Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Grit(s) Go To Preschool

A range, featuring two wholesome breakfast cereals, at the Field House, a roadside diner near Princeton, Kentucky
The subject of grit returns, this time in an article from the New York Times Magazine,"Can The Right Kinds of Play Teach Self Control?" written by the aptly named Paul Tough.  The article is about the Tools of the Mind program, in which pre-K and kindergarten students at select schools across the country learn self-control through structured play.  Grit, the ability and, indeed, inclination to focus and avoid distraction, was the subject of an article in the Boston Globe published not too long ago, and that article inspired several of my earlier blog posts.

Grit, or the lack thereof, has become something of a pet peeve of mine.  I find that I am happiest when I'm grittiest.  My moments of inspiration always come when I am focused on finishing something.   Inspiration comes after the point when I want to stop working or focusing.  If I stop at that point, I don't get inspired.  But if I keep going, my urges to go the bathroom every fifteen minutes, to have a snack, to check e-mail all give way to my urge to work on what I'm doing.

Case in point:  Spring, 2007, finishing my biology honors thesis. I stayed up late.  I really got in the groove.  Suddenly, making that last figure with those sequence alignments was exciting, a finishing touch, rather than just something to put off.  I was not thrilled by the thesis I turned in minutes past the deadline that day.  It wasn't great.  It had mistakes.  I was really disappointed with it, in fact.  But having to meet that deadline made me realize what I really wanted my thesis to be.

Between the time I turned in the thesis to the committee and the day I had to turn in the thesis for printing, I was truly inspired.  I got lots of exciting scientific ideas and added them to the document.  I made some new figures.  I wanted to work on my thesis all the time.  The act of preparing the thesis for the committee and focusing on the thesis allowed me to achieve that next level of inspiration. 

I remember that after I'd turned in the thesis, I believe for printing, I had quite a high.  Before sleeping that night, I did a statistics assignment and got really "into it."  The next day, I cleaned my lab, organized my tubes, and did the lab dishes.  Then my advisor came and helped me rinse dishes, and we had a nice conversation.  Things had been awkward with my advisor during the period before my thesis got going.  I worried that she was unhappy with my progress.  But this the opposite.  I'd done a fabulous job on my thesis and was now icing the cake by doing a chore without being asked. I was so happy!  I was on a roll. 

Back to the main topic of this post.  I do think that grit is something that has to be taught.  I think that these Tools of the Mind programs have the right idea.  Grit must be taught because it is counter-intuitive.  In my case, to be truly inspired, I had to do what I'd been putting off.  I had to work past the point when I wanted to give up.  In the end, persevering made me ecstatic.  What I really want in life is that ecstatic feeling, that inspiration.  In order to reach that point, I had to resist doing what I wanted (sleeping, or anything to procrastinate, really) in order to focus and persevere.  Because it requires momentarily resisting one's urges, grit and the resulting inspiration is unlikely to come accidentally.  It's unlikely to come without some external pressure, like a deadline or a teacher's instruction.  That's why I think grit is something that should be taught in school.

I worry that children in un-schooling "programs" will not learn grit.  Un-schooling is a kind of home-schooling in which children follow their own interests, rather than a curriculum.  I think that these programs lack the external pressure that makes people focus enough to really get somewhere.

On the other hand, children do seem to be able to focus remarkably well. Maybe they do have some innate grit.  My niece, who is being un-schooled, is the epitome of focus as she reads a book at the kitchen table, ignoring her food and the people around her.  She could read a book during a hurricane.  I remember when I had the reading bug, and my friends have similar memories of reading in the early grades.

But will she voluntarily focus on memorizing the amino acid structures (which are nice to know but not fun to learn)?  I don't think so. 

The Tools of the Mind program emphasizes focused play as a way to teach grit.  Throughout my life, I have been privileged enough to engage in a kind of focused play:  study of the arts.  Ballet classes are focused dancing.  In them, you don't just dance the way you feel like dancing, you focus on doing prescribed exercises.  By the end of class, you feel great, perhaps even inspired.  You might not have felt great, though, at the end of the barre exercises.  You might even have wanted to quit at that point. Luckily, the structure of the class forces you to persevere past that point of discomfort.   If you then go and dance freely, your warmed-up body can do wonderful, inspired things.

