The other day I mentioned Rebecca Solnit in a post about finding the motivation to take action when it may not seem to make a difference. My mention of her was somewhat peripheral (preliminary?) to the point of the post, so I had a good laugh at myself yesterday when this happened: I was listening to an old interview with her from On Being and was reminded that I’d been very moved and affected the first time I heard her talk about the thing that was the point of the post – the slippery business of what does and doesn’t make an impact. It’s very likely that it was her work that gave me the idea to write about the topic in the way I did; I just didn’t remember that it had. Which further proves the point itself, leaving me with the feeling (which I have no doubt passed on to you reading this paragraph) of going ’round in circles, which again proves the point. (Assuming that at least one of the circles moves something forward, as opposed to keeping us in place.)

As it turns out, none of this business of difference-making and idea-forming is linear or traceable.

So, now, back to the more lucid words of Rebecca Solnit herself. From a piece she wrote in December of 2013, The Arc of Justice and the Long Run: “Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve…”

In other words (I trust she would not mind my saying), we should keep at it.


I made this little thing a couple of years ago on a day when I was trying to learn something new and being somewhat less than patient with myself:


I keep it around for two reasons. First, to keep reminding myself to go easy on me when I’m new to something. Second, because it occurred to me that other people are probably often trying new things when I don’t realize they are, and I would do well to share some of that same patience I was looking to muster when I wrote out the little message.


In my years as a math teacher and tutor, I have had many occasions to help with fractions.  Here’s something interesting about nearly every initial conversation I’ve ever had with someone who is having difficulty with learning about fractions for the first time. I’ll usually begin the conversation by asking something like “So you say you’re having a hard time with fractions. What do you know about them so far?” Here’s how it will often proceed from there:

“Nothing. I don’t understand them at all.”

“Okay. But you’ve probably seen them written, right? You have an idea what they look like?”

“Well, yeah, there’s a number on the top and a number on the bottom and a line in between but I don’t understand them.”

“Okay, that’s helpful for me to know. So you can recognize something called a fraction, but you’re confused about how they work or what they are for?”


“There’s one other thing I’m guessing you do already understand about fractions,” I’ll then say. [I get a skeptical look in response, but they’ll usually hear me out.] “You know what half means, right?”

The response I get tends to reflect that offense has been taken. “Well, yeah, obviously. Half is just half of something.”

Indeed. The concept of half is such old news to someone by the time “fractions” get “introduced” in school, that it seems a little insulting to be asked about it as a person of  nine or ten years. One starts to hear about half and halves very early in life, long before any whisper of a thing called math, much less the more specific phenomenon of fractions. The concept of half doesn’t have a chance to feel difficult any more than any other ordinary thing that happens all the time in regular life.

But our use of fractions in everyday parlance is mostly limited to the word half. As a young child you might occasionally hear someone talk about splitting something into thirds or fourths, but you’ll hear about half very often.

Hence the snarly looks I get when I ask about half.  The snarling tends to subside when I protest: “But you told me you don’t understand fractions AT ALL, so I had to ask, didn’t I!?! It’s not my fault that those pesky halves were hiding in your memory disguising themselves as Not Fractions!”

This exaggerated response from me usually gets a smile, and from there we can begin to talk about why the school fractions seem so much more torturous than the easy everyday halves, which truly are so understandable to most people I’ve talked to about them that they don’t even recognize their understanding as understanding. It’s invisible, the way sentence structure is to people who haven’t been taught grammar in their native language.  They can use it, but their understanding is invisible.

Which has always made me wonder if this kind of implicit understanding could be built for other fractional parts quite simply if we just talked more about other fractions, the way we do about halves, such that they’d exist in linguistic experience for young people and thus have the chance of taking conceptual root the way the halves do.



The writer  Rebecca Solnit has written that one of her goals in life is to be able to “answer closed questions with open questions.” I thought of this today when I read these words from one of the local participants in a walking vigil held on the anniversary of the signing of the Paris climate agreement. “…It’s so hard to know what to do just as one person. And I know what we’re doing today may not make a difference, but it feels like something, and hopefully it’s one way of raising our voice about what’s going on.”

