Thoughts for the kids II

Don’t be afraid to be eclectic in your tastes. Sample widely, consider the structure of the things, of the gestalt as well as the parts. Then decide if you like it- in food, music, art, and opinions of all sorts. Know how to listen, then how to express yourself with grace, authenticity, and directness.
Try not to put things into your head that will only make that space darker. Feasting on violence, horror, (in films, books, etc. even if “just” fiction) or the often overwhelmingly bad world news, is an indulgence that decays your heart and mind. Know what to not watch or read- what will only add to a sense of powerlessness, distress, or imaginary possibilities of destruction. Think about what will truly make you bigger in spirit as a human being, and more capable of empathy and what is just destructive mental trash. It’s not always obvious either.
Know the difference between being bold, taking a calculated risk, and being risky or reckless.
Dance with abandon regularly, and sing open throated.
Don’t ignore personal hygiene. Brush those teeth well, floss, and gently scrub all your nooks and crannies every day with a mild soap and water. Keep your hair and beards trimmed, even if to appear shaggy- make it a plan, not an accident. Know your body so if you get a truly odd mole, or something hurts, you know where, for how long, and can describe it to a good doctor. Never settle for a mediocre general physician, and make sure they have all your information.
Clean your messes.  Know how to use tools, often and correctly.  Drills as well as spell check.  Know the difference between tools and toys.
Be careful what you consume. While you may have access to many different ingestibles, many of them are not worth consuming. Read labels. Drink lots of water. Stay physically active in body and mind.
Moderation is usually a good idea in all things. An old adage that is still useful.
Learn to do a couple of things that make you feel flow. That focused intensity of purpose, and the subsequent satisfaction it can bring.
Always appreciate the people who are crafts persons about what they do- the cooks, the wait staff, the post people, the plumbers, electricians, teachers, mentors, accountants, etc. Your life will suffer from the bad ones, and be considerably better for the really good ones. Even if you don’t always notice. Learn how to tell the difference, and appreciate explicitly.
Don’t be afraid to give people compliments. But know when personal boundaries are appropriate.
Make a few good friends, and know when a friendship is no longer tenable. Be direct about it too. Know how to trust and love, and have fair self protective strategies as well.
It is never out of style to be generous of spirit, or to look out for those weaker or more in need than you. You choose your character every day from the small to the large in thought and actions. Save civil disobedience for really important moments. You should not be breaking the law but for an accident, or intent. Intentional reasons should be really, really good and be prepared for what consequences may exist. Authority should be earned (not conferred, or handed over by privilege) and not all rules are good. Question, and calculate your actions.
Cut yourself some slack- everyone makes mistakes. Perfection is impossible and sometimes the best surprises come from our mistakes. As Bill Watterson said, “Art is knowing what mistakes to keep and what to throw away.” Don’t let mistakes not worth keeping in your head rot there.
You will get hurt. It will make me miserable to not know how to help you sometimes. Learning how to bounce back, how to think about what happened without ignoring it, is a big part of living. Be good to yourself, and don’t forget that you matter.

Good

People say things like, “I am good at (fill in the blank. Playing piano, guitar, golf, typing, you name it)”.  A qualifier, such as “I worked really hard to learn it”, usually accompanies the statement; or, “I still have a lot to learn” or, “I could not have mastered it with out a mentor, a friend,” etc.  The point is most people will admit, even if just to intimate others, that they are good at something.  Yet never, never in my life in any book, media statement, casual conversation, overheard discussion, or drunken revelation have I ever heard anyone say, “I am a good parent”.  More to the point, “I am a good mother.”  Not a great mother, not a superior mother- no those would be value judgments that seem even more taboo.  Still, I have never heard anyone say that they are even just a good mom.  You think people might feel that way at some point.  But it seems they don’t.

I had to ask myself why.  Is it because we too readily conflate parenting with life, and no one would say, “I am good at life”, which is grammatically awkward at best, and conceptually infinite at worst.

Is it because we have no taught, explicit evaluation and assessment standards for parenting?  No ruler by which to explicitly judge others and ourselves?  Well, it’s true- there is no parent certification course required to have children (despite the shelves of books available claiming to instruct us).  But we do have standards. Oh, we do.  I hear people say all the time “I am a BAD parent”, or “I was a bad parent that day”, or “He/she is such a difficult/demanding/etc.=bad parent.”   So we have some type of internalized standards by which we judge ourselves and others, but it seems only to reflect a baseline and everything beneath it- very little over and above the baseline of adequacy, even though we may envy someone’s organization, another’s cleanliness, or still another’s patience with their children.

We only have our own parents and sometimes those of others who showed us what parenting is; we also have sound bite utopias from television, but that seems to enter in very little except to make us feel uneasily inadequate.

