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29 March 2015

HOW WE LEARN

Because I recall seeing them at Century 21, the Seattle World's Fair in 1962 (I was nine) and because of a friend from the University of Washington, I tell students about the Harlow experiments.* Behavioral psychology was the big thing when I was in college ten years later. From the fair, I remember the monkey clinging to a fur-covered pseudo-parent in the Science Center, but the experiment I talk about is not among those I saw. (I remember the poor motherless monkeys and chicks following a globe and chickens tapping for food but not rats tapping for food.) 

That's because what I remember is usually called a Skinner box. B.F. Skinner was the scientist I would later study in college. He wrote a utopian novel that I read in my first term and he worked extensively with rats. He was interested in psychology as a science, in behavior not motivation, in things that could be measured and counted rather than what is felt or otherwise perceived emotionally. 

Operant conditioning.

Two rats in a cage with two buttons on one end of the cage that light up when tapped. One button delivers food and one delivers a mild electric shock. One rat pokes at the wrong button, receives a shock, squeals, and runs to the other end of the cage. The other rat is also alarmed, perhaps, but eventually hunger drives both rats to the side of the cage with the buttons and by process of elimination they each figure out which button provides dinner. The thing is, each rat has to learn on its own. A rat does not learn from the mistakes of its cage-mate. 

That's what I was taught. I think it's true. I was also taught that sharks cannot learn at all. They bite what might be food to find out if it's edible. They don't consider a person on a surfboard particularly edible so they swim away, but that doesn't mean they won't bite the next surfer they swim upon. 

So here's the lesson: We are smarter than rats and a lot smarter than sharks. We can learn. We learn from our own experiences and we can learn from the mistakes as well as the triumphs of others. 

Seriously. Think about that. You touch something, snap back your hand and scream Ouch! and I know not to touch it myself. 


Humans are very smart animals. We also learn from stories, not just from first-hand observations. And that, my friends, is why stories are part of our heritage as human beings. We tell stories. We have probably told stories for as long as we have been human. The cave paintings that are up to 40,000 years old might be mostly made by women, act as some sort of magic incantation, provide a record of hunts, or something else entirely. We do not really know, but they are surely evidence of story. The earliest texts, not counting the laundry list stuff we depend on to help translate even older stuff, the important texts that predate written words, are stories. The old stories are rich with magic and the supernatural, and most of us in the west do not believe most of them. We call the "myths" and assume they aren't real and that people were fools to have every believed them. 

Invention. We think they are less important because someone made them up. Not so fast.

Recent neurological research suggests that even when we know a story is invented—pure fiction—we learn from it. For example, those old fables of Aesop taught lessons. They were not mere entertainment, and the people—children and adults—who heard the story about the boy who cried wolf, learned the lesson about lying that the boy in the story could not have learned since he was eaten by the wolf and wasn't real. The listener learned the lesson, not the subject of the story. (Much of the ancient wisdom texts work this way—the people in the story are not intended to leaner a lesson, the audience is.)

We tell stories, and when the stories are believed, even for the space of listening through willing suspension of disbelief—yes, we believe them—we agree to pretend the fiction is real. Think about it: every time we watch a movie and gasp or laugh or react to the actors on screen, think about all we accept as "real" while we are watching: giant flat screen, actors, invented story. We learn from those fictional experiences in books too. That has been demonstrated. Read a cautionary tale about a potential danger and we become more alert to that danger. We behave as if we'd actually burned our own hand on the stove. We don't touch it till we are certain it is cool. 

We do not have to experience something to recognize that it is useful, good, dangerous, or painful. We can see it happen to someone else. We can read about it. 

We can witness. 

We are not rats in a Skinner box with two levers to choose from. We have many choices. When we choose a movie or a comic or a television show or a book, consider what we are choosing to witness. It's more than entertainment. It becomes part of our life experience. It becomes a part of our reality. Choose to witness what we will—horror or drama, comedy or romance. We are learning all the while whether we admit this to ourselves or not. 


