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New riddle poems! May 2, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Poetry, Riddles!, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Well, summer is on its way and the bulk of my teaching year is over – leaving more time for blogging! So here’s a first installment: three new riddle poems for your guessing pleasure 🙂 Enjoy!

1) A suit of circling rings I wear;
Beneath my skin my armour’s deep;
So come and strike me – if you dare!
For if you wound me, you will weep.

Answer: Onion

2) Against ten thousand flying foes I shield,
Unyielding, strong, yet light to bear and wield.
I spring to life at one wave of your hand,
Then humbly shrink away at your command.

Answer: Umbrella

3) For all who’d come and watch in awe
I give to you, my friends,
The best striptease you ever saw!
And one that never ends.

I’ll show you all my curvy bends
As round I turn and glide.
See through my act? Well, that depends –
There’s nothing I can hide.

Don’t try to find my better side,
For if you do, you’ll fail,
Tricked by, like all the rest who’ve tried,
The twist in my strange tale.

Answer: Moebius strip


Riddle poem of the day… September 23, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Poetry, Riddles!.
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Time for a new riddle poem – it’s been a while. Question mark

“I’m faithful and steadfast through twist and through turn –
Your friend in the dark without star or sun.
The Earth is my mother; for her I still yearn,
And point to the place where all times are one.”

Answer: A compass needle

Beyond Carrots and Sticks: How to Motivate Children (Or Why it’s Not Necessary) January 17, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Childhood, Creative Writing, Music, Philosophy, Poetry, Teaching.
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My response to Amy Chua, Part 2

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” – Mark Twain

Student: (sarcastically commenting on a challenging piano exercise I’d assigned): “Oh, fun, fun.”
Me: “Maybe it will be fun – why not? You haven’t played it yet, so how do you know for sure it won’t be?”
Student (after a moment’s reflection): “You win.”


Last week I wrote Part 1 of my response to Amy Chua’s article on “Chinese parenting” featured in the Wall Street Journal. A storm of controversy followed Ms. Chua’s article; in the intervening week her book has been released and she has given several interviews, such as this one, which help to “moderate” the tone of her WSJ piece. Ms. Chua emphasizes the book is more a memoir than a parenting guide and that she is not trying to tell others how to raise their children. Yet, even in the interviews, she still makes some sweeping claims about “Asian” vs. “Western” forms of parenting. It’s these statements I’ll be responding to now.

In particular, one quote from the article leapt out at me.

Western parents romanticize the idea of pursuing passions and giving your kid choices. If you give a 10-year-old the choice to pursue his or her passion, it’s going to be doing Facebook for six hours. I don’t think it’s going to be playing the violin or doing any school work very seriously.

Ms. Chua, it seems, is convinced that Children Are By Default Lazy. If they do have “passions” – perhaps to play an instrument or win a sports competition – these are transitory flickers of desire which will soon fade, leaving nothing but TV-seeking apathy behind. Children don’t have the planning or time management skills to work towards a long-term goal. Above all, they aren’t interested in learning, because learning is Hard Work and couldn’t possibly be fun. Hence they must be forced to learn, as they certainly won’t do it on their own.

Is this the case? When I think back over my own childhood, here’s a small sample of “fun” activities I remember:

– Going to the local library with my mom, picking out armloads of books and going to a nearby park to read beneath the trees. (In the following years I would read thousands of books).
– Drawing maps of various fictitious countries described in the books I read (The Phantom Tollbooth, “Ponyland”, Narnia…)
– Learning various math concepts from my mom (before their introduction in the school curriculum): place-value, negative numbers and tessellations.
– Playing soccer from age 6 to 14.
– Major roles in four school plays: Titania (Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Goose (Charlotte’s Web), The Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz) and the First Witch (Macbeth).
– Taking piano lessons through Grade 12 (and flute until Grade 11; I also played in a youth orchestra.)
– Making a large hooked rug for my room.
– Writing a short story which won first place in a city-wide competition, as well as dozens of poems and other short stories.
– Memorizing a large amount of Romantic poetry, including Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, around age 9. (I still know it today!)

