Thursday, March 22, 2012


In high school I had a friend, Sean, who owned a boat.  Sean and I used to go out on the boat all the time, literally.  Every night in the summer.  There are about a million stories that I could tell about us on that boat.  About buoy rocking and hitting shoal markers then blaming the bent prop on his older brother, and about how we were both so terrified of the dock spiders that when we finally got back to his house neither of us would grab the dock because we were sure a spider would run up our arm.  Seriously, a million stories.

But tonight I am reminded of the nights when we did nothing.  On a boat, it is really easy to do nothing.  You go slowly until you find a bay, then you drop the anchor and do nothing.  Sometimes, when it was really warm, we would get in the water.  The amazing thing about the river is that during the day it is freezing, but at night--in a shallow bay--it is always warm.  Bathwater warm.  Snuggle under the covers on a cool night in late Autumn warm.  Best feeling in the world warm.  So sometimes we would get in the water and swim around the boat.  Sean used to talk about River Llamas.  I cannot make this shit up, I swear.  I have no idea what they were supposed to be, but they were out there.  Just sort of hanging out beneath the water, waiting to grab your legs, or maybe not.  It was never clear if the Llamas were actually dangerous.  They probably weren't.  But they were there, and they were enough for me to keep my legs as close to the surface as possible.  You know, just in case.

After we swam, we would always climb (super uncoordinatedly) back into the boat.  Sean had a 15 foot Whaler, maybe 18. It had a tiny console but no cabin, or seat; just two wooden benches, one fore and one aft.  And an outboard motor that would get tangled with seaweed--and once got seriously banged up on a shoal, but we never admitted to that, ever.  We were both looking out for the buoy, and somehow missed the fact that it was dead in front of us.  At least we didn't miss out curfew.  We would crawl out of the warm water, back onto the desk of the boat, and wiggle back into our clothes ( we always, always wore bathing suits--no matter what we were planning, the assumption was that we would end up in the river at least once), then lay there and stare up into the night sky.

If you have never been out in the middle of nowhere, on a boat in floating in the middle of one of the largest rivers in the world, you have never seen the night sky.  You have no idea what it is like to look up and see STARS.  Stars like they are the only thing that exists anymore, like there is no sky, only layer and layer of pinpoints of light.  All twinkling back at you from a thousand years ago.  Half of what you see probably isn't even there any more, but you see it, like looking into the past.

We knew almost nothing about astronomy.  I still know almost nothing about it, but maybe Sean does now.  I don't know.  But it never mattered to us, because we weren't really looking for the stars, we were looking for the satellites.  It seems like such a silly but wonderful thing now.  I can't even explain it, but it was so important then.  We would lie there forever, staring up at the night, looking for the outliers.  In the midst of all those stars there was always the thing that was not like the others.  The tiny pinpoint of light that moved, that trailed across the night, through the true stars, a tether to the Earth.  And we would try to find them, it was like a competition: who can spot it first?  It was like being able to spot the imposter, the one who didn't belong, the intruder in our beautiful, perfect night. 

Sean and I haven't talked in a long, long time.  In truth, I almost never think of him and those nights in the boat.  But sometimes I do.  Sometimes the night is just right, and the stars are oh so familiar, and it all comes back.  Nights like tonight, when I sit out on my porch, and the air is just colder than I think the river would be, and the stars are out.  Of course, in Somerville the stars are never "out" like they are on the river; here they are hidden, drowned out by the lights of the city.  Only the brightest can be seen, but sometimes it is enough.  It makes me remember those nights, spotting satellites, thinking that there was nothing else in the universe except us and the stars and the dock spiders.  And I am happy when I remember that.  I am sad, too, because the summer always ended.  We always had to get the boat back and brave the spiders guarding the dock, and head home in Sean's giant Ford Bronco that never had enough gas in it to get me home.

But tonight those stars were there, reminding me of those nights, right down to the smell of the river and the feel of the fiberglass deck underneath me.  And I even spotted a few airplanes--not the same as satellites, but the best I can hope for in the city.  For now, until the night I get home, and head out in my own boat, and get to stare up at the night sky one more time.     

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Research Proves Pizza Saves Lives

I missed doing research, so I conducted some this weekend.  I studied the relationship between eating pizza and feeling like death the morning after a night out with friends.  Yeah, I said STUDY.  It was like a legit scientific thingy!  To prove it, I am writing this like an actual research article (and also like a snark, I realize that; it is what makes it fun).  

