Death of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.17.21 PMThey looked at me. “How long’s this gotta be?” It was the midterm essay.

“As long as it takes to be informative. And interesting–don’t put me to sleep…I only write zeroes when I’m asleep.” Actually, it’s a puddle of drool.

“How many paragraphs?” We train them to write paragraphs and fill in circle tests. I hate the five-paragraph essay. What if I need six? Or forty-two? Or one? I have a piece of Russian literature that has a twelve-paged paragraph, so no one better ask the followup “How long’s a paragraph?”

Yet someone does. I walk over to some boxes and open one. It contains a five-foot blank scroll. I hold up the scroll. “About this long. Want to read?”

One kid comes up. “Miss, it’s empty!”

“It is. There is no secret ingredient.” When Lao Tsu’s busy, I quote Kung Fu Panda.

“Here’s the thing. I write a lot. I know a lot of big words. If I use all my big words in a paragraph will you read it?”

“No,” said one engaged listener, “It’ll suck.”

“Great feedback.” Never ask kids. They’ll tell you. “Well, I used to research academic material…things only five people in the world cared about. When we met, we’d high-five each other and have a good old time…But nobody read my stuff. Ever. Now, I write differently. From the heart. No showing off. No big words without a reason. No extra paragraphs. I even use…sentence fragments. And you know what? People read it. What’s that tell you?”

“Writers suck?”

“No. It tells you that if you want people to read your stuff, you have to write for them in a way they want to read. Who goes online and reads five-paragraph essays?” No hands. “Then why are you writing them?”  I assure them there will be consequences if they say I said never to write five-paragraph essays.

“The point is, write for your audience. I learned the hard way. I took a beating learning this. Just do it. Write what you love in a way you’d want to read.” Everyone decides that the prompts are, in fact, halfway decent, and they get started. I put away the scroll.

I hear a kid mumble how he hates f-ing five-paragraph essays. I tell him to find some better f-words for his piece before I find a hundred or two for him to incorporate.

They write. And they don’t look that miserable after all.


The Science of Dog Biscuits

My kid eats dog biscuits. I don’t encourage this. I’ve given up.

“It’s the only meat I eat, Mom, it’s good for me.” I can’t control it. He gets out of bed or sneaks around when I’m not looking, stealing them from the cookie jar like they were chocolate chip cookies.

The dog sighs. She doesn’t challenge him. She knows she’s going to snag the roast off the table anyway the moment I turn my head. I’m fighting on two fronts. I suppose Milk-Bones are healthy for boys if they’re good for dogs. Declan tells me they are.

dog biscuit

Look carefully. You are seeing a dog biscuit fragment sailing high above Kung Fu Panda.

Two things my boy loves–dog biscuits and science. On Thanksgiving, he managed to integrate the two. His goal was to determine the size a dog biscuit would have to be in order to float on a mylar balloon. My job was to tie and secure the slipknots around the biscuit, cheer if it flew and look disappointed if it did not.

First, we tried a full Milk-Bone, which securely anchored the balloon to the ground. Declan’s face scrunched, finger to his cheek.

“I guess it’s too big,” he said.

“Not necessarily too big, Buddy,” I hinted, “Too heavy.”

“I gotta fix it.” He broke the Milk-Bone in half. I started to tie the knot. He switched the halves, giving me the small piece. He knew it would weigh less. I put the slipknot around the smaller piece. Meanwhile, he ate the bigger one.

The balloon sank to the ground. Even the smaller part of the biscuit was too heavy.

“Can’t we just use pencils or crayons or something? I can weigh them on my bread scale. This is disgusting.” I try to be a good Mom.

“Nope.” His word was final. He took a bite off of the small biscuit piece and handed the remaining fragment to me. I tied the string around the slime. It sunk to the ground. But bounced once on the way up. 

“Look, we almost did it!” Science. It’s exciting when science goes right.

He looked at the biscuit. He poked it a bit. The biscuit very much wanted to soar free like the bird it once may have been. I’m not sure what “meat byproduct” actually means. It all tastes like chicken, I’m told.

He picked up the piece, nibbled a bit off of each end, held it back, examined it, and nodded his approval. Not only did he intuitively recognize the relationship between size and weight, he knew about balance, too. The string had to be centered.

He had also figured out a bit about efficiency by simply biting off the ends instead of untying and retying the string around the biscuit. Efficiency is big in science these days. It makes money in business, too, I’m told. Entrepreneurs read and write books about it, must be important.

He released the string and biscuit. It flew. It flew around the living room. The dog considered reclaiming it, but she was in her post “I begged for turkey” slumber. Every dog knows half a turkey is better than a Milk-Bone.

photo 1One Milk-Bone gone, several principles of science learned. Today, he is measuring things and making comparisons. He usually writes these things in his field journal, a spiral notebook filled with pictures of animals, dinos, and bugs. It’s the holiday weekend. He’s taking it easy.

