Skating, not skating, and learning to jump

Many times over the winter I almost quit figure skating.

I would go to a lesson and not practice.

I would practice and then push back an upcoming lesson.

I barely went to the rink hours for the MIT Figure Skating Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member last year and the year before.


In my head, I practiced quitting, crafting the excuse, and finding something new and safer to do, like tennis, which I played in high school.

I didn’t quit, although it seemed many times — when a week or even two weeks went by without skating — that I paused.

This was after a long year of being tired. Work seemed too hard, and it was tiring. I was always pushing myself to get it done in the time expected to meet important deadlines and not to let anything drop. I had pushed myself skating, taking the test and failing it. I joined the group fitness challenge at work, and for 12 weeks in a row I met the incrementally increasing time goals. The first week it was 150 minutes. By the end of 12 weeks, we were expected to be exercising and logging 300 minutes a week. A few of those weeks, I went beyond, and exercised almost 500 minutes.

I was proud. I was tired. I felt as if I stopped I would lose ground.

During my summer vacation from teaching last year I worked as a grant writer for a nonprofit organization. I really liked the work and was successful at it. However, my life had little free time. I longed to sit on the couch and do nothing. I longed for an absence. My friend Jessie looks at this as a presence and calls it “rest.” I couldn’t. (I mean, I dreamed of rest, but the list of stuff to do called more loudly than the couch did.)

Last summer, I also took weekly skating lessons, but there was not enough time to practice in between. Yeah, I felt bad. Bad student. Not doing enough homework. But I kept going, half keeping skating alive.

I made no progress. It was like a review, remedial, over and over and over. The teacher was very nice and smart, yet I felt discouraged. I had hit the brick wall of my own ability. There is the reckoning that comes when you realize, and only adults over 40 can realize this, that it is not all onward and upward. There are limits. There may be back falls. There are ends. Continue reading

Necessary, and ultimately unnecessary, distractions

About 10 years ago, in the weeks leading up to teaching my first writing class ever, I fretted excessively about what shoes I would wear on my first day in the classroom.

I was almost 38 years old, and really I had not ever before obsessed about shoes. But fretting about shoes, in this case, helped me work through a lot of anticipatory fears about my public role in the classroom. I wanted those shoes to be comfortable but not dowdy, fashionable but not eye-catching. I was getting ready for students to stare at me, but not at my feet.

The shoes I wore that first day — in a classroom at Wheelock College that looked over the Riverway — I have forgotten, and I have never thought again about what shoes I would wear in the classroom. That doesn’t mean the shoe distraction was frivolous; it focused my attention and fears on something concrete and manageable that I had control over. And then I got beyond shoes.

In the past couple of months, I have been preparing for my first ever figure skating skills test. (Read about the story and the outcome here: link.) In the lead-up to the actual date, I tried to learn about and think through everything. The social situation itself would be entirely new to me, even newer than being at the front of a classroom. I had never watched anyone else take a skating test, and surely, as a student, I watched teachers teach hundreds of times.

Skating outfits_550_cool

For a while I obsessed about what I would wear. It had to be more than fleece pants and a fleece jacket, which are the skating equivalent of a sweatsuit. But it didn’t have to be as much as a costume, with rhinestones, bright colors, and a theme. I scrolled through the offerings of online retail stores. I looked at skaters’ blogs for advice on what to wear. I ordered three skating dresses (one fit), a skating skirt (nice), and skating tights.

I had options. I didn’t wear any of them.

Two days before the test, my coach reminded me that the test situation would feel new and unfamiliar enough that a new and unfamiliar outfit might not be a confidence builder. He suggested skating pants, a nice sweater, low-key gloves. I went with his advice.

That morning, as I watched the other skaters who tested on the same day, some wearing skirts, I reflected on my outfit purchases that turned out to be unnecessary. But then I thought, maybe they were. Maybe the buying and trying on a skating dress was akin to trying on the identity of “skater.” Maybe the hours of online browsing was a way of wrapping my arms around a really big, overwhelming task. I didn’t know if I could nail the skating, but I do know I can choose and buy clothes online.