On several really awful mornings (the ones that directly followed really epic nights), I was told that maybe I would not feel so terrible if I had bothered to eat something the night before, instead of just drinking my dinner.  Curious about this folk remedy, the researcher (me) decided to conduct an experiment to see if there was any quantitative merit to this suggestion.  

Review of Literature:
Honestly, the only things that I read before or during this study were some emails, a series of text messages about going to the bar, and I also looked at Facebook a couple of times.  But yeah, they made a pretty sound argument for why I should go out both nights.  I didn't read anything about pizza. 

Methodology for this study could be described as something like an experiment.  Two conditions were presented to the subject.  In both conditions, pizza was present but the subject (also me) was free to decide whether or not to eat the pizza.  In condition one, the subject chose not to eat the pizza and instead only had some chips to offset the alcohol she inevitably consumed.  In condition two, the subject drank an equal (or possibly even greater--totally should have measured that, damn it) amount of alcohol but chose to eat pizza as well.

Even though it is totally unethical, the researcher was also the subject in this experiment.  Permission was obtained in the form of various signed receipts for drinks, so yeah, it's not like the subject didn't know what was going on.  Plus lots of good gothic horror stories start with a scientist who, because of the incredibly sensitive nature of his work, cannot conduct his experiments on another human and so is forced to sacrifice himself in the name of knowledge.  I am guessing most of those guys felt a lot like I did--brave, intelligent, like someone beat them with a stick and sucked all the fluid out of their systems...stuff like that.

Statistical differences were measured by counting how many steps I could take upon getting out of bed before that "Oh what the hell" feeling hit me.  Other measures included how much gatorade was necessary to normal out my system, and a qualitative assessment of how close to death I believed myself to be.

So, turns out that the local folk remedy actually works.  I feel way better today than I did at this time yesterday.  Like, a ton better.  So yeah, that is indisputable scientific evidence that pizza saves lives.  Well, my life anyway.  But I bet it works for other people, too.  I'll do some follow-up.   

Future Applications and Opportunities for Additional Research:
Hopefully I can remember these findings the next time I go out.  I think that I will also have to research the efficacy of some other night time drunk snacks.  I already know that a tater-tot : dino-nugget combination works pretty well.  But now I need to find out it they work better than pizza, and how would I feel on nachos?  What about french fries with cheese sauce?  So many questions!!    

The researcher (still me) wants to thank my two co-collaborators, The Two R's, without whom this study would not have been possible.  Mostly because they supplied the booze and pizza, and tons of fun.  So thanks guys.  I hope the pizza saved you, too. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gimma a Break

Arg, terrible title!!  I know, I know.  I just couldn't think of anything else.  Feel free to offer suggestions.  Anyway, to the point:  

There is this fantastic book called The Name of the Wind.  In it, a boy is learning the names of all things because with a name, you can call something and (if you know what you are doing) you can control it.  Early in the book there is a scene where he foolishly calls the name of the wind, believing that he can control the wind like he controls his breath.  Naturally, what follows is a very, very near death experience; he is saved by someone who knows better than to believe that you can control the power of the wind with something so flimsy and weak as the human lung.  But in those moments before he is saved, the boy experiences a feeling like all of the air in the world has been sucked away.  No matter how he tries to breath in, he can't. 

The first time I read the book (yes, I have read it more than once; it is one of the few books that I can say that about, and I will even go so far as to say that I intend to read many, many more times), I remember thinking that I could not even imagine feeling like that.  But, that was before I fell and broke my rib.  Like you do. 

Well, not like you do.  Like I do. 

At this point, the fact that I have broken a bone should not be particularly interesting to my audience.  In fact, this may sound vaguely familiar, like perhaps I wrote about it before.  Well, that's because I did.  A year ago, actually.  You may recall, however, that last year it was my wrist (some stupidly tiny bone in my wrist that apparently was connected--well and still is--to everything in my arm so I had to wear a hot pink cast up to my armpit.  There was a picture; feel free to look back and find that)  and now this year it is my rib.  Also an obnoxiously small bone, broken in a completely freak way, that seems destined to take an ungodly long time to heal. 

Yeah, that is the other AWESOME thing.  Rib bones take months to heal.  I know this because my sister-in-law (the medical doctor) informed me of this yesterday.  Me: "How long is this going to take to heal?  Like a week?  I mean, it is not a very big bone."  Her (in a totally nonchalant yet somehow amused voice, like I had asked her the funniest but stupidest question in the world): "Weeks.. no months. Yeah, those things take forever." 