Practicing an instrument is also focused play.  At lessons, the teacher leads you through exercises that you later are expected to practice on your own.  You learn to go through the exercises by yourself.  You develop an internal pressure to focus.  When I practice violin, I don't fool around.  That's something I learned from taking music lessons as a kid.

It would be great if schools also taught children to focus.  It's something everyone, not just privileged children, should learn.  It's something particularly important to learn in this day and age, the age of the evil iPhone.

I think that the iPhone is grit's nemesis.  It's the evil distraction, the Devil on your left shoulder.  It inspires people to drop what they're doing to check e-mail or send a quick text message.  I've read that kids nowadays are often caught texting under the table at family dinners.  Not only does a phone's constant pestering distract people from what they're doing, it also prevents them from later having a reason to sit down and write a thoughtful letter synthesizing the information they have been texting and twittering all day long. 

On the subject of "this day and age," let's think about a former day and age.  I recently read a book about growing up in the 50's, Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.  In this memoir, he described how kids used to be at a loss for things to do.  Their parents would tell them to go out and play and they had to find something to do.   They would almost focus on something because they couldn't find anything else to do.  Bryson knew his town inside and out because he had nowhere else to go.  He would read a magazine cover to cover because it was the only thing he had to read at the moment.

In our time, in this part of the world, anyway, one is never at a loss for things to read.  There's an information overload.  Focusing may be more difficult than it was in the past, but it's just as rewarding. 

Now let me make one last point.  I do fear that being able to instantly publish one's writing in the form of blog posts can deprive one of that moment when a piece of writing, after extensive editing, really blossoms.  Blog posts can be flighty things.  Blog posts don't requre grit, ironically, and they often lack focus. However, I do focus when I am writing a post like this one.  I didn't check e-mail for the whole two hours I was writing this.  It's not focus on a grand scale.  This is not my magnum opus.  But it was a good exercise, and it did keep my attention.  So there.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Comments Should Work Now

For some reason, it has not been easy for my mom to post comments to this blog.  I thought it was just a matter of me showing her how to do it.  No; when I tried to comment to my own blog, it didn't work. 

I have now changed the Comments settings a little bit, and my test comments are appearing.  So if you have not been commenting because you have had technical problems in the past, please try again now!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Travel dreams

Oh, wouldn't it be nice to travel the world? I originally chose a profession that would let me travel for free. As a biologist, I would go to meetings all over the world, expenses paid by my research institution, the way my dad had done. As a kid, many childhood vacations were tagging along with my dad, a geneticist, when he went to a scientific meeting in Paris or Edinburgh.

Now that I'm no longer working as a scientist, I have to find another way to travel. Ideally, I will earn my living by writing at my computer wherever I choose to take it. I can travel the world and write. At the moment, there are several barriers to travel. Ironically, none of them are geographic! Mountains, oceans? No problem.

Money is the first barrier. My parents gave me a credit for a trip anywhere in the world for my graduation present. I haven't used that trip, yet. So I could go on one vacation without worrying about money. Could I fund my own travels at this point? Honestly, I haven't tried. I do have some savings. I could certainly take the bus to New York for the weekend if I so chose. But travel FEELS like something I can't afford.

I could save more money than I do. I think that if I truly had a goal to take a trip somewhere and knew approximately how much it would cost, I could save up for it. I'm sure it would be easier to forgo short-term expenses if I knew I were saving for a trip in the future.

The second obvious barrier to travel is a full-time job. In my case, though, it's not really a barrier, because I have taken several unpaid vacations within the last year, and I now have accrued several days of paid time off.

The last barrier is inertia. It's easier to stay in one place than to plan a big trip, especially since it will be the first trip I plan and my first time traveling alone.

I do have one friend who might be up for traveling with me. Her family also has a place in Southern Spain. And she's one of the five people who read this blog...

What I don't have are kids to take care of or a job that ties me down. So I could and should travel.

Where to, gumshoe?

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I think I have given in. I no longer want to read the print newspaper.

A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to support the news, so I became a National Public Radio member and bought a Thursday-Sunday home-delivery subscription to the Boston Globe. I have enjoyed my subscription...to some extent. I consistently read the "Ideas" section of the Sunday paper, thoroughly read the paper one of the four days I get it, and glance at it other days. I occasionally clip things to send to my parents.

