Friday, July 31, 2009

Permission to Play

William Carlos Williams’ ability both to run a full-time medical practice and also to devote daily time to his writing is one of the things I admire most about him. The other, of course, is the quality of his writing, his ability to see and describe the exquisite details in everyday things. The movements of a bird outside his window, the taste of a sweet plum from the icebox, the clangs, siren, howls and rumbling wheels of a red fire truck. When I read A River of Words, I realized that those two characteristics—his talent for balancing work and creativity, and also for noticing and describing his experience—probably both stem from the many hours he spent walking beside the banks of the Passaic River.

During my first year of teaching elementary school in New York City in the late 1980s, I was shocked to learn about “play dates.” Parents called each other to schedule a “date” for their children to play together. I guess that makes sense, I thought. New York is a big city and you have to plan for transportation, and you certainly have to know where your child is. But I thought of my own carefree afternoons growing up in Dearborn (and later Kalamazoo), Michigan. Our neighborhood was much like the setting in Gran Torino, little lots close together—you could practically call out the window and get a game of kickball together. A bunch of us would walk back from school together at age 6 and 7, maybe stop home to change clothes and grab a snack, but then we’d meet in the front yard with our bikes or bats and balls. The afternoons seemed to stretch delightfully endlessly to dinnertime. There was a spontaneity to our play that seems harder to tap into today.

Many of my friends have preserved that for their children. But they’ve had to work at not scheduling their children's time too tightly, allowing them room to play in the yard or go to the neighborhood park. They’ve had to limit the lessons and practices and time in front of the TV or computer. Even as adults it’s sometimes hard to give ourselves permission to “procrastinate now,” as Ellen DeGeneres advises. My friend Elmera often says, “I constantly have to remind myself that I’m a human being, not a human doing.”

William Carlos Williams, by his example, shows us there’s room for both doing and being.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Here on Lake Michigan, where I’m spending the week with five nieces and nephews under the age of eight, you can already see peer pressure at work.

If seven-year-old Hale is doing something, you can bet his cousin, six-year-old Tiger, wants to be doing it, too. And Ryan, Hale’s six-year-old sister, certainly does not want to be left out. Maggie (Tiger’s sister), who will turn two in October, speaks in complete sentences, while Charlotte (Hale and Ryan’s sister), who turned two in May, saves her energy for key words like “bottle,” “Mama,” “Dada,” “Giggy” (for Grandma), and “mine.” Both Maggie and Charlotte are good at identifying what is “mine.”

Maggie and Charlotte can also identify when they have a dirty diaper, the first step in potty training. Of course, the key step is being able to identify when you need to go before you actually go. They’re not quite at that point yet, but it likely won’t be long.

I know parents who, once their child can identify their need to go, stay at home for an entire day (usually a weekend day) with the toddler, diapers off, and essentially teach them how to indicate when they have the urge so that the parents can quickly help the child get to the potty. The child repeats the experience in succession enough to understand the necessary steps and it soon becomes a habit that they can initiate on their own. Other parents take a more gradual approach and wait until the child can communicate when he or she has to go and also can consistently get to the bathroom before they go. The child then graduates to pull-ups and might wear a diaper only at night, moving gradually to “big girl” or “big boy” underpants.

Whatever the approach, it’s helpful for toddlers to have a book like No More Diapers for Ducky! that depicts other youngsters going through the same experience they are going through. The best thing about Ducky is that it shows one child teaching another child by example.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Once You Learn How, You Never Forget

The beauty of Sarah Dessen’s analogy of bike-riding in Along for the Ride is that—up to this summer—Auden West has accomplished everything by thinking it through, and often, as Eli puts it, “overthinking.” But there is no way to intellectually master riding a bike, you have to just do it. The fact that Auden would, at age 18, be willing to learn to ride says more about her open-mindedness, and her willingness to change, than just about anything else could.

Everyone in my neighborhood knew how to ride a bike by age five. It was the way kids got to their friends’ houses, met up at the A&W on South Westnedge for hot dogs and root beer, and traveled to the baseball diamond. When we moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., I was seven. And I did not know how to ride a bike.

On the 4th of July, my Uncle Chris came to visit us in our new home. (He is my father’s brother, four years younger than my dad.) Uncle Chris probably learned of my dilemma in a conversation that went something like this:

“What are you doing inside? It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t you go ride your bike?”
Barely audible, I might have said, “I don’t know how.”
“What?” (booming voice) “You don’t know how to ride a bike? Well today you’re going to learn.”