All of these activities have three characteristics in common: (a) I had fun doing them, (b) I learned something in the process and (c) they were totally voluntary. Some of them my parents suggested or provided help with, others were entirely my idea, but I was never coerced or “bribed”. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who remembers these sorts of childhood activities being “fun”…so why do we take for granted that children need to be forced into doing them?

This vast disconnect between what we expect from children (laziness) and what’s actually there (energy, creativity and curiosity) goes right to the heart of what’s wrong with our educational system today. Our society has a collective idea that Learning Is Boring. “Obviously” children are not going to want to learn about negative numbers, write stories or practice piano on their own initiative, right? So either we have to bribe or coerce them.

Bribery comes in all sorts of forms in our educational system. Most often it’s a sensory form; for example, a computer game that will let you practice your times tables by lighting up and flashing every time you get the right answer. Exciting, isn’t it? From a post by my fellow blogger Montecelery: “Somewhere along the line, the idea that children need stimulation went horribly, horribly awry…there’s just this conception in our society that children need or want brightly colored stuff, stuff that lights up and makes noise, whatever.” If it isn’t loud or flashy things, it’s cute dancing cartoon characters, the promise of a movie after class, or chocolate. But, so goes the conventional Western wisdom, they will not swallow that bitter spoonful of educational medicine unless we promise them some sugar to go with it.

The traditional “Asian” method is rather less subtle. Why bribe the children if we can coerce them? It’s their job to clench their teeth, buckle down and learn those math concepts or spelling lists, distasteful, boring and tedious though it may be. No spoonful of sugar needed here; they’ll learn to take their bitter medicine each day and do it promptly, or they’ll have an angry parent or teacher to answer to.

In contrast, I’m going to advance an alternative theory.

(1) Children – in general – are naturally creative, curious, and enjoy learning. (Obviously, some children will have more energy or passion for a given subject than others. However, if there’s a child out there who has absolutely no interest in learning, I haven’t taught or met them yet. :D) There’s even a school in Britain named Summerhill, where the children are under absolutely no obligation to go to classes, take tests or learn anything at all. But, amazingly enough, they do!

(2) Though children enjoy learning, they won’t just spontaneously learn if they’re entirely left to their own devices – not through lack of motivation but lack of tools. It’s absolutely essential to expose them to a wide range of possibilities (teaching them to read or introducing math concepts at a preschool level; signing them up for soccer or other recreational opportunities; going on nature walks; taking them to the library to borrow books; and so on.)

(3) If you want your child to enjoy learning, the best thing you can do is spend time interacting with them. Opportunities for learning will naturally come up. If there’s one thing that almost all 5-year olds have in common, it’s that they never stop asking questions! Learning is much more fun when there’s someone else there to do it with. 🙂

(4) “Educational” TV shows and DVDs, by and large, do far more to dampen intellectual curiosity than to sharpen it.** They teach children that learning consists of sitting passively and absorbing information. (Of course this prepares them very nicely for the mainstream educational system…which involves 12 years of sitting passively and absorbing information! Is it any wonder that parents, a few years down the road, bemoan their children’s “apathy” and “lack of motivation?”) Learning is an active process, and watching TV is by nature passive.

And most importantly…

(5) Learning doesn’t consist of stuffing information into one’s brain. It’s a process of exploring the world around us and finding out how it works. An interest in learning, and “being well prepared for tests”, often have very little to do with one another.

This is why the Asian model is so self-defeating. It supposes that one can generate curiosity through hours of drudgery. Does Ms. Chua truly believe that memorizing lists of spelling words, or doing pages of long division, will give one a passion for literature or mathematics? Of course, spelling and arithmetic are useful skills in our society; I’m not denying that! But the very idea that one can “drill” a passion into a child through rote repetition is, to my mind at least, absurd.

