The New New Math

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A lot of people enjoy surprises. I don’t. Consequently, one of the things I like best about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer surprises left for me in life. The present election aside, almost everything I see these days looks an awful lot like something I’ve seen before, and as a person who reads the ends of books first so that I know what’s coming, “more of the same” always suits me just fine.

Right now there’s much breathless discussion in the local newspaper about the degree to which the STEM curriculum—which the paper characterizes as “new”—should be implemented in our local schools. From my point of view, STEM isn’t new at all. In fact, I myself am the product of an earlier, equally impassioned attempt to “make American students competitive world-wide in math and science” which resulted when our great rivals of the time, the Soviet Union, put a beeping stainless-steel beachball called Sputnik into low earth orbit. On the whole, I think the STEM curriculum is all well and good (and STEAM, which incorporates art into the program, sounds even better), but knowing how the whole Sputnik thing eventually played out has made me just a little bit cynical about the transformative power on students of one curricula over another.

As far as I’m concerned, anything that persuades the American taxpayer to invest money in education is great, be it a useless beeping space-ball or the creeping realization that high-paying but low-tech jobs are becoming scarce. But one thing I don’t like seeing included along with the extra dollars for STEM is the same mood of national paranoia that was issued to me and my classmates along with our books. This time the “threat” seems to be a generalized fear that people in other countries are taking over what we regard as “our” jobs; in my day it was the Commies. Long before I could reliably have pointed out Russia on a map, I already “knew” that the schoolchildren there studied harder, were far more disciplined, and just generally knew more about everything than I did. This wasn’t, in fact, the case (as we now know); but my friends and I were convinced that it was our patriotic duty to catch up with the Russian children because in some mysterious way this might prevent The Bomb from one day being dropped in the middle of our playground. (I don’t think anybody told us this in so many words, but we believed it with all our young hearts.) Overall, a vague sense that we might be learning math for our very lives wasn’t very good for us.  I wouldn’t like to see that mistake repeated.

I’d also like to know for certain that the STEM curriculum is a little better thought-out and more widely tested than the so-called “Enrichment Education” of post-Sputnik days. “Enrichment Education” was responsible for (among other things) the two years I spent (NOT) learning “New Math,” a scheme for teaching arithmetic that emphasized concepts over actual problem-solving. There were students in my class who loved New Math, and did well in it; but they were the kind of kids who, provided with nothing more than a small box of rocks, a piece of string, and the formula a2 + b2 = c2 would probably have independently re-invented calculus. The rest of us started middle school unprepared to do long division, far less algebra.  Luckily for me, calculators were invented soon after; but honestly, rather than a calculator I’d have rather had a firm grasp of the algorithms necessary to solve simple math problems for myself.

I also think the educators of today should keep in mind that, at least as far as I could tell, by the time I went to college, beat-the-commies Enrichment Education had produced just about the usual ratio of mathematicians and engineers to liberal arts majors. I suspect it will be the just the same with STEM. Don’t get me wrong:  I actually think that–with a few caveats–STEM classes are probably a wonderful idea; and as I said, I’m in favor of anything at all that puts dollars into schools. I even think that most of those extra dollars should be spent teaching on science and technology, since STEM subjects, which require laboratory work, are more expensive than the liberal arts to teach. But money is one thing, and classroom hours are another. STEM or no, I don’t want to see the liberal arts neglected.

I feel very strongly about this not because I personally love the liberal arts (though I do), but because I work in the Biochemistry Department of a major university, and I talk to scientists and science students all day long. And all of them tell me—laughing, but a little rueful, too—that everything that they presently know or are learning about science and technology will be out of date in ten years. On the other hand, new discoveries and ideas will never render the knowledge and values imparted to them in their liberal arts classes irrelevant or obsolete. Their whole lives long, any historical fact they pick up, or book they read, will add to–not negate or replace–what they already know.

They could even read a book about New Math.  Hey, better them, than me!

