Archive for the ‘cultural influences’ Category


It’s Mirthday Sillybration Day! Remember The Wisdom Of Beaver Cleaver’s Father, Ward, Who Said, “You’re Never Too Old To Do Goofy Stuff!”

April 16, 2011

Find something to laugh about. • Maya Angelou

I have long believed that this country needs a day to celebrate joy, silliness, delight, happiness, laughter, and other associated positivities. I am not a Pollyanna since I am prone to my own discouragements, but I do believe that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the negative. Thus I declare that April 16 (guess why!) is Mirthday Sillybration Day.

On with the dance, let joy be unconfined is my motto, whether there’s any dance to dance or any joy to be unconfined. • Mark Twain

Clearly, a Mirthday Sillybration requires no cards to purchase or gifts or decorations or special foods. There is no associated stress and zero expectations. You don’t have to invite company over unless it makes you happy and you don’t feel you need to clean up the house first and/or fix a fancy meal (unless, of course, these are things you enjoy). There’s nothing you have to do except take an hour or two or more to relax or have a good time or reconnect with someone or do something that brings you delight. In the spirit of non-stressful Sillybrating, you can even postpone it if it’s not convenient today and you truly must keep your nose firmly attached to a grindstone.

We should all do what in the long run gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. • E.B. White

If you’re wondering about what you might do, here’s some advice from that master of silliness, Shel Silverstein:

Draw a crazy picture

Write a nutty poem

Sing a mumble-gumble song

Whistle through your comb.

Do a loony-goony dance ‘cross the kitchen floor

Put something silly in the world

That ain’t been there before.

Some time ago, I wrote the following from the Berkeley Health Letter in my journal: “One of the keys to reducing stress isn’t just removing negative experiences from your life, but adding positive ones.” I hope you’ll add something positive to your life today!

Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans; it is lovely to be silly at the right moment. • Horace

Have some fun today! Sillybrate a Mirthday.

Cultivate more joy by arranging your life so that more joy will be likely. * George Witkin




Some Books Are To Be Tasted, Others To Be Swallowed, And Some Few To Be Chewed And Digested,* And Some Books Just Slide Right Down The Gullet, Lubricated By Silliness And Seasoned With Absurdity

July 7, 2010

The covers of this book are too far apart. • Ambrose Bierce

I’ve confessed many times to reading middle-of-the-night books that few academics would brag about, but as a teacher who’s concerned with literacy issues, I feel compelled to reveal my bookish secrets. I read lots of stuff just for fun and I read lots of books and articles that most people would have little interest in. I reference the serious ones in other venues, since they represent the kind of reading that only the interested would be interested in. I love this intellectual stuff too, but I don’t feel compelled to impress you with my erudition. If it isn’t enough that I use the word erudition correctly in a sentence, clearly you are people who will never be pleased, so I might as well not worry about it.

There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it. • Bertrand Russell

When I write about books here, I hope to remind people that reading can be fun. That isn’t always the message students get in school where reading can be boring and tedious and can require intense concentration in order to take away requisite knowledge. This is a skill students need—the ability to persist even when the reading is less than entrancing—but they also need to learn how amusing books can be.

Every night, I have to read a book, so that my mind will stop thinking about things that I stress about. • Britney Spears

I wear a quiet hat in class to get students’ attention. It’s a horned plastic helmet and I’ve just discovered that Vikings never wore such headgear. This piece of historical myth-information is debunked by Michael Powell’s (2010, New York: Fall River Press) Lies You Learned at School. Page 18 reveals that “the Viking fighting style actually precluded their [horned helmets’] use.” I unlearned much more—you’ll have to buy the book.

I was reading a book…’the history of glue’ – I couldn’t put it down. • Tim Vine

How could anyone who collects old sex books pass up The Best of Sexology: The Illustrated Magazine of Sex Science? This book, edited by Craig Yoe promises on its cover that readers will be treated to “kinky and kooky excerpts from America’s first sex magazine.” I am hooked before I open it and can only hope that there will be breast stuff within. And there is, a whole article devoted to “Polymastia. . .Multiple Breasts” by Sara R. Riedman, Ph.D. I also find a picture of a spiked blouse designed to protect women from contact with those who might wish to cop a feel. What treats!

A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul. • Aldous Huxley

I’m a sucker for first sentences that grab my attention, so I love this one from Daniel Waters (2008, New York: Hyperion), Generation Dead. “Phoebe and her friends held their breath as the dead girl in the plaid skirt walked past their table in the lunchroom” (p. 1). This tale chronicles the story of “living impaired or “differently biotic” teens who won’t stay dead and who just want to fit in. I’ll use this for reading aloud at the start of class.

