Books by my bedside 2017/09/14

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books-2017-08-2x-1-e1503620159745.jpg

Non-Fiction

History, Politics & Social Science

Anti-Education by Nietzsche, Friedrich

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Gracián, Baltasar

Churchill & Orwell: The fight for freedom by Ricks, Thomas E.

College Disrupted:The great unbundling of higher education by Craig , Ryan

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Goodman, Matthew

Grand Hotel Abyss: The lives of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries, Stuart

Margaret Fuller: Bluestocking, romantic, revolutionary by Wilson, Ellen

Walden by Thoreau, Henry D.

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur Spanish I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics by Schmidt, Stanley F.

 Books Math Life of Fred Prealgebra

Fiction

Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen

Edge of Evil by Jance, J.A.

Finding Her Way (YA title) by Faigen, Anne

M.C. Higgins the Great by (YA title) by Hamilton, Virginia

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland (YA title) by Rebekah Crane*

Reading Notes:

I’ve been reading a fair amount for two disparate reasons. Continue reading

Welcome back to school; I miss you while you’re there!

I dislike sending my little guy back to school on the day after Labor Day. In direct contradiction to the nonsense spouted in television commercials, not all parents cheer to have their kids out of the house.

If I were selfish, I would educate both of my children at home, to suit my personality and my interests. I send the younger one to school instead because it suits his.

I miss our long, quiet summer mornings. There’s time for us, then, to sit down together over breakfast. I miss saying yes to late night stargazing and other adventures because there’s no need to worry about a busy schedule.

I miss DS2‘s good company around the house during the day. He’s blessed with great wit and a loving temperament. He’s generous with his hugs.

I am excited to begin the new school session with DS1 here at home. He studies year ’round, but our schedule changes to a different pattern every September, December, January, and June. This choice is energizing, and keeps subjects feeling fresh.

DS1 is a pleasure to keep at home with me. We’re both fairly introverted, so we often work quietly, side by side. Quietly, that is, until one of us gets excited about a project or idea. Continue reading

Books by my bedside 2017/08/12

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts by Hammer, Joshua

White Trash : the 400-year untold history of class in America by Isenberg, Nancy

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Kidneys by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Liver by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Mineshaft by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Fractions by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Decimals and Percents by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Memoir

Casting Lots : creating a family in a beautiful, broken world by Silverman, Susan

Fiction

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Backman, Fredrik

Books 2017.08.12 fiction - 1

Reading Notes:

I haven’t been feeling very well for a week or so (not interesting to talk about), but one happy consequence of spending hours on the couch is that I’ve had more time for casual reading.

US History of White Trash

After two weeks of grumpy interactions with Isenberg’s White Trash, I let it go when my digital library loan expired and I don’t intend to finish it. There’s some interesting history here, but I found myself annoyed by what felt like intentional misunderstandings by the author more often than I gained insight into America’s past.

Typical example: stating that Thomas Jefferson was failing to enact political change while describing an episode of gradual political change. I think the author meant that Jefferson should have done more, and more quickly, but I quickly tired of watching the author grind her axe.

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Now here’s a book I couldn’t return to the library before completion.

To me, Timbuktu means “the ends of the Earth.” Timbuktu is synonymous with exotic foreign locales. Timbuktu is a place I knew by name before this book but with little understanding of its unique place in the history of learning and culture.

Bad-ass Librarians was written by a journalist, and it sometimes reads like a series of articles glued together to make a book. It’s worth reading anyway.

The provocative title aside, this is the story of ordinary (and extraordinary) people in Mali fighting back against a jihadist invasion of the region around Timbuktu. This book celebrates the thinking person’s ability to triumph over willful ignorance and wanton violence.

Here’s a rare celebration of centuries of African scholarship as glimpsed by the West. The threat to its tangible artifacts—a treasure trove of rare, priceless manuscripts—by Islamist extremists made my heart pound. I’m left with a yearning to see some of these documents for myself, and a renewed interest in learning some Arabic.