^*#@(^$ SWEET!!! 

You will recall from earlier this year: I am not a patient person.  In that post I mostly talked about how I am not patient with other people, but the truth is that I am even less patient with myself.  Sometimes that can be a good thing: I don't let myself make too many excuses, and I tend to get things done.  On the other hand, there are some things--like healing bones--that I really have no control over, but I get really upset with myself anyway.  That is sort of where I am at with this whole broken rib thing: I just want it to be healed already.  It is not fun. It's making me angry.  And it is taking the fun out of running.

There is a reason that I started with that little back story about the boy who tried to control the wind with his lungs.  As I said, I could not previously imagine that feeling of trying to draw in breath and finding that nothing would come.  Now, however, I sort of get it.  Yes, obviously I can breathe somewhat, otherwise I would be dead (I am not that kind of doctor, but even I know that), but the breaths I can take are shallow and painful.  Like the boy in the story, I can feel the wind there but I can't pull it into my lungs; what I can feel is something more like desperation, because without oxygen, it is hard to keep my body moving.  My muscles need the air, and I just can't deliver it. 

It is not only desperation but immense frustration that I feel.  Frustration with my body for being breakable, and for proving that fact to me over and over.  Not that I necessarily expect to be perfect, but I have had sort of a lot of broken bones for a person who doesn't exactly live a high-risk life style.  Except that somehow I do.  I have terrible, terrible bones; which makes no sense to me because I do all the things that you are supposed to do to stay strong (eat dairy, lift weights) and yet it makes no difference to what is clearly the balsa-wood bone structure holding me together. 

I know that this broken bone will not last forever, that I should be happy it wasn't worse, and that I can run at all.  I AM happy that I can run, I swear that I am (well, now that I can run; I was forced to take last week off, which nearly ended in death and destruction--thankfully that crisis was averted).  Yes, it hurts and yes I am slower than I would like to be, but I can get out there and that is better than nothing.  Trailing my husband for the first time in years didn't feel awesome on Saturday, but I will live.  I know that in time I will heal and blah blah blah.  In the meantime, however, it is uncomfortable and annoying and a bunch of other words that don't mean "good times."  I guess it is, however, sort of what I do. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A few points, for reference

Hereclitus once (which is just the literary term for a wicked long time ago) wrote "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you."  I have always loved this quote; it is both simple and profound.  Of course, it helps that I grew up on a river, a huge river, that never seemed to change--but of course it does, by millions of gallons of water everyday (probably--I don't really know, actually).  Since it's been a while, here's a picture (in case you are one of the two people reading this who hasn't actually seen the St. Lawrence for yourself):

Obviously, this is not the whole thing; this just happens to be a picture that I downloaded from one of about a million pictures available on the internet.  (Who knew there was more than cats on that thing?!)  Alright, back to the point...

I saw this river every day for the first many years of my life, including on the first day (I was born in the hospital that overlooks the channel).  In my mind, the river just IS; it never changes.  But the truth is that the river itself changes all the time, all day every day.  The islands don't change, the houses and the castle, the docks, the marinas, the bridges all stay the same.  And because they are the point of reference for the river itself, the water seems to stay the same as well.  But it is a false sameness, as Hereclitus so artfully reminds us. It is an interesting paradox, one that could easily spin out into an examination of reality, but it is a little early in the day for that, so for now my point is simply that the appearance of sameness is often an illusion, hiding constant change.

This quote did not come to my mind because I have been anywhere near the river (for a depressingly long time, I might add).  Although... Sunday I was near the ocean.  I ran a race in Salem, along the shoreline, which was very beautiful.  But, I wasn't actually in the ocean, I was on land, doing something that could arguably be called racing.  The course was an out-and-back loop, and the distance that Renee and I did required us to run that out and back twice.

Normally, that is a death sentence for a runner.  Seeing that a course is an out-and-back, knowing that you have to do it multiple times, seems like the most boring thing in the world.  But, (oh hey--here's the connection!), that sameness was only an illusion.  Although yes, we did cover the same five mile stretch four times, each section felt different, like it's own separate race.  All the points of reference remained the same, but the thing being measured (in this case our running, rather than flowing water--again, a tangent I could easily go off on but I won't today) was fundamentally different as it passed each point over and over.

