Friday, April 28, 2006


Just in time, a link to a short piece that I wrote last fall, with five tips (or five tips and three sub-tips) for finals-takers:

How to do well on a final examination
Or as we say in Brooklyn, how to do good.

When I submitted my dissertation in August 1985 ("Heavy in July, light in August"), I remember that it occurred to me that I'd never have to take another final exam. As a student, I dreaded finals, never having any idea what they'd look like. Why, they'd be comprehensive. What more would one need to know? As a prof, I take pains to make the structure and focus of a final exam clear to students in advance.

A reader of this post who disagreed with the suggestion to overprepare suggested that "studying a lot leads to poorer grades." Yes, it's futile to try to memorize massive amounts of information at the last minute, but with this general claim about studying and grades, I can't agree. It's based in part on psychologist George A. Miller's rule of seven, which has been decontextualized into a general claim that most people can't take in more than seven bits of information at one time. If you're curious about the rule of seven, the link below is to an extended discussion from "Ask E.T." at Edward Tufte's website. The discussion includes Miller's comment on the uses and misuses of his rule and a link to the text of his original essay.

      » The magical number seven, from

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reality trumps academic satire

Stephen Budiansky, in the New York Times, on the difficulty of writing a satirical novel on American college life:

I knew that Tom Lehrer, the great satirical songwriter of the 60's, had said he had to give up satire when it kept being overtaken by reality. The final straw, he said, was Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

My final straw came when a friend at Case Western Reserve University (now referred to as Case, after their consultant concluded that all great universities have single-word names) sent me a packet of information on the university's new showcase undergraduate seminar program. Called SAGES (this supposedly stands for Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship), the program offers as an essential component of its core intellectual experience an upscale cafe that serves Peet's Coffee and is "staffed by baristas whose expertise in preparing espresso is matched only by their authoritative knowledge of all things SAGES" . . . . As a model of pandering to students in the guise of lofty academic purpose, I thought that was pretty hard to top. Then I started reading the 92-page guide Case has created for teachers of these seminars.

If students fidget, talk or walk out of class, the guide advises seminar leaders not to "manage" such behaviors, but to explore their underlying causes. Instructors must remember that to such characteristically American cultural beliefs as the importance of morality, rationality and personal responsibility, there are equally valid alternatives that must be respected.

Instructors must be wary of spurious objectivity, such as a 0-100 grading scale; much better is a 0-5 scale, or, best of all, a check, check-plus, check-minus scale. And finally, if students do not contribute to discussions at all, seminar leaders should "make space for silence."

It's enough to drive a satirist to something stronger than chai latte.
Yes, it is. It's fortunate that there are still students (see the post immediately below) who understand that college remains not a commodity but an opportunity, with myriad possibilities of endeavor and effort.

      » "Brand U." from the New York Times

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rachel's tips for success in college

I asked my daughter Rachel, who's finishing her first year of college, what advice she might offer student-readers. Here are Rachel Leddy's tips for success in college:

1. Build a social network. Living away from home in a dormitory with 1000 other people your age is a little unnatural after about 18 years of family living and close friends. It's important to make sense of the mass of people by finding those you can relate to and trust. If your roommate is a no-go on the friendship front, seek out activities in your dorm or your campus. Look for religious organizations or activities like intramural sports or debate teams. Find support from your resident advisors, teaching assistants, or other mentors. College friends do not have to replace the connections you have at home; they do, however, make your home away from home more comfortable.

2. Get good with names. Meeting people can be overwhelming, so make yourself special by being the one who knows everyone they meet. People love to be known and recognized, so find a trick to help you keep people straight. When you meet someone new, repeat his or her name aloud once or twice and then put your trick into action. Identify something deeper than clothing choice with the person, such as a story they tell you, the place you where you met (e.g., on a bus to the quad or a specific basketball court), or someone they strongly remind you of. If you forget a name the next time you meet, be honest and ask. Tell the acquaintance that you remember the time or place but you can't remember the name. People want to be remembered; don't worry about offending someone by asking them to help you remember them the next time.

