Archives for the month of: May, 2013

I received a wonderful email from a former student the other day.  It’s always interesting to hear what has taken root:

And even though it’s been two years, there are a few things about you and your classes that have stuck with me:

*I still know all of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, and remember it whenever I see the new, bright green buds and leaves on the trees that line the streets and side walks of West Chester University’s campus.

*I subconsciously “crock-pot” ideas whenever I’m writing a paper that I feel very strongly about.

*I have a dream (and though unrealistic, it is very dear to me) about being able to walk to my place of work.

*I sometimes wonder if I’m being “mule-ish” in my classes, and if I find that I am, I try my best to snap out of it.

*Oh, and I have recently been trying to eat nice things (Eat food, not too much, mostly plants) which is, unfortunately, discouragingly difficult on a college campus.

As you can see, I’ve realized recently how many wonderful habits and dreams you have inspired in me, and for this I thank you. You may be wondering why I’ve waited two years to send this e-mail, and perhaps why I’m sending it out at nearly three o’clock in the morning. To answer the first part, I’m currently in a class about environmental sustainability and I just keep thinking of you, and how easily and casually you were able to introduce our class to such admirable habits. As to the second, this was just one of those ideas I couldn’t fall asleep with, without doing something about it.

I am proud of these lessons.  I stand by them.  But I’ve noticed something curious:  students rarely tell me that they learned to read or write from me, which is, after all, the point.  It’s possible that what they learn about their skills becomes so natural to them that they don’t think about it.  Like this anecdote from David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Once a student told me that the most wonderful thing that ever happened in my class is when I showed them this video:

Antwerp Flash Mob

The point is that we give them everything we’ve got, never knowing what’s going to stick.  If one darling person can learn to detect her own mulish tendencies, can learn to let ideas simmer in the crockpot of her brain, can aspire to sustainability in all she does, can eat well, thank Michael Pollan, and hope to walk to work while reciting Frost and admiring the fresh green of spring leaves– well, how much can we hope to influence anyone anyway?

Thank you, Brittany.  You made my day (also, let’s face it:  you write beautifully).

Students learn to be human.

Mulishness is a defense against learning.  Good students learn to be human.

They say that to make an omelette, you’ve got to break some eggs.  When you do that, there is sticky, gluey egg goo on the counter, plus a bowl to wash, plus egg shells to put in the compost and have to dump on the pile at some point, plus a pan that had butter and eggs in it to wash.  .  .  You have to disturb the universe, as Prufrock observed.

So here’s my gardening residue:

Oh, the scrubbing.

Oh, the scrubbing.

From hands to feet:

They actually looked worse 15 minutes before this photo.  Walking around loosened some of the dirt.

They actually looked worse 15 minutes before this photo. Walking around loosened some of the dirt.

It was so nasty that my husband brought me my robe in the basement so I could strip next to the washing machine and leave the muddy jeans away from the clean house.  But I planted

  • 2 Kousa dogwoods
  • 2 prostrate yew (cephalotaxus harringtoniana)
  • 1 boxwood
  • 1 upright yew
  • 2 hinoki cypresses, one of which weighed at least a thousand pounds

and all that was after having dug out more &*%$ing forsythia stumps the day before.  Also repotting the abutilon and hours of weeding.

But here is what my friend Brooke’s grandmother did to improve her hands and nails after gardening:

It helps.

It helps.

The first step is to disturb the universe and the next step is to figure out how to mitigate the aftershock.  Here is to Brooke, her grandmother, and all our sister gardeners who teach us how to forge on, undaunted, and mop up the aftermess with elegance.

And here’s to my hinoki cypresses and all the rest:  may you live long and prosper!

Doesn't it look like the Vulcan salute?

Doesn’t it look like the Vulcan salute?

And thanks to my beloved grandson, Andrew, for taking the photos of my filthy hands and feet.

Some of my students are marvelous guitarists, far better than I will ever be.  When I share with them what I’m working on, it’s a nice reversal of roles:  they’re the experts and I’m the novice.  It’s good all around, all of us looking squarely at what it takes to learn something.

On a whim, I played for one class my goal song, Shawn Colvin’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”  It took about 4 measures before the experienced ones were shaking their heads.  They know enough to hear what they’re hearing– and to see the long road ahead of me.  I asked them how long they thought it would take me.  A year and half, according to one kid.  I said, Okay, call it five years.

And then the wise words:  Mrs. S., it’s not the years, it’s the hours.

It's not the years, it's the hours.

It’s not the years, it’s the hours.

I asked my tenth graders to write four dialectic journal entries about Catcher in the Rye and explained what I meant: copy down a passage and then talk about it.  You can split the page into 2 columns, one for what the book says and the other for what you say.  You can pose questions, make observations, quibble, argue, kvetch or kvell.  I showed them what Gretchen Rubin says about engaging with literature:

From The Happiness Project:  The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.

And I explained that some people love this kind of writing, even though others don’t.  Maybe they’ll be one of the fans—who knows?  And after that, one kid posed this question:  what if I turn to a page and there isn’t anything quotable on it?

There it was, one of those cognitive dissonances that bring a teacher up short.  I’m thinking of books like this:

Bam!  Crash!  Content!  Holden, my darling!  Pithy remark!  Funny segue!  That part where the kid sings!  The gasoline rainbow in the puddle!  Phoebe!  Upper cut to the heart!

And they’re thinking of books like this:


We are not on the same page.

It’s an awfully good thing that some brave kids ask questions.

Oh, Holden.

Oh, Holden.

The most important thing I ever learned about gardening took me a long time to put into words, although it’s very simple.  I was beguiled by photos in garden catalogues, and it was a number of years before I saw it:  any truly health plant looks great, even when it’s poison ivy;  any withering, sulking, dying, miserable plant looks horrid.  Even bougainvillea.

