Sunday, June 22, 2008

Apropos of Nothing

Today's Sunday Times crossword puzzle (by Pamela Klawitter) has a "Chain Reaction" theme in which the clues had sequences of words with certain words left out. The chain of words, when the missing words were filled in, consisted of words which each be could be compounded or used in conjunction with the next: food court case closed circuit board foot locker room service road hazard light, and so on. A clever idea for a puzzle.

Or for a few moments' recreation, as in this little circular list I compiled on a scrap of paper this morning:

House Wine
Wine Glass
Glass Jaw
Master Class
Room Service
Service Charge
Charge Card
Card Shark
Father figure
Figure Study
Study Hall
Hall Light

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Attentiveness, Flexibility, Collaboration

The narrative which follows is one chunk of a somewhat longer piece of writing I've been wrestling with in which I am trying to pull together a number of different threads of connection around the concepts of attentiveness, flexibility, and collaboration. I'm working with a group of teachers at my school on a task force which is directing the self-study we need to conduct in order to prepare for the visit of the WASC accreditation team, scheduled for the spring of 2010. We have been framing our conversations in such a way as examine and reflect upon the ways in which the school provides and shapes environments which promote attentiveness, flexibility, and collaboration both on the part of the teachers and on the part of the students.

I got to thinking about Tim Kelly during a conversation with a student at the end of this year when I was trying to explain the whole notion of 21st century learning skills why I believe that process skills and habits of mind (including, of course, attentiveness and flexibility and collaboration) are closer to the heart of my mission as an educator than, say, memorization skills or test-taking skills. We wound up talking for a while about grades and the logic of grades, which got us into a discussion about competition for grades, and then about competition more generally. And that's when I found myself talking about Tim Kelly.

Back in the 70’s, when I was first out of college and just beginning to teach and to raise a family, I met Tim. Tim was a musician, a piano player, and we used to get together pretty regularly for a couple of years there to play tennis or basketball or chess. We were fairly evenly matched in all of those endeavors, and the competition was enjoyable for both of us.

We were not fairly evenly matched musically. Tim had been playing piano since childhood and actually had musical talent to start with; I had started playing guitar only a few years before and had, as far as I could see at that time in my life or at any time subsequently, no real musical talent at all besides a certain pigheaded stick-to-it-iveness. When Tim said we should get together and jam, I was skeptical, but willing to try.

In our jams, Tim took on the role of servant leader. He favored a style of musical collaboration he called modal improvisation. He would create simple melodic structures that I could follow with my limited assortment of chords and my crudely executed scales, and then create little openings within the structure for me to improvise. After I had rather quickly exhausted my repertoire of licks within one of those spaces, then I’d switch back to rhythm chords and create similar spaces which Tim would fill with elegantly elaborated little rills and trills and arabesques. We spent hours together whiling away the Time in this manner. Even though we were mismatched in terms of talent, we were able to create something together that had some sort of aesthetic quality and that satisfied both of us.

Once we had been playing music in this way for some months, Tim and I began to talk about whether we might be able to transfer this experiment in collaborative exploration into our other areas of interest. At the time I was teaching in a small elementary school, and I had a key to the gym. On Sunday mornings a group of us would get together and play basketball. Up until I had met Tim, basketball had existed in my mind as a purely competitive exercise. There are historical and psychological and familial reasons why I had turned out to be a fierce competitor at this time in my life, but up until that time basketball was for me what chess had been for Bobby Fischer, an opportunity to impose my will upon the opposition, to keep the pressure on until I could feel the opponent’s ego break. Not that I always, or often, succeeded at that. I wasn’t that good. But that’s what I was trying to do, and that’s where I took my satisfaction, when I was able to achieve it.

Tim helped me to start thinking differently about that. He suggested that we try playing basketball as a form of modal improvisation. We would contrive to put ourselves on the same team, and then we would try to play together in such a way as to raise the aesthetic level of the game. We would work together with great attentiveness and patience, trying to run our pick-and-rolls smoothly and to perfection, trying to find the right angles for the elegant pass, trying to make the game something that was satisfying not so much for its result as for its shape, its architecture. We began making a conscious effort to rely less on one-on-one moves and more on collaboration. The best move one could make in our re-framed hierarchy of basketball values was not the corner jumper or the reverse spin move but the artful assist.