3. Feel out your campus. Get to know your new home by finding a place for everything. Find a specific place to study (like a residence hall library, a specific table at a library, or a coffee shop you like). Find a space outside to play Frisbee, lie out in the sun, or read. Make these places your own and you'll be more comfortable in your new home. Of course, it's important to be flexible with your space. Be aware that your space is shared, not owned, and be prepared to find a new place if needed.

4. Create rituals. This is perhaps the easiest and most important thing to do at the start of the year. Establish familiarity through daily, weekly, and monthly rituals. Rituals can be as simple as taking notes with a favorite pen in journalism or always stopping for a drink at the same soda machine before chemistry. They can be more formal, such as going out to dinner once a week with your roommate or significant other. By setting rhythms in your new space, your days and weeks will be more natural and flow more easily. Flexibility also pertains here, so be prepared to change or reschedule your ritual based on availability and conflicts.

5. Remember what you're at school to do. You're at school to learn. The school is there to provide you with a great education, so do your part and go to class. Stay healthy. Take plenty of vitamin C. While it’s tempting to stay up all hours with friends, get enough rest to keep your immune system up and your mind alert. College is a great (and expensive) opportunity. Don’t waste it.
All good advice, if I say so myself. Thank you, Rachel!


February 15, 2016: Rachel adds one more tip:

Nearly 10 years have passed since you published this post, and I think that the tips still stand up! I find it interesting that these tips were mostly focused on living away from home for the first time instead of talking about the academic nature of college. The nature of these tips illustrates just how big a transition the college years are for many young people. Living with new freedoms and responsibilities must be balanced with (sometimes extremely) demanding academics. My four years at university were not the most successful years of my life; however, I think that being willing to grow and explore is still the most important aspect of attending college.

Knowing what I know now, I would adapt this post to add this tip:

Become comfortable with failing.
Depending on your experience in high school, you may be very surprised at the number of responsibilities you will face in college. Even if you were a top 10 student in your class of 200, you may be a middle-of-the-road student in a class of 10,000. If you were a top athlete, you may not even succeed in club sports. Do not be discouraged by failures at the beginning of your university experience. Work with an advisor to determine the workload that will suit your strengths and challenge you academically while allowing you to balance your academic pursuits with the (very big!) transition to living away from home for the first time. Adjust your expectations of yourself and find outlets for your creative energy that are fulfilling, even if they aren't exactly what you did in high school. You are not exempt from failure, no matter how capable you are. Do not fear failing; instead, embrace each mistake as a learning experience. Stay sober enough to avoid making mistakes that will haunt you for the rest of your life. And never, ever, ever drink and drive.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Phrasing similarities,
phrasing similarities

Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore with a (reported) $500,000 contract with Little, Brown, offers an explanation of the similarities between passages in her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life and passages in Megan McCafferty's novels Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings:

While the central stories of my book and hers are completely different, I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words. I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious. My publisher and I plan to revise my novel for future printings to eliminate any inappropriate similarities.
The Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson have collected passages for comparison. The Crimson offers several that are said to be "among the clearest," which would seem to imply that there are more. Sample:
From page 68 of McCafferty’s second novel: "'Omigod!' shrieked Sara, taking a pink tube top emblazoned with a glittery Playboy bunny out of her shopping bag."

From page 51 of Viswanathan’s novel: "...I was sick of listening to her hum along to Alicia Keys, and worn out from resisting her efforts to buy me a pink tube top emblazoned with a glittery Playboy bunny."
That looks like plagiarism, and of the saddest, strangest sort.

In my experience, students who plagiarize usually fall at one or the other end of the academic spectrum. And those at the upper end are never willing to acknowledge what they've done. Their explanations range from unintentional duplication ("glancing" at SparkNotes and somehow unwittingly reproducing phrases and sentences with slight variation) to "I wouldn't do such a thing," even when the evidence is right before them. Viswanathan's situation is a more complicated one, as she worked with a book packager, 17th Street Productions, to make her writing marketable. One begins to wonder just who was doing the cutting and pasting here.

