Thursday, August 28, 2008

Garden Update

Back in the spring I tore out the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb in front of our house. I built up a raised garden bed with compost from our bin and some bagged dirt from the store and then framed it in with some wooden posts that I staked down to hold it all in place. I also put some tomato plants into pots on the porch and filled some window boxes with flowers to add color.

Turned out to be a great thing. The garden has been a source of real pleasure for me all spring and summer. I took some pictures this morning and wanted to post them.

Black-eyed Susans, marigolds, and chrysanthemums.

A basil plant that has decided to take over a fair-sized chunk of the garden. I have made a LOT of pesto this summer. Excellent recipe:

3 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
3 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup basil leaves

Grind pine nuts and garlic in a food processor. Add salt and basil leaves. Grind some more. Add olive oil and process into the consistency you like.

Goldfinches have loved eating the seeds out of the sunflowers. They are small, beautiful birds and I can tell when they are eating because they chitter noisily to each other as they eat.

We have gotten dozens of juicy, sweet tomatoes that don't quite look as perfect as the tomatoes for sale at Stop and Shop, but they taste far better. Must be all the flavonoids.

I put in just one pepper plant, since we don't use a lot of heat in most of our cooking. Well, that one pepper plant has put out dozens of VERY hot habaneros--far more than we can use. I am just throwing them in the freezer so far.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sweet, Sweet Suburbia

For Proust, it was a mouthful of pastry mixed with tea that opened the floodgates and brought his childhood back with so much detail that it took volumes to describe it fully in his magnum opus Remembrance of Things Past. For me it was nothing so literary, nor so tasty. For me it was a sweaty run on a humid summer Saturday.

I was in Delaware this weekend to visit my mom in the wake of her recent hip-replacement surgery. Her operation was five weeks ago and ever since I have been trying to find a time to go see her. This weekend Erica and Isabel were in Montana, so it seemed like the perfect chance to head out on a road trip with just me and Ginger, (the Vomitty Wonder GoldenDoodle) in our 1999 Volvo sedan. I mention the car here not because it affects the story in any way, but simply because Ginger and I spent eleven of our 36 hours this weekend in the car and it struck me as rude to leave the car out of the narrative entirely. Now that the car has had its cameo, I shall not mention it again.

Anyway, I got to Delaware early Saturday afternoon and sat with my parents as Barack Obama introduced his Vice- Presidential selection, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, to the world. My parents and I do not see eye to eye on politics. We don’t even see eye to bellybutton. So as we watched Senators Obama and Biden give their short speeches, we nearly came to blows. At one point I remember towering over my mom as she commented on the foreign-ness of Barack HUSSEIN Obama’s name. I may have even said something like, “Oh Yeah?!? Why don’t you grab your cane and STAND UP and say that? Old Lady!” The atmosphere in their living room grew a little testy.

So at some point in the back-and-forth about flag lapel pins and abandoned first wives, I decided I should go for a run. For some reason I was having a hard time making myself run last week. Last weekend I did a great 12-mile training run up East Rock and back, twice. But ever since, my enthusiasm for running had disappeared. So I took the impetus provided by a good political mud fight and turned it into the spark that got me out the door for a run around my parents’ suburban neighborhood.

After just a few blocks I found my feet had an agenda. They took me out of Foulk Woods, into Chalfonte, through Surrey Park and over to McDaniel Crest, and then into Fairfax. (In northern Delaware each subdivision has a name and, to those in the know, those names carry much information about the socio-economic status of the people who live there.) I went by Bonsall Park, Fairfax North Park, and Fairfax South Park. I ran by 228 Waverly Road and 113 Woodrow Avenue--the first two houses I lived in as a child. Between the two houses, I passed by St. Mary Magdalene Elementary School, where I was educated from kindergarten through sixth grade.

As it turned out, I was on a tour of my childhood without having planned any such thing.

