Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review: Juliet in August

Dianne Warren’s Juliet in August is a novel in stories, most of which take place over a period of about twenty-four hours in the tiny town of Juliet, Saskatchewan, population 1,011, located at the edge of the Little Snake sand hills. The book moves among a dozen characters in five overlapping storylines. Though the characters repeatedly intersect, all are profoundly alone, glimpsing only a partial view of the whole, often misapprehending or not even noticing what is happening outside of their limited perspectives. The author portrays her characters tenderly, empathetically. Their lives are understated, quiet, and so is Warren’s prose. Her style deceptively simple and straightforward, she conscientiously builds these unassuming characters into authentic, complex human beings.

If Warren’s book can be said to have a central character, it is Lee Torgeson, a man in his twenties who recently inherited the family farm from his adoptive parents. He is just as alone as the others—if not more so—for he lives by himself in the country, and over the course of the book he goes on a long journey, a hundred-mile ride on a stray Arab horse, tracing the route that two legendary cowboys took in a hundred-mile race decades ago. During his journey, Lee visits his adoptive parents’ graves and thinks over what he knows of his life—beginning with being left as an infant on the Torgesons’ doorstep—and the distance he has always felt between himself and his well-meaning but laconic caretakers. Left with fragments of their advice—get yourself a good map, use the silver tea service—he still wonders about his origins. After his arduous ride, he returns home to discover a new source of information about his past; though his transformation over the course of the book is not profound, we can see the subtle shift in his perceptions of who he is and where he finds himself in the world.

Another storyline focuses on Blaine and Vicki Dolson, who are on the verge of bankruptcy, about to lose the family farm. While Blaine is doing road work to keep financially afloat, Vicki takes her six children into town on unnecessary errands in order to avoid the drudgery of the task that awaits her at home—processing the beans from the garden. While browsing in Robinson’s store, Vicki spots Marian Shoenfeld. She quickly appraises Marian’s behavior: “She sees Marian take a mint-green outfit off the rack and hold it up to herself in front of a mirror. It looks like a pantsuit of some kind, slacks and a vest. Curious that Marian is buying a new outfit. Maybe she’s going to a special event, a wedding or a graduation. She doesn’t think Marian is the kind of person who would buy new clothes without a reason.” And then Vicki turns her attention back to her own affairs—looking for caning supplies and watching after her children (though she is not nearly vigilant enough—later, her daughter breaks an arm and floods the hardware store with red paint).

We as readers are attuned to Marian’s presence in the store because hers is another of the story strands that we are following. Marian and Willard Shoenfeld run the town’s drive-in movie theater. Bound together in unexpressed love and profound misunderstanding, they have continued to live together since the death of Ed, Willard’s brother and Marian’s husband. Though nine years have passed since Ed’s death, Willard, a lifelong bachelor, is still convinced that Marian is on the verge of leaving. Each time she makes an overture to speak to him, he is certain that she’ll be announcing her departure. Even when she stands outside his bedroom door in her nightgown in the middle of the night, Willard cannot read her true motive.

Willard is so undemonstrative, so out of touch with his own feelings, that “he just couldn’t stand it—the idea that some pretty little girl might actually like him, and that he’d never be able to live up to whatever idea she had in her head about who he was, but it had to be a wrong idea, because if it were right she’d like someone else and not him.” When Willard finds Marian “sitting on the couch in an outfit he’s never seen before” (presumably the pantsuit from Robinson’s) with two cocktails waiting, he can only assume that Marian must be expecting someone else. He tries to flee, but she invites him to have a drink before dinner. Perplexed, he spends time shaving and changing his shirt several times. After drinking his cocktail, he abruptly loses his nerve. “I’ve just remembered . . .” he says and leaves, heading for the local diner.

Late that night, Marian comes to his room, and in a beautifully understated scene, the two make love without speaking a word, after which Marian quietly returns to her own room. Later still, when the two are awakened by teenagers setting fire to the movie screen, Marian tries to go for water, “but Willard holds her back and says, ‘Too late. Let it go.’ Then, ‘Don’t go, Marian. Don’t leave me. I love you.’ Surprising the absolute hell out of himself.” This man who had such a damper on his own feelings and was so terrified that the woman he loved would leave didn’t even know until this night that he loves her. And their story concludes: “Marian stands in the open doorway as though she’s on fire with the flames behind her, watching him, and she says, ‘I’m not going anywhere, Willard. Where in the world did you get that idea?’”
Warren’s is a subdued book about the inner life, about the subtle shifts of our internal landscapes that are echoed in the shifting of the dunes surrounding the town, ceaselessly burying and uncovering missing objects from the past. At the very end of the book, Lee pitches a tent among the dunes and lets the wind rip pages out of his boyhood desert scrapbook, sending a map of the Sahara and a marketplace in Cairo flying out into the sand.  The whole scrapbook skids is eventually lost. As the wind rages all night, “He imagines things blowing around outside—clumps of tumbleweed, empty cigarette packs, plastic water bottles. The wind exposing objects from the past. A deerskin pouch, perhaps. The dipper from a water pail. A worn leather boot cracked and missing the lace, a coffee can blown from the windowsill of a one-room shack.” And Warren has retrieved this one day in Juliet from the shifting sand, these dozen lives, and has held them up to the light to reveal their elaborate contours in this beautiful book.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I was at work in my office in Massachusetts on Friday, waiting for my students to drop off their final projects, when I checked the news online.  I saw the words, Connecticut school shooting, and my heart seized up for a moment. Both of my children were at school in Connecticut, in different districts. I quickly scanned the article, and seeing the words Newtown and Sandy Hook, I felt only relief. Not me, I thought. Not mine. Before it was known who was dead, or how many, my first reaction was to be grateful for being spared. My state, but not my town. Not my children.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked at several daily newspapers, reporting on crime. Every day, I would make a round of calls to police stations and fire departments, asking if there was any news. And every day, there was news: traffic accidents, burglaries, fires, robberies, assaults, rapes, murders. Every day, the world was rife with crime, with danger. Gradually, I began to see the world in terms of danger, near misses. I could have been on that street when that shooting occurred, or I could have been driving on that overpass when that fatal accident occurred. Every day, I narrowly missed being robbed or murdered. It was just a matter of time. My life became a matter of dodging danger, of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I began to believe that somehow, proximity—distance in space, distance in time—could protect me.

In one high profile case, a ten-year-old boy was abducted, and later, he was found murdered. I couldn’t imagine his mother’s suffering. I remember telling myself: At least I don’t have kids. Having children, I realized then, was the worst way of exposing yourself to the world. My brother-in-law once told me that having a child was like watching your own heart walking around outside your body.

Now that I have children, I have multiplied my exposure to danger.  As the news came out of Newtown on Friday, as the full magnitude of the event became clear, I counted the hours until my children would be home safe from school. The superintendent of my daughter’s school district issued an emergency communication promising “increased police presence” at the schools, which, we were assured, was “purely precautionary.” In one online news story, a Newtown resident was quoted as saying that he hoped his neighbor, a Sandy Hook teacher, was not among those who were shot. Like me, he hoped it was someone else, someone he didn’t know.

