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.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Taking Down a Tree

The same day our neighbors had a tree taken down, I planted one. Despite the seeming congruence of these events, I knew nothing of their plans to cut down their pin oak, and they knew nothing of mine to plant a blue spruce. Nonetheless, while the arborist ascended the eighty-foot oak and began to cut away its branches, in a nearby yard I dug my tree’s hole.

“Taking out a tree is a very personal decision,” my husband remarked, watching the work from our yard. Meaning: the neighbors had some very good reasons to take down the tree—including the fact that some of its branches had been broken in Storm Alfred back in the fall and its trunk and roots were buckling one side of the driveway—but I knew that what he meant was that if it were our tree, we would try to find a way to save it. A mature oak is not something to be taken lightly.

As the careful dismantling continued, others came out of their houses to watch, and it became a neighborhood event on a Saturday afternoon, something to witness. My children spread a blanket on our lawn, under the maple, and picnicked within view of the action. We watched how carefully the arborist studied the tree, as if it were an equation that needed to be balanced, calculating where to cut, how the branches would fall so they would clear the roof, the house, the cars. The branches swung away, one after another, safely to the man on the ground, who fed them into a chipper and reduced them to mulch. Soon, only the trunk remained, picked clean of limbs, pointing at the sky.

We were back inside, the children resting in their rooms, when a boom reverberated with such force that I looked out the window to see if something had struck the house. But no: it was simply the trunk being felled, striking the earth. It likely weighed around ten thousand pounds, the arborist told my husband. Such are the stems of the earth’s mightiest plants. The trunk was chainsawed into massive chunks and left strewn on the neighbors’ lawn.

When the chipper was full, my husband asked the men to dump its contents in our driveway, and for days we spread the mulch around the garden, under the children’s new playhouse, in the flower beds, keeping parts of the felled tree in the neighborhood, making use of it. And several days later, when I was home with just my son, a truck with a big claw came and gently lifted the sawed sections of trunk off the lawn, one at a time, placing them into the truck's bed as gently as a farmer would place eggs in a basket. My son watched all of this from a distance, asking for the camera to take pictures, to document the event.

And then there was still the denuded yard to grow accustomed to, the stump to study. My son examined the remains of this being, practicing his counting on its exposed growth rings. And so over days, this tree became a lesson: we learned how in its mass and bulk it was something to be reckoned with. We saw how serious and arduous the dismantling of a tree is; it is an event, something deserving of our attention.

And as all of this was going on, this happened, too: I positioned the blue spruce’s root ball in the hole and filled in the earth around it, starting a new tree in the neighborhood. But that’s another story, for another time.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

One Thousand Books

When I think of my parents, I think of them reading: my father in his green velour recliner, a history of Ancient Greece or Kievan Rus open in his hands, my mother on the couch with half a dozen books spread around her, linguistics texts, children’s picture books, literary fiction in Russian and English, Shakespeare. My parents are readers, and some of my earliest memories are of being read to by my mother, in Russian, from Russian fairytales and classics.

Now, my house is still full of books, and my children have hundreds—even thousands—of books within arm’s reach, every day. I don’t remember a day since their births that I haven’t read to them. I can’t imagine a house without books in it.

And yet, there are many children who do not live amongst such wealth. There are many children who will not have memories of being read to by their parents. When I was about ten, a neighbor boy named Michael, who was around six, lived in a home with no books. He had no adults who read to him. He often came to my house and sat on the couch with my siblings and me, listening to my mother read to all of us. Even though she read in Russian, Michael sat quietly and listened to the unfamiliar language, looking at the pictures, experiencing what it meant to be near someone reading to him.

Over the past three weeks, I collected more than one thousand children’s books to donate to the Family Resource Center at Charter Oak Academy in West Hartford, Connecticut. This was my culminating project for a twenty-week leadership course that I recently completed. I asked people for books, and they gave. The wonderful thing about books is that they’re a kind of wealth that people readily share. Books are a wealth that people pass on to others.

This morning, I took the sixteen boxes of books to the Family Resource Center. I imagine them being sorted, distributed, some being put into the hands of children like Michael, children who are not so fortunate to grow up among a wealth of books.

