fact lead anywhere. But I’m satisfied with it. I think I’ve chanced upon something important, something which society with its various pressures has very nearly strangled in me for the last thirty years: the unimpeded desire for knowledge, the childlike ability to search for answers just because, and the confidence to look for those answers freely, unattached to any hope of gain or prestige. It takes some getting used to, rather like a new diet or exercise program, but I’m pleased with the results at last, and I am enjoying my second dose of college life.

How We Got Here: A Theory

The United States is a mess right now. Beset by a corrupt president and his corporate cronies, plagued by a — um — plague, Americans are experiencing an attack on democracy from within. So just how did we get to this point in history?

I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I’ve come up with a theory. Like many theories, it’s built on a certain amount of critical observation and a large degree of personal experience. Marry those things to each other, and you can often explain even the most puzzling enigmas. Here, then, is my stab at explaining how American society became so divisive that agreement on any political topic has become virtually impossible, leaving a vaccuum so large and so empty that corruption and the will to power can ensure political victory.

I maintain that this ideological binarism in the United States is caused by two things: prejudice (racism has, in many ways, always determined our political reality), and lack of critical thinking skills (how else could so many people fail to see Trump for what he really is and what he really represents?) Both of these problems result from poor education. For example, prejudice certainly exists in all societies, but the job of a proper education in a free society is to eradicate, or at least to combat, prejudice and flawed beliefs. Similarly, critical thinking skills, while amorphous and hard to define, can be acquired through years of education, whether by conducting experiements in chemistry lab or by explicating Shakespeare’s sonnets. It follows, then, that something must be radically wrong with our educational system for close to half of the population of the United States to be fooled into thinking that Donald Trump can actually be good for this country, much less for the world at large.

In short, there has always been a possibility that a monster like Trump would appear on the political scene. Education should have saved us from having to watch him for the last four years, and the last month in particular, as he tried to dismantle our democracy. Yet it didn’t. So the question we have to ask is this: Where does the failure in education lie?

The trendy answer would be that this failure is a feature, not a bug, in American education, which was always designed to mis-educate the population in order to make it more pliable, more willing to follow demogogues such as Trump. But I’m not satisfied with this answer. It’s too easy, and more important, it doesn’t help us get back on track by addressing the failure (if that’s even possible at this point). So I kept searching for an explanation.

I’ve come up with the following premises. First, the divisions in the country are caused by a lack of shared values–this much is clear. For nearly half the American people, Trump is the apotheosis of greedy egotism, a malignant narcissist who is willing to betray, even to destroy, his country in order to get what he wants, so that he can “win” at the system. For the other half, Trump is a breath of fresh air, a non-politician who was willing to stride into the morass of Washington in order to clean it up and set American business back on its feet. These two factions will never be able to agree–not on the subject of Trump, and very likely, not on any other subject of importance to Americans.

It follows that these two views are irreconcilable precisely because they reflect a dichotomy in values. Values are the intrinsic beliefs that an individual holds about what’s right and wrong; when those beliefs are shared by a large enough group, they become an ethical system. Ethics, the shared sense of right and wrong, seems to be important in a society; as we watch ours disintegrate, we can see that without a sense of ethics, society splinters into factions. Other countries teach ethics as a required subject in high school classes; in the United States, however, only philosophy majors in universities ever take classes on ethics. Most Americans, we might once have said, don’t need such classes, since they experience their ethics every day. If that ever was true, it certainly isn’t so any more.

Yet I would argue that Americans used to have an ethical belief system. We certainly didn’t live up to it, and it was flawed in many ways, but it did exist, and that’s very different from having no ethical system at all. It makes sense to postulate that some time back around the turn of the 21st century, ethics began to disappear from society. I’m not saying that people became unethical, but rather that ethics ceased to matter, and as it faded away, it ceased to exist as a kind of social glue that could hold Americans together.