I have heard moms say “I am so glad I/we got through the diaper stage!” and they will also smile and talk about the achievements of their children, yet they do not willingly take any credit for such achievements, but will often take responsibility for the failures of their children (I/we did not work enough, did not get the right things to eat, enough sleep, read the right books, go to the right summer camps, etc.).

In the US, people usually are a little reticent to boast, or to take credit for their own accomplishments anyway.  Especially women, or so all the business-psych articles tell us.  We have precious little language for expressing our self-satisfaction, or our own goodness, much less understanding it.  Is it because pre-kids, we have only fantasies of what parenting is?  Being a mother is one of the most vilified as well as over-romanticized activities on the earth.  Reality is such a different story; there is a chasm between people we know who have kids and those who don’t and it seems so difficult to explain why.

What would happen if, as we lay down to sleep every night, as moms we reviewed our day and were willing to say to ourselves “I was a good mom today, and this is why I think so”, and be aware of the mistakes, consider them soberly, but move them to a different list?  What if we told people we know well when they were a good parent?  Told them we appreciated their example, to us and for our children?  And perhaps most difficult, what if we could accept the compliment for ourselves when someone, without manipulative intent and with sincerity, tells us the same?

I have been wrestling with a birthday that is a few years off and reviewing my life.  Right now, and I know it is partly the blues-  I can find little about which to feel good; little I can say “I was good at that” or, “I am good at that” about.  I am starting to wonder if this is what moving towards old age is about; realizing most of life if not all is in retrospect an area of gray.  The highs and lows sink and rise, but in summary fade to gray like the rest of time spent.  Not especially unique, not especially valorous, not especially successful, and sometimes completely failed, and hugely disappointing.  If this is true, I have the option of saying “Oh well” and finding things to make me happy on a smaller scale, on an everyday basis and just get on with it- or get depressed.  I think I’d rather work on trying to be a better parent, and hope I can someday feel good about it when I go to bed at night.  Oh, and tell others when I think they are good too.  Maybe someday, I can help my own children be parents and not have to fall back on the crap shoot that is the real-time learning curve they are/we are currently suffering through.

We only get one shot at raising our kids.  I want to try to make the best of it, warts and all.  But I also want to be good at it, and that is a whole different matter.

 

Who knows?

In light of the massive fraud case being pursued by the federal government against a company that runs for-profit colleges in culinary, visual art, and other programs one wonders where people can attend higher education any more and learn anything practical.  In his book, “Shop class as soul craft: an inquiry into the value of work”, Matthew Crawford elegantly examines this problem, and how a culture that loses the ability to appreciate work of the hands is in trouble.

Most liberal arts institutions and major state universities still follow what we might think of as a books and desk curriculum, or more aptly a books-desk-computer curriculum.  Lab spaces are for the use of chemistry, biology, a few engineering, some medical, and studio art courses.  Very little else of what is done is “hands-on”.  That is usually considered more base, less theoretical, and relegated to what we used to think of as community colleges.  But even community colleges started dumping hands-on courses favoring a “college prep” curriculum, and becoming less identified with “training”.  High schools did the same, tossing out shop classes in favor of computer lab space.

But as I searched for an expert plumber, electrician, heating and cooling expert, bricklayer, and various other “hands on” professionals in the past several years, one thing became clear.   The people who spent their lives developing exquisite expertise in essential areas of functionality are growing old, and there is no one to replace them.  Every professional I spoke to agreed, and lamented the lack of preparation programs in both high school and community college, and the cultural perception that somehow these careers are less valuable, less honorable, less important than say accountant, banker, business manager (all of which these people learned to be, or at least learned how to hire others to do), or other higher status fields.  One went on to say that he sees so many people going to the gym to work out, but if they had jobs working with their hands and getting off their behinds every day they would not need to.  It was an interesting point of view.

I recall my father talking about all the “college educated” engineers who could not see when their CAD drawings, like an Escher print, would not work.  He would often take wire and bend it for a 3-D representation, to show them the error of their ways.  They were never very happy about it, but over time came to depend on his visual-spatial and hand skills- and offered a grudging respect.

As I get older, I wonder who will know?  Who will know how to do anything- are we expecting just to do searches on our computers, run down to the Lo-HumDepo-Ace’s, get what ever standardized Chinese made supplies they have and do everything ourselves?  There are a lot of issues that one must be an expert in to truly understand, to strategize, to plan, to solve.  Just reading a how-to page will never be enough.  Husband did a fine job on 80% of the house.  But that final 20% needed an expert, and he relied on experts to check the work he had done as well.

All my sewing machines are still machine based, not digital.  It is a cost-benefit analysis for me:  when something breaks or goes haywire on the computerized machines, it is hideously expensive to fix and often requires a new machine.  They are also plastic through and through, and the wear and tear on them adds up quickly.  My mechanical machines (mostly metal) still require maintenance (which I am learning to do), and sometimes specialized care.  Then, they are usually good to for a long, long time.  But the people who know how to work on these machines are also aging, dying, and passing into memory.  They take entire worlds of knowledge with them, knowledge we may not get back.

