Hot Air: Books & Stuff

Just reading the book Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker. It’s a journal of a sort, recounting the author’s adventures as a substitute teacher in a Maine school system. Baker is known for his lovingly (some might say obsessively) descriptive nonfiction books like The Mezzanine, Vox, and The Fermata. He’s also penned the history, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.

The style of his highly personal book-length essays like The Mezzanine and Substitute is pure slice-of-life. He’s less telling a story than taking a snapshot or, more accurately, creating a gigantic album of word pictures. Baker got himself a substitute teacher certificate so he could research his latest book. It’s a glimpse into the 21st Century American classroom — he recounts his assignments from primary through high schools. So far, I’ve only gotten through his first two assignments and already I’m shaking my head over the weirdness that passes for today’s educational strategy. For instance, he describes his high school students using their iPads in class.


There’s been a mania of late to provide every single student in certain schools with a tablet computer. At first glance, it seems a good idea. After all, the students can logon to the internet and do research on every topic imaginable. What a fabulous teaching device, no?

No, I say.

There are already things like books, newspapers, and magazines, all of which are fine fodder for reaping info. Yet not every student takes advantage of the school library. It’s the same with tablet computers. Not many students use them for research. More likely, they’ll find their way to game sites, social media, and other destinations otherwise known as wastes of time.

The truth seems to be that the computer manufacturers have done a bang up marketing job, convincing school districts that their students will wither and die on the vine if they don’t have iPads or Android-based devices in their hands every second of the school day. The likes of Apple and Samsung have donated units to key school systems, seeding big metropolitan areas and whole exurbia and rural regions with the idea that these expensive toys are indispensable in the classroom.

It’s the great American idea — you’ve got to buy things in order to accomplish anything. Wanna ride a bike? Hell, you’ve got to deck yourself out in a gazillion dollars-worth of protective gear, biking cleats, fashion uniforms and a hundred other purchasable items. You wanna teach kids about the world and life, well, hell, you’ve got to spend  five hundred bucks a pop on a tablet.

Spending money and buying crap — it’s the American way.

The Lively Art

I’ve been catching up with my podcast posts for Big Talk. Yesterday I put up the April 5th show featuring computer savant James Clawson, an ass’t prof. in Indiana University’s School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering. His mission in life, (ironically, in light of the above entry) is to get mobile device life smartphones and tablets into the hands of the sick. That is, if you have breast cancer, you’ll get your jittery hands on an iPad loaded with software that helps you navigate through the latest advances in treatment , puts you in instant touch with experts in the field, and helps you figure out what in the hell your doctor’s talking about or what your insurance provider demands of you in addition to the deed to your firstborn, who’s probably now full-grown.

Here the link to the Clawson show. Coming up in the next few weeks, on the air (and subsequently on podcasts), authors Michael Koryta, Tristra Newyear, poet and singer Ross Gay and Kacie Swierk as well as The Back Door owner Nicci Boroski, (a couple of chestnuts from the days when Big Talk was merely an eight-minute feature of the Daily Local News) and other treats.

Big Talk airs every Thursday at 5:30pm on WFHB 91.3FM with a bonus, Big Talk Extra — sort of a BT unplugged — every Monday during the Daily Local News at five.

A Sure Thing

Speaking of books (were we?), I can’t wait to get my hands on Barbara Ehrenreich’s new one, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.

Ehrenreich one of the top long-form journalists working today and one of my fave authors to boot. Her masterpiece was Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, an investigation into survival in 21st Century America. She made headlines herself when, soon after publication of that book, she announced she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her subsequent Harper’s magazine article “Welcome to Cancerland” as well as her 2010 book Bright-Sided, examined the business of cancer and the bizarre ways we in this holy land are encouraged to view everything while wearing a happy face (spoiler alert: it’s good business).

Anyway, Nat. Causes posits that even though America has built up a multi-billion-dollar health and wellness industry — above and beyond our conventional allopathic health care system, which itself is laden with more and more magical thinking these days — they ain’t nuffin’ we can do to prevent death. We’re mortal, folks. Period. And no amount of health club memberships or juice fasts will belie that reality.

That’s not pessimism, BTW.

Hot Or Not?

Interesting take on beauty and the American perception thereof in yesterday’s New York Times. It came in the form of a rumination about Amy Schumer’s new movie I Feel Pretty.


The flick’s plot entails the lead character — played by AS herself — waking up from a clunk on the head one day believing she’s supermodel material even though everybody else on the planet can see she’s not. Nevertheless, simply because the Amy character has confidence and believes she’s rail-thin, high-cheekboned, and cantaloupe-breasted, she gets by in life more easily than when she accurately saw herself as an average schlub.

The NYT piece says that conceit is indicative of our refusal to upend impossible standards of beauty and lays the onus on the 99% of us who are less than world-class knockouts.

Check it here.

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