When school is over, what does one really do with algebra skills?

A lot of young people – especially if they don’t like math – like to question if math and algebra skills will be ever used after they graduate. There is a joke that the only time one will need math in real life is to split a check at restaurant or calculate a tip. Thomas Henderson, math teacher at York Prep school in New York City takes the approach that math is not just about knowing how to work out equations, its about life.

There Is Something Intrinsically Absurd About Hula Hooping.

The thing about hula hooping is that there is something absurd about it. You gyrate with arms flailing because a person’s arms have nothing to do with keeping the hula hoop going, apart from keeping them out of the way. You wiggle your stomach in time to some rhythm that perpetuates this moving plastic ring. You look like a complete fool. And yet, like other things that look absurd (and there may be children reading this so I am not going to expand on this thought), it is a pleasant if tiring feeling, and your stomach is getting a workout.

Most people can rightly guess that the hula hoop originated in Hawaii. The company that put it on the map was one of the greatest fad companies of all time: the Wham-O Company, founded by two young University of Southern California graduates, Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin, who began by manufacturing their own wooden slingshots in the Knerr family garage. This information is all available on Google, as is the long list of products Wham-O pioneered. The hula hoop, the flying disc called the Frisbee, the Monster Soap Bubble Maker, the Super Ball (a giant version of which was accidentally dropped from the 23rd floor window of an Australian hotel and bounced back up to the 15th floor), the Hacky Sack and the Silly String. There is nothing silly, however, about this company. It should be the first in the Pantheon of companies; this is genius! This is a company that produced a do-it yourself bomb shelter in the sixties for $119. Genius, I repeat! But I digress (as always).

My hula hoop is weighted, which makes it easier to keep spinning. In fact, once I get into the action, I am proud to say that I can keep going until tired or bored. I cannot do tricks (turning around while spinning the hoop is a good one I have seen, and I have heard that it is possible to hula hoop while standing on one leg, although I have never seen this). I tend to hula hoop in my office at home because there is something embarrassingly “late fifties” about it. You feel that you should hula hoop accompanied by lava lamps and 12 inch black and white television sets. The vintage “MadMen” décor, if you get my drift. You don’t want adult people to walk in on you as you hula hoop away; how could they take you seriously? I cannot imagine teaching my senior ethics class while spinning the hoop. I am sure you understand.

My hula hoop can also be taken apart into 7 different colored bits. You could (I haven’t) travel with it in these pieces and put it together when you arrive. It is waterproof (I know, I am beginning to get silly), but the one I have does not float (and why should it?). I wish I could say I had a name for mine, but I don’t. However, now that I think of it, “fad-thing” might be good.

One of the oldest pieces of advice to a nervous speaker is to imagine their audience naked. I never really got this nugget of wisdom, but it seems to me that imagining your audience hula hooping would work just as well. Certainly, you can hula hoop naked, so perhaps you can imagine your audience doing both hula hooping and being …you get where I am going. At this point, if any parents are reading, they may be seriously thinking of pulling their children out of the school. It is all right; I promise that I never hula hoop naked. I won’t explain why and I hope you feel better about your child’s headmaster knowing this.

I want to end this ridiculous piece by saying that hula hooping is better than snake oil for your health. We naïve humans have been urged to devour poisons, apply poultices, and have blood sucked by leeches; all in order to cure ourselves of every malady that besets us. I personally was glad to see the back of those leeches, although I hear that they may be returning for blood clots. Yuck! Keep those little critters away from me, thank you very much, doctor! Which all begs the question of why history is so short of patients recovering by hula hooping? Leeches or hula hoops, is there any question? Unlike leeches, hula hoops do not need food, are just as portable, can be used in your own home without a leech-minder present, and you can watch television while spinning your hoop (which I defy anyone to do while they are having blood sucked from their veins). Leeches were first used in ancient India for medical cures over 2500 years ago. And how long have hula hoops been used? What went wrong? Do leeches work your core muscles? Hula hoops do! The only explanation of this remarkable error by the medical profession, this preference over many centuries for blood sucking worms over innocent hoops, this craving to have oneself gorged upon by sticky articulated maggots with sharp teeth, is that I have to admit, as I began, that there is something intrinsically absurd about hula hooping.

