Sunday, March 23, 2014

Goodbye to Big Words

Say goodbye to big words.  I just learned the puppet masters at the College Board (“Ruining Teen Dreams since 1901!”) determined the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test is just too hard for today’s youth.  Starting in 2016, high school juniors and seniors with designs on post-secondary education will take a simpler test that emphasizes words they’re more likely to see in real life.  Out are words like “dragoon,” “piebald” and “occlusion,” and in are more basic words like “friend,” “bunny” and “hug.”  No more will college-bound kids memorize words like, “peccadillo” and “parsimonious,” instead dedicating their time to more apt expressions like “Peanut M&M” and “Pringle.”

With this change, feel free to expunge memories of your favorite analogies.  “Obfuscation is to Eclipse as Perspicacity is to Acumen” is now replaced by more prudent word comparisons, such as, “Participation is to Trophy as Helicopter is to Parent.”

So much for the millions of us who’ve sweated out the vocab for decades – we believed them when they told us “palliate” and “adumbrate” would serve us well in life.  We listened, memorized and prayed for those words to show up one dismal Saturday morning in a gym where we’d slow-danced to “Freebird” the week before, wondering if our girlfriends knew we were as adumbrate as they come. 

I took an SAT prep course in the basement of the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island in the fall of 1984 with a man named Mr. Leverage.  He was partial to the math section, using catchy mnemonic tricks like, “Boo, boo, radical two.”  I still have no idea what he meant but deserve points for using the word “mnemonic.” 
I’ve made vocabulary an important part of my life and try working big words into everyday conversation, much to the chagrin of my less-erudite consorts.  For example, a friend tells a joke, and I’ll exclaim, “What a pithy maxim!” passing along the encomium with brio and delectation, relishing in our sagacious repartee. 

But no more - the era of big words is over, cast aside like mental detritus, and I’m not happy.  I wouldn’t mind creating an occlusion with a dragooned piebald bunny in the College Board’s executive washroom to manifest my disinclination at this calamitous development, but I won’t.  Instead, I propose we celebrate our big words on one final day, using as many as we can before setting them aside for posterity.  I proclaim this Wednesday to be “Big Words Wednesday,” a day to revel in the sublimity that is a robust and expansive vocabulary.
All you knackers, join hands with the coopers, fletchers, tanners and apiarists and shout your métier to the welkin above on Wednesday, because come Thursday, you’ll all be known as “people who work with their hands.”  You fakirs, mendicants and supplicators, smile and plead for succor - by the end of the week, you’ll just be straight-up bums hassling drivers for loose change.  Take not umbrage with such assertions – surcease your harangue of my temerity as Big Word Wednesday approaches with precipitancy, for we have work to do.

Perhaps you should call in sick, instead why not gambol across a nearby heath in the tarn’s direction so that you might witness a glorious coruscation in the eventide firmament!  Do it soon - if you try it next weekend, you’ll be that dummy who skipped into the woods towards a big cold puddle and almost got hit by lightning.  Spend Wednesday sounding the tocsin for a surfeited lexicon,  for such vaingloriousness will end in a fat lip given by a freshman in high school thrilled that his SAT test will be as challenging as reading a Friendly’s menu.

I plan on spending Wednesday fighting the ennui of what the future brings, eschewing the more saturnine aspects of the world we’ll inhabit, refusing to wallow in mawkish desolation for long, instead accepting the reality that future family escutcheons  will be festooned with tiny images of TV remotes and Skittle colors instead of leather-bound books and woodland sprites.
Join me in waving the gonfalon for big words one last time, exclaiming their virtue from pinnacles far and near.  I, the cockalorum of Concord, will do my best to use as many big words as I can on Wednesday.  After that, I’ll instead just be that self-important little man who once knew a lot of fancy words that were a total waste of time.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cleanse Me

I need a change.  The holidays should be a distant memory, but they’re still with me, right around my midsection.  I guess all that beer, the Frito fiesta dips, triple-baked potato challenges and piece after piece of cake, pie and pizza went down too easily, taking with them my pride and self-respect.  I’m close to my hibernation weight, and I can’t even look in the mirror.  It’s time for a cleanse, a way to put me on the straight and narrow, which is good because “narrow” is the opposite of me today.