Uncle Chris removed the training wheels from my bike and, just as Dessen describes Auden’s experience with Maggie as her “buddy,” he held onto the bike and ran alongside me, and then let go, “Keep pedaling!” he’d shout. Yes, I fell a number of times. But each time my uncle would say, “Let’s try again,” and I’d mount the bike and off we’d go, with him running alongside (“Keep pedaling!”). We did this again and again until, suddenly, I didn’t fall. I kept going. I pedaled and pedaled all the way to the end of our street and then turned right, and, aided by gravity, swiftly flew down a steep hill on a dead end street. I can still feel the wind rushing through my shoulder-length hair with the breakaway speed of it. And, because I did not yet know how to stop, I came to a soft landing smack in the middle of the Parker family’s peonies. They were very nice about it. The best part was, I now knew how to ride a bike. (I just had to practice braking.)

How sympathetic perfect Auden seems as she tries to convince Eli, a competitive stunt biker, that she’s pretty sure she learned how to ride when she was six. He knows there is no gray area. You either know how or you don’t. Once you do, your body intuitively shifts to stay upright, adjusting a little to the left or right, forward or backward, to maintain that balance. It’s not something you think about.

But Auden is willing to learn. As Adam, another biker in Dessen’s novel puts it, “What defines you isn’t how many times you crash, but the number of times you get back on the bike.” Once she masters the bike, we know Auden will be just fine.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Pleasures of Rereading

One of the things I like best about Rebecca Stead’s novel When You Reach Me is the way the heroine, Mira, loves A Wrinkle in Time. The way she carries it around with her wherever she goes, and the way the book is like an old friend to her. It made me think about the pleasures of rereading books and why we do it. If we’ve already read the book, and we know what’s going to happen, why bother reading it again? It’s precisely because we do know what’s going to happen that we bother. We return to certain books again and again because we know they are reliable and dependable and will always be there for us, and events will unfold just the way we remembered them. Or if we’re really lucky, they begin to mean different things to us at different times—just like longtime friends do. The longer we know them, the more we discover. The bond deepens.

I do not know how many times I have read The Little Prince, but each time he has come through for me. When I was small, he was a traveler in a great adventure who came home, where he was happiest of all. As I grew older, he was the hero in a love story—between the Little Prince and his rose, beloved to him, unique in all the world because of his care for and devotion to his rose. Then the subplot between the Little Prince and the fox came to the fore, as I began to consider what the word “tame” meant in the context of their connection, and the complexity and trust involved. More recently, it has had a tinge of all these things, but mostly it has helped me see the importance of being at home where you are.

Rereading also teaches us to be better writers. A famous story goes that when someone once asked Ernest Hemingway how to become a writer, his advice was, “Read Anna Karenina. Read Anna Karenina. Read Anna Karenina.” Just as good painters often begin by imitating the masters, reading the masters can help us improve as writers.

Finally, it's my belief that reading and rereading makes us better people. Books allow us to enter other worlds. They offer us other points of view, help us to see another side—often of ourselves.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Planting Seeds with My Father

Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden took me right back to my own first experiences with soil and seeds. My father is the gardener in our family. He is also a jock—quarterback on his high school football team, captain of the basketball team—with some pretty strongly held opinions on what’s manly and what’s not. So, as I look back, it’s pretty great that he was the one who taught my brother and me how to garden. Chip and I were probably four and eight (I’m older) when my father helped us plant seeds for the first time. It was the first full summer we spent at our new house on Lakeside Drive in Kalamazoo, Mich., and there were two symmetrical flower beds, each maybe 3' x 10' at the bottom of a steep hill (great for sledding in the winter), with a walkway between them. Dad gave Chip and me each a small section, and showed us how to plant the seeds a few inches apart, and how deep to press them into the earth. Each day, Chip and I would check on our seeds’ progress, and Dad coached us to be patient.

As a child, there is nothing quite like witnessing a seed that you’ve planted, with care and watering, growing into a flower or vegetable. It was one of the high points of teaching my second-grade science classes--that morning when the students filed in, went straight to the seeds they had carefully placed about an inch deep in the soil of a clear plastic cup (so they could watch the roots spread), and observed a furtive green tendril breaking the soil’s surface. Even though it’s one of the golden laws of nature, it can still feel like a miracle.

I don’t remember the specifics of the flowers my brother and I planted that summer as much as I remember Dad letting us into this secret world, showing us how he spent his hours weeding and watering and tending the garden. Ever after, I had newfound respect for his dedication: pruning the lilac trees outside my parents’ bedroom window, clipping the pine hedges by the front door, and cultivating the irises and lilies in the flower beds. Today, about all I can manage are three window boxes and three planters on our terrace in New York City. I have some yellow pansies and snapdragons, purple petunias, silver dust (leafy plants), and some dianthus (pictured at left) that are supposed to be annuals but are so deeply rooted in one of my planters that they’ve become perennials--with no thanks to me.

Recently, while strolling with my friend Cary past the beautifully maintained community garden that runs south from 96th Street in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, I started pointing out the impressive array of flowers the gardeners had cultivated. She asked me how I knew the names of so many of them. “My father,” I said. “He’s the gardener in our family.” I realized that he’d given me entry not only into this secret world of his, but its language, too.