That evening, my brother-in-law called. “How far away is that school from you?” he asked. “It’s southwest of here, probably forty-five miles,” I told him. “Not that close.” He was asking about proximity. How close are you—in space, in time, in impact—to the horror?

Is it human nature to measure our proximity to events of great magnitude? People older than I often recall exactly where they were when they heard news of JFK’s death, men landing on the moon, Pearl Harbor. My generation has no shortage of momentous events: the Challenger disaster, the Berlin Wall coming down, Columbine, Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech, and, most memorable of all, 9/11.

On 9/11, I was working at a cemetery in Northern Virginia, a little over twenty miles from the Pentagon. My husband and three of my brothers-in-law were all working nearby in Northern Virginia or Washington, DC that morning. Although no one I knew was directly impacted, we did eventually bury one Pentagon victim at the cemetery where I worked. I watched his wife weep during the funeral. That was my proximity.

My students, college freshmen, remember 9/11 through the lens of childhood. On 9/11 they were about the age my daughter is now. Earlier this semester the subject of 9/11 came up in a class. How much were they told? I asked them. What did they know? One of my students said she was told nothing at all about it at school, but another said that her class watched the whole thing unfold on television. “We knew everything,” she told me. “From the very beginning. They didn’t keep anything from us. We were right there watching it all.”

What, if anything, should we tell our children about what happened in Newtown? Many parents here and across the country asked themselves that question over the weekend as they prepared to send their children back to school on Monday.

My own children didn’t yet know. They had been told nothing at school on Friday. We don’t have a television, so there was no chance of them hearing it on the news. I knew it would be best to tell my second grader, since she would likely hear about it somewhere, but I hadn’t figured out what to say. Then on Sunday morning, as she mixed waffle batter while listening to Christmas carols on the radio, the announcer mentioned “the children and the brave teachers we lost in Newton, Connecticut, on Friday.” My daughter looked at me and said, “What happened to the teachers?” I said, “I’ll tell you later.”

I read the articles about what to say to children: that we should give them the most basic information, that we should reassure them that they’re safe, that adults are here to protect them. And yet all of these things that I might say are not completely true. You are not safe. There are other shooters. You are never safe.

It was my husband who told our daughter that someone who had something wrong with his brain shot some people on Friday, that the shooter was gone, that her school was safe. He told her that if she wanted to talk about it, she should talk to her parents or her teacher or the social worker at her school. He asked her if she had any questions. She didn’t.

On Facebook I discovered that I know people who know people who lost a child. I can count my degrees of separation, measure my proximity. And I am just one person away. Just one person stands between me and the anguish of Newtown. An acquaintance knows one of the families. She changed her profile picture to one in which she is hugging a girl who is now dead. They are as close as can be, skin on skin. The dead girl’s mother has posted comments. I see her words on Facebook, and she is almost in a room with me, almost speaking to me. We are not that far apart.

Another Facebook friend who lives in my town and has two young children posted a quote from his daughter’s former kindergarten teacher: “No one’s perfect, but a five-year-old comes pretty darned close.” I think of my son, just shy of five, who doesn’t know about Sandy Hook. And I will not tell him, not now. Because he is still so close to perfection. Because he—and all of our children—deserve to live in a better world, and the only way I can give him even a piece of that world is by shielding him from the real world. In the world I make for him, first graders are not gunned down in their classrooms. In the world I make for him, he does not have to go to school in fear. In the world I make for him, he does not have to measure his proximity to tragedy. I do enough of that for the both of us.

On Monday, I got emails from my daughter’s teacher and school principal. With the crisis team standing by, all went well at school. It was “a routine day.” But that afternoon I made the mistake of turning on the Christmas carols again. During a break, the announcer said, “The first funerals were held today.” I hurried to turn off the radio, but my daughter had already heard.

“Is that related to that thing that happened with the person whose brain didn’t work properly?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I told her. “You’ll probably be hearing about it for awhile.”

“And then what? It will blow over?” Her tone was so flippant that at first I was appalled, but then I realized that she was merely mimicking the way adults talk. She has learned this from us.

“Well,” I finally said. “It won’t blow over for those who were directly affected.”

“Were we directly affected?”

“Well, no,” I told her, desperate to change the subject. “We don’t know anyone in that town.”

And I chose to say nothing more, to make no more of the matter, because being seven years old is not that far from perfect either. Because I can do enough thinking about children being shot for the both of us.

And then there is the proximity of time. Four days after the event, even as we keep burying children, already the headlines are suggesting a hint of normalcy. Already in our yearning to put pain behind us, we begin to turn away from tragedy. And I shield my children from it, fiercely, protecting them in their brief innocence, their perfection. Yet while I keep them out of proximity of fear and tragedy, I remind myself that what happened at Sandy Hook did not happen somewhere near here to someone I don’t know. It happened right here. It happened to all of us.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Keeping Track: Fiction of Lists

I am fascinated with lists. I collect books such as The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing by Robert E. Belknap and Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations by Liza Kirwin. I keep endless lists, I’ve written about making lists, and I’ve written fiction based on lists. And recently, I had the pleasure of reading through short story submissions and selecting stories for an anthology, Keeping Track: Fiction of Lists, due out from Main Street Rag this month.


In the spirit of crafting fiction from lists, I offer the following writing exercise, which I’ve used in creative writing classes.

Starting with Lists: A Fiction Writing Exercise

“Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” 1844

“Fictional prose is wonderfully omnivorous, capable of assimilating all kinds of nonfictional discourse—letters, diaries, depositions, even lists—and adapting them to its own purposes.”
—David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, 1992

1. Think about different types of lists that can be used to frame a story. For example:
  • A specific list or catalogue (types of birds, favorite superheroes, foods I won’t eat, places I’ve been, things I’ve lost, etc.)
  • Facebook status updates, tweets, or text messages
  • A “to do” list, a “how to” list, a shopping list, or a packing list
  • A PowerPoint presentation (which often includes bulleted lists)
  • Other brief texts, such as timelines, advertising copy, menus, inventories, itineraries, recipes, rules and regulations, etc.
2. Pick one of the forms that you’re comfortable using. Think about what kind of character would use the form you’ve selected. For example, an avid birdwatcher may very well make a list of birds, but an elderly woman who has never used a computer is not going to describe her day in a series of tweets. In other words, make sure the chosen form fits with the story and characters and that the storytelling impulse lies in the form. Don’t force it.

3. Once you have your form and protagonist in mind, make a list of a dozen or so items—e.g., a dozen Facebook status updates, a dozen things to do, a dozen instructions, a dozen items to buy, a dozen food items on a menu, a dozen meetings on an itinerary, etc. Be sure to leave space between the items to insert additional writing later.

4. Now read through your items and see what kind of a story they are beginning to tell. Rearrange them if necessary. How does your protagonist get from the first item to the second? From the second to the third? What happens in the interim? Begin to fill in the gaps between the items with narrative. Have your character explain her list, moving the story from one item to the next.

