Studying calculus at an advanced age


A friend of mine on Facebook mentioned Coursera recently. I respect his opinions, so I went to check it out.

It’s for real. It’s a website where you can find college-level courses offered for free. Really.

Okay. So I never took calculus in high school or college, and I saw that that Coursera was offering “Calculus 101.”

What could it hurt? It’s an online course. It must be very gentle, right?

Brother, was I wrong.

This is a complete thorough-going college-level course in calculus, with lectures, and homework, and quizzes, and a textbook (all free).

I’m barely through with the first week, and I’m already terrified.

I haven’t felt this way since high school.

Calculus turns out to be demanding and difficult, which is not good for my ossifying over-fifty brain.

Every evening I resolve to quit the course, and every evening I try again.

Now: can someone tell me: how do you multiply square roots? I’ve forgotten.

And I need to know by next Friday’s quiz.

Good coloring

good coloring

Probably we all had at least one teacher whom we detested, and who detested us. Mine was Mrs. Velma Himmler, back in the second grade. (I’ve changed her name, fairly obviously.) She was short, and dyspeptic, and mostly angry all the time. I was very timid. We were like matter and antimatter.

Second grade was pretty awful for me. But this most of all stands out in my mind: Velma Himmler let me know in no uncertain terms that I didn’t color pictures correctly. I left white space between the horizon and the blue sky. Velma Himmler told me that this was incorrect and unnatural, and that my coloring was substandard.

I knew, even at the age of seven, that she was full of shit. For one thing, we were in the Pacific Northwest, where there was often a soft layer of white cloud between the horizon and the blue sky (when we were lucky enough to have a blue sky).

And also, more importantly: who the hell was Velma Himmler to tell me how to color my pictures?

Coloring, for children, is a perfectly uninhibited activity. You color what you want, the way you want. Zigzags? Perfect. Solid colors? Also perfect.

Then you get to school, and you discover that there’s a correct way to color your pictures.

I never thought of myself as an artist, so I didn’t take Mrs. Himmler’s criticism very seriously (though I’ve obviously remembered it after all these years).

But later I took up crossstitch. When I was in Morocco, I copied and improvised patterns that I saw in the local rugs – called “kilims” – and did them as crossstitch. I gave all my work away, so I can’t show you any samples, but I can tell you that they were lovely. They used every color. They were geometrical representations of fish, and people, and abstract shapes, just like the original kilims I was copying, and I was able to use all of the psychedelic colors of thread I’d bought over the years.

Good coloring? There’s no such thing. There are all the colors of the rainbow, and more. And shapes.

Kids: when you make art, use all the colors and shapes you know.

Use all of them.

The Rhode Island School of Design


The Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD (pronounced “risdee”), is Brown University’s little brother to the west, on the downward slope of College Hill facing downtown. It has produced many creative artists: I will name only Seth MacFarland and the Talking Heads, but there are lots more.

When I went to hear Lynda Barry a while back, I entertained myself before the presentation by watching the audience (mostly RISD students) coming in. Ah, kids, they appear to be having a lot more fun than the average college student! They were dressed very entertainingly. One had a hoodie like a faux panda, made to look as if the panda was eating her head from behind. Another’s hoodie was (I think) Piglet from “Winnie-The-Pooh.” There were lots of other interesting hats, from various cultures around the world, and from no culture at all.

Hair color: why stop with one? A little blue on this side, maybe some crimson on the other.

And did you ever think the 1990s would be retro? The kid sitting next to me had a flannel shirt and a mock-Rasta hairstyle and a kind of Peruvian jacket; he was carrying his skateboard, and it dropped and rattled noisily, and he looked at me very apologetically.

O my the faculty! One was very dignified, balding, handsome, but wearing something that looked like Charlie Brown’s zigzag-embossed shirt. Another was wearing something like formal pajamas.

Everyone was having a wonderful time. More than that: they were having a lot more fun than I remember having in college.

Is it too late for me to get a degree in design?

Learning Spanish with “Destinos”

My Spanish is what you might call “accidental.” My French and my Italian are pretty good, so I’m pretty much able to read Spanish; a lot of words look the same (though there are lots of tricks and traps between the three languages). My Peace Corps training took place in Puerto Rico, so I had some exposure to Spanish there. Also, I try to pay attention to American Spanish, on bus signs and billboards, and try to educate myself by translating them.

