February 2017


Double arch stone bridge

I spent the weekend with A (not her real initial) in Great Barrington: a weekend visit to last until summer, when traveling to see one another is easier. On Saturday, we did a great deal of walking–along the Keystone Arch Bridges trail in Chester in the morning, and along the trolley trail in Housatonic in the evening before dark. On Sunday we spent the day on more contemplative pursuits: writing, reading, and sipping tea over long conversations.

One of the things we talked about was ideation: A’s temperamental proclivity toward big ideas. It turns out that A and I see the world in different ways, or at least from different angles, and this might be the secret to our friendship: our personalities are complementary, not merely compatible.

Waterfall

A is sustained by ideas; she is a woman of concepts and cognition. I, on the other hand, am a person of experience and actions, preferring tangible things to thoughts. It’s not that I dislike ideas, but I need to come upon them indirectly: I need to sense a thing in order to conceptualize it. I am a person who lives and dies by William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things”: to understand an idea, I need to somehow touch it.

This is, perhaps, another way of saying I’m a modern-day Transcendentalist. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that every idea has its antecedent in nature, the natural world being a grand dictionary of symbols. For Emerson, human language is an abstraction rooted in nature: words are powerful only if they are tightly tied to the tangible phenomena that exemplify them.

We missed this clearly marked turn

Emersonian idealism tends to minimize nature, reducing the natural world to set of signs that exists primarily to satisfy humanity’s cognitive needs. But in my mind (and in, I’d argue, Thoreau’s), there is another sort of idealism that gives nature the ultimate primacy. The natural world can survive (and probably would be better off) without humans, but humans need the tangible stuff of nature to make intellectual sense of the world.

The Keystone Arch Bridges trail wends along the West Branch of the Westfield River, and the dirt road A and I followed was alternatively icy and muddy, a ridge of hard-pack snow sliced by muddy tire ruts. We had to pay close attention to the ground underfoot as we walked, at one point focusing so intently on our footfalls, we missed a clearly marked trail junction.

Waterfall

The mind is elusive, but the body undeniable. The best ideas, in my opinion, aren’t rooted in the fragile neurochemistry of the brain but in the muscular strength of the gut, the rising and falling diaphragm, and the perpetually beating heart. Or, as the character of Japhy Ryder said in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, “The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

A keystone arch bridge is as material as it gets, each block of stone weighty and substantial. The railroad bridges in Chester were constructed in the 1830s without the use of mortar. Marvels of engineering, keystone arches are pieced together so that the pull of gravity holds each stone in place, weight being distributed across the arch and down its legs. Locking this structure in place is the keystone at the arch’s apex: the last stone set is the one that holds everything together.

Double arch stone bridge

When you are hiking on treacherous trails, you have little time to think; with so many things to pay attention to, you have little energy for discursive thought. This is one of the things I like about hiking: whereas walking down a smooth, level path is an invitation to thought, the literal balancing act required when you walk a treacherous trail pulls you out of your head and back into your body. Hiking isn’t a spur to thinking, but an antidote to it.

Like Whitman, I’m not interested in ideas that “prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and flowing currents.” The mind is a creature that wanders into illusionary realms, but the body is a concrete thing that exists nowhere other than here and now, in the tactile world of water, rocks, and trees.

Waterfall

In The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith falters while hiking the Matterhorn because he fears the things that might happen: he might fall, he might get hurt, he might fail to make it to the top. Japhy, on the other hand, is as unselfconscious as a mountain goat, hopping from boulder to boulder without a thought of risk or danger.

“The secret of this kind of climbing,” said Japhy, “is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.”

Double arch stone bridge

This weekend, A and I took turns being Japhy, one of us staying stable and upright whenever the other wavered or wobbled. This is one of the benefits of befriending one’s complement: you have a buddy to back you up.

The dictum “No ideas but in things” is itself an idea, and any one of us alternates between ideation and action, these two modes working best when they move hand-in-hand. Ideas are the right foot; tangible objects the left. Step by step, each in turn, is how we move forward, whether slow and faltering or steady and sure.

