Thursday, September 24, 2015

Quantum Leaps

            It seems about every two weeks for the last couple of months I have found myself writing about how Polly and Pip are aging right before our eyes. Much of this has to with the new school year and the changing levels of expectations that occur as they move up from one grade to the next. These moves create quantum leap moments when the kids are suddenly asked to do things they haven’t before, and we have to figure out how to make those things happen in ways that promote good long-term habits. For Polly last year it was adjusting to kindergarten and learning how to manage her feelings after a long day at school. For Pip, it was shifting his expectations for doing homework from the ten minutes every other day of first grade to the thirty minutes every day of second grade. Both challenges were at the time overwhelming and fraught with their share of tears but thankfully in time we all adjusted to these new realities.
            This year Polly’s leap involves spelling words. Polly watched for two years as Pip has done his spelling words – writing them out on Mondays, putting them in alphabetical order on Tuesdays, going through them with me on Wednesdays, and doing a mock test on Thursdays. She hovered over his shoulder through it all and took turns calling out words. She even created her own spelling lists from time to time. So when her turn came around three weeks ago, she was close to ecstatic. The moment she got home she whipped out her list of twelve words and did all the assigned exercises for the week right then and there. Then she brought the list over to me and had us run through them three times to make sure she had them all right. The next day she had us do the same thing again.
            While I was thrilled by her enthusiasm, all of this spelling required me to do some balancing. Pip still had his words to do as well and I needed to figure out how best to split my time among the both of them. This was particularly true on Thursdays when both wanted to do their mock tests at the same time. The first Thursday I didn’t handle their competing pulls very well. In the middle of doing Polly’s words Pip came in ready to do his. Polly got frustrated at the interruption, and Pip got annoyed because I wasn’t ready when he was. This in turn made me upset with both of them for having unreasonable expectations of what I could actually do.
            The next Thursday, after establishing a schedule beforehand, things went much smoother. We started with Pip and Polly reprised her roll of looking over my shoulder while I called out his words. Once those were finished we flipped around on the couch and did the same thing for Polly. The whole affair went so smoothly I happily ran through Polly’s words a second time so she could organize them according to their first letter.
            It was nice having us all working together for a few minutes that day. It reminded me of some of my favorite moments with them: the evenings in the winter when we settle in on the couch and I read to them. Pip leans in at my shoulder to watch the words go by on the page. Polly hangs out on my other side coloring or fiddling with a stuffed animal. It has been a while since we’ve done that with each other and it made me happy to have the spelling words bring that memory back.


            Pip’s challenge this fall has been to take greater responsibility for organizing his schoolwork. Every day he come home now with assignments in spelling, reading, and math. At school his teacher expects him to write down his assignment off the board each day, collect the proper classroom materials to bring home with him, and get it all done and returned the next day. While he had the same responsibility last year, the amount of material and the level of attention to these details expected of him are significantly higher. The teacher doesn’t remind him to get his worksheets into his folder. She doesn’t check to see that he’s written things down correctly. She has a formal set of consequences established for those who do  not get their work done on time.
            While Pip is eight years old and it’s probably time for this shift in responsibility, the change is still taking some getting used to. Pip’s already had to use a homework pass after he left a worksheet at school and had to face one of the consequences when he failed to write down his spelling words after he alphabetized them. He’s never been punished at school for absentmindedness, and this new regime is requiring him to recalculate what it means to be a good student. This is all well and good but a touch frustrating for me to watch. I don’t mind having consequences for failing to do what you need to get done. That’s a necessary part of life. However, I like it much better when I’m in control of those consequences instead of the teacher.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Lessons of Puzzles