There is also the aesthetic appeal of machines, of working with one’s hands, and seeing the results.  It not only builds confidence and practical skills, but also develops complex 3-D thinking in ways nothing else can.  I think Crawford is right: until we begin to value work of the hands again, we will continue losing not only a part of our culture, but an important part of our minds.  As discussions about rewriting school curriculum continues, let us not disregard the shop classes, the labs, and the field work that helps us become what we are- 3 dimensional beings made of muscle and fine motor skills.  Also, let all forms of learning and technology be respected as helping us become the best of who we can be.   Let us plan sensibly for all the jobs/roles we need to run our wires, pipes, and build our communities.  In sum, I hope we are not left standing around asking, “Who knew?”

On death and dying

Holy Sonnet X, John Donne: Death be not proud.

Death is a fact.  Dying is an act.  After actively witnessing close up the acts of dying my mother and (most recently) my grandmother have participated in, I have come to a few conclusions.

Dying is ugly.  I will probably, like most, see back through jellied lenses at what I know and instinctively find ways to convince myself that it was deep.  I will make meaning of chaos.   But truly, dying is ugly.  I believe those who convince themselves otherwise are avoiding the issue or finding ways to be right with it.  That’s fine.  But at present I can’t escape the knowledge of smells, sights, sounds, textures, and smells that linger as tastes.  I can’t escape indignities, of the body fighting itself and the process of decay.  I can’t stop struggling to hope for more grace, a quicker route than I have seen pass. 

There are those who enact hospice, who find fascination with dying as well as defining themselves as enablers of peace.  I do not admire them, but know them to be useful to others.  So be it.  We have lost our rituals of dying; so that many of us are left to act as best we can, making it up as we go along, stumbling, hoping for better.

I despise funeral homes.  There is nothing, nothing at all, more fake than a funeral home (what home is this?).  The fake condolences, the fake fluids, the fake box.  The fake spaces, which never seem to be completely clean and always a bit shabby, tacky, and inept.  The only thing that is not fake about a funeral home is the stark black on white of the legal document agreeing to fork over very real cash, large amounts of it.  If one reads the fine print (and I did),  it is a laundry list of fake services no one needs.  If one takes a mental red marker to the list (and I did), what you are left with is a huge base charge for people you do not know to carry away your dead, pump them with chemicals, and display them for view.  The rest are add ons of every sort meant to balloon the profit margin for a business that has successfully lobbied over the years to take over our ability to mourn, to process our dead.  The strategic shame game when being offered boxes, the subtle sliding of more services to customers addled with grief, the “oh you should discuss that part with your pastor/priest” for the things they do not want to handle, and the awkward organizing that’s left is all just fakery. 

What I and my father know, what we have done to help our dying family members, looms large beside what we did not get to do.  We should have been able to complete the process we were so intimately a part of.  We did the dying, and were denied the death.  The last steps for thousands of years- the washing of the body, dressing, building a simple box, digging the hole, putting the dead in (or burning, if that is your tradition) then covering over- it should be our right.  It is the end, and to have experienced the rest and not the end is unfair.  It is wrong.  It is a step, an essential step, left out.  Once in the ground there is silence.  Others who came, leave.  Then it is time for bills to get paid, letters written to cancel services.  Clothes get donated, the room cleaned.  A once vital, well loved human finishes becoming memories. 

I know I was loved.  I know, however fragmented, I was understood.  I know I loved in return.  They are gone, two of those who loved me most.  Two of those whom I loved most.  I am left with a smaller circle of care, of family, of those I love and whom know me in return.   Death be not proud, but ugly.  Inevitable.   Now let us be about our business, those of us who witnessed and enough of fakery.  We know what has passed, and what is lost.  There is no end to the loss, just fact.  The act is done.

Goodbye beloved mother, grandmother.  

Informing the hand

 People who work with their hands have, I have found, an interesting relationship to work.   Cognitive and neuro scientists have determined a function called kinesthetic memory, or muscle memory, which is a result of just using our bodies, especially our hands.  It helps us orient our bodies in space, and do actions in ways that are back-grounded (think about typing-  if you have done it often enough over many years, your fingers seem to just “know” where to go).  This is not without mistakes, but in general if we use our hands in specific, functional ways for a long time our brains learn too, and it creates a sort of action feed-back loop.  It’s really quite amazing.  Some educators are using this information to focus more on small and large motor development in early childhood, and some even into elementary school.  The idea is that physical passivity not only makes us lethargic and overweight, but actually deters learning- core functional learning in our brains.  This does not mean more tortuous gym classes, but finding ways to expand what is done in classrooms to encourage active, physical behaviors as part of learning.  Some aging specialists even think this focus can help people with dementia.

