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Wax on…or, What’s the point of math that I’m never going to use again?

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[written in 2013. no idea why I didn’t publish it at that point. I probably felt guilty about not googling some info or something…or maybe I had a “long answer” in mind at the time. At any rate, here it is now, for whatever it’s worth!]

The inevitable happened the other night while my daughter was doing math homework.

Mom. How many times have you needed to graph inequalities?

A pretty graph of inequalities! [from]
A pretty graph of inequalities! [from
My mind immediately went to cultural studies writing and charts or tables my students and I have made to show how progressive or problematic a TV show seems to be in its portrayals of gender, race, class, etc. But that was not the kind of graph—nor the kind of inequality—Callie was talking about.

Callie had spent almost an hour graphing inequalities. She still had a few more problems to go before she could tuck her math book back into her school bag. And it was inevitable that at some point she would wonder, as most of us have: Why in the world am I spending time on this activity? What purpose could it possibly serve? It feels like meaningless busywork, so it probably is meaningless busywork.

I annoyed Callie with my answer because I kept coming back to it, and because she’s 14 and I’m 44, and because I’m her mom to boot.  But I kept coming back to my answer because it’s such a good question.

The shortest answerI don’t remember ever graphing inequalities except for in math class in my very distant past.

The  short (but not shortest) answerI don’t need to graph inequalities, but many people in many occupations do probably use this skill on a regular basis. I think I might’ve caught a glimpse of such a maneuver when watching The Social Network. So I’m sure it’s a skill that has a good chance of serving you well. 

[Note: I really have no idea what kind of math was going on in The Social Network. But I still think there’s a really good chance that graphing inequalities might be helpful for people who do computer programming. Please feel free to correct me and/or tell me the career fields that use this skill. I admit I’m being lazy since I’m not even bothering to google it. Or maybe it’s not lazy but rather that I’m more interested in the following answers. Don’t let me stop you. Keep reading. Go on now. You’re almost at the part that has my point in it.]

The medium answer (the kind that’s more my style of an answer):  It’s not about using the skill of graphing inequalities directly, Callie. It’s about laying foundations so you have a sense of how numbers and figures and data sets work. It’s sharpening your abilities. It’s honing your mental skills. 

It’s not The Social Network. It’s The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi knows that in order to be a strong fighter, Ralph Macchio’s character needs to develop certain moves and hone his muscles through repetition. 

Wax on. Wax off.

In order to be a strong fighter, Ralph Macchio’s character needs to develop the mental and physical discipline that will help him find purpose and drive, that will help him stand up and move forward even when faced with overwhelming obstacles.

Wax on. Wax off. Cleaning a car doesn’t look like fighting. Until Ralph Macchio’s character is fighting, and suddenly the audience can see that cleaning the car—all day long!—and using muscle memory to respond to an opponent look an awful lot alike.

I sorta hate to use a cliche and cheesy movie to make my point. But sometimes the things that I believe can’t help but sound cliche and cheesy.

I teach writing. And I believe that the only way for student to learn to write is to…write. Sometimes the writing is of a form that looks like waxing a car.

This car has writing on it. But maybe it needs waxing (and a bit of other help…). [from]
This car has writing on it. But maybe it needs waxing (and a bit of other help…). [from
And reading works the same way. When I was 21, I picked up Catch-22 and started reading it, but I couldn’t get into it. About seven years later, I picked it up again. I read it on my honeymoon. (That’s so random, isn’t it? You’d think I’d be reading some Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts or something.) I loved it–it made me laugh and think about all sorts of things, and it did so in a fresh and entertaining way.

My reading grew stronger from the time I was 21 to the time I was 28. The difference? A lot of time spent reading, including time spent earning my MA in English. A lot of focused, analytical, thoughtful reading.

The learning was in the experience.

I do believe in teaching students explicitly in every subject, so don’t get me wrong. But teaching how to do something is not enough. If education can allow students to have experience after experience after experience of developing skills and capabilities; experience after experience of applying explicit teaching; well, that’s the style of education that is not busywork. That is the kind of education that, quite simply, is most likely to work.

Wax on.

Thinking through this whole Leaning business

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I started reviewing drafts of posts that I somehow never completed. I deleted some. But some seem okay to put out into the world, even if they’re kinda past the moment where they would’ve made a lot more sense.

This one is a very belated review of Leaning In by Sheryl Sandberg—a review that was first written in March of 2013.