"What came first—the music or the misery?" John Cusack's character Rob asks in the opening scene of the film version of Nick Hornby's novel, High Fidelity. “Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?” My husband and I love this film and I loved the novel, but the more I think about it, the more uneasy I am about the truth of this story, and of Hornby's opening question. It makes sense to me that watching too much terrible stuff thrusts that ugliness into our deepest understanding, that maybe we learn something we might not want to learn.

We are smart animals. Maybe we should consider choosing entertainment more carefully because it impacts our reality. Fiction is real. In our very smart brains, the story is real whether someone made it up or we told it ourselves based on "real events."


*The Harlow experiments were ended in 1985 because they were judged cruel. You might not want to look them up. 

26 March 2015

ON BEING A POET

April first is coming up fast and I have not decided whether I will again write a poem each day for National Poetry Month. I have done this several times in the past, and I have posted many poetry prompts for others to use in their own writing. Some I collected and others I created. 

The truth is that I have a love-fear relationship with poetry. I ascribe to the chocolate pots de creme definition of poetry. I think it is the most dense and intense experience to swallow poems, or to create them. Yet few poets impress me consistently. I think it is asking too much to expect that a writer will come up with dozens of excellent poems to fill a book. Few novelists can write dozens of excellent novels. Can anyone do this? Dozens of novels? Stories perhaps.

I believe a great poem requires the same time and attention, the same wisdom and art that is required by a novel. 

And yet, I do try to write them. Some years I write thirty in April and more in winter and spring terms with students. I have published poems, but as often as not my work has been selected by journal editors who know little more than I do about poetry. And I do not know enough. 

I read poetry. I can even read entire chapbooks, though I could not have said that ten years ago. For many years I could read a three-hundred-page novel in a few days but never get all the way through a chapbook of forty poems. Truly. There are volumes of poetry that I have read cover to cover only by sneaking myself into them and reading a poem at a time over a period of years. Even now, I cannot say for certain which I have actually read cover to cover. I probably missed one here and there. It might even be the most important one that I miss.  

In the second term, B term, of Junior English I teach poetry. I usually begin with "San Onofre, California" by Carolyn Forché from The Country Between Us, dictating it one line at a time and then reading it back in order to show how, line by line, her use of enjambment creates new meaning. Here are three lines from the poem:

     …

     hear them. If that happened, we would
     lead our lives with our hands
     tied together. That is why we feel

     …


Read the sentence, "If that happened, we would lead our lives with our hands tied together." Then consider what she does line by line. Read the first line three times:  "hear them. If that happened, we would hear them. If that happened, we would hear them." Try the same trick with the third line above. Consider the image created within the middle line of leading with our hands, and then consider that the end of the sentence on the next line completely changes that image from outstretched hands to bondage. She is writing about political disappearances, about innocence and willful blindness. Writer Sandra Dorr taught me this.

We usually watch the first episode of Bill Moyer's poetry series The Language of Life, "Welcome to the Mainland." I cannot get enough of Naomi Shihad Nye and Sekou Sundiata. Didgeridoo and brooms. I met Naomi at The Flight of the Mind in the 90s and she completely blew me away. Sundiata works on the page as well as on the stage.  


My students and I try five ways of looking at something after Wallace Stevens and consider what the poet understands about haiku that our third grade teacher never told us. We write a dozen 20-minute poem exercises from The Poet's Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. We search for the rules in form poems and then write one of our own. We write bad drafts because in the tiny amounts of time we have in class, we cannot write finished poems, only promises. We choose one terrible draft and revise and revise. My students rarely like this process of revision, but I do. Sometimes the revised poems are strong and wonder-filled both for writer and reader.

All my favorite and genuinely crazy revision strategies for poems—syllables and rhythm, line and stanza lengths, rewriting as prose and altering POV and adding metaphor and shifting form—are used by other poets. I have written hundreds of poems and some have evolved the way my stories and even novels have—over years and approaching decades of revision. 

I have published poems. 

But I do not call myself a poet. Once in a great while I am moved to poetry, but I do not and probably never will know what I'm doing. The more I write, the less I know, and despite hours and days and even years, I am a careless student of poems. I shift verb tense and fail to usefully note and exploit rhyme and meter when I write and I do not always notice in time to save them. I am too prosy or too vague. I rely on too much foreknowledge in my reader or not enough. I am occasionally a good editor, an ill-informed critic, a passionate reader of poems. I cannot know about myself as a poet. 

