The tortoise wins her race

I didn’t win the race; I won my race.

Lydia and I ran the B.A.A. 5K along with 6,000+ other runners, our second race this year and my second race ever.  On the train ride back to our car at 9:30am, having done what we each set out to do — Lydia improved her time and I ran the whole route without walking — Jimmy asked me if this race felt different than the first.

Yes, it did.

Before the race, Jane and Lydia contemplate the finish line.

I enjoyed this race more. There was only one hilly patch (near the State House), and my mental resources therefore were not focused on the stamina and positive self-talk needed to get up yet another one of the several hills in the South Boston 5K. My mind was free to think other thoughts.

After the start and as we were trotting up Boylston Street, I noticed a lot of women running past me in lululemon tanks with the ruffle down the back and several sporting lululemon running skirts.  What, by the way, is up with skirts on runners? Do they hide something? Does wearing one communicate a dichotomy in identity? I’m pretty; I’m strong. What’s wrong with simply I’m strong?

Lineup gathers on Boylston Street in front of the Boston Public Library.

Speaking of sartorial runners, before Lydia surged ahead I pointed her attention to another mother-and-daughter pair near us who were in full makeup, foundation included, with hair carefully blown dry.

All those overt beauties ran past me along with many other runners who were fast starters. My ego felt vulnerable in the first few blocks. I was determined to pace myself, and yet it’s a little disheartening to be passed by just about everyone. I had a talk with myself and bolstered the self-esteem. Continue reading

Out of the spent blossoms of the old year rise our resolutions

Lydia and I were a week into our new running habit and halfway around the reservoir when she asked me, “What are your New Year’s resolutions?”

I had been thinking about my plans for 2012, although I was not sure at that point if they had firmed up enough to be classified as resolutions. But, what the heck — why not put them out there into the universe, starting with my audience of one, and see if making a declaration has an effect?

I went looking for birds to photograph, but found dried hydrangea, tap tap tapping against the porch windows, instead. Jan 3 @ 2pm

“The first one is inspired by yours,” I said to Lydia, who aims for better time management in the new year. Both of us manage to get a lot done, and yet can fritter away our free time mindlessly. “I’m going to waste time in more meaningful ways. Instead of checking up on my friends’ and siblings’ status messages several times a day, for example, I’ll skip that and take a nap or watch a tv show with my family.

“Number two: write fiction. I told Eli about an idea I have for a young adult novel, and he liked it. Also, I want to do more than nonfiction is allowing me to do.” I described my start-up plan, which Eli and I worked out as we sat in the Publick House one night having dinner. During my January break and before classes begin, I’m going to write two pages a day and explore this novel idea. It’s an experiment, and yet I’m totally serious about it.

“The third one I already told you about. This year I’m going to compete in a skating event.” A week before Christmas, Fred (skating coach) had raised the question, and I said I’d do it. I want to. Performing or competing makes you better in a way that skating (or writing or singing or painting) only for yourself does not. It’ll be an entry-level competition for, er, seniors, and a powerful motivator.

Dried ornamental grass, roots in shade and seed heads in sun. Jan 3 @ 2pm

That was it for resolutions articulated between huffs and puffs around Brookline Reservoir. Shortly after, I had dinner with my friends, and Sue told us about her last year’s resolution, which she managed to keep 9 times out of 12: to see her mother, who lives beyond Albany, once a month.  Yesterday I told my mother my fourth resolution: to see my parents once a month this year, alone or with the whole clan, for a long visit for just the afternoon. That’s at most 1/30th of a month. Surely I have the time. We all do.

– Not too comfortable

Notebook page This week I audited a lecture given by the lead professor of a big mechanical engineering course that I’m involved in. I was there to signal my interest and get some information on an upcoming assignment.

At some point, the students were prompted to draw a human-powered hovercraft. I was sitting next to another communications lecturer, Mary, and we looked at each other, as if to say, Are we gonna do this, too? After all, we don’t draw — we write, we speak, we teach.

And yet, we were there. So, we gave it a whirl, too.

Anyway, mine is powered by a jolly human who steps up and down on resistance pedals, like on a stair master. The action of the pedals somehow fills a series of air bladders, which collect compressed air, and then force the air, incrementally, down into an air reservoir. The air forcefully puffs out of an array of pores, which creates a cushion of air between the craft and the ground.

I certainly felt humbled by doing the exercise — what I can’t draw, what I don’t know — but I also, by drawing, thought much more deeply about the challenge than I would have if I had just watched the students in the class draw.

Hover craft

It was a good chance, actually, to be a student myself for an hour.

And rudimentary as my drawing is? Once I submitted to the spirit of the task, making it was fun, like being 12 years old and building a fort with the neighborhood gang.