            When I was in elementary school I took part in a gifted and talented program at my school. Once a week several of us were pulled out of our regular classrooms to come together and work on things that we might not normally get a chance to do. This program was by nature experimental. The whole point was not so much to push kids further forward through the standard curriculum but to stretch their thinking wider within that curriculum. Exactly what that stretching meant depended both on what the students could handle and what the teacher could imagine.
My memories of the classes themselves are fragmentary. I know that at some point we did a unit on archaeology that I really enjoyed. In second grade, I remember trying to record notes in my notebook with my left hand after breaking the wrist on my right. I remember the location of the classroom – right off the gym in the back right corner just before you went behind the stage. For one of the projects my group filmed a war movie in my backyard. In another I tried to construct a working model of a maglev train. For her class, my younger sister created a fake episode of the nightly news to talk about what she’d learned in a unit about Australia. It included headlines from the day, a weather report, and even a commercial for Vegemite, a dark, yeasty spread that Australians use on breads and sandwiches.
            My strongest memory from this program, however, came from an exercise that didn’t work. During one unit on puzzles that we did in the fourth or fifth grade, the teacher read us a set of stories in which something mysterious happened, and we were supposed to piece together a solution to the mystery from the clues buried in the story. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t do them. There was a leap of imagination or a trick of logic in them that was beyond our capabilities. The story I remember most clearly involved a man who had hung himself from the highest rafter of an empty room, and no one could figure out how he got up there. The only clue was the presence of a puddle of water underneath him. We conjured all kinds of ways this man might have gotten up there – a pulley, a secret trapdoor in the ceiling, climbing the rope. Our teacher kept leading us back towards the water, clearly annoyed that we weren’t getting it. She kept telling us to think about the water, that the water had to have something to do with it, but we couldn’t think what that might be and thus kept spinning off in other directions. Finally with time running out and all of us tired and frustrated, the teacher gave us the answer: ice. The water had been a tall block of ice that the man had used it to get up to the rafters. After a while the ice melted leaving behind the puddle of water.
            I always thought the teacher could have done that exercise better. There had to be a halfway point somewhere along the way where she could have told us something more than to just look at the water. It was clear this wasn’t enough. It was clear that we needed another step, not just to help solve the problem but also to give us ideas about how to solve such problems in the future. Perhaps if she’d taken us into a further discussion of the properties of water or maybe helped us organize our thoughts in a different way we would have gotten there. Regardless, there was a moment there for teaching something else, for teaching ways to attack a problem when the answer isn’t immediately obvious, but the teacher failed to grab it.


            Polly brought home an exercise from her weekly gifted and talented session at school last Wednesday. The exercise contained three challenges, each of which involved taking a shape made from toothpicks and moving a couple of sticks around to make a new shape. They had done the first two problems at school and after showing them to me and having me try them out, Polly proudly told me their solutions, one of which she had come up with all on her own. The third problem was intended for her to work on at home. Feeling confident, she dove in and fiddled with the toothpicks, moving them in and out and around for a good ten to fifteen minutes without success. Eventually she got frustrated and walked away. She said that she’d try it again tomorrow, but I wasn’t sure she actually would. She was stuck and couldn’t see a way forward. I had a flashback to a man hanging from the rafters with a puddle of water beneath his feet.
            The next day after school, I asked Polly if she wanted to try the puzzle again. When she demurred, I knew what would happen. She wouldn’t touch the puzzle again until the following week when the teacher or some other student would present the solution. Then Polly would bring it home to us, and happily show us how it’s done, having learned from the exercise that if you wait long enough, someone else will give you the answer.
            That was not the lesson I wanted her to have, so I had her sit down with me and together we worked through the problem. While I knew what the answer was, I wasn’t that concerned with getting her immediately to it. I wanted to walk her through the process of thinking, to give her some directions about how to map out a systematic breakdown of the problem when her first brainstorming stabs did not meet with success. Ultimately, she already knew what she needed to do – take each stick in turn and move it around until she found the one that made the shape work – but she needed me to help keep her focused on doing that process one complete step at a time.
Eventually we found the right stick. The moment she slid that toothpick into place Polly could see the shape emerge in front of her, and she jumped up from the table to do a little dance. She was so proud of what she’d accomplished, proud that after being frustrated by the problem the day before she came back to it and was able to find the solution, proud of the idea that she was a person who could solve these kinds of problems.
I don’t know whether in that moment of exaltation she consciously remembered exactly how she’d gotten to the solution, that it wasn’t an act of magic but one of systematic elimination that had finally gotten her there. She’s six years old and even for adults such distinctions can vanish very quickly. However, it gladdened my heart to find her working a jigsaw puzzle later on that weekend and filling in the pieces line by line.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Being Part of the Family

