The other day as I was listening to NPR, I learned of the death of Edwin Schneidman, a pioneer in the study of suicide and founder of one of the nation’s first suicide prevention centers.  Working at a time when the study of suicide was shunned, Schneidman believed that two simple questions — “Where do you hurt?” and “How may I help you?” – could begin to diffuse the impulse to self-destruction.

For me, Schneidman’s insight demonstrates a simple, but enormously powerful truth:   a question is a mysterious thing.  A question is a turn of language indicating an empty space, something unknown and desired.  It reaches out of the self to touch another person or thing—to unlock a door of isolation and pain, to see the past, to explore the present, to search for God.   Questions direct our inquiry, leading us forward like pathways through the underbrush.  Questions inspire us, provoke us, prod us to action.  They are tools, they are weapons, they are instruments of love.  Questions can make us believe that someone wants to know.

People think a great deal about how to phrase questions to facilitate the smooth and effective exchange of information.  How can we learn what we really want to know?  How can we get someone else to say what they really want to tell us?  How do we ask a good question?  A precise question?  An open-ended question?   A pointed question?

But the real mystery is the question itself.   Where does the question come from?  How does it work?  And can it bridge the space from me to you?

Drive Friendly

If you travel around Texas, you’ll likely see signs reminding you to “Drive Friendly” (it’s The Texas Way).  And for the most part, people here do drive friendly.  I haven’t had anyone honk at me or make rude gestures in my direction since we moved, but land o’ Goshen, these folks drive impatient!   If Texans had made an appearance In Dante’s Inferno they’d be driving subcompacts with no air conditioning and waiting in long lines. This is the only place I’ve ever been where someone facing you across the intersection and turning left as you turn right will routinely make their turn at the same time you do.  (“There’s two lanes, why shouldn’t we go at the same time?”)   It’s also the only place I’ve ever seen anyone in the second position of a left turn lane make their turn without waiting for the first car in line to go.  Stuff like this will take you by surprise, but you can get used to it.

Folks in Texas will push you.  Even in the grocery store, if you don’t put that order divider down on the conveyer belt the instant after you pull your last item out of the cart, you will find an arm reaching clear across your groceries and deep into your personal space to grab that little bar and plop it down between you.  Now they’re friendly here, so they may apologize afterwards–but seriously friend, why are you takin’ so long?

I don’t know why Texans are like this.  On the face of it, they seem a lot more laid back than the Northern Virginians I grew up with.  Maybe it’s because of all that horsepower available at the tap of a foot in a Ford F-250.   Or maybe it’s because they’ve got so much distance to travel getting from one place to another in the Lone Star State—they’re just trying to make some time.  Or perhaps it’s a remnant in the collective memory of those cattle drives to Abilene—a voice deep within cryin’ “Get along little dogie!”

Whatever the reason, when you come to visit (and we hope you will) you’ll know what to expect.   Maintain your speed, keep checking your rearview mirror, and always remember to Drive Friendly.

Library Spaces for Children

So much of what we do in the kids’ library biz is “push.”  “Check out this great book!”  “Come to this great program!”  “Use these great resources we have available!”  We’ve got posters and displays (so many words!), and, while pushing literacy and library use is what it’s all about, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe we need a little balance.  Maybe we need more white space on the page.

I suppose the question I’m asking is “What sort of cognitive activities do we want to encourage and provide space for?”  Curiosity?  Contemplation?  Synthesis?  We support a lot of information-seeking behaviors, but I’m wondering:  Could the library provide a place for children to learn on their own?  Discover something new?  Be alone with their own minds for just a bit?

I imagine a space children would have to choose to enter, separate from the stacks.  There they might color quietly, or read, or look at prints of famous art on the wall or famous places-maybe with plants or some fresh flowers now and again-maybe a sculpture.  It wouldn’t be a museum or a classroom or a quiet study room or a Borders.  It would be an interesting relaxing space.  No computers.  No displays (although maybe some books and magazines just sort of ‘lying around’ in case you felt like picking one up).  It would look a little different the next time you came in.  Familiar, comfortable, hospitable, quietly stimulating.

A Discovery Place.  A Comfy Corner.  A Thotful Spot.

A question of play

Today I came across a toy that sparked my imagination—without my even touching it.  It’s the Bilibo, a brightly-colored shell described as “a companion for children.”  Here’s some of the copy off their web site:

“Relying on the child’s imagination and passion for playing, an object was created with no specific function nor a single way to be used.  Bilibo encourages the children to become inventors themselves, to become active and creative instead of simply consuming ready-made ideas.”