I ran by our old houses and the houses of my old friends, and the McDonalds where they used to sell ten cherry pies for a dollar on Washington’s Birthday, and the Wawa convenience store where I used to buy baseball cards, and the park where I used to play Little League Baseball, and the other park where we used to build rock-and-clay dams across the creek to create swimming holes, and Chris Campion’s house where his dad had Playboy magazines hidden in his sock drawer, and Mrs. Quinn’s house where we used to earn a dime for every Japanese beetle we could pick off her rose bushes and place in a Mason jar with gasoline, and the even-other park where we took archery lessons and got to shoot arrows at helium balloons as they floated up at the ends of long strings. I ran by all these places and at the end of my run it was clear to me that I had one heckuva happy childhood.

As an adult I look at suburbia as a sterile place where cars rule and people don’t know their neighbors. But the suburbia I grew up in was different. To me it was far from sterile. In fact, it was fertile ground for imagination, friendship, and just-plain-fun. All the neighbors knew which family I belonged to. By the summer between fifth and sixth grades I could pretty much ride my bike anywhere in a 20-square mile area with our house in the middle. My grandmother and several aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in that same 20-square mile area, as did many of my teachers and all of my friends.

I felt free and trusted and powerful in a way I am afraid to let my daughter feel. She does NOT have the run of the neighborhood. She does not have family every few blocks where she can stop for a drink if she gets thirsty. She might never know the freedom I had as a child to just explore the world without thinking of it as a dangerous place. Growing up in suburban Wilmington, Delaware in the 1970s was a real gift for me. I developed an ease and comfort in the physical world that allowed me to feel alright about going away to college. My security in the world made it okay for me to join the Peace Corps and live in Yemen for two years after college.

The freedom my parents gave me on my bicycle left me with a strong desire to see what is around the next turn or over the next hill, or even in the next country. I never realized it before that run two days ago, but my childhood in Delaware set the stage for so much of who I am today. My run through my childhood could not have come at a better time in my life. It was a good reminder for me of a time when the future was all in front of me and the only limits were those I placed on myself.

By the time I got back to my parents’ house our political differences were long forgotten and I had a good visit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

At What Cost?

I took Isabel and Erica to the airport in the dark early this morning. While driving back up I-95 toward Connecticut I was listening to the news on NPR and I heard a story about Mashpee, Massachusetts and how this small town of 14,000 people had suffered a terrible loss in the past two weeks. Two recent high school graduates, one from the class of 2005 and the other from the class of 2007, had died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. I didn’t know either of the young men who died, but hearing interviews with their friends and families left me feeling very sad.

And then very angry.

The mother of one of the dead soldiers consoled herself with the knowledge that her son died protecting the freedoms of all Americans. Her heartfelt belief in the truth of her son’s sacrifice was the saddest thing I have heard in a long time. Because the war in Iraq has gone on so long I have started to forget the burning anger I once felt at President Bush for starting an unnecessary and unwarranted war of aggression. But this mother's hurt and her pride brought my rage at George Bush right back up to the surface.
His horrendously flawed judgment has cost tens of thousands of lives, billions of dollars, America’s moral credibility, and a sad mother in Mashpee her son—a son I am afraid died for nothing but the misguided ineptitude of a man with too much power and not enough brains.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Feeling Gravity's Pull

There is a great scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the astronauts and Houston realize that they can use the gravitational momentum provided by going around the moon to propel themselves back through the void of space and on toward Earth. Without the extra burst of momentum gained from a close pass of the moon it is unlikely the astronauts would have made it back to Earth.
While running this morning the image of that little module using the invisible but powerful force of gravity to its advantage struck me as a great and guiding image for this part of my life. While having dinner with new friends last night we each took a turn telling how we had chosen our career paths. One said he had no choice—music has been his calling since he was young and nothing else has ever felt right. The other spoke in different terms of the same idea—singing is a calling for her, a vocation about which she does not have much of a choice.
When it was my turn to spill, I told them that I had not felt anything as clear and defining as a calling. After college I had many jobs. In most of those jobs, I was teaching somebody about something. The “somebodies” and the “somethings” changed from job to job, but the fact that I was teaching remained constant. There were sixth graders in Massachusetts learning about the environment, high schoolers in Montana learning how to dig fence post holes and pack for a three-day hike in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Yemenis learning English, ninth graders learning how to read Shakespeare, and pre-schoolers learning the alphabet and where not to wipe their boogers.
When I hit thirty and felt like I needed to choose a path of some sort, I naturally settled on teaching. It was a calling I came to in retrospect. As I took stock and looked at what I had done with myself after college, I saw a narrative thread that I hadn’t even realized was there. Noticing that thread and then following it through all my experiences suddenly turned a seemingly-directionless stretch of ten years into a cohesive series of jobs and opportunities leading inexorably toward getting certified to teach. Turned out I was on a path and didn’t even know it.
But the patterns that work in the past aren’t always the most helpful in the future. In the past, my decision-making process has been instinctive, emotional, and haphazard. And it has led me to some amazingly rich experiences. But at 42 years old, I feel like I have a choice to make. So far I have been cruising through life without a lot of agency in my own life. After college I leapt out into the world by joining the Peace Corps and going to Yemen. This set me in motion through a particular part of the solar system where I was pulled by the gravity of some pretty amazing people, places, and opportunities, subtly altering my course in response to their influences.

