Thursday, October 28, 2010

Darwin Takes Piano Lessons

When my daughter, Ashley, was a girl, I bought her a Yamaha upright piano. And I mean upright. That sucker was six feet tall. So great were my hopes for her musical future that I shopped for a baby grand, even though there was no way to fit one in our living room (or any room; I might have put it in the kitchen if it hadn’t been for that damned center island). Her mother still has that piano, holding onto it for our baby girl, who certainly is no longer a baby. Ashley plays it beautifully, at least once a year.

Many years later, when Chris and Nick, Meg’s and my sons, were old enough to tickle the ivories, I cajoled my mother into letting us borrow her piano for them. Mom had been a gifted pianist as a girl, but gave it up when concert stage fright got the better of her. I practically had to dynamite that old piano out of her house (to get it away from her, that is). We had it tuned by the best tuner in town and “Für Elise” brightened my evenings once again.

Hunting for food
Chris and Nick found other interests, though. Ashley is still my only child who plays (although they all got their shot at Carnegie Hall). Even she doesn’t play often. She’s an actor and film editor now. Those are her passions.

Every father wants his son or daughter to play the piano. Every father dreams his child will have some glorious talent that will bring him joy for a lifetime and comfort to the old folks as they sit on the back porch and watch the sun go down.

And in today’s hyperkinetic world, it’s not just one talent we wish for them. We want them to be the best at everything. We nurture secret, immodest hopes that they will be among the golden ones. We inhabit our dreams of their glory: pacing the sidelines of soccer games, kicking in sympathetic synchronicity as they try to drive the ball between brutish defenders; praying for strikes in little-league games in which they have walked a million batters; tossing flowers on the stages of their ballet performances; closing our eyes in transcendent bliss as they sing in hushed cathedrals.

Why do we care so much about how well our children do? In school. At sports. Socially. Why do we feel their triumphs and failures so deeply? Is it because we love them? Because we want to be proud of them? Because we are desperate to take another shot at realizing, through them, our own frustrated dreams?

Evolution is at the root of it, of course. The young who were well trained to hunt for their food and hide from their enemies were the ones who survived. Their genes were the ones that proliferated. And so here we are today, the survivors of a long line of adept tutors, evolved into virtual child-training machines.

We’re hardwired for the task, following ancient programming. The question is this: are we now simply the finest evolutionary expression of the training gene, or have we somehow gone beyond our original mission, like the robot Nomad in an early Star Trek episode that had been programmed to search out new life forms but, after a collision with another satellite, decided its mission was to stamp out imperfection wherever found (which meant you-know-who)?

Ballet lessons. Cello. Art. Baseball camp. Tutors for everything imaginable. Sometimes it seems we are trying to stamp out imperfection in our own children. In the process, many of us have embraced the job of training our children as our primary life mission. This leaves children over-managed, and parents exhausted.

And what are we training them for? To be little training machines themselves? Will their period of productivity, the time when they actually use the training we sacrifice to give them, be only those few short years of young adulthood before they have children of their own? With the obligatory time spent rebelling against having been forced to accept too much training, how many years will they have before they too are buffeted in the straights of dating and courtship and wash up on our modern Circe’s island, where nature will once again cast its Darwinian spell through that bewitching tiny face that beams with the innocence and helplessness that demands “train me”?

Hiding from our enemies
Life today is more complicated than learning to hunt and to hide from our enemies (at least I think it is). Playing a mean jazz piano works with the opposite sex. As does having the athleticism of Olympic swimmer. Perhaps the training that is necessary to survive has merely evolved as the world has changed; and the frantic pace of that change lately has made us ever more desperate to help our children be good at everything, because you never know what the next great survival skill may be.

But a young fox whose mom or dad accompanies him on every hunting expedition may never learn to do it himself. And if training becomes the end itself, when does the actual living take place?