I watched the video of children playing with the Bilibo and found myself wishing,  “I wish I could play like that.”  Not that I wanted a toy necessarily, but wouldn’t it be great to come across something that would free your brain in this way?   I can’t say that there are no prompts for creativity in daily life.  There are lots:  a computer?  a little black dress?  a lump of clay?  a refrigerator full of odds and ends?  If you’re looking for prompts, the world is full of them.

But…when I see the children at play in this video I remember how much fun it was to ask the question “What can you do with this?” and then just explore.  Somehow that question gets lost in the adult world.  When confronted with an unknown object we more often ask, “What is this for?” or  “How do you use this?” and those are very different questions from “What can you do with this?”  They are tool questions, not toy questions.  And while you can ask both kinds of questions of the same object, it seems to me that tool questions presuppose that someone else will supply the answer.   When you ask “What can you do with this?” it’s up to you and the object to find the answer–maybe many answers.

I like figuring things out.  I like learning how to use a new tool, although I admit, sometimes the endless march of grownup tasks to master can get a bit wearisome.  Maybe when that happens I need to bring some different questions to mind.  Think more like an explorer or an inventor.  Maybe I need to see the play that’s latent in the world around me.

Working, making, watching…

I like to watch people work.  I like to see how they make things.  I like to see their hands molding and cutting and shaping.  I like to see their minds made manifest through their actions.  I like to see a new thing created, a broken thing repaired. I like to see a process unfold.

I want to know, “How did you do that?”  “What chords did you play?”  “What spices did you use?”  “How do you work that thing?” And while I always have questions, it’s not entirely about the “how-to.”  For me, watching people work can be like following a skier down the slope: you feel the doing; you lean as they take the curve.  At other times, it’s like watching a great conductor give shape to thought and sound—it’s a way in.

There is marvelous pleasure to be had in watching people do something well.  You get to know them a bit.  Lately I’ve been peeking in on my friend Elizabeth Seaver’s artistic processes over at her blog.  Elizabeth is always turning things over.  Reworking them.  Trying new media.  Mixing things up.  I hope you’ll take a look; click around a bit.  Watch her work.

War is not healthy

When I was a child growing up in Northern Virginia, the Vietnam war occupied a sizable piece of my emotional real estate.  I remember the boy at my school whose father didn’t come home from the war.  I remember seeing the casualty counts on the evening news.  I remember the pictures in Life magazine.  I remember vividly the bewilderment and anxiety I felt over campus riots and the Kent State shootings—events that seemed especially close because my mother had attended Kent State and that made it a real place.  I couldn’t really understand it all, but I remember feeling that everyone should be doing something to make the chaos stop.

At some point someone, my mother I believe, gave me a necklace of Lorraine Schneider’s poster “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”  The poster was the logo for the group Another Mother for Peace, which in 1967 sent Mother’s Day cards to President Lyndon B. Johnson and the members of Congress urging them to talk peace.  The image caught on and was soon found on jewelry, posters, badges, and bumper stickers, although it never became as popular as the ubiquitous peace symbol.  I didn’t have a lot of peace symbols up in my room or decorating my notebooks, but I did like Schneider’s design.

I wore the necklace often. Its message that “war is not healthy for children” made me feel safer—it validated my anti-war sentiments, and it gave me a way to speak out though I was never an anti-war activist.  I was too young, and maybe too nice to march in the streets, but my necklace expressed both the fear that I felt as a child, and the protest that my teen self longed to make.   I wasn’t trying to rebel against the Establishment or bring down the Government.  I just wanted the grownups in charge to come to their senses.

I’ve kept the necklace ever since.  A lot of other big pendants and funky necklaces have long since passed out of my jewelry collection (even given the cyclical nature of fashion, I just couldn’t be that person any more), but I’ve held on to that big gold rectangle.  And when my own daughter started asking me if she could borrow it (since unfortunately, war is also cyclical), I did what any mother would do these days—I started searching the web so I could buy her one of her own.  Turns out that Schneider’s daughter, Carol, and another child of the original AMP founders have revitalized the group.  They’re a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to educating citizens to take an active role for peace.  If you’re of a mind, you can visit them here.

It’s hard to explain why this particular peace message is as important to me as it is.  It could have been just another slogan from the 60s and 70s—another bumper sticker to post and move on.  But somehow it became something else; it became part of me.  And it pleases me that my daughter chose this piece out of the crazy jumble in my jewelry box.  A mom is always hoping to pass along a few bits to her kids: be kind, pick up after yourself, be curious about the world and other people, remember you are beautiful and you are loved.  And don’t be afraid to be a friend of peace.