Why Americans Make Such A Fuss About The British Royal Family ?

I want to say at the outset that I am sure all the current “Royals” in Britain are very nice people. I have not met them, and almost certainly never will, but I have absolutely no reason to think that they are not delightful. Having said that, I cannot cease to wonder why Americans make such a fuss about them? When Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (a university neither of them attended as students) visited New York, one might have thought that it was the second coming of the Messiah for all the adulation given them.

So let us be realistic; they are the descendants of a warlord. That is their sole claim to fame. Nothing else! Their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, is a direct descendant of King Henry VII, formerly Henry Tudor. And he was a warlord. He had no strong claim to the throne and there were many others who had a far greater claim than he. But he had an army and he won the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, defeating (and killing) the rightful King, Richard III. “Rightful” only in the sense that Richard was the legitimate heir of another warlord, William the Conqueror. Henry Tudor then had the good sense to marry Elizabeth of York who had a far better claim to the throne than he did.

Henry’s army was a result of what has become known as “bastard feudalism.” Basically this meant that a powerful nobleman had indentured servants who, in effect, were mercenary soldiers. Together, noblemen would pool these mini armies to fight the mini armies of other nobles, and, at Bosworth Field, Henry’s mercenaries and those of his allied nobles defeated the King’s army (Richard III) and the mercenaries of his allied nobles-much like what is going on in Libya, Syria, or Yemen today. If that is not “warlordism,” then what is?

I am not saying that Henry was a bad warlord. He seems to have been a highly intelligent and prudent monarch. One of the first things he did was to get rid of “bastard feudalism.” He did not want to face another mercenary army in the future. He also was lucky because his granddaughter (Queen Elizabeth I) had one of the greatest public relations artists in the world who, to help her Tudor cause, wrote about the battle in which her grandfather won the kingdom. The P.R. man was, of course, William Shakespeare, and his play “Richard III” has shaped our view of the struggle between Henry Tudor (good) versus Richard (evil) ever since. Josphine Tey’s wonderful book “Daughter of Time” is worth reading to get a different perspective. But I digress (as I always do).

Warlords give themselves very elaborate titles to ensure that they get some respect, and less carping, about the fact that they are monarchs only because they were successful in battle. In Britain, the title is “Your Majesty” or “Your Royal Highness.” Think about that one carefully. Why high? Do they float?

A more recent warlord was Reza Pahlavi who started off as a gunnery sergeant and rose to be a brigadier in the Cossack Army. With his Cossack brigade he seized power from the last Shah of Persia and called himself the new Shah of Iran. “Shah” means “King of Kings.” He was forced to abdicate by the British in 1941 in favor of his son Mohammad-Ali who ascended to the “Peacock Throne”, and who was ultimately deposed by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. At that time he (Shah II, so to speak) was the richest man in Iran worth several billions. All of his children were called prince or princess and, if you met him, you had to call him “Your Highness” or “Your Majesty.” Sound familiar?

Napoleon, that extremely competent warlord from Corsica, called himself Emperor. Well, why not? If you win at warlording, you can call yourself anything you want; and your children, if you are lucky enough to have heirs that keep reproducing and hanging on to the “empire,” can call themselves anything they want, or, alternatively, have others not call themselves the name those heirs were given. In this way they further distinguish their royal lineage.

In 1948, a communist guerrilla named Kim Song-ju seized power in a Northern part of Korea and renamed himself “Kim ll-sung” which translates to “Became the Sun.” His grandson is the present Supreme Leader of “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (North Korea for the rest of us). By edict of this Supreme Leader in 2014, anyone else in North Korea who had the same name as him (Kim Jong-un) was required to change their name. How many generations before we call his descendants “Your Imperial Majesty” or “Your Highness?”

So I have no illusions about the British Royal Family or how they got to their present position. They are, I repeat, the descendants of warlords. They can give out titles (which require that you swear allegiance to them), they are the wealthiest family in Britain by total assets, and their business does not involve actually doing anything. Yes, they are good ambassadors for the country (but for the perks, would you not be too?). Yes, they do help the economy by contributing to the “theme park” nature of Great Britain. But then, so does Cinderella when she sits on her float every afternoon in the grand parade at the Disneyland theme park. Unfortunately for her, the palace she comes out from is not real.

