Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Math-Challenged Dieter

I received a phone call from the health and beauty reporter at a local newspaper.

"I read your essay in Chicken Soup for the Dieter’s Soul, and I thought I could get an expert quote and some feedback from you about a theory I'm researching," she said.

The essay she was referring to is cute and easy to read, and I had sold it a few times to a few different periodicals before the Chicken Soup folks sent me a contract. The article does not make me an expert. In fact, I have written a lot about the success I had dieting and have made a little pocket change from it, but it still does not make me an expert. Losing a lot of weight just gave me a reason to shop for new clothes. According to this reporter, however, being in a Chicken Soup book made me worthy of being interviewed.

What she needed from me was a quote. "I'm doing a story about how the math part of dieting makes it hard for people to lose weight if they aren't good at math. I think everything that people count from calories to steps can intimidate people who want to lose weight. I'm looking for someone who can say something about how numbers make losing weight difficult. Maybe you know someone who failed at dieting because she hated counting how many calories or carbs she was eating. Maybe someone didn't like measuring portions or weighing food."

"I don't think being good or bad at math has anything to do with losing weight," I said.

"Experts say it does," she said. "Experts in the health and beauty field say it is why so many people fail at diets. They hate math. They hate numbers. So the diets don't work!"

It's kind of scary thinking there's a group of people out there who believe that being bad at arithmetic is going to lead a person to an inevitable fate: Permanent Irreversible Fatness.
My mind started wandering, as it often does when I'm talking to silly people about silly things. I envision the new topic on news broadcasts being "PIF – Permanent Irreversible Fatness – the disease that goes after those who never learned to add and subtract without using their fingers. Details at 5!"

I returned to the regularly scheduled broadcast as the reporter continued, "They've just discovered that counting calories helps you lose weight!"

"Are you serious?" I asked her. I was referring to the "just discovered" part of her statement, but in retrospect, I think she thought it was news to me.

"If you count calories and keep your caloric intake low, according to the experts," she repeated in a new and more serious way, "a person will lose weight! If you don’t count calories, you will fail at your diet."

"That's not new," I told her.

"Well, it's a new theory," she replied.

"It's not new," I repeated.

"Well, it doesn't matter if it's new or not," she said, "because if you're bad at math, then you can't keep track of calories and you're going to be fat."

I was wheezing at this point. There's something about comments like this that sets off my asthma more than a field of pollen-producing plants. I reached for my inhaler and started scribbling down her comments because I knew there was an article in this conversation. I was thinking that sooner or later, the health and beauty experts would be pointing their fingers at math teachers across America, saying, "You are the cause of a generation of fat people. Billy is FAT because BILLY CAN’T ADD!"

"So what you're saying is that if you can't add, you will lack success in dieting?"

"Yupper, you have to be good at math to keep track of all those calories, carbs, or whatever you’re counting. That's what the experts say. If you can't keep track of sit-ups and crunches, you're doomed."

"Does it work backwards?" I asked her.

"I don't understand," she replied.

"Well if you're bad at math right from the start, does that mean you'll be fat. If you're fat, does it mean that you're predetermined to be bad at math? Is it commutative?"

"Which one is commutative again?" she asked.

I didn't answer her.

"So can I quote you?" she asked.

"I didn't say anything to be quoted yet," I said, "but if you need a quote, try this: 'I don't agree with your theory. It doesn't make sense. It's silly. Losing weight has nothing to do with being able to add or subtract or even do long division. Dieting isn't about math, it's about really wanting to lose weight. It's about not putting garbage in your mouth. It's about exercise. It's about self-control. Not math. Plus, you can buy a calculator for under five bucks if you are really mathematically impaired.'"

"Yeah, but the experts say that it's hard to remember to keep track and write everything down," she said.

"Like I said," I repeated. "If you want to lose weight, whether you have to add, write something down, or maybe keep track of how many sit ups you do, if someone really wants to, the person will figure out a way. It has nothing to do with math."

"So you don't think it’s harder to lose weight if you're bad at math? You don't think being bad at math makes a difference?"

"You can quote me on that," I said. "One thing has nothing to do with the other."

"But. I mean if you're on a diet and you want to lose weight, when you have to count all those calories, and keep track, like it makes it so hard for some people."

"Then those people can go on a low carb diet," I told her, "because all you have to do is count up to twenty at first to stay under twenty carb limit at the Induction Phase, and some of the lowest carb foods have zero carbs. Zero carbs means zero math."

My humor was wasted on her.

- - -

©2002, Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved. This blog is copyright protected. No item on this blog, including this essay or any photographs, may be used without the author's express written permission.

