Monday, February 23, 2009

Encouraging kids to read, encouraging kids to excel in school

This past week has been a momentous one for our family: our fourteen-year-old son has received letters of acceptance from the best public and private high schools in New York City. This has not happened because we are lucky or because we have a lot of money. Our son’s hard work and focus, as well our creating an environment at home for learning beyond school, have been keys to his success. I contrast my son’s school application experience with my own. I went to a poor high school on the Mexican-American border in which a majority of the students probably did not attend college, yet I was successful in El Paso and later at Harvard and Yale because of similar practices at home. How can we encourage our kids to excel in school? This is what I have learned from my parents, and as a parent.

Read to your children early, and regularly, when your kids can’t even walk across the living room floor. Reading to very young children establishes an emotional bond with reading, and with you, a bond they want to recreate as they get older. Laura and I read to both of our sons every night, for about half an hour each, for years. Not surprisingly, both our sons are voracious readers, reading about two or three books a week. We read, they watch us read, we’ve read with them, we buy books and regularly visit libraries, and we limit TV time. All these things create an environment of reading for recreation, to explore ideas, to revel in the magic of storytelling.

Give your children the space and attention to follow their intellectual interests. I loved creating gadgets and traps as a kid in Ysleta, all manner of Rube Goldberg machines. My father allowed me to use his tool shed, to experiment with his construction materials, to bring back ‘junk’ from the dump, which for me was treasure. He taught me how to use his tools; he taught me how to use a LeRoy for drafting when I expressed an interest in his work. Similarly my younger son loves to build, and we often cart old computers, monitors, and fax machines we find on the street for my son to create something new with them. It is about paying attention to what your child is interested in, and giving him or her the space and opportunity to follow that interest.

Teach your child the value of hard work and limits. This was what I told my kids. ‘As long as you do well in school, you have your freedom, your TV time, your time on the computer. But if you are not finishing your homework on time, and finishing it well, then I will be on you like a rash.’ Now I rarely have to tell them anything, because we made it a practice for them to finish their homework first, right after school, before they turn on the TV, have a playdate, or just relax. It was a work habit that became their habit over time. I do not expect them to be perfect; I just want them to live up to their potential. It is gratifying to see the results, and how they have internalized doing well in school for their benefit, and not for mine.

Love your kids, and listen to them carefully. Remember, it is about time with them, and guiding them to become the best person they want to be, and not about money or fancy trips or false accolades. Sometimes I have to tease out of my children an issue that is bothering them. At other times I see an issue, overscheduling for example, that they are grappling with, but have not yet identified. You sit down and talk to them, not to tell them what to do, but to brainstorm the problem, to offer possible solutions, to get them to resolve the problem in a way that works for them. Just letting them know that they are not alone and that they can bring problems to you to discuss is already a victory in your relationship with your child. It is hard work and time-consuming, and I have been humbled repeatedly by the process. But I adapt and learn, and I always keep trying to be a better father.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Marie Ponsot

I returned from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference in Chicago this weekend inspired by the most unlikeliest of writers: Marie Ponsot, a poet. I do not write poetry, but I do care about the role of the writer in the world and the craft of writing. I worry that my sense of how and why I write is antiquated, to help others into explorations of ideas often unmarketable and unusual. As a contrarian, a loner, and an Aristotlean, is there still a place for me?

In the panel, “The Duty of a Writer,” Marie Ponsot said simply, “The duty of a poet is to write poetry.” The work of writing defines a poet, she said. The struggle to write a poem. The action of writing a poem. Not the thought, nor the hope of writing poetry. “The mastery of skill is the mastery of oneself.” This mastery is internal; it is inexpensive; it is ongoing. Above all, this is a practical mastery. To listen is one of the most important skills a writer must cultivate; to listen in a world full of noises and phenomena is difficult. The act of work sharpens and deepens the writer’s listening skills. I am paraphrasing Ponsot’s words, leaving out so much, and perhaps distorting her at once complicated and simple message.

