Origins of my $8 table

I like order. While I am no perfectionist, and I recognize that we live in a chaotic universe, I feel more at peace when t-shirts are folded and put away neatly and tasks are on lists.

my January laundry table

Where there is no order, I enjoy imposing it. I see a mess, and my imagination starts selecting, categorizing, and straightening. When I am in a colleague’s unruly office, I must resist the temptation to say, “I could help you with this.” (What a time suck that would be.)

I like the revision part of writing as much as I like the generation part. The mental activity is not unlike cleaning out a closet. Creativity is not all right brain. Could anything ever get made without the desire to bring coherence to a wash of ideas, experience, sensations, stuff? The left brain brings shape to raw material and finds what my friend Jan calls the spine of a piece.

I often think about one creative activity when doing another: writing when gardening, for example.  Recently, I organized the laundry corner of the basement, quickly made a rudimentary table, and thought about teaching while doing both. And I didn’t just think about teaching while my hands were busy; I thought about my wonderful junior high shop teacher, Richard Bayrouty, who died in December, and the benefits of real hands-on learning.

In 1977, when I entered 7th grade, there was a policy shift in my hometown’s school system that girls could take industrial arts, or “shop,” as an elective. If I remember correctly, before 1977 all girls took home economics (cooking, sewing, laundry) and all boys took shop. That year, the policy loosened, and suddenly there was cross-registration. Boys who wanted to make and eat cookies took “home ec” with Ms. T. Girls who knew how to sew, cook, wash, and iron, as I did, took shop. My friend Lynn-Marie, who recently wrote to me that she never “caught on to home ec” and “never really liked to cook,” and I were the only two girls that year in Mr. Bayrouty’s class.

He had the best classroom. Continue reading

The band room is not the high school.

Gwyneth Paltrow was quite fetching on GLEE when she sang the Cee Lo song, “Forget You,” which I had heard many times on the radio.

I had no idea what I was really missing, though, until I went recently to open mike night at Brookline High School. My son Eli’s band, Hippos on Campus, opened my eyes and ears to Cee Lo’s original version.

The audience was mostly made up of high school students; some intrepid parents were there too. Grace was sitting next to me, and in the video you can see a shot of her at 02:14 . Also in the video at 00:48 you can see one of the high school music faculty, Carolyn Castellano, scurrying in front to give a student a megaphone.

Later in the night, from behind the piano, Carolyn reminded her students, “The band room is not the high school.”

I parsed her remark and took it to mean that, within the context of rules and right answers, there also has to be a place for subversiveness in education. Some teachers, like Carolyn, seem to manage this balance well: She drives her students to be ambitious and practiced musicians (Eli is the bass player in her jazz band at the high school), and yet prods them to think, act, and play with originality. Students find it hard to get praise from her, and yet the really serious ones want to work with her because she treats them as though they were musical peers.

It’s hard to teach inside these contraries, and although I value them, I’m not so sure I pull them off in a radical or dramatic way. On the one hand, I have a responsibility to teach the conventions of scientific writing and communicating. On the other hand, I have a responsibility to the student who aims to do work that is authentic and meaningful. In my practice, I seem to be more structured in the classroom as a lecturer and more open to individual work in small groups and 1:1 conferences. Interestingly, this may resemble the division between my public and private self in general, and my public and private teaching self.

I really admire professionals like Carolyn who seem to take public risks in their teaching while still upholding really high standards for their students. Funny, though, when I told Eli my interpretation of the band room/high school remark as slyly subversive, he wondered if Carolyn, whom he knows well, had really intended instead that her students remember to behave once they leave the band room.

Either way, the remark conveys the same dichotomy.

For a more polished and still angry version of “Fuck You,” watch Cee Lo himself, in a Pepto pink suit, sing it here on a BBC special: Link.

Where I want to be

Once, on my long path from the parking lot through courtyards and down hallways to my office, I trailed behind an admissions tour group led by a student. I heard him say to the assemblage of parents, prospective students, and tagalong younger siblings, “Our campus isn’t very beautiful. I mean, it’s an urban school.”

Whoa there, I thought. Our campus is amazing. Indeed — domes, arches, windows, low stones walls, high ones, the river over there, surfaces, trees, groundcover, bicycle racks, and silhouettes against the sky — there is always something interesting to look at.

Last Wednesday, after a day filled with 1:1 writing conferences (6 of those) and presentation rehearsals (4 of those), I took a detour back to the parking garage to check out a new outdoor sculpture, Alchemist by Jaume Plensa, that I had noticed from across the street as I hurried back and forth on other days.

W 11.24.2010 ~3:00pm @W20 MIT

And last night, same sculpture, same impulse. Continue reading

Telltale art

In July, I got lucky and went to TEDx Boston. My favorite talk was not the expert one by presentation superstar Larry Lessig, but the surprising one by artist Eric Mongeon, on his persistent obsession with what he calls the “dark and thrilling work” of Edgar Allen Poe and his struggle to illustrate and publish Poe’s stories.

What Mongeon says, in part one, about Poe’s work makes me want to return to the stories: “He was writing about fear in uniquely modern terms. All of Poe’s characters experience fear when their fundamental beliefs about their social, personal, or practical situation are somehow invalidated. The world becomes uncertain, because the picture of reality falls out of sync with the experience of reality. And at the root of fear is uncertainty.”

In part two, Mongeon describes a situation he found himself caught in. After years of generating material for his secret Poe project, he realized he was in The Vortex: “A viscious circle of research, rejection, and refinement. It is unrelenting, and it is self-perpetuating because you feel like you’re actually making something.” He soberly adds, “Doing isn’t the same thing as making.”

