I’m rereading George Dennison’s The Lives of Children and was floored by this passage regarding the role of an adult in the life of a young person:


“…elders of the community rather than heads of organizations…”

More on that here in an old post.

Beyond “You can do it!”

As the beginning of a school year approaches, I hear from many families whose children are not as eager as those shown in back-to-school advertisements. So many young people are downright dreading it.  When asked for a reason, they’ll say it’s stressful, or boring, or both.

A common response from adults is: “You can do it!”

We say this with the best of encouraging intentions. What we mean is “You’re great, and strong, and we believe in you.”

While that is likely true, it’s an answer to a question they may or may not be asking. (Not to mention that it neglects the question of at what cost.) If a young person says “I don’t know if I’m smart enough,” then some version of “you can do it” is appropriate and plenty.

But as a response to “I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring/stressful/ boring and stressful,” it misses the mark. Mostly, I think we use “You can do it” because we don’t really have time to address what these young people are actually expressing, and even if we did have time, it would be hard to know where to begin. (I say this not to suggest laziness on the part of adults but rather as a reflection of experience, after more than two decades at work on the problem!) But it’s also possible that we’re just mis-hearing what young people are actually saying; that we think this expression of satisfaction or unhappiness is actually a lack of confidence.

Either way, it’s a good idea to try to move beyond cheering kids on, to look more closely at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. I think that in our role as caretakers and guides for young people we don’t like to get into this kind of territory unless we have solutions at the ready. And sure, they wouldn’t mind a solution, but to have their communications actually received can go a long way, even in the absence of solution. A longer way than we probably realize.

Especially if we want young people to keep talking to us, to keep telling us what’s not working for them, to keep honing the ability to express what they’re experiencing and use it to navigate what’s ahead.

full moon

The moon was almost full last night, and sitting right up in the sky outside my living room window in a clear sky, so I had a good view. When this happens I get amazed that I can see variation in the moon’s surface.  I was trying to think this thought: “Amazing.  It’s ______ miles away and I can see all the _______.” But I didn’t know how far away it was or what the variations I could see actually are.  This is the sort of thing I think I am supposed to know but don’t.  Then I remembered that if you don’t know something you would like to know, you can find it out.  This is an obvious thing, an advantage of the brain plus books plus other people plus the internet, but I am constantly not bothering to do anything about it.

So I looked this one up.  (On the computer.) First up was Google’s answer – the moon is 238,900 miles from earth. I started thinking about how to really get how far that is, but then I spotted another search result three items down in the form of a question: How far away is the moon? I liked the sound of that, linguistically speaking, so I followed the link to the NASA SpacePlace page, which appears to be set up for younger people than myself.  Such pages can be excellent for learning information that one thinks one is already expected to know, because it’s (sometimes) offered in clear and plain terms, though one might also have to read around some condescension, which is too bad.

NASA’s explanation, not surprisingly, is a little more detailed and nuanced (accurate) than Google’s.  The distance between the earth and the moon changes, so it can be expressed as an average or as a measurement at a particular moment in its orbit (which is not a perfect circle, hence the variation in distance).  According to NASA SpacePlace, the moon is 238,855 miles on average.  At its closest, 225,623, and at its farthest, 252,088.

I had to stop myself from reading much more just then because when it comes to the moon, several very cool words come into play (apogee, perigee, penumbra, et. al.) and as a result I knew myself to be at risk for spending the rest of the day becoming a moon expert (relative to how I’d been night before) and I had other things people were counting on me to do.

All of that is to say I was glad to be reminded that a few seconds spent asking a question and looking for an answer is enough to put things in perspective, and when things are in perspective, universe-wise, it’s hard not to be amazed and inspired and re-energized for whatever earthly toil one has assigned one’s self, even in a terribly tumultuous time.

the possible, the impossible, and some unfortunate potatoes

I got in a fight with my refrigerator the other day.  Right off the bat here I am being dramatic – it wasn’t at all the refrigerator’s fault, any more than any shortcoming in design is the fault of the object, or any incompatibility of a machine with a human organism is the machine’s fault.

I reached down to get a glass container of potatoes from the bottom shelf and a wildfire of pain flew up and down my right side and across my lower back.  My first thought was “Uh, oh, what do I do now, and how do I do it in such a way that it doesn’t alarm the two year-old who’s eating carrots in the nearby highchair?” My second was “This is the beginning of the end of my mobility.”  I have been expecting this kind of seizing, spasm, whatever it was, since I began to have trouble with my lower back when I was thirty-two.  My joints are unstable – they don’t stay where they belong in relation to one another.  Or rather, they don’t stay where I think they should in relation to one another.  They don’t maintain the optimal placement for ease of movement by this organism I call me.  Anne Lamott writes that “our bodies are proving to be a little disappointing.” Indeed.