If I could talk to my great-grandfather again I am sure he would say the equivalent of “duh”.  So much about everyday life required using one’s body, one’s hands, a hundred years ago.  If we agree with this line of thought, then we run smack into what develops from using our hands:  the issue of quality, or competence in these actions, dare I say craftsmanship? 

Husband has a secret language with people who are expert users of hands.  I have always admired men’s hands.  The strong wrist, the slight bit of hair that escapes from a dress shirt, contradicting the starched formality of the suit.  The blunted finger tips, the calloused and worn skin.  Women use their hands too, but I have always preferred to let a stare linger over men’s.  Husband’s fascination is more of a sort of secret handshake, an understanding that can be difficult to express. 

We met a master baker over the weekend (http://www.europeanpastry.com).  He is “retired” in the way many experts are.  As he explained, “If you don’t use your hands (he holds them up) then you forget.”  Husband nodded.  Husband later expanded on the idea telling me it is more than the sheer loss of large and small muscle strength, which is annoying, but also the loss of a sort of magic, the forgetting how, the feeling rusty-ness that sets in and gets worse with time (He is struggling to avoid all that right now, as he has taken on more administrative duties and has had less time in the studio).  Our baker friend even taught himself pastry and chocolate making (which would have been separate businesses from bread in Europe he told us, in his Italian accent) to keep his hands, head, and bank account busy.  He shrugged and said “But we are in America.  It is all the same here.  I mostly make bread because I can’t find it like I like it.”  His shop is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, and those in the know order cakes from him.  It isn’t easy to find, he and his wife run it out of the back of their small post-war house in a tight residential district.  You have to take the alley to get to it; there is no parking, and only one small sign.  But inside is an expert space of machines, materials and the products of many years of using hands correctly, with skill.

I could rhapsodize over the lingonberry and lemon tart.  I could drool while telling about the crunch of the batard, the perfectly balanced oil, herb and fluff of the bread in the focaccia,  or the flakiness and rightness of the cinnamon to apple ratio of the apple dumpling, or many of the other things we bought and shared as a family that day.  It should be enough to say that the “it all tastes the same” feeling of most commercial bakeries is due to the use of industrial materials and techniques that MAKE the products all the same (regardless of shape, color, texture, or label).  The contrast are real bakers and pastry makers, who try new flavors, know how to manipulate delicate materials and, as our baker said, “. . .use only real things- butter, farm eggs, sugar.  None of that other stuff.  No.”  He also lamented the lack of time-taking in many bakery efforts, saying that good bread needs time, directing us to what he considered was a good U-Tube video showing how to make real bread (using pre-heated cast iron pans), saying “even a six year old can make it”.  I would say a six year old can start to understand it, the real meaning of bread.

Experts of the hand have a respect for their tools, which they come to feel are extensions of their hands.  They know their materials well, and can literally “feel” when something is not right, and in Husband’s case, even “hear” when a tool is not being used correctly (students who are not using a hammer or torch correctly for example, he can hear from across the room, even in a messy din).  We also know people who work with cloth (also known as fibers artists), iron (blacksmiths), wood, and glass.  I know gardeners who have these traits as well.  The issue of craftsmanship is, I believe, so deep in the nature of who we are as human beings that it has been both derided and made exclusive, and every level in between, yet the use and informing of the hand does not go away.

Last fall we sat in on a lecture by a man who is called an expert in the theory of craft in art.   I found him neither an expert (his philosophical ideas were circuitous, unarguable, and uninformed by current theory), nor a person who understands the hand in any fashion (or a do-er, as Husband says).  We spent most of the evening after the lecture ranting to one another about what was and was not said, and finally decided we should write the book that has not been written about the topic.  Husband also began designing a class to “inform the hand”: A summer course of four weeks in which students would have two days of intensive, active learning with master hand users.  Two sets a week of blacksmithing, wood working, baking, sewing, glass blowing, etc.   Students would be required to turn in a paper in the end reflecting on these experiences, comparing and contrasting the use of hands through materials, tools and techniques, and what they have learned about craftsmanship.  Struggling to transform into words that which can seem to difficult to express- and thereby better practicing both the understanding of hands in craftsmanship, and written expression as well.

This morning I will make pancakes.  My kids say I make the “best in the world”, and I love that they say that- even with their limited experience and direct motivation.  But it is husband’s grudging respect for something he can’t do well (yet) that I love the most.  Materials, experience, practice, experimenting, and the hand I say.  Even if it has only been used in making pancakes, we can all understand and pursue informing our hands.

He who works with his hands is a laborer

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman

He who works with his hands, head, and heart is an artist

(Attributed to Francis of Assisi)