      » "Student's Novel Faces Plagiarism Controversy"
      Article from the Harvard Crimson

      » "Young Author Admits Borrowing Passages"
      AP article, with misleading headline

      » "She may have, but she also had help"
      On the "packaging" of the book, from Mediabistro

      » "'Opal Mehta' vs. 'Sloppy Firsts'"
      Passages for comparison, from the Boston Globe

      » "Similar Passages ..."
      Passages for comparison, from the Harvard Crimson

Friday, April 21, 2006

Kill your television

An invitation:

[W]hen television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.
Newton N. Minow, "Television and the Public Interest" (speech given to the National Association of Broadcasters, May 9, 1961)

Forty-five years later, there are fewer cowboys, and the "totally unbelievable families" are more likely to be found on so-called "reality" shows. But the song remains pretty much the same, with more colorful lyrics.

TV-Turnoff Week 2006 begins this coming Monday, April 24.


» Transcript of Newton N. Minow's "vast wasteland" speech

Bath, bed, home

From an essay by Andy Crouch on shaving and much else:

Last summer I began reading the Odyssey to my eight-year-old son. . . . To his delight, Timothy quickly recognized a distinctive feature of Homer's poetry, the stock phrases, epithets, and even whole passages that recur again and again. Somewhere around book eight, he observed, "Dad, these guys take a lot of baths."

Indeed they do. Homer's heroes bathe because they feast: no scene of feasting in the great halls of an Achaean king is complete without the visit to the bathchamber before the meal. The Iliad, the book of war on the shores of Troy, has almost no such scenes. Its men are at war, and too busy to bathe. But the Odyssey, though not without its adventures and battles, is a book that celebrates the man at home -- the pleasure of the bath, the board, and the bed.
A wonderful observation. There is, if I'm remembering correctly, only one scene of bathing in the Iliad, in book 10, after Diomedes and Odysseus undertake a night raid. In book 22, Hector is killed as his wife Andromache prepares his bath, heightening the pathos of his death. In the Odyssey, Telemachus bathes in books 3 and 4; Odysseus, in book 6. More baths follow, in the story of Odysseus' wanderings, in Ithaca too.

Thanks to Sean Payne for pointing me to this essay.

      » The Best a Man Can Get: In Search of the Perfect Shave

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fats Waller's "Yes!"

Fats Waller's small-group recordings with "His Rhythm," as the band was known, sometimes end with Waller speaking, usually for no more than a split-second -- a quiet "Yes, yes" or an exuberant "Yes!" Sometimes he talks for a few seconds. I like to imagine Waller fans back in the 1930s, listening to a brand-new 78-rpm record and wondering what they are going to hear at the end of each side.

Comedians always run the risk of not being taken seriously, but the jive in these closing quips should mislead no one -- Fats Waller was a brilliant pianist, a dexterous organist, a distinctive singer, an inspired songwriter ("Ain't Misbehavin'," "Black and Blue," "Honeysuckle Rose," among others). His solo-piano pieces are elegant multi-themed miniatures ("African Ripples" and "Smashing Thirds" are my favorites). His small groups, with Herman Autrey (trumpet), Gene Sedric (clarinet, tenor), Al Casey (guitar), and other musicians, cook like no one else's. His hilarious, snarky renditions of sentimental lyrics turn treacle into gold. Fats Waller's "Yes!" is, to my ears, an affirmation of the joys of music and laughter.

Here are my favorite last words from the recordings collected in Proper Records' 4-CD Fats Waller set:

"Do Me a Favor"
Yes, yes. Listen honey, have you got a dollar-ninety? 'Cause I got the dime. But you might as well go out and find a parson. Ha, ha.

"How Can You Face Me?" [spoken over the last chorus]
Ah, you're a dirty dog. Get out in the street. Get out, get out. How can you face me now? No, I didn't go there last night. No, you know I wasn't there neither. I went to the other place. Yes! Don't you talk back to me. Shut up. Well, all right. Take your dogs on out. Yes. Get outta this gutter. Keep goin', keep goin'. Yes!