However, at least one day out of four, the paper goes straight to the recycling bag.

The paper waste is one of several reasons I am thinking about stopping my paper subscription and reading the newspaper on the computer.

Another strike against newspapers is that I find them cumbersome. Though the idea of drinking coffee or having breakfast over the paper is appealing, the reality is that it can be very messy and hard to coordinate. In order to see an article at the top of the page, I have to either fold the paper in half or put my plate on the bottom of the page, then move it when I want to turn the page. The computer screen, on the other hand, is right in front of my face and stands up vertically so that I don't have to hold it up or arrange to look down at it like I would a print paper. The print on the screen can be small, but it’s certainly larger than newspaper print and you can enlarge it with a click of the mouse. Overall, I find it more relaxing to drink coffee in front of a computer screen than with a newspaper. So away goes the romantic argument for reading the newspaper at the breakfast table.

If I ever have a son named Mortimer and make him ham and eggs for breakfast, I’ll go out and buy a paper so he can read the comic strips while my husband reads the news and I do the dishes. Okay?

Now for more important considerations. I find that I learn more when I read articles online because it's easy for me to look up things I don't know. I can use Times Topics, on the New York Times website to brush up on the topic of an article so that I better understand the details of the situation in question. I can pull up a Google map if I'm reading an article about an unfamiliar part of the world. I can easily search the archives online.

As an aside, on one hand, virtual news seems frightening, because there’s nothing tangible about it. But tangible and accessible are different things. Microfiche records of old papers are tangible. But I would argue that the online archives are more accessible.

The main reason I bought the newspaper subscription was to do my part to save the failing print media. I’m rethinking that argument, because it's too late to prevent the decline of print media. It's already declining in more ways than one. Papers are struggling to stay afloat. Within the last year, the Christian Science Monitor stopped its print edition. It now publishes exclusively online. The New York Times Company, which owns the Boston Globe, forced Globe employees (in the Boston Newspaper Guild) to accept cuts or face closing of the paper earlier this year. Luckily for everyone, they reached an agreement. There are probably many other examples of struggling newspapers.

Furthermore, the quality of the print newspaper is declining as well. The Globe's financial strife has led it to go overboard with advertising in the print paper. Section A of Friday's paper seemed to be mostly about Macy's bras for big-chested women and less about the news. There were multiple two-page spreads of Macy's ads. No article gets that much contiguous space in the paper. Online, though there are lots of ads, they bother me less than those Macy's ads. Online, I can look at an ad and click it away. But I had to look at those buxom bra models every time I turned the page in my newspaper.

In defense of those Macy's ads, though, I'd rather have papers sell ads to make extra money to fund thorough reporting than save money by investing less in their stories. If an ad allows for another edit and another fact-check and another interview, it's worth it. At least ads are explicit. You can see when the paper earns extra money through ads. It's not immediately obvious when the paper saves money by spending less on its stories. Fabrications and errors can go undetected, at least for a little while.

If it’s too late to prevent the decline of the print media, do I want to at least keep it from declining further, the way I want to make global warming less of a disaster? No. I have decided that it's okay if the big newspapers stop their print editions and go exclusively online. I think it would be better for newspapers to use all their resources to make a great website with great news, rather than siphoning off resources into their dying print editions. So I don't think "trying to save the print media" is a valid reason to subscribe the Globe home delivery.

What to do instead? I don't want to simply stop my paper subscription and read the paper online for free, because I know that good reporting costs money, and one of the reasons I got the print edition was in order to support the paper I read. I would really like to just make a donation to the paper. The big newspapers, unlike public radio, are for-profit businesses. Maybe that is why they don't take donations.

Instead, I think I will purchase the Globe's electronic edition. It's a copy of the paper as it appears in print that you can read on- or offline. My main goal is to pay for the news. However, it could be nice to see the final version of the paper as it appears in print rather than just viewing the dynamic website. Having a copy of the paper would give me a way to read it cover to cover (or not), rather than just cherry picking articles from the endless website.

To close, I want to remind everyone that I tend to write my blog posts over coffee in the morning and that you can read them the same way. I go well with tartines…

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Even though fall wasn't really here earlier this week, I could feel that it was coming. The air was cooler. My lips started to chap and my hands to crack. Apples appeared in tote bags at Whole Foods all of a sudden.