5. When you’re finished, read through what you’ve written. Does it look like the rough draft of a story? If not, what’s missing? Is there more to tell? Consider the following three outcomes:
  • Are the items in your original list still serving an important purpose in the story? What would happen if you took them out and left only the narrative that you inserted? You might find that your original list is only serving as scaffolding, and once you build the story around it, you can dismantle it.
  • Or what would happen if you added more items to your list? What would happen if you added more narrative? Can you find a balance between the number of items and the amount of narrative that makes the story seem complete? Are the lists and the narrative related to one another and serving to enhance one another?
  • A third possibility is you might discover that the narrative does not, in fact, serve a useful function in the story. It might have allowed you to learn more about your character and his circumstances, but in the end, you might find that you want to tell the entire story in list form. Just make sure that your chosen form is able to adequately tell the full story. Can your lists evolve or change sufficiently to reflect your character’s growth over the course of the story?   

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Dragons of Fall

When the first glimmerings of fall color light up the trees, I tell my children that the dragons of fall have arrived. First, they spend several nights flying over, stirring the cool air with their massive wings, surveying the trees, seeking out the most tantalizing foliage, usually at the very tips of the highest branches. And then, slowly, they begin their work, gently singeing the select leaves with their fire, turning them red, orange, or yellow, depending on each dragon’s temperament. Wouldn’t their fire burn the trees? the children want to know. Ah, but these are the dragons of fall. Their lungs full of frost, they singe with icy breaths. Every night they come, for weeks, starting the first slow fires of color in the trees. They are the smoldering dragons, the catalyst dragons, the ones that get it all started. And sometimes, if you’re up very early in the morning, you might see pools of fog in hollows and valleys—these are the places where, in the pre-dawn, the big dragons, tired from their night of work, take their baths before winging home, and what you’re seeing is the steam from their recent ablutions. If you’re very quiet, you might hear the far-off creaking of their squeaky clean scales as they head home.


During my commute along two-lane roads through rural western Massachusetts, I feast my eyes on color: the fields pebbled over in pumpkins, the roadside stands with their starbursts of mums, wagons piled high with gourds and squash, sugar pumpkins spilling out of bushel baskets, and warty, haggard heirloom varieties piled high in rustic crates. At one quintessential New England church, dazzlingly white against blue sky, orange pumpkins crowd the grass and the front steps, more than a hundred, like a whole congregation flocking to the doors of the church. Every day more leaves change over, and every day I think: today must be it, the most dazzling day of fall, the climax of autumn. And every day, I am astonished anew with more color. This is the time of year when the foliage differentiates itself, the green mass of forest suddenly becoming individual trees, vibrant reds and golds and browns. And in the wild places, the vines that normally blend in so well, secretly, insidiously strangling trees, suddenly have their presence betrayed when their captives redden or yellow in their still-green grip. Sometimes, it’s the choking vine that turns color and is left holding its green prey in a blood red stranglehold.  

After the big dragons have done their smoldering work, the miniature dragons arrive. Known as the spice dragons, they travel in immense flocks that fill the nighttime sky. Descending on the trees, they send out their little jets of fire—no bigger than the flame on a crème brûlée torch—to color the leaves, continuing the work of the big harbinger dragons, the pioneering ones that come first and leave in their wake the first hues of fall, marking the territory, laying out the palette of colors that the spice dragons fill in, leaf by careful leaf, like a paint-by-number. Why are they called the spice dragons? the children want to know. Each flock is responsible for a single color; the cinnamon dragons turn leaves cinnamon brown, the saffron dragons turn leaves saffron yellow, and so on. Flocks of cumin, vanilla bean, nutmeg, coriander, cayenne, paprika, peppercorn, clove, ginger, and sumac dragons crowd the skies. Each imparts only the color, not the scent, of the spice. But the children swear they can catch a whiff of cinnamon walking under the browning leaves of an oak. What about the leaves that are two different colors, green and red? What kind of dragon did that? Those two-tone leaves are created by the tiniest spice dragons of all, the ones who can make barely a match flame of fire. One such tiny dragon can’t color even a single leaf in a night’s work, so it comes back night after night, sending out its tiny licks of flame until the whole leaf is colored.


One night, as I’m putting the children to bed, they demand to know what has become of the moon. I tell them it fell out of the sky so I put it under my bed. How did it fall? The riveting dragons who are responsible for anchoring it in place each night got careless and didn’t put enough rivets in it, and then when the wind blew, it fell out of the sky. Luckily, the nailing dragons who nail the stars into place each night are never so careless, or else we’d have all those sharp stars falling from the sky and walking around barefoot would be hazardous. At least the moon is smooth. Can we go look under your bed to see the moon? Well, it’s pretty dull and lusterless now because it’s early. It won’t really start shining until the middle of the night. The children threaten to peek at it in the middle of the night, but of course they don’t, and the next morning the moon is gone, the space under the bed empty but for a few dust bunnies. All of those moonbeams shooting out from under my bed kept me up all night, I explain, so I returned the moon to the riveting dragons at dawn with an admonishment to use more rivets next time. I told them that I couldn’t keep their moon for them again.  


We walk to visit a nearby three-centuries-old white oak. The children pick up the oak leaves that are just beginning to turn to brown leather. Where do the flocks of spice dragons live? They live in the hollows of ancient trees like this one. Oak leaves are good and sturdy for the dragons’ winter attire. Dragons don’t wear clothes! The miniature dragons do. They sew little suits out of oak leaves and spiderwebs. How else are they going to stay warm in the winter months? Are dragons cold-blooded? They’re lukewarm-blooded, with cold lungs and hot hearts. Do the miniature spice dragons grow into big dragons? The lifecycle of a dragon is a long story, best saved for another day. You know the leaves that are yellow and brown, or red and purple and gold? That happens when two or three flocks of spice dragons join and work together on the same leaf. That’s right, I say. That’s exatly right. My daughter peers into the hole in the old oak, declaring that she can see the passageways into two separate chambers, but no dragons.  


The children cultivate mums and asters on the front porch. We harvest their pumpkin crop—a mere three beefsteak tomato-sized pumpkins—but we bake them, mash the pulp, and make pumpkin bread, filling the kitchen with the scent of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger, the scents of spice dragons. And we dig up the cool fall soil and slip creamy cloves into the ground, our yearly October garlic planting. Eight months from now, in the heat of next summer, we will harvest our fall planting and remember the dragons. 


Are there dragons for other times of the year? Oh yes, I tell my children. Every season has its dragons. Just you wait and see.



Sunday, September 30, 2012

How to Tell a Story

Fall, 2012

I'm with a group of about sixty tree nuts at historic Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, and Ed Richardson is leading us around, pointing out magnificent specimens and describing how he inventoried approximately 1,800 big trees on the cemetery grounds. After completing his inventory, he tells us, his project was written up in the Hartford Courant, and a former Cedar Hill groundskeeper called him up to talk about his work. Facing his audience and speaking into a small microphone, Ed Richardson launches into the meat of his story.

So this guy, this former groundskeeper, said, “What about that weirdo hemlock on section 16?”

“Weirdo hemlock?” I said. “I’m not sure about that. Is this a grave tree or a big tree?”