But I want to do better.

Back in the 1990s I saw a few episodes of a PBS educational series called “Destinos.” It was a Spanish-language course, in the form of a telenovela. Don Fernando, an old man in Mexico, learns that his first wife (whom he left for dead in Spain during the Civil War) may still be alive, and that he may have a son in Europe. He sends a Hispanic-American lawyer named Raquel Rodriguez to Europe to discover the truth. She follows the trail from Seville to Madrid to Buenos Aires to Puerto Rico, while Don Fernando’s health continues to worsen –

Well, it was mighty gripping.

It was also a very easy way to learn Spanish.

The best way to learn a language – any language – is to want to learn it. You need incentive. Lots of people want to learn foreign languages, but then discover that there’s a lot of memorization and repetition involved, and it’s not fun, and they drop the attempt. But if you’ve got incentive, it’s a doddle. If you get dropped into a non-English-speaking culture, you learn the language or else.

And, reader, “Destinos” is still out there. You can find it on DVD, and as a textbook. I recently bought both.

And it’s just as good as I remembered it.

It is very absorbing. The series keeps raising the level of difficulty almost unnoticeably from episode to episode, so you’re learning without even realizing it. Once in a while it stops to reinforce a lesson about numbers, or months, or seasons, or telling time, but that’s okay too. Also, you hear Spanish of all kinds: Raquel’s American Spanish, the Mexican Spanish of Don Fernando and his family, the elegant Castellano spoken by the characters in Seville and Madrid, the heavily-accented Spanish of Argentina and Puerto Rico.

I watch a couple of episodes every evening. !Y ya hablo espanol como el rey Juan Carlos!



Or something like that.

Sesame Street, Elmo, and Kevin Clash

Over the past few weeks, a mini-drama has been growing over Kevin Clash, who voices Elmo, the little red Sesame Street monster.

First there was a man who claimed that Clash had relations with him while he was under 18; then he recanted his claim. Since then, however, two other men have come forward with the same story.

Oh dear.

I love Sesame Street, and the Muppets. During this past Presidential election, Mitt Romney said he was ready to end funding of PBS and CTW, the homeland of Sesame Street, and there was a backlash: people claimed (very fairly) that Mitt Romney wanted to kill Big Bird, inspiring images like this:

Well, Obama won the election.

And now it turns out that the voice of Elmo is a child molester.

Awful? Of course. But oddly timed. I can’t help wondering if this is Republican reprisal for the election, to weaken PBS as a whole. I wonder if they’ve been digging for dirt on PBS, and finally found some.

Clash, if guilty, should be punished. But PBS should not be punished.

The mission of PBS is to make America a little smarter. It made me smarter, back in the 1970s. As for expense: they (together with NPR) receive one one-hundredth of one percent of the Federal budget, for God’s sake!

If we have to jettison Kevin Clash, fine.

But let’s not jettison PBS.

Let your representatives and senators know how you feel about this.

“Principal Principle,” and teaching, and teachers


Partner and I saw a brand-new play called “Principal Principle,” by Joe Zarrow, at Brown the other evening. It’s a funny / serious look at a year in the life of four high-school teachers, seen from the teachers’ workroom. Overall, it was excellent: crisp dialogue, good use of devices like the P.A. system (what would school be without one?), and (as usual) really excellent performances by the five actresses in the show.



(It was a new play, and not perfect. The ending was a little unsatisfying. Some of the moral dilemmas seemed a little too pat. And the passage of the school year – we began in September, so we knew that intermission would be December and the ending would be May – was a little too clockwork-predictable, like the passage of time in a Harry Potter novel.)



But it made me thoughtful about the teaching profession.



Firstly, it made me (again) grateful that I did not choose teaching as a career. I am not built for it. I have tried it, fitfully, over the years, in harmless small doses that did no real harm to my “students,” and I know for a fact now that I was not constructed to be a teacher. I am tough, in my lotus-blossom way, and (in the words of Elinor Wylie) I have faced out a hundred dooms, but if I’d ever tried to be a real honest-to-god teacher, I’d have been a gibbering wreck by mid-October.