In the car driving back to Boston, we talked about how this is a reality for all runners.  No run is ever exactly the same, even when you take the same route or cover the same distance.  For example, Renee and I were talking about the 5k distance.  Last week in class, I had been talking about running with my high school students; they were taking guesses about which mile is the "worst" in a 5k.  A few of them thought the first, because they figured you had the farthest left to go; others said the middle mile because it is just hanging out in the middle there; a bunch thought that the last mile would be the worst because you are tired and know that the end is coming up.  I had to explain to them that every time you toe that starting line, it is a different mile that is the worst (and the best).  You just never know; each run is it's own experience.  Even when you are covering the same stretch of pavement as the days and weeks before, each run holds its own possibility. Just like every time you step into a river.  Or step out your front door. 

There is a part of this which is very sad.  The fact that a river or a run can never be the same thing twice is a little depressing.  There have been some really good runs, when I felt fantastic and energized; I would like to believe that I can recapture that by following the same course.  And I miss my home, I miss the river.  It makes me sad to realize that the river I will swim in this coming summer is not the same river that I spent countless hours in as I was growing up.  It is a different place; it  cannot be the same when I step into it again.  This quote brings with it (at least for me) the weight of "you can never go home again."

But new waters are always flowing on to you.  Each time I step in the river, each time I step into my running shoes, each time I step out my door, it is a new experience, full of possibilities.  And there is something not only healthy but necessary about constant change.  It reminds us that we are always moving, whether we realize it or not.  So many of life's points of reference--those islands in the middle of the channel--seem to be the same day after day.  They give the illusion of stagnation, while in truth life is flowing along.  It is important that we notice and embrace that movement.  

I want to say something profound here about change and flow and life, but there is no way to put it into words.  Which is okay, because I don't think that it needs words.  Instead, I will just leave you with a gentle reminder to not confuse life's points of reference--the little dots in the middle of the river or the middle of the run--with life itself.    

Monday, February 27, 2012

Suffering is Optional

I remember the day that I got my first pair of running shoes.  They were a pair of blue and white Nike Air Max; my father bought them for me because I had announced that I wanted to try running.  My dad had been a runner for years, entering local 5k's every summer, but I had never shown much proclivity for it.  In gym class, when we had to run the mile, I whined the whole time (which was a long time because I also pretty much refused to run after the first lap--to this day, I cannot stand the idea of just running in circles).  So, I am sure that my parents were both surprised and dubious when I came home from school and asked for running shoes.

It makes sense that, when I was sitting in the mall athletic store (it must have been Footlocker, since that was all we had in the mall at the time),my father's only comment to the guy helping me was "Just make sure they fit her right, because if it hurts, she won't do it."

My dad was not wrong, of course.  I had never run before, but he had, so he knew exactly what was in store for me.  He knew about cramps and blisters and the horrible sucking feeling in your lungs when you try to run for the first (several) time.  He was trying to minimize the number of reasons that I might have to quit.  And at 14 years old, it was pretty easy to trick me with a new pair of shoes.  (Okay, that part is actually still true... I freaking love shoes.) 

That first year, I wanted to quit a lot of times.  Even the one mile around the block was torture some days.  I had been a dancer since I was four years old, but it had not helped me to build up much in the way of endurance (although to this day I believe that it did instill in me a dedication to perfect form and a belief that even things that are physically demanding should feel light and beautiful--which has been essential in running).  Those first horrible miles eventually got easier, and as they got easier they became three miles.  In high school, I had to run for soccer, but I chose to run for fun the rest of the year.  I would dutifully put in my three miles around the lake each afternoon.  In the beginning, it was awful.  I remember very clearly a day when I realized that I was walking, but had no conscious recollection of transitioning from running down to walking, that was how tired and out of it I was.  It would take everything in me to force myself back into the shuffle that passed for a run in those days.  Those early runs were plagued with pain. 

But like with almost any pain, over time it became less and less noticeable, until eventually it faded behind the joy of running. 

And one day, I realized that I loved it.  Even when it was terrible, I loved it.  I ran year round, in any weather.  During the winter, I ran stairs at the hockey rink while the boys' team practiced, and in the summer I would drag myself out at the crack of dawn to avoid oppressive humidity (yeah, it probably wasn't that bad, but I hate summer).  In college, early morning runs through the freezing, windy winters in Geneva became the norm, and much preferred to mornings spent on the ergometers with my butt going numb.  I was much happier when I got to be outside, running.