“A grave tree.”

“I didn’t inventory the grave trees,” I told him.

Ed Richardson briefly explains the difference. Cedar Hill, designed by landscape architect Jacob Weidenmann in the 1860s as a rural cemetery, features park-like common areas landscaped with large trees, while the family-owned plots have smaller shrubs and trees planted near individual graves. In his inventory, Ed Richardson had focused on the large trees.

“Well, you ought to go look at it,” he said.

“Is it a dwarf?” I asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t know anything about dwarf trees. I’m a big tree guy.”

They talked about it some more, he tells us as he leads us among the graves. Even though I’ve heard this story three times on three different tours, I still can’t get enough of it. I hang on every word.

“I’ll go take a look at this dwarf tree you’re talking about,” I said. “But I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

Well, I looked at it, and I thought, this is a weirdo alright. It had little short needles coming right out of the trunk and branches. Looked like an evergreen cactus.


I was able to find one cone. He holds up a finger. It was an Eastern hemlock cone. So I thought it might be a cultivar.

He takes us a bit further, and we all stay close, waiting to catch his words. He describes going home and looking in his four-volume encyclopedia of trees, translated from German, and finding a list of around seventy-five cultivars of the Eastern hemlock, each with a dense paragraph of description.

This is hopeless, I thought, but I just kept reading. And then about halfway through, I came to a paragraph and thought, man, that’s it on the nose. I kept reading, and at the end of the paragraph, I came to a sentence that said, “This is the Huss hemlock propagated by John Francis Huss of Hartford, Connecticut, around 1902.”

We arrive at our destination. Ed Richardson points at a monument flanked by two slender hemlocks. He hits the climax of his story:

The name on the monument was Huss.


There are murmurs of surprise and delight as his listeners stand looking at the stone and its guardian trees. After the story has had its full impact, Ed Richardson goes on to explain that Huss had been a groundskeeper at Hartford’s Goodwin mansion at the end of the nineteenth century. He doesn’t know how old the trees are, he continues; they may date back to Huss’s death in 1925 or even earlier.

I read the names on the monument and come up with my own narrative. Huss had two wives who predeceased him: Rosalie Mouillerat, who died in 1907, and Helen E. Hamilton, who died in 1909. So I imagine that John Huss himself planted those two trees, his own cultivar, one for each of his loves.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


My lists are proliferating—lists of writing stuff, teaching stuff, kid stuff, household stuff, each main list branching into its own taxonomy of sub-lists and sub-sub-lists. Writing lists include “novel revisions,” “essays to write,” and even “blog”—which further branches into lists of blog entries that I aspire to write. I want to tell you about babies touching tree bark, about a day at the beach in Ventura, about trees we’ve planted, about a blue china box full of maple samaras from Omaha, about an accordion file stuffed to overflowing with 568 letters sitting right by my desk, and about my daughter’s toothbrush (to name just a handful of items on my “blog” list). But as always, my lists are in conflict, competing for my time, my attention.

When my daughter was three and my son a baby, we took a road trip from our home in Nebraska to Montana to visit family. I made endless lists to prepare for the trip—stuff for the three-year-old, stuff for the seven-month-old, stuff for the adults, perishable and nonperishable foods, stuff to do before we left, stuff my brother needed to do while we were gone, stuff I needed to do upon returning. I ended up with so many lists on so many different sheets of paper that I created a separate list—titled The Master List of Lists—to keep track of them all.

During the two-day drive, after having exhausted the picture books, sticker books, coloring books, and audio books, the three-year-old came up with an engrossing new activity. “Let’s make lists!” she cried exuberantly, so we occupied ourselves for the rest of the drive by making lists: Relatives We’re Going to See, Things We’re Going To Do, Favorite Songs, Favorite Numbers, Favorite Books, Reasons Baby Brothers Cry, Good Things to Eat, Beautiful Colors, Friendly Animals. She proudly held the growing stack of pages in her hands. I had—inadvertently—taught her well.

But later, back from our trip, we were sitting on our front lawn when my daughter curled into my lap. “I want to go back to Montana,” she told me. Distracted, I replied, “What were your favorite things about Montana? Let’s make a list.”

“Just being there,” she said. “It’s not something you put on a list.” And I will never forget the look of exasperation she gave me, the way she climbed out of my lap to go sit next to her brother who was chewing on a blade of grass, the way they both sat looking away from me at the crab apple trees in front of our house. Chastised, I watched my children sitting there as the deep blue began to seep into the sky, as the trees became dark silhouettes etched into the twilight. And I thought of all the things I did each day that never appear on a list: Read books with my children. Look at the sky. Enjoy an apple. Listen to a song. Tell a joke. Watch a bird. Touch a tree. These—and so many others—are beyond the reach of my lists.  

I sit writing this post—which I never planned to write, which wasn’t even on the list—and I watch the clock, trying to resist the urge to flip open my notebook. For the moment, I am here, but too soon I will be consulting the list, looking for the notation that will tell me where to go from here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Found Texts

For the past ten weeks, I’ve spent time with a dozen writers in a virtual classroom, exploring “found texts”—what they are, where they may be found, and how they may be used in writing. This week, my students are turning in their final projects, a stunning mélange of fiction and nonfiction that incorporates lists, recipes, emails, PowerPoint presentations, photographs, maps, diaries, text messages, letters, consumer surveys, instruction manuals, scientific research, questionnaires, genealogical research, historical research, and a number of other found texts. Together, we have built lists of types of found texts that can be incorporated in our writing as well as examples of published writers who use found texts. Even though the class is drawing to a close, I know I’ll be ruminating over everything that we’ve covered for a long time to come. (I think I may have learned more from my students than I taught them, but don’t tell them.)

I also spent most of the month of August—while teaching the class—in Southern California, where I went on several hikes in the San Gorgonio Wilderness of the San Bernardino Mountains. So when I wasn’t thinking about found texts, I was walking in the mountains.


And yet even in the mountains I seek out texts. Ascending the final steps to the top of a ten thousand-foot peak, I begin to look for the battered ammunition case chained to a rock that holds the peak’s register. After hours on foot, at the top of Grinnell or Zahniser or Mt. San Gorgonio (at 11,500 feet, the tallest peak in Southern California), people scrawl their messages in registers—small notebooks often stashed in plastic sandwich bags inside the metal containers. They record their names, their time to the summit, their total number of ascents, their routes and destinations, their hometowns, sometimes their ages, the lyrics to a favorite song, a beloved quotation, a small sketch, a dedication.


Some of these registers—especially ones in the Sierra Nevada—are historical documents in their own right, recording the first ascents of famous mountaineers dating back a hundred years or more. The registers I’ve seen in the San Bernardino Mountains are more recent—some going back to the 1970s, complete with mentions of Led Zeppelin—but others are not more than a couple of years old. Some purists argue that the registers are trash, clutter, eyesores in the pristine wilderness, and yet I am drawn to them—to learn who has come before me, to feel the presence of others who have stood on that peak. Looking out over the landscape from a high point, I am separated by those others who came before and the others who will follow only by the thin fabric of time.