Should I go for the milk thistle and acai berry cleanse or spice it up with twelve daily glasses of maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper, topped off with a laxative or two?  Or take the $400 a month powder approach, the herbal cleanse or the cabbage soup solution?  Perhaps I partake in a series of “colonic irrigation” events to purge my body of its toxins.  Every cleanse I find promises weight loss and a chance to begin anew.  I need that but not at the cost of red pepper shots with an Ex-Lax chaser.  I may be chubby, but I’m not insane.

I’ll settle for something a little tamer, so for $67 I’m the proud member of the Beyond Diet community after purchasing the Nine Day Super Cleanse from a pretty lady on the internet named Isabel De Los Rios (  Isabel promises if I follow her plan, “We’ll kick that fat to the curb.”  This cleanse eliminates everything that brings joy – cheese, red meat, sugar, caffeine, cheese, milk, grains, potatoes, cheese and alcohol.  No cheese?  Preposterous and insulting.  But my pants don’t fit, my face is doughy, and I snore like cartoon hobo.  So this nine-day journey starts tomorrow, bright and early.

Day 1:  I’ve reached the absolute nadir.  I’m naked, standing in my cold basement at 6 AM, my feet on the scale.  The digital numbers climb like I’m filling a gas tank.  Did the word “Fatty” just flash across the screen?  The final number is bad - maybe not, “Untuck the shirt and buy the sweat pants” bad, but pretty awful.  This cleanse is overdue.
I meander through the supermarket, shopping list in hand.  What in the heck are Chia seeds?  So I’ll be hungry and sprout tiny green buds on my balding pate?  Actually, a verdant comb-over will be the least of my worries because I just put something called “coconut milk” in my cart, next to the “coconut oil.”

Three hours into this trek, and I utter the words, “My body is a temple.”  Is this the power of positive thinking or vegetable-related dementia?

Day 2:  I dreamt last night I rode a chicken parmesan dragon through a store-bought pastry obstacle course.  I won and celebrated by eating my pet dragon and the Ring Ding hurdles.  I’m starving and it’s only 8 AM.  My daughter nibbles on a chocolate donut hole as I eat a plate of runny eggs and tomatoes.  “What kind of eggs are those?” she asks, casually sipping her cup of coffee.  “They look disgusting.”  I could dump them in the sink and join her for the donut and coffee klatch – but no, it’s not even lunchtime.  Eat the eggs, drink your chamomile tea and yearn for that turkey chili at noon.  Be a man for once.

Day 3:  Who doesn’t love a banana, kale and avocado smoothie?  Most humans, probably.  “That looks like you’re drinking someone else’s vomit,” my wife says.  My daughter screams, “Get away from me!  That is so gross!”  I’m being shunned for my new-found beliefs.  Is this what Scientologists must endure?  I bet Tom Cruise would share this green paste with me.  We’d probably be best friends.  I think this constant hunger is making me delusional.

Day 4:  Green tea has a vague taste not unlike dirty wool socks.

Day 5:  “This is delicious sea bass cooked in coconut oil!  Can I have seconds?”  Said no one ever in the history of eating.

Day 6:  My spinach, carrot and strawberry smoothie looks like I found it in Chewbacca’s diaper. Tonight I’ll eat a piece of baked chicken.  I might wear cologne to the dinner table.  Good lord I want a handful of Cheez-Its or just a morsel of a morsel.  No – I have to stick this out.  I know it’s working – I see it in my face, and I’ve earned a notch on my belt.  Three days to go.

