Seven lessons from a middle-aged beginner

There is beginner’s mind, and then there is beginner’s body.
Around the time I turned 40, I got this idea that I wanted to become a good skater by the time I turned 50. The impulse hit me when I was at the rink in Brookline, skating with the kids, and I noticed a woman older than me who was powerful and fluid on the ice. I wanted to skate like her, and, even though her skating was more advanced, this suddenly seemed doable to me and desirable. Later, I found out she had started skating in her early 40s when her son was playing hockey, and she found herself looking at the ice and longing for it. So she began. At 60, when I met her, she was strong and graceful. This, by the way, is the first lesson in learning something new and hard: (1) Look for real-life models.  Famous athletes may inspire us but, because their talents are stratospheric, can’t really convince us that we can do it.

I had been on the ice hundreds of times — if you grow up in Massachusetts, as I did, it’s almost a requirement that you get a new pair of cheap skates every year for Christmas and spend lots of time clumping around on frozen ponds or public ice rinks — but I couldn’t  skate well. At age 40, I started taking group skating lessons for the first time. I learned a lot, starting with this basic fact that skates have edges (and if you have two feet, there are four edges altogether, or eight if you include forward and backward), and control of those is the foundation for everything. I also learned, from a teacher named Mark, that you can be afraid to do something and still make yourself do it. “You will fall,” Mark said. Being mindful of the possibility of injury makes it harder to try new things as an adult, and this fear must be managed in order to proceed. Which leads me to this: (2) Be afraid to fall, and skate anyway. I am, and I do.

You can only do beginner lessons so many times before you start to bump up against a ceiling. This winter, at age 45 and at my halfway point, I decided it might be time for private instruction. Happily, the teacher of the group lesson I was taking also teaches privately, and the transition was easy. I discovered, too, that the decision to do this was a signal to myself of the seriousness of my goal. You can’t hide in a 1:1 learning situation as you can hide in a group (and one can even hide, paradoxically, by excelling against other beginners). Another lesson: (3) When it starts to get easy, become more vulnerable to the task.

It’s a luxury to have the devoted instruction of an accomplished professional for one hour a week. (No wonder students like meeting with me alone for an hour to work on their writing.) There is an intensity to the learning experience that is different from a group experience that is a deep pleasure. The learner is also scarily exposed in a private lesson; there is no stepping to the side to let someone else skate ahead, and there is no half-assed trying just to get a little cheap credit for having gone through the motions. Continue reading

Smashing pumpkin

Never mind Angry Birds. What about Hungry Squirrels? 🙂 This morning this pumpkin was intact and perched safely on the porch banister.

today 12.14.2010 ~2:30p @Jane's house

Hungry Squirrels is an (impulsive) idea for my technically astute brother, Brian, who just developed and published his first iPhone app, MASTDinfo for Fenway Community Health Center, and will likely be producing some more. And I think he has his sights set on games.

How to work a cocktail party like a tutor

Last night Jimmy and I went to what’s called a drinks party and, to our relief, enjoyed ourselves. I realized later, after several good conversations, that what makes me an effective tutor can help me get through challenging social situations. Or vice versa.

Why are cocktail parties challenging? I mean, I may not be attention-hungry, but I’m not shy.  Here’s the problem: so many people, no defined role for me, and no structure.

If those are the conditions — and they are for most parties, except for baby showers which are usually rather annoyingly structured around “games” (and those are intentional quotation marks) — then a person must have a strategy for dealing with the conditions. Otherwise, the impulse is to hide in a corner with the one person you know, clinging to that corner as though it were a berth and you a little boat afraid of being battered by the open sea.

And just as the secret to being a good tutor does not involve being drunk on the task, the seven secrets to party-going success that follow do not involve drinking half the bottle in the first 10 minutes. Continue reading

Meditation on adult fears

In graduate school, at the first meeting of an American poetry seminar that turned out to be wonderfully heavy on Emily Dickinson, the professor asked us to introduce ourselves by going around the table and disclosing our worst fears. As soon as she said it, the professor withdrew the prompt. “No, don’t say your worst fears, say your second worst fears. It’s too terrible, as an adult, to claim your worst fear. ” She paused. “What if it came true?”

My second worst fear is a wood chipper, those little green or orange monsters with big metal teeth that get lugged around by tree jockeys and that eat branches and trunks. Last fall, on my way to work, I saw one on Amory Street in Brookline and sticking out of it was not a mouthful of hemlock but the blue-jeaned legs and ass of a man. I was riveted and terrified. As I drove closer I could tell that he was intentionally face first inside the jaw, fixing it, I gathered. A couple of other tree guys stood around, unperturbed and waiting.

A healthy respect for the destructive power of machines may be rational (as may be the fear of waxing, which was the pick of another female grad student in my class). However, sometimes a fear grows until its size in one’s imagination becomes irrational.

