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staying within the lines

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I must do something about my distractible nature.

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I read endless self-help books about focus, motivation and drive.  I have always been fascinated by the brain and draw upon my limited background in gero-neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  But I have yet to discover how to utilize my lobes in mid-life to allow me to function efficiently at maximum capacity.  I sound like I want to be a drone.

I have just completed reading Malcolm Gladwell’s second book, Blink, from over a decade before.  It delves into making snap decisions and quick judgment calls and how to slow time down to focus.  This is a trait I would like to master; the ability to read situations and more importantly, to read people.

I found myself standing in a parking lot talking to a fellow parent about our sons’ lack of social skills. I suspect that I, too, reside somewhere on the autism spectrum line; off-center.  But with maturity and experience I have learned to bring myself back, to cut through the noise and center on what is important…unless I am distracted.

If you say,  “Squirrel!” my head is already swiveling.

Gladwell concludes in his book that too much information can cloud our ability to make unconscious, judgment calls.  If we think too long about a decision we become more indecisive as more information is collected.  I, too, am overwhelmed when given multiple choices such as when I purchase groceries for my family.  I used to be a member of a co-op, frequented farmers’ markets and walked the aisles of Whole Foods, Sprouts and Trader Joe’s.  And then I read  Omnivore’s Dilemma, and  Fast Food Nation and stood indecisively at the sliding glass doors.  Organic really wasn’t organic?  I had too much information; standing over aisles reading food labels.  My grocery shopping excursions became stressful mind games where I questioned every single purchase.  It was ridiculous!

The fellow mom and I hug in the parking lot and I think of her words; the ones she hopes for her son.  She just wants him to belong.  He’s a high school junior.  That’s all we ever want for our kids…to fit in, find their way and belong.  It’s what I want for myself and I often ponder where my place is in this life as I walk from place-to-place.  Most times you’ll find me in the back of a room in a corner; my preferred space.  In a tea house I hear the John Mayer song with my eldest son; and I call to him if he remembers the app that can tell me what song is currently playing.  Shazam!  My son quizzically looks at me and I smile.  I’ve always loved this song but never knew who sang it.  Until now.

They love to tell you
Stay inside the lines
But something’s better
On the other side

I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
Top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you’ve got to rise above~ John Mayer

Just this morning my girlfriend and I talked about ADD and distractibility.  I think of my own high school years and I was the one who couldn’t sit still in my classroom.  I would, randomly, get up out of my seat and walk the halls of my high school but what I really wanted to do was run and shout, just as in Mayer’s lyrics.  Those words speak to me.  And when I would return to my class and seat; the assistant principal would often be occupying my space and would quietly move as I re-entered the classroom from the back.  There was nothing they could do to me; I didn’t disturb others outside of my exiting and entering.  They knew my father was dying of cancer.  I was ranked third in my graduating class.

I have a hard time staying within the lines.

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I was reminded of my easily distracted self last week; chaperoning a high school event.  My sole duty was to take roll call of the twenty-five students on my bus, and the girlfriend I had partnered with was not making the return trip back to school with us.  I have chaperoned many elementary field trips but this was my first foray with teenagers.  A student had volunteered to take roll as we prepared to return home but the bus driver had engaged me in conversation.  It wasn’t until the director boarded our bus that it dawned upon me I had not prompted the student to take roll call and we gazed at one another, deer in the headlights; delaying our departure.  Yep.  Distracted.  I felt like I was nine years old.   This after I had tripped and face-planted in front of another local high school group trying to catch up with our students.  Definitely not one of my finest moments.

My extroverted nature tends to get in my way; causing my brain waves to scatter.  My girlfriend tells me of the book she is reading; on how to focus and to brings things back.   It is next on my reading list.  These days I work hard to sit back and observe, to bring my thoughts into focus and think before I speak.  But now I even question if this is a good thing.  After reading Blink I realize,

I over think too many things and must allow myself to trust my gut; to go with the flow.

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It’s okay not to stay within the lines.  Because my nature is such that I must always seek to get to the other side (whatever/wherever that is).  But I also fight this urge because if I’m too busy trying to reach somewhere else, how can I inhabit the present and focus on it?  Sometimes, we, adults have too much information and get lost in the details.  Kids can easily read another person.  Yes, they too are easily distracted but they know what’s important and impulsively will act on their first reaction.