To improve as a writer, I have tried to slow down my thoughts, and my fingers, to ponder words and sentences before they become entities on the page. Every writer, I believe, must work against his or her weaknesses. Mine are that I write too fast and too colloquially. I can create a story (plot plot plot!), yet I often find the care missing from my words. I do often ‘see’ beyond what others see: I read as much philosophy as literature and I do not care for the crowd. But often that ‘sight’ is not translated into the words that reveal a new world on the page. I am trying to improve.

In a recent essay, “Trapped,” I wrote about how my body and its “loin energy” at once give me an advantage and a disadvantage. I love to work; the more I work, the more I can work. Yet this nervousness, or incessant thinking and doing and wanting to do, hampers my listening. To write better, I need to quiet myself. Reading poetry and studying the mechanics of poetry and listening to poets have helped me to counter my weaknesses as a prose writer.

I returned from Chicago, and discovered that I already knew Marie Ponsot’s work. Scott Hightower, another poet-teacher, had long ago recommended Beat Not the Poor Desk, by Marie Ponsot and Rosemary Deen. This is the best book on teaching writing I have ever read, and I had forgotten the authors but remembered the impact this book had on my work years ago. Without friends like Scott and teachers like Marie Ponsot, where would I be? These good writers are good people who care to teach.

Incidentally, I attended another panel, “Big House/Small House,” with LeAnne Howe, Rilla Askew, Tracy Daugherty, Molly Giles, and Allen Wier. This was also, in my opinion, another excellent panel at the AWP. In particular, Tracy Daugherty’s thoughtful reflections on the right expectations of literary writers for their careers, their relationship with an editor, and ‘what should be enough for the good writer’ brought me back again to how and why good words on the page matter most of all. I will be in Denver next year, again to listen and improve.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Michael Phelps and the Violence in Mexico: Connect the Dots

Recently my parents in El Paso, Texas called me and recounted another series of decapitations in Juárez, Mexico, their hometown, a place that has become a no-man's land of murder and mayhem. Drug cartels battle the Mexican government mano-a-mano, with thousands dead. Meanwhile, Michael Phelps is pictured inhaling from a bong in South Carolina, Whoopi Goldberg proudly admits, to audience cheers, that she has smoked weed and demands that we leave Phelps alone, and the Daily Show's Jon Stewart jokes repeatedly about bongs and marijuana, making it oh-so-cool to light up. I wonder if anyone will ever connect the dots.

The United States has one of the highest percentages of pot smokers in the world, and our popular culture winks at drug use and even glorifies it. Meanwhile, marijuana is the most important cash crop for Mexican drug cartels, and Mexicans die because of our voracious appetite for drugs. I am waiting for Lou Dobbs to do one hundred shows on America's responsibility for the murderous disaster in Mexico; I am waiting for Campbell Brown to do a series on how our red, white, and blue practices, like our drug use, cripple Third World countries. Wealthy America has a bong party, but the poor outside our borders pay for it, in blood. On our direct responsibility for the violence in Mexico, the United States is all bias, all bull.

I have no love for the often corrupt Mexican government. I have no love for a society that seems permanently stratified to engorge the richest of the rich while the best hope for the poor is often to cross to el otro lado. Indeed, my parents' founding myth, why they left Juárez in the 1950's to become American citizens, is about the lack of economic opportunities in Mexico, the need to pay bosses to get and keep a job, and my mother's still fervent American idealism.

We just finished getting rid of an American president who seemed to lack any instinct for self-reflection and adaptation to the circumstances, but did this malady infect much of the country as well? We are culpable for the violence in Mexico. True, we are not decapitating police officers and kidnapping citizens to intimidate the Mexican government. But America's drug use is why this is happening south of our border. We are the prize. Our money is the prize. We want those drugs, and whoever gets to sell us those drugs wins billions of dollars. What strange mass psychosis allows many in the United States to be shocked shocked about the grisly details in Mexico, while millions of our children inhale?