Day 7:  I’m tired, hungry and filled with a mild dose of misanthropy.  I wake up hungry, I eat and am hungry and go to sleep hungry.  My daughter taunts me with a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  I hold one in my hand and smell it like a drifter in a back alley huffing spray paint.  But I put it down and walk away.  Think of me, chocolate chip cookie.  I’ll be here, thinking of you, wondering if you’ll still be mine when this craziness is over.

Day 8:  I wake up to the sound of distant thunder except the thunder’s coming from my empty stomach.  I stir my quinoa and apple breakfast gruel and have a moment of clarity.  I’m starving myself in the pursuit of vanity?  I volunteered to go hungry while millions of people struggle with food security every day?  This is nothing short of misguided and grotesque.  Anyway, back to my dream last night where I floated in a Velveeta pool wearing onion ring swimmies.

For dinner, I enjoy a pile of ground turkey and quinoa that tastes as bad as it sounds while my family eats homemade macaroni and cheese, its top golden brown, its scent wafting up to the heavens from whence it came.  They discuss the glory of tonight’s meal.  “This is Irish cheddar!”  “The better the cheese, the better the meal!”  “Yay!  More, more, more!”  My dinner tastes like Mesoamerican sawdust mixed with shame.  One final day to go.

Day 9:  I feel like a prisoner on his last night, getting advice from the lifer on the bunk above.  “Remember what got you here in the first place – the bread, the ice cream, the red wine, the camembert, the crackers, pretzels, candy corn and French fries.  Stay clean or you’ll be right back here in no time.  Don’t be a fool!  Learn from this and live your life the right way!”  I promise – anything to avoid sea bass and quinoa.

The nine days end with little fanfare – a few bites of salmon and it’s over.  From the feel of my pants and the look of my reflection in the mirror, I know it’s helped.  The next morning I erase some of the ignominy from that first sad moment on the scale, losing eight pounds in nine days.  Isabel even has another twenty one days planned out for me, most meals miles better than what I just endured.  I wonder how this ends.  For now, cheese and I are not on speaking terms, and I think that’s best for both of us.  Maybe we’re just not right for each other.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

I Can See Clearly Now . . .

“I’ll never need eye glasses.  They’re for people who didn’t eat enough carrots growing up.  And everyone knows Clark Kent doesn’t put glasses on to become Superman.”  These are the things I’ve said to myself over and over, proud I won’t be that chump in the monocle.  I’m in my mid-forties and glasses free, and I plan to remain this way forever.

Of all my secret nicknames, “Eagle Eye” is my favorite, right ahead of “King Elf,” but that’s a story for another day.  My eyesight’s one of my more attractive features, and I’ve scoffed at contemporaries in their cheaters and transition lenses.  Transitioned from what - cool guy into nerd? I’ve even made the trip to the ophthalmologist an annual rite of my middle years, getting a thumbs-up from the doctor and his staff to validate my lack of visual impairment.  “I wish we had more patients like you,” I bet they say to themselves softly as I bound out the door.  “You don’t even need our help.”
But something’s not been right for a while.  The fine print’s been getting a little too fine, and trying to read anything via full arm extension with an unattractive squint/frown is awkward.  And a recent visit to the eye doctor clarified this sad truth for me as my plan for ocular perfection started crumbling.  The technician showed me the eye chart and asked me to read back the second-to-last row.  “I see a tiny charcoal drawing of Leon Trotsky’s beard, Tatu from Fantasy Island and the electron configuration for the element Manganese,” I stated with waning confidence.

“I was looking for X, B and F.  Are you sure you don’t wear glasses?”  At that moment, my world crashed down as images of the spectacle-wearing historical figures I’ve held in contempt cascaded in front of me – Gandhi, FDR, Dame Edna – at least that’s what I think they were but couldn’t really tell because everything was blurry.  A few tests later, my doctor broke my heart, saying, “You’ve had a nice run.  I think it’s time,” and handed me a prescription.

That was three months ago, and even with a diagnosis, I’ve ignored this new reality.  But this Mr. Magoo impersonation of mine is proving a useless defense against the march of time.  I need glasses.  But choosing the wrong pair could be disastrous.  There’s a very fine line between Charles Whitman and Charles Nelson Reilly.