Leakey is a cat and knows who she is and how to be what she is. 

I am not a poet. I do not know what I am. I write. 

24 March 2015

I ALWAYS KNEW

"I always knew I would be a writer," they say. I have read this in memoirs and essays, heard it at readings, found these words on the pages of literary journals and mainstream magazines interviewing famous writers. The writers I admire all seemed to know they were cut out for the writing life at the moment they began reading.

That is not my story. I became a writer, began thinking of writing as my creativity of choice, late in life. I had been hired as an English teacher in the rural public school district where I had been substitute teaching for over a decade while my children were small. I was hired without a teaching certificate in English. In fact, when the English department Chair encouraged me to apply for the job, I was quick to assure her that I was unqualified.

“I have only twenty credits in English,” I said. “I’m an art teacher.”

And that is true. I had three degrees in art at that time, two studio degrees and a degree in k-12 art education. (I had taught art at a private girls' school. I was not better substitute teaching English than I was at Algebra, though to be fair to myself, I was good at Algebra.)

It is also true that I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I decided this before I was six and drew the long-necked creature to represent the letter D in first grade.

“What is this that you have drawn?” my first grade teacher asked. She smiled, tipping her head, puzzled.

“It’s a diraff,” I said.

Even now I have no ear for languages, names escape me, I am not a naturally competent speller.

I am a reader. I am devoted to books and have been since childhood.

And that was Laura Robnett’s response when I told her I wasn’t qualified to teach English: “You are better read than I am.”

This is also likely true. I have read more than almost everyone I know. By my estimate I have read at least fifty books a year since I was five. That means I have read at least three thousand books, and probably many more than that. Many of them were wonderful. (I can not win a readers' pissing-match with my MFA thesis advisor David Long, but I can make a respectable showing.)

In 1990, I was hired by Seaside High School to teach junior English and advise yearbook, a halftime position that allowed me time with my young sons. My hiring was conditional on passing the NTE subject exam in English. I had recently taken the subject exam in Social Studies and passed. More than fifteen years after taking my fourth college English class, I would pass the English subject exam in the 84th percentile. I would take my first fiction writing class from Sandra Dorr the summer before I began to teach writing myself.

All the years from kindergarten to young motherhood I had been writing, of course, but the only fiction I wrote in all those years was in seventh grade. We had just read Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Newberry winner in 1944), and I was assigned to write a fictional account of an historical event. I remember Johnny’s burned thumb healing into his hand and that my own story was about Marie Antoinette’s travel from prison to executioner’s block.

What I most enjoyed was not writing fiction. I most enjoyed Art. I enjoyed drawing horses and sculpting them from clay. My friend Ann Dawson drew better than I, but I was determined. I would be an artist when I grew up. By junior high school, I made a hawk from clay, made a mould and cast the hawk in wax, invested the wax and went to a foundry to cast it in bronze. Perhaps it was Johnny Tremain’s foundry accident that made this experience more frightening and less wonderful than it should have been. My hawk is not a great sculpture, and it shows evidence of laziness—I did not push it far enough as an artist. I knew that even when I created it. I was thirteen.

In high school I made a 20-minute film, cast many more ugly sculptures, drew house plans, painted with oils, created a dozen glazes, learned to forge and solder sterling, dug clay from a hillside, and built an electric kiln. I had a lot of help doing each of those things, but yes, I did them. I also read Rousseau and Plato and Machiavelli and Locke and wrote dozens of essays and lengthy research papers about communism and the causes of the Civil War and Andrew Carnegie, all in Social Studies classes. Darlene Sherrick introduced me to philosophy and flying buttresses and James May introduced me to humanity and social action. I thought about justice and philosophy and how people throughout the world choose to worship God. I considered righteousness and read everything I could find on insanity.

I read many books in high school: nonfiction and mystery novels and rewritten versions of classic myths, works of biography and science and art. I knew junk from literature, and I knew great art from Hallmark greeting cards. I thought about studying psychiatry or psychology or sociology or architecture. When I got to the University of Washington, I majored in art. I considered Botany and law school, but stayed to complete three degrees in art.