This way of playing, this mindset, changed the experience of being inside the game. It gave me access to more and different kinds of pleasure during the game, and de-emphasized the result. The primary criterion for success was whether we had played well together. If we had, we felt good about the game, even if we had lost. If we hadn’t played well, we were sobered and disappointed, even if we had won. After the games were over, we often were not even sure what the score had been. Our post-game conversations would involve re-creating and re-living our own little highlight film of the moments where the game had gone right.

The old sports cliché is “It isn’t whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” I had heard that throughout my life, but Tim was one of the people who helped me eventually to understand how that might actually work in practice.

This is a narrative which is most obviously about collaboration. But it's also a narrative about flexibility — being able to shift your orientation and redefine your goals within a system with which you are already familiar — and about attentiveness as well. What you choose to attend to, what modes of attentiveness you have available to you and how you select from among them, has everything to do with what you wind up deriving from an experience.

It's been interesting, over the last few weeks, to see how powerfully these three concepts interact with one another. More to follow.


Discovered a new site yesterday, via a link sent to me by my son, to a mini-blog engine called Tumblr. It's a blog genre I hadn't heard about known as a tumblelog or tlog. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles of some of the more sophisticated blog engines, but it's very clean and easy to use. It took me about ten minutes to get set up my account and put together several posts. There are some nice features, including the ability to create private groups whose members can post to one another, using the blog as a kind of shared workspace. Might be useful in certain classroom environments as well.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Chris Lehmann had a post today about a word-cloud utility called Wordle. I decided to try it with one of my favorite poems, W.S. Merwin's "Search Party." It's a poem I often share with my students, inasmuch as it speaks to the condition of being a lifelong learner. It's also got a Hawaiian connection: Merwin lives on Kauai, and maoli is the Hawaiian word for "native" or "natural" or "true."

Search Party

By now I know most of the faces
that will appear beside me as
long as there are still images
I know at last what I would choose
the next time if there ever was
a time again I know the days
that open in the dark like this
I do not know where Maoli is

I know the summer surfaces
of bodies and the tips of voices
like stars out of their distances
and where the music turns to noise
I know the bargains in the news
rules whole languages formulas
wisdom that I will never use
I do not know where Maoli is

I know whatever one may lose
somebody will be there who says
what it will be all right to miss
and what is verging on excess
I know the shadows of the house
routes that lead out to no traces
many of his empty places
I do not know where Maoli is

You that see now with your own eyes
all that there is as you suppose
though I could stare through broken glass
and show you where the morning goes
though I could follow to their close
the sparks of an exploding species
and see where the world ends in ice
I would not know where Maoli is

Here's the resulting graphic via Wordle:

Here's another based on Billy Collins' "Journal":

Fun stuff. Thanks, Chris.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Well, my man Icky has correctly pointed out that my previous post, entitled "Cellophane," isn't really about cellophane at all, but about Saran Wrap, or whatever the generic term for Saran Wrap is. The package I'm looking at is from Safeway, and the material is described as "clear microwaveable stretch 'n cling wrap," which is as a descriptor is clear and specific but certainly compact and certainly not elegant. In any case, Icky, who can be always counted upon for corrective feedback, once again delivers the goods:

Cellophane is made from wood or cotton pulp. You guessed it. Cellulose. It is the clear, stiff stuff though which you could see those powdered sugar donuts you got in desperation at Shaw's. It is the stuff that goes "pop" if you push a pencil through it. I can picture you trying to wrap a sandwich with it as it crinkles and springs back into its original flat state. Also, it is completely biodegradable, although the alkali and carbon disulfide solution that the pulp is dissolved in can create disposal problems. And did you know that if the viscose (as it is called) is extruded through a spinneret the resulting fiber is rayon.
The only reason I wrote the piece in the first place was because Icky had written me an email busting me about the post I had written the day before in which I had included cellophane as an alliterative, if admittedly somewhat arbitrary, element in a list of 13 possible blog post topics. "Sure," he wrote, " You are going to write about cellophane. It has been bubbling up, waiting for the last moment to emerge fully formed at which point you'll call on Erato and bestow it upon the world. I bet you don't know diddly (and that ain't Bo, rest his soul) about cellophane."