To straddle that line, I order five test pairs on the internet ( that arrive days later in a neat blue box with names that evoke sophistication, like “Chamberlain” and “Chapman” in brushed granite.

My first choice is the “Crosby” in a burgundy fade.  These thick brown frames combine the aesthetics of Buddy Holly and Woody Allen with Mr. Daskin, my 6th grade shop teacher with 8.7 fingers and a can-do attitude.  I like how they announce, “I now wear GLASSES!”  They make me look thoughtful and slightly unhinged, like Shelton John, Elton’s eccentric yet successful younger brother.  My daughter’s having none of it.  “Wow. Those are really unflattering,” she says as she saunters by.  Crosby goes back in the box, my hopes blown away like a candle in the wind.

I switch to the “Chamberlain” as I run a few errands.  The dry cleaner does a double-take, and I ask her opinion.  “You look intellectual and serious,” she says.  Her co-worker arrives from the back and adds, “Those frames are great for your face, and the color matches your hair and eyes.  They make you look like a professor.”  I need to spend a lot more time at the dry cleaner.
The next day I choose the “Webb” in revolver black crystal, a narrow pair of circular frames fitting snug on my face.  I wear them to a local charity event where friends say things like, “They make you look smarter” and “Wear those all the time because you look thinner.”  Later that weekend as I audition the remaining frames, I hear everything from, “You’re joking, right?” and “You’re a moron,” to “What a stud muffin!” and my daughter’s brutally honest statement, “Dad, you look creepy.”  

One final attempt with a thin wire frame pair garner me the comment, “Those frames say, ‘I’m a dad who likes world music and runs every morning,’ but in a cool way.” I enjoy many things in this life, but daily jogs listening to pan flute sonatas are not high on my list.  The Chapman frames go back into the box.

Accepting that I’m no longer Eagle Eye O’Shea is tough enough, but this five-day experiment is leaving me more confused than when I started.  I’ve learned some frames increase my IQ by seventy five points while others peg me in a ’93 Chevy conversion van parked next to the playground, cranking didgeridoo klezmer mash-ups. I need to make a decision - these frames don’t have real lenses in them, and the ingredients on the box of Honeycombs appear to now be written in 3-point sans serif munchkin font.  It’s time to act.            
I make my choice, picking a pair of “Crane” frames in whiskey tortoise, which sounds less like a color choice and more like a hazing ritual for a zookeeper’s apprentice.  They’re not too wide and not too narrow, a subtle selection somewhere between casual astronaut and retired thrill seeker, the exact look I’m going for.  They should arrive any day now, and then my plan for a glasses-free life ends, another brick in my bulwark against old age and imperfection pulverized to dust.  But it’s OK – this creepy, stud muffin moron’s never really liked carrots anyway.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

An Equation for Redemption

Recently I wrote a few sentences about mathematics that could have been construed as less than supportive of the discipline.  Yes, the word “hate,” was used, as in, “I hate math.”  And I admit making comments on number-related activities that were interpreted by some ardent supporters of math as hostile, combative and insolent.  One perturbed reader, former high school math teacher John T. Goegel, went to lengths to posit the notion that my lack of “determination and sweat equity” was akin to being an historic quitter of the highest order, writing, “Where would our country be if the occasionally dispirited General Washington and his ill-equipped citizen soldiers had given up during the long six-year struggle for independence?” 

But these were word problems, not finding escape routes in the Long Island fog!  Word problems are much harder.  Mr. Goegel, however, did make me think.  No sooner did I question my math-phobic resolve than I received this email:  My name is Diane Barlow, and I teach Pre-Algebra at Rundlett Middle School.  I shared your article with my math class.  We thought it might be FUN if you came to my class and let the students explain how they set up and solve word problems.  We have a system in place that makes solving word problems a little bit easier.  You did ask for help at the end of your article, and my students are very willing to help.  I hope to hear from you soon.”
This is why I’m sitting in the front row of a seventh grade math class, surrounded by twenty eight pre-teens who are smarter than me.  It’s never a good idea to make fun of math.