While in college I was invited to participate in museum shows, juried into others, and began accepting commissions. 

I set all this aside for children, promising myself I would return to school for an MFA when my sons were older.

And then twenty-five years ago I was hired to teach English, which today means teaching the essay and reading nonfiction and novels and many other things. There have been things I deliberately taught that had nothing to do with English as a subject, things that can’t be tested or scored on the page. I have told stories about friends who made terrible mistakes in their lives and didn’t die from them, and those who did die. I have told stories about my sons and my husband and my mother and others I love. I have come home from ten hours at school and sat down at my computer to answer email and phone calls. Sometimes I carved time to write fiction. I have written hundreds of posts on my blog and dozens of short stories and many poems, most of them quite bad. I wrote the papers and completed the projects assigned to my students. I went to summer school and commuted to Portland for graduate work. In 2007, I completed a Masters in Fine Arts, but not in metal or ceramic sculpture as I once planned. I wrote fiction.

In the past twenty-five years I have scored thousands of quizzes and exams and pushed students to excel beyond their endurance. I have written curriculum and rewritten it. I have written a few hundred letters of recommendation, and I have talked to thousands of students. They have told me their secrets and confided their fears. And I have listened and advised and sometimes cried with them and held them before turning back to the work of teaching English. I have devised whole units of study based on my determination to force students to understand they are more than the cloth pressed down under society’s hot iron.

They have choices.

So have I, and I have been lucky in my choices and most fortunate in the choices I have been offered.

I never intended to be a high school English teacher when I grew up, but that is who I became.


22 March 2015

'YA WANNA LOOK SHARP, DONCHA?'

Yesterday Gary and I went to Portland, intending to return some tile we'd checked out, eat lunch, hit a grocery store, and then head home. Our younger son called. He sounded tired and so we stopped by to see him. Ruby came to the entry and then hung back a few feet, eying Gary. I cut his hair a couple of weeks ago and she hadn't seen it. 

"That's an interesting haircut you have Granpa," our three year old granddaughter said before grabbing his had to show him "something interesting." Interesting seems to be the word of the moment.


It was about fifty years ago and Gary's hair was in the style of the Beatles, though perhaps a bit shorter. He had round gold glasses. His style, in fact, was not so different from today. It would be a few years later that his hair would first trail down his back. Women crossed the street in the U District to touch his hair when it got past his shoulders. The girl in the kissing booth at the first University Street Fair offered him a freebie and put her fingers deep into his gold.

In high school, Gary's hair just touched his collar in the back, and that was enough to get him called into the principal's office and the vice principal's office and his counselor's office. His counselor had a flat top like George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, and a shirt and tie. His jacket hung across the back of his chair and, for my future husband's own good, this counselor alerted Gary to the dangerous direction he was headed, "Ya' wanna look sharp, doncha'?" My husband can still hear the words as if he was standing in that office today. Men wore ties and suits or sport coats to school back then. There were standards. Pregnant girls, married couples, people not on track to graduate, and anyone arrested was expelled. Gary's hair was a warning sign of future disaster. 

A few years later in my senior year at the same high school, the Student Body President wore his hair just like Gary's and he also wore round glasses, but he committed suicide in college. My class President, Captain of the football team, wore his blond hair only slightly shorter and dropped out of Stanford to "be a dumb painter." He's a full professor at a large Texas university and a successful artist. 

My brother's Spanish teacher held up a bank. My Chemistry teacher's wife left him and he shot himself in the head. They both had dressed properly every day. 

Sometimes it's hard to tell.  

Gary's hair was a little long for the day and he later wore shirts patterned in paisley and tiny flowers. (I won't let him give those shirts away.) He hung with the garage band crowd, though he mostly played solo. There was a lot of dangerous stuff going those days. Athletes got drunk every weekend and girls got pregnant and disappeared and people dropped acid and smoked pot. But Gary did not smoke or drink or use drugs or curse or "get" anyone pregnant. He had begun walking north to Edmonds to attend the Unitarian church, but he held on to a good Baptist kid's knowledge of the New Testament and his mother's kindness toward strangers. 