By and large, my children have come to their passions accidentally. I say accidentally because they were almost never things I signed them up for. As a child, Nick loved Legos; Meg and I loved anything that kept him happily occupied, so we bought him enough to fill a bathtub. He sat in his room and built the fabulous contraptions of his imagination. When he got to the sixth grade, still playing with Legos, a friend invited him to join him in a robotics competition, and suddenly the things he got to build came out of his bedroom and trundled up ramps to put out fires or thwart other robots from making goals. He’s studying computer science in college now, with a particular interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Chris got a checkers game when he was three, then Connect Four (kind of 3-D checkers), then a little wooden chess set, a bookshelf full of chess trophies, and a lifelong love of the game. I think Cord still has his first camera, the one he used as a photographer on the college newspaper, the one that set him on the path to taking way too many, albeit excellent, photographs of his own children.

Maybe I’m just lazy, but I don’t think we need to devote or lives to training our children. At some point, earlier than we might like to admit, they want (and need) to train themselves. There is a lot of social and scientific debate about all this now, about how kids learn, about the extent to which a child’s developing brain needs unstructured play; and I can see in my own experience that children (mine, anyway) like to do what they like to do. Sometimes it’s things I suggest, more often it is something I never would have guessed.

And why should they be limited by my imagination? I’m an old fogey, by comparison. The race is to the swift and the bold, and for the most part that means the young. They are the ones who see over the horizon. It is their future they are seeing, after all.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Low Bow to Beatrix Potter

Credit, says Beatrix Potter, is when you make a low bow and say “’With pleasure, madam,’ and it is written down in a book.’” Ginger and Pickles gave credit to their customers, the mice and rabbits. They did ten times as much business as Tabitha Twitchit, the only other shopkeeper in the village, but they were never paid and had to eat the goods they were meant to sell and eventually close their shop. Tabitha Twitchit promptly raised her prices, of course. And she did not give credit.

Meg in Beatrix Potter's doorway
Yesterday I visited Mr. McGregor’s garden, or what I imagine it to be, and the house where Beatrix Potter lived and wrote and gave lodgings (involuntarily) to Samuel Whiskers. Meg and I are in the English Lake District for a few weeks, and being here has made me think again of all the wonderful Beatrix Potter tales I used to read to my children.

Like a million dads before me, I was seduced by the intimacy of a child snuggled on my lap, giggling brightly at poor, fussy Mrs. Tittlemouse as she swept her soft sandy floors for her party, exclaiming along with her, “I will not have Mr. Jackson; he never wipes his feet.” And I declaring, in my best impression of Mr. Jackson, “Thank you, thank you, Mrs. Tittlemouse! No teeth, no teeth, no teeth!” (he was a toad, after all), as that sweet little face lifted up to mine and brightened with delight.

Before long I began making up my own stories for my children. Somehow even the most fatuous tale, when dramatized with absurd character voices, broad hand gestures and silly faces, transported us to some place where neither of us could have gone without the other, a magic land where we were, for those moments, the only two people in the world, our minds locked together by the story, each completely open to the other, without hesitation or reservation.

How often does that happen with a child? With anyone? That is the power of stories, and for teaching me to tell them I give thanks and credit, with a low bow, to Beatrix Potter.

The stories I improvised were all about wanting something: the caterpillar who wanted to be a bird (and sort of got his wish); the little mouse who wanted to be friends with the chipmunks (but who made a better friend instead). Hopelessly derivative and corny you say. You’ve got me there, but my kids didn’t know that; they thought they were brilliant and funny and tragic and heartwarming.

"My Brother, the Devil, and the Rabbit Feet,"
illustrated by my daughter, Ashley
Honestly, telling stories to children is a drug. When you take a hit, sitting at their bedside in the soft light, with the house quiet, the night black, you might as well be in an opium den. For the little ones, though, it’s a gateway drug. Pretty soon they want more sophisticated fare, and they start wanting to read themselves, and of course you want that for them too---and that is the beginning of the end.

