Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Tragic Link in My Playlists

I remember 9/11/2001 very well.

A school friend, horrified, called me early that morning, so Carolyn and I were watching live when the second plane struck the tower. It was the most alarming, most horrifying thing I had ever seen in my life.

That is, until the towers fell. There's been nothing like that in my life, before or since.

I have no personal connection to the tragedy, but I saw the faces of those fleeing the rubble and dust; I saw the expressions of those hoping to find their loved ones whole and well; I heard the shock and fear of those reporting on the events. No one could live through such a horror, even at a distance of 2000 miles, and not be affected. Millions of lives, my life included, took a new trajectory that day, changed in numberless ways, both large and small.

We had tickets to see the Phoenix Symphony on September 14th, 2001. Yoyo Ma would be performing, and almost on a whim--I was no particular fan of classical music, or the symphony--I had bought tickets. Then, because of the recent events, and the restrictions on flying, the concert was nearly cancelled. Fortunately, Ma was able at last to get a flight, the concert went ahead. I remember none of it except the first piece played, added at the last minute to commemorate the tragedy--Barber's Adagio.

Barber's Adagio

I feel like I can remember every note from that first hearing. For the only time ever in my memory, I wasn't listening to the music--I was feeling it. It was the perfect expression of our mutual experience, of our national grief. Sorrowful. Slow. Majestic. Heartbroken. It built gradually, with the imperfect resolutions that somehow echo the emotional ache of tragedy. Every note spoke of grief, and regret, and remembrance, and pain, but it was beautiful. Awesomely, touchingly, transcendently beautiful.

I didn't want it to end, though of course it had to. But from that moment on, I have loved that piece of music.

Some time later, searching for anything that made me feel like Barber's Adagio, I found modern Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Famous for writing sacred choral music as well as orchestral pieces, Pärt has a genius for emotional expression. Perhaps the best example is his "Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten," written on the passing of a fellow composer.

"Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten"

I fell in love not only with this piece, but his astonishing choral works, and for a time I played everything I could find composed by Arvo Pärt.


Eventually, I searched for music that was similar to his. This led me to older classical composers, and then to soundtracks, and then to ambient music, and then back to classical. Not everything appealed to me; I haven't learned to enjoy Mozart, or Tchaikovsky, or others that I perhaps should feel something for. But it led me in a widening search for music similar to this music or that music that I had already made my own. It led me to Juan Gutierrez de Padilla, and Francesco Durante, and Wassenaer, and Gorecki, and Weill, and Penderecki, and then most recently to Vivaldi and Telemann and Purcell.

Purcell's Ten Sonatas

Eleven years after the tragedy of 9/11, and the shockwaves it sent through society and culture and politics and private lives, it is easy to see that our country is profoundly different than it might have been. Much has been lost, and much has been suffered.

But separate from the tragedy, and apart from any present awareness of the incalculable suffering of my fellow humans, I have to look at this tiny ripple in my life--a ripple caused, initially, by ugliness and cruelty and unreasoning hate--to see what it might mean.

I look at it, and wonder.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Turning Gifts into Talents

I believed, as a child, in the inherent fairness of the universe. Because it seemed to me unfair that some people were so much better than others at baseball or dance or painting or comedy or sprinting or spelling, I concluded that everyone had to have one outstanding skill. I determined that everyone was the best in the world at something. Later, I scaled back my overly-optimistic view of universal fairness to decide that, although many people may lack an outstanding talent, they were at least better at something than anyone they might be compared to. She can run faster than him; he can beat her at chess. That seemed minimally fair to my 7- or 8-year-old mind.

I've since given up hope on such elaborate plans of fairness being orchestrated by the universe. By adulthood, we've all seen too many tragedies, too many lives cut short, too many awards given to the undeserving, too many of the good guys falling to the bad guys to still believe there's anyone watching out for fairness. But I've also given up on the idea that anything is handed to anybody. Even the most talented have developed their gifts. Singers take voice lessons; athletes train; scientists study.

Françoys Gagné, Ph. D., of the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada, has developed a model to explain the development of talent (which he defines as the outward performance of a skill) from a gift (which he defines as an innate propensity for a skill, or aptitude).

His model explains how a natural ability--creative, academic, athletic--might be developed or ignored (and he acknowledges the role of chance in every aspect of skill development). The catalysts for development are interpersonal characteristics, such as interest, resilience, and motivation; and environmental characteristics, such as the cultural milieu, family support, teachers, coaches, mentors, and programs. These determine whether or not an individual will have a chance to develop, through practice and education, that gift. An aptitude for music might not develop into a talent unless the individual has an interest, and money for lessons, or programs available. (A gifted Austrian, for example, may develop into a talented skier while a similarly-gifted Hawaiian might not; the reverse would likely be true if the gift is surfing.) These catalysts also determine whether an individual even cares or tries to develop their skill, or whether they persevere in the face of set-backs, or have the income to afford coaching, etc.

Gagne's model is most relevant to school districts which want to ensure that gifted students are not prevented from reaching their potential. For many young people, their only hope for receiving the training they need lies in the neighborhood school. In fact, Gagne has recently argued that far too few minority and low SES students are identified and nurtured. If the schools don't support gifted students, many gifts will never be developed.