I think I know how this happened, but be warned: my view is pretty far-fetched. Here goes. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, literary theory poached upon the realm of philosophy, resulting in a collection of theories that insisted a literary text could be read in any number of ways, and that no single reading of a text was the authoritative one. This kind of reading and interpretation amounted to an attack on the authority of the writer and the dominant ideology that produced him or her, as it destabilized the way texts were written, read, and understood. I now see that just as the text became destabilized with this new way of reading, so did everything else. In other words, if an English professor could argue that Shakespeare didn’t belong in the literary canon any longer, that all texts are equally valid and valuable (I’ve argued this myself at times), the result is an attack not only on authority (which was the intention), but also on communality, by which I mean society’s shared sense of what it values, whether it’s Hamlet or Gilligan’s Island. This splintering of values was exacerbated by the advent of cable television and internet music sources; no one was watching or listening to the same things any more, and it became increasingly harder to find any shared ideological place to begin discussions. In other words, the flip side of diversity and multiplicity–noble goals in and of themselves–is a dark one, and now, forty years on, we are witnessing the social danger inherent in dismantling not only the canon, but any system of judgment to assess its contents as well.

Here’s a personal illustration. A couple of years ago, I taught a college Shakespeare class, and on a whim I asked my students to help me define characters from Coriolanus using Dungeons and Dragons character alignment patterns. It was the kind of exercise that would have been a smashing success in my earlier teaching career, the very thing that garnered me three teaching awards within five years. But this time it didn’t work. No one was watching the same television shows, reading the same books, or remembering the same historical events, and so there was no way to come up with good examples that worked for the entire class to illustrate character types. I began to see then that a splintered society might be freeing, but at what cost if we had ceased to be able to communicate effectively?

It’s not a huge leap to get from that Shakespeare class to the fragmentation of a political ideology that leaves, in the wreckage it’s produced, the door wide open to oligarchy, kleptocracy, and fascism. There are doubtless many things to blame, but surely one of them is the kind of socially irresponsible literary theory that we played around with back in the 1980s. I distinctly remember one theorist saying something to the effect that no one has ever been shot for being a deconstructionist, and while that may be true, it is not to say that deconstructionist theory, or any kind of theory that regards its work as mere play, is safe for the society it inhabits. Indeed, we may well be witnessing how very dangerous unprincipled theoretical play can turn out to be, even decades after it has held sway.

P is for Parakeet

George and Martha, my current parakeets

I do a lot of reading in my spare time, and I have tons of spare time right now, so it follows that I have been reading a great deal. As I indicated in my last post, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone (Victorian and early 19th century novels and poems) to learn a bit about environmentalism and the natural sciences. One book I recently started to listen to is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a memoir of her attempt to train a hawk as a therapeutic attempt to cope with her father’s death. I have to be honest: there’s a part of me–a part I’m not proud of–that is just a bit critical, perhaps more than a little impatient, with Macdonald’s musings. I began to talk back to the book in that way we do when we’re feeling a little bit snarky. (I assume we all do this–at least, I hope I’m not the only one in the world who talks back to books.) In short, I wondered what my foray into avian behavioral training would like if I deigned to tell my story.

This is my long-winded way of saying that for Helen Macdonald, H may be for Hawk, but in my world P is for Parakeet.

I must have been about six years old when I acquired my first parakeet, a blue-breasted beauty that sat in his cage all morning long, patiently awaiting my return home from school, only to burst into song when I charged through the door of our Brooklyn duplex. His name was Fluffy, short for Fluffernutter Ike, a compilation of the two things I loved most in the world at that age: fluffernutter sandwiches (a noxious peanut butter and marshamallow combination that was guaranteed to make anyone over ten years old gag) and Dwight D.Eisenhower. I liked Ike because he was a war hero and a fine president, but most of all, because his birthday was the day before mine.

At any rate, I had had Fluffy for perhaps a year when he succumbed to a draft in the house, dying on Christmas day. Aside from the all-too-real grief this inspired in a small child, Fluffy’s untimely death presented another problem: what to do with the body. I’m sure my parents suggested disposing of it in the trash can outside, but I was adamant that he deserved a proper burial. I’m not sure who came up with a plan so brilliant it was doomed to fail, but this is how we solved the problem of what to do with the dead parakeet. Amid the Christmas debris of opened presents, strewn wrapping paper, and red-and-green ribbons was a gaily striped gift box, perfectly sized for Fluffy’s small, inert corpse, and into that he went. Even I realized that it was too gross to keep the box in the house, so we agreed that it seemed best to put the box with Fluffy inside it into the metal milkbox that sat outside, just below the kitchen window. Into that milkbox went Fluffy’s casket to await a proper burial, hopefully within the next few days, when the Brooklyn ground thawed.