On Charlton Peak, at 10,806 feet, the register is a new spiral-bound pocket notebook, begun just last month on 7/19/2012. The entries take up just a couple of pages. I read through them, thinking of found texts, thinking of my students, thinking of that other life down the mountain. And then I fish the stub of a pencil out of the ammo case and add my own words for someone else to find.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Maple Birthday

My daughter was born at the tail end of winter, spring just weeks away, and as I sat for hours holding and nursing her, my firstborn, I was acutely attuned to the time of year, the slant of the low winter sun, the gradual lengthening of the days, the changing angle of light coming in through the window onto the pair of us in the rocking chair. I followed that shifting rectangle of anemic light across the floor of the nursery to treat her mild jaundice, holding my baby up like an offering to the sun. How carefully I tracked the sun in my daughter’s first weeks, how slowly the time eked by as I longed for spring and for sleep, sensing that I would wake from my post-partum daze as the natural world erupted in bloom. But for those first weeks, everything seemed dormant, in stasis, and yet so much was already beginning to happen: the bulbs stirring underground, the birds already winging our way, the grasses preparing to green, the latent shoots waiting to emerge, and the sap flowing vigorously, secretly in the still leafless trees.

Now I tell my daughter that she was born during one of the most special times of the year, when the world is secretly preparing for rebirth, when the trees are great columns of moving sap, when the maple sugaring season is in full swing here in New England where we now live.

On my daughter’s seventh birthday, we invited about eighteen boys and girls, most of them first graders, to a local 4-H farm for a maple sugaring party. The day started with an indoor lesson about how to identify different types of maple trees based on their leaves, bark, and buds. The children sat in a half-circle on the floor listening to the naturalist and passing around maple samaras, pressed leaves, and bits of bark. Next they took turns practicing drilling a hole into a log with a hand brace and fitting the spile—or spout—into the taphole. They learned about different types of maples—sugar, black, red, even silver—all suitable for tapping, though the sugar maple is preferred for commercial production due to its higher sugar content and longer season.

Running out into the sunny, chilly March morning, the children headed for the sugar bush where they gathered around the maples, examining the spiles, lifting the lids and peering into the aluminum buckets collecting sap. At the naturalist’s invitation, they dipped their fingers into the buckets and sucked the sweet sugar water or let the slow drips off the spiles accrue in small puddles in their palms, which they licked away with relish.  

Next they headed for the sugarhouse, gasping at the intense heat and smoke from the wood-burning evaporator boiling down the sap. Standing in a safe perimeter around the fire, they listened to the naturalist tell them about the process of evaporation. Every forty gallons of sap, she told them, makes just one gallon of maple syrup. As the children’s cheeks began to glow red from the heat, she told them Native American legends about the genesis of the maple’s sweet sap and how people first learned of its deliciousness.

Of course it didn’t begin there. The year before, when my daughter was turning six, I took her to a maple sugaring class at another local farm. “There’s nothing quite like it in my experience,” said the naturalist who led that class. “You put a hole in a tree and you get water. Then you boil it down and get syrup.” We learned that maple syrup production is unique to North America, that the first accounts of Native Americans consuming the sap of maple trees date to the 1500s. We learned the ideal conditions for tapping the trees—temperatures in the forties during the day, in the twenties at night—and that the sugaring season typically lasts around six weeks, sometimes four, sometimes even eight. The season comes to an end when the temperatures stay above freezing or the buds on the trees begin to open. The sugar of this season, the naturalist told us, is what the tree built up last summer and stored as starch, so the production of this winter is determined by the conditions of the summer before.

To be tapped, a tree has to be a minimum of ten inches in diameter, usually thirty to fifty years old. A tree between eighteen and twenty-four inches in diameter can have two buckets; a tree over twenty-inches can have three. A good day’s flow fills a gallon bucket. Taking sap from a tree, the naturalist told us, is like donating blood. As long as you don’t overdo it, it doesn’t harm the tree. Some trees have been tapped every year for a century.

“And just think that this happens right on my birthday,” my daughter told me at the end of the class. That was the genesis of the maple birthday. She planned the party for a whole year.

Hungry from their time in the outdoors, the children headed back inside to eat. There was no cake at this party. Instead, the children were offered all-you-can-eat pancakes with maple syrup from the farm’s trees, poured out of mason jars. My daughter ate six, but my daughter’s friend who had also just turned seven, who was also a child of maple season, ate a record seven. Their stomachs full, the children headed back outside to roll down the hill and visit the 4-H animals in the barn. Near the end of the party, my daughter stationed herself by a box of the goody bags she had assembled herself. As the children prepared to leave, she handed each of her friends a brown paper bag hand-stamped with a maple leaf containing homemade maple cookies and a slip of paper with a maple-themed joke she had written and signed herself.

The maple birthday was really a series of lessons disguised as a party. Our goals were lofty: We wanted the children become more aware of the cycle of the seasons, to understand that they live on a planet where every day is not the same. We wanted them to think about how the natural world depends on these cycles—that there is a time when animals sleep the deep slumber of winter, a time when the leaves redden and then crisp, a time when nestlings fledge, and a time when the sap begins to course through trees. We wanted them to be aware of consequences—that what the trees did last summer affects them now, in late winter. We wanted them to appraise trees with an expert’s eye: “That’s a maple,” my daughter will say. “And I’m pretty sure it’s a three-bucket tree.” And we wanted them to know the sources of their food, to understand that maple sugaring is unique to this continent, that is has a long history and folklore. We wanted them to see the inherent worth of the local, the homemade, and to participate in the production of something valuable and delicious.

But really, it came down to sheer enjoyment. What seven-year-old can resist a big fire, a good story, and a puddle of syrup on a plate? What child wouldn’t want to run outside among the maples in the late winter days suddenly brimming over with light?

The party over, the children spilled into the arms of their parents, sticky-fingered, sated, the scent of wood smoke in their hair.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fresh Cuts

November, 2011

After the storm, after power was restored, after the children were back in school and the husbands back at work, still the chainsaws droned for weeks, the air laced with a sawdust haze, as the work of removing thousands of fallen trees continued. Daily I was dazzled by the sight of so many trees rent apart, so many raw trunks, oozing sap, the exposed wood the hues of mushroom and egg yolk with streaks of charcoal, rust, chocolate, the demarcations of earlywood and latewood, the cornmeal sapwood, the burnt umber heartwood, the punctuating pith in the centers, and the centuries-old trees hiding for so long the secrets of their hollowed centers where for decades caverns quietly opened, supplanting the rotted heartwood—so many narratives of lives laid bare in rings and cavities, so much grain glaring, asking to be read, so much suddenly revealed to the eye that is normally hidden, internal.

