Vocab from the Headlines: Polymath

Photo credit Greg2600 via Flickr CC-BY-ND

Recently on social media, I saw that Riz Ahmed, musician and actor, (Star Wars: Rogue One) was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2017. The post called him a “polymath”, a curious term that I wanted to learn more about. It actually has much less to do with math than I expected.

If you like to learn about words, join the Wondrous Wednesday meme over at Bermuda Onion. There, bloggers share interesting words they’ve learned.

Polymath \pä-lē-math\ noun from the Greek polymathēs, very learned; from poly (multiple) + manthanein to learn

  • A person of encyclopedic learning; someone who knows a lot about many different things

Turns out, calling Riz Ahmed a polymath doesn’t mean he’s a mathematician, it means he has talent and interest in many different areas, including music, acting, and activism. Here’s what Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda said about Ahmed in his Time tribute:

“Riz Ahmed has been quietly pursuing every passion and opportunity for many years as an actor (The Road to Guantanamo, Four Lions, Nightcrawler), rapper (Post 9/11 Blues, Englistan) and activist (raising funds for Syrian refugee children, advocating representation at the House of Commons). The year 2016 was when all the seeds he planted bore glorious fruit, and here’s the best part: he’s just getting started.”

So, a polymath sounds a lot like a Renaissance Man, such as Thomas Jefferson, who I featured in a recent post.

Word Nerd Workout

Don’t forget to visit Kathy at Bermuda Onion for the WWW meme!

Can you think of another polymath from real life or literature or movies? While I write this, I’m wondering, would it be better to focus on one thing and be really good at it? Or to know a lot about many different things? I have so many interests, I would love to pursue them enough to be called a “polymath”.

Thanks for getting nerdy with me today!








What You Should Know About 13 Reasons

Is it possible to understand why someone would commit suicide? 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher is a best-selling young adult novel that explores this question. In March 2017, Netflix released a series based on the book that sparked a buzz on social media. Many teens have been mesmerized by the show, and many parents are concerned. I recently finished reading 13 Reasons Why, and here’s what you need to know.


A few days after Hannah Baker commits suicide, Clay Jensen finds a package of cassette tapes on his front porch.  Hannah recorded the tapes right before her death, and Hannah’s haunting voice explains what and who made her decide to kill herself. Only people who played “a role” in her suicide are on the tapes and will receive them. Clay listens somewhat unwillingly to Hannah’s monologue, wanting to learn his part and dreading what he might hear.

What I liked

I liked the unusual structure that Asher uses to tell Hannah’s story. Hannah’s voice fills Clay’s head; she feels present, but he’s painfully aware that she’s not. Also, it’s a great example of irony. Hannah gave up on life because people never listened to her or understood her. They chose to embrace rumors and gossip instead of getting to know her. Recording the tapes gives Hannah a way to tell her story without interruption or misconception. She finally has a voice, but by the time people hear and understand, it’s too late.

In a disturbing scene, students scoff at a suicide note left in a Peer Communications class at Hannah’s high school. In the author notes at the back of the book, Asher says the same thing happened at his own school, and part of his motivation to write the novel was to increase awareness of the stigma of suicide and to encourage more candid conversations about it.

13 Reasons highlights some important warning signs of suicide, including changing appearance, giving away personal belongings, and, what should be obvious, mentioning suicide.

13 Reasons forces readers to consider how their actions affect other people. Says Asher, “… even though Hannah admits that the decision to take her life was entirely her won, it’s also important to be aware of how we treat others.”

What I didn’t like

The two main characters of 13 Reasons Why are passive, and I had trouble engaging with the story. Clay listens to the tapes and reacts. He doesn’t take action, he just laments the tragedy.

Hannah is equally passive. Her tapes reveal that she was upset by rumors about her reputation, and she felt misunderstood and abandoned by people she thought were her friends. These are very realistic emotions, but we don’t see Hannah doing anything about them. She witnesses a rape but feels incapable of stopping it. She climbs into a hot tub with a boy she knows just wants sex, and she gives in to him. Hannah is less compelling than someone like Melinda, the protagonist from the YA novel Speak, who is a victim of rape and rumor who struggles to recover.