            My sister lives out west with her boyfriend (let’s call him Michael). They’ve been together for a couple of years now and bought a house together last Christmas, but as they are on the front-end of the millennial generation no one was quite sure whether they would bother with the whole wedding thing or not. The question had been floating around the holidays and summer visits for a while though I was never privy to a moment when it was brought out into the open. Instead, we discussed it in quiet, gossipy undertones that always felt weirdly hysterical. It wasn’t so much that we cared one way or the other whether they officially got married. It was that we were plagued by the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect from them. We couldn’t put them into our categorical box and move on to other things because we didn’t know which box to put them in.
            The resolution to all of this came last week with the news that Michael had finally “popped the question.” This set off a flurry of text messages back and forth, some phone calls, and a good bit of preliminary planning with regards to dates and places and styles.
            All the fuss has made Pip and Polly a bit confused. They have met Michael during each of the past two Christmases at my folk’s house and have found him to be fun in a tentative, supplemental way. My mother tends to swarm the kids during this time so it’s hard for anyone else to do much with them, but Michael has shared his guitar with them and shown Pip some card tricks and let Polly try taking some pictures with his camera. To them, he is an amusing side character, someone who is there but not someone that they have particularly strong feelings about. However, in the wake of his engagement to my sister, my mother has told them both individually that Michael “is going to be part of our family now.” She did this, I imagine, as a way of trying to explain what it means to get married but all this did was make Polly and Pip more confused. “Being part of the family” is an abstract concept. They are not abstract beings. So, they turned to Ava and me to find out what this all means in practice.
            The answer is that Michael’s now “being part of the family” means practically nothing new. We will not be seeing any more of him than before. Our knowledge (and trust or lack thereof) of him will not suddenly change. He will still be subject to the same positionality during family holidays and the same gradual processes of incorporation that have been going on previously. He will become a more familiar and more comfortable person to them over time (or he won’t). His now being married to my sister will not change any of that. The biggest change I can possibly see at this point is that the kids may call him Uncle Michael instead of just Michael.
            In thinking about this question of what it means to be part of a family, particularly in an era where so many families are like ours – spread broadly across the country – I keep coming back to this idea: that family is much more about one’s history together than one’s biological and legal ties. I have been thinking about this along two distinct tracks. The first is that I have a couple of friends with whom I keep in pretty regular contact. I’ve known them for close to two decades. I went to college with them, saw them get their first jobs, watched them get married, have kids, lose parents, get divorced. I’ve called them to celebrate my own triumphs and to get advice on how to handle my own trials. I trust them with thoughts I wouldn’t share with anyone else. I rely on them almost as much as I rely on Ava. They are not blood. They are not family. But as thick as we are together, they might as well be.
            My second track of thinking has to do with biological parentage and adoption. In the last decade or so, reproductive technologies have become a huge business for couples who want to have children and are having trouble doing so. Ava and I were fortunate enough to not have to endure this kind of struggle, so I obviously do not know how it feels. However, given the cost and the effort involved with these various procedures, I don’t quite understand why people are so ready to undergo them. Is adoption really that difficult an option? Is there something about the notion of a child not being really yours if it doesn’t share your blood? This second thought strikes me as incredibly ridiculous. Having now spent almost nine years with my children, I can say with authority that who they are has little to nothing to do with their biology. Their thoughts, their feelings, their reactions to situations, their likes, their dislikes – all of it comes from what they’ve learned by being around Ava and me. They are our children because we raised them. We are a family because of the time and effort we expend on each other. We are a family because of our history, not our biology.
            And so, Michael is going to be part of our family now, except that he’s really not. Not yet anyway. For that we’ll still need a little more time.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Rise of the Locavore Economy

            One of the noticeable economic developments of the last couple of years in our area has been the explosion of what I will call ’locavore goods,’ products made and sold locally usually by small and startup producers. One strand of this explosion represents a kind of local boosterism: t-shirts and bumper stickers displaying outlines of our state or slogans such as ;our state kicks ass; There are also a share of inside jokes such as the dark blue shirt with the word Y’ALL spelled out in bold white letters. Many of these strike me as the hipster equivalent of college or professional sports paraphernalia.
Another vein of this development is the emergence of various cottage industries experimenting with all kinds of different twists on everyday products. Beer is the most obvious example of this. We have at least three significant craft brewing operations now in town, each one offering its own takes on a certain genre of the larger beer market (German beers, American wheat beers, flavored beers). But we also have folks creating their own barbeques, ice creams, soaps, truffles, dog treats, sodas, and more.
            In many respects this cottage production is very attractive. People are imagining creative projects and finding opportunities to sell them. They are experimenting with and synthesizing various flavors, textures, colors, and the like and coming out with a whole range of new and intriguing things to buy. Few if any of these things will spread into markets beyond our city, but that’s not really the point of all of this. These folks are not looking for a multi-million dollar business idea. They are trying things out, experimenting, playing, creating and in the process fulfilling some of the more salutary impulses of our human condition.
            The rise of these local producers has gone hand in hand in our city with the emergence of the ’market’ as a social event. Our city has had a lively downtown farmers’ market now for at least a decade, and over time this event has become a common place for cottage producers to shop their wares. The setup costs are low – often a table, table cloth, and some samples – and a critical mass is already at hand: the people who are willing to pay a little extra to buy produce directly from local farmers are also the same people who are more likely to try locally made pasta, gourmet popcorn, or an array of salsas and beer cheeses. It is a fortuitous convergence of interests amplified by a certain level of discretionary income and the sense that buying such locavore goods has some vaguely beneficial effect on our community.
            Looking to build on this convergence, groups in other parts of the city have started organizing night markets on various weekend evenings. Offering music, local beer, and tables or booths filled with locavore goods, these markets have been very successful in drawing herds of upwardly mobile singles and young families out to browse and mingle in the fading sunlight of a warm summer evening. These markets have become a kind of see-and-be-seen event and, by bringing people into parts of the city they might otherwise have never have seen, have created a new process of micro-scale tourism within the city itself.