"I'm a Hundred Percent for You"
Yes. Yes. Yes. Veddy!

"Lulu's Back in Town"
Oh, that woman's back in town. Oh, my, my. My, my.

"Christopher Columbus"
Well, looka there. Christy grabbed the Santa Maria and he's goin' back. Yeah. Uh huh. Looka there. Uh huh. In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. What'd I say?

"Black Raspberry Jam"
Take your finger outta my jam.

Oh, you tricky thing, you thought you tricked me. Hey, hey. Nix, nix.

"The Joint Is Jumpin'"
Don't give your right name, no, no, no.

"Your Feet's Too Big"
Your, err, your pedal extremities really are obnoxious. One never knows, do one?
You can learn more about Fats Waller by visiting "Fats Waller Forever," hosted by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. Yes!

      » Fats Waller Forever

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


"Risotto is so filling -- both physically and emotionally."

      » More "Overheard" posts (via Pinboard)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Beyond categories

A student asked a smart question yesterday: if Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" is a demonstration of the power of metaphor -- which turns the poet's father into a constricting shoe, a "bag full of God," a Nazi, and a devil; turns another man (Ted Hughes) into a vampire-replica of her father; and turns the poet herself into their victim and assassin -- how does it fit the idea of a confessional poem? In other words, is the poet confessing, or displaying the power of her own imagination?

For me, that question highlights the problems of applying categories and labels to works of art. Like Duke Ellington, I prefer to think of works of art as "beyond category." One problem with artistic categories is that they are often merely shorthand terms of critical convenience. It was a critic after all (M.L. Rosenthal, I believe) who first thought of calling Plath and other poets "confessional." Such terms can be useful for highlighting resemblances as they begin to appear in the work of individual artists. But such terms can just as readily serve as epithets of pigeon-holing and dismissal -- "Oh yes, he's a [sniff] New York School poet." Makers of art who themselves promulgate such identities in earnest sometimes find themselves in a prison of their own devising -- Allen Ginsberg is still a "Beat," not simply an American poet.

Category-think too often leads to reductive understandings of art. I'm reminded me of the story of a student who wanted to write an essay "proving" that The Sound and the Fury is a modernist novel because it displays "the seven characteristics of modernism." But there aren't seven characteristics, or five, or nineteen -- there is only the individual work, with all of its complications, and with a broad range of similarities to and differences from other works of fiction. And calling Faulkner's novel "modernist" does nothing to tell you what those are.

Doing a weekly jazz program at a college radio station some years ago helped solidify my skepticism about categories. Back in the day, every record (yes, LPs) had to be labeled for the benefit of less-astute djs. Duke Ellington would be labeled "swing." ("Creole Love Call": swing!) John Coltrane, "hard bop." ("A Love Supreme": hard bop!) There were even (I don't think I'm making it up) records labeled "soft bop." Those labels no doubt helped give some coherence to half-hour sets (before the iPod Shuffle made chance juxtapositions an organizing principle). But to think of an artist's accomplishment being reduced to -- literally -- a label, 3.5" x .75", saddens me.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Geoffrey Hill on difficulty

Carl Phillips: What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it's worth going through or it isn't worth going through.

Geoffrey Hill: Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let's take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We're difficult to ourselves, we're difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most "intellectual" piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?
From an interview with poet Geoffrey Hill
(Paris Review 154, Spring 2000)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Simon Pettet

Simon Pettet’s More Winnowed Fragments opens with a poem of profound modesty:

      My Methodology

      I accrue hordes

      and then

      winnow away,

      It is a thankless task,

      tho not without

      occult comfort.