This may be true whether students are highly gifted or just normally gifted. In fact, his model would seem to hold true regardless of aptitude. This is demonstrated dramatically by Venezuela's program called El Sistema, or The System. On the face of it, it's a simple system: make instruments and training available across the country for all youngsters of any background, any ability; give them hours of instruction each day; require them to practice another hour on their own each day. But the results are extraordinary. Even at the local level, normal children in fourth and fifth and sixth grade, even from the poorest neighborhoods, achieve impressive results. At the national level, their highest achievers are both inspiring and humbling. Time + effort + support = an almost unimaginable musical flowering.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes 10,000 hours, more or less, to develop and master a skill. That's about three hours a day, every day, for ten years--or half an hour every day for 60 years. You want to play guitar like a virtuoso? Practice, and take lessons, if possible. For years. You want to dance well? Years of practice. But anybody, theoretically, can do it, not just the gifted.

Similarly, some karate instruction obeys the 100,000 repetitions rule. To be able to properly execute a move, without thought, without error, you must practice it 100,000 times. More difficult moves require twice that. In theory, anyway.

Life doesn't offer us very many 10,000 hour chunks. We may only have time outside of work to master a single skill--one instrument, one foreign language, one sport, one academic discipline. But that's still good news. As long as our heart is still beating, we are not shut out. Arts and sciences are not only for the gifted; they're also for the persistent. Music, or dance, or poetry, or drama, or physics, or calculus, or painting, or fiction, or ultimate frisbee can still be learned, and mastered.

It's just as simple, and just as difficult, as taking the time to try, to practice, and to learn.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Evolution of Humans and Their Books

According to archaeologists and anthropologists and geneticists, the human population went through a genetic bottleneck about 70,000 years ago. The event was probably connected to the eruption of Mt. Toba around that time. A stable, sizable population of humans, living in a hot, wet world, was decimated. Reduced to approximately 40-300 reproductive females (and a total population of perhaps 3000 humans), this bottleneck changed who we are.

A great deal of genetic diversity was lost. At such a low population, genetic drift is inevitable. For some hundreds of generations, the population slowly recovered, even as it was slowly altered, living now in a colder, drier world. We took a turn during that time, for better or worse, from who we were going to be to who we turned out to be. The humans that emerged from the catastrophic near-extinction had to be different than the humans who had existed before.

When a small group of humans left Africa, they experienced a similar bottleneck on the other side; when hunter-gatherers in Siberia crossed into the Americas, that population went through another; more recently, the settlers of Iceland created their own bottleneck of low genetic diversity. If a thousand people leave the earth on a Wall-E style ship, looking for a new home, our descendants will look different than us. It can't be helped. Only so much diversity can squeeze through.

Literature went through such a bottleneck. In fact, for most of the history of writing, literature has been stuck in one long, narrow bottleneck. Very few humans could read at any point in history. Few of those cared to write. Those who wrote did so laboriously, and copies were made by hand. During Europe's Middle Ages, new books could be counted on your hands each year (or nearly so). After the invention of Gutenberg's printing press--credited with the "democratization" of knowledge--the number of published books jumped.

I wonder how many potential authors lived in 1000 A.D. England, or Poland, or Australia, who never wrote because they were uneducated, or had nothing to write on. How many world-class works of literature might have emerged from pre-Columbian America if the native peoples had enjoyed the use of a printing press? How many astonishing poems might have been passed on from the peoples of Africa? Who might have invented the novel?

The works that we read surely are a subset of all the works that might have been written and copied and published; they are a subset, in fact of the books that were written and published. We only have those which survived. Our literary heritage might have turned out very differently. When books are counted in the hundreds instead of the millions, every new book exerts undue influence.

And now, for the first time in history, millions and millions of people have a chance to write something that might persist for thousands of years. Like a human population emerging from a long bottleneck, we are experiencing an explosion of literary diversity, emerging from the constriction of the publishers and other gatekeepers. Variety that was impossible when the only books in existence were those copied by monks in a scriptorium is now commonplace. Books are available everywhere, written by authors around the world, of all ages and skills and imaginations. Like the Cambrian Explosion of 4.5 billion years ago--or the spread of hunter-gatherers from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in a couple dozen generations--new books are filling every niche that authors can think to exploit. Most derive from the literature of our recent past, surely, but others are exotic, unique. There is no limit on what is possible.

This great flowering will undoubtedly be followed by a great pruning. But don't you wonder what books will look like in a hundred years? Where will this newest democratization of literature lead us?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Yopp! (if not my barbaric yawp)

The Whos, invisible and unheard by the cynical mob, are about to be boiled in beezlenut oil by the charmingly wicked Wickersham brothers. They, and the Sour Kangaroo, and many others, doubt the Whos' very existence. Horton, trying to save them, is tied and held; there's nothing he can do.

Although the Whos are all shouting at the top of their lungs, trying to be heard, trying to be believed, they are not loud enough. Just before the mob boils that dust speck, the last holdout among them, Jojo, finally joins his voice to the others...


They are heard, and they are saved.

Everything worked out great for them.