But now I feel like those astronauts on Apollo 13. I want to claim some measure of control over my direction of travel. I want and need to become more conscious about how I use the influence of the people and experiences in my life. I want to do the math and pick an angle of approach to the rest of my life and make some things happen rather than simply responding to what happens. It feels like a time for some changes and I want to have a say in what those changes are. I want to take the accumulated gravity of everything I have learned and use it to consciously aim myself at my future. Here’s hoping it is a wild ride.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Play is the Thing

Directors come at Hamlet the way singers approach the National Anthem before a sporting event. Many singers see the National Anthem as an opportunity to let out their inner diva and many directors see Hamlet as a vehicle for showcasing their own brilliance. Far too many of them make the mistake of assuming that because the play is so well known by so many, that a fresh, quirky interpretation is the only way to keep it interesting.
Last night we went with a bunch of people to see The Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet in Edgerton Park. It was well done. Director James Andreassi added a modern grace note or two, but all in all kept it pretty true to the tone of the original. I appreciated his light touch. After all, it is the play that is brilliant and the play does not need much tinkering to keep it relevant.
Andreassi let Allyn Burrows as Hamlet keep the words up front and center stage, which is where Shakespeare’s insights belong. Over the past couple of years I have gained a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare. In fact, I have gotten to the point where I would claim that William Shakespeare was the most insightful human ever to set ink to a page. What he knew about humans and human nature predates Freud, Skinner, James, and Jung and surpasses what they knew, even if you put it all together.
Along with Burrows, Alvin Epstein, Lisa Bostnar, Tamara Hickey, and Mark Zeisler performed well in meaty roles. Their collective restraint served the story well and allowed Shakespeare’s insights the spotlight they deserve.
Which is not to say that the Elm Shakespeare’s Hamlet is merely a series of psychological truths set in a story. If it were, it would ring flat. The genius of Shakespeare is that these nuggets of truth are set in the midst of compelling, engaging stories. And the beauty of Jim Andreassi’s Hamlet is that he strikes the right balance between the story and the truths.
The play, alternating with Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, runs for two more weeks, and you can bet we will be back many more times before the run is through.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Running is NOT a Metaphor

The website for the race said the course was "relatively flat and fast." I guess that was true--in the same way that the Rockies are "relatively flat" compared to the Himalayas. It was a ten-mile race and as I made a turn during mile-five, a white wall loomed up in the road, about a quarter mile ahead--right in the middle of the route. As I got closer it became clear that it was, in fact, not a white wall at all. It was a section of road angling sharply upward with bright sun shining on it, making it look white. I guess it was "relatively flat."

I am fully aware that humans have a built-in predisposition to overestimate the steepness of hills, especially when we are already tired from running. This was proven nicely by a University of Virginia Professor named Dennis Proffitt. Even given this predisposition, the hill I saw looming up before me had to be at least 2oo feet high and at 30 degree pitch.

I told the volunteer who was directing traffic something witty like, "Hills are stupid," and then put my head down and trudged up the alpine incline. To keep my mind occupied I set myself a challenge. I decided to think of a topic I could write about using running as a metaphor. Once I started thinking about running as a metaphor, my mind bubbled over with possibilities.