I can think of no better way for me, personally, to express my wish for peace in this world than through the cross-cultural sharing of books.

Adoption & Jewish motherhood in Casting Lots

Casting Lots came to me by way of a philanthropical organization that sends free books to Jewish families. Usually, it’s the kids who get the loot, but this month, there was a gift for me.

I am familiar with comedienne Sarah Silverman. I was intrigued to read that the author—her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman—is considered “the funny sister.” There’s certainly a family resemblance, including some of the crude punchlines that I most associate with Sarah.

In spite of that (because I get why potty humor is funny, but it’s not my first choice for entertainment), I enjoyed most of the time I spent with Casting Lots. It is, at its core, an engaging personal story. Silverman would be someone interesting to have a cup of coffee with.

The subject of international adoption is one I’ve considered for myself and observed through friends and family, and it is genuinely moving to follow her along this path to parenthood.

Her take on Judaism in general resonates less with me, and I see this story as a readable tale that happens to be written by a Jewish woman, not a Jewish parenting book, per se.

Mathematics textbooks, specifically, the Life of Fred

I wrote about this the other day, but I’m brushing up on my pre-algebra terms and presentation in preparation for working with the child* of a friend as a math tutor.

Life of Fred is a nontraditional approach to teaching math. Author Stanley F. Schmidt, PhD, presents the subject from elementary arithmetic up through college level courses in Linear Algebra and Real Analysis, all told through the lens of a 5 ½ year old professor named Fred at fictional KITTENS University.

Yeah, most of it really is as wacky as it sounds.

And yet: my younger son has read many of these books for fun, and more than once. He’s begging me to buy the Life of Fred: Calculus textbook so he can finally learn Fred’s origin story.

I’m in no rush to get my elementary schooler into calculus, but I’m impressed by a math book that promotes such a devoted following in a child who regularly declares himself averse to “being taught” anything.

We’ve had the elementary and intermediate arithmetic series for years, but I’ve just ordered the three volume pre-algebra series (Pre-Algebra 0 with PhysicsPre-Algebra 1 with Biology, and Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics) and Life of Fred: Beginning Algebra Expanded Edition.

I can’t speak to using this collection as a stand-alone mathematics curriculum, because that isn’t how I chose to use these books with my home educated child.

I do think that the method employed—every math problem to be solved is presented in the context of a character’s real life and search for solutions—might be exactly the right remediation for a child who has internalized the notion that learning math means memorizing occult procedures.

I spent the better part of two days perusing all of my current mathematics texts, then more hours compiling lists and ordering next year’s curricula in this and other subjects for DS1 and The Scholar.

The math curriculum I did use extensively with DS1 is also pictured above. (Beast Academy, by Art of Problem Solving.) Because I’m so familiar with them, I only picked out chapters and exercises for The Scholar to begin with; I didn’t read extensively from any of these. I mention them now because I can wholeheartedly recommend BA as a complete home school curriculum. They are also suitable as enrichment for a weak classroom program, or a student who needs a challenge.

*I’ve dubbed her The Scholar

Poring over pre-algebra textbooks to appease my non-math anxiety

I read six math textbooks yesterday from cover to cover, and I perused at least half a dozen more.

Math books textbook Laundry

Observe that the clean laundry was folded onto one of the stacks of textbooks, because it had to be done, but there was no energy left to move any of these objects elsewhere around the house

Why would I do such a thing? It’s because I’m feeling unprepared for pre-algebra. That’s making me anxious.

Wait, what?!?

I’ve said it before, but I’ve also learned that I must repeat it: I’m a lady who is good at math.

And, I’m going on about that again because I’m undertaking something new.  My current anxiety hinges on my ability to impart my knowledge of, and suitable appreciation for, the application of math… to someone else’s child.

A friend and her daughter are going to learn at home this year, like DS1 and I (and millions of other American kids) do. In addition to offering general advice, and pointing my friend toward excellent textbooks and home school collaboratives, I’ve agreed to help the girl by teaching Pre-Algebra.