I'm not bitter, though.

Things are a little different for self-publishing writers in 2012. Each one of us--and I'm starting to learn how many such writers are out there--is trying to be heard. Trying desperately. We all have a book to sell, or three or five such books, and our hope for a beautiful future writing, instead of selling insurance or making widgets, rides on connecting with thousands of book-reading customers. At the very least, they must hear my "Yopp!"

The sound of thousands--or hundreds of thousands--of voices saying not "Buy my book!" or even "Read my book!" but just "Please look at my book!" becomes a concealing white noise that levels and cancels each one of our voices equally. We are the mob, and the mob cannot be understood. The mob cannot be attended to. Such noise is mere distraction, and must be ignored.

I've read a hundred blogs and a thousand bits of advice on how to rise above the noise of the mob. It all amounts to this: co-opt every neighbor, friend, noisemaker, amplifier and megaphone you can, and join as many voices together at one time as you can leverage, to make yourself heard. Organize the noise.

The whole time, I'm dreaming of a simple image: a book--one that I've painstakingly written and edited and published--waiting on a serene bookshelf; waiting silently, unobtrusively; a book waiting to be browsed, noticed or not noticed, chosen or not chosen, by the unmolested reader.

That image is not possible in reality, or at least not yet. Before such a book can sit on such a shelf, I must gain entrance by being noticed and approved and invited in. I must first sound my barbaric "YOPP!" to get the attention of as many potential readers as I can.

My apologies in advance.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Where did your reading come from?

For me, it was my parents. They were readers, and teachers, and of course they read to us kids. (I loved the Little Golden Books, and Horton Hears a Who, and picture books. I wish I still had some of those books, on a shelf somewhere. Someday, perhaps.)

And they took us to the library, and let us bring home a big bunch of books every time. But my reading took off when I started reading comics.

Like Stephen Krashen, and Alexie Sherman, and probably millions of other people, I got hooked on comic books when I was small. That's what I wanted to read; that's what was fun. We had piles of old comics (Kid Colt, Sgt. Rock, Lil Hot Stuff, Donald Duck, Superman, Fantastic Four) that had been handed down from my oldest siblings. Lots of them were ripped or had no cover, but that didn't hurt anything. My closer-in-age brothers and I would lay on our beds in the summer, reading the same stacks of comics for the tenth time, or the hundredth time. When a neighbor kid gave us a bunch of his old comics, it was like finding treasure.

I found science fiction in elementary school, and that was a whole 'nother world. Clifford Simak blew me away. "The pastoralist of science fiction" remains my all-time favorite writer. The first time I came home from the public library with half a dozen science fiction books, I didn't realize until I started reading them that three of the books I had picked were by Simak. Over the years, I read about thirty of his books, enjoying all of them, loving several. That's one writer I wish I could have met...

Finding The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (seventh grade?) convinced me I was a fantasy reader more than a science fiction reader, but where do you go after Tolkien? I struggled through The Worm Ouroboros, which was amazing in its own way, but not as transporting as Middle Earth; Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara was close (though I didn't like it as an adult, alas); Stephen R. Donaldson, with The Chronicles of Lord Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever, was closer; and then finally Guy Gavriel Kay seemed to be writing the Real Thing, the Transcendent Fantasy. His writing blew me away in college, and, in my opinion, surpassed Tolkien--but I wouldn't argue the point. His fantasy was as vibrant and colorful and inspiring as Middle Earth, but his characters were (are) more real, more possible, and their emotions more affecting.

Anyway, that's my opinion.

Since then, my reading has branched in many directions. Non-fiction of many types; mysteries; mostly-forgotten 19th Century novels only available on Project Gutenberg. Like most reading adults, my tastes have evolved, and grown. But reading has continued to be a great pleasure. It has filled me with the sense that life is full of promise and adventure and excitement.

As a teacher, I want that same experience, or something similar, for my students.

There has always been a strand of thought, particularly in schools, that says that reading is good medicine (I don't disagree) and that you should read in order to grow. Good enough so far. But they say that easy is bad; fun is unnecessary; harder is better.

There I disagree.

What pushed my reading at every age was a quest for what I enjoyed most at that moment. I wasn't looking for a morally superior book, an appropriately difficult book to make me a better person. I never checked lexile levels, or word count, before I chose a book. I never looked at a prescriptive reading list. I was reading what was fun. And like everyone who reads, I got better. And then better again.

As a reader, and a teacher, I want young people to have the same chance I did--to find what they love, to find what moves them, to find what makes them want to tell someone else about the cool book/comic/story/graphic novel they just read. I'm okay pushing Shakespeare on reluctant readers--but we shouldn't be pushing all the time. If a kid thinks books are a drag, Ethan Frome isn't going to change his mind.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian might change his mind, though. The much-maligned Twilight might. The derided Goosebumps might. The still-relevant, still-loved Outsiders might.

I would rather have them reading comics than ignoring Hawthorne. (I like The Scarlet Letter--but I'm not a struggling high school student.) I would rather--much rather--have them reading Harry Potter than seething through Silas Marner.

I want reading to be like a trip to Disneyland, not like a visit to the wallpaper store.