I feel that way so much of the time – that’s it’s hard to know, when it feels as though things are wrong or broken, what to do as one person. It’s hard to know if anything will make a difference, if anything gets moved by anything else. I know it’s not a unique or unusual sentiment, but in this context it got me thinking about how we decide what does and doesn’t make a difference, what does and doesn’t matter. Pondering this brought me back to the idea of open questions, and I realized that the question “Will this make any difference?” is rather a closed question, and that we might find more space and support in asking a more open one like “What difference might this make?”

An open question invites participation from the imagination, the creative capacities of the mind. It reaches into what may yet be possible, rather than launching a sequence of reasoning or logic with a yes or no at the end. I like reason and logic, but as we decide whether or not to let ourselves be moved to act in the face of great adversity, they may not be as great an asset as our ability to conceive voraciously of the possible.


The volleyball player and entrepreneur Gabrielle Reece has a policy she calls “go first.” (I read about it in Tim Ferriss’ recent book Tools of Titans, a very large collection of information about the work and other habits of a few hundred highly successful people.) Reece says “If I’m checking out at the store, I’ll say hello first. If I’m coming across somebody and make eye contact, I’ll smile first. … [People] are ready, but you have to go first…”

This got my attention because often when I find myself tempted to smile or say hello to people I hesitate, because I imagine that the person I’m encountering doesn’t want to engage. This practice of Reece’s was a good reminder that I don’t actually know whether someone wants to engage or not.

Yesterday I had the chance to try it out. I was at our local community center and a woman walked in by herself. I noticed myself having the thought that she didn’t seem very friendly, as she walked past me. She sat down nearby to change out of her boots into sneakers so she could walk on the indoor track (it had snowed several inches the day before). I remembered about going first, and said “Instant winter out there, isn’t it?” She looked a bit startled that I was talking to her, but only for a split second, and then smiled. “Sure is,” she said. “But I guess we should be glad it didn’t come until the middle of December. Now if only we could be done by mid-February!”

So that was good reinforcement for me for going first. Now if I can just remember that if the next person is not so keen on interacting, it doesn’t mean I should stop trying.


When I talk about people finding occupations that are engaging and fulfilling for them (as I did yesterday), I often hear this question: “That’s nice, but if everyone just did what they want, how would all the unpleasant stuff ever get done?”

There’s an assumption inherent to the question which I think bears acknowledgment. The assumption is that we all want to be doing the same things, and that the things we don’t want to do (the unpleasant ones) are also the same. If this were the case – if we all liked and didn’t like the same jobs and activities – then indeed we’d be in trouble if we committed ourselves to getting everyone busy with what they preferred.

But we don’t like the same things. We don’t find the same things engaging and we don’t find the same things tiresome or loathsome. One of the happiest-looking people I ever saw at work was collecting trash on a municipal truck, a job many others would find very unpleasant. I know people who hop out of bed in the morning eager to get to their marketing jobs, and people who work in the arts who are miserable.

Our preferences are not the same, and so we don’t need to worry about a pile-up in just a few professions. I think we have enough diversity of preference that we can get everything done that needs doing and also enough willingness to share anything that really needs to get done even if none of us are especially eager to do it.

And if we get things done by choosing work that fits and suits us individually whenever possible, I bet we get it all done in a healthier more sustainable manner.


Yesterday I spent an hour and a half at a running shoe store. I don’t run, and I don’t like shopping, but I’ve been at wits’ end with my dysfunctional feet and decided to see if I could get them some relief in a running shoe.

I mention this visit to the shoe store because the customer service experience was one of the best I’ve ever had in a retail store. Running shoe stores tend to be very detailed in their assessment of feet, so you’re likely in any such store to be tended to more carefully than in stores that sell other things, but what stood out for me about our salesperson on this occasion was that he seemed as though he really liked what he was doing. He wasn’t a running fanatic – that kind of enthusiasm can be a little hard to take if you just need some individual attention and information – he was just a guy who seemed to enjoy knowing about shoe structure and foot structure and facilitating a promising pairing of human and shoe.