But if I ask him about school, he says, “Boring.” Already. Despite his fantastic teacher who is the definition of awesome. So maybe it’s not about school but about the methods of inquiry and intrinsic learning. He wants to learn about dinos and write them in a field journal. And measure things. And learn about photo 2balance points, gravity’s relationship with dog biscuits. And entrepreneurship–because I had to pay a lollipop, again, to secure the rights to these photos.

I think school could be fun. Kids have the ability to knock things out of the park. We just have to let them.

Then someone has to let us do just that.

Looking into the Artists’ Eyes

It’s easy to give feedback. But there’s something about giving honest and genuine feedback while looking into the eyes of an artist that’s emotional, different.

View of the Congregational Church that started the festival in 1967.

View of the Congregational Church that started the festival in 1967.

The Scituate Art Festival is one of the largest festivals of its kind in the nation. We’ve been coming for years. It’s my husband Rusty’s hometown. He always wanted to move back here but the time was never right. I’ve found the time is never right for most big things in life–changing careers, having a baby, moving…making any life change, really. The time is never right.

Sometimes, the universe intervenes. Other times it sends people to drop kick me. This time, it was both. The airport began to swallow up homes behind our house threatening to take our last shred of value. Selling wasn’t easy–who wants to move into a neighborhood where the roofs are part of the tarmac? Moving is tough–stressful, expensive. It’s never time. We found this house in the woods in my husband’s hometown, the town with the huge art festival and postcard New England village, and a buyer who was grateful to get from an apartment to a house. We escaped. And now this art festival is our hometown event.

“You’d better get rid of your hyphenation,” my husband said, “It’ll do you no good here.” This is his hometown. His last name gets nods. Mine, not so much. This is the type of town where people have lived for generations. I’ve been grandfathered in. “Oh, you have that house…” Everyone knows the house by description. People tell me stories of each generation who lived here, and the stonemason who built it. It’s the type of history I love.

As a real resident of this town, I pay attention to the festival. I listen to the old-timers, talking about the way the town was and used to be. The real history. The kind you can’t find in a book. The Greatest Generation telling the way things use to be, could have been, and sometimes still are.

The food court is everyone's favorite at festivals.

The food court is everyone’s favorite at festivals.

The Art Festival is the way it always is, a finely tuned operation that draws 2-300K people in a good year. Locals and people flock in for the artisans and the New England foliage alike.  We stop here and there for a small-town greeting or an apple dumpling–the type I eat every year, once a year, like clockwork. The civic organizations, school clubs, and people of the region set up booths and all the repeat revelers know how to find the best BBQ, the biggest sausage and peppers, the most perfect fries…and that apple dumpling.

And of course you can’t run a New England town without chowda and clam cakes.

Everyone in town bakes, mans a booth, volunteers or attends. Artists from all over the world show their crafts. As an outsider, I appreciate the variety and efficiency. As an insider, I see the community. I am starting to attach.

I see the antiques booths, the painters, the artisans. What started as a twelve-booth event in 1967 has expanded to pay for repairs to the Congregational Church has become something to behold.

But the best feature, by far, is the artists and artisans. I used to look at art through the eyes of a simpleton, an ignoramus.  Now, I look through the eyes of the creator. Just for an hour or two, I imagine myself painting, sculpting, bringing forth woodwork or pottery into the world, instead of writing, and showcasing my creations for the public. I look at the soul of the artist sitting, quietly showing his or her work. What courage to put oneself out there, in the middle of 300K people passing by casually, blending as people say things like “Beautiful,” or “Oh, no, that’s awful,” or worse yet, passing by without a single glance. The heart and soul of the artist unnoticed. Brilliance blending into the background of clamcakes and doughboys. There can be no greater insult than that.

I see the soul of the artist with the brush, crayon, typewriter, or lens. When possible, I talk to them. I appreciate them. We’re all the same, no matter the genre. We all put stuff out there, hoping someone will appreciate it. Or maybe, just maybe, that it’ll make a difference.

That’s what I see at the festival. Community, cohesion, and people making a difference. It’s the way every community should be, and can be, if we all just smile, create, and share. I’m grateful to be a part. Even if the screaming boy makes me leave early. Some day, this festival will be his.

Life Hacks: How to Survive without Any Common Sense Whatsoever

I have no common sense. If Thomas Paine gave me an autographed copy of his opus, I’d still lack common sense. Some would say this makes me creative. People like me would say this, for example. Others would say this makes me a disaster of epic proportion waiting to destroy the universe. My husband would say that. We think differently.