This is my life’s journey.  To learn from my life’s experiences.  To hear and feel what my subconscious is telling me.  To trust my instincts.  To filter through the noise and find my song.  I will resist my urge to over think my words and stay within the lines.  I will write them across the pages and sing them loud.

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Family, School

the voice in the crowd

I have no voice.

I think of the irony of this statement; the once extremely shy girl who rarely spoke or looked people in the eye. Back then I wished I had been a fly sitting unobtrusively on a wall; observing the world around me.  Silence is my sanctuary.  It is welcoming.  Comforting…

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…but annoying when your primary means of communicating is verbal.  Over the years I had been encouraged to come out-of-my-shell; to advocate for myself.  These thoughts reverberated in my mind amidst the raucous yells in a crowded high school gymnasium.  I hadn’t realized the cell phone I held in my hand was ringing until I felt the vibration.  My eyes alighted on the teenagers standing tall in bleachers, screaming at the top of their lungs. The parents surrounding me were also cheering and I could hear the air push through my vocal chords but no sounds came out.  Phone in-palm, I did fist pumps instead.  It was in that moment, in the loud gym, that I realized how much I took my voice for granted.

There are so many places today where women cannot speak.  Cultures where women’s destinies lie in the hands of others; usually under heavy handed males and uncompromising circumstances.  I take for granted that my voice can be heard; that the words I write are granted in our free society.  I have the right to an opinion and with social media and the world wide web; they have the capability to be seen.  What of those who have none of these things: computers, cell phones, IP addresses; the large areas of third world countries and in rural parts of our first world own?  The book, The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi weighs on my mind.

I had sat in a meeting Thursday night and when I spoke, my voice came out as a squeak.  The dry cough that plagued my family had taken over my larynx and everyone leaned in to hear what I was attempting to say.  As a listening tactic at home, I lower my voice when I address my sons with something important.  Currently the noise level of my home is non-existent; my family dampening the volume and listening to discern where I am when they address me.  It is comical!

It had been easy as a thirteen year old to hide behind my girlfriends as they chattered away.  If ever I needed to speak, my friends would speak for me.  It was only in high school that I stood alone; dispersed in different classes and paths.  It was in these years that I discovered the squeaky wheel got the oil and if I didn’t discover my own voice, quickly, that I would rapidly be left behind amongst my more assertive and vocal classmates.  Whomever said grades and scores speak louder than words should qualify that statement.  You need to be able to put your actions where your mouth is.  You can be intelligent, innovative and creative (Steve Wozniak) but if you can’t get along with people or market what you do (Steve Jobs), what good does that do you?  You have to balance both of these traits to effectively maneuver the world around us.

Currently this discussion pertains to our teenager and  I understand now WHY I chose to forget about my high school years.  These are the issues I never wanted to confront, to sweep under the rug.  It is during these tumultuous years where the growth pains, failures and triumphs mark the person we were in that moment.  The acne and body changes, the clothes I couldn’t afford to wear, the trips or experiences I never had.   It is only when we are away from the intense scrutiny of popularity, athletic or academic rankings that we can figure out what truly defines a person.  Hard work.  Experience.  Social skills.  Clearly I understood the ethos of hard work and I volunteered in various clubs and activities to gain experience.  But for social skills, I was on my own.

It was in another high school gym that I was forced to find my voice.  Activities such as band allowed me to perform with a large number of people.  When chosen for a songleading squad I quaked in fear, cursing the fates.  I had thought I could blend with the girls in performing dance routines but we also had  to project our voices and cheer.  Loud.  This was not the fit for me.  I attempted to hide behind the other girls but our instructor had made it clear.  We were the ones to generate spirited yells; we had to embody these words with confidence.  Our coach would stand near me to make sure she could hear my voice as I nervously quivered.  I’d never failed anything at this point in my life.  I couldn’t fail at this.

Today my sons hear me.   I now can project my voice very loud and clear.  Across a crowded football stadium my eldest heard me shout from the top row as his marching band took the field in competition.  My middle son heard me underwater as he would  flip turn during swim meets.  In soccer, my youngest heard my whoop for joy as he blocked a shot amongst a group of defenders.  In a crowded room of adults my husband can easily find me.  From those gym drills emerged my ability to communicate, the voice which asserts my thoughts and questions the status quo.  My heart still pitter-patters before I have to publicly speak but once I begin, I am full-throttle and had to learn to wrap things up in a timely manner.   Yesterday in the crowded gym I wanted to cheer and shout with throngs of people present.  I wanted my voice back!