The tongue-in-cheek title suggests the jargon of an "artist's statement" or thesis prospectus. But then comes the poem, and the title's confident authority now stands in contrast to the patient Sisyphean labor of the poet -- who not only makes a heap of all that he can find (to paraphrase David Jones paraphrasing Nennius) but undoes it in the search for what has been there, not yet recognized, all along. The work of winnowing away and condensing is indeed "a thankless task," but it's also a steady job ("No layoff / from this / condensery," as Lorine Niedecker says in "Poet’s Work"). And the work may reward both poet and reader with "occult comfort" (not "cold comfort"), as in the sudden music of the poem's final two lines, in which each word turns into its neighbors' close relation.
Simon Pettet is a wonderful poet. Above, an excerpt from a review I've written for Jacket of his 2005 book More Winnowed Fragments. You can read the review by clicking on the link.
» Mysterious connective tissue (Review of Simon Pettet's More Winnowed Fragments, from Jacket)

Five websites for student-writers

Or four websites and the mysterious Alt+F4.

1. The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing Michael Harvey's site is perhaps the most useful on-line resource for students who want to improve their writing. For Harvey, good writing is not reducible to zealous obedience to a handful of rules. Good writing is a matter of clarity, concision, and grace, key elements of what Harvey calls "the plain style." His sample passages and suggested revisions will benefit any writer who gives them careful attention. The book "version" of this site, The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (Hackett), is the best book for student-writers I know, far more useful than Eats, Shoots & Leaves and similar titles.

2. A Demonstration of the Futility of Using Microsoft Word's Spelling and Grammar Check Sandeep Krishnamurthy's conclusion is that Word's spelling and grammar checker is "extraordinarily bad." See for yourself by downloading and checking one of the sample .doc files, and then resolve never to let Word do your editing and proofreading for you.

3. The Citation Machine The Landmark Project's Citation Machine creates APA- and MLA-style citations for print and on-line materials. You need to be careful of course in choosing the right kind of citation and in entering the relevant information in the right places.

4. Arts & Letters Daily Any writer needs good models, and they are not likely to be found in textbooks. Arts & Letters Daily, a service of The Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a handful of links a day to worthwhile articles, essays, and reviews.

5. Alt+F4 Just a reminder — when you're writing, eliminate distractions. Close your browser and IM, and give the task at hand your full attention.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Aeschylus and RFK

Speaking to a mostly African-American audience in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy broke the terrible news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated:

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news for all of you -- could you lower those signs please? -- I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight.
Cries and screams and shocked silence follow. Kennedy goes on to quote -- imperfectly, from memory -- words of the chorus from Aeschylus' Agamemnon:
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that's true, but more importantly, to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
RFK turned to reading ancient authors after his brother's assassination; his interest in the Greeks was, I gather, deep and real.

» Video of RFK's speech

» The Kennedy Family and Classical Themes (BBC)


Ta-da List is a free, wonderfully simple, online tool for making lists. If you're near a computer through most of the day, you might find it useful. You can also share lists with others and e-mail lists to yourself.

» Ta-da List

Friday, April 7, 2006

Welles' left hand

Browsing Joseph Cotten's autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere (1987), I found a wonderful story of the scene from Citizen Kane in which Charles Foster Kane destroys Susan Alexander's room. Cotten of course played Kane's friend Jedediah Leland:

The camera rolled, the operator peered through his finder and whispered, "Whenever you're ready, Orson."

And Orson with his two hands started the destruction of the set. Crash. Bang. Split. Crunch. Chairs splintered, bottles broke. Chanel Number Five, Joy, Ashes of Magnolia, and other exotic scents filled the air and told us the property man believed in realism. Silk draperies slit and hung, limply defeated. Crash! More glass, more mirrors, more pictures from the walls. Suddenly, Orson was destroying the room with only one hand, wildly swinging away to kill any object still intact. The other hand was concealed behind him, hidden from the eye of the camera, but those of us who were watching from the side could see the blood and the long gash across the hidden hand. He looked around to be sure the job was finished according to plan, and then he made his exit from the scene and sat down near the camera. He was panting as he calmly said, "Cut." The assistant had called a car, and in the hospital Orson's hand was stitched by a doctor who admonished him for not stopping sooner, thereby diminishing his loss of blood.