It’s pretty obvious by now where this story is going, so I’ll be brief. Our milkman must have been of English descent, because he took Fluffy off with him, undoubtedly thinking that since it was Boxing Day, we had provided him with a nice little gift. It was a gift redolent of the meal that Bette Davis serves Joan Crawford in the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? When I came inside that afternoon, after playing outside with my new Christmas toys, with the news that Fluffy’s casket had mysteriously disappeared, my parents were aghast. I’m not sure what they did in response: perhaps they actually went out and got the milkman a proper present. I’d like to think that they did. All I know is that by the following afternoon, the box–with Fluffy still nestled peacefully within it–had been discreetly returned to the milkbox.

Perhaps I was inconsolable at the loss of Fluffy, because I got another parakeet fairly quickly after his demise. This parakeet was named Dinky, and he was present at the break-up of my family, a spectacular and somewhat tragic event in which my parents had one last dramatic and prolonged argument that ended with my mother taking the three of us children and our beagle Honeybee to Texas with her. In the chaos preceding our departure, my mother forgot about Dinky, but I must have protested loudly, because she supplied me with a shoebox and a Schrafft’s bag and told me to put Dinky in there for the duration of the airplane flight. This was, of course, long before security checks and TSA, and it was relatively easy to sneak things onto a flight, and Dinky, secure in his well-ventilated cardboard box at the bottom of the paper shopping bag, got on board without a hitch. I sat, somewhat shellshocked by the knowledge that things would never go back to normal for my family, clutching the Schrafft’s bag on my lap as the plane taxied onto the runway and took off. Once we leveled off, however, the stewardess (it was a stewardess in those days, not a flight attendant), came by, glanced at the bag that I was clenching, and took it from me, saying, “You don’t have to carry this on your lap for the whole flight, dearie. I’ll put it up above you.” I watched, tongue-tied with horror, as she took my bag, turned it upside down, and jammed it into the overhead bin. Fearing that I would get in trouble for sneaking my beloved bird aboard, I said nothing even though I was convinced that the jolting had killed him. I simply sat there in my aisle seat, blinking back my tears, the picture of nine-year-old stoicism.

But something surprising happened about midway through the three-hour flight. Dinky, far from being dead, perked up and started chirping–quite loudly. In fact, his song got louder and and louder until everyone on that plane, it seemed, heard it. It was an insistent chirp–thankfully not a screech–and it crescendoed until it was the only sound I could hear. I’m not sure what my mother was thinking, as she was in the row behind me; goodness knows she had enough to deal with. “Do something,” said my sister, who was next to me; however, I had no idea what to do. It turned out that I didn’t need to do anything, because just then the stewardess walked up to my seat. I squeezed my eyes shut, certain that I was about to get in big trouble. There was a pause, and then, leaning over me, she patted me on my shoulder and handed me the Schrafft’s bag, with Dinky still singing inside. “Here,” she said. “I think you need to keep this with you, after all.” I hope that stewardess understood what a difference she made to a young girl who had a lot on her plate that day.

Fluffy and Dinky have been followed by several other parakeets. Most recently, I’ve fallen into the trap of multiple bird ownership. Having found out that parakeets do well in pairs–at least mine do–I keep two together, thinking they provide companionship for each other, and always intending that this pair is the last pair I’ll own. But somehow I can never extricate myself from parakeet ownership. People have actually given me parakeets that they no longer want, and, like a sap, I accept them and take care of them. I suppose, in a way, taking care of parakeets is one of my functions in life.

And while I like parakeets a lot, I can’t say that I feel anything like the veneration and awe for them that Macdonald feels for hawks. But there’s a bright side to that–my peroration on parakeets is a hell of a lot shorter than hers on hawks is and, I hope, a bit less pretentious as well.