I made it through my first skating test ever: link. Next time, I’m wearing the skirt.

When it comes to resolutions, I’m dreaming big and vague

In my New Year’s resolutions, I am taking my cue from MIT friend/colleague Jessie, who frames hers this way:

I try to look at what I have wanted, but allowed myself to be distracted from; what I have enjoyed, but not prioritized; what I need, but haven’t chosen.

I’m good on tasks and short-term goals, and I get them done. In the next few days I want to finish a full draft of a project I’m collaborating on, and I will do it. In the next three months I am taking a skating test (February 3rd) and going to AWP in Boston (March 6 – 9), and I will be ready for them. I have formulated a plan for getting the tasks done that help meet the goals.

Resolutions_550But thinking and dreaming aspirationally? Perhaps I could dream bigger, and less specifically, for my resolutions. I know I can get stuff done — can I focus, enjoy, and get what I need?

In that spirit, here are my three resolutions for 2013.

Continue reading

Fragments of a fall

It culminated in glory.


Yesterday Grace and I strung the magnolia and arbor in the front yard with solar LED lights and some glitter balls and gold pine cones we bought last year. Fingers are crossed on the lights charging up today for a show tonight.

The glory, though, is the big final event for one of my favorite classes to work on at MIT, in mechanical engineering: 2.009 Product Engineering Processes. The name of the class might not arouse excitement — it could even evoke an image of a conveyor belt, which the word “processes” always does for me — but the experience of the class, students, and creativity does. Over the term, teams of 16+ students brainstorm, model, test, and prototype an innovative product. This year’s theme was “outdoors.” My two teams, Red and Silver, respectively developed a portable cookpot for campers heated by an exothermic chemical reaction (no flame!) and an innovative hand truck with treads to improve the ergonomics of delivering filled beer kegs from a parked truck to the basement storage areas of bars and restaurants.

If you are curious, you can watch the final presentations for Red’s Heatware and Silver’s Clydesdale by going to the course website (link) and clicking the links in the upper right corner.

Students don’t write formal reports in this class, although there are other writing tasks that I and other communication instructors can advise them on, such as surveys of potential customers and text for a product brochure. There are diverse presentations at milestone reviews that punctuate the development process, and we coach them on those. We also are members of the team, along with lab instructors, and that’s the best part — attending weekly meetings, lurking in the lab as they design and machine parts, and asking the kinds of questions that gets young people to think more critically about their original work. It’s socially rewarding too.

Red Team, Final Presentations, 12/10/2012 -- you didn't know MIT students were adorable, did you?

Red Team, 12/10/2012 — you didn’t know MIT students were this adorable, did you?

And the conclusion is like the last day of summer camp, or (as adults) the week-long writing or arts conference that you loved, and filled to the brim with every emotion: fatigue, worry, friendship, achievement, and anticipated loss. There is relief, but we do miss each other when it ends.

Way back in September, I had tried to schedule my semester to lighten my load for the final two or three weeks so I could give 100% to the product design class. I even jiggered the deadline for a final proposal in another class so that I could read them all before Thanksgiving. (I thought this would be good for the students, too.) That made November packed. Here’s an image of my at-home Homework Center, working alongside Lydia and Grace at the dining room table. It was a grind, but at least we were together.


The autumn wasn’t all schoolwork. There was Thanksgiving at my sister Sally’s house with everyone. There was a wonderful, compressed trip to Orlando for a so-so conference and a few vacation days tacked on, which included a day at the Magic Kingdom and a day with the manatees in Crystal River (link). There was the cool fall day I replaced the rotted pieces on our kitchen porch, having gotten advice and help from the mechanical engineering lab director. Very satisfying labor and accomplishment.


And there were of course high points and engaged students in my other three classes, in biology, nuclear science engineering, and measurement and instrumentation for mechanical engineers.