– What they teach us

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to capstone presentations by students graduating from Mount Ida College, where I used to teach and run the writing center. Events like these seem more a measure of educational outcomes than any standardized test or GPA could ever be. The students were poised, engaged, knowledgeable, professional, and comfortable discussing both theory and its application to experience. Wow.

I really, really went to see Sarah Elliott, who worked with me in the writing center. In her capstone poster and remarks, Sarah described her year-long practicum at the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain, working 1:1 with traumatized children, one in particular.

At some point, someone in the audience asked Sarah and her peers, “What did you learn about yourself through your work with your clients?”

I loved Sarah’s answer, and I wrote it down on the spot:

What they teach you is so much more important than what you already know.

In the auditorium, I was sitting in the dark next to Alan Whitcomb, a math professor and first year program director there who’s on my A-list of good teachers. I leaned over and said to him, “That’s what I think makes a good teacher.” He agreed, and added, “And it’s harder to teach that way.”

Interesting, that. To be a learning kind of teacher may be harder than being an expert kind of teacher.

Yet, it’s such a useful and optimistic stance as a teacher and tutor, or social worker, doctor, advocate, therapist. Open to students, open to keeping one’s own work alive.

(Go, Sarah!)

– Fire starters

Coffee log

When my sister Sally and I were children, we lit the woods behind our house on fire. This is a true story, one I have said out loud many times yet never written down.

I was about 10 years old then, and my friend Doreen and I had been lighting little fires in the woods for days. On top of a flat boulder, we would put a pile of dried leaves and twigs, make sure that the area around the pile was free of other debris, and then strike the match. On our fires we toasted bread. I wonder now if we imagined ourselves to be characters in some of our favorite television shows, like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons.

Sally and her friend Kenny became privy to our fires, and, of course, they wanted their own. We traded them a book of matches for the Chinese jump rope, and Doreen and I sternly lectured them on safety and secrecy.

It was fall. Later that day, or perhaps it was later that week, I was riding my bike around the curve in the road that brought my house into view, and I saw, behind and to the sides of the house, lots of patches of orange flame, as if there were 50 or 100 campfires on the ground among the tall pine trees.

I felt a clutch in my gut — this had something to do with me — and I kept riding my bike. Mentally I knew I should have stopped, but I kept riding up the street, to another friend’s house. I remember trying to act cool and regular, while inside I was working out my story and imagining what was going on at my house. The woods surrounded the neighborhood and ran behind all of our houses; I must have looked out the window and been relieved that the flames had not traveled up to the house I was laying low in.

Later I heard from my mother what had happened. Neighbors — adults and children — had formed a bucket brigade while they waited for the fire trucks to arrive. Some adults beat at the flames with rakes. No one was burned. The fire incinerated a huge swath of downed branches, dried needles, and underbrush, but the fire fighters arrived in time to extinguish it and save the trees. My mother said it was lucky that my little sister, who had on a fringed poncho that day, had not caught fire.

Sally went with my mother to the house of the people who owned the woods, and she apologized. Was I punished? Perhaps I was grounded. I have always felt that I escaped the greater culpability that I deserved.

The house I live in now has a fireplace. Although we have lived here eight years, in only the last month or so have we tried to get a fire going. Jimmy and I crumple newspaper into the iron stand and loosely lay kindling on top of that. We add a piece or two of split wood. To the paper, we touch a lit match here and there. The paper burns quickly and dramatically, and we stare at it, waiting for the kindling to catch. It does, for a moment, and then fades, like a used-up birthday cake candle. The flames lick promisingly at the bark of the split wood, and then retreat. Within 10 or 15 minutes, the whole thing dies.

We sweep out the meager ashes, pull out the charred pieces, and try again. I go onto the web and read authoritative advice on how to start a fire in a fireplace. The other night, Jimmy whispered in my ear, “Squirt some lighter fluid on it,” and I grin, remembering how we attempted to burn a yew stump in our yard last summer, until Lydia, steadfast at 11, protested emotionally until I poured a couple of pails of water onto the smoldering wood. She was right, and I knew we were wrong. Still, I wanted to keep that fire going, and it was only my love for her that made me stop.

At the local Whole Foods market, you can buy something called a Java Log, which I guess is the organic equivalent of a Duraflame. Jimmy and I are able to get these things burning in our fireplace; we arrange one in the grill and light the paper wrapper where it says “Light here.” As you can see in the picture at the top of this post, as the paper starts burning, it curls away from the log, which is made from compressed coffee grounds. It’s black, and it burns evenly, but it does not make a cheery fire. That dark block is always there.

Lit matchIt strikes me that our shared inability to build a natural fire indoors might be the kind of affliction that a couple in a short story might struggle with. Jimmy and I are not characters, though; we’re just us, and, for now, we’ll stick with the coffee logs. If you know us, and you’re willing to come by and teach two novices how to build a proper fire (Rich?), we welcome you. I would still like, however, to be the one to light the match.

– Power tool

A few weeks ago, Eli came across instructions online for making his own messenger bag out of fused plastic bags. He e-mailed it to me and asked if we could make one. In the past few days, we did.

An absolute novice, he approached the sewing machine tentatively yet was open to advice and coaching. After his first few wandering seams, he got the hang of it. And eventually he got into it. From start to finish, we prepped, cut, sewed, and finished that bag together. I believe that Eli experienced the awe and sweetness of having one’s hands close to substantial mechanical power and guiding that force with purpose.

Eli guides fabric in the machine

If you know Eli and me, and you’d like to see highlights from our project, then click here for a slide show (and choose “Gallery View” for most pleasing size). If you’re a sewer, or if you enjoy reading accounts of do-it-yourself projects, then read beyond this paragraph for my description of how we adapted Bre Pettis’s directions to make Eli’s bag. At the very end, you’ll find a photo of the bag we made. Continue reading

– Master/Novice

Since writing the “Wide eyed” post on novices, I’ve been seeing references to newness everywhere.  (Is my unconscious attention looking for them?)

Shirin Neshat, a “visual artist who works primarily in video,” has produced a body of work — Passage (2001), for example — that has garnered prizes and earned permanent placement in the collections of the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the British Museum (Collins 86).  Although such a project has risks, she’s at work on her first film-length project, an adaptation of a novel by Iranian writer Shahmush Parsipur.  Neshat tells interviewer Lauren Collins that she felt “compelled to make Women Without Men“:

“It got to a point that it was a biennial here, a biennial there,” she said… “I started to get really tired of it. I needed a project that would let me be alone, let me be a beginner again.  I wanted to hide from the art world.  There was a danger that I would lose persepective–the integrity, honesty, and naïveté being washed away.” She pounded her fist against her palm to illustrate a wave eroding the shore. (90)

Historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun is about to turn 100.  His former student, Arthur Krystal, “first encountered” Barzun in 1970, when Krystal was 22 and a graduate student at Columbia where Barzun, then 62, was University Professor of History; in spite of many differences, the two “hit if off” (Krystal 100).  Remarking on Barzun’s reputation and many accomplishments, Krystal points out a quality in his now friend that differentiates his work, and his stance, from others’:

Barzun regards himself in many respects as an “amateur” (the Latin root, amator, means “lover”), someone who takes genuine pleasure in what he learns about.  More than any other historian of the past four generations, Barzun has stood for the seemingly contradictory ideas of scholarly rigor and unaffected enthusiasm. (94)

I see that my friend and colleague Jan Donley, a writer and teacher, has altered the title of her website’s page on teaching to call it “Learning.”  One of my favorite running conversations with Jan has been on the seeming contradiction of being inside and outside an experience at once.  We’ve talked, for example, about being present in a classroom moment while stepping outside it, so that one can deeply participate and get some perspective, simultaneously.  A kind of duality.  It’s hard, requiring a person to let go and remain steady at the same time.  Now I’m mulling over Jan’s suggestion that, to be a teacher (and a writer), one must be a learner, too.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had last Easter with my father, Stephen Kokernak, about students.  (He was a teacher, a more than good one, of high school math for almost four decades.)  I was venting to him and my sister Sally about how some of my freshman students were not stepping up to the plate: not doing the reading, not bringing the book or homework to class.  My father commiserated as a teacher, and also talked about his own habits in college.  Then he said (something like this): “You know, I think it wasn’t until I became teacher that I finally figured out how to be a student, when I had to learn how to learn.”

To be a master and a novice at once seems key for being a teacher, writer, filmmaker.  Does the inverse work?  To be a student — a learner — must there be opportunities for teaching?


Collins, Lauren.  “Voice of the Veil” (Shirin Neshat).  New Yorker, Oct. 22, 2007.  86-92.
Krystal, Arthur.  “Age of Reason” (Jacques Barzun).  New Yorker, Oct. 22, 2007. 94-103.

– Wide eyed

Girl raising hand, with enthusiasmAt a conference of developmental educators today, I learned something from one of the speakers. If a person is a novice — a student was given as the example — that person could be considered “unconsciously incompetent.” If a person is an expert — a professor was given as the example — that person could be considered “unconsciously competent.”

Not having heard this pairing of “unconscious” with variants of competence before, I looked them up in a web search. These phrases are used commonly, in more fields than higher education. (Laparoscopy is one.)

And while I do not want to be treated, should it ever come to that, by an inexperienced laparoscopist, I’ve always found it fun to be a novice, and to teach them. Not unconscious, not incompetent. More like conscious, and on our way to somewhere we haven’t yet reached.