My ability to speak with volume, though, was not the impetus that gave me my words.  In the end it is the CONTENT of grammatical phrases and punctuation that allowed me to mean what I say and say what I mean.  It was my English teacher, who also was the debate team coach, who made this clear.  Speaking loud didn’t mean anything if there was no true meaning in what you were shouting.  You needed literature to back the words up; the wealth of information from acquired knowledge.  One needed to be well read and ultimately, the ability to be an effective speaker came down to one thing.

BOOKS.

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Initially I thought this teacher meant the classics of literature.  But no.  He meant anything and everything you could feast your eyes upon.  Science fiction, trashy magazines, graphs in the Wall Street Journal, dictionaries.  I internalized his words and my quiet, introverted personality would switch between Harlequin romance novels and any of the above.  My vocabulary grew and my thirst for knowledge exponentially grew with it.  Alongside my globe were Michener’s Hawaii, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and even my Harlequin romance novels.  All had a part of the choices made in my life and to this day I credit my widened perspective to these particular books.  I’ve seen this derivation of Descartes’ famous quote which embodies the person I have become.

I read therefore I am.

So, voiceless and tired, I sat and completed reading the book that I hope will bring me some parenting perspective as I maneuver through this next phase of parenting a teen: college mania.  Amongst my girlfriends I see the stress and toll the admission process has placed upon them.  I read articles of Palo Alto parents keeping watch along train tracks for suicidal teens in the month of April when acceptance and rejection letters arrive in the mail or email (gasp!)  Frank Bruni’s, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania shed some light on what lies ahead and I thought of this as the principal read the long list of college acceptances from various seniors at our high school.  When the valedictorian and salutatorians were announced I was surprised to note that they were not the kids proudly wearing their Harvard or Yale shirts.  And I cried alongside the surprised and proud parents who claimed these seniors.  The Ivy schools were well represented in the “Top Ten” kids but so were other state and small private institutions.  My eyes were opened as I fist-pumped for their accomplishments.  Just WOW.

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I got that same feeling as I sat in an upper balcony of the large auditorium. I am a fan of writer Malcolm Gladwell; known for his books The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers & his current book David & Goliath.  When I saw he was being interviewed at the LA Times Festival of Books I went online and was able to secure two tickets to this engagement.  My first exposure to published authors began at age eleven; chosen to participate in a writer’s workshop at a university one and a half hours from my childhood home.  My GATE advisor took it upon herself to drive me there, daily, the entire week.  I had been in awe and intimidated.  I sat silently as authors shared what inspired them; my voice still hidden deep within.   I am just coming to the realization of how many adults mentored me and how grateful I am for their tutelage.  The years I chose to forget were the ones that indelibly shaped me.  The high school counselor, the cheerleading coach, the GATE advisor.  The death of my father.  The books allowed me to expand my mind beyond my claustrophobic four walls.  They were my ticket to the world beyond.  The books helped me build my vocabulary, find my words and, with the cheerleading coach, finally say them loud and clear.

For the Malcolm Gladwell conversation I sat in the same auditorium of my very first college class.  Biology 101.  All pre-meds and science majors were required to take this course their freshman year which weeded out the wheat from the chaff.  At 8 AM MWF I sat in this darkened lecture hall frantically taking notes in the front rows.  It is in the years between, then and now, that I realized I had narrowed my scope.  Hindsight brings perspective and where my true passions lay were in the globes and maps and demographics.  I loved statistics and had, instead, narrowed my choices to medicine.  It was after completing my one year in a medical school did I realize this was not the career path for me; much to the shock of my family and friends.

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On the way home from the Festival of Books the eldest re-initiated the conversation from two weeks before.  While I sat listening to Gladwell my husband, best friend and his wife set out to show our children the various places they hung out in our years of college here.  They toured science and engineering quads, peered into computer labs,  Heisman trophies and film school buildings.  The kids listened intently as the three of them shared stories of late nights studying or socializing.  They heard Jeff Kinney, the creator of the Diary of A Wimpy Kid books and cartoons, recount how his life brought him to his present occupation.  The books and authors were everywhere as they toured the campus for almost two hours.  The stats ring true: kids whose parents have gone to college will most likely take the same route.  I tell my son to open his mind and widen his perspective.  We need to open these doors to all kids in diverse socio- and economic circumstances.  Books can be that portal to bridge the gap to get them there.