This leads me, secondly, to give honor and respect to the very many good / great teachers I’ve had in my life. One of them is actually now my Facebook friend, forty years later. She was a wonderful teacher, and is now retired, and has now dedicated her life to being an all-around wonderful human being. Other great teachers – from grade school, intermediate school, high school, college, grad school – crowd to mind. They were distinctive, and authoritative, and knew their onions. Some were funny; some were stuffily serious; some were alternately remote and chummy. (I guess that’s to say that they were, in general, various types of human beings.)



This leads me, thirdly, to say that I feel vaguely nauseous when I hear people (mostly Republicans, strangely enough) talk about teaching as if it’s a well-paid racket run by crooked unions. I wonder, sincerely, if they’re playing to the fact that there’s a significant chunk of the population that hated school, and always regarded teachers as the enemy. (You know: dullards and idiots. And there will never be a shortage of those.)



So I suppose “Principal Principle” was a pretty good play after all, if it caused me to do all this deep thinking after seeing it.



(Of course, there were two women sitting behind us eating potato chips for a while. But I turned suddenly and gave both of them the Deadly Radioactive Stare a few times, and it seemed to quiet them down (although one had a nasty cough, and kept spraying Partner with dengue fever, or whatever she had).)



(But isn’t that what theater is all about?)



Teaching children to belittle gay people


John Jackson, the president of Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, Rhode Island (which describes itself on its website as a “Catholic, all male, college preparatory high school”) wrote a letter to the editors of the Providence Journal the other day.

The letter contains no real surprises. Jackson (in line with his church) condemns gay marriage, and says that President Obama is assisting in the continuing moral decay of our great country by countenancing gay marriage. He calls gay activity “disordered and immoral.” He resorts to the old “hate the sin, not the sinner” ploy: same-sex love is okay, but gay sexual activity is not, since it doesn’t lead to procreation.  He ends the letter with this grave pronouncement: “As the song goes, ‘God is watching us,’ and I can assure you he is not happy.”



(How does he know this? I wonder. How do these bejeezly idiots always know for sure what God is thinking?)






Well, this Church flunky is getting his face rubbed in it. Parents and alumni of Hendricken are slamming him in print and on Facebook. The point made most often is that his letter comes pretty close to hate speech, and that he is helping to create a negative atmosphere for gay students at Hendricken. (Assuming, of course, there are some. Gosh! Do you think that’s possible?)



Jackson, on Saturday, apologized for the tone of his letter. Not for his message, mind you, but for his tone.



The Church still doesn’t understand a thing. They don’t realize that “Catholic priest” has become a virtual synonym for “pedophile” in the public mind, and that Catholic prelates, as portrayed in movies and TV these days, are shown in the same way that Nazi officers were portrayed back in my childhood: stupid, pompous, mindlessly bureaucratic, and cruel.



Jackson thought (I assume) that he was helping reaffirm morality and good behavior. He did nothing of the sort. He showed himself to be a bigot. And I tell you, if there are any incidents of anti-gay bullying on the Hendricken campus this year, we will hear about them, and little Mister Jackson will be roasted properly. (He will probably be protected by his Catholic-prelate bosses, up to a point. But he’s a layman, so they’ll probably toss him out on his ear if it goes too far.)



(This is a link, by the way, to the song he referred to above, with the lyric “God is watching us.” It’s a beautiful lyrical song, sung by Bette Midler, about how local and sectarian differences break down when viewed from far away, and that God looks down from Heaven and loves us all. Funny how Jackson got a different message from it.)



Finally: let’s remember (as Stephen Colbert reminded us recently) that the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament said not word one about homosexuality.



The Jesus of the New Testament did, however, say the following:


Mark 10:14 Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.15 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. 16 And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.

Mt 18:6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 

Mt 18:10 Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. 

Mt 18:14 Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.

Mr 9:42 And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. 

Lu 17:2 It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. 



Now let us think about the Church’s record on pedophilia, and the way in which they continue to protect pedophile priests, and the way they treated young girls in Ireland. Let’s add to the list the fact that John Jackson, President of Bishop Hendricken High School, is telling his students – children! – that gay people are “disordered and immoral,” thus encouraging a hostile environment for gay students at his school.



He is teaching children to hate other children.



Better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck.

%d bloggers like this: