Tag Archives: writing

#hopejahrensurecanwrite

I discovered Hope Jahren and her writing via Twitter a few years ago, before she even had a blog. Instantly hooked, I added my voice to the rising chorus of #hopejahrensurecanwrite urging her to start a blog so we could get more from her virtual pen. I am constantly blown away by the astonishingly precise emotional power of her writing.

As you may have heard or read, Hope Jahren has a new book out, one that had even the notoriously hard to please Michiko Kakutani gushing praise at the New York Times, comparing the precise poetry and scientific imagination in her writing to that of the late great Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould! Other reviews of “Lab Girl” are unanimous in saying that Jahren’s writing will change the way you look at plants and at the world of science and nature.

My own amazement at plant lives, shaped in some part by Hope Jahren, has been exploding in recent years, as I read more about the astonishing things we continue to discover about their far from dull lives. Just this past week, I found myself urging my Intro Biology students out of their post-lunch lethargy by telling them to contemplate the life of a plant. Boring… they responded, before I started telling them about some of the incredible things plants do. Luckily, I had this passage from Lab Girl to read to them:

“It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of cornfield on a perfectly still August day.”

And today, when we start the unit on Fungi, I expect to share this gem of an observation:

“You may think a mushroom is a fungus. This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man.”

Somehow I was one of the lucky ones to receive an advance reader’s copy of Lab Girl, and have been meaning to write a review here. But this post ain’t it. Fan as I am of Hope Jahren’s writing, her book landed in my mailbox smack in the middle of the semester in an exceptionally busy and stressful year. I’ve started the book, but haven’t finished it yet, for… reasons…

I get the feeling that I may have pulled back from Hope Jahren’s book just a bit mainly as a perhaps misguided attempt to protect my time for things I must get done. And I don’t mean that Lab Girl isn’t something I must read – in fact I feel quite the opposite, that this book is more important than anything else right now, and therefore is something I must finish before anything else; and paradoxically, given the urgencies of other things, I’m forced to delay the gratification of immersing myself in this fantastic book because I have chores to finish. Why must one deny oneself such simple pleasures as reading a richly complex thing? Poorly structured procrastination? Lame excuse, I know, but I will allow myself to be swept away by Lab Girl very soon…

Meanwhile, my teenaged daughter S has swooped in and is devouring the book, savoring it slowly and reading particularly well-turned phrases and passages out loud to me from time to time. A budding writer herself, S delights in being swept away by Hope Jahren’s tales. After telling me more about it this weekend, and asking me how I could keep from finishing reading this book, S asked me to reread another thing which is her favorite from Jahren’s amazing blog: her open love letter to millennial women, which contains such passages as this:

“I finally understand why my mother was so adamant that I should not pierce my ears. Us old ladies have been disappointed to find that we are not so different from our male masters after all, when fear rotted our love into control. Your freedom terrifies us. In our day, if you admitted to being a lesbian, men tried to rape it out of you. For us, forty years of financial safety pragmatically trumped romance, and rendered purity before marriage one of many survival techniques. I struggle and hold my tongue, knowing deep down that you know best how to live in the world that you are creating. When you have time and pity, you are teaching me. You are better with people than I’ve ever been, naturally friendly and sweet.”

And this:

“Watching you from a distance, I like to think that you were born of the pain of my generation, of our punitive divorces and meager unfair paychecks and deadly IUDs. You are the precious daughters of the Revolution that we wanted, and of the broken-parts-missing Revolution that we got. When I am old and sick and ugly it will comfort me to know that you are the ones running the world.”

Indeed. Go read the whole love letter. Now. And then read the rest of her blog and bookmark it and add it to your RSS feed or whatever other device you have for keeping up with blogs. And buy and read her book “Lab Girl“.

Because you know what?

#hopejahrensurecanwrite

On the curse of cursive handwriting in homework

Is it really such a terrible curse if people stop writing in cursive? Or is this just one more attempt to hold on to a declining element of a rapidly chaining culture, mere nostalgia for a fading way of life?

I’m inclined to think it is the latter, and am generally impatient with nostalgia, but I know Kaberi completely disagrees with me. Our daughters are split too in the middle of this cursed cursive war (which has been known to raise decibels, yes!) right in our home! The older one writes in cursive beautifully and loves it. It was the bane of the younger one’s existence throughout a painful 3rd grade last year.

Of course she also had a largely undiagnosed stomach pain that had her doubled over in agony on many a school day and night, forcing us to even withdraw her from school on medical grounds for a couple of months this past spring. She was eventually diagnosed with lactose intolerance and fructose malabsorption, which only added to her misery as she has to learn to cut out her two most favorite sweet food groups from her diet: fruits and milk products! It is not easy for a 9yo to maintain dietary discipline, especially in a culture steeped in cheese and high-fructose corn syrup! 

Of course cursive didn’t give her her stomach ache – but it sure didn’t help to have 4 pages of cursive writing as part of her homework every week. And that was just a small part of a weekly homework packet that had us all stressing out at home. I’m not a fan of homework to begin with, especially in the younger grades. Having to force one’s child to do pages and pages of rote work she hated was agonizing for me. How could I add to her stress by insisting on cursive and timed arithmetic (the other bane of homework, but I’ll save that rant for another day) when it undoubtedly played a part in her stomach pain? And when she would rather be learning about dinosaurs or singing or learning to play an instrument, or play, or do anything but write cursive?

It didn’t help that her teacher took a more hardline approach to her homework, getting stressed out herself at our child’s inability to complete parts of her homework. It didn’t help when I told her that I didn’t particularly care about grades (this was 3rd grade, after all!) as I was more focused on her health. How could it help to add layers of guilt over incomplete arithmetic homework or poor motivation to learn cursive, of all things, when anyone could see the child was in agony (and not faking it as was initially implied by her teacher and others in her school – until we got a doctor’s letter indicating otherwise). It also didn’t help Kaberi who herself has been stressed out caught between the stern teacher and our daughter’s pain – especially because she herself believes in the power of cursive! And it definitely does not help that the child in question has a stubborn streak of defiance that matches the fire in her mother’s belly – and I’m called in to act as a buffer and have to coax her to do as much of that blessed homework as possible.

Kaberi writes in cursive quite well and believes it is a crucial part of education. I wouldn’t be surprised if she agrees wholeheartedly with the argument in the Chronicle of Higher Education article which set off this blog post. She learned to write in cursive in school, even though English was a foreign language to her, with the mother tongue Bangla being the main medium of instruction all the way into college. So maybe learning cursive was part of the package of learning a foreign language for her, and maybe she was naturally inclined to master the dexterity of pen everyone insists is such a massive benefit of cursive writing.

I, on the other hand, never learned to write cursive, even though I went to an English-medium school and have ended up with this foreign tongue as my main language practically since kindergarten. Somehow, I don’t remember cursive writing being such a big part of the curriculum there – although I may be mis-remembering. Perhaps I was allowed to get away with not learning cursive because I was such a high-scoring student in everything else. I can read cursive fine, and never felt that my inability to write in cursive has held me back in any way (but maybe that’s why I’m here and not in some more prestigious university?). I’m ready to go to bat for the younger child given how much the cursive homework adds to her already physically painful level of stress. Kaberi is convinced of the developmental benefits of cursive.

Back to the CHE article, I am baffled by the author picking on one student who doesn’t “do cursive” as an example of the failings of an entire generation and an indictment of a shift in the larger education system. I have not read much of the rationale used to drop cursive from the new Common Core, but am curious now to find out if it was driven by someone’s technocratic bias in favor of computer keyboard skills, or is grounded in some other cognitive/educational arguments. In any case, lamenting the decline of cursive because it makes it harder for some students to read historical documents does not strike me as a wrong argument for making cursive mandatory for all students. Historical research requires a variety of specialized skills which students of history must master – but not everybody is setting out to become a historian. After all people made similar arguments in favor of teaching Latin and Sanskrit, but society has not collapsed since we stopped making those mandatory in schools. Students of history continue to learn ancient foreign languages to decipher old manuscripts and letters, and will continue to do so with or without cursive writing being a mandatory part of the grade school curriculum, I dare say. 

I also have to call bullshit on the alleged neurological benefits of cursive inferred in this article. I don’t doubt that cursive writing strengthens certain neural circuits in the brain, possibly involving both fine motor skills and cognition. Any repetitive task is bound to induce some hard-wiring in the brain, some of which is no doubt useful for survival in a given civilization. But sweeping statements like this raise all kinds of red flags for me:

Neuroscientists have found that the act of writing by hand builds neural pathways that directly affect a wide range of development, including language fluency, memory, physical coordination, and socialization.

Really? Sorry, but if you claim that something is crucial to such a wide range of things, I’d like to see a bit more evidence than this bold inference:

Since connecting letters increases the speed at which one writes, we can infer that cursive note taking would be most beneficial for academic success.

Writing was invented as a means of communication, and has been key to our success, no doubt, and no doubt learning to do it well has cognitive and social benefits. But don’t tell me that entire disciplines will disappear or civilization will collapse because some people cannot write in cursive. As for academic success, tell me: which profession has the reputation for the worst handwriting? And towards which profession do we encourage our most academically successful students? And in which profession could legible handwriting be considered literally a matter of life or death? The answer to all three: medicine! Doctors are allowed to have the worst handwriting on their prescriptions, ostensibly because having to learn so much doesn’t leave them time to hone their writing skills as well. So tell me again how lack of facility with cursive has held back the medical profession in this declining civilization?

I think our brains are far more flexible than many of us recognize, and it can develop and maintain wiring appropriate to a variety of tasks that are relevant to one’s life. Studies touting the cognitive benefits of handwriting being superior to keyboard use will, I suspect, be replaced by future studies that find similar benefits to other, perhaps not yet invented ways of inputting text. As I’m sure nostalgists of previous generations would have claimed similar scientific support for teaching their favorite neuromotor skills had neurologists been available to conduct similar studies in the past.

Isn’t there also often a not-so-faint whiff of cultural and linguistic elitism in this argument for cursive? At a time when more first-generation and low-income students than ever are being encouraged to get into higher education, is cursive writing the skill we want to emphasize so much? Isn’t cursive elitism just a bit reminiscent of the elitism of other cultural skills to which are ascribed all kinds of unfounded cognitive and neurological benefits, like classical music and that Baby Mozart effect? Besides, as a friend just pointed out on Facebook, cursive writing (especially as lamented by the author of the CHE article) is rather tied to English and related languages sharing this alphabet, is it not? Of course, other languages too have their own traditions of elegant handwriting and calligraphy – but they are often treated as special skills for the artistically inclined; not required skills without which someone’s entire cognitive and social development would be stalled! 

All that said, I say more power to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Illinois for starting a “Camp Cursive”, and may they help preserve this precious skill. And good on them for encouraging children to come up with creative Shakespearean curses to write in cursive! But pardon me if I do a quiet dance if the cursive requirement disappears from my daughter’s homework in the coming year under the new Common Core curriculum. Then again, maybe I am the one who is already cognitively impaired from never having learned cursive and therefore fail to see something apparently obvious to others on this issue.

New beginnings at 22?

Its been an interesting sort of day, another one where I try to overcome my own writing block and find inspiration from a perhaps unlikely quarter. Well maybe not so unlikely after all… it is a story 22 years in the making.