Children do not need to be “motivated”. They come that way naturally. The danger is that they will become “demotivated” – either through passive TV-watching (usually when both parents work outside the home) or through an educational system that emphasizes “right answers” and “good marks” over intellectual curiosity. But, if they are given the tools that will let them pursue their passions, they won’t be spending six hours a day on Facebook.***

Of course, these may not be the same passions that Ms. Chua appears to personally value, such as academics and music. For example, one of my cousins has an amazing talent for renovating older cars and re-selling them. Why shouldn’t he “pursue his passion”? If a 9-year old longs to be in a school play, or on the school basketball team, why does Ms. Chua not consider these good choices?

The truth is that children come with a wide variety of interests and this is good. Yes, our world needs doctors, lawyers and engineers. It also needs teachers, plumbers, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, retail workers, dental assistants, musicians and far too many other careers to mention here. Your child’s interests may not match your own, and that’s fine – but it’s also none of your business to tell them what they “should” enjoy.

In closing, I’ll hand it off to my dad, whose advice on careers was always as follows: “I have only three requirements for what career you pick. One, you need to enjoy it. Two, it has to be legal. Three, you need to be able to earn a living at it.” That’s all any parent should insist on. After that – hands off. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* Just for those who are curious, the maps of imaginary countries, the short story/poetry writing, and memorizing the Ancient Mariner were entirely on my own initiative. (Nobody could have been more surprised than my parents at that last one.) 😀

** To clarify, I am not telling parents never to turn on Discovery Channel or to borrow educational DVDs from the library. This shouldn’t, though, make up the bulk of the child’s “learning time.”

*** Unless, of course, their passion is for network design or computer programming…in which case they may be the next Mark Zuckerberg. That wouldn’t be so bad either.

December 7: Candlelight Carol December 10, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music, Poetry.
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A beautiful gem of a contemporary carol composed by John Rutter. Really there’s nothing one could possibly add by talking about it…so here are two recordings. The first is by a professional ensemble, the second a high school choir – less polished perhaps, but with a certain magic that (to me) the professional recording doesn’t quite match.

Enjoy! 🙂

How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How can you measure the love of a mother,
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?
Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn.
Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo!
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born.
Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him,
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep;
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour,
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep.

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger:
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay.
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation:
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day.

More Riddles! November 24, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Poetry, Riddles!, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Two more riddle poems to challenge and amuse, written just this morning. Enjoy! 🙂

(Note: all riddle-poems posted on my blog are now collected under the page A Treasury of Riddle Poems…with more to be added in the weeks to come!)

1. A trinity of teeth have I
To tear my prey as fast I fly.
Yet since the days of yore are through,
Far oftener I’m chewed, than chew.

Answer: A trident.

2. Traveller, tell me what tomb I must enter
To gaze on the bones of the Tyrant King,
Who ruled a world that never knew winter,
And fell in the year of the sunless spring?

Answer: A dinosaur museum (the “Tyrant King” is Tyrannosaurus Rex, the “tyrant lizard king.”)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

Autumn Threnody November 20, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Nature, Photography, Poetry.
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“Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving…”

– Gerard Manley Hopkins (Spring and Fall: To a Young Child)

Autumn always makes me want to write poetry.

I think it’s my favorite season of the year; there’s something about that scent of dying leaves, the crisp, clean air (free now from the summer’s suffocating humidity), the pale blue of the sky and the all-too-brief but brilliant sunlight that stirs up strange emotions. All my poetry written in autumn comes out dark, even morbid, with a sense of irrecoverable loss running through it – much like the Hopkins poem I quoted above. Odd for my usual optimistic self…

So here is some (rather Hopkinsesque) autumn poetry by the Platypus, some autumn pictures I’ve taken on walks recently, and some beautiful autumnal Brahms to listen to while you explore (not in that order.) I wrote the poem several years ago while living on the west coast of British Columbia. There autumn marks the end of the dry, clear summer season; the winter rains, rather than snowfall, start in November and last more or less continuously until March or April, hence the reference to “winter’s tears” in the last line…

Autumn Threnody

Who would have thought such beauty lay in death?
Flame-fretted leaves in daylight’s dwindling ray,
Proud, flaunt their festive colors of decay,
That heady scent that permeates each breath.
Flight-weary moths that each night flutter less,
Wind-tattered webs of scattered thistle seeds,
Pale golden grass sun-seared, bone-brittle reeds,
And berries swollen ripe to rottenness.

