Sunday, December 29, 2013

Healthy Eating

As part of its sedulous concern for the welfare of its workers, my school favors us with periodic health tips via a newsletter put out by some medical organization. The most recent newsletters, which came out just before the holiday season, offered advice on how one should approach this merry time—a time that the writers of the newsletter apparently assume to be a period of gluttony, self-indulgence, and sybaritic abandon that would make the Roman Saturnalia look like a Quaker prayer meeting—without entirely destroying one’s constitution.

Of course, this is not the first time I have seen such helpful screeds. One can hardly go on the Internet or enter a store without finding signs, handouts, and flyers that proffer advice, monitions, and scary predictions concerning the consequences of eating food—almost any food. Merely reading the many articles that appear in the News section of could convince a person that hardly anything is safe.

Indeed, I have concluded that the basic belief held by the authors of these manifestos is that all food is poison and that it would be far better if we could eat nothing at all, or at least nothing that tasted good or in any way appealed to human beings.

Since, however, human beings do have to eat, the dietary experts have undertaken to make us feel as guilty as possible about it, so we will eat as little as possible. Their language is remarkable. We are told we may “allow” ourselves a cookie at a Christmas party; that we should eat some “healthy” concoction before going out so as to minimize our evil lust to consume a sausage or a brownie later on; that we ought to seek out the plate of broccoli and celery while fighting down the death-wish—a wish perhaps the result of the inherent wickedness imparted by Original Sin—to instead have a fried onion ring. The day after we blaspheme the temple of our body by riotous gourmandizing we must, of course, head for the gym and exercise especially hard so as to exorcise the aftereffects of insensate indulgence.

The language of these publications really is a bit theological. We are prone to sin—sin in this case that may result in crippling ourselves and bringing pain and misery to our loved ones when we collapse as a result of easily-avoided dietary wickedness—and must seek forgiveness by, for example, a few hours on a treadmill. (Did you know that treadmills were used as punishment in Victorian-era prisons? Yes. Prisoners were compelled to put in so many hours on a treadmill. Think how healthy they were at the end of their sentences. And they didn’t even have to pay for using the equipment!)

As one who was brought up in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, I can speak with some authority on techniques of inducing guilt: the modern food-haters are doing a good job. I am sure they have succeeded in removing joy from the lives of many people. Even at a holiday party we cannot eat an hors-d’oeuvre without a premonition of doom; as you pop that small, wizened sausage into your mouth you can feel a stain spreading onto your soul; you find yourself excusing your reckless indulgence in a handful of popcorn by resolving to starve yourself for a week to make up for your transgression. This is an improvement on the Confessional: the sinner now assigns himself his own penance even as he commits the sin.

I do not think the heralds of health go far enough, however. So I would like to offer a few ideas on how each of us can contribute to the welfare of our fellow men:

1)  If you are invited to, let us say, a New Year’s party, station yourself next to the table that bears the most seductive goodies. Be sure to have with you a heavy ruler and a bag of healthy food. Whenever some libertine is about to pick up a cheese cracker, rap him sharply on the knuckles with the ruler and offer him a carrot. Recalled as by a guardian angel from impending corruption by a Satanic canapé, he will surely be grateful.

2)  Bring with you to parties pictures of malnourished children. (You can easily print these from the Internet.) Scatter them about the snack tables. This should induce healthy guilt into all the revelers.

3)  Cards printed with improving slogans such as these can be placed at strategic spots:

      A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.
      A slice of cake and you're at your wake.
      "Devil's Food" indeed!
      An apple tart may stop your heart.
      Abandon all hope, ye who nibble here!
      Like some pie? Prepare to die.
      The way to Hell is paved with chocolate cupcakes.
      Water is God's champagne.
The health savants, as well as the spirits of Oliver Cromwell, John Calvin, and all our Puritan forebears, will surely thank you (even if no one else does).
- Feel free to send this essay to anyone who might enjoy it (as is true of all posts on this blog.)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

On Institutional Advancement

In this latest ground-breaking essay--part of the series exploring innovative change in contemporary pedagogy--I turn from purely academic matters to the important issue of raising funds. Readers are encouraged to distribute this seminal brainstorm widely.

                            ON INSTITUTIONAL ADVANCEMENT

Let us imagine that you find a family living in a dilapidated old house. The roof leaks; the windows are cracked; the carpets are threadbare; the furnace is erratic, often providing much heat in warm weather and little heat when it is cold. The stone walls are crumbling.

Let us also imagine that you—Mr. Hastings van Rensselaer Plutocrat—are wealthy and altruistic. You wish to assist this family. You leave your mansion in Palm Desert, California, and go to them. You smilingly announce that you are going to help them. You will construct in their yard a marble fountain that will send a beautiful spray of water fifty feet into the air; further, you will hang upon their living room wall—over the cracks—a genuine Gobelin tapestry depicting colorful scenes of medieval pageantry.

