Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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A great book for a nonexistent audience

August 30, 2013

The world of children’s music suffers from a constant influx of “regular” musicians who have kids and then decide to do a children’s album — or so laments a friend, anyway. Since these Johnny-come-latelies haven’t made a study of other children’s music, they go for low-hanging fruit (writing songs about all of the usual topics: dinosaurs, brushing teeth, sharing, naps) and make rookie mistakes (like using irony and humor in ways that kids won’t understand).

Not being a professional musician, I’m not guilty of that particular sin. Instead I’ve taken the equally cliched path of fancying myself a children’s book author despite being largely oblivious to the standards of this genre.

My latest work, Leila Z and the Terrible Triplets (the sequel to Cakes by Leila Z!), is an interesting case in point. It’s essentially an adaptation of a math seminar I attended as a freshman at Williams College in the fall of 1991.

Leila Z cover

As a science-for-the-masses guy, I’m proud of this book. It presents the math in a fun, relatively accessible manner without being preachy. And yet, even now that the book is done, I still can’t really define its target audience. The story is too simplistic for anyone over the age of 10, and the math is too hard for anyone younger than that.

For now, I’m billing it as a “mini math mystery for the whole family.”

preference diagram

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Lucky v. Good, continued

April 26, 2013

While on the road with Phil last summer, I made up a couple of stories about a police dog named Lucky and a ne’er-do-well known as Upton O. Good.

At the time, Phil challenged me to create a third story about Lucky that included the following elements: a train full of police dogs, an invisibility potion, and donuts for everyone at the end.

For some reason, those elements didn’t initially coalesce into a coherent story. But this week, faced with a deadline to produce something for Phil’s probable future cousins, Phil and I went back to my previous notes and we cranked out the tale below.


The Case of the Disappearing Donuts
for Karen, Melanie, and Parker
by Greg and Phil

The town of Pendleton, Oregon is protected by a police force of smart, brave humans and dogs. They are really good at solving mysteries and catching bad guys. Last year, however, they had lots of trouble protecting their donuts! They might still be hungry today if not for Lucky, the German Shepherd who leads the Pendleton K9 unit.

The first time the donuts disappeared, it was actually kind of funny. The chief was talking about road repairs and traffic changes when someone noticed that the donut plate was empty.

“Hey, Peabody, why didn’t you save some for the rest of us?” quipped Officer Fernandez.

“It wasn’t me,” protested Officer Peabody. “I didn’t eat a single one!”

“Then what’s that white stuff on your shirt?” asked Fernandez suspiciously.

Peabody looked down. “Um … I think that’s whipped cream from my hot chocolate,” he said sheepishly. Everyone else laughed.

At the all-squad meeting the following week, people watched the donut plate a bit more closely. As the chief began to talk, the donuts seemed to float right out of the room, as if a ghost were carrying them! This time nobody was laughing. In fact, the entire squad was too startled to say or do anything until all the donuts were gone.

“What –- what just happened?” said Officer Yamada at last.

“It has to be some sort of practical joke,” said the chief. “Let’s not worry about it right now. Besides, you guys have been eating too many donuts lately. Maybe this is God’s way of putting you on a diet.”

“But what if somebody is using an invisibility cloak or something?” Officer Costa wondered. “They could use it to steal things that are much more valuable than donuts!”

“You mean like whole cakes?” asked Peabody uncertainly.

“Jewels! Money! Computers! Paintings! Cars!” Costa replied harshly. “Things like that, you nitwit!”

* * * * * *

As it turned out, Officer Costa was almost right about the invisibility cloak. Pendleton’s most notorious thief, Upton O. Good, had discovered an invisibility potion, which he could pour on anything he wanted to make invisible. Himself, for example.

Good decided that, before stealing anything big, he would try to understand the potion better by using it on some different objects. One day he made an entire train car of police dogs vanish as they returned from a training session in the mountains. Fortunately, as the dogs got off the train, a rainstorm seemed to wash away the potion’s effects. Another time Good dumped the potion on Lucky, who remained invisible for three days until, unable to do his regular police work, he went for a swim in the Umatilla River.

After climbing out of the river and shaking himself dry, Lucky noticed that he was back to normal again. Why had the river reversed the potion’s effects, just as the rainstorm had done? Suddenly Lucky had the answer: the potion was counteracted by WATER! Now, how could he get the humans to realize this?

Meanwhile, Good had had so much fun making Lucky disappear that he decided to do it again. The next day, Good first used the potion on himself, then snuck up on Lucky at the police station and sprinkled him with the potion.