A friend of mine, an artist, has an ex who has diabetes, as I do. Things are not going well for him, and I encouraged her to encourage him to make his way to the Joslin Diabetes Center, where he would get help with his medications, diet, exercise routine, and even his feelings of discouragement. “They will take care of all of him,” I assured her. The thought of this buoyed her. Recently she wrote to me: “Would you be willing to talk to him? He wants to go and he seems reluctant to go.” Ah, of course. Continue reading

– Learning to write: a meme

Over at digital digs, Alex Reid (someone I don’t know but whose thoughts I enjoy reading), writes about how he learned to write. While his post raises illuminating questions about a well-accepted pedagogy — that teachers’ experiences of learning to write and developing a writing practice are central to their teaching of first year composition — his post also gives me an idea for a meme.

He captures his development of a writer by describing three contradictory practices. I’m going to do the same, and then I’m going to tag four friends.

My practices?

1. The first grade I got in college was an F. The class was English 150: Critical Interpretation. The professor was Robert Polito. The assignment was to do a close reading of a Shakespeare sonnet. Continue reading

– In the pines, in the pines

Pines2“What did you find out?” That was the question I was asked when Jimmy and I returned from our one-day field trip to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, to find Elizabeth White’s house, Suningive, and explore Historic Whitesbog Village, a state trust which preserves a turn-of-the-century company town built around cranberry and blueberry farming.

The question, innocent enough, made me bristle. It seemed to beg for information, and the purpose of the trip had really been about sense. Having spent a good part of the summer reading about agriculture, fruits, the Pine Barrens, and Elizabeth White and her family, I wanted to test my sincerity. Am I really interested in this subject? Is my curiosity powerful enough to bring me back here, to keep taking the next steps?

There’s something about the beginning of an idea that’s so fragile: just a few cells, stuck together, with a heart barely beating. One must hold onto it, without exposing it. That’s how I feel. The beginning should be conducted in the darkened room of privacy.

So the question — wow! That felt like an intrusion. Inside, I felt my will kind of clamp down around what I could say or reveal, wanting to keep it for myself.

Still, the question-asker is a kind of audience, and I had said enough about my impulse to write a biography of Elizabeth White that the audience deserved a response, an early communication. Continue reading

– Free advice for the would-be freelancer


A year ago, my friend and fellow teacher, Lauren, wrote and asked me for advice on establishing herself as a freelance editor. She recalled that I had worked for a while as a freelance… something. Indeed, from 1994 to 2003 I worked independently as a writer and researcher for nonprofit organizations.

Lauren liked my advice, and I believe she put some of it into practice. I dug it out today, after I found myself talking near the photocopy machine to another teacher about the many ways to make a living. When you’re in education, it seems, it’s not enough to have just one way; you must have supplementary ways.

Here’s the advice, copied and pasted verbatim from my e-mail archives. If you’re looking to make some money with words, this might help you on your way. And if you have any suggestions to add or even corrections to make, please comment on the post or write to me directly.

Jane’s Guide to Getting Started as a Freelancer

1 — For yourself, figure out what [editing, writing, coaching, etc.] services you’ll offer and who your client might be.  Figure out what you’ll charge — look at to see what industry standards are, and  keep in mind that you won’t get paid for every minute you work (about 1/3 of your time is spent on getting gigs and dealing with the client and paperwork).

2 – Establish some sort of visible presence in the world. A website is probably how you would do it now, but when I started in ’94 I had a brochure.  On it, I would include a brief bio of yourself that establishes your credibility (regarding the service you’re offering), a description of your services, and a statement about what separates you from the pack. Continue reading

– Good use of time?

Without the energy to start a new knitting or sewing project, much less decide on one, I experimented on knitting the same thing — a small leaf — in different materials: yarn, wire, plastic bag shreds, and dried grass.  The straight-up yarn leaf in marled red came out pretty nice, and it’s in the banner photo above.

With me, Grace sat and clicked her needles, too.  She has a few projects going on, all in yarn.  (She loves beginnings. Me? I like finishing.) She admired my yarn leaf and even the one done up in green plastic, from loops I had cut from a grocery bag.

About my attempt to harvest, tie together, and knit the dried ornamental grass that grows alongside our driveway, she said, “Now that’s a waste of time.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied.


“Why are you doing it? It doesn’t even look good!” Grace smiled; I know she loves me.

“It’s an experiment. Somethin’ to do. And I’ll learn something.”

Grace shrugged.

I learned that grass is difficult to tie together securely, although not difficult to knit, albeit with care. Furthermore, odd textiles do not always make for odd beauty — sometimes the result is just a wicked mess.


I also was reminded that the mind makes interesting associative leaps while the hands are busy. The needles and my fingers seems like a convergence of beaks; I was a bird among birds, building a nest. For eggs. For baby birds.

Or for baby Moses, in his rush basket on the Nile River, with his sister Miriam watching him.

Or baby Barbie, in his knitted leaf nest on the green chair, with Jane photographing him.