And finally he knits it all together — Poe’s stories, his own story, fear — deftly.

Original ideas, and a really original presentation. Everything fits: the script, the images, the timing, his clockwork pacing of the stage, and some strategic pauses. Simmering is how I’d characterize this, and worth studying.

Friend of the author

On Monday night, September 13, I was a guest and volunteer at my friend Jan Donley‘s book-signing event at Lineage.

Weeks ago on Facebook I posted this status message: “[Jane Kokernak] is not an event ‘mingler.’ Give her a job to do — coat check, for example — and she’ll knock your socks off.” The message captured my feeling after I attended an MIT event at which I had a job to do. I wasn’t hanging out, self-consciously chatting people up and trying to penetrate small-group conversations. Instead, I was there, by request, to examine student work and ask questions. At other events, I have distributed name badges, guarded doors, and cleared the dinner detritus. In each case, the assigned role made me comfortable enough to do well and have a great time.

Back to my status message. On it, Jan commented, “Hmmm… we might have a job for you at the book launch.” She and her spouse, Diane Felicio, invited me to handle proceeds at the book-signing table. “Of course!,” I practically bleated.

On Monday night, I showed up. I talked to my mysterious friend T. and others, drank wine, ate little crab cakes and figs with bleu cheese, listened to Jan read, saw Diane in her far out dress, clapped for Greater Boston PFLAG (the event’s beneficiary), and played cashier as the author signed books. Of course, I enjoyed it.

And a couple of weeks before, when I read The Side Door, Jan’s first novel, I thoroughly enjoyed that, too.

Event photograph by Diane Hammer.

No nightlife, no boogie

No doubt there is nightlife and boogie in Toronto, but we didn’t find much of it. That’s probably because we — traveling with children ages 10, 14, and 17 —  weren’t looking for it.

Staples in telephone pole, Kensington Market. By Lydia.

Still, we hoped to have our own brand of fun. And we did. What follows is a handful of highlights from the Toronto leg of our summer vacation, August 10 – 15. (The Cooperstown and Niagara Falls legs are documented in a previous post.)

Leg three: Toronto, Ontario

We drove into the city on a Wednesday afternoon. Lydia, sitting in the way back, observed, “This is another one of those cities with cranes. Like Chicago.” I had to agree.

Another city of cranes.

After dragging our bags into our hotel on Yonge Street, at one time designated the longest street in the world, and feeling daunted by possibilities for What Now?, we walked blocks and blocks to Yorkville Ave. for ice cream. At Summer’s Sweet Memories, Eli and I tried their famous flavor, Toronto Pothole: almonds, marshmallows, chocolate chunks, and peanuts in chocolate ice cream. Later in the week, we went back again, for the same flavor. That was one of my good delicious vacation ideas. Continue reading

– Park Street busker

“Excuse me.” That’s what I said to the couple blocking my passage from the turnstiles to the station at Park Street. They were just standing there, looking up at signs, their backs to me. “Oh, sorry,” he replied, in a British accent. I moved quickly past them, no eye contact, up and around the low barrier near the track, and I felt a few seconds of regret for not being nicer to them.

Down the middle stairs tiled red, into that basement that’s like a big grungy shower room — all those worn white tiles — to wait for the train to Kendall Square. It was 4:50pm, and I was leaving GLAD and heading back to MIT to get my car to pick up Grace at BSED. Three points of my life, in acronyms.

I felt neither haste nor leisure. People brushed by and pressed into each other. There was another middle-aged pair, a man and woman, chaperoning a bunch of teenage girls, some wearing Red Sox “merch,” as my kids call it. Was there a game today? Sometimes I eavesdrop on people, but this afternoon my spying tendencies were worn out.

Against the red tiles of one of those square pillars that hold the Green Line and all its trains up over the Red Line’s sublevel, a small man sat. His black guitar case was open in front of him. A music stand, adjusted low. An acoustic guitar, a high buttery voice, a Spanish song. “Noche …  noche…  noche,” was the only word of what he sang that I recognized. Another verse, full of the sound of longing but no words I knew, and then again, “Noche… noche… noche.”

I thought of taking out my phone and taking a picture, a video even, so that I would have a document to share with someone. And then I realized that what held me to the moment was that it would come and quickly go. Anticipating that its life was only minutes long, I soaked in all of it — his singing, the sound of words I didn’t know, the crush of tourists and fellow commuters, his smile when I put $2 in the guitar case, his gold-rimmed dark glasses removed when I got close up to him.

The moment would be gone, I knew, as soon as the train came. Which it did.

Resonance, wonder, and toys

In his essay “Resonance and Wonder,” Stephen Greenblatt writes about two powers permeating the works of art in museums:

By resonance I mean the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond it formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it make be taken by a viewer to stand. By wonder I mean the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.

Read his essay (a .pdf is here), and your experience of artifacts in museums may be forever enriched as mine have.  In this post, I translate his ideas and use them to consider toys, Jane Eyre, The Matrix, and other things that stand in for objects.

When you first encounter an object — especially one you instantly are wowed by — you stand in wonder. There’s something really personal about that experience. You feel delight, surprise, enchantment. It’s an oh my god! moment. Greenblatt says that museums like MoMA amplify wonder with tactics they use to display objects, with boutique lighting, for example, which throws a pool of light around objects in a dimmed room, in the same way that jewelry stores and designer clothing shops do. Lighting isolates an object and hold it up for display. That isolation is important: it intensifies your wonder. It’s immediate, with no past or future; it’s love at first sight. Continue reading