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It takes almost twenty four hours for the last three days to really sink in.  The rally.  The friends.  The festival.  I had thought excessive pride and hubris was the trait I despised the most in people.  But as I processed the conversations over the past few days I realized I have been wrong.  Narrow-mindedness is the crux that I am least tolerant and empathetic; the parachute that leaves me drifting and bound.  In cutting the ties to this trait, I can explore outside my boundaries to the great outdoors and beyond.

I am expanding horizons. 

The world is my oyster.  I want my son to know this as he enters the cogwheel of these stressful high school years.  To not limit himself to the rules and boundaries; the safe paths people doggedly tread to get to the end destination.  I want him to walk his journey and trail blaze his own path; to not follow my own, or his father’s or his peers’.  I strive to impress this upon each of my children because they are all unique and their strengths and weaknesses are different.  It is my job, as a parent, to foster broader horizons and perspectives, to encourage the pursuit of knowledge and to allow my kids to explore their passions whether it be books, music, sports or pop culture.

I ponder if the computer and internet are the books of my children’s generation; opening boundaries to the web world wide.  May they enjoy what they read.  To  read their own words.  To passionately pursue what they enjoy for their own life paths.

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May you continue to read, forever and always.  Find your voice.  Step outside the box.

friendships, School

Intersecting thoughts & roundrects

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These past two months my mind has been looping in circuitous circles; going round-and-round.  With the crazy schedules and multiple tasks I have been unable to focus my internal lens.  But yesterday my circles interlocked like Venn Diagrams; my thoughts intersecting.  I love when it all comes together and I can begin to make sense of things.

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Unable to write/blog I busied myself with digital graphics and the tablet graphic, above, visually summed up where my thoughts ran.  It all began with rounded rectangles.

Rounded rectangles?

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When Bill Atkinson, an engineer at Apple, discovered algorithms to create ovals he excitedly showed Steve Jobs.

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“Well, circles and ovals are good, but how about drawing rectangles with rounded corners? Can we do that now, too?”

Dismayed Atkinson replied that it would be difficult to do and felt there was no use for them.  Jobs demanded they take a walk, his modality for communicating important issues and decisions in his life, and proceeded to show his lead engineer the various rounded rectangular objects they encountered.  Jobs’ demand for more made Atkinson discover how to create this graphical interface the very next day.  These roundrects became the design philosophy for all things Apple; from the original Macintosh in 1981, to the iPod/iPad designs and apps today.

And of course the icons came in his favorite shape, the primitive he made Bill Atkinson design into the software of the first Macintosh: rounded rectangles.

This small detail would’ve escaped me; but my computer scientist hubby noted this design feature as I worked on creating a yearbook cover for my sons’ elementary school.  The idea was not my own but I was designated as the implementer; the one to manufacture the vision digitally.  It is a small detail, the rounded corner, and as I created apps we began to realize it permeated everything;  tablets, iPods and apps.  I had not realized this in December, but this feature would lead me to various unrelated paths that would come to intersect.

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At this same time I had begun reading the Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers.   I had indulged my epidemiological curiosity of what defined off-the-chart individuals, and discovered that being born in 1955 would be a harbinger for success.  Interestingly enough both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both born in 1955, and Gladwell discovered that a combination of factors created outliers in our society.   One assumes hard work, motivation and innate ability creates success but there are other socio-economic, physical and geo-political factors that align to create, “the perfect outcome.”

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I continued to learn to use Inkscape for my vector graphics and thought of the book choice I would make for our February bookclub.  The bright red cover brought The Rosie Project to my attention; tying in with the month of Valentine’s day.  And as I read within its pages I discovered the protagonist had the characteristics of Asperger’s.  As a parent always worrying about my eldest son’s lack of empathy and social skills; I took this read to heart.   This led to reading Flowers for Algernon and the curious incident of the dog in the night-time about the lack of services for severe retardation and special needs services.  I had traversed from high-to-low outliers; statistical points or deviants from the mean or norm.