So I decided to write about cellophane, in order to prove a point, and in doing so I wound up proving his point, and not, alas, mine.

It's not that I didn't know what cellophane was, of course. But while I was writing and after I had written I had not so much as a clue that my brain had tossed up the wrong set of associations for the word. It's like when you play chess and you scan the board and see that there's one move that is going to lose a knight and you look for another so you go through your progressions and forty seconds later you wind up making the move you had already seen and discarded. Your opponent snaps up your knight and you say, "Yes, of course, duh, I knew that."

Doesn't generally happen to the good chess players, of course. But to the rest of us mortals, it's back to square one. All you can do: try again.

Friday, June 6, 2008


For Icky

is a clear plastic sheeting
used most often as a wrap
for foods (fruits and vegetables,
casseroles, slices of pizza,
other things that might go
stale or be subject to contamination
by dust or other airborne
in order to keep them fresh
in the refrigerator.

comes in a box about
a foot wide and two inches
square, wrapped around
a cardboard cylinder
an inch and a quarter
in diameter. On the edge
of the lid of the box
is a serrated metal strip
against which you can pull
what you have taken from
the roll in order to tear it
in sort of a straight line.

presents itself, as many
transparently mundane
objects do, with a multi-
tude of metaphorical
possibilities, most of which
hermetically sealed
shall remain obscure.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Well, that was two weeks that went by fast. I don’t think I’ve gone two weeks without a post to Throughlines since I started it more than a year and a half ago. It was my intention then, and it is still my intention now, to use the expectation of regularity implied by the maintenance of a blog to force myself into the discipline of writing more regularly. So where I have I been, and why, given my personal and professional belief in the power of writing as a tool to generate and extend and deepen my thinking, have I been AWOL for so long?

The easy thing to say would be that I ran out of things to write. That’s what my students sometimes tell me. But it isn’t true for them—although they may truly believe it is—and it isn’t true for me. I’ve actually got a baker’s dozen ideas teed up in the antechamber of my mind, just waiting for me to show up and send them aloft: the attentiveness post, the Tracy Chapman post (“There’s a fiction in the space between…”), the reading-response posts (Clay Shirky, Kim Stanley Robinson, Virginia Woolf), the Xina post, the Nickel Back Rock Star post, the end-of-the-year open letter to my students that I sometimes write and did not get around to doing this year, the post about Buddhist philosophy and the game of poker, the posts about salad and certitude and cellophane and survivalists.

So no, it’s not that. And it’s not that I’ve been too busy, although busy I have certainly been with end-of-the year meetings and projects and papers and celebratory events. There’s been time, and there have been times when I could just have easily have fired up the word processor, as I have done today, as play online chess or go for a walk or do a crossword puzzle or spend yet another hour trying to hone my nonexistent piano-playing skills.

There’s just been a… resistance. A resistance to sitting down to write, a kind of cocooning, a turning inward, a closing down which falls somewhere on the continuum between laziness at the one extreme and self-medication at the other. I wasn’t ready to write. I’ve even been having trouble reading with any consistency. I’ve been disconnected. I’ve been adrift. I’ve been elsewhere.

And now, it appears, I’m back. I sit here on this Monday evening, staring at the screen now nearly full of the words that have fallen into place under my fingers, now that the internal pressure of not writing has finally built up to the point where it actually got me to sit down and open up a blank MS Word document and start with… something. And I guess, for me, that’s the best thing about writing, which is that while it’s never easy for me to get started, once I do, I enjoy what I’m doing, and when I’m done, I am able to take some small satisfaction in being able to look back over what has come to be and say to myself, “There. There’s that.”