Seeking Home

At the conclusion of the Parent Leadership Training Institute, the twenty-one members of our class made short speeches, describing their experiences in the program. I won’t attempt to paraphrase or to speak for those who so eloquently told their own stories to our class; many are far more inspiring than my own. Since several members of the class have asked me to share the text of my speech with them, I’ve decided to post it here. This is what I said to my colleagues on the final night of class:

When we first moved here two years ago, I didn’t want to meet the neighbors. I didn’t much care what kind of house we ended up in. I didn’t make an effort to seek out community. You see, we’re on our sixth house in just twelve years of marriage (and that’s not counting temporary rentals, which puts our total residences up around twelve). We’ve owned at least one house in every time zone in the contiguous U.S. The longest we’ve stayed in any house is just under three years. In our last house, in Omaha, we stayed only ten months. By the time my daughter was five, she had lived in six different residences—four houses and two apartments—in four different cities. And coming here was just another move in an endless series of relocations. I never wanted to move here, to New England, a part of the country I had never even set foot in before, but this was where was the job was. And so grudgingly, I came.

This is not an easy town to move to, people told me. If you weren’t born here, you’ll never fit in. You can live here twenty years and still be considered a newcomer, an outsider. When locals made comments like these, I thought: it doesn’t matter; we aren’t staying anyway. I could see that New England roots went deep, and we were rootless. But after so many moves, it was easier not to make attachments, not to get involved, not to become rooted. It was easier because it would be easier to leave. But why, I finally asked myself, was I taking the easier course?

So I signed up for PLTI. And I don’t know for sure how many of you are natives, how many of you have deep roots in this place, because in PLTI that never mattered. We came together here because we all wanted to help our communities and to help our children. We came together here because we are all seeking something, a way to have an impact, a way to be present. We are here because we don’t want to do what’s easier; we want to do what should be done. And if I have learned anything in PLTI, it is this: there is work that needs to be done right here. And home is where we I am today, right now, at this moment.

The week before last, I went to a meeting of a book group at the Family Resource Center where I met a woman who recently relocated here from Kansas, two immigrants from Colombia, and a grandmother who is raising her granddaughter. After the meeting, I talked to Deborah Zipkin, who is not a native either, and I commented about how so many of the locals have deep roots with extended family networks and don’t seem to need new people in their lives.

“We’re your people,” Deb said.

And at that moment, my community project was born.

I don’t know how long we’ll be here. I don’t know where we’ll be in two years or five. But while we’re here, I want to really be here. Thank you all for being my people for these twenty weeks. I am glad to be here, now, today. Tonight, I am glad to be home.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tree Nuts

Fall, 2011

I arrive at the college parking lot early on a Saturday morning, and already the chartered bus is nearly full, my fellow travelers sipping steaming coffee and munching muffins, waiting for the show to get on the road. I sink down into my seat, anticipating a day of private pleasure. I’ve left the kids at home with my husband.

“I’m an Ed Richardson groupie,” says a woman several seats ahead of me. It’s an apt description. We are a bus full of Ed Richardson groupies.

Pulling up at Green Cemetery in Glastonbury, we make our way outside, gathering around the man with the bullhorn standing in front of a weeping mulberry. Once we’re assembled, he raises the bullhorn and begins to talk about cultivars, about weeping and grafting. The grey sky overhead ekes out a smattering of drops, but no one pays attention.

“Why are there so many weeping trees at cemeteries?” someone asks.

“Well, I guess because weeping and cemeteries go together,” the man with the bullhorn says wryly.

Laughing, we follow him to the next tree. He is our guide, Ed Richardson, an unassuming person, a retired insurance man, a sprightly octogenarian. Only his quavering hand on the bullhorn, his quiet voice that occasionally fades out betray his age. Wry and thoughtful, he is a plainspoken man who cares about trees. Not an arborist or botanist or horticulturalist, Ed Richardson is a self-made expert on notable trees, a self-proclaimed tree nut. And we are his converts, a bus full of them. We follow and we listen, learning the ways of a tree nut, learning how to pay attention to trees.

I once told an acquaintance about going on the tree tour.

“You did what?” she said. She’s my peer—but only in the sense that we’re the same age and have children of the same age.

“I rode around in a bus all day looking at trees,” I explained, but I could see in her eyes that she didn’t really get it, that she didn’t really want to get it. She changed the subject to preschools, and I didn’t breathe another word about trees.

It’s like my writing: a private pleasure. My way of engaging with the world. Looking at trees. Writing things down. I could do worse.