As usual, when my friend floated this idea a year ago, I enthusiastically agreed. I offered encouragement, pointed out the pitfalls of which I’m aware, and sent her a steady stream of supporting research for whatever it was we talked about while all of this was theoretical.

It’s pretty fair to call me an enthusiast. In what area of interest? Well, whatever might be my fascination of the moment. I’m a serial enthusiast, and my intellectual appetite often exceeds my physical stamina.

Also, I work a project until I’m thoroughly exhausted; then I walk away* depleted. And I do walk away. It’s common for me to return to areas of interest after these desertions, but I don’t take them all up again.

My interest in a subject rarely subsides, but my activity in that given area rarely draws a shallow curve or a sensible straight line of steady progress. Jagged peaks and desolate valleys do a better job of depicting my levels of effort over time.

You can see it on my blog. I’ve considered composing posts and spacing them out on a sensible schedule of distributed areas of interest, but… I don’t really want to. Because, when I’m obsessed with camping equipment, or studying German, or maximizing minivan efficiency for a road trip, or the vital importance of true mastery of algebraic concepts, that is what I want to talk about, almost exclusively

until the next month, when I move on to the next thing. It’s fair to describe me as somewhat obsessive. I also accept the label of dilettante.

Which brings me back around to what I’ve done. I’ve hitched a young lady’s wagon to my erratic star, and it’s making me nervous.

I’m not a math teacher. I’m only marginally reliable. What have I done?

And yet…

…my young friend, whom I’ll call The Scholar, is exhibiting patterns I expected from the story I heard about her school experience. I gave her a series of pre- and post-tests from my various textbooks, and here’s what I uncovered:

  • She sees a novel problem, and she’s inclined to shut down. She sees each one as an opportunity to be judged a failure, not a chance to learn a new way to answer her own questions in the future.
  • She was given rules to memorize for calculating answers, but no explanation for why such rules work (or has no recollection of the explanations.) Math is a set of magical black boxes she’s supposed to carry around forever, weighing her down instead of providing tools she can use to accomplish much more with less effort.
  • She asks me if her answer is “bad.” She means, “incorrect,” but her feelings are out of alignment with the scale of the mistake.

When The Scholar asked if her math was “bad,” I pointed out that she wasn’t spitting on babies and kicking puppies. Making a mistake means she didn’t know what to do, or she didn’t do it right all the way to the logical conclusion. Incorrect? Yes. In pre-algebra, we are actively seeking convergent answers! But this is not a moral failing.

Life is full of emotionally fraught situations that put us through a wringer. Math isn’t one of them. Either we know how to proceed, or we learn—or look up—what to do. This should actually be a carefree process in the realm of feelings. This is purely intellectual.

The bad feelings here are a result of prior training. I think this is what happens when math is taught by someone with a phobia who doesn’t love, or at least appreciate, the subject.

So I’m not a math teacher, but I’m going to take a swing at this. Based upon the evidence I’ve gathered from my sheaf of pre-tests, my influence is likely improve the situation. It’s possible that it already has.

You see, one instruction I’d given The Scholar was to please indicate near each test section any strong reactions provoked by the content. A lot of those she recorded were negative. But a few problems were annotated, “fun!” That’s heartening to see, and it surprised her mom.

It’s been a long time since The Scholar enjoyed any element of her math education. We’re definitely going to include some of these “fun” puzzles in her upcoming assignments. All computational skills practice will benefit her. Puzzles and well-designed apps can offer her skills practice with less pain.

I could go on at even greater length about the positive qualities of the math curricula I’ve been perusing. As you can see from my photos, we own more than one set of elementary texts. I couldn’t even lay hands upon DS1‘s pre-algebra book (publisher Art of Problem Solving‘s Prealgebra) for my photo shoot. He and his grandfather were still busy with it and couldn’t be bothered to give it up on my (frivolous) account.