I always love to encounter a person who seems to enjoy their work. I with it weren’t so rare. One of the best things about it is that when someone likes what they’re doing, they are often also committed to doing it as well as they can, which means their work offers something of value beyond the satisfaction they get from it.

I also love that when I come across a person enjoying their work, it’s not usually a glamorous occupation. Some people are well-suited to glamour, and probably thrive in it just as others thrive elsewhere, but it doesn’t seem to take glamour or prestige or (gasp) the highest of salaries to facilitate contentment and contribution.


If children kept Frequently Asked Questions pages for their lives, these lists would  consistently feature “How old are you?” and “What grade are you in?”

We could probably do better.


I was doing some holiday shopping the other day and read a comment that mentioned a product running small. I got to thinking about what a funny phrase that is, and then I realized that sometimes I feel like my brain is running a little small. Not physically, of course; it’s just whatever size it is. It can sometimes feel a little tight, though – when I have trouble seeing anything but the small and relatively mundane. And then other times it runs larger, giving me a sense that we humans might actually be able to get ourselves organized and aligned enough to survive and thrive together. This level of aspiration can be a bit breathtaking, so it’s not as though brain-running-big is necessarily… pleasant.

Of course someplace in between the running small and running big, or running some of both, would probably be best. We probably all run smaller and bigger variously as time trudges along, moment to moment and also over stretches of years. There’s lots we can do (and avoid doing) that would keep us too stuck in small or big for too long. I suppose that’s one of the challenges of living a life well. So it seems like a worthwhile practice to keep noticing when we’re listing in the direction of the small or the oversized and find what there is to glean from each.


The day was dull with scientific notation.  Sarah didn’t want to be there with me at all.  As I often do when I meet a young person for the first time, I asked her about her interests. She said right away “I hate school. Actually, I love school.  I just hate math.” She didn’t bother to answer my question.  She went right to what she hates, and who could blame her when there it was, math, moving her around like a puppeteer, straight from school to tutoring?

But she was ready to tackle her homework, because at least that could get done while her afternoon ticked away.  She didn’t have a pencil, so I reached to get one from my desk drawer.  I was about to pick up the closest one and then stopped and looked up at her first.  “Which would you prefer,” I asked, “plain old wooden or mechanical?”

She paused before responding. “Mechanical,” she said.  As I handed her the pencil, she took a deeper, slower breath.

The rest of the hour pivoted around this question about the pencil.  It was nothing – a tiny moment – only it wasn’t.  When I thought about it afterward, I realized it was because the general condition of student-hood is mostly free of person-hood, in that students are expected to set aside preference. In fact, preference doesn’t even usually figure in enough to be set aside.

Preference and choice are not the same.  Some schools have lots of choice.  Choice of research topics, choice of Spanish or French, choice of lunch beverage.  Granting preference acknowledges a person’s person-ness in a way that choice doesn’t.  Choice says “The options have already been decided, and it has also been decided that you get to choose from among them.”

To grant preference is not necessarily active.  It’s an acknowledgement that a person has preferences and that those preferences are part of what constitutes their being and person-hood.  It doesn’t matter what kind of pencil a 12 year-old prefers, and she’s generally at liberty to select her own pencil, keep it with her, and no one has to know.  But if there are two kinds of pencil available, and I’m sitting across from a 12 year-old person, I know I’m less likely to ask her preference than I would be if I were sitting across from a 35 year-old person or a 62 year-old person. The relationship between adult and child is usually “I’ll handle this; you just follow my lead/instructions. Here’s a pencil for you to use.”  It’s not usually “Which kind of pencil would you prefer?” And it’s not because there isn’t time to ask.

I didn’t happen upon this because I was keen enough to notice and take an opportunity to treat someone better. I didn’t think to myself “Oh, I should ask what Sarah prefers, and that’ll be a better way to treat her.”  I just noticed that I would behave differently with an adult from how I was about to behave with her. Which I suppose is where we can begin.