When my youngest started weaning me from the pipe, I took some of my stories into his kindergarten class and read to them. Oh, mercy, what a thrill. All those little bright eager faces. At that point, I knew I wanted to keep doing that. Not reading to kindergarten classes, but telling stories: to children, to teenagers, to adults, to anyone who would listen.

Why is that, do you think? Is it narcissism? A naked desire to be the center of attention? Perhaps. But it seems to me there is something more at work here, something of which Charles Darwin, a pretty good storyteller himself, would approve.

Stories are the best way we have to tell each other about ourselves. About who we are. About what we value. What we will permit, and what we will not. They speak across cultures to lessen the fear that we are different from one another. If we like the same stories, how much of a threat can we be?

Those first stories I told my children connected me to them in ways little else has. That is why I write them still, searching for those connections, hoping to reach a broader audience than will fit on my lap. This is how we are, I want to say. This is how we think. This is how we live together.

Mr. Jackson smelled the honey at Mrs. Tittlemouse’s party and came up from his dirty wet ditch uninvited. She had made the front door too small for him to fit through, but she “handed him out acorn-cupfuls of honeydew through the window, and he was not at all offended. He sat outside in the sun, and said---‘Tiddly, widdly, widdly! Your very good health, Mrs. Tittlemouse!’”

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Your Own Authentic Swing

From the time I was ten until I went away to college, my dad and I played a lot of golf. He was a doctor, an obstetrician in solo practice, so our games were almost always interrupted by someone coming out in a golf cart to tell him he had to go to the hospital to deliver a baby. Maybe it was because of that constant sense of incompleteness, or maybe because he was always trying to get me to play better, telling me to “Hit another one,” when I missed a green, that I wanted terribly to please him on the golf course. I would be playing alone sometimes, having a good round, and I would start thinking how I would tell him about it at dinner, how I was only three over coming into sixteen, and then of course the wheels would come off for the rest of the round and there wouldn’t be much to talk about.

Oh, gosh, a long time ago.
Our golfing days ended in August of 1964. I don’t think we played another round after that. He died in 1974, at the age of fifty. Of course none of us knew that was coming, so that August when I was eighteen the big things happening were I was going off to college and Dad was moving out of the house.

In college I had impossibly glamorous new friends. One was an American whose father worked for Arabian American Oil Company, back when it was basically our oil they were pumping. He lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and scuba dived with sea snakes in the Red Sea and played folk guitar and taught me how to skateboard, which in those days meant first disassembling a pair of roller skates and nailing the wheels to a short piece of shelving. He had been a Freedom Rider in the Alabama that summer, while I was playing golf at a WASP country club in Nashville.

That fall I bought a motorbike because my new friends all had motorbikes. My first one, a Honda 50 (of Beach Boys fame), was unforgivably dorky compared to their sleek machines, so I sold it and bought the baddest bike I could afford: a 1949 BSA 500 cc black beauty with a magnificent rumble and a front fork that was only slightly bent, so that when the wheel shimmied at high speed there didn’t seem to be that much actual danger of it coming off.

I rode that bike from Durham over to Greensboro, courting a woman I had met at a college mixer. It was fifty miles and I would come home late in the pitch black and the only light, the only world, would be the small white spot cast out from my headlight onto the gleaming concrete of the new Interstate. It’s a wonder I’m here to tell about it.

I stayed up all night listening to earnest folk music in dim coffee houses, bought a guitar and learned to play “Blowing in the Wind.” I felt that the times they were a changing, but they were my times mostly, not those of others. Even with all those visits to Greensboro, I never realized that only a year or two earlier it had been the vanguard of the lunch-counter sit-ins that jolted the civil rights movement into life.

The real wonder is not that that I didn’t end up dead on that Interstate highway, but that I didn’t get packed off to Southeast Asia. After what could only be called an unexceptional academic start, Dad wrote to say that whether I stayed in school or went to Viet Nam was my choice.

My choice. And yet somehow it wasn’t. The consequences of not going to class (dying in a rice paddy) could not have been direr, but that fear didn’t motivate me one bit. To this day, I don’t know why.