About this time every summer, one of the streets in our neighborhood hosts a big party. The organizers typically block off one of the streets, rent an inflatable waterslide for the kids, have the local firefighters come and show off a truck, put on a series of dog, kid, and parent footraces, and finish the evening off with a low-rent band playing underneath a makeshift tent on someone’s lawn. It is a cool, laid back scene where everyone brings a dish to share, old neighbors introduce themselves to new ones, and kids run up and down the street in packs, weaving in and out of parental knots and reveling in the freedom to jump around in the middle of the road. For several years it has been one of the highlights of our summer.
This year on the weekend that the neighborhood street party usually occurs, the development behind our neighborhood – an old warehouse area that has been recently outfitted with art studios, a yoga place, a cabinetry shop, a pottery maker, and a French bakery among other things – decided to have a night market of its own. Posters and flyers went up around the city, and people came flocking in. It seemed to be a big hit: a bluegrass band played throughout up on a temporary stage, the local ballet company gave a short performance, one of the local breweries poured beer as fast as they could, and all the shops brought out things on to the sidewalks for people to browse. I imagine the developers and shop owners were immensely pleased.
We were not. In the midst of all the market activity our neighborhood street party never happened. I don’t know if the folks who usually organize the party decided to help out with the night market instead or if the timing was just such that no other good weekend was available. Whatever it was, we kept looking out for notices about the party for the two weeks after the night market and were disappointed that nothing came along. Our locality, our community event had been run over.


            There are two things I will take away from this experience. The first is that tourism as an engine of economic growth has more costs than we often acknowledge. Walking through the night market that weekend, I found myself cast in the role of unhappy native. All of these strangers had flooded into my world to eat, drink, and shop with my neighborhood as an exotic backdrop. This was supposed to be good for us. It was supposed to be bringing in money and making our area more attractive, lifting the property values of our homes and making our lives richer. But all I could think was that this invasion was not to my liking. I’m quite happy with our neighborhood as it is (or was) and these ’improvements’ feel more like things people tell me I should want instead of things that will actually make my life better.
            The second thing I came away with is that business – whether it’s giant corporations or small-time cottage producers – has its own logic. For business, the big crowds of a night market are good. Not only does it mean there are lots of potential customers, but the noise of the music and the flow of people prevent one from stopping in the middle of things to really talk with somebody. I saw several of my neighbors that evening at the night market. If we’d been at our street party we’d have stood around in the middle of the street and talked about the world for ten minutes or an hour. I would have lost track of much that was going on around me and never felt bothered or pushed or in the way. But at the night market there was no such space for that kind of indulgence. Instead, we waved or exchanged a cursory greeting before going our separate ways. The only places to really pause were in front of the shops and tables and even then it was loud enough that a real conversation wasn’t truly possible. Instead, you wound up looking at the goods displayed around you. The night market may have been promoted as a place to come and hang out with friends and be part of a community, but its structure made it difficult to do anything but shop. 

The logic of business possesses its own values, and we should always be careful about thinking otherwise. This is especially true when it comes to locavore goods and claims about what they add to the community. It is great that the revenue they generate remains in place and furthers the development of businesses in our city. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that buying and selling are not the same thing as creating community, and we must always be careful lest the former completely overwhelms the latter.