There is a great deal of difference between an eager man [or women] who wants to read a book and a tired man [or woman] who wants a book to read. • G.K. Chesterton

Twisted: Tales from the Wacky Side of Life is the kind of you-had-me-at-hello title that always appeals to me. This 2006 (New York: MJF Books) book from Bob Fenster is packed with strange quotations, facts, anecdotes and other odd stuff I hadn’t seen before. For example, I learn on page 178 that First Lady Patricia Nixon “was named Macaroni Woman of the Year by the American Macaroni Institute” and was even “sculpted in pasta.” I drift off into thought for a moment thinking about this. The only pasta art I’m familiar with is macaroni necklaces. Do pasta sculptors use cooked or dry noodles?

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage. • Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, Pensées Diverses

“My first conscious recognition of being abducted [by aliens] was in 1988” (p. 106). This is the opening sentence from one of the chapters in How It Feels to Be Attacked by a Shark and Other Amazing Life-or-Death Situations!, a book of real-life stories edited by Michelle Hamer (2007, New York: MJF Books). If you’ve ever wondered how it feels to choke to death on a cheeseburger, to be shot in the heart with a nail gun, to win the lottery, to be caught in a cyclone, or to have quintuplets, this is the book for you.

So there they are, a few of my recent summer purchases, books that will entertain me and my students, books I claim proudly as my own, knowing that my choices will impress no one.

There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work; and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs. • Henry Ward Beecher

What kind of summer reading do you secretly—or openly–enjoy?

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. • P.J. O’Rourke

* Thanks to Frances Bacon for the quotation at the beginning of the title.


K.I.S.S. Is Definitely Not My Life

July 2, 2010

Life is extremely complicated. • Robert Ludlum

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. • Confucius

“Keep It Simple, Stupid,” is probably good advice, but I’m not capable of taking or giving it. I revel in complification. Here at The House of Stuff there is lots of. . . . . stuff.

I don’t make things complicated; that’s the way they get all by themselves. • Mel Gibson

Despite my love of complification, I am sometimes amused by the simplification advice provided by purveyors of the simple life. Today I caught a bit of Next Door with Katie Brown on the Lifetime/Real Women channel while I was eating breakfast. Katie’s website slogan is “Keep It Simple,” and I watched with wonder as she made a rose syrup with six cups of sugar cubes (you can substitute 4¼ cups of regular sugar for the 6 cups of cubes and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t) and twenty organic roses in full bloom (storebought roses are poisonous, we are told), pulled apart petal by petal. I’m pretty sure she said something about leftover roses or roses you aren’t sure what to do with, but I admit that I tuned in late and was not paying full attention at first.

The roses and sugar are mixed with water and heated on the stove for an hour, but you’re not done yet. There’s more cooking and there’s sterilizing Mason jars in boiling water. And then there’s filling jars with a mixture hot enough to melt a regular funnel, so don’t use one.

The resulting syrup should stay fresh for at least a month and you shouldn’t refrigerate it because the sugar will crystallize. The recipe makes six jars which I am pretty sure would be a lifetime supply for me and most of my relatives. Some of you are probably wondering why I wouldn’t make this delicious treat, but complicated as I love to be, this is too much effort for too little return. I’d rather be hunting for quotations or arranging robots.

I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when looked at in the right way, did not become still more complicated. • Poul Anderson

Most of my complification is actually connection. I seldom see something without being reminded of something else. This connectivity makes life exciting. I never know what I’ll find and I love integrating my findings into my intellectual and physical life.

Everything is complicated; if that were not so, life and poetry and everything else would be a bore. • Wallace Stevens

There’s a Charles Shultz Peanuts’ character, Pig-Pen, who perpetually has a cloud of dust and dirt around his head. I live surrounded by a cloud of stuff. I just wish I had more time to sift and sort and recombine and imagine and create new possibilities. Time is my challenge, as is the lack of a huge warehouse filled with shelves and bookcases where I could store everything so that it’s always visible.

There’s no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another. • E.B. White

I understand the ease of clean surfaces and unfilled spaces and bare walls and sparsely-filled shelves. But simplicity has never appealed to me, unless of course, I’m choosing not to make rose petal syrup.

I’m not one of those complicated, mixed-up cats. I’m not looking for the secret to life. . .I just go on from day to day, taking what comes. • Frank Sinatra

How about you? Do you aspire to simplification or complification?

I never go straight to the point if I can go the most difficult way. Why be simple when you can be complicated? • Kristin Scott Thomas


Shelf Analysis From The Land Of W-OZ: Using Scraps And Patches To Create The Bitpiece Life

June 6, 2010

When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before. • Clifton Fadiman

I am a bricoleur, a patchworker. I do not make quilts from fabric, but I do piece together many kinds of things whether I am creating a home, a classroom, a piece of art, a poem, or an outfit. I am expert at making something from nothing and I am also adept at connecting the disparate and creating a cohesive whole.