Some things didn’t get done. There has been very little blogging or writing of any kind that wasn’t a review of student work. I made my peace with that as I was fixing and painting the porch over Thanksgiving weekend, and I realized that, to really do well at a task that is important to me, my motivation cannot be split across different ones. It only creates frustration, and not the productive kind, to be doing one thing and wishing you were actually doing another thing. I did think about writing — I wasn’t all “in the moment” — but it was without that inner torture of feeling as though time was slipping away. I said to myself, “I will come back to it.”

This happened also with skating. Some weeks I practiced only one time. Still, the lessons and progress continue. I recently signed up for a USFSA skills test on February 3rd, and I plan to skate at least three times per week over my winter break to get ready for it. I want there to be meaningful goals without anxiety or self abuse.

Recently, my friend Betsy and I were talking about our lives at midpoint, and what we have learned. We agreed that there is a kind of liberation to letting go the could-have-beens and to narrowing our focus on the parts of life most important to us. We recognize the limits within and without, and we see the tremendous space inside them, especially when the could-have-beens are carved away. I am parent and teacher first — maybe at my core I am a nurturer and steward of children and young people — and other strong interests often seem fitted to those or impossible without them. For example, three writing projects that are simmering on a back burner have something to do with children and the contraries of raising them. Central to my marriage to Jimmy is our shared devotion to, as well as shared burden of, parenting. (Interesting how devotion and burden are often intertwined.)

A couple of days after the December 10th final presentations for 2.009, that wonderful product design class, I went to its farewell dinner and talked to many students and staff. One student asked me if I had observed that the course professor had seemed choked up a bit when he was on stage during the students’ tribute to him, and if I had any thoughts why that might be. I couldn’t speak for the professor, but I did speak for myself and explained that, if you really love teaching, as I do, at some point during that night in particular there may be a moment when you think to yourself, “I have the best job on earth.” You see young people at their best, after weeks and weeks and weeks of work at times creative and at times tedious, and you feel great hope for the world. To be part of something greater than one’s self — so great it may even obscure one’s individual contribution — is transcendent. Tears leak out.

On December 15, Lydia hosted an outdoor skating party for about 100 students from the high school. Back in October I put the deposit down on my credit card and signed the liability paperwork, and she advertised it via Facebook, collected money from kids, and made the playlist. We bought a sheet cake. Jimmy and I were the only designated chaperones, although a couple of teachers came, too, and Eli and Grace also came along, and so did my brother-in-law and niece. I skated, of course, and secretly desired to act out my someday fantasy of being an ice rink guard. Lydia had cautioned me to be almost invisible and not to say anything. I bit my tongue therefore and resisted the temptation to give unsolicited tips to the absolute beginners.

It was not my night. It was theirs.

skaters, Brookline, Dec 15

skaters, Brookline, Dec 15

the three mighty Gutermans, Dec 15

the three mighty Gutermans, Dec 15

And now I’m back.

Credit for Red Team photo goes to 2.009 Red Team, Fall ’12, courtesy of Brigitte Morales.

States of matter, a dream

In Colson Whitehead’s “Rules for Writers,” number five is “Keep a dream diary.”

Sometimes, if I am awakened by a dream, I turn on the light near the bed and grab a scrap piece of paper — usually one of those blow-in cards from a magazine I’m reading — and a pencil, and I write it down.

Last night I had a dream that my skating teacher and his wife had a baby, and they wanted me to take care of it. So, I took that newborn swimming, and it swam.

The dream is still vivid, especially the baby and the YMCA-like pool.

Ice, water. (What’s next, an evaporation dream?) What does it mean?

The pitfalls of self-selection

soldiers affixed to wall, MIT's Infinite Corridor, 12.14.2011

This morning I went to the free lessons provided to members of the MIT Figure Skating Club, which I joined this year. The teaching is professional and attentive, and groups are small. Weekly attendance varies, though, and there is sub-par continuity.