Hillary Mantel, the brilliant author of Wolf Hall, was widely criticized for her speech earlier last year when she described Kate Middleton as “basically breeding stock.” Perhaps this is why I love Ms. Mantel’s historical novels. She has captured the very essence of the British Royal Family business: keep the gains of their warlord predecessor intact for the next generation.

But, as I said at the beginning, I am sure they are all very nice people.

Ronald P. Stewart
Headmaster
York Prep

Back Surgery, Steak and Caviar

This may not be an interesting month’s piece for you since I am going to talk about my back surgery and listening to other people talking about their surgeries is something I have always found uninteresting. My surgery came after a long struggle to avoid it. I had back pain extending down my arm to the little finger of my left hand. I saw every doctor except a surgeon since I had been told (quite rightly, I believe) that the day they operate on your back is not a great day in your life, and that you may have consequences that are negative and long-lasting.

But after seeing a psychiatrist for six months on the grounds that the pain may have been psychologically based and who, to be fair, was baffled as to why I was there happily talking about my mother when the discussion was clearly not helping my back, as well as seeing an acupuncturist, an acupressurist, and a chiropractor, I finally turned to a famous back surgeon (They are all famous.) and was scanned and X-rayed. He suggested surgery (surprise!) as soon as possible but warned me that he may have to fuse discs, and that the outcome of success was only about 70%. Yuck!

However, the pain was not getting better, and so surgery it was. I do not need to go into details about the actual event except to say that I woke up in a very nice suite in the hospital feeling terrific. The surgeon soon came to see me with a big smile, and he told me that the surgery was 100% successful because he had found a piece of my body (He described it as “gristle”; yuck again!) positioned precisely on my nerve, and he had removed it.

“Must have hurt like hell,” he said. I agreed. “Well, you can leave,” he told me.

“Hang on,” I replied. “You warned me that I would be in hospital for about four days, and Jayme somehow got me this very fancy room and has booked a private nurse for me. So I am staying the night.” I knew that they were going to charge for the night and the nurse anyway, so why not stay?

I was feeling very comfortable (if a bit groggy) from the anesthetic, when the nurse, a cheerful Irish girl, arrived. The operation had taken place in the morning, and it was now six in the early evening.

“Have you eaten?” was her first question.

“No!”

“Oh, you need protein. You need steak after an operation!”

“Okay,” I said. “Maybe we can ask the hospital if they would serve steak.”

“No, you don’t want hospital food! You need good steak from a good restaurant!”

“Where would you suggest?”

“We’ll order from The Palm restaurant.”

I had heard of The Palm but had never eaten there. It was rumored to be very expensive.

“Do they deliver to a hospital?” I asked.

“They will for me. You will need real protein. I’ll do the ordering and get you a 12-ounce filet steak. And I’ll have the same. And let’s have fried onion rings with that – I really like their fried onion rings – and broccoli as well. How about caviar to begin? Do you like caviar?”

“I haven’t had it very much,” I replied, now with some idea of where this was going.

“It’s great protein so I will order two portions for us. And their crème brûlée is a good desert, so I’ll order two of those. Are you having difficulty going to sleep?”

“Well, it is a strange place, sleeping in a hospital with a nurse around, so I may tonight.”

“Then you’ll have a decaf cappuccino, and I will have a regular one. And you shouldn’t drink, so I think there is a ginger ale in the room, but I will have a whiskey sour with the order. Have you got your credit card handy?”

Within an hour, this sumptuous meal was delivered to our suite, served as though we were on an ocean liner, with silver cutlery and bone china and cloth napkins and all the trimmings (including condiments of every variety). It was a feast. I think I had a fraction of mine, but the same could not be said for the private nurse who clearly enjoyed her meal.

“This must be interesting work,” I said, trying to make conversation.

“Oh yes, I just got back from the Mediterranean. I was on a very big, private yacht.”

“Really, I didn’t know nursing paid so well.” In the re-telling, it sounds like a lame response, but I think that in my post-surgical daze, I was just being honest.