Wall at Central Square

I recently started reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The main premise of the book is that many of the things people do to study or memorize things actually aren’t effective, and what does work is counter-intuitive.

Wall at Central Square

One of the things the book insists, for example, is that pure repetition doesn’t implant long-term memories. You might memorize something for a test by repeating it over and over, but you’ll quickly forget that information: a nugget of wisdom that matches pretty much every student’s experience with cramming.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, repeatedly re-reading a textbook or class notes won’t help you master the material because repetition lulls you into thinking you understand underlying concepts when actually you’re simply memorizing someone else’s explanation. Instead of memorizing material through blind repetition, you need to apply the material, either by re-stating concepts in your own words or using those concepts to solve a problem.

Wall at Central Square

The example Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel use at the beginning of the book involves aviation. You can memorize the parts and functions of a plane engine, but that knowledge won’t become real–it won’t be yours, something you’ve truly mastered–until you face a situation where you have to use that knowledge, either in a flight simulator or actual plane. If you can connect abstract concepts to your own life–something you’ve lived and care about–those concepts will “stick” longer than facts you’ve simply drilled into your head through repetition.

Wall at Central Square

The other insight I’ve gotten from the book so far is the importance of “interleaving”: the cognitive multitasking that happens when you study multiple subjects side-by-side rather than focusing your entire attention on one subject. I haven’t read far enough into the book to understand exactly why interleaving is so powerful, but I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of interval training. In my own experience, studying more than one subject allows you to take breaks by switching back and forth between topics, and it also allows you to draw novel connections among subjects. (As a professor, for example, I’m always happy to hear students connect something they’ve learned in another class to something we’re discussing in mine.)

Wall at Central Square

The concept of interleaving reminds me of the intricate clockwork desk naturalist John Muir built when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir loaded the desk with his various textbooks, and it would automatically open each of his books at pre-arranged intervals so he couldn’t spend too much time on any one subject. Although it might be a bit obsessive to design a desk that forces you to cycle through a set number of subjects, I often read more than one book at a time: when I grow tired of one book, I move to the next, and the connections and I make between the two keep me engaged longer than focusing on merely one.

Wall at Central Square

So, while I’m reading Make It Stick, I’m also reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is about a whole other kind of “sticking.” Sometimes you want to etch information indelibly into your brain, and other times, you want to disentangle yourself from habits that stick too tenaciously.

The only rule is work

Last year, a friend bought me a poster-sized copy of Sister Corita Kent’s rules for artists, which I promptly posted in my office at school. Although all of Sister Kent’s rules are helpful, my favorite is #7: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Wire panther

I don’t consider myself to be a naturally creative person: I don’t write fiction, for example, because I’m not good at dreaming up imaginary worlds. But I’m a naturally curious person, and I’m not afraid to work. A creature of habit, what I lack in creativity, I make up for in sheer stubbornness. Whether or not I have anything to say, I show up at my notebook, and once I set pen to paper, I fill pages out of obligation, having trained myself through long habit to follow Natalie Goldberg’s exhortation to “keep my hand moving.”

Two headed turtle

I suppose some people see creativity as being a delicate, fluttery thing, like a butterfly or hummingbird that flits and flirts according to whim and mood. My muse, on the other hand, is more like an old ox that no longer fights his yoke. Others might follow a muse that is as occasional and enlightening as a shooting star; I follow a muse that plods down predictable paths.

Wire rat

I don’t know what sort of muse visited Sister Corita Kent, but I know this much: I’ve been following the rule of work for years, and it’s the best way I know to create. Perhaps there are writers, artists, and other creatives who can show up only when they feel inspired, but I’m not one of them. My muse requires regular practice even when I don’t feel like writing, and the rule of work points to that truth.

Snowy day

I was in my office grading papers just over a week ago when news broke that billionaire campaign donor Betsy DeVos had been confirmed as Donald Trump’s education secretary. The news came as no surprise, as I knew Democrats didn’t have enough votes to block her confirmation, but it still felt like a punch in the gut: a reminder of how little Senate Republicans value public education and educators.