Getting a degree, writing a short story or a book, being married--all of these are analogous to running a long distance. It is easy enough to match up step-for-step and detail-for-detail how any of these activities, (as well as many others), are like running. There is the idea that you start slow and work your way into shape over many weeks and months. There is the reality that some runs are easier than others--and unpredictably so. There is the truth that any goal worth achieving takes commitment and work.

I got to the top of that particular hill, cursing myself for choosing to come out and run early on a beautiful Sunday morning instead of staying home and enjoying some coffee on the porch while reading the New York Times. I caught my breath and continued running when I came around a curve in the road and saw--you guessed it--another hill.

I laughed out loud. I felt like I was stuck in an Escher drawing. The racecourse was a loop that started at sea level and ended at sea level, yet somehow it went only uphill. It was at that moment that the truth of running hit me full-on: Running is NOT a metaphor. Running is just running and sometimes it stinks.

The Things We Carry

Lately I have been reading a stunning book called Kafka On The Shore, by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Deep into the book there is a sort-of ghost soldier from World War Two who says, “Symbols are important. We happen to have these rifles and soldiers’ uniforms, so we play the part of sentries. That’s our role. Symbols guide us to the roles we play.”

This is not an original thought, but as I read the words during a break in a weeklong teaching conference it struck me with a force that surprised me. It provoked a cascade of realizations that I have been chewing on for a few days now.

Immediately, I thought of Daryl Bem and his self-perception theory. Bem posits that we develop our attitudes by observing our own behavior and concluding what attitudes must have caused them. One of the ways we learn about ourselves is by looking at what we do. It is almost as if we create an identity in retrospect. We say things to ourselves like, “I am teaching at a school with a strong commitment to the social curriculum, therefore teaching children to care must be important to me.”

I find Bem’s theory surprising because it runs counter to my assumption that a person is a set of semi-fixed ideas, beliefs, preferences, predilections, and attitudes whose actions flow from who s/he is. Rather, it says that our actions come first and they tell us important information about who we are. They help define us to ourselves.

The main character of Murakami’s novel, Kafka Tamura, has placed aside everything he has been carrying before he meets the soldiers, so he comes to them empty-handed. He has nothing but the clothes on his back, and even they are entirely non-descript. One of the soldiers asks Kafka if he has anything like their guns or their uniforms and he says, “No, I don’t have anything. Just memories.”

Kafka’s answer reminded me of another fairly amazing book—Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. When soldiers deploy they can take only a limited amount of stuff with them. What a soldier chose to carry to Vietnam told much about his priorities. And when a soldier died, it was those things he carried that got sent to his next of kin as what was left of a man. It is clear, though, that “the things they carry” is also a metaphor for the effects their time in Vietnam has had on the men. The memories, pride, shame, images, feelings, and nightmares they came home with are also things they carry. O’Brien’s soldiers are defined by what they carry—just like Murakami’s soldiers.

Because I was having these thoughts at a conference on teaching, my mind made a connection to my students. It became clear to me that the things we remember are the things we carry. And they are what give us some defining information about who we are. This is true for me, and it is true for my students. If our clearest, most alive memories are of being seen or valued or loved, then we must be valuable, lovable people. But if the memories we carry are degrading or belittling, that tells us something else about ourselves entirely.

It was an important reminder that each of my students comes to me with his or her own set of things they are carrying. And when these students think about who they are, they consult the things they are carrying—their memories—for clues to their identities.

As a teacher, I can help my students by giving them opportunities to recall times when they have been successful or when they have done something they are proud of. Teaching in multiple age classrooms gives me a golden opportunity. I have my students for two full years before they hit the age of twelve. While helping them access moments they are proud of from their pasts, I can structure my room and my assignments to maximize the chances that my students will feel seen, acknowledged, and valued.

It was a valuable reminder for me of the potential my job has for affecting children in a real, positive, and lasting way. Of course, the opposite is also true. If I choose to teach using ridicule and sarcasm, then the things my students carry with them from my class can do real and lasting harm. The challenge I am taking away from this Responsive Classroom conference is to be conscious, deliberate, and positive all year. In this way, I have the chance to help create some of what they will carry, look at, and use to define themselves.