When I was a teenager and a young adult I was disappointed in how my body looked.  I’ve made some modicum of peace with that now, perhaps because the impact of dissatisfaction with appearance has been overshadowed by diminished functionality. These days, my disappointment waxes and wanes according to what functionality I lose and regain, or don’t. Last fall we went for a long bike ride on a trail built along the gas line through several towns’ worth of southern Maine.  It was so much fun – I love riding a bicycle, but am ever so slightly skittish and don’t fare well on roads with cars.  We live in a relatively densely populated area; we chose the neighborhood we did because there’s a place for me to ride my bike that requires minimal road time, a paved path around the edge of the city.  This other longer path was heaven, stretched for many miles more than my local path.

We were a mile from the end of our route, after fourteen miles of riding, when my elbow started to hurt.  A lot.  It hadn’t hurt at all for fourteen miles, and suddenly hurt so much I couldn’t hold on to the handlebars anymore.  The bits of gravel in the packed dirt had apparently been enough to slowly but thoroughly traumatize my elbow.  It throbbed for days after that, and ever since, it cannot be subjected to much of anything in the way of jostling before it begins to snarl and swell.

So, yes, I have found my body a little disappointing.  Why, though?  Where did I get the idea that there wouldn’t be pain or reduction in function? In the Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elizabeth Bishop writes “I had thought I was indestructible.  But I wasn’t.  If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t.”  I never had the feeling of immortality that is said to be common in teenagers – I was always cautious, to a fault.  But I thought I knew what Bishop knew, that if something went wrong, modern medicine would fix it.  And if modern medicine couldn’t fix it, some other kind of medicine could.  It could be fixed.  Like a machine.

Turns out it’s not a machine.  Some things can be fixed, or righted, but some things can’t.  No matter how much you’re willing or able to spend.  (Which is not to say that if you have more to spend, you don’t have a better chance of getting something fixed.  But that’s another thing entirely.) The human body is astonishingly complex and sophisticated and capable, but it is not a machine and it is not knowable in its entirety and potentiality for variation.  It is not just a platitude, that every one of us is different.  It’s a truth that means we can do our best at noticing patterns and possibilities for healing and adjusting, but we can’t solve or resolve everything in every person.

For many years now I have strung myself out between resignation about this: this is just how it is and oh, well and determination: I will not give up until I figure out a way to fix my spine/ligaments/joints.  Determination and resignation have worked for others in much worse circumstances, with much worse ailments and anomalies. Neither has worked for me.  From time to time I can wrangle enough perspective out of the relative good fortune I have: my ailments are small, tiny, in fact, in comparison to those that others manage.  But they still impede my ability to get things done – things that bear on my livelihood and ability to participate and contribute. So I’ve had to look for other angles.

One of the frequent topics of conversation in my house is improvisation.  My partner is a dancer with many years of training in various forms, with a special affinity for contact improvisation.  I have always hated contact improvisation, which I attribute to a long-standing aversion to strangers and general lack of enjoyment of flying sweat, but I like it very much as a thought process and model for considering various other realms.  Improvisation in the context of dance (and other art forms, come to think of it) traffics in the immediate and the unexpectable, which is to say, the world as it actually is in any given actual moment.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found it especially easy, all of that you hear about living in the moment, experiencing presence, leaving the past in the past and the future out there where it hasn’t happened yet. Any sort of physical dis-ease makes it harder still, at least for me.  It’s one thing to conjure up a sense of connection with the present when the body’s working reasonably well and quietly.  Another when it’s not.  (I suppose I experience pain and physical discomfort as noise.  The way it might be easier to walk peacefully down the sidewalk if a well-maintained car drove by than if you were passed by a clunker with muffler dragging along the pavement, belts screeching from under the hood.)

One of the things the contact improvisers do is work with a “score,” essentially a collection of constraints within which to move (with others, in the moment, for the moment).  Again, you won’t find me out there mixed up in any of that as a dancer, but as a model for navigating life, now that I’ve accumulated a quorum of bodily constraints, I’m finding that the notion of an improvisational score is a useful one.  And offers some relief from the tug-of-war between determination and resignation to which I otherwise tend to subject myself. When these shortcomings of the ligaments, vertabrae, and other tissues exist for me as problems resisting solution, they’re a constant source of frustration and, truly, despair.  But when they are the constraints of a score, the rest of everything possible and available becomes the raw material for action and engagement:  What can I do around them?  What can I do in spite of them?  What can I do with them?