We ran into this while building a greenhouse two autumns ago. I miss that greenhouse–I didn’t get to bring it with me when we moved. Now that the farms are asleep for the winter and I have not yet achieved self-sufficiency on this new plot of land, I must go to the regular store. Sadness.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to bring my greenhouse–I did. When I ordered the “kit” I didn’t know it would come in 496 pieces, because I don’t have common sense.  A normal person would’ve looked at the flat box with the Chinese characters (because I’ve now studied enough Mandarin to realize it said “we laugh at your attempts to assemble this because we are paid slave wages”) and said, “That’s going to be a bitch to put together.” Not me. I said, “Herbs in the winter.”  If the directions had been in some Asian language, I’d have been able to puzzle through it, but the 3×5 instruction card had pictures and arrows which required spatial recognition and common sense. Game over.

By the time I had all 496 pieces spread alphabetically across the lawn, I didn’t think the greenhouse would ever emerge.  It nearly ended our marriage. In the end, it took three of us to defeat–one academic sans common sense (me), one ex-military jack of all trades turned entrepreneur (my husband) and one machinist (the kindly neighbor). It was so secured with bolts, wires, duct tape, and salvaged nails that it was going nowhere. It could have doubled as the neighborhood bomb shelter if it weren’t so small. It would be staying right where it was.

I tried to contribute to the assembly process, but it was out of my league.  I’m handy. I refinished the downstairs after the Great Flood. I used the Sinatra method, mind you, “I did it my way,” because the right way would’ve required common sense–I’m not above measuring boards for a shelf using a piece of dental floss if it’s within reach. I used a jig saw to router out some moulding when I was lacking the right tool. It’s shady, I admit, but it works. My husband can’t watch, because he does things “right.”

The greenhouse was mocking me. So, I did what comes naturally–I pretended to work, making progressively fewer logical moves descending into the ridiculous. Things “someone with no common sense” would ever do. Things designed to attract Rusty’s attention.  I knew that sooner or later his staff sergeant intuition would detect a ripple in the force and he’d come over to provide the leadership I needed to take that hill. I mean assemble that greenhouse.

This strategy, incidentally, works in classy department stores when you can’t get assistance–try it this holiday season. I call it the “May I help you?” move.  Walk around befuddled and utterly confused. Touch everything, starting with the expensive stuff first.  In less than thirty seconds, the salesperson who had spent the last half-hour ignoring you will be at your side serving you as if you were the King or Queen of England. Especially if you are underdressed looking like you might rob the place.

This choreographed move works well for husbands who need that sense of order, too. Most specifically leadership husbands with military backgrounds. Sometimes it backfires when I am focusing on the job at hand but my appearance of disorder puts me on his radar.  Mowing the lawn, for example. He likes straight lines. I circle and zig-zag. As such, I have been fired Trump-style from mowing.

I am permitted to build stuff, however, as long as Rusty doesn’t have to watch. He must be far removed my lack of systems, efficiency, analytics and process, and at the end, he’ll emerge and say, “That came out nice!”

Yes, he’s the entrepreneur and I’m the useless academic. I’d have been the first one purged by Stalin. “What do you do for society?” would be the question.

“I think and I write.” I’d reply.

“Yes, but can you manufacture a greenhouse and contribute to society?” Game over. Pack a warm coat for that train to Siberia.

Studying the art of vision is fascinating–when I create, it’s as if the pieces come to life and tell me what they want to become–my plan twists, pivots, morphs, and emerges–it’s always different from my original intent. At least twice during every project I want to burn it, toss it, smash it and start again. I resist the urge, and end up with a work that transcends my original intent.

My husband starts with a plan, executes the plan, and finishes the plan. When it’s done, the results are what he intended; effective, brilliant, efficient, and able to be successfully replicated a million times by using “the system.” It’s probably why he’s the entrepreneur.

Usually our thinking styles, left to percolate in their own spheres, unite and produce something fantastic. This time we were in trouble. Thankfully, the machinist neighbor looked out his window–he couldn’t help it–it was a small neighborhood–and bailed us out to the tune of a case of Mountain Dew which I left gratefully on his doorstep the next morning like an offering to the gods.

No more greenhouse kits for me. When I build the next one this spring, I’ll do it from scratch. Just some posts and a makeshift foundation built on some 4×4’s reinforced with whatever I can find.  I’ll hack it together until I get a rectangle-ish looking building covered with polycarbonate of one sort or another. And I’ll do it when nobody’s home, because I’m going to Picasso this thing out of the dust and it’s not going to be a pretty process. When it is finished, however, it’ll give me the winter of herbs and veggies I desire.

That greenhouse, along with other household projects, made me realize that it takes both sides–the yin and the yang–to make the circle of life complete. We can be extremes, but we must meet in the middle. My husband and I both have our sides. We are both right. And wrong. Simultaneously. Maybe that’s what life is all about–learning to balance those extremes and create a whole that is more than the sum of the parts.

This winter, I can go to the grocery store while I wait for the farm to wake up, and I can take occasional Saturday trips to the farmer’s market across the state. Since I’ve been in the farm and small market loop so long, I’ve noticed how funny the grocery store really is. It’s stocked to the brim with stupid stuff. Stuff that I will never buy, and have, in fact, decided to mock. But that will be the topic of the next post.