In most lives insight has been accidental. We wait for it as primitive man awaited lightning for a fire. But making mental connections is our most crucial learning tool, to see patterns, relationship, context. • Marilyn Ferguson

The naturalist John Muir said that when we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world. Thus it is with life. In the act of exploring one thing I often find it attached to another, and another, and another, and have seen in my own life the unexpected connections Mary Catherine Bateson (2002) describes in Full Circles, Overlapping Lives, when she says that “[e]veryone has the chance to discover the patterns that order multiple ways of being human: through the arts, through the media, through conversations with the neighbors” (p. 18).

Learning and living. But they really are the same thing aren’t they? There is no experience from which you can’t learn something. • Eleanor Roosevelt

The metaphor of quilting provides me with an organizing construct for my life and it was with great delight that I realized the significance of my favorite Oz book, The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913). My Aunt Mildred had a complete set of Oz books and I read each one many times, but my favorite character in L. Frank Baum’s collection is Scraps, the Patchwork Girl of Oz. She is a self-proclaimed original who has been accidentally given too many brains and too much cleverness.

What we remember from childhood we remember forever—permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen. • Cynthia Ozick

The Patchwork Girl’s story doesn’t really matter. Her adventures haven’t stuck with me. But her character has. She is what I long to be, heedless of the opinions of others and secure in her own idiosyncratic ways. She is delighted with her self. I do not want to emulate her carelessness, but as a child, I admired her self-assurance. I still do. It is not easy to revel in who you are.

Arrange whatever pieces come your way. • Virginia Woolf

In a letter to his publisher in November of 1912, Baum discusses the process of creating his fantasies, saying, “A lot of thought is required on one of these fairy tales. The odd characters are a sort of inspiration, liable to strike me at any time, but the plot and plan of adventures takes me considerable time…I live with it day by day, jotting down on odd slips of paper the various ideas that occur and in this way getting my materials together. The new Oz book [The Patchwork Girl of Oz] is at this stage….But…it’s a long way from being ready for the printer yet. I must rewrite it, stringing the incidents into consecutive order, elaborating the characters, etc.”

Baum was a bricoleur too. Many artists are. Many people are. Researchers certainly are.

Human life itself may be almost pure chaos, but the work of the artist is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate things and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning. • Katherine Anne Porter

Indulge in a bit of shelf analysis. What stories or characters from childhood are significant for you? Why?

The stories of childhood leave an indelible impression, and their author always has a niche in the temple of memory from which the image is never cast out to be thrown on the rubbish heap of things that are outgrown and outlived. • Howard Pyle


I Never Go Anywhere Without A Book Or Two Or Three Or Four Or More

May 31, 2010

A book is like a garden carried in a pocket. • Chinese proverb

Many persons read and like fiction.  It does not tax the intelligence and the intelligence of most of us can so ill afford taxation that we rightly welcome any reading matter which avoids this. • Rose Macaulay 
(Or perhaps, Rose, some of us are taxing our intelligence so much that we need to levy some amusement.)

Warning: Touching story of self-sacrifice opens this post. Our son, who just recently bought an iPad, loaned my husband and I this delight for our train trip. What can you say about a son like that? Of course, we already knew he was wonderful, but this confirmed that he’s thoughtful too. I’ve already played with it enough to know that I want one. Unfortunately, only one of us at a time can use it to read the books available on it. We’re schlepping paperbooks aboard too.

I am tired. Our cross-country voyage begins today and ends on Thursday. Of course, I’ll be reading. I’ll be reading my summer syllabi and making sure I have the schedules planned for my classes. I’ll be reading my conference presentation materials and making sure I know what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. I’ll be reading some of the things I haven’t had a chance to work on yet and writing reports to finish up the quarter. I’ll be reading for inspiration so I can write along the way.

I won’t be reading papers. I finished that yesterday. All I have left is final essays and they’re not due until later this week.

The author Gilbert Keith (usually known as G.K., even by those who weren’t his pals) said that there is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read.  Ditto for women.

I’ll also be reading junk. Stuff that’s the mental equivalent of cotton candy. It will taste good going in, but if I take the 300 pages or so and compress the wisdom, there won’t be much left. And that’s okay. So much of your life if you’re a teacher or student is consumed by reading the haftas. For me, many of the haftas are pleasurable, but sometimes, my brain needs a break. I’m looking forward to reading something that won’t stimulate a thousand thoughts. Two or three are all I want to deal with.

When my husband and I travel with books, we choose ones that we both want to read and when we finish with them, we leave them along the way for others to find and enjoy. A Post-It® gift message keeps our leavings out of the lost and found. This sprinkling the country with books is also one of the reasons I don’t travel with my favorites or with the non-fiction that is my particular addiction. I don’t want to have to carry it across the country and back.

I hope that required reading hasn’t dampened your enthusiasm for the joys of relaxing with an entertaining book. If you don’t usually read for fun, give it a try. Visit a bookstore and look in places you wouldn’t usually check for reading. Look for titles that are enticing. Summer is coming. Read.