Framingham ram in snow

February in New England is a bleak time: a month of meteorologic mood swings, when it’s easy to give way to hopelessness. That particular Tuesday was a gray day, with a thick swirl of morning snowflakes tapering to drizzle by midday. It was a day to stay inside listening to plows clearing a shallow sludge of snow…unless, of course, you were one of the ones who skipped class to go into Boston for the Patriots’ victory parade, the ink-wash sky a perfect backdrop for confetti cannons, colorful signs, and cheering fans.

Snowy tables

I am the product of public elementary and secondary schools, and I went to a public college thanks to the generosity of my home state, the University of Toledo offering full scholarships to bright students who offered nothing in return but promise. With an education gained from twelve years in public elementary and secondary schools and four years in a public college, I was accepted into graduate school here in New England, paying my way with teaching assistantships and and a seemingly endless onslaught of adjunct teaching jobs. I was able to earn both a Masters and PhD because my public education got me into those (private) programs. Public schools opened the door, and hard work pulled me through.

Stairwell

All I have to show for the initial investment the state of Ohio put into my schooling is almost a quarter century spent teaching first-year college students, many of them (like me) the first in their families to go to college: each one, teach one. I haven’t leveraged my education to pursue fame or fortune: I can’t (unfortunately) buy Senators or befriend billionaires the way Betsy DeVos does. Instead, I’ve spent nearly 25 years teaching writing and critical thinking to students stretched thin as they juggle work and school, the costs at even public colleges skyrocketing even as the ranks of underpaid part-time college faculty has burgeoned.

It's true. Frederick Douglass is doing an amazing job. Big impact.

But what does Betsy DeVos know of any of this: DeVos, who has absolutely no public school experience? Yesterday I heard a radio story about the hidden problem of homelessness and food insecurity among students at Massachusetts public colleges: do you think DeVos has any understanding of that? When you decide to become an educator, you aren’t motivated by fame and fortune: there are no confetti cannons, signs, or screaming fans when Any Anonymous Teacher succeeds in teaching little Johnny how to read. (The humor of this skit comes, after all, from the very fact that teachers aren’t treated how professional athletes are.) You can tell a lot about a society’s priorities by paying attention to where it spends its cash, and by all indications we live in a world that values billionaires over children, so-called reality TV over genuine news, and self-centered celebrities over public servants.

Hibiscus

The other night J and I watched a home-shopping show selling enormous and eye-poppingly colorful hibiscuses, begonias, and day lilies. Neither one of us is a gardener: the only flowers in our yard are the ones planted by previous inhabitants that have survived an annual onslaught of hungry rabbits. But J and I happily watched a half-hour pitch for plants we’ll never buy because it’s February in New England, and we’ve lived here long enough to know that in February, you call upon your strongest coping strategies to get you through another long winter.

Hibiscus

This winter has been milder than most–before this week, we’d gotten more rain than snow–but that doesn’t matter. It’s still February–the year’s longest month–and this morning I called upon Winter Coping Strategy #2, which is to listen to uptempo dance music (preferably from somewhere warm) while doing morning chores. (This morning, it was salsa music; later in the month, when salsa grows stale and I need to call in the big guns, I’ll listen to bellydance.)

Hibiscus bud

In February, the days have begun to lengthen, but the ground is either covered in snow or salt-blanched and barren. In December and January , we were starved for light; in February, we’re starved for color. Long gone is the yellow light of summer: in February, even sunlight is gray and glaring. Soon enough, I’ll be browsing cute sandals online (Coping Strategy #3), planning a trip to the aquarium (Coping Strategy #4), or visiting a greenhouse and taking macro shots of flowers (Coping Strategy #5).

Purple

There are many ways to cope with long, cold winters. While other regions pin their seasonal hopes on prognosticating rodents, sports fans in New England look forward to Truck Day, when our thoughts and a truckload of baseball equipment head to Florida. While we wait for Red Sox pitchers and catchers to report to spring training tomorrow, I find myself once again lingering a bit too long by the supermarket florist, basking in the scent of cut flowers (Coping Strategy #6). If past years are indicative, it will be only a week or so until I’m snapping surreptitious photos in the produce aisle (Coping Strategy #7), craving a quick fix of color imported from Somewhere South, a place otherwise known as anywhere but here.