And by the way, on election day, be sure to vote.  If there’s a bond issue for the schools on your ballot, at least consider voting “yes” on it.  Democracies work best when the electorate is educated and informed.

 

I’m Casting My Vote for Better Characters

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I know I’m not the first to observe that the current campaign for president is the most polarizing and divisive in memory; but I may be the first to find a good use for the fact that it is. I’ve decided that it will make me a better writer if I keep reminding myself that supporters of the candidate I don’t plan to vote for (and never mind which one that is) live in the same country I do, eat the same food, watch the same television, speak the same language, and are presumably cognizant of the same facts as I am, and yet hold completely different opinions and support completely different policies from me. Completely different. In fact, this election cycle has made me realize the degree to which I previously underestimated how much people can have in common and still end up in some ways totally unalike.

Sometimes when I write, I forget this. I put in characters who are “different” from the ones with which I personally identify, but I make them villains, or damaged in some way—even crazy. Or I don’t put characters like that in at all. I write exclusively about people who are like me. This election cycle, stressful though it has been, has at least been useful for reminding me that I personally do not define what is rightly human, and should include other kinds of people among my characters.

Otherwise, I’ll just end up writing another Looking Backward.

…And speaking of Looking Backward—which I’d rather do, because it’s a much more fun topic than the election—did anyone else have the same reaction to it as I did, that it was meant as a post-apocalyptic thriller?

No one warned me ahead of time that the book’s utopian future (the year 2000;  Looking Backward was written in 1888) was intended to be taken seriously. I kept waiting for the protagonist, the time-traveling Julian West, to realize that the citizens of the future he’d stumbled into were just waaaaaaay too content with their creepily bland and uniform culture. I waited for him to react with mounting horror to the growing realization that it was unnatural for everyone in this brave new world to be perfectly satisfied with a life spent doing nothing more exciting than listening to music (albeit right in their own houses, on their “telephonic devices”—Bellamy was a much better futurist than novelist); and never minding that the music they listened to was always someone else’s choice; or bragging to a stranger that they could eat all their meals “in any public kitchen they chose,” without ever wishing that they could select their own menu. Were all the citizens really so peacefully inclined that no one ever even wanted to watch a prize-fight, WrestleMania, or a hockey game?

And what was with the eerie degree of satisfaction the women—who were supposed to enjoy equal opportunities with men, by the way—derived from being able to buy any kind of fabric they wanted at one store? I’ve shopped for fabric. Even with a great selection, it’s not that fun. And furthermore, why were they shopping for fabric at all when Bellamy eventually reveals that in actual fact, clothing in this paradise is made of sturdy paper, to be discarded when soiled?

—Okay, the part about the paper clothes was actually in Equality, the sequel to Looking Backward—but that’s all right, because my point is that all the characters in both books were all identical to each other in outlook and attitudes*, and I mustn’t do that when I write. The guy on my street, the one with the sign for that other candidate for president, is a pretty nice fellow, really; and in a non-election year, I actually like him. I must try to remember to put people like him—not insane, and not evil—in my next book.

In the meantime, here’s an article on the subject of election-season stress that concludes with the useful recommendation to cope with anxiety by cuddling a puppy. Go visit your local Humane Society. They have puppies who will gladly exchange cuddles for calm with you.


*That is, they’re identical to each other except for a misguided few—briefly alluded to—who persist in committing unspecified “crimes.” Crime in the never-never land of Looking Backward is a “medical disorder,” and treated as such. Don’t eat the food in the public kitchens, Julian West! The public kitchens are obvious delivery-points for whatever substance the citizens are being secretly dosed with to engender all that exaggerated “calm.”

Writing in the First Person

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I’m deep into writing another book—a sequel to Ant-Lands.  This is by popular request.  “Honey, write a sequel to Ant-Lands,” was a popular request of my husband’s.  I don’t usually read sequels myself, having formed an unfavorable opinion of them when I was six years old and wasted a week of my young life on the insipid Heidi Grows Up; but I feel like I owe my husband something for being my most faithful and supportive reader.  He once compared my work favorably to that of Joseph Conrad, his own preferred author, and though I don’t believe for a moment that he really thinks I’m in Conrad’s class, the memory of his heroic attempt to sound sincere when he said it is something I will always treasure.