Only eautiful when alive and thriving.

Only beautiful when alive and thriving.

And having seen that, the next thing to understand is that some deceptive, self-centered, megalomaniacal plants are out to conquer the world.  Even though they are beautiful, you don’t want them.  In fact, you can plot any plant you are considering for your garden on this spectrum:

My sister Alie is a graphic genius.

My sister Alie is a graphic genius.

On the left we have kudzu, the plant that, having devoured the South, is, like Napoleon, seeing how far it can extend its empire.  On the right we have an exotic houseplant that will spend its days sighing, frowning, demanding meals of imported compost, and pining for the fjords on its way to a protracted death.  What you want is somewhere in the middle: the plants that grow and bloom and spread a little, that seem at home and happy in their work, but that will neither try to move your house off the foundations nor pull themselves up by their own roots (kind of bootstraps in reverse).

Gardenias, could you please move yourselves just a little to the left?  I love you so.  My friend Ann does nothing for hers:  maybe you could talk to them and learn how they do it?

Goosenecked loosestrife, I love you, but you’re not invited.  I’ve heard the tales.

Do not  be beguiled.  This plant is NOT to be trusted.

Alert: This plant is NOT to be trusted.

Meet ground ivy, my arch-nemesis:

Oh jeez.

Oh jeez.

It sends out runners that then take root:  my least favorite plant habit (do you hear me, forsythia?).  I can forgive it in strawberries because they are so easily discouraged, but this stuff goes under rocks and comes out burly on the other side.  I’m pulling it out of all the beds.  I fear sleeping more than 9 hours at a stretch for fear it will steal a march on me.

Plants are like people:  they’re at their best when they’re happy at home, productive in their work, balanced in their habits, and not overly ambitious.  Nobody likes an evil menace who feels entitled to the entire world.

The New York Times has this article in its most frequently emailed list today:

Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data

Somebody is willing to read your script and tell you how to change it to raise your chances of making money.  The article ends with a tight shot of Vinnie Bruzzese:

“All screenwriters think their babies are beautiful,” he said, taking a chug of Diet Dr Pepper followed by a gulp of Diet Coke and a drag on a Camel. “I’m here to tell it like it is: Some babies are ugly.”

I wish he were a character in my screenplay.

Mr. Bruzzese and Miriam Brinn, head of script analysis, as featured in the NYTimes.

Mr. Bruzzese and Miriam Brinn, head of script analysis, as featured in the NYTimes.

And while we’re on the topic of polling as a method to success, this is one of my favorite This American Lifes:

By the Numbers

“Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar hired a polling firm to investigate what people want to see in paintings. Then, using the data, they painted what people want. It turned out to be a landscape, with a mountain and a lake, and deer, and a family, and George Washington. Then they applied these techniques to music with composer David Soldier. They surveyed audiences about what kind of instruments and topics they liked most in their songs. Then they produced one song based on what people most want to hear — and one song based on what they hate the most. The one people hate includes bagpipes, children singing, lyrics about holidays and religion, wild volume and tempo changes. If you’d like a copy of the songs featured in this segment, visit Melamid and Komar’s website. You can buy both the Most Wanted and Most Unwanted Songs directly from them.” (11 minutes)

There is something compelling about a 12 minute song that combines a rapping operatic soprano with the clip clop of cowboy music, interspersed with kids singing holiday lyrics– people end up liking it, at least for a minute or two, at least at first.

Oh, Quality!  What is polling but the same technique Phaedrus used to demonstrate the reality of quality to his students?

I keep reading it.  I keep finding more connections to it.

I keep reading it. I keep finding more connections to it.

Okay, forsythia, we’re on to you.  You’re trying to take over the world, one garden at a time, starting with ours.  Yes, you have your diplomacy skills, with which you hope to lull us into a false sense of sentimentality about your exuberance in the spring, but you spend the rest of the year disguised as a haystack while conducting border skirmishes and claiming ever more ground.  The war is on.  Here you are, piled at the curb:

Take that!

Take that!

But here’s forsythia’s revenge:

Try digging this.

Try digging this.

I plan to call in mercenaries.  But just to encourage us and keep us slogging in the trenches, here are the tulips and Jacob’s ladder to show us what we’re fighting for:

It can't always be like this, but we enjoy it while we can.

It can’t always be like this, but we enjoy it while we can.

And here’s the strawberry patch in full bloom:

They spread, but they don't have territorial ambitions.

They spread, but they don’t have territorial ambitions.

Here’s hoping for rain.

Sounds like a good book.

Sounds like a good book.

Today on I came across this interview:

Secret to Happiness:  I want this job for a week!

We have no good system for matching people to work they might like to do or do well– mostly we’re all just blundering toward the fulfillment of our potential (not to mention paychecks).

Roman Krznaric, a British author, empathy theorist and “lifestyle philosopher,” dilates on the ideas in his book, How to Find Fulfilling Work.

At its root, Krznaric wants to flip our idea of what success looks like. Instead of aspiring to become “high achievers,” he argues, many of us would be more happy as “wide achievers” — dabbling in many fields rather than becoming an expert in one. And with the disappearance of stable jobs in almost every field, cultivating skills across a range of occupations could be a smart move.

According to Krznaric, the only career advice you really need comes from Aristotle: “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.” Finding those talents — well, that’s up to you.

“I interviewed for my book a woman who was bored by the end of her 20s. She was in arts administration, she was incredibly miserable. She decided to give herself a really unusual 30th birthday present, which was to spend a whole year trying out 30 different jobs. She tried out being a manager of a cat hotel, she shadowed a member of Parliament, she tried out advertising. She found out she liked things she never really imagined that she’d like.”

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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