Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Stretching and Strengthening My Core: Or What A Smelly Sock Scientist, Pink Brains and Betsy Bird Have In Common

This past weekend and the weekend before, I was lucky enough to be exposed to new ideas, different ways of thinking, unique ways of looking at writing and at the world. Both of these weekends gave me more questions to ask, which for me is heaven. I STRETCHED (and I don't mean just my aching back).

Sometimes even when you think you don't have time to take away from a current project, it is the perfect thing to do--to stretch in another direction. Something might take right now, something might stick for later, but just the act of stretching is good for the core.

The weekend of October 5th, I was part of a workshop at the Highlights Foundation. I had agreed to it almost two years ago, and so even though I had to miss the wedding of two dear friends, I went, and short of cloning myself, was I glad I did!  I was on the faculty, but I am sure I learned as much as the people who attended. Click here for the description of the event. I know, right?

I always learn when I have to prepare to talk at an event like that (asking myself--what the heck DO I do when I write my books?). So preparing my talk was already a learning experience, and then answering questions from the audience afterward continued my own education.

I always love to listen to other writers talk about their processes. This weekend was spectacularly inspirational.

Linda Sue Park's talk was riveting and enlightening. Her research process is intense, and her writing process, while very different from mine (and maybe because of that), inspiring. (She revises meticulously as she goes along; she does not do what Anne Lamott calles a sh**ty first draft, and what we call in our home, a barf draft.) If you ever have an opportunity to hear Linda Sue talk, do it! She is brilliant and generous with her wisdom.

Leonard Marcus talked about Maurice Sendak--I could have listened to him forever. (And I learned that Maurice loved my boy Vincent, so I put find out more about that on my to-do list for my WIP.) What I found particularly mesmerizing was Leonard's passion for the creation of books for children. I knew that about him, but being in the same room and listening to him talk--if you ever have the chance to hear him talk, do it!

The great editor and teacher Patty Lee Gauch inspired us all weekend, and in one glorious talk gave us a list of her favorite novels, reading beloved passages and telling us why these books made her heart soar.  As a writer of both, but even if I just wrote nonfiction, I find reading novels paramount to nurturing both my soul and my writing. Since I use fiction techniques in writing narrative nonfiction, the more reading of fiction I do, the better.  And listening to Patty talk made me remember all over again why I became a writer. If you ever have a chance to... (yes, do it!).

Guess who else was there? Elizabeth Bird, the mighty librarian who writes the Fuse8 blog and buys all the kids' books for the NYPL Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island branches. Betsy taught us about The Common Core and extolled nonfiction for kids. She explained, in a nutshell, that what The Core is saying is: use our books to teach kids how to THINK. Listening to Betsy was a perfect fit with reading Barbara Kerley's post from the other day. I finally understand what the Core is, and I am energized by it.  Betsy made it all understandable and fun. If you ever....

Many others have written here about the Core (Barb, Vicki, to name two) but here's my simplistic take: basically it's license to keep doing what we are doing. Because what we do is good for kids' brains. Pink brains and blue brains (see below). And we know it's also good for their souls, their hearts, and their own cores.

Many people often ask me why I majored in religious studies in college. The answer is simple: that discipline, the way it was taught at Brown when I was there, emphasized asking questions. I have always asked lots of questions, and reli stu taught me how to do that in a deep way--and how to listen for the answers. In my work life (not to mention my private life!) I've been doing that ever since--with both my nonfiction and my fiction. And the more I learn the more questions I ask. And so the more I want to learn.

This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend an event that featured four scientists who study the brain. The panel, moderated by my husband (which is why I dragged myself out on a Friday night even though staying at home in my pjs eating popcorn seemed like a better idea) was part of a Columbia University Alumni weekend and was called "Understanding Our Brains, Understanding Our Selves." Boy was I glad I went.

Here's the line-up: Richard Axel, who won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on how the brain works so that we smell odors; Leslie Vosshall, who also studies smell and is best known for studying mosquitoes and why they are attracted to certain people (me) more than others; Neil Shneider, who is a physician specializing in treating patients with A.L.S. and had us all in tears reading what some of his patients (including Tony Judt) wrote about living while dying; and Lise Eliot, who blew me away by explaining how little difference there is between girls' brains and boys' brains.  She wrote a book called Pink Brain, Blue Brain, and says herself the title is misleading.  Her bottom line: the differences that people claim to be there from birth are overblown. There are tiny differences but rather than saying Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, we should say, Men are from North Dakota, Women are from South Dakota. As someone who has believed for years that little girls love and get science and math just as much as little boys, and it's society and societal expectations and prejudices that make boys and girls conform in expected ways, I wanted to jump up on the stage and hug her. Which I kind of almost did after the program was over.

I have given you many links to follow. Follow, stretch your core. And let kids know what you've found. It's why we do what we do.


But wait, Deborah, what about smelly socks? (Without having to go to the link!) So at the event, Leslie had a vial that contained the smell androstenone, a component of male sweat.  She held it under my husband's nose. He did not smell anything awful; he only smelled something mild, slightly alcoholic. This was not a surprise to me, having lived with him for more than 30 years. A small percentage of the population can't smell it at all.  After the event I jumped up on stage, wanting to smell the vial. But first I suggested that Lise and Leslie get together and create a study to find out why teenage boys don't smell their own sweaty socks. Why don't their own rooms smell bad to them? Do their rooms smell bad to teenage girls? I think so! Where is THAT learned? Or where is that on Richard Axel's pictures of random smells in the brain?

Then I asked to smell the vial, sure it would smell just as horrific to me as it smells to Leslie. Nope. Nail polish remover. No smell of sweaty socks or sweaty anything. At least I smelled something. Turns out about 5% of the population can't smell it or anything AT ALL. And many of them DON'T EVEN KNOW IT. Their brains are telling them they are smelling chocolate or roses or smelly socks. But they're not.

Stretch THAT.


Clara Gillow Clark said...

Thanks, Deb, for sharing about your wonderful weekend at HIGHLIGHTS FOUNDATION. What a stellar group of presenters. I'm so sorry that I had to miss it. I decided to pay my taxes instead. :o/

I can't wait to go back to your post and click on the links! I definitely want to read more about SMELL!

Unknown said...

Thanks for exemplifying the CCSS in action, Deb. It is nothing more or less than being a life-long learner, stepping out of one's comfort zone at times and constantly adding to your scaffolding of concepts, on which you can attach new specific facts about how the world works. The CCSS frees teachers to help children think. Hopefully, it also frees teachers to think as well.

Barbara Kerley said...

Will you adopt me? I want to live your life. And I love how your questions make me think of more... questions!

Susan Kuklin said...

I can't imagine smelly feet in your house! And no pink or blue brains. Instead a rainbow of ideas awash in Channel #5!

Terrific post, Deb.