And it must pass; this twilight season lies
In its slow-seeming perishing. Fast nears
The day the sun is hid, and from the skies,
In keen regret at all the vanished years,
The driving winds must desolate arise
And lash the woodland with a winter’s tears.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Riddles! (Just for Fun) October 2, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Flights of Fancy, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Riddles!, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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A random Internet search on some unrelated topic – I can’t remember what – brought me to this site by Eric S. Raymond, entitled “Riddle-Poems, and How to Make Them”. It contains a number of riddle poems in both ancient (Anglo-Saxon) and modern style, many of them extremely ingenious and entertaining. Better yet, it tells you how to write your own! Needless to say I thought this was pretty cool.

Do I really need to explain that I went on a sudden spate of frantic riddle-writing…?

Three riddles to amuse, perplex and entertain readers are below – enjoy! Drag your mouse over the blank space below each riddle to see the answer.

1. Dipping, glinting, gliding by,
Rainbow-fretted, wrought of breath.
I live only while I fly –
Earth’s rough kiss my sudden death.

Answer: A soap bubble

2. Dare trespass my threshold? Don’t dream you shall flee;
The strongest, the swiftest, cannot evade me.
I’ll seize you and crush you and wrench you apart,
Though no one may gaze on my singular heart.

Answer: Black hole

3. We two are twins, joined at the hip;
We love to glide and slide and slip;
Not quite alike – that’s really neat,
Or else we would have two left feet.
Best in a pinch, and clinging tight,
We often stay out late at night,
And we’re both done for if I run.
Now, can you solve this riddling pun?

Answer: Pantyhose

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

…and Univocalic Sonnets September 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
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(Part 2…for Part 1 and lipograms click here!)

In his Ton Beau de Marot, Hofstadter also mentions a book of univocalic sonnets by the Italian writer Giuseppe Varaldo. Each sonnet uses only one vowel, while summarizing a famous work of literature (e.g. Dante’s Inferno or The Arabian Nights) in 14 lines. Though Hofstadter considers these poems “untranslatable” (i.e. one can’t retain both their content and the vowel constraint in translation) writing another univocalic sonnet on the same theme, like Dante’s Inferno, might (he can “dimly imagine”) be possible. A few years later I ran across Brian Raiter’s webpage in which he took up Hofstadter’s challenge, and produced an excellent (and very humorous) sonnet on Dante’s Inferno, containing only the vowel “i”. *

Well, as a longtime Dante AND linguistics fanatic, how could I refuse this challenge? I began writing a univocalic sonnet on the Inferno (I won’t tell you which vowel it uses, as I still hope to complete it soon). But in the process, I found myself thinking of ideas for a Purgatorio sonnet as well…and then a Paradiso one. So I worked on all three. The Purgatorio one, containing only “e”, was the first to be completed – probably as this is my favorite book of the three 🙂 Enjoy! **

He left Hell’s nether clefts, emerged – he’s freed!
Then Seeker trembles, heeds the next set test:
Steep steps meet seven levels, then the crest;
He reels, yet Helper sees; enters with speed.

Ledges where kneel men’s essences (sex, greed,
Pelf, spleen, these ever tempted; erred, yet ‘fessed)
“Be better! Perfect!” Keen, relentless zest –
Redeemed yet flesh, hence blessed end decreed.

Steeds, elders, wheels he sees creed’s secrets tell,
Scents Eden’s breeze; bereft, deserted, weeps.
Green eyes’ stern strength he meets; repents deeds, meek;
She – tender, sweet – then cedes; refreshed, he sleeps.
Wet Lethe’s creek he enters, gentle spell;
Then, reverent, ten spheres’ endless depths they seek. ***

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* Also enjoyable are his “Short Words to Explain Relativity” and “Notes on Writing a Monovocalic Sonnet“, which gave me some ideas and inspiration. I do wish to state, however – though my respect for Brian’s creation is immense – I did not resort to Perl script-generated lists, though I admit to running some rhyming dictionary searches. 🙂