It works for anything – any disappointment of physicality, ability, capacity. Sometimes.  I have been known to resort to wallowing in disappointment and frustration but it’s a thinking tool worth keeping on hand for moments when the possible is more compelling than the impossible.


We have a longstanding silliness in my family which involves substituting synonyms for things in such a way that the meaning is skewed slightly in an amusing direction.  One of us referred to another of less physical stature as “low” rather than “short” at one point and we enjoy revisiting the substitution whenever the opportunity arises.

I thought of this earlier today when I was out for a walk in my neighborhood.  I passed a young family with a child of not very many months who was walking on his own.  It looked like it was very difficult for the adult accompanying this small person to hold his hand.  The little one was very close to the ground.  It also occurred to me that the world would look very different from two feet off the ground from how it does from around five and a half (which is the vantage point from which I take it in).

Our little joke about low/short is just that, a joke, but I realized that if you were to refer to a person as low rather than short you’d be identifying his or her point of view and perspective rather than just describing him or her.  (They’re both relative terms, but in the physical context, one refers to where a person is coming from relative to others rather than how the person measures relative to others.)

When we talk about people, we tend to do lots of describing (which of course often says as much about our own perspective as about the actuality of the person, but that’s for another time) and not a lot of identifying of or with how the world might look to someone in their situation or condition. I don’t think this is news to anyone, really, but I liked pondering what it would be like if we had and used language that did more of what, for height, “low” does and less of what “short” does.


Once a week, we have an eighteen month-old friend at our house for the day. She is, as most her age are, quite excellent at calling our attention to sources of delight we might otherwise miss. For the past several weeks, she has been most enraptured by two things – cats and round objects.  She communicates mostly in sign language at this point, and so the signs for cat and ball are well-used.

It’s not hard to understand what might be so enjoyable about a cat, or any other four-legged creature, but we’ve been speculating about what makes a ball so much fun.  It doesn’t seem to be the throwing, in the case of this young person, at least not entirely.  Plus, you can throw all sorts of other things too and they don’t get nearly as much attention as the ball gets.

Maybe it’s how the ball behaves.  Nothing else moves like a ball does. If you set it down on a surface that isn’t entirely level, it’ll find its own momentum and start wandering all over the place if there’s enough variation in terrain.  Nothing else will do this but a thing with at least a round edge to help it along.  In our living room the floor is not even close to level, so if you set a ball down pretty much anywhere it’ll set off on an apparently drunken journey and end up, inevitably, in a corner.  If you didn’t know better (“better”), it’d be easy to think that it was alive, or whatever classification you’d give to things that seem to have character and creativity before you knew the world alive.

Oliver Sacks used to carry a ball around with him in his briefcase: “My main neurological tool is the ball,” he says.  “You can learn a lot from how the patients play – and may patients who will do nothing else will open up to a gently tossed ball.”

My sense is that he chose the ball because it’s such simple access to play – tossing a thing back and forth.  But the more we’ve been thinking and talking about this love and fascination and we watch it unfold for such a young child, the more I wonder about it as a thing that links us up with the physical world, the physics of the world, and invites us to engage with it as no other object could.


In a recent New Yorker I read about how New York City is replacing all of its sodium-vapor streetlights with LEDs.  Feelings are mixed about the move.  The old lights glow hazy orange; the new ones blaze blue.  I’ve read among other things that old encouraged crime, that the new are causing anxiety with their brightness.

It’s clear that the LEDs will literally cast the city in a new light; will alter its character.  This is no small thing, in my opinion.  The appearances of things are not static, and light has so much to do with it.

I’m always happy to have an excuse to remember one of my favorite poems of all time, Lisel Mueller’s Monet Refuses the Operation, in which the purpose of distinguishing the edges of things is brought into question:

…I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent…

the sorter is broken

I asked a high-school aged friend if she’s thought about what she might want to study in college (she’d already told me she wants to go) or what she might want to do after college.  She hesitated, and then said that she really likes science but she’s terrible at memorizing things, so probably she’ll do something with history instead. She said she’s especially interested in environmental science and issues related to climate change.

You could think of this as a teaching or curriculum problem, but I don’t think it really is.  I think it’s a sorting problem.  Or a problem with how we’ve taught ourselves to imagine we should be sorted when it comes to ability and suited-ness to particular tasks and professions.  And also a problem with how we think about what our brains are best used for.