Fall really came in my imagination. Suddenly, my mind drifted not to summers in New York City but to autumns in Maine. I thought of American Girl catalogues showing pictures of girls and dolls huddled up together near a fireplace. I thought of L.L. Bean catalogues advertising turtlenecks and v-neck sweaters and the times when it was so cold outside that all I wanted to do was drink a warm beverage and look at a catalogue. I thought of the Sears "Wish Book" catalogue I used to peruse, circling everything I wanted so that Santa would know.

I thought of my own barn jacket and how I've worn it every fall since I was truly young. I thought of the picture of me and a childhood friend sitting on top of a pile of leaves we'd raked, eating apples off our apple tree in our twin barn jackets. I think I still look the same. I still have long hair, anyway.

I only imagine my warm, fall clothes because in reality, they are still in a box at the top of my closet, and I have to face the transitional mess of changing my closet over before I can wear them.

Middle-aged people have started wearing their fall rain jackets. Younger people have not faced up to fall yet. I don't know how many people my age are organized enough - or lonely enough or whatever motivates a person to do such a chore - to change over their closet, cardboard box and all. Perhaps there are some, and they haven't changed their closets over for winter, and that's why they aren't wearing winter clothes yet.

Of course fall means back to school. But it doesn't bring back school memories. It brings back memories of what I wore to school. Memories of the weather getting colder and needing my striped J. Crew sweater from the outlet in Freeport. It brings back memories of school shopping in those wonderful years when one grew so much that one needed an annual wardrobe change.

Fall is the time when I start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas. I've made my resolution in advance not to get carried away eating sweets even though it's cold and they are comforting. As I write this stream-of-consciousness memory, I think of Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas In Wales" and wish that I could capture my memory of Fall that same way.

At this time last year, I started a quilting project for the winter. Maybe I should start another one this September.

This is the time of year when my mom shifts from gardening to baking and sewing. My dad's activities stay about the same but he starts wearing warmer clothes outside and no longer has to mow the lawn. The problem shifts to lack of grass (ie., hay for his cattle).

When I see new babies at the grocery, I think how interesting it must be to experience fall and not know, yet, that it's something that happens every year.

Baby birds may not feel the same way. Maybe they instinctively know to migrate south for the winter. Or maybe its just a cultural tradition for birds, passed down through the generations. Imagine that. Maybe in a few years, birds will have heated nests, winter coats, farms for raising worms and bugs, places to store gathered seeds, and they will stop migrating for the winter. Maybe they'll start importing their food from the South when it gets cold. Courier pigeons will have jobs again.

Fall is so much more interesting in the imagination.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Folger's and Maxwell House coffee are actually quite good. If I was lucky, I smelled it as soon as I woke up, meaning that my friend was already awake and dressed and percolated a pot of it. That smell made me want to get up. I stopped to make my bed before going downstairs, knowing my friend usually made hers first thing AND got dressed before breakfast.

As I walked downstairs, the sound of the radio in the kitchen got louder: "Mr. Sandman, give me a dream. Make it the cutest that I've ever seen." There was my friend seated at the crowded kitchen table reading the newspaper, spread out over the radio and her mail collection. The kitchen table may be the one messy spot in that house.

Now that I was awake, it was time for breakfast. We both had some coffee; me, in a white, curved mug; she, in a straight-side pink mug with some cute picture or message on it. My friend always had canned milk (evaporated milk) in her coffee. It's the kind of can you open by poking a triangular hole in the top. You pour from the hole, store the milk in the can, and keep it fresh by covering the top with a plastic, snap-on lid. My friend didn't take sugar in her coffee, but I did.

In the summer, we had cereal or English muffins. My friend usually started with a bowl of cereal, then had some toast. In the winter, we had oatmeal.

We ate at the dining room table. I didn't grow up in a family where everyone ate breakfast at the same time, so I was used to breakfasting alone. It was nice to have company over breakfast. I'm sure my friend, who lives alone, felt the same way.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Priorities: Easier Set Than Done

I believe in disciplined practice of one's art: writing, in my case. My behavior does not always match my ideals. I think that a writer should spend time writing every day at the same time. The hard part about making priorities and keeping them straight is that things are always calling you away from them, tempting you. It's tempting to get up from writing and make another cup of coffee. It's tempting to deal with daily problems as they arise, even if they really don't need immediate attention, putting little problems over long-term goals. I think the long-term goals are more important than short-term wants and even needs.