A few minutes ago, as I stood in the office with Diane and the school principal, Tom Sica, I admit being a little nervous, anxious the kids would smell my lack of math skills like a portly toddler smells cake batter.  “Take a deep breath – you’ll be fine!” Diane reassures me in her soft, southern accent.  You can always count on a middle school teacher to find the good in everyone.

As we walk down the hallway, I wonder if these children know how bereft of math skills I am.  The last math class I sat in was in early May, 1985 as Brother Eck extolled the virtues of pre-calculus.  I avoided taking a single math class in college, and even though I was an elementary school teacher for five years, I was never beyond arm’s length of the teacher’s edition.  If I landed in an uncompromising math-related position with my fifth graders, I’d use that saving grace of every numerically paralyzed instructor, the phrase, “Well, what do you think the answer is?” as I sprinted back to the answer book.

We arrive at the class, and I’m ready to atone for the sin of hating math.  Diane’s students wait in line outside the door.  Somehow Principal Sica is here too.  Is he making sure I apply myself today?  Brushing up on his own word problem skills?  He sits in the back so it’s tough to discern his motives.

Mrs. Barlow (we’re no longer on a first name basis) starts the class, reminding us we’ll spend today, “Writing equations that model the problem,” emphasizing the importance of “solving for x.”  I’m sitting in between my new pals Brendan and Cam, and I nod like I know what “solving for x” means.  I don’t.

Our first problem reads, “Chuck jogged the same distance on Tuesday and Friday, and 8 miles on Sunday for a total of 20 miles for the week.  Find the distance Chuck jogged on Tuesday and Friday.”  The boys are off, scribbling into their notebooks, apparently solving for x.  What’s clear is my attempt to just come up with the answer isn’t cool.  Cam suggests, nicely, “You have to write an equation that solves the problem.”

“Yeah,” Brendan adds, “Because what happens when you don’t know the answer?”  He’s not asking a question, like he’s saying, “How will you ever be anything if you don’t believe in yourself?”  How true, Brendan, how very true.  They help me write an equation and follow the rules to help solve for x.  We arrive at the right answer as Mrs. Barlow walks the class through the approach.

There’s no time for lollygaggers at Word Problem Boot Camp, and we’re on to the next set.  Hannah and Sophie replace Brendan and Cam, and I ask Sophie what she thinks of word problems.  She doesn’t hesitate to say, “It gets easier as you practice it."

“The sum of five even integers is 0.  Find the integers.” What? I have absolutely no idea what this means.  How can you add five things and get nothing?  Is this pre-algebra or pre-philosophy?

My new partners write down what starts like a nice line of numbers but ends up looking like a plumbing schematic for an aircraft carrier.  Sophie and Hannah are in their own world.  I ask a few questions and take diligent notes as the girls solve the problem in a creative way.  Negative numbers!  Who knew?  Before we switch again, Mrs. Barlow asks whether zero is an integer, and as they ponder the question, I have a series of deep thoughts about the value of nothing.

Josh and Eric sidle up to solve a two-step equation involving birthdays.  As we work through the problem, they wait patiently for me to catch on, and by the time we’ve determined “Reid’s value is represented by x+14,” I can see what Mrs. Barlow’s talking about.  Her system is making sense, and as the boys swap out with another pair, I’m feeling like I might finally belong in a middle school math class.

Caitlyn and Anita arrive to tackle a complex problem involving a school band competition, fund raising and wrapping paper.  I’m warming to the task and start to understand what solving for x actually means.  Caitlyn, however, has no time for a forty-six year old man with equation issues, and she blazes through the problem, blurting out the answer without writing anything down.  She speaks softly as she puts pencil to paper to show her work.  At this point, Anita knows enough to let Caitlyn do her thing, and I follow her lead.  Caitlyn whips through the multi-step equation and even makes an off-hand comment about the distributive property.  I just bask in her glow and regret leaving my tax returns in the car.