Math books textbook Life of Fred

Life of Fred

For a child who’s learned to hate math, I can’t recommend strongly enough a perusal of Life of Fred (Stanley Schmidt’s utterly unconventional collection) and/or the comic-book formatted Beast Academy series (another contribution from Art of Problem Solving.)

Math books textbook BA

Beast Academy

It doesn’t matter if the stated age range is “beneath you.” These books are fun to read, and I’d guess even most educated adults would learn something new about a subject they consider mastered by spending time with them. I did.

Upon reflection, I’m really grateful that my latest project will give me another turn through the workaday skills of pre-algebraic math, and in the company of a bright and unconventional kid like The Scholar.

I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.

 

*Perhaps sometimes better described as: I fall down and lie at rest and let the subject move away on its own.

Inspired by Math with Bad Drawings: “I’m not going to tell you what to call your cat’s mustache.”

Usually, I’m admiring Ben Orlin’s mathematics-oriented comic sketches for making his point-of-the-moment. Today, however, I was so tickled by a phrase therein (a quote from his wife) that I am re-blogging just to continue poking around in my fascination with these few words.

It’s right at the top of his post, and you needn’t follow any of the math to appreciate the sentence with which I’m enamored.* My interest is in the words and the absurd.

Math. Cats.

via A Mathematician Looks at a Cat — Math with Bad Drawings

Now, for the bit I love:

[Ben Orlin’s] WIFE: … I’m not going to tell you what to call your cat’s mustache.

I love this sentence: the absurdity of a cat’s mustache; the interplay between husband and wife when an argument can’t—or needn’t—be won. It’s perfect.

And all of it came nestled in the excelsior of math humor—a fascinating subject, frequently misunderstood, most especially by those who could benefit the most from plumbing its depths.

Excelsior - 1I’m in my weirdest, wordiest, quantitatively nerdiest happy place with this one.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to start repeating this to my family at moments they will find annoying. Previously, they had to suffer primarily through Christopher Durang quotes from The Nature & Purpose of the Universe.

If you’re curious, read more about this one act play on the playwright’s site. It is decidedly dark and wouldn’t be palatable to all audiences.

If someone refers to me as “she,” I quote the play and quip, “She is the cat’s mother. I am the Pope!”

Now, I can follow up with: “I’m not going to tell you what to call your cat’s mustache!”

Perhaps I only spout absurdist quotes about cats. Then again, cats might represent the ultimate expression of the absurd.

What is “the nature and purpose of the Universe,” really?

I think it has something to do with cats.

Batman lego fairy

*But we should talk later about finding your own personal entrée into a love of mathematics. Math is for everyone! And, no, that’s not a threat. It’s more like an invitation to join a cult.

Being good at math, also female, and why I must talk about that

We all tend to repeat our favorite stories, and I thought I’d told this one to everyone I know. Naturally, my verbal shorthand led to offense. Again. Oops!

I’m good at math; my conversational skills could use work

I’m not always great at talking to people. That’s one reason for the blog. I like taking the extra time to clarify myself in writing. One major risk factor for my verbal missteps is that I routinely take great mental leaps during the conversation without bringing my audience along.

Lots of things are “obvious” in my mental space, but require explanation when I want to discuss them.

I’ll begin by stating what I thought was crystal clear to everyone I’ve ever spent more than a few minutes with:

I’m good at math.

When I say “good at math,” I mean, “I successfully completed an undergraduate degree at a competitive US college with a major in Mathematical & Physical Sciences concentrating in Computer Science.”books math texts - 1

I have studied advanced math at the university level. I succeeded in those classes, often earning good grades. I have some innate talent in this area, and I applied concerted effort to developing these skills.

All of this “my own horn”-tooting is to make clear what I mean when I say, again:

I’m good at math.”

And now we’ll carry on to the meat of this story.

We were out to dinner with friends. Being a pair of introverts 15+ years into marriage and with a couple of kids at home, we go out like this around four times per year. Usually, we invite friends over and order pizza (because I’m bad at cooking; this post is not about how totally great I am.)