“Oh, I work as a nurse on these yachts.” And she named a few well-known billionaires whose yachts she had been on.

“Do you have a yacht?” she asked hopefully. I assured her I did not. “Maybe a plane?” Once again, I replied in the negative.

“Well, let’s play cards,” she said, totally switching the conversation.

I thought I would sleep but she wanted to play cards, and I was not in a condition to argue.

We played!

So, my memory of my back operation (highly successful as it was) is primarily of eating a huge steak and playing gin rummy until I fell asleep, having “knocked” for three.

Truly Yours,

Ronald Stewart

Let’s Talk About Toilets

You might have anticipated that my first published “Thoughts” of the New Year would be serious and educational. You would have been wrong.

You probably know that I come from England, where we have a long history of having a fascination with scatology. Put bluntly, that means that we are quite interested in toilets.

My wife and I rate movies, restaurants, gardens, and, yes, even toilets. We may be at a restaurant, or the airport, or virtually anywhere where there are public toilets, and we will come out saying, “Their toilets were amazing/interesting/awful/unusual.”

Of course, travel expands one’s horizons. Toilets in Japan earn a ten out of ten on the “Stewart Golden Flush Scale,” while toilets in China are sometimes not even a one. I cannot tell you of our worst experiences there because words fail to capture what we have seen.

To prove the people’s fascination with this subject in England, I mention that the “Good Loo Guide” was the first publication I know of that rated bathrooms in a city (London). The Savoy Hotel did quite well. I think there is now a similar book rating toilets in virtually every major city, but it is no accident that the English got there first.

The bathrooms on English trains are uniquely interesting. The toilet paper seems to be made of a greased paper similar to that used to wrap smoked salmon at Zabar’s. Stamped on every sheet are the words “Property of H.M. Government.” Yes, “H.M” stands for “Her Majesty’s” and yes, we should all wonder what the Queen would do with the roll?

Above the toilet, and we are still talking about trains here, is a sign that says, “Gentlemen, lift the seat.” I take this as a sign of the class of people using the toilet. Gentlemen should lift the seat but the rest of us peasants likely will not. The other interpretation (using the concept that “lift” in English slang means “steal) is that the nobility are being encouraged to pilfer the seat. You can see how a small sign can produce interesting philosophical discussions.

In America, one of my favorite songs was written by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and sung to the tune of Dvorjak’s “Humoresque.” Douglas wrote it on a train (I cannot seem to get away from this train motif) while on the way from New York to Yale, where he was at law school. I will only give you the first stanza because I have heard literally hundreds of different subsequent stanzas from Australia, Canada, and many other parts of the former British Empire:

“Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets while the train
Is in the station. Darling, I love you.
We encourage constipation
While the train is in the station.
Moonlight always makes me think of you!”

This is best sung with a ukulele accompaniment (but then again, isn’t everything?). While on the subject of music, I should also refer to Mozart’s—yes, Wolfgang Amadeus—interest in scatological humor. We have songs he wrote which I will not repeat because, though fascinated by toilets, I have far less interest in obscene words.

One of my sisters actually has at her home in England a genuine, original toilet by Thomas Crapper, the firm that first made the modern toilet. I distinctly remember Jayme being more impressed by the toilet than anything else in my sister’s beautiful home. If Jayme could, she would have bought it then and there.

We were once on a very small cruise ship where the lecturer, a professor at the University of Manchester, prepared us for our visit to Ephesus by lecturing on the toilet habits of elite Romans. Until then, I never knew that a slave pre-warmed the chilly marble seats. There were other interesting details, and the majority of passengers were engrossed, perhaps because most of them were English.

This tour of the world brings me back to Japanese toilets, which not only warm the seats but do many other interesting things too. If you find yourself in Japan, I hope you have the opportunity of seeing modern technology in scatological action.

I want a sign over our toilet at home. It would read: “Ladies, return the seat to the raised position when you are finished.” No chance! Ah, a man can but dream.

It really is a fascinating subject, particularly if you are English! And yes, as I hope you have noticed by now, this is not a “serious” piece on education.

Ronald Stewart
York Prep