I sometimes feel like I'm doing an okay job at many endeavors. I want to do a fabulous job at at least on thing: writing. Whatever it takes to excel, that's what I should do. Take the time to look up spelling and grammar questions in my Chicago Manual of Style. Know thy craft.

The hard part about excelling at one endeavor is that it means cosciously downplaying other things. The easiest way to keep priorities straight is to organize one's day in order of one's priorities. That way, one doesn't have to resist temptation, in theory; one simply runs out of time for the less-important things. In reality, though, resisting temptation is harder than that. It takes active work not to check e-mail or have a snack instead of following the plan.

I sometimes feel like I don't have time to do a better job at the things that are most important. That's why I'm looking to cut out the unnecessary time consumers in my day. Checking e-mail seems innocuous enough, but it adds up. How many minutes of your life do you want to spend checking e-mail so frequently that most of the time, there are no new messages? And do you have to fix yourself something in the kitchen before you do everything? No. You can save the ten minutes it takes to make your French-press coffee and just go! These things are low priorities.

Then there are things that are great to do, but only if time allows, such as logging my spending, cleaning my room, and cooking things that take a long time. The key is not to just latch onto any little thing on the to-do list to avoid doing the most important chore.

Speaking of that high priority, I have three goals as a writer. The first one is to practice writing and improve my ability to express my ideas in words along with the ideas themselves. My blogs are mostly where I practice my writing. The second goal is to find ways of publishing and making money from my writing. I do that by writing for a local newspaper and doing some scientific writing for an on-line journal. The third goal is to write things that are meant to last. Blog posts and newspaper stories get old quickly, and people only happen on them right after they are published. Once an article or post goes into the archives, few will read it. That's why I think it's important to work on a long-term writing project that could eventually become a book.

There's a lot to do. I think I'll take a wee nap. But I'm not abandoning the plan, just showing how it's natural to deviate a little bit! Priorities are easier set than done!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bible College Online

When I type www.crenshawseeds.blogspot.com into my browser, I go to Bible College Online.com megasite. I suspect that the Bible College website has some way to make itself appear instead of sites one commonly visits. I doubt that it actually came up with the name crenshawseeds for its URL. www.biblecollegeonline.com leads to the same page as www.crenshawseeds.blogspot.com.
So, when navigating to my blog, remember, it's http://crenshawseeds.blogspot.com.

It's ironic that the mega bible site comes up when I try to navigate to my blog because I am not religious and take offense at people and organizations that try to convert me and think I am a bad person, a pitiable person, without religion.

I particularly take offense at the concept of a megachurch or a mega bible site, because religion taken seriously and deeply felt seems like a nice thing, and mass-produced, quick-and-easy approaches to religion take something nice and make it ugly. It's like taking God's name in vain. That's what megachurches are doing. Giving God a bad name.

Unfortunately, megachurches are not the worst of the things that happen in the name of religion. There's war and cruelty and prejudice, all in the name of religion. I think that people would probably be just as brutish without religion. Just like people can do the right thing without religion, people can also be cruel without it. I think that the people who fight Holy Wars and punish others (like women, in Islamic cultures) for not following religious rules truly just seek power.

Would the Israelis and Palestinians still fight over land in a world without religion? They probably would. It might not be those two groups of people, but there might well be other groups of people who would want to claim the land and exclude others from it.

Religion is pervasive, though. It's hard to imagine a world without religion. In fact, religion comes from the imagination, in my opinion. People use religion to explain the unknown. Even scientists, who use science to explain the details of how things happen, still need religion to give meaning to the way things are. I don't personally know any deeply religious scientists, but I think, I "have faith," that they exist.

Nobody knows what happens to a person when they die. I think that nothing happens to them. As my then five-year-old great-great Uncle John Crenshaw said out-loud in church in response to a preacher's rhetorical question, "If a man does. shall he yet live again?":

"Nope, when you're dead, you're dead; that's all there is to it."

Friday, September 4, 2009

Garden Photos

A beautful tomato

Trellising take two

Polyculture, or the Bean Kills the Tomato. Which will it be?