Sitting around the table, waiting for appetizers, I started telling a story about home schooling my oldest son. It’s an uncommon thing, so people often ask questions about our daily activities. Many academically inclined friends are sincerely curious: What is it like, going “back to school,” in a sense, by doing it all over again with one’s child?

I was going to tell a story about helping a friend’s daughter with math.

So I began:

“In high school, because I was a girl, naturally, I was bad at math…”

I should have used the mortifying—but edifying—air quotes gesture. This is when my friend freaked out.

“Not true! It’s nonsense! Girls are perfectly capable of…”

Right! Of course! That was my point, too, but I went into the story all wrong. I can see now that I took liberties with my audience. Hopefully I fixed it with my friend, at her birthday dinner, no less. Sheesh. Way to go, me.

Let’s call this a teachable moment. I needed a reminder of something I’ve come to take for granted.

Even though I’m sure I’ve told this story before; even though it is obvious to anyone who’s ever worked with me; even though it should be clear to any person with whom I’ve held a conversation about education.

Let me reiterate that I:

  1. am good at math
  2. worked as an engineer in the (logic-based, i.e., “math-y”) field of computer technology
  3. lean technocratic and abhor non-objective criteria for advancement of platforms or people

In spite of all this, I really can’t tell a humorous yet informative story about being “bad at math” without the usual lead-up. I must always preface this statement with the fact that I erroneously believed myself to be “bad at math”…

because society;

because gender roles;

because socialization.

I saw through part of the illusion in high school, but it took years before I really got it. I believe most people—men and women—who claim to be bad at math are really the victims of poorly implemented math instruction.

Realizing math instruction was bad, not my math ability

High school was mostly boring. I was there doing time and ticking boxes so I could get into a good college to begin my real education. I wanted to be excited about school like I was about learning, but boy did the system make it tough.

I realized that science classes were more challenging to my logic-oriented brain, and I craved real learning of the sort that revved my engine.  I registered for as many science electives as I could squeeze in, graduating with eight science credits on my transcript. I was proud of that!

And yet…

…even with eight science classes on my transcript, by the end of high school, I was failing Calculus and more convinced than ever that I was “bad at math.” I could no longer conceive of being good at math, though I “knew” this fact in grade school.

I was privileged, and smart, and relatively enlightened. Still, it was that difficult to perceive the reality of what math was, how I could engage with it, or why I should.

Failing Calculus had more to do with not doing my work than a failure to grasp essential concepts, but I didn’t clue in to that until I repeated it in college. You see, I was interested in science and computers, and spoke about these subjects at college interviews, but I doubt I ever mentioned math.

“Math” was a hurdle I would have to clear to get to these fascinating, juicy fields of study. “Math” lived in my consciousness as a threat to be avoided.

Our K-12 system gives a very poor illumination of the field of mathematics

Math is presented in our schools as a skinny, rigid ladder to be climbed. There is one straight path from ignorance to Calculus, and success is measured by computational accuracy.

Almost no effort is made to highlight the diversity of thinking in math, the creativity that goes into the work of real mathematicians, and the awesome power of mathematics to solve real world problems.

books math texts - 2Ostensibly, Common Core is fixing this problem. In practice, I have grave doubts.

I read a fascinating book about a year ago before I kept a handy reading list like I’ve posted on this blog. I think it was Jo Boaler’s What’s math got to do with it?. The most important takeaway I got from that book had to do with a learned, innate fear of math that pervades American society, and female Americans in particular

And guess who’s teaching our children math? In 2011-2012, 76 percent of public school teachers were female. Women sure as hell can do math, but teachers with unaddressed phobias often unwittingly pass them on to their students.

For decades, I’ve repeated something I heard and find powerfully telling:

Americans feel perfectly comfortable admitting that they’re bad at math. Women, especially, feel free to flaunt their innumeracy.