This time Lucky knew exactly what to do. He went to his water dish, waited until some officers were in the room, barked to get their attention, and dipped his left front paw in the water dish. It appeared again, like magic! Then he dipped his right front paw, and then his rear paws, and then as much of his belly as he could fit into the dish. Gradually Lucky’s whole body came back into view.

“Holy donuts!” exclaimed an officer. “It’s as if the water makes invisible things visible again!” Lucky barked to tell the officer that she was right.

Now that the human police knew about the water trick, it was time to set a trap for the donut thief.

At the next meeting, a large plate of donuts was set out as usual, and the chief started talking in his usual way. But just as the first donut started to move, the officers drew squirt guns and fired them toward the plate. The dogs provided reinforcement by lifting their legs and spraying.

In a moment their old nemesis appeared in front of them, soggy and grumpy.

“It’s Good!” yelled one officer while another raced forward to handcuff him and escort him to a jail cell.

To celebrate the capture, the chief bought a fresh batch of donuts. There were enough for everybody -– even the dogs.

“Hey, where are the Boston creams?” asked Fernandez. He sounded upset, but was smiling.

“You’d better ask Lucky,” answered Peabody. “He’s the best detective we’ve got!”

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Dogged pursuit of a bank robber

June 10, 2012

[The following story, created under severe time constraints while driving through eastern Oregon, was inspired in part by the joke “Tall Tail,” which is track #4 on the album Puttin On The Dog.]

The Pendleton police department doesn’t have a lot of officers, but it does have an unusually smart and brave dog named Lucky. So when the notorious criminal Upton O. Good robbed a bank in downtown Pendleton, the police chief sent Lucky to investigate, along with a new officer.

The robber fled into a forest, but it wasn’t long before the officer and Lucky spotted his footprints along the muddy trail. They followed the footprints for a long time and eventually traced them to a large cluster of tall trees with lots of branches and leaves. It was clear that the robber had climbed one of the trees and was hiding there.

“Look, Upton, we know you’re up there,” began the officer. “But it could take us hours and hours to find you and arrest you, and meanwhile you might get cold and hungry. Why don’t we settle this with a quick contest? If you can beat Lucky in a simple three-question quiz, I swear by the statutes of Oregon that I will let you go free. On the other hand, if Lucky beats you, you must let me arrest you and put you in jail.”

The bank robber, not being the sort of person who was smart enough to avoid leaving footprints, agreed to this deal from his unknown perch.

“OK!” shouted the officer so that both Lucky and the robber could hear him. “First question: Does the face of a bearded man feel smooth or rough?”

“Ruff!” replied Lucky instantly. “Oh, come on!” protested the surprised robber.

“Now, Upton, a deal is a deal. Second question: what is the 18th letter of the alphabet?”

“Arrrrrr!” howled Lucky with enthusiasm. “Good grief!” was all the agitated robber could say.

“Last question: Is my wife a boy or a girl?”

“Grrrrrrrrrl!” was Lucky’s immediate growl. “Lucky wins!” yelled the officer.

The robber was quite upset at this point. Being a man of his word, though, he hopped down from his hiding spot and let himself be handcuffed and taken out of the woods.

As the triumphant officer and Lucky returned to the station with the robber in their possession, another officer spoke. “Look, I don’t know what happened out there,” he said to his coworkers, “But I can tell you one thing: I’d rather be Lucky than Good.”

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Too much to hope for?

May 13, 2012

In case you missed it, the AP Stylebook recently caved to prevailing usage of the word “hopefully.”

Like the friend who sent me this link, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the curmudgeon in me bemoans this further erosion of standards. (What’s next — acceptance of frivolous z’s in words/phrases like “For realz?” and “Whatev’z”?) On the other, avoiding nontraditional use of “hopefully” is really awkward in practice. To quote my father, a writer for most of his professional career:

I gave up trying to work around it, since it forces one to sound pompous (“It is to be hoped,” or “One would hope”). I guess you can say, “Let’s hope,” but that may not sound very smooth or natural. I tend to just say “hopefully,” and put up with intellectual stab of pain that accompanies it.

My dad is not simply a descriptivist, either. In his otherwise complimentary reaction to my 1995 commencement speech at Williams College, he noted that I had incorrectly used “aggravate” to mean “to annoy” (rather than “to worsen”).

Overall, some of these distinctions seem useful to me while others seem trivial. I’ve never been able to work up much concern about the splitting of inifinitives, yet I do have deeply held convictions on hyphens (sadly underutilized in compound modifiers of nouns) and Oxford commas (on which I agree with my friend, who writes, “I’m here, I’m pro-Oxford comma, and I vote!”).