Every Saturday we took the bus downtown and had lunch at the Public Market (the "Pubic Margaret") and then walked down First Avenue to the pawn shops to look at guitars. (He can tell you who is playing that song and on what album and probably the guitar being played for most 60s rock.) First Avenue was also home to panhandlers. Seattle is the source of the expression "skid row" that derives from skidding logs back in the day, and we worked our way all south to skid row. Men frequently came up to us and Gary readily emptied his pockets of spare change, but more important, he listened and many homeless men told him their lives. Every Saturday some man would pour out his life story to my husband's patient ear. 

That's the man I married. 

It isn't his birthday or our anniversary today. Gary dragged me out for a walk before the sun came up, as he would do every morning if he could. He likes to be first on the sand. 


20 March 2015

VACATION

A Song Dynasty Chinese junk from a 13th century painting. This picture shows the typical rectangular sails, the stern-mounted rudder, and large rectangular-shaped construction from bow to stern of the Chinese junk.
Yesterday was our last Study Lab before Spring Break. Several students were gone for one extracurricular or another, so we were a tiny group of seven once Joseph and three others left to work in other rooms with other teachers and on other subjects. 

One student who remained worked on a History assignment: create a metaphor for America in thirty words or less. 

Melting pot comes to mind, but we pretty much gave up that metaphor for our society when people began pointing out in a way that everyone had to hear that they did not want to melt. They wanted their own identity to remain while also being part of . . . well, what? 

Anyway, the student needed something original. 

The stew of many flavors? A tapestry of colorful threads? The garden of native and exotic plants, weeds and topiaries, flowers and fruiting trees?

Or how about this: We are a nation like the junk drawer in my kitchen. Everything in my junk drawer was useful once, used to some purpose—half-empty boxes of envelopes in two sizes, rubber bands, different colored pens, a few colored pencils, a child-thick graphite pencil from a holiday hotel, scrap paper with and without business logos, a local phonebook with the map torn out and the numbers of friends written on the cover, paper clips, duct tape with Batman's logo from a Christmas stocking, clear packing tape, extra staples but no stapler, and several things I forgot I put there. 

We are a mess of people with different ideologies and priorities, not to mention diverse families, health issues, birthplaces, and languages. We worry about similar and entirely different things like money and faith and the meaning of life, the purpose of our own lives. 

When I dig in the drawer, sometimes it's for something I think is there and I know I need. Other times as I rummage in the drawer and recognize that I had been looking for that business card, or I forgot I had any rubber bands big enough to wrap around my head, I think: Wow! Sometimes I find what I did not know I needed. 

Like a break.

19 March 2015

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

"The Cholmondeley 'sisters' and their swaddled babies." c.1600-1610
A recent post on The New York Times blog, "One Twin Exercises, the Other Doesn't," reviews a Finnish study attempting to prove that exercise results in long term health. It is illustrated with a photo showing two arms, one strong, the other enhanced with, at the least, significant body building.

There is wide spread belief that exercising throughout life is healthy. 

The challenge is that there isn't direct proof. Scientists went looking for identical twins who developed different exercise habits as they aged to see if this resulted in different overall health. Using identical twins controls two key variables since identical twins raised together would have identical DNA and similar backgrounds. The trouble was that most identical twins do not develop different habits as they age. They tend to eat and exercise at about the same levels throughout their life. 

Eventually ten pairs of identical twins with differing exercise habits as adult were found in a long-standing Finnish study, the preexisting FinnTwin16 database.

My habitual skepticism kicked in immediately. It was a form of entertainment in my childhood to look for the catch in advertising. Here's an ad I still recall: "Two tablets taken with a glass of water may relieve headache in as little as fifteen minutes." There is that telling "may" which means it only might work, and the "in as little as" means that sometimes, perhaps, it might work that fast. And then there is the "taken with a glass of water" buried in the line. That's the clincher. Headaches are a common symptom of dehydration. So the pills might not even be the medicine that relieves the headache. It might be that water is the cure. 


In college I took Psychology, studied studies, and conducted research under supervision. 


So here we are: Twenty people. All male. All white. All Finns. The study group is too small and narrow to prove much.


Never mind. What did they find? 