Just to make a change from Ant-Lands, which was written in the third person, I’m writing the sequel in the first person.  I admit to feeling a certain hesitance about this—not because I don’t like writing in the first person (witness this blog), but because I’m haunted by a remark from a friend concerning the first-person point of view.

Her name was Julie, and Julie had given up reading a novel written in the first person because, she reported, it confused her.  She said, “The book kept saying, ‘I did this; and then I did that’; and I kept thinking, ‘no I didn’t!’”

Now, I have never had this problem.  In the same circumstances, if my brain says anything, it says, “Yeah, I totally did do that, and lots more!”; but are there many Julies out there?  By writing in the first person, am I taking a chance on limiting my future sales?

Julie and I are eager to hear from anyone who has more information on this important topic.

The Devil’s in the Details

fish-GrimmsI may have mentioned that I’m no longer young, but believe me, it doesn’t follow that I’m nostalgic for The Good Old Days. Sure, forty years ago I was better-looking. My skin was smoother and I had fewer stomachs and chins. But I also had only my own hands and brain to rely on, whereas now I have robots to do my work, computers to think for me, and Ebay on which to buy back my childhood.

I’m currently waiting, with all the patience of a six-year-old, for a boxed set of books: Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairy Tales, published in 1945. They’re the versions I grew up with, beautifully illustrated with copperplate engravings, and—possibly because the world seemed an especially harsh place in 1945—honestly and accurately translated from the original languages with no accommodation to a child’s fragile psyche. In 1945, apparently, children’s fragile whatevers were to be hardened up, not accommodated. Sensitive child? Cod-liver oil shots and Grimm’s Cinderella were just what the doctor ordered.

The theme of the Grimm’s Cinderella is basically the same as Disney’s: Abused step-child triumphs. The difference is in the story’s plot details. There’s no fairy-godmother, for one thing. Cindy finds her three ball-gowns (one for each of three successive nights of dancing; even a prince wasn’t expected to pick a wife in only one night) lying on her mother’s grave. Disney either thought a grave was too morbid to mention in a children’s story, or that by leaving open the question of whether Cindy’s mom was absent due to her death or a messy divorce, more children could identify with her. I can see his point. My father died when I was very young, and I had a grave to visit, too. I saw myself every time I looked at the illustration of Cinderella at her mother’s graveside.

I also identified with the fact that she had two older sisters. My own two sisters weren’t step-, and they weren’t (very) evil; but we had our issues. I got a big thrill out of the part of the Grimm story in which in response to their mother’s urging, the step-sisters make their big ugly feet fit Cinderella’s little lost shoe by cutting off their toes and heels. “When you’re queen,” Wicked Step-mother reassures them, “you won’t have to walk anymore.” I was a little disappointed in the prince for being such a dim-wit as to fall for the ruse (twice); but luckily for him, some talking birds nearby alerted him in time to the blood-trails the sister’s mutilated feet were leaving. The talking birds also made sure to peck out the step-sisters eyes once Cindy was happily settled in the castle.

In the Andersen book was the delightful The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, in which a very vain little girl who bridges a mud-puddle with a perfectly good loaf of bread to avoid soiling her shoes gets sucked straight into a Hell that makes the Biblical lake of fire look like Club Med by comparison (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t waste food); and The Red Shoes, in which a vain little girl lies about the color of her shoes to her half-blind benefactress and is danced to death by them (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t lie).

Now, those were some stories!