Recently, the El Paso City Council took up the issue of whether to encourage a national debate to legalize drug use. Just to debate the issue, not to favor legalization. It was a desperation move, in part because those in Washington, D. C. and New York City do not see, across a flimsy border fence, the war zone that has become Juárez. Of course, that stalwart of self-reflection, Lou Dobbs, attacked the city council for encouraging drug use. But that knee-jerk response is symptomatic of our delusion: we rarely have meaningful debates that lead to honest self-reflection about the consequences of what we do when it comes to Mexico.

I do not favor legalizing drugs. I do not favor another war on drugs. I do favor being responsible for what I do. I favor fighting to be critically self-reflective, even when my psyche's instinct is to defend and promote itself at all costs. We as a country have probably the most important invisible hand in the violence in Mexico. Yet we don't readily and repeatedly admit it. As long as we don't, we will never come close to any solution. True, we will have great political theater, and we will lead comfortable, self-satisfied lives about how cool we can be, while reveling in schadenfreude on Mexico. But the United States will have lost many opportunities to avert a future disaster that will assuredly come across our borders to haunt us.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Cool February Night

Tonight inspires me. It is the first Monday in February, and the weather has turned suddenly mild. Winter, for a brief day, seems all so suddenly in the past in Manhattan, and spring whispers from this cool breeze off the Hudson River. I have been sheltered against the bitter cold for too long; I have drunk, like a magic elixir, this comely breeze on the sidewalk at night. I love the night. I love a night like tonight. I wish the world were made of only nights like these.

I was wondering how living in crazy, expensive Manhattan has affected me as a writer, as an investor, as a father, as a husband. I was wondering about John Updike, and how he really didn’t like New York City that much, even as he wrote hundreds of stories and essays and reviews for the New Yorker. Updike preferred rural Massachusetts, and I can understand why. It is difficult to keep the City at bay, to gather that peace, simply to stop all the business of the city, its pressures, and its people from dominating your psyche. A night like tonight, however, reminds you that it is possible to find that special time to work even in this City.

I remember when I lived in Ysleta, less than a mile from the Mexican-American border, that I would sneak out of the bed, as a child, to roam at night. I mean at night night, when it’s three in the morning, and not a car is on the street, not a whisper can be heard behind closed doors, not a single dog is awake to bark at the moon. Just like tonight, I would listen. I didn’t expect ghosts. I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t jump at odd sounds. I just listened, and my mind would feel a presence (this mirror of the self?), and I was enthralled.

The nature in front of me, known and not quite known in the dark, elicited my attention, invoked its mystery, and called me to it. In the harshness of the day, the rooms in Ysleta, just like in Manhattan, seemed all so boring. But at night, suddenly, the chairs, a river’s glimmer through a window, the sky darkly gray, with stars, all of it had life. What do we lose when everything is all too clear in our heads, all too understood? Where is imagination when we are seduced to think that all there is is only what can we can see?

I love the night, because it brings me back to my self. I love this Manhattan night, because it allows me to soar, and to work, and to try something I could never do during the day, something I might keep to myself as that which is unknown, yet still alluring. This night is full of wonder.

I almost feel as if I’m in another favorite place, the middle of the forest of the Litchfield hills. In another night night, amid hundreds of miles of maples and oaks and mountain laurel, with these breezes that slice like razors at your skin. We go there, too, to amble along country roads, but not nearly enough as I want, and perhaps Updike was right about living away from what is all-too-obvious, all-too-loud.

The night night brings me back to a recurrent dream, a dream I have not had for years, but which would rarely leave me in Ysleta. I am sitting on a beam, something that perhaps feels like a beam, yet I cannot see it. Clouds surround me. Clouds or a mist. And I am falling. First one way. Then the other. It is the falling, that thrills me. I am falling into the night, and I am there to feel the darkness as it touches my skin.