“Tee hee, titter, titter, I’m so bad at math!”

How many people are equally blasé about their illiteracy?

Virtually none.

Teacher training can make a huge difference in breaking this pattern. Vocal and visible advocacy by female mathematicians and engineers make a difference, too. I talk about my enjoyment of math, logic, and puzzles more often than I probably should, but I want people to hear me. I’d like to be one more pebble in the pile of evidence it takes to make a self-evident mountain.

I’m good at math. I’m female. I’m going to keep talking about that.

Income tax form complexity as a tool of economic oppression

When income tax forms are challenging for even highly educated people to complete

and

average Americans are not provided excellent education in personal finance or mathematics

the result is

taxation without representation.

I thought we clarified the American position on that at the Second Continental Congress in July of 1776.

Financial education is a vital issue of class and privilege.

A person without a sound understanding of his/her own finances will always be more vulnerable to the vagaries of economics, and recent history shows no effort on the part of the government, which is fueled by tax income, to level the playing field for those who can’t afford teams of accountants and lawyers.

In my public high school, we were taught how to fill out the income tax form 1040EZ in a mandatory class called Personal Finance. (That waste of academic time also included lessons on how to fill out a McDonald’s job application and how to fill out a personal check, demonstrating just how low the bar was set for students’ financial education.) 1040EZ is the simplest possible tax form one can use, however, and presumably requires the least instruction to master. And, according to the latest IRS tax statistics, only 16% of Americans filed using the 1040EZ income tax form in 2014. Its use is too restrictive for the average American, and, worse yet, some people might choose it because it is less daunting to complete, thus losing out on deductions that would return their own excess tax payments back to their own pockets.

It takes me about two days to complete our household taxes, not including time spent organizing paperwork early in the year. For at least a decade, each year there have been ambiguous points of procedure requiring extra research and some stress as I wonder if I “got it right” or might face a tax audit or penalty. If a college graduate with a degree in math* struggles to do her taxes, average Americans must also be struggling. They probably struggle more.

Paying personal income tax is mandatory, which makes it unreasonable to make them too complex to be completed without professional help. It is incumbent upon the federal government to make the process of completing an average income tax filing possible by an average American citizen. Anything else is un-American.

We could attempt to increase the numeracy and financial literacy of our citizenry. As appealing as that is, the fact that we are struggling to achieve universal mastery of basic skills like reading and simple mathematical computation makes me question the likelihood that this is practical.

The more reasonable solution is to reduce the complexity of the tax code with which all Americans must comply. Only political will prevents taking this step. I suspect that the ideal is not as minimal as Ross Perot’s flat tax proposal of the early 1990’s, but I’m positive it is less convoluted than the current U.S. Tax Code with 51 Titles (sections) and thousands of pages.

Our Republic depends absolutely on an involved and educated citizenry to self-govern. Comprehensible policies are the least we should expect from our government agencies.

The filing deadline to submit 2016 tax returns is Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Are you ready to file?

*Mathematical & Physical Sciences with a concentration in Computer Science, admittedly not including specific instruction in accounting

Children’s books that made me who I am

Many of us read frequently, seemingly constantly, in childhood. Assuming there were lots of re-reads, and an average of finishing a few books a week for the decade between literacy and the teenage years, let’s call that about 1500 books read.

10 years x 52 weeks/year = 520 weeks

3 books/week x 520 weeks = 1560 books

The math is there for those of us who automatically calculate the numbers every time we read a blog post or news story anyway…

So we read a couple thousand books in childhood, but I think we all know a secret:

Not every book mattered.

How many books are there from your childhood that still sneak out and surprise you on occasion? There are those we couldn’t bear to let our own kids miss out on, and others we swoon to imagine them reading. (Or maybe only degenerates, or prudes, like me read stuff at that age that still brings up a blush?)