On one such grain-filled post-storm morning I take my son to preschool, my mind so full of wood that I begin to read the grain of that day, trying to catch, in the weak autumn sunlight, the contours of its rings, but the cut is so fresh, the wood so commonplace and unremarkable, that it seems indistinguishable from all the other preschool mornings. Over time I know that the grain will grow more pronounced, darker, with a patina on the surface from the rubbing of hands, the rubbing of memory. What is merely today will then seem quaint, a relic, history: what we talked about, what we wore, what technologies we carried on our bodies, what crusades we were on, what toys we offered our children, what cars we drove, which five-point harnesses we secured our babies with, who we thought we were, what we made of our world. And also: how our minds were narrow and ignorant, what qualities we had in abundance, what qualities we lacked, which parts of our lives will become outdated, antediluvian, what kinds of new whorls and knots and kinks of structure hindsight will bring out, what kinds of innocence we brimmed with back before X and Y calamity occurred in the world, back then when we were all still living, back before the children, born and unborn, became the adults and usurped us and looked back at us with pity or disdain or envy or nostalgia. This is the raw wood of this day, my mind just wide enough to glimpse the surface of this new cut, and to see that every dawn is freshly cut wood exposed for the first time to light.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

How (Not) to Fly a Toy Helicopter

First, due to your four-year-old’s latest object of fascination, acquire a remote control helicopter. Though the package indicates “age 14+,” and though your son is a whole decade shy of the age requirement, figure that 4-year-old + dad = successful helicopter flight. Unfortunately, as you will soon discover, the package fails to mention that in addition to being 14+, one needs also to be in possession of a helicopter pilot’s license with 500+ hours of flight time logged. Thus, you will learn that 14 + several decades + a college education and innumerable talents – helicopter flying experience does not = successful helicopter operation.

But don’t get ahead of yourself. Flying a helicopter is a serious undertaking. Take this one step at a time. And whatever you do, do not read the instructions. I repeat: do not read the instructions. They will not help you. They will only terrify you. Or baffle you. Or astonish you. But already you’re peeking at the cover. You note that your “R/C Helicopter Using Instruction” warns: “To avoid copter’s damage and player’s injury, please read this instruction before flying!” Yes, the exclamation point seems emphatic, but don’t do it!!

I know: you can’t resist. You open the Using Instruction. Just remember: I warned you. As the four-year-old and his dad begin to disentomb the helicopter from its Styrofoam sarcophagus, you read out loud with the seven-year-old looking over your shoulder. “Safety regulations,” you begin. “One: Placed in small parts of the reach of children, to avoid accidents.”

“Mom, I think that says to put small parts in the reach of children to avoid accidents,” the seven-year-old observes.

“Hmm, yes, that’s how I would read it,” you comment.

“Well luckily,” the seven-year-old says wryly, “Dad already did that.” She points at the baggies of various miniscule parts clutched in the four-year-old’s hands.

“Great, so we’re safe,” you say and keep reading. “Two: The blades of this helicopter is used activities blades, don’t screw up.”

“You got that, Dad?” says the seven-year-old. “Don’t screw up.”

You notice that the four-year-old is beginning to look nervous, but you plod on. “Three: The helicopter was powerful, should be gradually pushed up the remote control shift lever on the left for first flight, to avoid the surge caused the helicopter crash damage.”

“Crash damage,” echoes the seven-year-old. “That sounds bad.”

You decide to skip ahead. “Six: Note that when the helicopter to keep the user or other persons from 2-3 m to avoid the helicopter flight, landing crashed into another person’s head, face and body and so on.”

The four-year-old’s face takes on a blanched, stricken expression. “Maybe I should stop reading this out loud,” you say.

With the helicopter finally free of its plastic fetters, the four-year-old and his dad begin to examine the remote control. “We’ll have to charge it,” your husband observes. “What does it say about charging?”

Against your better judgment, you begin reading again. “Don’t soak the toys in the water, or the electronic parts will be destructed,” you offer. “Do not use the battery slam or beating hard surface.”

“I should have clarified,” your husband interrupts. “What useful information is there about charging?”

“Iron core device charging time: can be 240~250 minutes flying about 7~8 minutes!” you say. “In case my voice didn’t carry the inflection, there’s an exclamation point at the end of that sentence.”

“That’s because that’s over half an hour of charging time for every minute of flight time,” your husband observes. “The writers of the Using Instruction were expressing their shock and outrage.”

When the four-year-old learns that you have to charge the helicopter for an inordinately long time, he seems oddly relieved. He becomes jovial, talkative.

“Mom, what did people use for batteries in the olden days?”

“People didn’t use batteries in the olden days,” you reply. “Those lucky ducks.”

“So everything was kid-powered?” he clarifies.

“Kid-powered, grownup-powered, sometimes horse-powered. Maybe mule-powered.”

“Maybe frog-powered,” the four-year-old offers. “Snake-powered. Worm-powered.”

This desultory conversation will go on for awhile; if possible, prolong it for 240~250 minutes. Otherwise, bake blueberry muffins, draw construction equipment with chalk on the sidewalk, take a nap, and trap some sow bugs in a jar and bombard them with crumbs from the aforementioned muffins for their afternoon snack.

Finally, when the helicopter is charged, follow your family into the backyard. You might as well bring along the Using Instruction even though it will be of absolutely no use. Still, it may give you comfort to have something to grip in your sweaty hands. Watch as your husband sets the helicopter in the center of the yard and moves back holding the remote control. You see that the children are clutching one another’s hands on the patio, staying as near to the house as possible. Note that their instincts are good.

Due to your nervous habit of reading anything at hand during moments of great tension, you open the Using Instruction. “Maybe we should read the ‘Ready to fly’ section,” you offer. “One: Please recheck the ground, keep away from the crowds, animals and other barriers.”

“Animals are barriers?” the seven-year-old asks.

“To a helicopter,” you reply. “Two: Push the motive handle must be pushed to the maximum control route of travel first, then adjust it to the lowest.”

But you husband is no longer listening. He’s pushing levers on the remote control, and something is happening to the helicopter. It seems to be jumping back and forth, lifting its front up and then its rear, front and rear, like a person rocking from his toes to his heels.

“The spinners are going,” you observe.

“Those are rotors,” the four-year-old corrects you as he clings to his sister for dear life.

“I have a trim problem,” your husband mutters. “I can’t seem to control the pitch and yaw.”

“There’s nothing in here about pitching and yawing,” you observe. “There’s a section called ‘Helicopter control ways.’” You study the diagram. “Is your spinner going clockwise or anticlockwise?”

“Rotor,” says the four-year-old.

“Shouldn’t it be counterclockwise?” says the seven-year-old.

“I think anticlockwise might be British,” you reply.

“Did the British write those instructions?” she asks.

“I most certainly hope not,” you say. “OK. Does this help? ‘When the helicopter tail presents the clockwise rotation, you may the counterclockwise rotation you in the hand the remote control vernier adjustment knob until balanced.’”

“Yes, well, the vernier adjustment knob seems to be too sensitive,” your husband replies, and suddenly the helicopter launches into the air, ascending at an astonishing rate to twenty feet, thirty, where it begins to careen crazily, as if dodging imaginary fire. Without warning, it heads towards the neighbor’s yard and, as if on a suicide mission, crashes into an oak tree.

“DADDY, IS MY HELICOPTER BROKEN?” shrieks the four-year-old.

“Your dad’s going to go get it,” you tell your son while his dad goes tromping off into the vegetation at the property line where the helicopter has crash landed.