Fewer and farther between were the runs that ended in blisters, cramps, and misery.  But they were there sometimes.  A morning where my sock got wedged in my shoes in a weird way, or when I hadn't dressed for the weather; there were days when I was tired or sore or just didn't want to put in the work.  And then I got sick.  I lost everything, all the endurance, all the muscles and strength just went away.  I swam, lifted weights, tried to stay in shape, but over the nearly two years between when I got sick and when I was able to start running again, I lost the running and was left only with the pain.

But somewhere along the way I had made friends with the pain.

No, that is not true.  We aren't friends, but we know each other really well; we are companions that occasionally have amazing fights.  But we also are stuck with each other, because pain is unavoidable.  It is an inexorable part of life, and definitely a part of running.  What I do have a choice in is how I deal with that pain: do I embrace it as a part of my life or do I suffer under the weight of it? 

For the first few years after I started running again, the running and I had a lot of fights and spent a lot of time apart.  It was more than just pain for those few years, it was also suffering.  I felt weighted down by the hurt and the work that went into something that had once been so effortless and enjoyable.  I hated the feeling of starting from the beginning, of being that 14 year old girl who didn't do things that hurt, all over again.  I very nearly chose to hate running. 

Over time, however (and with the help of some constant running companions) my relationship with the pain got less... painful.  I started to love running again, to go out early in the morning just for fun.  Because every morning I chose not to suffer, I chose to accept the pain.  Why?  Because of what the pain means.  The pain means work; it means effort; it means something that I go out each morning and create for myself; it means something that no one else has to give me, and that no one else can take away; but it doesn't mean suffering. 

About a million years ago when I got my first pair of running shoes, my father thought that he was doing me a favor by trying to protect me from pain.  Or maybe he wasn't.   Maybe he knew, even then (as someone who had run for years himself) that no pair of running shoes protects you from hurt. Maybe he knew that he was putting me in a position to experience pain.  But he was also setting me up to learn about the choices we make about the pain in our lives; I learned that there is always pain, but  suffering is optional. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tiny Joy

Each year when I run Reach the Beach, there is one lucky person who gets to start their run just before sunrise and to be the runner who gets to run into and through the dawn.  Those of us who are not running always comment on the beauty of that run, and how we are jealous of the timing enjoyed by the runner who gets to run "into the light."  There is just something magical about seeing a new day dawn (particularly when you have been up all night, stuck in a van with no real food, freezing and realizing that there are enormous number of body parts that can be sore if you run enough). 

Renee and I were talking about this a few weeks ago as we ran around Fresh Pond in Cambridge, because while we were running the sun was coming up.  And it was directly in our eyes.  We were, to be honest, complaining about how bright it was that morning.  It is also annoying because there are a lot of trees, so we are constantly running through a series of light and shadow that mimics a strobe light; I am pretty sure that one of these mornings I am going to have a seizure halfway around that pond because of the sun. 

But as we were complaining, it occurred to me (and I said aloud) that it was funny how the dawn is so amazing at RTB, like we never get to see it, but in reality, we see it almost every day.  We just never notice  it.  So that morning, we noticed it.  It was beautiful.  From Fresh Pond, you can see across the water and into Cambridge, and there was the sun just peeking above the tallest buildings (probably apartment complexes and Harvard buildings), turning the underside of the clouds all pink, orange, and breathtaking.  There were even a couple of surly swans floating in the middle of the reservoir (that is what the pond really is--it is the drinking water for the city of Cambridge), looking all majestic as the morning light warmed them up for a day full of being all evil (look, I had a rather negative encounter with a swan as a child; I get that they are pretty but I still don't trust them). 

At that moment, I came to the realization that I need to pay more attention to the world around me, and all the tiny joys that it offers to me every day.  Each morning for months I have been up at or before sunrise.  Yet, I had never taken the time to look up and appreciate the fact that I was getting to see the sunrise on an almost daily basis!  I am always so wrapped in my run, or my conversation, or just simply putting one foot in front of the other in a pattern that does not result in me laying face down on the pavement.  I never noticed what was around me.

Most of you who read this probably already know that I visited a Buddhist monastery more than once last year.  One of the major tenets of Buddhist is mindfulness, an active engagement with the world around you in that moment where you find yourself.  Too often, we are worried about what happened yesterday, or how we are going to do something in the future, and we forget to pay attention to what is around us right now.  That is what was happening to me while I was out running.  I was focusing on then instead of now. 