I started the day rather late in the morning, with these words shared on my Facebook timeline:

“Twenty-two ellipses we have travelled around the sun together on this pale blue dot. Our new year always begins on January 2nd, ever since that cold Kolkata day when I donned that denim jacket to sign on the dotted line with Kaberi, her lips still pursed quizzically. Through thick and thin we have traveled together since, and I didn’t even notice that last year our marriage hit the legal drinking age! So let me raise an extra glass to you now Kaberi, and to us…”

A short while later, our two daughters (8 and 13) had us both sit down on the couch and presented us with this painting they had labored over the previous night:

22 years  Woah

With these words on the back:

22 years  gosh

 

Woah, indeed! And definitely something worth celebrating, given these remarkable children we have grown, how I do not quite know!

Its been a low sort of holiday break for us all, perhaps our bodies and minds telling us they needed a break after the intense year (2013) we have all had in our family (immediate and extended, back in India). I’ve shared some of what we did in previous posts and elsewhere online, hinted at some of the darkness that shadowed our sabbatical in India, and may yet write more about them… if I can get my writing mojo flowing again.

With both girls recovering from cold infections, and our bodies exhausted from finally setting up our new home over the holidays, we couldn’t even get ourselves up to do the thing we often try to do on our anniversaries: go for a hike. Heck, I haven’t even had the energy or motivation to make my customary annual greeting card yet! But when one is feeling so burnt out…

Meanwhile, other writing deadlines make baleful eyes at me as they loom ever closer, one coming up in a few hours!

But, instead, we simply gave in to lethargy, and, at the behest of our eldest, spent the afternoon/evening watching a marathon of season  1 of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series: The Newsroom. I am quite enjoying watching television shows with my teenager nowadays, trying to see some iconic shows from the past (e.g., Buffy…) through her eyes for the first time. And she had been wanting to catch up on The Newsroom for quite a while after having seen the first few episodes with me in India last summer.

So we blew through the second half of season 1 today, with the political and romantic intrigues building up to quite the climax. Our marathon was punctuated with pauses, some for me to explain to S the political and media critiques on the show and the historical context to events depicted, and some for S to exclaim in exasperation or joy, and explain to us grown-ups the finer points of the romantic entanglements of the protagonists of the show! I’m not sure I was anywhere nearly as savvy about politics or romance when I was 13! Certainly had not a shred of her passion for the world, and righteous anger at how grownups have screwed everything up.

As the show’s critique of Tea Party Republicanism rose to a crescendo through the series finale, S was literally hurling small objects around the room, livid at how short-sighted and stupid these politicians are, and how money has screwed up so much of our lives. Her passions spilled over into twitter, a medium relatively new to her, but one she is taking to quite naturally these days, engaging many of my more grown-up friends in serious discussions. I’ve tried to capture the passion in her twitter conversation in this storify.

Later, as I struggled to bring my focus back to writing the 500 words I need to submit by tomorrow, even as the rest of the family prepared for bed, S dashed off a rapid-fire 550 words on her tumblr blog, trying to distill her anger about the world and consider what might be done about it. Go read the whole post, but let me share an excerpt here:

It isn’t just hippy stuff, wanting a planet that can sustain life, wanting to put an end to useless death and hurt. These arethings that should matter to us more then money and power. We need a revolution. We need to take the Earth and land away from the ignorant and bad, and give it back to the good. And you know what? That isn’t hard to do. We need awareness. So go. Together we can put an end to the hopeless bitter war that is our world, and build a new one.

So, 22 years after starting this family, Kaberi and I have that most remarkable thing in our home: a teenage rebel with a passion for rebuilding the whole world! How and when did this happen? Where did we go right (or wrong) in our parenting?

Is my job as a parent done, now that we have a passionate, articulate, caring, strong young woman setting out to change the world? Or is it only just beginning now?

Before turning in, S had one more spark of inspiration, submitting this six-word science fiction short story in response to io9’s call:

The red grass grows on fresh graves.

This girl… where did she come from?