If you’re going to read purely for fun, what kind(s) of reading do you choose? (Note: In an extremely informal survey of English teachers, many of them like books featuring serial killers, real and imaginary. It’s up to you to decide what this might mean.)

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage. • Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, Pensées Diverses


The Worst Form Of Inequality Is To Try To Make Unequal Things Equal. • Aristotle

May 20, 2010

All this talk about equality. The only thing that people really have in common is that they are all going to die. • Bob Dylan

Yse, I know you already saw the title quotation in yesterday’s post, but it’s important enough to use twice.

I do not like the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I like the part about having others do unto me as I would like to have them do, but I’m pretty sure that they would also like to have me do unto them as they would like to have done, not as I would like to have done unto me. This is where the whole thing gets sticky and unworkable and this is where the unequal stuff enters into the picture too.

When you’re a teacher of teachers, you hear a lot about treating students fairly, and for some folks, this translates into equal treatment: “Of course, I never take late work.” “No tardies. No excuses. That’s my policy and I think it’s fair because it allows me to treat everyone the same way.” “Everyone has to [do whatever] in the very same way. That’s fair.” These are quotations from papers my students have handed in to me related to their classroom management plans.

The equality they speak of is a social and cultural construct as well, but it’s not one that works very well in practice most of the time.

Imagine that I have a classroom tree with golden apples growing on it and that the standardization and accountability folks have determined that all my students must get a golden apple as proof of my excellent tree-climbing teaching. Then imagine that I have a diverse student population of snakes and dogs and elephants. Please bear with me. I know that this is a somewhat lame imagining, but still, you’ll get the point.

The snakes can slither up the tree quite speedily, but they cannot grab an apple and bring it down. They don’t like apples anyway and slither off in search of something else to eat. The dogs have better luck. They jump for the low-hanging fruit, grab it, and proudly lay their apples at my feet (okay—this is a fantasy, but you get the picture), but they would rather have been barking up a Milkbone® tree. The elephants are impatient with the whole thing. They pull the trees up by their roots.

The platinum rule asks that we treat others as they would like to be treated. I don’t know the origin of this rule, although it’s been around in educational circles for a while. The platinum rule requires that you get to know other people. The golden rule only requires you to know yourself.

Is there a time when you were treated fairly, but it wasn’t fair at all? Take this opportunity to rant.

The doctrine of equality! There exists no more poisonous poison; for it seems to be preached by justice itself, while it is the end of justice. • Friedrich Nietsczhe


I’d Rather Read Than Get Stuck In The Eye With A Pin. I’d Rather Read Than Sit On Top Of A Volcano Bubbling With Lava. I’d Rather Read Than Babysit My Little Brother. I’d Rather Read Than Eat Fried Liver. I’d Rather Read Than Smear Myself With Blackberry Jam And Sit On An Anthill.

May 15, 2010

People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.
• Logan Pearsall Smith

It always surprises me that so many people don’t like to read. Reading has been an escape and an ongoing comfort to me just about my entire life. Yet as many of my students have told me, reading is less than pleasurable for them. They struggle with making meaning from letters on the page, and their struggle saps the joy from the process. The “I’d Rather Read Than” question I used to ask was a twist on another question that helped me get to know them better: “I would rather _________ than read.” I’ve saved many of their creative answers to both.

Part of the problem for older students is that most of the reading they’ve been asked to do in school is dull. When you’re small, it’s repetitive too, designed to help you learn to read, but still dull and often boring. Hooking students on reading requires that they encounter words that are fun, playful, interesting, and meaningful, yet as students get older, the books often get even duller to the as-yet-undeveloped literary palate of adolescents.

I had a colleague in the English department when I was teaching high school who had a bulletin board that said “Read the Good Books First.” It was filled with covers of Great Books. If you were in her class, you could not choose your freetime reading. You had to choose from an approved list designed to improve cultural literacy and uplift the mind. There’s nothing wrong with these goals, but they don’t necessarily encourage a love of reading.

Junk food for the brain is what she called most of the books in my classroom where I had a huge library of paperback romances, mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and other books she called useless and pointless and a waste of time. (I had sets of discarded encyclopedias too—you’d be surprised how many students liked to sit and browse through them.)

The poet Walt Whitman probably would have agreed with her. He decried the burgeoning of mass-produced reading in an article in the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1857, writing, “Who will underrate the influence of loose popular literature in debauching the popular mind?” Mea culpa. I have corrupted many readers, leading them astray into the fields of interesting reading, hoping that something they encounter there will inspire a habit that will become a lifelong joy.

What do you like to read? What do you wish you liked to read? If you were answering the question, “ I would rather read than_____________,” what would you say?

You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad.
• Gertrude Stein