"Blood," said Orson, "I've got plenty of blood. It was the perfume I was worried about."
I've heard less-detailed versions of this story before, always involving Welles' left hand, which he pulls out of camera range at the very end of the scene, when he picks up Susan's snowglobe. Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert both refer to the hand-injury story in their separate commentaries on the Kane DVD. Bogdanovich mentions Welles' "hands bleeding," and Ebert notes that while there's no visible injury, Welles pulls his left hand out of view at the scene's end.

But when is Welles' hand injured? Welles tears up the room with both hands, all the way through the scene. At 1:49:53, at the very end of his rampage, his left palm is fully in view, free of any blood. Then the left hand swoops down and scatters perfume bottles on a tabletop. At 1:49:54, there's a glimpse of what appears to be a shadow (not blood) on Welles' left palm. Welles then pulls his left hand back, up, and out of sight as reaches with his right hand for the snowglobe, which has escaped the destruction.

So it seems that if Welles did injure his hand, it was at the very end of the scene. Perhaps he felt the searing pain of a deep cut, which could account for the odd, jerky movement as he hides his hand.

I still love Joseph Cotten's memory of this scene, and I certainly wouldn't expect Jedediah Leland himself to watch Citizen Kane to check.

Leave the bone alone

An interesting metaphor for musical understatement:

"When Bill Clinton was inaugurated," Alpert said, "they had ten saxophone players at the party. It was mostly the young guns, but Gerry Mulligan was in there, too. Afterward, he called me and said, 'Man, you know, these young guys, they know all the modes, they know all the chords, they can play high and low and fast, and they can do amazing things, but the one thing they don’t know how to do is leave the bone alone.'"
From a New Yorker item on trumpeter Herb Alpert and the album Whipped Cream & Other Delights.

» Whipped Again

Thursday, April 6, 2006


From Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day:

slugabed \SLUG-uh-bed\ noun
: a person who stays in bed after the usual or proper time to get up; broadly : sluggard

Example sentence:
Rather than be a slugabed for her entire vacation, Jeanne made it a goal to rise at 6:00 AM and go for a jog every morning.

Did you know?
The first known usage of "slugabed" in English can be found in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1592), when Juliet's nurse attempts to rouse the young heroine by chiding, "Why, lamb! why, lady! Fie, you slug-abed!" The first half of the word, "slug," is a now-rare verb once used in English to mean "to be lazy or inert" or "to move slowly." Experts believe this word to be of Scandinavian origin, and the same thing can be said of the noun "slug," which can mean "sluggard" or "lazy person" as well as refer to the slow-moving gastropod. The second half of our featured word, "abed," is a word still used in English today to mean "in bed."
Personally, I think Jeanne needs to have her head examined.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006


Something I wrote in a December 2004 end-of-semester post for a class reading Homer's Odyssey:

As you move away from your parents' oikos and toward making one of your own, remember the importance of sharing with family and friends the pleasures of meals and conversation. Sharing food and drink and talk is one of the practices that make us human. (Isn’t it sad that we need television commercials to encourage us to eat together at the family table?)
Some good news in today's New York Times:
After decades of decline in the simple ritual of family dinners, there is evidence that many families are making the effort to gather at the dinner table. A random nationwide survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found a recent rise in the number of children ages 12 to 17 who said they ate dinner with their families at least five times a week, to 58 percent last year from 47 percent in 1998.

Getting everyone around the table can be a huge juggling exercise for overworked parents and overscheduled children. But many parents are marshaling their best organizational skills to arrange dinners at least once a week.

"There's definitely an awareness that was not there a few years ago," said Miriam Weinstein, author of "The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier" (Steer Forth Press, 2005). "All the factors that have been working against family dinners are still in full force, but it's very much a subject on people's minds."
In my house, the dinner window, so to speak, is sometimes a mere twenty minutes. But we plan accordingly and, as the sign says, EAT.

» Families With Full Plates, Sitting Down to Dinner (New York Times)