How Children Succeed

I will recommend a wonderful book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, a journalist and former editor of the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Tough addresses the controversial question of why there is an achievement gap between underprivileged students – and those who aren’t. 

Most educators believe that academic success relates to cognitive skills – the kind of “intelligence” that can be measured on IQ tests. However more and more, there is an understanding that non-cognitive skills (curiosity, socialization, character, self control, self confidence and “grit”) are better predictors of academic achievement.  The success of a student has less to do with “smarts” than with more ordinary personality traits such as the ability to stay focused and to control impulses. 

Non-cognitive skills  – such as persistence and curiosity – have been found to predict future success.  College graduates who participated in New York’s KIPP (“Knowledge is Power Program“) were not so much the academic stars but the ones who plugged away at problems and resolved to improve themselves.  Grit. 

Are we surprised that children who grow up in abusive or dysfunctional environments statistically have more trouble concentrating, sitting still or rebounding from disappointments?  There is neurological/medical reason for this.  The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which regulates thoughts and behavior.  When this region is damaged (a condition that often occurs in children living in the pressures of poverty), it is tougher to suppress unproductive instincts.  Studies show that early nurturing from parents combats the biochemical effects of stress.  The prefrontal cortex then becomes more responsive to intervention and the learning of essential non-cognitive skills.

While throwing money at the problem is viewed by some as a solution, psychological intervention is probably be a better remedy.  KIPP provides “character” report cards – designed to show students that such traits can improve with time.  The motto?  “Work hard.  Be Nice.”  See 

For anyone with interest in education, this 197 page book is a must read.   

The Cemetery of the Books

Years ago, in another life (and over the course of several years), I traveled to Spain and Portugal with some frequency.  I would normally come back with suitcases chock full of handwritten manuscripts. Many dating to the 1400’s. There were the Spanish garrison records for Gibraltar (from before the British occupation!), the thousand page manuscript history of the Church in Santiago de Compostela (1540-1822), the Jesuit diaries in Goa (India) dating to the early 1500’s and so on. 

As we all say when time marches on – “those were the days.”  In Lisbon, during one visit, I found it.  I found the cemetery of the books.  This was a term made popular by Carlos Ruiz Zafon in his must read book The Shadow of the Wind.  The cemetery of the books in Lisbon was a 3 or 4 story warehouse on a narrow street in the Bairo Alto.   It was chock full of manuscripts, rare books and manuscript books.   It was not a museum or archive.  It was literally a cemetery of rarities.  Which one could buy for a song.  Few people knew about this place.  And somehow I had stumbled upon it.  For those who are squeamish, stop reading here. 

The books and manuscripts I would pull off the shelves were literally crawling with dust mites and lice.  All manner of insects.  Vermin scooted in the corners and along the walls.  But oh my – the things that were there.  As good as the Rock Island Railroad warehouse (see May 15, 2014).  I would load up a suitcase or two with books and manuscripts – carefully wrapping them in plastic bags – and bring them home.  Once home, I would put the plastic bags in a large freezer for a month or two (a recommended Rx for dealing with the creepy crawlers) and later leaf through what I had found.  Create listings and sell them.  But on one sad trip to Lisbon, I went to the cemetery of the books and – it was no more.  It had burned to the ground a month or two before.  I still have an item or two or three left from these forays.  I am sad that the cemetery of books is no more.  If it was still there, I’d likely be flitting off to Lisbon every few months. . . . . 

Eloquence. . . .

Peggy Noonan has a way with words. . . . . In the Wall Street Journal (May 4-5, 2019) she had some really salient comments.

The federal government will not become smaller or less expensive in our lifetimes. There is no political will for it among elected officials. . . .But beyond that fact is something bigger. America needs help right now and Americans know it. It has been enduring for many years a continuing cultural catastrophe — illegitimacy, the decline of faith, low family formation, child abuse and neglect, drugs, inadequate public education, etc. All this exists alongside an entertainment culture on which the poor and neglected are dependent and which is devoted to violence, sex and nihilism. As people, we are constantly, bitterly pitted against each other, and force-fed the ideas of America as an illegitimate, ugly, racist and misogynist nation. Even honest love of country isn’t allowed to hold us together anymore.”

If you don’t see the verity in her words, you may be part of America’s problem . . . .

Jesus in Islam

When the angel said: O Marium, surely Allah gives you good news with a Word from Him whose name is the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, worthy of regard in this world and the hereafter and of those who are made near to Allah. The Quran – Surra 3:45

His name is Isa Ibn Marium.  He was born of a virgin – Marium – who gave birth to Isa by the miraculous will of God.  It is believed by devout Muslims that Isa – Jesus – is a Messenger of God who was sent to guide the Children of Israel with the Holy Gospel.  Jesus – aka “Isa” –  is referenced in the Quran as being al-Masih (“The Messiah”).  Most Muslims accept that Jesus will return on the Day of Judgment to restore justice and to defeat the Antichrist (al-Masih ad-Dajjal).  I have written about religion in earlier posts.  I’ve discussed my journey through the Old and New Testaments and the Quran.  And I have occasionally commented on Islam (see 1/30/12; 3/26/12; 8/23/12; and 9/6/13).  Islam, Christianity and Judaism would seem have more in common than they do difference.  