Book vs TV Series

I have not seen any of the Netflix episodes, but I have heard that the series is a suspenseful, violent drama. In the show, Hannah slits her wrists to kill herself, and this is graphically depicted. In the book, the actual suicide is never described, and readers only know that Hannah decides pills will be the best method. Also, apparently the rape scene is quite graphic in the show, but in the novel, the incident focuses more on Hannah’s feelings and reactions than on what is physically happening.

Seeing and hearing disturbing scenes affects me much more than anything I read. If I’m upset by a passage in a book, I can skim over it, but with a TV show or movie, the images are harder for me to escape or forget. For that reason, I will probably not watch the show.

As always, I recommend teens and their parents read the book before seeing the show. This is an important topic, and if the book or the show increase awareness about suicide and encourage honest dialogue about it, than 13 Reasons Why has accomplished something important.

My 15-year-old daughter read the book and agreed with my assessment of the characters and story. She isn’t interested in watching the show because she feels it glorifies suicide.  I didn’t ask her if she knows anyone who has mentioned suicide or what to do if someone does. Perhaps we need to address that.

If you have read 13 Reasons Why or seen the show, please share your thoughts. What other shows and/or books offer good insight into the issue of teen suicide?

Thanks for adding to the conversation!







Why You Should Read Small Great Things

Small Great Things

I’m going to ask a difficult question, and I dare you to answer honestly:
Are you racist?

Many people reading this blog would probably deny they are racist.  However, whether you admit to racism or not,  you should read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. In this legal drama, Picoult explores racism in its overt and subtle forms and raises multiple questions, as any good novelist should. Small Great Things forces readers to evaluate the attitudes they claim and the generalizations they subconsciously harbor.


Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse with a Yale degree and over 20 years of experience. She is also black. When a White Supremacist couple insists that Ruth cannot touch their newborn son, Ruth is offended but honors the couple’s wishes. Her supervisor places a note in the baby’s medical record: No African-American staff should care for this patient. Unfortunately, during a busy morning on the floor, all other staff must attend to urgent situations, and Ruth is left alone with the white baby to observe him after his circumcision. While under Ruth’s watch, the baby suffers cardiac distress.

Ruth faces a dilemma: should she honor the request of the baby’s parents or honor her duty to care for ill patients?

Tragically, the baby dies, and guess what his parents do? That’s right, this story is set in America. They sue.

Public defender, and white woman, Kennedy McQuarrie takes on the case, and what she learns about herself and her fellow Americans during this trial changes her forever. Hopefully it will change the hearts of readers too.

What I liked

Picoult uses mulitple POVs to tell this story. One is Turk Bauer, the white supremacist father. The other two are Ruth and Kennedy. Because each player gets full chapters of first person POV, readers get deep insight into how the attitudes of each character have formed .  This builds understanding for each one, even the overtly racist guy.

Although the three main characters are very different, Picoult links them all with the theme of parenthood. I don’t believe in the supremacy of the white race, but I do love my children, and that helped me relate to Turk Bauer. I don’t know what it’s like to be judged based on the color of my skin, but I do know how challenging it is to parent teens. I love this quote from one of Ruth’s chapters:

In a lot of ways, having a teenager isn’t all that different from having a newborn. You learn to read the reactions, because they’re incapable of saying exactly what it is that’s causing pain.


Finally, I loved how Small Great Things examines the various forms and levels of racism. Through her relationship with Ruth, Kennedy gains new perspective on how it feels to live as a black person in America. During the trial, Kennedy says to the jury:

Sure, it’s so much easier to see the headwinds of racism, the ways that people of color are discriminated against… It’s a little harder to see- and to own up to- the tailwinds of racism, the ways that those of us who aren’t people of color have benefited just because we’re white.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

What I didn’t like

Sometimes the examples of racism were hard for me to believe – would police really come to Ruth’s house, in a safe, well-respected community, at three in the morning to arrest her? Picoult hits her readers over and over with signs of injustice, and sometimes it felt contrived. However, I’m white.