Since then, I have tried to be much more mindful when I am running.  I look around, and try to notice the tiny miracles all around me.  I have paid attention to the sunrises.  They are amazing in their variety, and in how they seem to set a tone for the entire day.  Yesterday I didn't make it out before work, so I went in the evening when I came home.  As I was huffing my way up a hill, I looked up.  And saw that it was a full moon--a beautiful, huge white moon; it was a sort of perfect antithesis to the sunrise with which I have become so familiar. 

I notice non-celestial beings as well.  This morning there was a dog running around Fresh Pond, in the opposite direction as I was heading.  When he passed me, at a full gallop, tongue out, fur blowing around him, he was ECSTATIC.  Not just happy, but truly full of joy and life.  And you can't see that in another being without it bleeding into your own soul; I smiled the rest of my miles (especially when I saw the same dog about 15 minutes later, going significantly slower but still just as happy). 

Of course, being aware has its downsides.  When you take the time to notice the joys, you also notice the pains.  Just as I saw the happiest dog on the planet running full of life, I also saw squished squirrels, litter, and unhappy commuters slogging their way to work.  As much as I wish these things didn't exist, they play an important role.  Without the bad, there can be no good.  If every thing I saw was beautiful and happy, then it would lose its meaning; I wouldn't know that it was special because it would just be normal.  Instead, as painful as they are, I appreciate the unpleasant things.  And I am glad that I am aware of them, because the alternative is to be oblivious to everything--the good and the bad--and that is no way to go through this world. 

These tiny joys--a sunrise, a loping dog, a full moon--are small things, things that I could have missed if I wasn't being intentional about seeing them.  They are not life changing on their own, I will never look back on yesterday's full moon as the happiest day of their life.  But taken together, I am using them to build a joyful life.  Maybe I could compare them to Legos (which also make me smile), a bunch of brightly colored blocks that are boring alone but can be used to create just about anything imaginable.  But they aren't building something tangible like Legos would, they are building something intangible but essential.  When I figure out how to explain it, I will.  For now, I am just going to go out and keep collecting all the tiny joys that are waiting out there for me. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Going Off Script

As a general rule I use this blog to create my own words, but today I want to make an exception.  I came across this quote about two months ago, in a book about teaching.  It made me cry.  I am not sharing here to make you cry, but because I think that it is the single best quote that I have come across in ages, and I want to talk about it (also, any of you who read this probably already know that I love Merlyn--well,wizards in general--because they always seem to know what to say):  

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn..."is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, ... you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then--to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the thing for you."  The Once and Future King

When we are very small, all we do all is learn new things.  If you have ever watched a small child, you know that children spend most of their days figuring out new things; most of it is incidental learning, unprompted by teachers or parents.  And it is absolutely amazing to see.  They work with diligence (some of them even with patience) to master the world around them.  They figure out how to put toys in a basket, to walk, to hold a spoon, and to talk.  Of course, they also learn how to hide things, to say no, to hide themselves (I was always drawn to the circular clothes racks in department stores), and to lie.  But everyday, no matter what it is, they are learning.  
Then, somewhere along the way, the learning stops being incidental and starts being scripted.  When we get to school, we stop discovering things and start being told things.  Facts and rules take the place of experience, and we often have very little choice in what we are being taught.  I am not saying this is true for every learning experience; in fact, I had several teachers who were wonderful at creating opportunities for discovery and application of knowledge.  But, the traditional vision of "education" persists: the teacher is responsible for giving information to the student who then tucks it away in her mind, only to later regurgitate it on a test.  And somehow, that doesn't really feel like important work to most students.  

A few days ago I asked my students what it meant to know something; the first thing they told me was "if you have it memorized."  God damn it, no!  Eventually, though, I talked them around to the idea that you also have to be able to use it in some way, although they are still pretty unclear about how they are supposed to use it, other than to answer text questions.  They still don't see the value of learning, of knowledge.

Part of it, to be sure, is that they are teenagers.  They are at that terrible point in their life where being "smart" and being "cool" are polar opposites.  Some of them are starting to come out of it, but it is hard work.  I know, because when I was 15, no one could have convinced me that learning and knowing stuff was better than being accepted socially.  Part of that is definitely developmental, but a big part of it is also because of the context of school.  The difference is in choice.  When I made the choice to learn, it suddenly became an integral part of who I became.  And I can't imagine my life without it; I can imagine not being able to run anymore, but I can't imagine a life where I am not learning new things all the time. 