As I began to populate my tablet cover with applications, apps, I thought of how technology pervades my children’s lives. Most of the students of our school are familiar with electronics and social media.  It is both a blessing and a curse as instant gratification produces immediate, and sometimes dramatic, results.  Growing up, without our current technology, I had time to think before I made choices.  My modem would still be dialing the CompuServe server to check message boards.  I recalled the green screen of the TRS-80 in my middle school science class and programming with DOS prompts.  Now, with the press of a touchscreen, kids had the means to include and exclude.  Comments and photos were instantaneously seen and  read by large groups of people in a short amount of time.

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Yet I lament that our school lacks technology.

On my Goodreads feed I see the Amanda Ripley book, The Smartest Kids in the World, and I devour it in three days during a busy work week.   The Rubik’s cube on the cover intrigues me as the yearbook cover is sidelined for approval.  This book was completely off my radar and when I was done; I went online and diligently looked at several of the author’s resources.

Technology did not prove to aid in creating smarter kids in our society.  Instead our education system needs a better way to compensate and support our teachers to raise the bar.  We need more rigor and to demand all of our kids, not just those tracked or designated as special, with support services.  We are a community and parents, teachers and students need to be aligned with the same common values to create smarter kids in the U.S.  The theoretical physicist Michio Kaku claims the top scientists in our country are not born in the U.S.A.  He asserts that they become American and have been granted their residence due to the H-1B Visa.

Where are the innovators? 

When I watched the seventy minute YouTube video on Amanda Ripley; I noted that her former editor at Time magazine, Walter Isaacson from the Aspen Institute, was the author of the Steve Jobs book that sat on my nightstand.  I barely made it to page 88, in February 2013, and set it aside. I haphazardly glanced at the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and knew it was being piloted at our school this year; before it officially rolls out in Fall 2014.  I began to dig deeper, and researched the lofty educational goals.  Would they work?  How would we implement them?  Would we be able to, once again, produce the smartest kids in the world?  

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In manufacturing we’ve discovered the lack of technical expertise needed to create products from raw materials.  Most businesses look outside the country to fill the void.  Why?  Because Americans do not have basic mathematical skills to measure, to analyze and to critically think.  The blue collar jobs are now outsourced overseas to those who can and will do these things.

Steve Jobs lamented that Apple contracts were overseas because there were not enough technical engineers who could decipher how to create the products he produced.  If we are transplanting foreign born “genius” Visas and not providing ample compensation for those who occupy our top math and science professions; how will we motivate and nurture our children’s generations?  Will we continue to lose our knowledge base and jobs overseas?

I finally did pick up the Steve Jobs book again.  And upon its completion I stared at my graphic above; understanding his obsession with the rounded rectangles.  I also noted the author’s observation that Bill Gates’ geeky fascination flirted on the fringes of Asperger’s.  Steve Jobs’ success was, in part, due to his obsessive and ruthless desire to push the limits; raising the bar.  He demanded his product be the best and that meant he only needed A players; weeding out the B and C players.

Apple is about people who think outside the box, who want to use computers to help them change the world.

Simplicity isn’t just a visual style.  it’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter.  It involves digging through the depth of the complexity.  To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.

Jobs envisioned his products and tablets replacing heavy textbooks.  In education he had strong opinions, as well.

Teachers should be treated as professionals, he said, not as industrial assembly line workers…All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.

I commiserated Windows 8 woes with my son’s former first grade teacher.  Windows 8 is NOT intuitive.  Neither of us endorse the closed integrated system that Apples promotes, but we talked about innovators.  She shared that she attended a GATE conference where Steve Jobs had been the keynote speaker.  We both lamented the brain-drain in the fields of math and science.

CCSS

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Soon after I sat in the audience of parents as both our administrators presented the Common Core State Standards.  How could our kids take the Smarter Balance assessments when they didn’t have basic typing knowledge? My youngest son is able to type now; a typing program available for all of our school families, for free.  Last year a cost analysis to purchase a typing program had been $1,000.  Thankfully our administrator thinks outside of the box and utilized resources untapped.   Later, as I stood in her office I noted the Aspen Institute webpage on her monitor.  Unbeknownst to either of us we both had watched the same seventy minute YouTube video.

The Venn-diagrams appeared in my mind; our thoughts were aligned.  Independently we had arrived at the same place.   I stared across at her and was grateful that my children attend this school; her school.