In proper recognition of your generosity, a fine bronze plaque will be affixed to the fountain designating it the Plutocrat Water Display and the tapestry will appropriately bear a small label: “Gift of H. van R. Plutocrat, 2013.” Your benevolence will be fittingly acknowledged at a public ceremony where you will be hailed as a modern Maecenas, a philanthropist extraordinaire. 

How happy this family will surely be! Even as they sit in their cold, drafty living room watching the rain drip into the buckets placed under the holes in the roof, they will hardly be able to stifle their cries of joy as they admire the intricate weaving of the tapestry and marvel at the loveliness of the fountain.

If this seems like an absurd flight of fancy, I have to suggest that, unfortunately, it is not. It is analogous to what can happen when a combination of generosity, self-esteem, and misplaced priorities, facilitated by faulty fund-raising policies, are brought to bear on an impoverished institution—such as, to choose a random example, a tuition-driven boarding school.

Would it not make more sense, if, before adorning a shack with golden gables, one first repaired the walls? If the roof leaks, should the construction of a magnificent garage be the first priority? When the heating system is antique and undependable, one might replace it before installing a jacuzzi, might one not? Should one not water the lily before gilding it?

Surely it does not strain credulity to assert that institutional advancement implies that the institution must have a sound infrastructure before more buildings are built and comparative frills added. That is common sense. Why then is it not done?

One reason may be that some potential philanthropists feel that to endow a grand building, to construct a statue, to equip rooms with huge tables that the users of those rooms neither want nor need, is preferable to repairing a heating system or tuck-pointing a crumbling wall, because building, constructing, and equipping offer more opportunities for recognition than repairing and replacing. Perhaps such people feel that little prestige attaches to renovating bathrooms or laying carpets, to fixing roofs or caulking windows. After all, the pharaohs are remembered for pyramids, not for sewers.

I suggest that it is the function of Development Departments not to take the easy way out by abetting such erroneous notions and soliciting money for secondary things, but to grasp the nettle and tell potential donors what is really needed. If Lorenzo the Magnificent, class of ’53, announces he will finance an air-conditioned, twenty-lane bowling alley, it is the job of the Institutional Advancement experts to tell him (politely but firmly) that the institution does not need such a thing, but does need—to invent an exaggerated, unlikely example—to prevent a dormitory that has visible cracks in its outer walls and whose windows are out of plumb from continuing its slow but steady descent into a ravine, so would he kindly write a check for these much-needed repairs to an already-existing structure even though it is not named after him?     

So, wealthy, public-spirited alumni: when your alma mater needs shoes and a dress, do not give her a feather boa. When she huddles in the cold, do not give her a painting of a fireplace. When her house is falling down, do not offer to build her a tanning salon next door.

And advancement officials: take the bull by the horns and insist that you have a strong, well-built cart before you get a horse, or a white elephant, to pull it. Repair the infrastructure before adding to the superstructure. 

For if this is not done, the eventual fate of institutions which do not do it might well be that so famously depicted by Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half-sunk, a shattered visage lies….

And on the pedestal these words appear --
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Maybe Ozymandias built an Arts Center when he really should have repaired his palace.

For all those awaiting news of The Free Lands, I want to tell both of you that the book is completed and that I am awaiting the cover. If the artist finishes it on time, I am hopeful that Volume IV of Mercenaries will appear in November.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Well Hello!

Enjoy your time here, and remember: Taking Life Seriously is the First Step to Unhappiness.
NOTE TO TEACHERS (and any others associated with the educational profession, even administrators):  Of all the articles on this blog, An Innovative Boarding School Model gets by far the most hits. I am not sure why, but I suspect that some folks wind up here because the article has somehow infiltrated their Google search on Serious Educational Matters and they arrive expecting the usual sort of gibberish that overworked teachers are often forced to read instead of doing something worthwhile, like studying their subject or making lesson plans. For such lost souls, let me emphasize that the essays on education to be found here are humorous and satirical. (Actually, everything I write on education is also deadly serious, in its way; but at any rate, if you came here expecting a Scholarly Treatment of Best Practice or the latest Cutting-Edge Advances in Pedagogy, I apologize. But I do hope you'll read the essays anyway.)
PS - If you by chance need guidance on the current shibboleth, 21st CENTURY SKILLS, here is what you need to know: the most important 21st Century Skills are exactly the same as the most important 5th Century B.C. skills: thinking clearly, writing well, speaking well, and reading well.

Got it?

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Herculean Task

I have never been a fan of detective stories, except for those of Conan Doyle, but I recently became acquainted with the film series Agatha's Christie's Poirot. These 65 episodes (with five more to come) are excellent. David Suchet is Hercule Poirot. I highly recommend them.

Watching these fine productions led me to read some of Agatha Christie's stories. I will not be reading them all, but it was good to see how the author depicted her characters.
My fascination with the immortal Belgian detective led me to write my first piece of fan fiction: a  light-hearted detective story gently satirizing Hercule Poirot and his world.

I here present you with the opening of the story. If you would like to read it all--at 17 pages it's too long to post on a blog--you may find it at

I would welcome comments on The Adventure of the Surprising Ending.