Maybe I was just a boy gone wild, released from bondage, as it were. Maybe I was rebelling against my Dead Poets Society honor-code-high-school life, getting a jump on “Easy Rider.” Or maybe I was depressed. We didn’t even know that word then.

I got married and had my first son not long after that (which is why I missed the war), and my grandfather took me in at his university and with patience and kindness let me find my way. Shocked back into conventional behavior by having children, I got back on what most would call the right track.

Since then I’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep my children from making the mistakes I made---a task that would have been considerably aided by understanding myself why I made them.

It may be that kids are going to do what they are going to do, and that there is less that we, as parents, can do about it than we imagine. I don’t mean that as an excuse for not trying. Lord knows, I’ve lost enough sleep agonizing over the best way to motivate one child or another. And I think parenting makes a difference, but probably not in the direct way we would like to think. You can’t just grab them by the shoulders and point them in the right direction, or at least I never could.

My dad was charming and generous, but he was an autocrat: as Randy Newman says, “You crossed him, and he made you pay.” So I learned not to cross him. We had good times together. He gave me a lot of freedom. He took up for me when I was in trouble. I always felt he could (and would) bail me out of anything.

So was he a good dad? I always thought so. Was I rebelling against his authoritarianism? It would be easy to say so, but then that wouldn’t square with the vast personal freedom I had as a boy. I could go anywhere and do anything. The only thing I had to do to keep the car keys was keep my grades up. Maybe that’s what he should have told me when I went to college, not that I might die in Viet Nam if I didn’t do well, but that he would take away my car keys.

I saw “The Legend of Bagger Vance” a few days ago. It’s a sappy parable in which a caddy from “the other side” (think Clarence the angel in “It’s a Wonderful life”) helps a young, war-traumatized golfer find his lost swing, and his motivation to get back into life. Bagger acts like he doesn’t much care if the young man wants to give up, but somehow he’s there for him in a way that lets the young man discover for himself why he wants to succeed.

Magical realism aside, Bagger’s point struck me as right: we each have to find our motivation ourselves. The most our parents and other coaches can do is give us the support we need while we’re looking.

Bagger reminded me of my mother’s father. My grandfather never told me what to do, but he was there to carry my clubs (getting me into his university after I slunk out of Durham) and to tee the ball up for me when I needed it (having his secretary type a term paper I had stayed up all night writing and was due that morning). Never once did he say all the obvious things he might have said under the circumstances.

Many years later I saw a letter he had written to his secretary when he left the university to take a foundation post overseas. I still had a semester left until graduation, and he asked her to look after me. “For all his bravado and self-assurance,” he wrote, “Mac still needs a lot of support.”

Support is a tricky concept for a parent. How much? When? It’s hard to know when to catch them and when to let them fall. Hell, for me, it’s almost impossible to let them fall. Our children need more than benign neglect, they need guidance. Even Bagger, after pretending for the longest time that he didn’t care what his player did, refusing even to help him choose a club, eventually started talking about looking for your own authentic swing; and when it finally became clear that his young protégé wanted to win, Bagger broke down and gave him some concrete advice: “Hit the shit out of it.”

To the chagrin of my children, no doubt, who I’m sure wish I’d had this epiphany sooner, I’m coming around to thinking that being supportive is a different thing than giving advice. And it’s a long way from giving orders, the way my dad was accustomed to doing, even orders to do things that you know are good for them. It’s more like holding out the bag of clubs for them to choose from and only offering your opinion on how to hit the shot when you can see they are ready for it. Like Bagger Vance himself, it’s a bit of magic.