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My circles began intersecting.  Education. Technology.  Simple Design.  Common Core.  Depth of complexity.  Love of reading.  Manufacturing.  Math & Science Skills.  Collaboration.   Delayed tracking.

Tracks for vocational and technical occupations and college shouldn’t be determined until high school.  All of our students should universally be taught higher, rigorous standards until this time.  Teachers should have more rigorous training, more support services available and compensation.  We need to streamline these pathways.  The hope is that Common Core will do this.  I cross my fingers but I know this isn’t the sole answer to this problem.

The way to a great start is to model a love of reading to our children.  It is that simple.

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It is the simple beauty that inspires.  The rounded rectangles, the colorful covers of books, the tea cups that set the mood for an informal, pajama-clad group of ten women who enjoy discussing books.   Most of these women did not make the time to read books before we began our reading discussion group in January 2010.  It is now a priority, each month, and our children note our solidarity.  Yes, we do socialize.  But what our kids also see is a love of learning, the ability to discuss and think outside of our four walls.  We are exposed to outside worlds…vampires and female trafficking.  Nazi occupied Germany and slavery in the South.  Tiger mothers and ordinary days.

At the end of the day, any of our ten women can think outside of the box.   We can provide text driven responses and back up our statements with written evidence.   We’ve learned to collaborate with each other and to communicate issues and concerns.  When we hit our lows we’ve learned to put one foot in front of the other, to ask for support, to rediscover who we are and what we feel is right.   We take missteps and leaps but that is okay.  Our kids won’t solely learn to think critically from CCSS and education alone.  We have to model it for them.

The circles are closed; circuits interwoven.  I appreciate the rounded rectangles and enjoy the tablet graphic that allows me to visualize  my intersecting thoughts.  My lens is clear and focused.

friendships

bookclub hospitality

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The frenetic twelve days before Christmas are now a thing of the past.  The gift?  Recuperation.  Four days of doing nothing but the things that I love:  reading & desktop publishing.  But blasted!  I inadvertently find myself circling my table laden with cookies and sweets; nibbling upon the hyperglycemic mother lode.  Most days I limit these items for my sons but currently I am encouraging them to partake.  The faster these items disappear; the faster my normal eating habits return.

I have found a new muse in Malcolm Gladwell; the author of the books: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw & his recent release, David & Goliath.  Just as Michael Pollan is to food; Malcolm Gladwell is to cultural epidemics & sociology.  I love when books inspire and make me re-think the status quo and both of these authors deliver.  I have recently discovered that I am a fan of non-fiction and memoirs.  I used to consider the romance genre as my true love; no pun intended.  This is the joy of reading.  A good writer draws you into topics I would never have explored before.

As I considered what my book choice would be for bookclub in February; much to my surprise, Gladwell discussed bookclubs in The Tipping Point.   I’ve often wondered how they have originated and what purposes they serve.

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Years ago when approached to join a newly formed group; I was a mother with three young sons and a deployed husband.  I had no time to read books; my days filled with the details of entertaining and feeding mouths of rambunctious children.  It was rare that I had a moment to myself and I laughed outright, one day, when I clocked my shower time at less than five minutes; worrying that my youngest son would get into something.  The only books I read were parenting ones to glean information, normally passed down from mother-to-daughter.

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My mother, at the time, lived in a locked assisted living facility and pondered how it was that I was her daughter.  I was her long lost sister and she was stuck at age 16.  Who are these kids?  she’d ask as she gazed at my middle son.  She died a month after his first birthday believing he was her youngest brother; angry at her mother for having her tenth child.

But at the insistence of my neighbor I was given the number to a babysitter; something I rarely used.  I fretted.  I couldn’t leave my three sons for two hours!  This neighbor lived directly behind me; the other around the corner.  The first book I read was not inspiring.  Though most people enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love I gritted my teeth.  I gave up time and two hours to read this?   And here I am seven years later….

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Bookclubs were the example Gladwell used of the role they can play in social epidemics; the power of context.  When an idea, in this case, a book, resonates and “sticks;” the group has the power to increase its audience by word-of-mouth or sheer numbers.  As obvious as this seems; what really drives trends or bestsellers isn’t about the numbers.  A book or idea generates buzz because of the dynamics of the group; of human interaction.   Great ideas and books exist in the every day; but it is in the propogation of discussion in social groups, like book clubs or individuals like connectors, mavens and salesmen, which spark personal experiences and generate conversations.  Voila!  A trend is born.  Who knew vampires and werewolves would spark Twilight hysteria or that Fifty Shades of Grey would engage the parent demographic; dubbed Mommy Porn?  