** One of the thorny parts of writing a univocalic sonnet is: does “y” count as a vowel, or a consonant? The rule tends to be to leave it out when it has a distinct vowel sound (e.g. “party”, “gypsy”) but include it when it acts as a consonant (“yes, yellow”). But what about words, such as “eyes” and “they”, when it’s entirely silent? In the end I decided to include those two – mainly because they were an intrinsic part of my two favorite images in the poem and I couldn’t bear to remove them. Take that, purists :D)

*** For the Dante keeners: Yes, I fudged a little re “ten spheres” and counted the Empyrean 😀

Just for Fun: Lipograms… September 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
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(This is Part 1…don’t miss Part 2 containing a univocalic sonnet! 🙂 )

A few years back I read Hofstadter‘s book Le Ton Beau de Marot where – among various linguistic games – he explores lipograms (a challenge in which you write  without using particular letters – usually “e”). He mentions the 300-page Le Disparation by Georges Perec and Ernest Vincent Wrights Gadsby – two entire novels that do not contain a single letter “e”! (As if to make up for the omission, Perec later wrote Les Revenents, a novel which uses no vowel except “e”.)  Needless to say I thought this was all pretty cool.

Later I joined an online form and, posting in a thread on e-less lipograms, came up with the following reworking from my favorite Shakespeare play 😀


Puck’s final stanzas: “A Vision from Sixth Month’s Night”

Found our acting irritating?
Think but this, and it’s not grating:
All you did was grab a nap,
This vision just a bunch of crap.
And this sadly boring plot –
Nothing but a passing thought –
Lords, now pardon, do not sigh:
I’ll top this play by and by.
And as I am a truthful Puck,
If I had, unjustly, luck,
So to now avoid your hiss,
I’ll outdo it – I vow this,
You must know that I’m not lying.
So, good night – this hour’s flying!
Applaud us now, amigos, do!
And I’ll fulfill my oath to you.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

Two Odd Reversals June 27, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Flights of Fancy, Nature, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
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From time to time I will write fantasy or sci-fi novels in my dreams (or to be more specific actually live the plots, usually as a participant in the story but simultaneously an outside observer) and occasionally even remember them when I wake up. Usually they contain some odd perspective or twist I would almost never think of in my waking hours…

I had one such dream a few nights ago. The story opened in what appeared to be a fantasy world inhabited by my people, a winged humanoid race rather like elves or fairies with some magical abilities. Halfway through the novel our pristine homeland was invaded by a strange new race of magicless but enormous and powerful giants that appeared to be intent on taking over the world and imposing their civilization. The two races began a inter-species war for control of the land which lasted most of the novel.

So far a fairly typical fantasy novel, perhaps…but a few chapters before the end of the book an extraordinary realization dawned on me (the “author” observing the plot and writing the novel…)

The “fantasy world” was our world set in a long-ago, prehistoric past. The “giants” taking over the world were the newly-arrived Homo sapiens and “my” people were an ancient fairy or elven race which had inhabited the world before human civilization appeared. When both races realized this in my dream and finally understood one another’s motives, they ended the war and negotiated a settlement to coexist in peace. They would divide the day between them: the humans would control the world while the sun was in the sky, but the night would belong to the elves alone.

I don’t think I’ll ever write that novel, but it’s fun to think about…


In any case, this reminded me of a sonnet I wrote a few years back with a different, but similar (and equally “eerie”) “perspective reversal”.)

A race of conquerors with iron hands,
They came with fire, greed, and hungry knives,
And drove the native dwellers from their lands,
Slew most they found; as chattel kept some wives,
Leveled all homes, of fertile fields made sands,
And on the edges of their teeming hives
In shadowed night let lurk some furtive bands
To eat the refuse of their glutted lives.

Yet trembled at the fateful prophecy;
No Empire lasts forever, nor no might.
Rain will ruin road, wind wither wall to tree,
And city slide from fading human sight –
Then rat, hen, spider, bat, fearless and free,
Shall roam at ease through regained Eden’s light.