Today’s photos come from an October trip to Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which I’ve previously blogged. Winter Coping Strategy #1 is to take plenty of pictures during the golden days of summer and fall so you can look back upon (and blog) them when the days turn gray and grim.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of snow from winter storm Niko: not exceptional by New England standards, but the biggest storm of the season so far. Today was sunny, as is typical after big snowstorms: a perfect day for digging out.

Miss Bling in a blanket

Before J got started with roof-raking and snow-blowing, I had two tasks: clear my car and shake snow from the trees. Clearing my car was easy enough: the trick is to use a push-broom to brush the bulk of the snow, start the car and leave it running with the heat on, and then clear the windows, windshield, and mirrors with an ice scraper. Once you’ve cleared most of the snow, the sun will take care of the rest.

The snow-shaking is a more involved task. Our house is fringed with rhododendrons and evergreens, and these get weighed down after every snowfall. Although I like the look of tree limbs laden with snow, it’s not good for trees and shrubs to be bent double, so after I cleared my car, I circled our yard with my push-broom, shaking the snow from bent boughs.

Snowy backyard

The shrubs alongside the garage and driveway are easy to reach, especially with a long-handled broom, but the rhododendrons on the far side of our house are less accessible, growing as they do in the narrow strip of yard between our house and the neighbors’ hedges. Wintertime is the only time I squeeze into this space between our rhodies and their hedge, a messy tangle that feels a lot wilder than its location right alongside our house would suggest.

Today, the rhododendron leaves were curled lengthwise and frozen, hanging like brittle green cigars that rattled woodenly as I knocked the snow from their branches. Sometimes, when a bough is bent low to the ground with snow, it springs up with a swish when you liberate it. Other times when you shake an overhead limb, the snow showers down in a diamond-glitter burst. I’ve learned to turn my face and close my eyes before knocking the largest overhead boughs, but sometimes out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a hint of rainbow as the snow turns to diamond-dust then dissolves in midair.

Scheming

One of the benefits of being an English professor is the way my job forces me to read several books at once. Right now I’m re-reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for my American Short Story class, Toni Morrison’s Sula for my American Ethnic Literature class, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for my Introduction to College Writing class. This particular combination of books isn’t one I’d intentionally plan: instead, it’s a serendipity of semester scheduling.

Sinous

In addition to the books I read for work are the books I read for fun. This morning, for example, I finished reading Difficult Women, Roxane Gay’s new collection of short stories. Every difficult woman has a story of how life made her so, and this a collection of those stories. Gay describes women who make poor choices, but she also chronicles the cumulative cruelties that led to those choices. Gay is neither sappy nor sentimental: she never moralizes. Instead, she illuminates the dark, difficult roads that lead to human resilience.

Cocktail party

This morning, I realized an interesting overlap between Gay’s stories and Morrison’s novel. Sula is a difficult woman: even when Sula was a child, her own mother admitted she loved Sula but did not always like her. Both Toni Morrison and Roxane Gay realize difficult women aren’t born; they are made. Sula refuses to be owned by any man, and this gets her in trouble, repeatedly. The only person who understands Sula is her childhood friend, Nel, but even their relationship is not easy. When Nel marries and thus chooses a conventional life, her life is set at cross-purposes with Sula’s. Loyalty in love and loyalty in friendship don’t always coexist.

Genteel

Roxane Gay’s stories are full of twins and inseparable sisters, shared trauma bonding women together more strongly than blood. Toni Morrison’s Nel and Sula are such a pair: they are friends in part because they share one another’s secrets. Ultimately, both Morrison and Gay suggest a woman can be loyal only to herself, and this is a crime patriarchy can never forgive. Women can remain true to their sisters, friends, or even children, but men are infinitely replaceable.

Aristocratic

Mary Austin once said men can’t survive without women, but woman with a child will do perfectly fine. Both Morrison and Gay go one step further, suggesting that even a child isn’t necessary, difficult women having within themselves the resources to stand alone, resilient.

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