Surprisingly, the helicopter is unscathed, and your husband decides to give it another try. The children wrap their arms around one another in a full-on embrace. Again, the helicopter does its heel-to-toe Irish dance in preparation for its sudden ascent. This time, it begins to fly toward the house and the patio while your husband is frantically jamming the levers on the control. The kids watch it, wide eyed, and at the last minute it seems to plummet from the sky and fly straight for them just a couple of feet above their heads, as though intending to strafe them. They skitter away and take cover under the table while the helicopter zooms past them and clatters onto the patio.

“DADDY, THAT’S ENOUGH FLYING MY HELICOPTER!” screeches the four-year-old.

Your husband comes over and sets down the remote control. “I think I need to fly it into the wind,” he observes. “But we can take a break.”

Presently, the four-year-old comes out from under the table. He looks pale, shaken.

“How did people fly in the olden days?” he asks you.

“Not well at all,” you tell him.

The four-year-old nods, perhaps wishing he had lived in that simpler time, a time without batteries or human flight, a time when the world was powered by worms.

“Let’s go play in the sandbox,” the seven-year-old suggests. She takes her brother’s hand and leads him to the wooden sandbox that your husband built.

“I think if I took it to an open field,” you husband is saying, examining the rotors on the helicopter. “I think I could get the hang of it.” He picks up the Using Instruction that you’ve put on the table and begins to leaf through it with a determined glint in his eye. You can see that he and the helicopter have embarked on a long, contentious relationship. Don’t bother to say anything; it won’t do any good. Just allow the man-versus-helicopter plot to play itself out to the bitter end. Hope for the best. A few more crashes into trees just might do the helicopter in. Don’t consider the alternative.

“Mom!” the four-year-old calls from the sandbox. “What were wood and sand made of in the olden days?”

“Wood and sand,” you call back, “have always been made of wood and sand! They can never be improved on!”

And fortunately, they require no Using Instruction.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Walnut Box

He scrutinized the boards, choosing from half-inch-thick walnut planks. He was looking for interesting figure, for something beautiful, though it’s difficult to see wood’s full potential when it’s rough cut. His selection made, he fed the boards into a planer, passing them through three of four times per side, making minor adjustments between each pass. Then he finished one edge, passing the board through a jointer two or three times. He measured and marked his cuts with chalk, avoiding a loose knothole, inspecting the grain and anticipating the ways the wood might change, the cupping or bowing, the potential warping. Then he waited to give the wood time to move.

The following week, he planed and jointed the board again to attain the final thickness of 3/8”. Using a table saw, he cut the wood into five pieces. Securing each of the pieces on a workbench with bench dogs, he used a scraper to smooth the surface of the wood, shaving tiny curls all the way across the board in one continuous motion, producing a silky finished surface.

Next, he traced two arcs, large and small, onto a piece of pine. Using a router, he cut the curves onto the pine board, creating a template. He transferred the curves from the template to the walnut side pieces, creating gentle elliptical curves at the bottom of the box. Then he drew a curve on the lid of the box and shaped it with the router. In the corners of the lid he cut four knock-outs where the legs would fit. Using a small plane, he chamfered the edges of the lid. On the inside of the box’s sides, he made a slot with the table saw where the bottom of the box would be inset. On the two shorter sides, he added another slot for a small piece of wood that would support the tray.  

For the legs, he took a piece of 1x1” walnut stock, finished it, and cut it in half. Using a table saw with the blade set to 45 degrees, he chamfered all four ends of the two pieces. With a plunge router he made grooves on two adjacent sides of the leg pieces. Then he cut the two pieces in half, making four legs. Using a chisel, he made tongues in the edges of the side pieces that matched the grooves in the legs. In the rear legs he drilled small holes that would hold the lid pins. The bottom of the box he cut from a piece of aspen plywood, making small knock-outs for the legs.

Once the pieces were ready, he built the box dry, without glue, to see how it would fit together. The finished dimensions were approximately 20x8x4”. When the pieces fit well, he began gluing the case together, putting glue in the grooves and carefully working in the tongues. After attaching the short sides to the legs, he waited a week for the glue to dry. Then he glued the long sides to the legs, fit the bottom into its slot, and assembled the case.

While the case dried, he built the tray. Again, he selected and milled the wood. After cutting it into five pieces for the tray’s bottom and four sides, he cut a groove in the side pieces into which the bottom would fit securely. Then he made half-lap joints on the corners of the box, using contrasting birch-wood the diameter of a toothpick to pin the corners together. He glued the tray and let it dry.

He applied three coats of polyurethane to the case, lid, and tray, sanding between each application. To the lid and the inside of the drawer, he applied two extra coats. When the finish was dry, he secured the lid with brass pins, attached the brass chain, and inserted the tray. The box was finished.

And then he gave it to me for twelve years of marriage.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Big Picture

Last year, I wrote a novel. Initially, I started writing it to avoid writing more difficult things. I wrote it as a leisure activity, on a lark. Actually, it started out as a novella. No, that’s not right either. It began as a short story. To be more accurate, it started as a list of questions. Really, its genesis was in just one question: What would you make of my mother, Walt Whitman?

I wasn’t sure what this question meant—or who was asking it—but then other questions came to me, and I wrote them down: Would you eat at McDonald’s, Walt Whitman? What would you think of plagiarism, Walt Whitman? If you got into a duel with Alexander Pushkin, who would win, Walt Whitman? Can you help me fix this lawnmower, Walt Whitman?

As I began writing the answers to these questions, my piece quickly ballooned from a short story into a novella. Then it grew long enough to earn the moniker “novel.” I never would have set out to write a novel on a lark, but that’s what ended up happening. I thought of it as my silly novel. It was my respite from working on Hard Writing.

Each of the questions ended up framing a chapter. I now have twenty-eight sets of questions—with answers—that make up the draft of my novel. If you asked me what my novel was about, I’d say Walt Whitman. I might also say it is narrated by a twenty-seven-year-old Russian-American doctoral student whose obsession with Walt Whitman has led her to talk to him in her head. (And no, I am decidedly not the narrator. This is a work of fiction. I hardly ever talk to Walt Whitman.)  

As I wrote, I kept going back and making additions. My work was a slow accretion of detail. I added the best friend with the autistic son, the dead father (who started out being a chemist but is now an astrophysicist), the annoying and creepy grad student who has a morbid interest in phrenology, the evangelical midwife from western Iowa who breaks the law to assist with homebirths in Nebraska. So I threw all of this in—and a bunch of other things—and then I put the manuscript away for awhile. I turned to tackling the Hard Writing.

But I kept thinking about my silly novel, about how I might improve it. I thought about it so much I decided maybe it wasn’t silly after all. Maybe it was more than a lark. Maybe it started out silly and lark-like, but maybe I could make it more than that. So I asked my friend Amanda to read it.

After ruminating over all of Amanda’s insightful comments, I see how the novel is still, at some points, an accretion of detail. I see how all the separate, discrete pieces I shimmied into place don’t make a fully harmonious whole. A novel is not just a layering of detail, a depositing of sediment; there needs to be a unity, a semblance of a complete world.