I fear I still have too much of my generalissimo father in me---the good parts too, though, so thanks for those, Dad---and not enough Bagger Vance. But I’m working on it. To paraphrase what Bagger said about golf: being a dad is a game that can’t be won, only played.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Monty's Airport

When Grant, my second son, was a freshman in high school, he had a math teacher named Mr. Montgomery. Monty, as the kids called him, was from Australia. It was his first year teaching in the United States, perhaps his first year teaching anywhere. Grant and his pals, vicious little weakness-sensing animals that boys that age can be, spent most of the hour flying paper airplanes. They called the class “Monty’s Airport.” Midway through the term, poor Mr. Montgomery interrupted the daily lesson and, nearly in tears, said they were ruining his life. He fled to his homeland when the semester was over.

Didn't he look like an angel?
Grant and his fellow pilots also flew water balloons off the second floor balcony during class changes. There was an incident with a smoke bomb that, being uncertain of the applicable statute of limitations, I shall leave unreported. When he was a junior (a junior, mind you, the key year for getting into college), the school called me and said they suspected he was forging my signature on cut slips. I gave him a stack of real ones, signed by me, and told him to use them instead of the fakes. I said he could be stupid if he wanted to, but I wanted him to be honest about it.

He must not have cut all his high school classes, because he went on to Vanderbilt University. There he had a professor, Mr. Birkby, who changed his life (if I knew how, I’d tell you; I only know it happened and I had pretty much nothing to do with it). Grant graduated Summa Cum Laude (Phi Beta Kappa, too) and went to Harvard Business School. Let’s hear it for Professor Birkby.

So that’s what this is about: good teachers. But not from the angle you might think. Not “Blackboard Jungle” or “Freedom Writers” or “To Sir, with Love.” This is about how we can figure out who’s a Monty and who’s a Birkby. Kids can’t (won’t) learn if they don’t have good teachers.

The approach that is in fashion lately is one we have borrowed from business: performance metrics. One of the key metrics, the only one sometimes, it seems, is student test scores. As we all know, this leads to a good deal of teaching to the test---honestly, it’s what I would do if my job depended on it. The teachers who are judged best are the ones who can teach their students to score well on standardized tests.

As they say in business: you get what you measure. It’s something, anyway. And it is measurable. Indeed, being measurable may be the main thing that commends it. Before we started down this road, though, I don’t think many of us would have said that we are sending our kids to school in the hope that they will become good test takers.

What do we hope for their education? For me, the answer is not much more than giving them the itch of curiosity and providing them the tools to scratch it. It’s hard to remember anything particular you learn in school. It’s all a mishmash of facts and histories, of stories and theories. Education builds on itself the way the brain develops in childhood. Most of us can’t remember much that happened to us before a certain age, but we look back at the happy photos of childhood trips to the zoo and family picnics and know that our understanding of ourselves and others, of how we all fit together, was built up for us painstakingly and lovingly.

So, for me, tests are not the point. They aren’t exactly beside the point, but they certainly are not the primary goal of education.

A good teacher knows all this. She inspires her students to challenge assumptions, to look beyond conventional wisdom (after learning it first). She lights the fire in them that we all hope gets lit in our children. It’s a kind of magic, really.

And the only ones who know whether it is happening are…the kids. Not the principal. Not the school superintendent. Oh, they may have some idea, if they’re not too obsessed with test scores, but it’s not something they measure, so even if they appreciate it on some level, they can’t do much to reward or encourage it.

But you know what? It is measurable. The kids can tell us. All we have to do is ask them. Now, I understand that is a little tricky. I understand that a teacher can be popular without being “good.” Or maybe I don’t understand that. Something makes them popular, and this is school, so it must not be cake and ice cream.

I know from talking to my own children over the years that they know which teachers are good and which are bad. They suffer through the bad ones and have fun with the good ones. Good schools have more of the latter than the former, but it’s not entirely clear to me that they know why they do.

If we are careful about what we ask, the kids will tell us who should stay and who should go. I’m not saying we should turn the student council into the Emperor’s box at the Coliseum--up or down?--but student opinion should be an important part of the teacher performance matrix. The more we ask the kids, the better we’ll get at framing the questions, and the better they will get at answering them.

Until then, thanks, Professor Birkby. And Monty, I’m so sorry, but it’s a jungle out there.