I know everyone and her sister is talking about Leaning In and whether it’s out of touch or the best thing since sliced Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 8.46.59 PMpizza, so I may or may not have something to add. But I’m gonna write my bit to get my thoughts straightened out in my own head. And maybe my head- straightening will help some of you think things through, too. So here goes.

1. Standing up (thumbs up): In general, I say YAY to anyone who has some power and tries to use it to effect positive change. That’s what model Cameron Russell does in a way that’s self-reflective and admirable, and I don’t think she’s gotten too much flack, most likely because she has hesitated to move onto the next step.

Well, Sandberg has taken the next step, and she probably anticipated that she’d get flack. I don’t think there was too much kickback regarding her TED Talk, but the Leaning In book has a whole bunch of press and attention, to the point that I’m starting to be able to finish Sheryl Sandberg’s stories for her. And that kind of exposure is necessary to be heard and to move things, yes? I’m thinking yes.

So. I dunno whether Sandberg cries when people misread her or judge her or get really angry at her when she’s just trying to help…but I probably would if I were her. And that makes me appreciate her work. She’s willing to put herself out there, getting lots of kudos, sure…but also getting lots of hatefulness.

I don’t think Sandberg was short on kudos before doing the book. She probably had plenty of attention. And if she wanted more attention, she could’ve done something way more fun than write a book to help women. My point? Sandberg is in a powerful position in which she has a lot to lose and little to gain.

And she is standing up. She is taking the flack to help others. That right there makes me want to cheer.

(Maybe you think I should only say really nice positive things now because Sandberg is being kind of a hero? Well, she is being a kind of a hero, but I respect her enough to engage with her ideas and take them seriously. I can cheer and still engage critically. And that’s what I’m gonna do. So there.)

2. Beyond victim-blaming (thumbs wavering): Yes, there’s a whole theme to Sandberg’s book of focusing on what women can do differently to move into leadership positions. And to some degree it does seem analogous to the kind of victim blaming that holds women responsible when they’re treated unjustly. “Stop behaving in ways that make men rape you!” “Stop behaving in ways that keep leaders from advancing you!”

The truth is that Leaning In treads a tricky line. Sandberg presents a lot of research about problems and injustices that women face, and she recounts some of her own experiences. She probably should’ve been more explicit about the fact that there are no easy answers rather than implying how tricky change can be. But at least she does draw some attention to systemic problems.

3. Trying to be all things to all people (thumbs wavering): I love the idea that “Leaning in” doesn’t mean one thing for all people—Sandberg wants men to lean into household responsibilities, she wants people with different kinds of career- and life-goals to lean in to whatever those goals are…I can almost imagine her telling her kids to “lean in” to their school work or kickball games or their Lego-buildings or whatever.

That’s cool because it means that the book is less prescriptive. And the Lean In Circles advocated on Facebook and on the Lean In site can help communities set and work toward goals together.

But the wide net means that some of the advice is kinda lame (the part about how Sandberg needs to talk less but other people need to talk more…I read this once before, but it was called Goldilocks and it involved porridge that was too hot or too cold), and some of the advice that is not at all lame is actually only aimed at a certain audience.

Sometimes it works better to call your audience, and let other audiences know that you’re not addressing their concerns, but other people have addressed their concerns, or should do so, etc.

4. Sandberg is a feminist! (thumbs up!): I’m so over the resistance to the word “feminism” that I find it really refreshing that Sandberg both finds her own “leaning in” phrase to talk about feminism but ALSO actually uses the word feminist. About herself. On a regular basis. With no apologies or explanations. Duh! Nothing to see here, folks. Keep it movin’.

5. A woman who can be like a man is a better woman (thumbs down): I can’t help it. My reaction here is all about the Elaine Showalter essay that criticized the movie Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman because Hoffman’s cross-dressing character was the kind of woman that Jessica Lange’s character just couldn’t pull off—but she should’ve. And Showalter made a brilliant argument:  Tootsie’s cross-dressing is a way of promoting the notion of masculine power while masking it” [“Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year,” Raritan 3 (1983-84)].

I imagine I had more in my head way back in 2013, but, three years later, I have no idea what these things might have been, so…


Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 14: lonely labyrinth peace

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Note: I wrote this way back in November but didn’t want to post it until I added images. I’m just returning to it, 2 months later!

If you know me at all,  you know that sometimes I find joy and peace when I am at work. And sometimes, I don’t. Lately, I haven’t, except in the oases of the various classrooms where I teach.

Today, however, I did find joy and peace, in a place that was at work but that was not a classroom.