Real learning, the kind that Merlyn is talking about, the kind that saves you from the evils of the world, comes when you have made the choice to learn.  When I said that learning doesn't feel like important work to most students, it was because I don't believe they see themselves as active agents who have made the choice to learn.  Instead, they see themselves as captives in a system that is telling them what to know.  But it does not have to be like that.  I don't want to spiral off into a monologue about best practice here, because I think that anyone who reads this already knows what it is and how to do it, so I will just say that as teachers we have the power to offer our students choice, and if we do it well, they will choose to learn the content that we have planned for them.  They will be active agents who find the value and joy in learning, and they will carry that with them for the rest of their lives. 

But this isn't about teaching, this is about learning.  It is about finding a way to pull ourselves out of the rut that we may have fallen into in our lives by learning something new, something we choose and feel is important.  And it might even be something that you chose not to learn in school, because it felt forced.  For example, I hated physics in high school; I refused to let any of it sink into my brain.  But now I find it fascinating, and I watch hours of TV specials about it.  I have seriously been considering auditing a class at the community college where I work, because now I want to learn about it.  I want to learn about everything!

There is no clever or profound way for me to wrap this up.  Just go back to the top and reread the quote.  Reread it as many times as you need to, until you are ready to make the choice to go learn something new.  And then, once you have learned that, learn something else.  Then a third, fourth, fifth thing.  Learn as many things as you can, while you can because learning is the thing for you. 


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dude, be cool...

I am not a patient person. 

I am not calm, relaxed, mellow, lenient, easy-going, accommodating, serene, or imperturbable.  In fact, I had to look up all of these synonyms of patient because they are not even in my vocabulary.  I only knew the ones at the bottom, under antonyms: agitated, unwilling, intolerant, impatient, and frustrated.  Those are words that I (and pretty much everyone else) would use on a list of "10 words that describe Kirsten."  But never patient. 

Now, before I go on, I know that as some of you read this, it will remind you of times when I have not been patient with you personally.  This would be any time in which we have occupied the same physical realm of existence, including but not limited to face-to-face conversation, email, instant message, letters, postcards, telepathic messages, candy-grams, time capsules, and those fortune tellers that you made in elementary school by folding pieces of paper and adding colors and numbers.  You all have stories, I know. 

I started thinking about this, shall we say unique, part of my personality yesterday. I was having a conversation with a colleague about how we are both "Type A."  We were trading stories about how completely inflexible we can be, particularly when it comes to getting things done.  I, like my co-teacher, like to have things done now, and in the exact way in which I have instructed.  If I wanted it done in five minutes, I would have said "In five minutes, can you..." But I didn't say that.  I said "Go.  Now.  Get it done."  And this is true for everything: folding laundry, quitting smoking, whatever it is you have told me you are going to do (okay fine, whatever it is that I have told you you are going to do); I expect instantaneous results with no complaining from you, or there will be a whole lot of complaining from me. 

Under the joking about our unusually resistant personalities, there was a sense of commiseration, or shame even, because we know that it is not really healthy for us or our relationships.  We both know that we drive our spouses, friends, and family completely bat-shit crazy.  At least, I know that I do.  I know because you do not all put up with it quietly.  And thank God for that--if you people didn't put me in my place I can't even imagine what my life would be like.  Well, I can.  Shit would get done when and how I want it, but there would be no one around to marvel at my efficiency and genius, so what would be the point?  So, I appreciate that you are all willing to point out when I am being overbearing, even if my response is "I want results, not excuses!" 

I am not going to be so rash as to suggest that I will (or even can) change.  But I will admit that maybe I should try to be a little more laid back about things.  Once I Google "laid back" and figure out what the hell it is and how one goes about being that thing, I will see what I can do.  The great irony being, of course, that changing such an integral part of my personality will take time, the one thing that I never allow for other people.  So maybe this will not at all lead to my being a more relaxed person myself; in fact, I can't really imagine who I would be if I wasn't impatient and anxious.  That person would not be "me" anymore.  But perhaps trying to change will help me to develop some level of empathy for those of you who routinely have to put up with me and my less than accommodating personality, and will stop me from being quite so obnoxious. 

Or you can just do what I tell you the first time, and we won't have any more trouble. 

Pace of play

In baseball, pace of play refers to how long it takes for individual plays to happen and the overall length of the game.  It's also the...