It’s time for stepping back and seeing the whole book, the parts that haven’t meshed, the parts that aren’t resolved, the parts that just don’t fit. It’s time for looking at the macro level, not the micro level. I need to see not individual words, not paragraphs, not even chapters, but the pattern they create together. I need to see the big picture. And so with Amanda’s comments, with my own scrawled notes, with Walt Whitman in my heart, with a color-coded chart, I set to work.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Flowers and First Graders

A couple of weeks ago, my husband Doug went to our daughter’s elementary school with a large carton full of pipe cleaners, pom-poms, marbles, aluminum foil, copper wire, string, tape, straws, popsicle sticks, paper cups, rubber bands, erasers, baking soda, index cards, test tubes, Petri dishes, small lengths of PVC pipe, and a flat of various potted flowers. The teachers had prepared the first graders for his visit by reading and discussing a story about a girl who needs to figure out how to pollinate a plant and, with the help of her aunt, an agricultural engineer, designs a hand pollinator. During his first visit, Doug went to each of the three first grade classes and talked to the students about engineering and technology. The first graders studied the shapes of flowers—impatiens, petunias, salvia—and tested how well pipe cleaners, pom-poms, marbles, erasers, foil, and other materials would transfer pollen. They recorded and discussed their findings in preparation for the next lesson.

The engineering unit was Doug’s culminating project for a twenty-week parent leadership class that we both recently completed. He applied for and received a grant from his employer that provided all the lesson plans and materials for the project. In consultation with the first grade teachers, he selected the curriculum on insects and pollination to complement the entomology science unit that the first graders had completed earlier in the year.

In describing why he chose to do an engineering project in our daughter’s class, Doug wrote about the gender disparity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Statistics show that females continue to lag behind their male counterparts in STEM careers. For example, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce Report, the STEM workforce is only 24 percent women, compared to the 48 percent of women total in the U.S. workforce, a statistic that has remained unchanged for ten years. The field of engineering shows an even greater gender disparity. Only about 20 percent of engineering majors in the year 2000 were female, and a mere 9 percent of engineering jobs were held by women.

One of the factors that lies at heart of this gender disparity, researchers argue, is the degree of confidence that females have in their science, math, and engineering abilities and aptitude. For example, a recent study found that some women’s lack of confidence was “the main contributor to the gender gap between the number of males and females studying engineering and following engineering careers.” Confidence was also cited as a key factor in girls’ success in Encouraging Girls in Math and Science, a guide released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences: “Students who are more confident about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose elective math and science courses in high school and more likely to select math and science-related college majors and careers.” And many researchers agree that the time to build this confidence is during a girl’s early years.

On his second visit to first grade, Doug gave the students models of flowers (made of test tubes, Petri dishes, and PVC pipe to resemble the shapes of real flowers) with “pollen” (baking soda) as well as bags of various materials. The first graders were then given the task of constructing a hand pollinator out of the materials they had tested during the first lesson. This time, the pollinator needed to collect pollen from inside the specific type of flower each child had been assigned. Taking into consideration the flower’s structure, the students adjusted the lengths of their pollinators’ handles, selecting materials based on size, shape, and degree of flexibility. Once the pollinators were built, the children tested them, collecting the baking soda pollen on their ends and attempting to transfer it. In the time remaining, they made alterations and perfected their designs for optimal pollen transfer.  

My daughter wanted to work on a pollinator for what she considered to be the hardest flower, the bent Bucket Orchid, and she worked diligently on a design that would go around the crook in the pipe to the pollen. She made several different designs, testing them, but in the end, she discovered that her pollinators weren’t picking up noticeable pollen. As she ran out of time, she faced the fact that her pollinator design didn’t work. And we didn’t tell her that her design was successful because she knew the truth. And because feeding children platitudes is not the way to build their confidence.

When researchers talk about girls’ confidence in STEM fields, I don’t think they mean the kind of confidence that supposedly comes from boosting children’s self-esteem by telling them that they’re doing a great job, even when they’re not. In fact, studies have shown that unwarranted praise can cause students to become risk-averse and less self-motivated. Bright girls are especially “vulnerable to the inverse power of praise.”

True confidence comes from doing something with your own hands or your own mind, figuring something out, making something genuinely useful or beautiful. It comes from engineering a fairy house or a hand pollinator that works, from solving a difficult math problem or puzzle, from fixing something that has broken or adapting something to a new purpose. Confidence comes not from praise, but from true engagement with the world, from taking risks and failing, and from experiencing success firsthand.

Later, at home, my daughter asked for the pollinator materials again, and she designed a new hand pollinator for the Bucket Orchid. And this time, it worked. And she didn’t need anyone to tell her that she had succeeded.

In his report about his project, Doug also wrote about the roles of fathers in their daughters’ lives. Research shows that girls whose fathers are actively involved in their lives are more successful. Confidence, it turns out, also comes from fathers. A study in England found that children who spend large amounts of time with their fathers have higher IQs, a difference that is still discernible even thirty years later. And specifically, children whose fathers visit their classrooms and interact with their teachers tend to be more successful academically.

These are all reasons why Doug spent two afternoons building hand pollinators with sixty first graders. But there are other reasons, too. Here are just seven of them:

1. The child in one of the first grade classes who has put all of his hand pollinator handouts and diagram of the parts of a flower into a three-ring binder and has started to collect flower specimens for further study.

2. My four-year-old beginning sentences with “I have a hypothesis,” and his seven-year-old sister replying, “Let’s go test that hypothesis.” (Need I even mention that the four-year-old has already designed three of his own hand pollinators?)

3. The conversation that I recently had with a fellow mom about a local STEM magnet school where she was thinking of enrolling her son. When I told her I had visited the school, she said, “Well of course you wouldn’t enroll your daughter there.” When I asked why not, she said, “Because girls aren’t interested in math and science.”

4. The diagram that my daughter drew of a device that—were she to become a cobbler and set up shop in her second-story bedroom—would lower shoes down to customers standing in our yard.

5. The things that she asks for. “I need a strip of cloth,” she says. “I need a piece of aluminum foil. I need some foam and some tape and a glass full of hot water.” It turns out she is reading a science book on heat and wants to do an experiment on conduction. “I don’t like it when the books give you the answers,” she tells me. “I want to find the answers myself.” (And, of course, once the experiment is complete, the glass becomes a vase for flowers.)

6. The flowers that we have all begun to see in new ways; suddenly we are struck by their delicate fluted throats, their bends and kinks. “Look at that flower,” my four-year-old says. “How would you make a hand pollinator for that?”

7. And this, from my daughter: “I wonder what Dad is going to come teach my class in second grade.”

And all the other reasons we don’t yet know.

First grade ends tomorrow. My daughter’s plans for the summer? “Read lots of books, work on math problems, and design some new hand pollinators.”

We’re not trying to make her into a scientist or engineer or mathematician. We only want to make it possible for her to become those things if she so chooses. We want that path to stay open. And it begins here, right now, as so many things do. It begins with fathers and daughters. It begins with flowers and first graders.