The conversion of one of the main characters seemed unrealistic at first, but after I thought about it, I realized that Picoult laid the groundwork for this change earlier in the novel. The transformation of her characters reinforces her message of hope and possibility.


Everyone should read this book and use it as a guide to examine their own attitudes about race and injustice in our country.

By the way, the title Small Great Things comes from a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr quote small things

Have you read Small Great Things? What did you think? Can you recommend any other novels that address the issue of racism?

Happy reading!







Chicago in a Day

If you have the chance to visit Chicago, you should definitely take it. But please, go when it’s warm (like June or later) and allow more than one day to see all the fabulous art and culture Chicago offers.

Our tiny high school Scholastic Bowl team qualified to take part in the NAQT National Tournament in Chicago last week. This was a fabulous opportunity for kids from our little corner of southwest Virginia to experience the culture of a big city and compete against students from multiple states. We had a blast, and the 12 hour drive (one way) was definitely worth it.  We hit the ground running when we got back, and I’m still exhausted, but here are a few tips I picked up about visiting Chicago.

One day isn’t enough

Because the school was paying, and we had to dedicate a day to competition, we only had one day to play in Chicago. 🙁 Definitely not enough. When I go back, (which I must), I want at least four days, or ideally, a week-long stay in a VRBO. We used public transportation, another way for kids to experience city life, but that came with unexpected delays. (Like an intoxicated, unresponsive passenger that had to be removed from our L train by a rescue squad. Don’t drink, kids, it only causes trouble.)

Find discounts for attractions

My family used City Passes in San Francisco, a huge help with expenses. You can get those in Chicago as well. Since we only had one day to sight see, I opted for the Go Chicago Card, which allowed us to choose two attractions and get a 20% discount. These passes usually help you bypass long ticket lines as well.


The transit option tells you which rail and bus lines you need.

We used the L (“elevated train”), not the bus lines (only because I didn’t have time to figure them out). The L was clean and safe, although we only rode during daylight. Our hotel was out by O’Hare Airport, and it took nearly an hour to get to downtown from there.

I highly recommend the one day CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) pass. For $10, we got unlimited rides on the L (and on buses if we had needed them). There’s also a three-day pass for $20. Overall, the system was pretty easy to figure out, although several train lines run through “The Loop” in the middle of downtown, and not all lines travel to all stations, which could be confusing. I like using the “transit” option on iPhone Maps” to give me a travel plan that includes public transportation options.

Go when it’s warm

Chicago has so many beautiful outdoor spaces- the River Walk, Millennium Park, Grant Park, the Navy Pier, and the lake front beaches – that it would be great to visit when the weather is warm. During our visit in late April, it was overcast with highs in the 50s (fairly typical for April). Closer to the lake felt even chillier. Good friends of mine who visited in the summer enjoyed warm weather activities like bike and kayak tours. When we go back, I’d definitely like to do that.

Art lovers take note!

There is much to please the art enthusiast’s eye in The Windy City. In fact, 2017 is the Year of Public Art in Chicago.  Fascinating architecture and sculpture fill the city spaces. We visited The Art Institute of Chicago, which has the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside of France and many other famous pieces (American Gothic, Whistler’s Mother). As a girl who grew up outside of DC and its free Smithsonian museums, I was shocked at the ticket price for The Art Institute – $40 for adults! I highly advise using a City Pass or a Go Chicago card to help with expenses. The museum also has free days [look up and link]. We only spent an hour and a half at the Art Institute; I could have easily been there all day.

See the city from UP HIGH

There are two skyscrapers where you can go for a fabulous view of Chicago and beyond:  The Hancock Building and The Willis (formerly the Sears) Tower. Both cost about $20 and feature a high-speed elevator ride to the top. We went to the Willis Tower as it was closer to the other downtown attractions we visited.