I still find myself caught up short in the middle of my day by distinct memories of scenes from books I otherwise can’t recall. There was a book with catfish crossing a street, but that’s all I remember…

Little House on the Prairie

I don’t believe I would be the woman I am today if it weren’t for some books. The Little House on the Prairie series comes immediately to mind. I know I read it over 50 times, and once re-read the entire series (minus the upsetting locust chapters) on one winter snow day.

1984

I think 1984 is the book that took my innocence. You’ll find that listed on my all time favorites book list, too, but it’s a bittersweet favorite. It kindled my dark fascination with dystopian fiction, and perhaps colored my worldview more than it should have.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies was the novel that made me realize a great book was literally a great book, not a teacher’s great excuse to annoy kids.

The Melendy family books, beginning with The Saturdays

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (of the Melendy family series) is one I’m joyfully sharing with DS2 right now.

Picture books

My mother tells me that my first favorite book was Whose Mouse Are You? (Kraus) I remember Corduroy (Freeman) and The Snowy Day (Keats) from those early years, too.

There must have been early readers in my youth, but none of them left an imprint.

My grade school memories of reading include a sense of outrage at the red-taped-line between the lower two shelves (for first and second graders) and the better range of books above. I discovered, and adored, the “real” Mary Poppins (Travers) books, The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Lofting), and James and the Giant Peach (Dahl). I remember devouring every available reference book about holidays and celebrations in other countries and the one Spanish language book on my elementary school library’s shelf.

By upper elementary, I’d moved on to Agatha Christie and the selection of Reader’s Digest Classics my parents had on hand, in part just to provide the bulk of reading matter I required, but also due to a fascination I still have with British drawing room culture and The World as it Was (Before the War(s)?)

Somehow, I’ve ended up listing all the classics on every list, but perhaps there is a reason they are so popular. I can remember titles for a few non-classic titles:

The Girl with Silver Eyes (Roberts)

Key to the Treasure (Parish)

Behind the Attic Wall (Cassidy)

Are these great books? I couldn’t say. They still stand out, thirty years later, as memorable books, and there’s something to be said for that.

Never say never

fc_infinity_41717_sm

Mathematical symbol for infinity, which is probably not how long you will love your boyfriend

It has been brought to my attention—as usual, by my own husband—that I have an anomalous social behavior.

Who could’ve seen that coming?

The current habit, seemingly made popular by pregnant teens on the Montel Williams Show in the past millennium, of declaring one’s certainty with mathematically impossible percentages, is causing me a daily struggle to be understood.

“Montel, I’m 120% sure I’m not the father!”

My husband asserts that my insistence upon using mathematics only in accordance with the standards and rules taught to me in school is leading to confusion when I explain my opinions to normal people.

If I think it is extremely likely that I will do something, I will give it a 99% probability. After all, nothing is ever really certain in life. I could have a car accident on my way to deliver the school bake sale items, or I could drop dead from an aneurysm while waiting to make the deposit at the bank. If I tell you I am 99% certain I’ll do something, you should feel pretty confident that it is going to happen. Any failure to act will be due to an act of God or some sort of wildly improbable scenario.

“Well, Montel, I’m 1000% sure he is the father! No, 2000%”

So when a situation comes up where I know some aspect of my schedule or my calendar is likely to impede forward progress on a task I undertake, I will give a more realistic assessment of my likelihood to get things done.

“Can I help with the class phone tree? I have to arrange for childcare, so I’m 75% sure I can help out.”

When you decrease your stated probability of participating to a mathematically feasible range, you will likely find people react with confusion, or they feel insulted, because, like grade inflation, most people think they are “certain” when they really are not. One comes across as noncommittal or disinterested when using language more carefully than is the norm.

I’ll admit to occasional bursts of enthusiastic declarations of certainty, but I very often reel them back mere moments later and amend my statement to something more accurate.

The point may fairly be argued that, by refusing to conform to the cultural norm, I am, in fact, the one who is failing to communicate. So be it. I’m 90% certain that I don’t care.
box-style Clipart math button

Originally published Sunday, May 22, 2011 on iWeb