I’m a newcomer to Connecticut, this crumb of a New England state that I could barely locate on the map before moving here the year before. I’ve been a newcomer to so many places that I’ve grown weary of learning the towns and the attractions, of meeting people and learning their names. And then leaving. This time, I am meeting the trees—some of the state’s oldest inhabitants, and the ones most likely to stick around awhile. My mental map of Connecticut is now bristled over in trees, growing denser and more varied the more I encounter. Ed Richardson, lifetime resident of the state, is helping me to populate my map with trees.

To know trees as well as people makes for a good life. A balanced life. Sometimes, I confess, I prefer the trees.

“When you’re looking for big trees, you’re not looking out in the forests,” Ed Richardson says. “The forests of Connecticut have been cut over many times. You’re looking for owners who had the money to maintain trees.” In other words, you’re looking at the grounds of colleges, hospitals, cemeteries, parks, and private estates.

American Forests, headquartered in Washington, DC, maintains the National Register of Big Trees, and state organizations, like Connecticut’s Notable Trees Project, keep their own statewide lists. Since his retirement from the insurance industry in the mid-1980s, Ed Richardson has catalogued and measured a great many of Connecticut’s notable trees. A champion tree is identified based on a formula:

Trunk Circumference (inches) + Height (feet) + ¼ Average Crown Spread (feet) = Total Points

When two trees of the same species come within five points of one another, they are declared co-champions. Of course, measuring, recording, and cataloging are just one way to know the world. Ed Richardson knows trees in other ways, too.

He knows that trees have stories. And he knows how to tell those stories. Listeners stand spellbound as he describes “the most spectacular discovery of the tree world in the twentieth century”: the dawn redwood, believed to be extinct, found growing in China in 1943. He tells of his encounters with Hackberry Jim, a colorful character with a passion for finding hackberry emperor butterflies in their native habitat. He traces the provenance of a particular white oak, planted in 1911, identifying it as the grandchild of the Charter Oak, the legendary tree that in colonial times served as the hiding place for Connecticut’s constitutional charter.

The tour stops at a vineyard in Colchester for lunch, a wine tasting, and a tour of the property with an eye to the trees. Several large trees grow along an old stone wall, and we walk to get a better look, going past an unassuming birch growing at the edge of a small pond. Most of us trudge right past the shaggy, multi-trunked tree without giving it a second glance, because most of us don’t know how to see. But Ed Richardson, bringing up the rear, stops at the tree, his trained eye locking on it, seeing something extraordinary.

Eventually we’re all herded back to the birch, a sense of expectancy suddenly permeating the proceedings. A discovery has been made. We wait for Ed Richardson to speak, and finally he does, announcing that the tree—a gray birch—is most likely the new state champion and even possibly a new national champion. Cheers sound all around. Ed Richardson adds a disclaimer: He’s only eyeballing it, and the tree will have to be measured properly. But it’s enough for us. People pose for pictures in front of the new champion tree, still rather scraggly and unkempt looking, but a tree that I’ve already plotted on my mental map.

We’re promised that once an official measurement is made, we’ll receive news of the gray birch’s status in an email.

Actually, if you pressed me, I’d have to admit that I’ve been on six Ed Richardson tours: two all-day affairs by chartered bus, and four smaller ones at a public park, a cemetery, and a private garden. Whenever I see notice that Ed Richardson will be somewhere talking about trees, I make it my prerogative to be there.

Shagbark hickory. Tulip tree. Arborvitae. Dawn redwood. Hackberry. Shingle oak. Weeping beech. Kentucky coffee tree. Sweetgum. Silver linden. Sycamore. Mono maple. Lee’s hybrid oak. Old man’s beard. Cucumber magnolia. Speckled alder. Chinese chestnut. Catalpa. Stewartia. Flowering dogwood. The lists of trees fill my pocket-sized notebooks, a litany of beings I’d like to get to know.

“This here,” says Ed Richardson, “is a Japanese threadleaf maple.”

We draw nearer the bullhorn and wait for more.

The email comes a couple of weeks after the tour. 

The gray birch has measured 157 points, making it a new state champion. The current national champion, at 156 points, is located in New Jersey. Last measured in 2007, the New Jersey tree will likely be re-measured, and if it comes in within five points of the Connecticut tree, the two trees will be listed as co-champions on the national register. The updated list of national champions won’t be available until the spring, and it’s only fall. For the time being, the national status of our Connecticut gray birch is in limbo. That’s Ed Richardson’s word: limbo.

And so we tree nuts wait in limbo, while the gray birch lives on, free of such uncertainty, invested in its girth and height and spread far beyond any of our capacities to measure or record.