The class flies by.  Between four sets of partners, the teacher’s encouragement and the realization these kids are both better at math and taller than me, I’m humbled and impressed.  Forget Finland – America’s gonna be just fine in the numbers department with kids like Mrs. Barlow’s late afternoon pre-Algebra class.  They can solve for x with the best of them.  As for me?  I’m a work in progress.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Learning to Hate Math All Over Again

                “Can you help me with my math homework?” my daughter calls to me from the living room, motioning to an open textbook, pencil in hand.  Nothing strikes terror in my heart like the words “math” and “help me” – except maybe “crawlspace” and “clown suit.”  Doesn’t she remember the last time I tried to “help”?  All that remained were broken pencils, wrong answers and shattered innocence. 
                “She doesn’t even need me – she always figures it out on her own,” I think as I walk across the room, looking like “Happy Dad with Math Smarts” but feeling like “Moron with Self-Esteem Issues.”  My heart races as a weird rage wells inside me.  “Please let it be a number question and not a word problem – I can’t do word problems, and this will end badly.”  I want to smash the math book and run into the street, telling my daughter and the world, “I HATE MATH!”
                I’m a grown man with a career, a belly and a bad haircut, and I despise math.  It wasn’t always this way.  After high school, I nurtured a healthy, mature relationship with numbers.  For my part, I agreed to use a calculator, and My Dear Aunt Sally promised to steer me away from a career where making change was paramount, like a carney selling corn dogs on the state fair circuit.  But this word problem in front of me ends the détente.  Right there in the middle of chapter 1.3 of Algebra 1, I learn to hate math all over again.
                The question reads, “You are shopping for school supplies.  A store is offering a 10% discount on binders and a 20% discount on packages of paper.  You want to buy 5 binders originally marked $2.50 each and 10 packages of paper originally marked $1.30 each.  Write an expression that shows how much you will save after the discounts.  Evaluate the expression.”
                I can think of a few one-word expressions that would help me evaluate this question, but none are very mature.   After a distracting harangue about the price of school supplies and the merits of three-ring binders, I realize she senses my incompetence.  I come clean, telling her, “I don’t think I know the answer.”
                “Dad, most adults have a basic understanding of this stuff,” she says as she closes the textbook and walks away.
                I know “hate” is a strong word.  When I was a kid, my mother fined me a nickel every time I said it.   One week I might owe $.37, and maybe $1.16 the next.  Those five-cent pieces really added up.  I wish I could explain in mathematical terms, where x is “hate,” y is “pre-teen angst” and “genetic deficiency” is the variable coefficient of the commutative property, but I can’t because I don’t know what that means.
                Please temper the lamentations about your carefree days at Long Division Sleep-Away Camp, and don’t remind me of the era when a cubit really meant something.  And please can we not discuss Finland?  Yes, it’s true a few hundred Finnish 5th graders have stronger math skills than the entire American public, but have you ever been to Finland?  Me neither, but I hear they eat reindeer.  Blitzen burgers and Comet nuggets?  Finland’s one root cellar mishap away from adding elf chops to its national menu, so I’ll embrace my mathematical mediocrity.  The Finns can have Jaako the Abacus Legend of Lapland, and I’ll stick with fonder memories of Christmas, except that time I got a set of multiplication flash cards in my stocking.  Worst Christmas ever.
                I appreciate those of you with a zeal for all things numerical.  The world needs working bridges, accurate checking accounts, Mars robot trucks and forty-eight ounce Big Gulps.  Without math, we’d never know how much Mountain Dew is really too much.  So math students, teachers and rocket scientists, keep those quantitative noggins chugging.  Leave me alone, but would one of you please call me to help with my daughter’ math homework?  I can’t get past Chapter One, and it’s gonna be a long year.