In contrast, my grandson’s current favorite book is one in which Superman uses his various super-powers to determine that Mr. Grocer’s missing bananas were stolen by a gorilla. Superman gets the gorilla to confess to this transgression by assuring him that he (the gorilla) will feel much better once he’s got the whole ugly story off his chest. (The bananas will still be gone, though. No word on who compensates Mr. Grocer for the bananas.) Same basic fairy-tale-type plot, with Superman filling in for fairy godmother; same basic moral set (lying, stealing, and wasting food are bad); but what a difference in the details! I read Grandson this story at bed-time and then we both fall asleep from sheer boredom. I’m not allowed to read him Cinderella, or The Red Shoes. I’m not allowed to read him The Girl Without Hands, in which a father cuts off his daughter’s hands to escape being taken himself by the Devil. But I’m looking forward to re-reading them myself; and who knows? Maybe one day my daughter will change her mind. Maybe one day she’ll reason, “After all, Mother read them as a child; and look how great she turned out.” Maybe one day Grandson himself will figure out that he’s being cheated, and demand better entertainment. Honest: Grimm and Andersen will harden his little psyche right up.

No cod-liver oil for him, though. That stuff’s just plain nasty.

Meta-Plotting

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If you’re looking for a plot, there are lots of lists you can consult for ideas.  The lists contain various numbers of elements, from one to thirty-six (and possibly more), but most of them have it in common that they don’t make any value judgements.  They’re just lists.  If you decide you want to write—just as an example—a Polti number four, “vengeance taken for kin upon kin,” that’s your business.  What the compilers of the lists aimed for was completeness, with the underlying assumption that what made a plot good was how it was handled.

Then there’s Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:  Why We Tell Stories.

Mr. Booker maintains (through 700 pages) not that there are only seven plots; but that there are only seven good ones.  Any work with a plot falling outside of his list is, by definition, a bad work.  On the good list are Crocodile Dundee and Brewster’s Millions; on the bad side, The Cherry Orchard, everything by Proust, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Also Rigoletto, no matter who sings the part of Gilda.

Um…pretty sure I heard different.

there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sells

Mr. Booker has reasons for judging literary works as he does, and the reason isn’t because he’s a contrarian.  He is a contrarian, as a matter of fact.  Among other things, he passionately maintains that global warming is a sham; evolution is false; and neither asbestos nor tobacco causes cancer.  –And don’t even get him started on the British Family Court System, or Social Services.  But in the case of literature, Mr. Booker feels that the worth of a work depends entirely on how well it serves the specific purpose of providing Jungian-style therapy for the reader.  A work’s plot, Booker feels, should parallel the human journey from total dependence in infancy; through adolescent efforts to break away from family (life’s greatest trauma); to establishment in the world as a mature individual.  Life itself has a plot, the Meta-plot, and through repeated exposure to literature that mirrors this meta-plot, we come to terms with life.

First in the meta-plot story is the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to an adventure (as the child wishes to be an adult).  Then comes the dream stage.  The hero has some success, and imagines that he is invincible (“I got an A on my math quiz!”).  This is followed by the frustration stage, when life slaps the hero around a little (we all remember that stage, right?), and he discovers that he’s not invincible after all.

Then things get really bad.  It’s the nightmare stage.  The plot’s peak.  Hope is lost, everyone hates you; everything sucks.  Then—and not a moment too soon for most of us—comes the resolution, where the hero overcomes the odds.  Life’s not so bad after all, and we learned plenty along the way.

That’s the meta-plot, the one, single, really good, wholly acceptable, therapeutic One Plot to Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings is, predictably, on Booker’s approved list).  The Seven Basic Plots of Booker’s title are encompassed by the meta-plot—subsets of the meta-plot, so to speak—and have names like Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf; Shrek); The Quest (The Pilgrim’s Progress; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle); and Rebirth (Peer Gynt; Machine Gun Preacher).

As a matter of fact, I like Kafka, and Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence—all Booker bads.  I like them a lot and I think they’re not only good, but great.   I personally don’t believe that people need all the books they read to conform to the meta-plot to provide them with continual therapy.

But on the other hand, there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sellsThe Hunger Games outsold Women in LovePeter Rabbit outsold The MetamorphosisHarry Potter outsold everything.

So for my next book, I’m sticking with THE META-PLOT.  Art aside, I could use the bucks.