When we stepped out of the elevator onto floor 103, we could feel the building shifting in the sky.  There are views from all four sides of the building, as well as a few glass “Ledge” boxes where you can step out onto a clear surface and look down to the street below. I hate heights, but my daughter (also a bit height squeamish) did it, so I had to. I was fine until hubby said to my son, “Look down at the cars.” When I glanced past my feet to the tiny vehicles below, my vestibular system screamed anarchy, and I cleared out of that box. It’s worth a visit, although it’s a tad “touristy”.

Away from downtown

Chicago has multiple neighborhoods worth visiting outside of the downtown tourist destinations. You can hire a free Chicago guide for groups of six or less to take you on a tour of the neighborhood of your choice. We opted to visit Pilsen, a Hispanic neighborhood west of downtown that features many colorful murals on businesses and homes.

Gulliver in Wonderland, Hector Duarte
Part of Gulliver in Wonderland by Hector Duarte

To the great delight of our Scholastic Bowl team coach, who doubles as a Spanish teacher, we visited the home and studio of artist Hector Duarte. His enormous mural Gulliver in Wonderland depicts the plight of immigrants in America. Lucky for us, he was home when we visited, and he graciously spent almost an hour with us, sharing his art and explaining the challenges and emotions immigrants experience.  With everything going on in the news right now, this was a fabulous opportunity for all of us to hear the perspective of a Mexican immigrant. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and even hubby, a non-artsy guy, enjoyed it.

Gulliver in Wonderland by Hector Duarte
Gulliver in Wonderland by Hector Duarte.

Have you ever visited Chicago?  What tips can you add to my list?

Thanks for stopping by!







A Poem for Your Pocket

It will only take you ten minutes to do what I ask.

Ten minutes to indulge language and rhythm and creativity, and if you come to this blog, surely you treasure these things.

April is National Poetry Month and today, April 27, 2017, is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Poets.org encourages all lovers of words and poetry to take one of the poems they suggest in their Poem in Your Pocket Day PDF and share it, via printed copies at schools, libraries or transportation centers, or via digital images on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

If you’ve pulled up this post on your phone, you’ve already got the poem in your pocket, right?  Now you just have to read it, enjoy it, and share it.  To find other poems to share, visit poets.org for more Poem In Your Pocket ideas.

I liked the theme of this one, given the current climate of conflict in our country and around the world.

When Giving Is All We Have

 by Alberto Ríos

One river gives

Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

Copyright © 2014 by Alberto Ríos

Isn’t it a beauty?  Now, please share it!  I’ve created a “poem graphic” to make it easy for you. 😉



Thanks for stopping by!








The Origin of Hydrangea


I love it when my kids apply things they’ve learned in books to everyday life.  Like, when my youngest son wondered if the hydrangea plant I brought home from Easter Sunday service is named for the mythological monster “Hydra”.

If you wonder about the origins of words too, join the Wondrous Words Wednesday meme at Bermuda Onion.  There, bloggers share new words they’ve learned or some of their favorites.

We’ve been listening to The Lightening Thief during our soccer commuting.  When I read the first book a few years ago, I didn’t like it.  Too many crises, not enough character development.  But, I’ve recently decided to give it another try.  I want to learn more mythology, and all the action keeps me awake while driving.  Bonus: I know it’s appropriate for little ears, and my kids enjoy it.  It’s fun sharing books with them.

Anyway, during our listening, Percy recently had to battle a Hydra, a sea-snake type monster with multiple heads.  When one head is sliced off, two more grow back in its place.  (You can see why this would be a challenging monster to defeat, but Percy manages, with help from his friends of course.)  I told my son I doubted the beautiful flowering plant was named for a monster; perhaps the common link came from “hydro” which means water.



Here’s what I learned:

Hydrangeas were first discovered in Japan, and their name comes from the Greek “hydor” (water) plus “angos” (jar or vessel).  This roughly translates to “water barrel”, perhaps because of the cup shape of the flowers and the plant’s need for lots of water. (Thanks Teleflora )

I couldn’t find any official origin for Hydra, but since it’s a water snake, I’m sure it also comes from the Greek hydro, or water.

Word Nerd Workout

Can you think of other words that come from the Greek root “hydor”?  And, if you’ve read The Lightening Thief, what did you think?

Thanks for getting nerdy with me!