Today Esther, the club founder, announced the start of lessons at 9:30am, and she directed absolute beginners to one teacher, beginners to another, the “somewhere between beginners and intermediate” to two teachers working together, and the intermediate to the fifth teacher. I swizzled over to the group with a lot of room for in between, where I consider myself.

The two teachers for that group, Susan and Alex, suggest we divide into two sub-groups: “If you can do the backwards crossovers well, skate with Susan. If you’re still working on them, skate with Alex.” I skated over to Alex’s circle. We warmed up by practicing forward moves around our circle.

At Alex’s signal, we switched to backwards crossovers. I practiced haltingly, stopped to watch the others, practiced some more, and watched some more. I looked over occasionally to Susan’s circle, too, to watch their attempts. (Often I can learn as much from my slightly better peers as I do from the instructor.)

Here’s one thing I noticed: every single skater, but for two in Alex’s group, was struggling with the crossovers in some way. The self-selection into groups, therefore, was according to a criterion that could be too loosely interpreted (if you can do moves “well” versus “still working on them”). Except for the two skaters who had (wrongly) sorted themselves into Alex’s group and who could do the backwards crossovers very well, we were all still learning, practicing, working.

Nothing bad came of this. We all got excellent instruction, including 1:1 coaching, and plenty of practice time. Still, perhaps the self-sorting could have gone better if Susan had said, “Skate with me if you can do the backwards crossovers in a fluid motion and are now working on the second push; skate with Alex if you haven’t gotten to the second push yet.”

This is recreational skating, so there is little at stake. However, think about how this happens in other educational contexts or at work. People are asked to volunteer if they are (self) perceived as “good” at something. “If you can draw, sign up for the graphic design committee,” or “If you have leadership experience, we need some committee heads,” or “If you’ve finished the homework, come work with your classmates who haven’t.” In every case, it’s possible that some not-very-qualified people who overestimate their own ability will end up in a high stakes position in which they’ll flounder. It’s also true that some very-qualified-yet-humble people will not volunteer for a role in which they could make a huge contribution to the group.

Last semester, for example, in one of the classes I teach in with students organized into project teams, I said to a student whose work I had seen, “We need you for the presentation slides. You have a sharp eye and a real sense of visual design.”

“Me?” she balked. “Oh, I just learned this stuff in a class last year.”

“Yeah, but it’s good.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she continued to protest.

Another student chimed in: “I’m good at graphic design. I’ll do it.”

The team elected the second student, who chimed in with great self-assurance, to design their presentation. It turned out fine; it was workmanlike. But did it pop? No.

This is an age-old problem: the egotistical will typically overestimate their abilities and the modest will underestimate (or under represent) them. As teachers or administrators, though, we must come up with more precise language and criteria to improve self-selection. We could also ask for examples and demonstrated skills.

more toy soldiers on wall, MIT's Infinite Corridor, 12.14.2011

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.

Notes, notes everywhere!

I have a notebook for work (6 x 9″ purple wire bound).

I have a notebook for ideas (small black lined Moleskine).

I start new notebooks for research on special projects (Field Notes).

Last April, when my mother gave me this blank beauty for my birthday, I wasn’t immediately sure how I would put it to use.

It has become my skating notebook (Jane Austen, skating — of course!): where I keep track of moves, lessons, dates skated, challenges observed, and stuff to practice. Little drawings help.

And although I don’t carry it in my pocket, it’s in my bag. When skating, I make mental notes and try to sit down immediately after to put them on paper.

Do I use it? Yes — the next time I go to the rink, I open it and look at the most recent entry, and this helps me be deliberate about what I want to do with my hour or two of ice time.

Now that classes are over, and I have more free time in the week, I plan to skate more. I wrote a resolution on a page: “practice 5x week.” I’ll keep track of that.

There’s something about writing it down, even more than saying it out loud, that enables the organization that is so necessary to commitment and follow through.