This essay originally appeared at the Irascible Professor - April 10, 2007.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

I Jumped the Biggest Turtle

Some of us have the eye. Some of us have the ear. Some of us have both. When we hear or see them, they give us that fingernails-across-the-chalkboard sensation. They can be found on TV, on the Internet, in advertisements, in magazines, and in newspapers. Without mentioning names, they have even been found in love letters. We who have the eye, the ear, or both vow we will not be part of it. We will strive for perfection. We take oaths in secret societies and grumble a lot. We will respect the language. We will follow the rules and not stray. We swear against the use of word shortcuts and emoticons. We will not succumb to the mass hysteria of abbreviated laziness. We will not substitute "u" for "you", "r" for "are", or "luv" for "love". We will not type "cuz", "prolly", or "w/o". Our writing will be without phrases like "CUL8er", "imho", and "brb". We will not follow the crowd. If we have to, we will stand out in the hurricane sharing the same grammar umbrella. Perhaps we will drown, get blown away, get pneumonia, or at least get very wet. So be it when the argument has grammar rules as the foundation.

My name is Felice and I am a grammarholic.

Hello, Felice.

Lately I have been getting hives because of commas and enunciation. It does not take much to set off the allergic reaction. Sometimes it can be capital letters. Sometimes it can be spelling. This time, all I needed was one innocent, unsuspecting student who mumbled, almost incoherently,

"Grammar is dumb."

"Grammar is not dumb," I replied with the same "is not" "is too" "is not" mentality I used when I was her age. Grammar criticism reduces me to my most infantile state. I pout. I kick things. I thrash around on the floor. I go off on tangents and become incoherent.

"Using proper grammar, proper spelling, and proper enunciation make a big difference in the meaning of what you're trying to communicate and how others see you," I expounded. "What you say or write is often the first impression people may have of you." An experienced educator should have known better. She would have realized that I had turned off this student right there, but I could not leave it alone. Not me! I had to pick. I had to probe. I had to turn a tiny booboo into a major wound. I had to make a point to an unreceptive audience in spite of my better judgment. With that, I continued to enlighten this puzzled pre-teen whose specialty is four-word sentences, Orlando Bloom trivia, and mascara application. I used examples which I have had stored within the minutiae of my mind forever. I suppose it's kind of like the word "minutia", a word I would have gotten right on the SATs had it come up. It did not, and for the last three decades, I have tried to throw "minutia" into every conversation about minutiae that I possibly can. This time I was using a storehouse of sentences I had collected about misplaced letters and commas.

First, I wrote this in blue on the white board. I wrote the comma in red:

Fetch the paper, boy! Fetch the paperboy!

"Do you see the difference?" I asked her.

"Fetch?" she asked. "What's fetch?"

"Don't you have a dog? Haven't you ever asked a dog to fetch something?"

"I like cats," she said. "Cats don't fetch."

I erased the sentences, and I wrote another example:

Felice was a lighthouse keeper. Felice was a light housekeeper.

"Yeah, so?" she said.

"Look at them carefully," I responded.

"I don't see the difference," she said.

I explained the difference.

She sighed and looked at the clock.

"My mother has a maid," she said. "You should get a maid."

"I can't afford a maid," I told her.

I showed her another:

I jumped the biggest hurdle. I jumped the biggest turtle.

"I don't get it," she said.

"Read them out loud to me," I instructed.

"I jumped the biggest hurdle. I jumped the biggest turtle," she quickly muttered without distinction.
They both sounded the same the way she read them.

"Enunciate the words," I instructed.

"Enunciate?" she said. "Is that like Email?"

"Pronounce the words clearly," I clarified.

"I jumped the biggest hurdle. I jumped the biggest turtle," she said again.

They both still sounded the same.

I read them to her making sure I exaggerated the words that could be confused.

"That's what I said," she whined.

"No, you didn't."

"Yes, I did."

I looked at the clock and sighed.

"Try this one," I suggested.

What is that in the road ahead? What is that in the road, a head?

"Yeah, so?" she said.

"Read them both."

She did.

"Enunciate! Pause when you see a comma," I said.

She gave me a look.

My own children often give me the same look.

I sometimes give my children that same look.

I am not allowed to give that look to my students.

"Work with me," I said. "Read the sentences clearly."

"So there's a head in the road. Big deal," she said. "Can't we do something else? This is boring."

"Life is boring," I said profoundly. "I'm trying to teach you something valuable."

"Is it time to go yet?" she asked.

"One more," I told her. "Then you can leave."

Can you see anybody there? Can you see any body there?

"They're the same," she said.

"No, they're not," I said.

"Yes, they are," she replied. "Anybody. Any body. Same thing. You're really obsessing about the same thing."

"No, I'm not," I said.

"Yes, you are," she replied. "Anybody. Any body. You're making something out of nothing."

"No, I'm not," I said.

"Yes, you are," she replied.

I think I scared her when I started to cry.

© 2004 Felice Prager