Then there are the more straighforward issues such as lie vs. lay and its vs. it’s. I’m strictly a law-and-order guy on those, with no sympathy for the ignorant. Learn the rules, people! Without precise, clear communication, we have nothing but humbergesse and wogenblunks.

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Spinning class

December 26, 2011

Jeff arrived at 8:59 for a 9 AM spinning class, his first ever. The instructor, a slender woman in her 30s, helped him raise his seat and handlebars. Soon he and the others were into an easy 5-minute warmup accompanied by the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Then they shifted abruptly into a simulated hill climb, increasing the resistance of the flywheel and standing up on the pedals. “And it burns, burns, burns,” sang Johnny Cash. The hill continued, but participants were told to “get back in the saddle.” Thank goodness, thought Jeff. He never stood up when riding a real bike; even 2 minutes of that was awkward and exhausting.

The music carried them onward. “Who is this by?” asked the woman to Jeff’s left as “Self Esteem” (The Offspring) transitioned into “Hurts So Good.” “John Mellencamp . . . back when he was known as John Cougar,” Jeff said. “I think Cougar might be his middle name.” “It’s a record company name,” said an older man in a gentle Southern twang.

Jeff was dripping onto the floor like light rain on a sidewalk, and the pool of sweat below him started to invade the adjacent stations. “Would it be OK to take my shirt off?” he asked the instructor. She gave a half-smile and shrugged noncommittally. He kept his shirt on.

Another hill climb coincided with a country/folk song about Indiana, “where the tall corn grows.” “I’ll be impressed if you all know this one,” said the instructor. Jeff thought (correctly) that it was Lyle Lovett but was beaten to the answer by the Mellencamp expert.

The instructor diverged further from her protocol to note, “I’m from the small Indiana town where Lyle Lovett married Julia Roberts. But I was in Italy at the time, so I missed it.”

“And by the time you got back, the marriage was over,” cracked the Mellenfan.

In an era when it’s customary to monitor pace, heart rate, elevation change, calories burned, etc., Jeff found his exercise bike oddly primitive. There was no indication of power output; the only variables being reported were the duration of the session and the cadence in revolutions per minute. Apparently spinning was basically noncompetitive and nonquantitative in spirit — more like yoga than weight training. About the only thing the spinners could compare amongst themselves was perspiration production — a contest that Jeff was clearly winning, much to his chagrin.

After some light post-ride stretching during which Jeff mistook “All Summer Long” (Kid Rock) for “Sweet Home Alabama” (Lynyrd Skynyrd), he approached the barely-moist instructor.

“Sorry for sweating all over your floor,” he said.

“No worries,” she said in her accentless, not-necessarily-from-Indiana voice. “Besides, the alternative is even more problematic.”

“What’s the alternative?”

“Hypohidrosis.”

“Right,” he said, unsure of both the word itself and whether he was being teased. “Anyway, thanks for a great class.”

“Anytime.”

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Cinéma nerdité

November 13, 2011

Since I don’t watch much TV, only recently did I get around to checking out The Big Bang Theory, the sitcom about romantically challenged physics nerds. It seemed fine but not unusually clever or interesting; in fact, it made me wonder whether I could write a biologist version that would be almost good. Check out this hypothetical scene, for example….

* * * * * * * * * *

[Scene: a lab. STEVE is pipetting at his bench. PAUL walks by.]

PAUL: Hey, Steve!

STEVE: Hi, Paul. How’s it going?

PAUL: I just had a breakthrough! You know that beta-galactosidase paper I’ve been working on?

STEVE: Yeah….

PAUL: Well, just before submitting it to the journal, I had to go through it and replace every instance of the word “beta-galactosidase” with “beta-gal,” you know, for succinctness. And as I was doing this, it occurred to me that that’s exactly what I need in my life right now — a beta gal!”

STEVE: What?!?

PAUL: You know, a beta gal! Beta as in beta testing, gal as in girl — or woman or lady or whatever they’re called these days. A girlfriend … whom I can take for a test drive!

STEVE: Well, sure. But I think you’re mistaking a ridiculous pun for actual insight. Maybe you should spend less time in here, theorizing, and more time interacting with real women in the real world.

PAUL: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying! Now I know what kind of woman I should be looking for!

STEVE: And what kind of woman is that?

PAUL: Well, you know how beta-gal expression in the presence of X-gal turns cells blue? And you know how women with punk hair sort of excite me? There’s got to be a blue-haired woman out there who’s perfect for me! Either that, or … in the type of assay I’m doing now, beta-gal converts ONPG into a yellow product, so it’s possible that I should be looking for someone who’s blonde. But, you know, blonde or blue, or some combination of the two….

STEVE: On second thought, maybe you should just stay here and think about this some more. I’m not sure you’re ready for, um, peer review.

[Timer beeps from across the room.]

PAUL: Oops, time to stop my reaction. Talk to you later, Steve!

[PAUL walks away briskly as STEVE looks toward him with befuddlement.]

* * * * * * * * * *

Apparently I’m not the only one who wishes there was more bio-themed romantic comedy in the world. Valerie Weiss, who has a Ph.D. in biophysics, has just released a trailer for her forthcoming film Losing Control.

I look forward to seeing the full film, which is due to be released on Valentine’s Day.

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Bye Bye, Bad Guy

August 29, 2009

Phil Crowther lived in a neighborhood filled with bad guys.

Sometimes they would sneak into his house and try to steal his toy cars. Phil would scare them away by shining his flashlight at them. They were so afraid of the light and would run off so fast that nobody ever saw them except Phil.

One night, Phil noticed a bad guy in the TV room. Phil grabbed his flashlight and pointed it toward the room, but the batteries were dead. For a moment, Phil froze with surprise, and his pacifier fell out of his mouth. Then he entered the room and tried to flip the light switch on the wall. The bad guy blocked him.

Phil thought some spare batteries were on the desk, so he stumbled to the desk in the dark. He ran his hands over the desk and found something that felt like a big hunk of plastic. It wasn’t a battery, but maybe it was another flashlight? Phil picked it up and aimed it where he thought the bad guy was.

Across the room, the TV turned on, producing a stream of light, music, and shouting. The bad guy was so frightened that he left immediately.

“Bye bye, bad guy,” said Phil. He looked at the remote control in his hand, used it to start a Dora The Explorer video, sat down in a comfortable chair, and put his pacifier back in his mouth.

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Phil Crowther and the Rapidly Growing Blackberry Bushes

July 6, 2008

Phil Crowther lived in a small house with a big back porch that hung high above the back yard.

One morning Phil and his friend Bear were playing on the porch. Phil tried to look down at the yard, but he couldn’t see anything over the porch fence except for a few really tall blackberry bushes.

“Bear,” Phil said, “I want to know what’s down there! If I throw you over the porch fence, will you explore the yard and then come back and tell me about it?”

“I guess so,” said Bear thoughtfully. “Good!” said Phil. He grabbed Bear and threw him off of the porch.

A second later, there was a strange howling sound from below. “I hope Bear is OK,” thought Phil.

Phil waited and waited for Bear to return. Finally, at the end of the afternoon, Bear appeared. His fur had caught on the thorns of a blackberry bush, and the rapidly growing bush had lifted him up to the porch.

Phil pulled Bear out of the bush and onto the porch. “How was your day, Bear?” he asked.

“Oh, it was bearable,” said Bear. “There are lots of blackberry bushes down there, and their thorns are very sharp. But the berries are tasty, and I got a nice view of the neighborhood as I was being lifted up to the porch. Also, I found an old toy of yours,” he added, holding up a fire truck that hadn’t been seen in weeks.

“Wow — that sounds fun!” Phil exclaimed. “Tomorrow you should throw me down into the yard!”

Bear did not think this was a good idea, but Phil had made up his mind. The next morning, Bear launched him over the fence just as he had requested.

Phil landed on an especially thorny bush. “Oooowwww!” he howled. “That hurt!”

As Phil looked around, he saw several toys that had been missing for some time. There was a soccer ball, a xylophone, a giraffe, and many other colorful objects. He tried to grab them, but they were all out of reach — he was stuck in the bush! There was nothing he could do but wait for the bush to lift him back up to the porch.

“At least there are plenty of berries on this bush for me to eat,” Phil thought. But whenever he tried to pick a berry, he was pricked by a thorn.

Then it began to rain, and Phil became wet and cold. The rain was so thick that, even as he was lifted into the air, he couldn’t see anything beyond his own yard.

By the end of the afternoon, Phil’s bush had grown high enough for Bear to pull him onto the porch.

“How was your day?” asked Bear. “It was miserable!” Phil sputtered. “I’m cold and wet and hungry, and I have scratches all over my body!”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Bear. “Tomorrow we can just play on the porch as we usually do,” he added wisely.

“No!” said Phil. “We must go back to the yard! All of my missing toys are down there! We have to rescue them!”

Bear did not think this was a good idea, but Phil had made up his mind. The next morning, Phil threw Bear over the fence. Then he climbed onto the fence and jumped off.