 On a bright, sunny morning in central London—very odd weather that many found disconcerting—the greatest detective in the world sat behind his large desk sipping his customary cup of tisane while perusing the Times.
The clock on the wall said 10:13:27 AM, Friday, May 28, 1937 A.D. (The detective, impatient with slipshod clocks that provide only partial information, had had this one custom made in Zurich.) He closed the paper, thinking that today’s lead article offered hope for the future: now that Mr. Chamberlain had become Prime Minister, maybe England would at last begin to take a firm line against Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini. It was high time.

The door to the outer office opened as there entered a tall, lean, handsome gentleman of perhaps fifty years, attired in a neat grey suit and a regimental tie. This man by his very presence radiated all that was fine in the British upper-middle class: honesty, plain dealing, bravery, trustworthiness, dependability.

“Cheerioh, old bean! I say, what a simply spiffing morning, what?” he called out as he tripped on his own feet and went sprawling on his face. Fortunately the inch-thick pile of the fine mauve carpet prevented any injury.

The great detective contemplated this through his pince-nez and said, “Eh bien, mon pauvre Captain Waterloo, vous êtes bien maladroit comme usuel, n’est-ce pas? Please, arise and adjust your garments. Your cravat she has been much disorganized.”

The former officer was spared further contumely by the rapid entry of a lady in early middle age, her dark blonde hair tied in a severe bun, her not unattractive figure mostly concealed by her modest blue dress. She proffered a handful of mail. “The first delivery, Mr. Greycelles,” she said. “And there was a very urgent call from Viscount DeLuxe. He seemed to think he could speak to you at once, but I explained that you never accepted calls before 10:18½, after you finished your tisane. I told him you would return his call.”

“Quite right, my dear Miss Kumquat,” said her employer. “One must have order and method in one’s life or it becomes like the existence of the wild beasts of the field. Did his Grace hint at whatever petit problem troubles him?”

“He said that an explosion has destroyed the entire staff wing of Garrish Manor, his ancestral home, killing eleven retainers, including Mat Grubb, his Chief Gardener for forty years.”

“Ah, these trifles,” said Greycelles. “Call his Grace and ask if his senior under-gardener survived. If, as I suspect, he was not even there—probablement he said he had to make a sudden visit to a sick great-aunt or other superannuated relative—then voilà! Gardeners know all about fertilizer, a prominent component of which, the nitrate of aluminum, is most useful in the making of the objets explosif such as the bombs of time. As for motive, the man surely wished to supplant his senior, whose long tenure of office must have annoyed him.”

As the efficient secretary hurried to make the call, Capt. Waterloo, now seated on a sofa, exclaimed, “By Jove, Greycelles, aren’t you jumping to conclusions? I mean…”

The soigné detective raised a plump hand. “Doucement, mon vieux. Énée Greycelles, he leaps not to the conclusions rash. Did I not just read in the Times that a hundred pounds of fertilizer was stolen last week from a warehouse in Little Rotting, a village not far from Garrish Manor? Eh bien, the under-gardener took it for the construction of the bombe gigantesque used in the up-blowing of his so-hated rival the chief gardener. So now we have solved two cases. Remind Miss Kumquat to bill both Viscount DeLuxe and the Little Rotting constabulary. But now let us peruse the mail and discover if any real problems await us, mon ami.”

The mail apparently contained nothing unusual. The bill from the cleaners for £150—the detective always had a suit cleaned after wearing it once—and the confirmation that four pallets of the finest tisane were en route from Brussels, were routine, as were the advertisements from three manufacturers of moustache wax and eight clothing stores. But upon reaching the last item Greycelles exclaimed, “Tiens! Voyez, Waterloo, a coronet on this so-expensive envelope.” Hastily he ran his Damascus-steel letter opener under the edge and withdrew a magnificent sheet of paper. “Mon cher ami, we are bidden to see the Duke of Worcestershire at Daggerthrust House, his summer residence in Kent. His Grace recalls fondly how I found his missing cuff link two years ago and now has another matter about which he wishes to consult us.”

“A bit of all right, that,” said the captain. “I can run us down in my new Bugatti 57T. I’ve installed patent feeder gaskets on the supercharger and chromed the reverse valve injectors so the gidgit pump maximizes the superflow. Goes like smoke, old chap.”

The detective peered over his pince-nez. “I have no idea what you just said, but from your animation I infer that you can provide adequate transport to St. Anspeth-on-Sea-by-Marsh, the village where Daggerthrust House has its location. Excellent. We leave in three days. I shall have just time enough to groom my moustache.”

Before Greycelles and Waterloo left for lunch, Miss Kumquat reported that Viscount DeLuxe’s senior sub-gardener had been arrested and had confessed to both the bombing and the theft of the fertilizer. “His Lordship sends his undying thanks for your miraculous insight,” she said. “And the Little Rotting police are eternally grateful, especially since they had grown very tired of interrogating every tramp they could find.”

Mais naturellment,” replied her chief. “But fail not to send the bills promptly.”