Campus ministry put a canvas labyrinth in the rotunda of the Liberal Arts Center at Marywood. They’ve done it before, often before Easter. I love labyrinths.


I first learned of labyrinths from Sue….I can’t remember her last name! but she taught theology at the University of Pittsburgh…and she spoke regularly at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ligonier Valley. I walked a labyrinth in Sue’s backyard, and I was struck by the way I was on a journey that was clearly marked out as my own, and others were on their journeys, and we had started our journeys at different times but it was impossible to see where each person was in relation to the center. We were simply moving. Toward the center. On our own.

Today, the labyrinth was difficult. It reminded me that I do not know exactly where my path is going. I do not even know where I am right now. I am moving and trusting that I am following the journey I am meant to follow.

I looked up on occasion as people walked through the rotunda, and several times I smiled a hello at a friend. They walked around the labyrinth to get to a classroom or another destination, while I slowly traced a path laid out for me on the canvas. I smiled, but I walked alone.


That struck me. These lonely journeys. Those smiles from across the way. The impossibility of fully walking in another’s shoes, but all of us knowing that impossibility. Maybe it’s that awareness that actually allows us to, indeed, know one another’s journeys, in some small way.

That’s the paradox. The universal that brings us together is our utter alone-ness.


This place is a place of peace in other ways.

Sister Margaret Gannon sent me this poem by one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 7.52.49 PM

Other sisters here at Marywood began a time of silent prayer and reflection each week for all the community to come together during a time of fracture and conflict. IMG_6501 IMG_6499

And my friend and colleague Melinda Krokus made nature mandalas with the students in her class.

Sister Margaret’s poem is right on. Somehow, good can happen in the midst of conflict. The system can be twisted and wrong, and still behavior within the system can be right and good. Christ doesn’t wait for peace.

I’m not actually Christian, so I’m using “Christ” kinda metaphorically there, to mean something like, “You gotta take peaceful loving action even when the world you’re in isn’t making it easy.” We can’t wait for perfection and then do the right thing. We gotta do the right thing all along.

I’m adding this part, these two months later. Here’s a photo I took from the labyrinth, looking up at the ceiling of the rotunda. I don’t know what I want to say about it. Maybe just leave it here to speak for itself.


first book of 2016

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I stayed up just a bit late to finish reading Some Day (2013) by Shemi Zarhin, translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan and published by New Vessel Press.

I first became familiar with this press through a friend in my book group. We read The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, which I loved. (If you’re a filmmaker and you’re reading this, I think that book would make a great film. Check it out!)

Anyhow, New Vessel Press seems to put out excellent translations, so kudos to them.

I enjoyed Some Day. The characters and plot lines were entertaining and also made me think. pamphlet10_web

  • I loved the way words and the play of sounds and meanings became part of the thinking of several characters.
  • I also loved the confusion of love and yearning and family ties that was interwoven with all the narratives.
  • It was interesting to read about a culture so different from my own, alive mostly through the food and cooking, but also present in scenery and politics that are integral to the narratives.
  • One of my favorite things was a minor character—the poetry scholar and his belief that manufacturing shutters and installing air conditioners must be metaphors for writing poetry. An odd reversal happened in which the metaphors were apt, so it was tough to tell whether the scholar was a fool or a wise fool.

But there were some odd things—not necessarily bad, but not good, either.

  • One of the odd things about the book is that I never knew what was pulling me forward. I didn’t have a sense of what the central conflict or storyline was. Things just sorta happened, and then more things happened, and then more things happened. The novel did eventually come to a resolution, but it was just odd that I never knew exactly what needed to be resolved.
  • Another odd thing was that many characters enjoyed the narrative spotlight, but the shifting between characters didn’t happen right away and it didn’t happen consistently.
  • Similarly, one short chapter in the whole book is different, written in Hilik’s hand. I’d expect that kind of shift to happen more than once if it happens at all.

Of course, sometimes odd choices are purposeful devices, and that may be the case here. My sense is, however, that they don’t work well.

That said:

I recommend the book, especially if you’re interested in Israeli culture, food writing, or family drama.


2015 in review

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The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Driving lesson

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I read some DMV-issued advice book for parents teaching their kids to drive. Ah, I thought. Now I’m ready.

Days later, Callie was at the wheel. We were headed to church—a 35-minute drive on twisty country roads.

Slowing down, I told her,
isn’t always about hitting the brakes;
sometimes it’s about easing up on the gas pedal.

She hugged the curve around the small waterfall she had christened Little Blue several years before.

And accelerating, she said,
is not always about stepping on the gas;
sometimes it’s about easing up on the brakes. 

Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 13: ancestry, family, stories

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So, I wrote consistently for 6 days and then took 6 days away from this writing habit. And I had no idea that so many days went by! Time is a weird thing.

My writing actually has a focus tonight. This is the second month that I’ve been involved in a program called Soul Matters. Last month, the theme was “Letting Go,” and it was exactly what I needed to hear. I actually think I need to hear the “Letting Go” message over and over, in all kinds of different ways. It’s been difficult to “let go” of the “letting go” message. Hahahaha.

This month, the theme is heritage: “What Does It Mean to Be a People of Ancestry?” The packet discusses the ways “ancestors bless and burden us with a legacy” and the way each of us is not alone but instead “our hands are connected.” That means that our choices and individual stories are part of something much larger; our choices and our stories matter.

The idea in this program is that each person does something to put the theme into practice, and we also each think about a question connected to the theme, and then we gather and talk about the practice and the question in a kind of shared reflection.

So. I’m looking at the options for practice and none of them completely excites me. But I’m going to stretch one of the exercises to do what I’d like with it. I’m going to write about the stories my family tells.


Janet, Diane, and I were gathered on the bed. I had on my footy pajamas, and it was warm, and my dad sat on the bed and said our prayers with us. He always ended with, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” no matter how many times we told him it was supposed to be “Holy Spirit.”

And then, we begged.

Please, please, please. Tell us about when you were a bad little boy. Please!

He couldn’t resist. He never could. Most of the stories have faded for me even though I knew them so well back in the day.

Except the one that ended with my dad, the bad little boy, misbehaving and falling into the ocean. He was rescued, of course, by my mom, who had been a mermaid.

We knew it wasn’t true. But I could picture it. My mom could definitely have been a mermaid, and she definitely could’ve saved my dad, and he definitely could’ve been a bad little boy who needed to be rescued.


Janet and I would be in bed, and Stephen would come to say good night to us. But we would beg and beg:

Please tell us stories! Please, please, please please please!

And he would.

Stephen would tell us stories of the school in Billerica with the twins who would sometimes switch places and fool their teachers. The long grass in the playground where the kids would hide when they didn’t want to go in for recess.

Stephen would tell us stories of the tree house he and Michael made. Stories of forts and adventures in the rocks of O’Garden Beach. Stories of Janet getting lost in the upstairs when they first moved into the house in Reading where we lived.

Sometimes Michael would join us and add to the stories.

And sometimes our mom would come up to see why we weren’t asleep yet, and Stephen and Michael would hide so they wouldn’t get in trouble for keeping us up.


Carole tells stories of each of us. They tend to be funny stories because we are all ridiculous. The time she came home and thought the house was empty, except the music was blaring. Eventually, she found Michael, sitting out on the roof overlooking the lawn while lip-syncing to the pretend crowd in the yard below.

I used to watch Carole get ready for high school every morning. I was small, and I would wake up when she was in the shower. I would leave my bed and slip into hers, and I would talk and talk while she did her make-up and dried her hair. I told her I wanted to be a sandwich-board advertiser when I grew up. We still laugh about it. I had been reading Homer Price. I was young. What can I say?


I tell my kids stories of my childhood. The time my family was on vacation and I didn’t want to go to the Flumes in New Hampshire, so I kicked my dad and he spanked me. Then Diane climbed a rock and refused to come down.

I regretted telling my kids those stories. We took them to the Flumes, and they were terrible. There was no kicking and no spanking, but there was some form of conflict that was no fun that I have since blocked out.

I’ve been better about telling my kids some good stories. The way my mom impressed me when she refused to go to a Sambo’s Restaurant because it was a racist name. The way we always expected my dad to freak out but he didn’t when it really mattered; when one of us was in trouble and needed our parents, they were there.

I don’t know if my kids appreciate me and their dad more because of these stories, but I like the way the stories help me appreciate my parents.


Stories. The idea that each of our stories is intimately attached to so many other stories. The stories that we most often tell are the funny ones or the dramatic ones. But the stories of our families are much bigger, and to some degree we might not share them explicitly but instead they provide a backdrop to our behaviors.

I guess what I’m thinking about is the ways stories are not just a means of understanding who we are; they can also be ways that we hold ourselves back. Maybe some of the stories we tell of ourselves and our families keep us from telling a new story, keep us from shifting the narrative.

That’s where this month’s practice is leading me.

What are the stories I tell of my family? To what degree are these stories healthy, and to what degree are these stories unhealthy?