"It turned out that these genetically identical twins looked surprisingly different beneath the skin and skull. The sedentary twins had lower endurance capacities, higher body fat percentages, and signs of insulin resistance, signaling the onset of metabolic problems. (Interestingly, the twins tended to have very similar diets, whatever their workout routines, so food choices were unlikely to have contributed to health differences.)"

The study also reveals the ten exercisers have larger brains than the ones who do not exercise. Yeah, larger brains. Their brains are "significantly" different in those areas controlling movement and coordination. Don't get excited. They proved that use of the body results in growth of the part of the brain controlling that use. No one got smarter. 


Significant differences happened during "a few, brief years of divergent workouts," according to this report. 


"Significantly" different brains and bodies? How significant are their findings? They found that while the twins tended to eat very much the same diet, the twin that exercised had better body weight and the one who didn't was inclined to be overweight. Well, duh. 


Does the study prove or even suggest that exercise makes people healthier? Maybe. 


Unfortunately, there is an additional variable acknowledged but not discussed in this report. A critical one. One twin had "work or family pressures" preventing him from exercising. It was not choice or accident that the physical activities of these pairs differ. One twin was able to find or make time to exercise, the other suffered from pressure that prevented him from exercising even though he still ate the same diet as his twin. Pressures? This is stress, and don't we all know that stress can be a killer? Research has also shown that stress has a negative affect on insulin resistance, which is one of the specific factors attributed to lack of exercise in the study above.


We also know that identical twins tend to maintain similar habits even when they are not raised together. Differences in life experience and random genetic shifts likely cause differences in adult twin behaviors. This is not one experience, but the result of dozens, most of which cannot be measured. However, according to this report, routine and unavoidable stress was the cause of these pairs of men behaving differently in exercise.

In any event, stress is a well-documented factor impacting general health and life expectancy, not to mention mental health. One twin had leisure to continue a pleasurable activity—exercise—and the other had such a high-pressure life that he did not. We cannot know if lack of exercise is key or the pressures preventing the exercise is the primary factor.


Did exercise make one twin healthier or did a lifestyle make one twin less healthy? 


It is likely be the combination of stress working against one brother and exercise working in favor of the the other, but we haven't proven that either. Plenty of people who do not exercise are not fat or tending to diabetes—well, maybe not in the U.S. where our terrible dietary choices, longer work hours, and reluctance to take vacations make us the least healthy among industrialized nations. 

If there is one thing recent studies make clear, it is that one factor is rarely the cause of our personal health problems. There are many factors at work. Genetics are a factor in over-all health and longevity, but so are social connections, diet, exercise, sleep, leisure, and the existence and pacing of stress. We're pretty sure. 


Does this study provide absolute proof that exercising as an adult will make us healthier? Does it actually prove anything at all? Most of us already assume exercise is good for us. Other studies of large groups of people show that exercise leads to healthier hearts and better weight and so forth. Does this study seal the deal?
Do I want to make lifestyle choices based on the health of twenty Finns? Probably not, but it does reinforce another variable the researchers chose to ignore for the time being: being too busy to take time for pleasure is not good for us. 

But we already knew that too, didn't we?

ABOVE: What's wrong with the picture? An inscription on the pairing states: "Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed the same day." They are frequently assumed to be twins, but they cannot be identical twins since their eye colors differ and the notation does not claim they are even sisters, but from the same family, which is not the same thing. Their resemblance is the result of dress, weight, age, and family. Cousins? They do not appear to be the same height in bed. I love this painting and have probably used it before. 


18 March 2015

UNIDENTIFIED

We tend to believe that when the tool is more complicated, that means the person who uses the tool is smarter.

"Aliens & UFOs Explained" by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: He says it is an argument from ignorance. "You can't be a scientist if you are uncomfortable with ignorance because we live at the boundary between what is known and unknown." 

Accept that understanding is never complete but is achieved through continuous reevaluation. 

And then go the next step and understand human limitation. Accept ignorance, accept inability to reason through our own reasoning and to comprehend our own comprehension. 

Accept that what is known and understood will continue to simultaneously exist as both more that we can comprehend and we cannot… 

Science is not a box of set knowledge, then, but a continuous becoming, just as human beings are not neat packages, easily defined and static in the world, but dynamic processes. Happening. 

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