Fair warning

Two days ago, the Texas sun had an edge to it that warned of summer.  The air temperature was cool–still in the 60s–but the burn on my cheek told me that we were closer to real heat than I had suspected.  No early crocus to hint of spring.  The insistent sun was summer’s opposite to fall’s fresh nip in the air.

I know there’s time before shorts and sundresses become a necessity.  I still need my sweatshirt in the morning.  But I feel like the Texas sun gave me a look, like an animal just before it bites.

Sometimes a hat just speaks to you

Mega Mission Helmet

Hey, there’s another talking helmet on the market, and this one’s got a cool feature.  The Power Ranger’s Jungle Fury Mega Mission Helmet has a USB cable so you can download 50 brief secret missions and act them out while you run around with lights flashing and sounds going off in your ears.  There’s also a Power Rangers Operation Overdrive Mega Mission Helmet (say that name five times fast) which costs less and only gives you 20 missions.  As the Bandai press release notes:  “With lights and sounds, each adventure guides you through training exercises, Power Rangers moves and more.” At the Jungle Fury webpage you can print out Mission Certificates (nice, but do little boys really want pieces of paper?).  “Good luck, Young Ranger. It’s good to have you on our Jungle Fury team.”

Optimus Prime Next on the cool helmet list is the Transformers Optimus Prime Voice Changer Helmet which lists as one of its Product Features “Lead your fellow robots in a battle to save the AllSpark from the cruel hands of mighty MEGATRON!” —which seems to be smudging the line between reality and fantasy.  Or maybe not.  I guess I’d have to put on the helmet to find out.

There’s a lot to be said for a good hat.  Or helmet.  It can change your whole persona.  In under a minute, you can be a new you—with or without the secret missions and fellow robots.  Maybe your hat speaks only to you.  Maybe no one knows its secret powers.  Coco Chanel started her career designing hats.  The Cat in the Hat never goes anywhere without his.  So I’m keeping my eyes open for developments.  Stay tuned.

Falling for Science

A new book has come to our house, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind, edited by Sherry Turkle.  It’s a book about scientific curiosity, and about the role objects play in the creative process.  In it, Turkle collects essays written by scientists and by students at MIT over the course of 25 years. All were asked the same question: “Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?”

We first learned about Falling for Science while listening to NPR’s Robert Krulwich.  He interviewed two of the writers from this collection, and as soon as I heard his first report about Easter eggs in a basket, I ran to my computer to see if the library had a copy of this book.  If I’ve piqued your interest, start with that story, then go to the one about a young boy’s fascination with a stop sign and what it revealed about the order of the universe.  As with all of Krulwich’s science stories, you have to listen to these, not just read the transcript.  The way he puts the audio together is an essential part of the storytelling.

But back to this idea of objects that Turkle explores.  We all had toys we loved, but not every toy was an object that led us to inquiry or fashioned us in some way.  I got to thinking about the objects that fascinated me as a child. Objects that were important to who I have become, though I am not a scientist.   I came up with three.

The first object was a glass prism.  It was about 6 inches long, and I remember enjoying the heft of it and its good solid smoothness.  I would press the prism to my eyes and walk drunkenly about the house through a distorted rainbow world.  It was drug-free psychedelia, and it was so much fun.  I don’t think I ever used the prism to cast rainbows on the wall the way many people do.  I wanted it to transform the world.

The second object was a kaleidoscope:  abstract, changing, beautiful, and interesting.  It was something to enjoy and to think about—patterns and colors that moved in time and space.  I still love them, though it is difficult to find kaleidoscopes with good optics and a sufficient variety of patterns.  There’s a real art to choosing the pieces to put inside them.  I find that most kaleidoscope software doesn’t appeal to me either.  The images those programs make too often look like just the same algorithm expressed in different colors.  It’s not the same as closing one eye and looking into the magic tunnel.

The third object I remember was a View-Master.  I could spend hours with that bakelite viewer held to my head, clicking the lever with my right hand, sometimes going slowly so I could see the dark spaces between the rectangles of film.  The stories the pictures came from were not the object.  The experience was not about the narrative.  I just wanted to peer into those miniature worlds presented in color and three dimensions.  The View-Master was a hole in the fence or a door into a doll house.  It was a window into a world.

I have wandered through many disciplines and occupations in my life, and with the exception of books themselves, there is no single object that sparked a passion and changed my life forever. But I still like Things-that-make-you-Think and Things-that-take-you-Somewhere-Else.  And almost always, I love the light that comes through a colored pane.  What about you?