Friday, July 27, 2012

a shared body of knowledge

Catherine is telling me about a severely autistic girl who suddenly began typing at a computer at age 11. Her first and only words, crushingly, were "hurt help." Her parents seized on it and began to encourage her to type everything. She turns out, without any real schooling or instruction, to be eloquent. She has a Twitter account and a blog, using them often to communicate the experience of what it's like to be her.

Apparently, she thinks of herself as a normal, cute, sassy, fun person stuck in a body she simply can't control. When Catherine mentioned this to me, I said, "like Chris Theodorakis." She paused a minute, searching through her mental index, and finally brightened, saying "Yes! Exactly!"

One of the many things I immediately saw and loved about Catherine was that she had availed herself of the world of knowledge, and could call it to mind as I can. It's just a pleasure. It's something I'd always looked for in women, and rarely found, so when I saw it in Catherine the game was changed.

Speaking of games, I'll write more someday about The Westing Game, the book I was referring to. Aimed squarely at smart 10-year-olds, it struck me right to the core. I remember with utter clarity thinking, on reading its closing pages, I want to be remarkable. In some ways I have succeeded, and I'm thrilled to be paired with a remarkable woman.

Monday, July 23, 2012

on pushing down the stool on your foot

Greta often takes the footstool into the bathroom and plops it down so she can play in the sink, where she loves pouring water from one container into another, something I used to do endlessly as a kid.

Today she took it in and then I heard an immediate cry. This was a real cry: something was Wrong, right now. I rushed in to see her pushing down on the corner of the stool, whose leg was on her foot. She was in horrible pain and could find no way to get out. I lifted the stool leg off her foot and comforted her. Then I demonstrated over and over that you should pick the stool up off your foot instead of pushing it down.

How successful will that instruction be? Perhaps, in the microscopic issue of the stool itself, fairly successful. But, macroscopically, Greta was just enacting the human condition. We're all in horrible pain from the stool leg boring into our foot; and all our efforts amount to simply pushing it down further and further, hurting ourselves more and more. It's the way of all flesh.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

on not saying "great job!!!!!!"

I've already discussed the fact that I avoid saying "no" and other negative instructions to Greta. There's another side to that coin. I also avoid saying "Good job!" and clapping my hands and saying "Yea!" and "That's great!"

This is unusual. Most parents give out those verbal gold stars; many use "Good job!" in talking to kids the way that guy in your church uses "Father God" in prayers: almost as a comma. That's why, as many (including the education theorist Alfie Kohn) have noted, we have a generation of praise junkies on our hands.

In an article called "Hooked on Praise" that Kohn wrote for Parenting magazine, he writes about how researchers discovered that
students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice ("Um, seven?"). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.

In short, "Good job!" doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

It's not just that by constantly (literally! I've seen it and so have you!) applauding your kids you are in fact creating their life as a performance, and that you're taking away the pleasure-in-the-thing-itself that is a prime experience of childhood: you're also making them less confident in the first place, the opposite of your goal.

Naturally, this gets guffaws from folks who believe that encouraging and positively reinforcing your kids' good behavior and accomplishments is a necessary part of their upbringing. But before you start thinking that I'm just some curmudgeon, or, worse, some withholding jerk who's raising a kid with no love from her daddy, stop to think that just about every good behavior or accomplishment can be acknowledged in a way that actually strengthens the experience of childhood.

Did you have fun doing that all by yourself? Did you like the sandwich you made? What was the ant doing? Hey, you started drawing trees with two colors of green! I bet that girl was very glad when you helped her. Which part was the hardest? Which part was the easiest? Which part was the funnest? ... It becomes second nature to buttress a kid's experience this way (or say nothing at all and just let them encounter life), and it's all part of unconditionally loving and supporting a person.

Recently, a kid we know asked me to watch and then did some thing or other, and then asked whether they'd done well. The same day, Greta did something by herself for the first time, didn't know I was watching, and then came over to me and said "Greta do it by self."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

a farewell

From an old friend's funeral this afternoon:

"What is the purpose of a long life?" Jesus died at 33; who would say he didn't do what God put him here to do? That doesn't take away the sting of an old friend's loss, but it helps us put priorities where they belong, and where our friend often put them.

Seeing tons of old friends and church family: I hate that this happens at funerals, but it's very appropriate that they're often the vehicle for this blessed taste of future reunion.

A powerful and beautiful gesture: JR's band playing "Amarillo By Morning" singerless, fronted by an empty microphone with a hat on it.

I grew up fond of JR Park, his thoughtful faith a confirmation of a like-minded fellow-traveler for me. (Words read from his diary phrased his journey of faith in the Sigurdian terms I'd just used in a Bible study last week: taking the pieces of faith handed down and forging them into one's own.) Whether one-on-one or leading a study group, he always had an unusual and depthy take on scriptures and doctrines, and one look at the crinkles around his eyes told all you needed to know about how often, and how, he smiled.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

i've come close to this

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

independence day

Over the past few days, I've prodded, then guided, then watched, as Greta has swum out into the pool, dunked her head, walked alone across the divider wall, and done pull-ups on the diving board (with a little parental stabilizing).

I'm finding that, even more than "I love you," the phrase I say most to her is "You can do it." In later years, that will possibly be expanded to "There is little that determination cannot accomplish." I can't wait to see her vote her own way, have her own opinion on Schopenhauer, worship according to her own conscience and philosophy; and in the meantime I'm having a blast watching these first steps.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

nature, nurture, jazz, and genius

The other day, a friend asked for opinions.

What musicians playing today are on the same level technically and creatively as the musicians I am just picking out of thin air. Here are just a few names that come to me in the next 30 seconds:
Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie John Coltrane,Miles Davis,Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lester Young, Art Tatum,Bud Powell,Earl Garner,Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack Dejonette, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter,Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, George Benson,Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Jaco, Ray Brown, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Ornette Coleman, Dolphy, Zawinul, Mcglaughlin, Charlie Christian, Ben Webster,Michael Brecker,Billie Holiday,Woody Shaw, Joe Jones, ..and my 30 seconds are up...Anyone on this level today??

Here's my answer. There are plenty of people who are that talented. But by asking that question we end up focusing on the wrong component. Those people spoke to their time, and we're in a different time.

We get this line of thinking all the time. The question isn't "where is our Michelangelo?" or "where is our Leonardo?"; the question is "where is our 1500s Florence?"

Similarly, the problem is never lack of talent. We have more talent now than we did then, for the excellent reason that we have more people now than we did then. The problem is that we are not in the time and place that produced those people. So, there's a Grachan Moncur III out there, but I've never heard of him, and neither have any but a tiny percentage of people who recognize Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis.

Maybe the best question of all is, "Aren't you glad Miles and Duke and Basie came along when they did?"