He landed on top of something large and furry. “Oooowwww!” howled the something. It was Bear.

“Sorry, Bear,” said Phil. “Was your landing OK?” “It was bearable,” said Bear.

Phil and Bear got up from the ground and started collecting Phil’s toys. Before long they had found an airplane, a jack-in-the-box, a puzzle, and many other colorful objects. They put each toy in a large bag they had brought with them. Then they climbed onto a bush that would lift them back up to the porch.

Phil was hungry, so Bear picked some berries from their bush for them to eat. “Are the thorns hurting you?” asked Phil. “They’re bearable,” said Bear with a sigh.

Soon after they ate the berries, it began to rain. Phil crawled into the bag of toys to stay warm and dry. Bear held onto the bag so that it didn’t fall out of the bush.

“How’s the rain out there?” Phil asked from inside the bag. Bear was silent for a moment. “It’s bearable,” he said finally.

By the end of the afternoon, the bush had lifted Phil and Bear up to the porch. Phil’s mother was there waiting for them.

“I’ve been worried about you two!” she said as she pulled them out of the bush. “Did you have a good day?”

“It was bearable,” Phil said cheerfully. “The blackberry bushes gave us some scratches, but we got all of my toys back! Right, Bear?”

Bear nodded slowly. “Yes, it was bearable,” he said in a soft, weary voice. “Barely.”

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How not to teach writing

June 6, 2008

The March 2008 issue of English Journal includes an article by Alec Duxbury, a teacher at University Prep in Seattle. It’s called The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement, and it’s basically a well-reasoned rant against the way writing is commonly taught in high school:

The error in pedagogy that governs the essay is built on the sanctity of the thesis statement and the insistence that formula will produce quality writing. Teachers ask students to find a thesis statement first and to organize the content of their writing around that thesis statement. Most students encounter this set of rules in the general category of the five-paragraph essay, a form that students know exactly how to produce by the time they leave middle school.

I once was one of those students. Like many others, I mastered the five-paragraph essay in middle school. So why did my peers and I spend most of high school writing more and more essays in this same general format? Weren’t we ready for some new challenges? Didn’t we deserve a bit more artistic freedom?

Alec suggests that writing is taught this way in part because it makes grading easy. “The assessment of most thesis-first writing assignments,” he says, “is accomplished by checking the introduction for a three-part thesis statement, counting the number of examples, checking for topic sentences, and noting the repetition of the three-part thesis statement in the concluding paragraph.” But if the assignments don’t serve a useful pedagogical purpose, why bother?

There are appealing and effective alternatives to the thesis-centric mindset. At a summer camp I attended when I was 13, I penned many dissimilar types of essays: a personal narrative, a compare-and-contrast piece, an extended definition of a commonly misunderstood word, a satire, a movie review, and so on. I received thoughtful feedback that focused on important rhetorical issues, such as my relationship to my audience, rather than my ability to adhere to a rigid template. I learned lessons that have stayed with me to this day, some obvious in retrospect (don’t satirize Miami Vice unless you’ve actually seen it) and others less so (think of a review not as a list of likes and dislikes, but as an evaluation of the creative choices made by the artists).

By the time I finished high school, however, I was so immersed in the “support a single overarching thesis with a slew of examples” mode of writing that I found it awkward to do anything else. Even worse, this thesis-driven writing style started to affect my reading style. I approached each piece of literature with the goal of discovering its “one true meaning,” and I tended to ignore aspects that couldn’t be packaged into a tidy, concise interpretation. Once I reached college, my English 101 professor had to spend an entire semester convincing me that sometimes authors meant to be ambiguous and that I should reflect upon this ambiguity rather than ignoring it.

Alec concludes:

For students to learn the art of writing, certain conditions must be met within the classroom. Teachers must be ready to respond to the writing their students produce. To do this, teachers must be willing to write themselves, to risk the making of meaning with their writing, to provide a probing response to the writing their students produce, to engage student writing in a conversational manner, and to qualify — not quantify — the work they receive from students. The students themselves must be allowed to begin with a question on a topic or book, to seek its answer, to write themselves into a position of strength, to weigh and question the meanings they find in books, and to begin a piece of writing without knowing where it will end.

I hope that teachers around the world — including those at my old high school, who are outstanding in many respects — will take these words to heart.

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The pen and the sword

May 29, 2006

Today is Memorial Day.

I may be a cynical pacificist, but this Civil War letter from Sullivan Ballou to his wife still moves me. So does this Iraq War letter from Cpl. Jeffrey Starr to his girlfriend (scroll to the end of the article).