This young person thinks that her difficulty with memorizing will exclude her (or should exclude her) from a career in science.  She has classmates who memorize easily, and they are the ones with high scores on tests and in courses. So on paper, on transcripts, if it’s good grades that tell us about someone’s aptitude for a particular area of study, we can see that her quick-memorizing classmates are the ones destined for careers in science.  Yes, many a good teacher will tell you that if you don’t emphasize the memorization you can show something different with how you grade, but for most students in most schools, information recall is a big factor in grade determination and a teacher who makes it otherwise is swimming upstream and trying to pull her students along with her against a strong current.

What would we have to do to make it otherwise?  First we’d have to decide whether we believe that a scientist must be able to keep on hand a multitude of data.  Must one?  I’d guess not, at a time when it’s possible to put a handheld device with endless data in the hand of any professional anything.  Wouldn’t it make sense for the first qualifying characteristic for a career in science (or any participation in science) be an interest in participating, and then perhaps the second an interest in and capacity for problem solving and analytical thought?  Science once required extensive memorization, but it doesn’t any more, and we’ve got big enough problems, and many enough problems, that the more solvers we can get on them the better, it seems to me.  To exclude the ones who can’t memorize stuff as well as some others can memorize stuff seems unwise.  Not to mention that the good memorizers might be put to better use elsewhere especially if they’re not interested in the careers and occupations that their memorizing might qualify them for and point them in the direction of.


Here’s something I often hear from parents of young children who are struggling with math: “They’re teaching them some new way of multiplying that is so slow and confusing; I think if my kid were taught the way I was taught, everything would be fine.” The primary reason for this complaint, of course, is that when kids are taught in a way that’s unfamiliar to their parents, it’s harder for those parents to help.

A friend of mine suggested a way of thinking about this kind of thing that might be helpful for the frustrated parent. Before I pass that along, just a quick bit about the method of multiplication at issue here.

The “new” way is in fact an extended version of the way that is familiar to many present-day parents.  The reason for using it with young children (or at least the reason I often use it first with young children) is that it is more transparent than the old way and thus often easier to understand and remember. Here’s a little visual demonstration of the unfamiliar method known as partial product(s):

partial product

(via Mrs. Kent’s blog)

The “old” (familiar) way involves a few shortcuts that conceal the place values of the digits. In order to understand and keep track of the shuffling around of places, a person needs a little more experience with place value than many children yet have when they are first asked to multiply multi-digit numbers. They can still get the answers, if they can remember the steps, but they’re often arriving at those answers without conceptual understanding. That can be very disconcerting – kids  often sense that they’re just going through some motions which they don’t understand.  We think our way it should be easier for them because it’s familiar to us, but when kids don’t understand why it works, it often isn’t easier.

The “new” way is a smaller step from where kids just were (multiplying single digit numbers by each other), toward multiplying multi-digit numbers.  It keeps the steps distinct, and when they’re distinct, the reason for doing each one is clearer.  (It’s also often easier for a child to move on to the old/familiar method, which can be ultimately less time-consuming, once he or she has mastered the extended version.)

I’ve cloaked the words new and old in quotation marks because it’s my guess that this “new” way actually came before the “old” way. I spent a few minutes reading up on it, but that was a bit of a rabbit hole with all sorts of interesting tributaries for a person interested in such things, but for now let’s just leave it that logic would suggest that in order to create the method most of us are more familiar with, someone would first have to have built this extended method.  Both methods are actually just means for keeping track of all the smaller multiplications involved in finding the answer to a bigger multiplication. They’re shorthand.  The “new” way is longer shorthand than the “old” way.

So, back to my friend’s suggestion.  I told him about this frequent complaint, about the unfamiliar multiplication. And I said “Why is it that when something’s unfamiliar, we’re so quick to blame it for any related confusion or failing?”

He thought for a minute and said “Well, it kind of sounds like the way we are with most new technology.”

This made so much sense I was a little irritated at myself for not having thought of it already.  New stuff is easy to blame for the discomfort that comes with disruption.  But it isn’t always worse than what we have, and sometimes it’s better.  And then sometimes it isn’t better, which is all the more reason to look into it carefully when it comes along.

So now when I talk to parents about how their children are or aren’t being taught multiplication, I try to remember to bring up the context of new technology. Methods for performing computation might not seem like technologies, but they are. And it might seem silly to spend several paragraphs proposing the analogy. But I see so many children lose their footing in math right around the time that multiplication comes to town, I think that anything we can do to increase the chances that they have every available tool and every available mode of support available to them that might help them keep their confidence about them is worth it.