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I have never, truly, appreciated the power of a social group until reading this short chapter.  I was baffled, years ago, when other moms snidely commented on our bookclub as a social clique.  It was then that I questioned the purpose of these groups.  Exclusivity?  Social clique?  Wasn’t the purpose of a bookclub to discuss books and have academic discussion?  I have since realized that social groups form for a variety of reasons.  I have been involved in two book clubs; both similar and different.   A simple definition, surely, could not define the bookclub dynamic.

Some groups are academic; focused on the text at hand.  Bookclubs originated hundreds of years before; by scholarly men to propagate reading and discussion about government and politics.  Women began to create reading groups to learn at a time when females did not have access to formal education.  Many religious groups form studies; whether it is on the Koran, the Torah or Bible, to propagate ideas and conversation.  It paved the way for social progress and higher learning; cultivating good taste.

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Yet other bookclubs are primarily social; a way to get out of the normal circumstances (work, school, parenting) for leisure and escapism.  Wines and desserts line countertops; hors d’oeuvres showcased from Pinterest.  Books sit idly while bookclubbers chat about their lives; loosely connecting it with the chosen book.    This opens the doors for varied discussions, behind closed doors, with the complicit agreement that all things remain confidential.  What goes on in bookclub, stays in bookclub.  

How to blend the two?  The Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken” comes to mind.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Being involved in a defined group made me discover the complexities of a social dynamic; outside of the nuclear family and a few, choice friends.   Usually the members draw from the same demographic: fellow co-workers, classmates, friends.  The synapses of my neocortex are starting to fire; the part of our brains that make humans unique.  The size of the neocortex is not due to intelligence.  It is based on the capacity of networking in groups.

Currently I am working on my skills of hospitality; which include socializing.  It is a learned skill and to some it comes naturally; to others, it is a chore.  To be a good social host one needs to understand the group dynamic; to juggle diverse personalities and cultures.   This involves interaction and observation; which involves a lot of time and attention.

Most people do not cultivate this due to time constraints.  I, myself, am guilty.  In a group of ten women I must understand my relationship to the the other nine.  Then, I must keep track of each of the nine women’s relationships with one another.  And so, involving myself in a book club of ten women has me keeping tabs on a total of 90 two-way relationships; 81 from the nine others and nine of my own.  Did you get all that?

HLM 2013 fabfun

The power of the group increases when the group knows each other well.  This creates an implicit joint memory which psychologist Daniel Wegner calls transactive memory.  This implies that the relationships are intimate; just as in a marriage or family.  In a marriage or family it is realized that certain people are more suited to remember facts than others.  In my household I rely on my teenager to remember the WEP code for our wi-fi; my husband to remember details of house & car maintenance, my middle-son for all social details on our calendar and the youngest for obvious facts that I tend to overlook (like feeding the fish, dog, cat or the family LOL). There is only so much mental energy I can expend and so I remember those I need for necessity with a few extraneous details.  I, then, rely on the memory of my family (or camera) to compensate.

A tipping point is a term used often in immunology, where an infectious event (the flu, AIDS) goes viral; spiraling out-of-control and becoming an epidemic.  I embark on my own self-study with family as my control group and book club, my experimental.  As a group we, too, can affect our environment; a sort of Utopia.  In marriage or family there is no easy out.  The contractual bonds of these institutions demand that we get along.  But in something as simple as a bookclub we have the option to come and go.  For do we not read books for pleasure?  Why create rules and make things formal?

It is hospitality that I have vowed to work on in the new year.  This skill is something I hope to someday master; for it is this ability that will allow me to reach my tipping point.  Changing the littlest of things that can make the biggest of differences. When I die it is not the material things amassed that will matter; only the quality, depth and care of the people surrounding me.   I am learning to invest my time, efficiently and attentively, in human relationships. 

What defines a bookclub?  It is not the books we read, the food we prepare and share.  It is collective memories; the conversations and shared experiences, that define our purpose; our context.    It is the aspirations to share and learn things, about other people, who normally would not have come together.  Reading is the gateway to venture into territory we would never explore before.

Time to start reading.

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