The story of Jesus has recurring reference in the Quran.  Mary – his mother – is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran.  She even has her own surra (chapter).   All of the Old Testament prophets play a prominent role in the Quran.  Religion – to me – is a fascinating topic which is relevant today.  One of the concerns – among Muslims – is that a great many cannot read.  S0 they get their information from imams, madrassahs and politicians.  Who often have a political agenda.  And you know what happens then. . . .  Witness the fires that burn across the Middle East.  Then again, I find it easier to discuss religion with Pakistani cab drivers (see post of 8/19/12) than I do politics . . . . .

Freshness Dates

How did my generation (and those before) ever survive without freshness dates.  Those dates that counsel that food is “best by” or a store must “sell by” or you have to “use by” — a certain date.  How did I live?   I will tell you how . . . .

My father would take a sniff of the carton of milk that had been in the refrigerator since before I was born – and say “it’s okay. Drink it.” And I would.  I remember going to my grandmother’s apartment once.  She made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.   I took a bite and started chewing.  I looked at the sandwich and then at my grandmother.  Mouth open.  About to heave the whole thing onto the table.  She picked up the peanut butter.  Waved it under her nose.  And made a face.  “It’s rancid” she said [I swear those were her words].  “Okay – spit it out.”  And I did. My cousin Wayne came over to our house one day.  I was perhaps seven or eight.  He went into the frig and pulled out the orange juice.  Poured a glass.  “Ouch!” he said.  “This stuff is baaaadddd.”  My father took a whiff and said “it’s just a little over the hill.”  “Over the hill” as in enough botulism to wipe out the entire State of Pennsylvania.   I’d been drinking it sporadically for the last few weeks.  Or months. 

I’m sure my experience is not unlike many of those reading this post.  We’ve become a nation of wimps.  Allowing the “freshness date” to dictate whether a food is good.  Or not.   What about letting the old sniffer make that determination?  But for the fact that I have granddaughters (who will never know the meaning of the word “rancid” or “over the hill” except as it applies to me), I might be using the “sniff test” to determine what’s good.  And what is. . . . yuck.  Then again . . . .  

Death to the Infidels

[A repeat from March 25, 2017] I go to the local fitness center a few times a week. When I come home, I get the question “how was your workout?” And my response – for the longest time – was “fine.” And that was it.

But my workouts vary. Sometimes it’s a quick in and out. Other times, I’ll be there for a while – punishing my body. Grunting, groaning, lumbering and lurching through all manner of cardio, weights, stretches and contortions. So one day when I got home and Donna asked “how was your workout?” – I responded “I did the puppy dog.” I got the look . . . . “What’s that?” Donna asked. “I was only able to work out for 45 minutes.” “Oh.” Later that week, I went home, got the question and responded “I did the Gorilla.” Nearly 90 minutes of exercise. And so it goes. I have now identified five distinct categories of workout:

The Puppy Dog — A workout of less than 45 minutes

The Regular — An hour

The Gorilla — An hour to an hour and a half

Death to the Infidels — Pushing two hours

Death to the Infidel” workouts are rare but they happen. However, while on vacation a few weeks ago, I came up with a fifth category: “Death to the Infidelsal-Shahid [the martyr].” This is where I try to kill myself working out. But I don’t succeed . . . .

Why People are Late

Each morning I get up, check my email and lurch down the stairs.  I make the coffee, get the newspaper, make my breakfast and chow down my cereal and sip two cups of coffee while reading the paper and watching “Squawk Box.”   

All the while, I keep a weather eye on the clock.  Why?  Because I have to catch a train.  If I miss the train, I miss the train.   The train waits for no one.   I’m left standing.  And I’m late.   Therefore I always allot myself precisely 14 minutes to walk from my house to the train station.   And I catch my train.  I am on time.  Ta daaaahhhh. . . . .   

I don’t like waiting.  Drumming my fingers.  And I don’t want people waiting for me.  If I say I will be there at 5:45 pm, I will be there a few minutes early.  Sure – there’s a reasonable “fudge factor” but generally, I feel one should live up to time obligations.  I have a theory.  People who do not need to catch a train or a bus or an airplane for work (or link life to the clock on some other time-sensitive obligation) have less incentive to be on time.  Hence . . . . there may be a higher incidence of running late. Think about it.  Test my theory.