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QUINTESSENCE

A City

And where
there was chaos
it was graven in strokes of righteous angularity:
bolus of a city inscribed by giant needles,
nexus of highways, tangle of vectors on crumpled papyrus,
power lines across the pine forest, fate line
engraved in the lithosphere
of the palm...

- from A City in the Clouds, Campbell McGrath

This weekend, my daughter, 23, and I, loaded her red Jeep with as much of her future life as we could stuff in and drove the nearly 300 miles from Spokane to Seattle. She is beginning her first year as a medical student at the University of Washington Medical School. Kate is setting up shop near the U District with a new roommate in a modest two bedroom apartment- in the words of Campbell McGrath, "A new land, a new sea. A new world. A city." Her home for the next four years has as it's main advantage, proximity to the medical school; and its main attraction, a balcony set within a canopy of maple trees. We are nothing, my children and I, if not people of the trees.

An interesting paradox, new beginnings. My daughter left a small, tightly-knit east coast city, New Haven, for a west coast life in Seattle, a sprawling basin of twinkling lights nestled deep in the steep pine forests above Puget Sound. A shift in cultures, geography, climate... And a marked new chapter in her life. The process of moving in and furnishing a small space efficiently and inexpensively - after all, funding this professional education is her nickel - immediately and inevitably meant navigating the Renton Ikea warehouse, and tools in hand, cross-legged on the floor of an empty apartment, building assembly furniture channeling all the inspiration available from memories of childhood Lego builds with her younger brother. We took a break for margaritas and fresh Mex, basking in the warm sun dockside on the waterfront at a laid-back bistro on the Montlake Cut. Sweaty, fatigued, bemused, I gazed on the face of the happy adult young woman opposite me and realized my daughter was under full sail: out on open waters, underway toward a future chosen by her, earned by her, and solely in her hands.

It is one very special experience to raise a child; to be given the spiritual and physical fiduciary trust and responsibility to nurture another's unformed body and soul. It is another blessing entirely to see that child, grown, step from the protective circle of your arms and into the world with confidence and commitment. I raised my glass. I toasted to her future. I let go the child. Released the burdens and privileges of decades of guidance and care and accepted the new-found graces of friendship, pride, and gratitude.

From an end, a beginning. A new land, a new sea. A city. A life.


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What Is Beautiful

Matisse Window, Cathedral of Mainz

To all you Romantics...
Hold on to this one, friends. Let this poem resonate, listen. Close your eyes.
"A dark voice can curl around the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness..."

NIGHTCLUB
by Billy Collins

You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don't hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else's can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o'clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.

Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.

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The Path to Super Good

Chess Prodigy Grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky
Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is a triumph of some enthusiasm.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This last week I've been thinking and writing about Daniel Coyle's engaging and well researched book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. Emerson's quote headlines a chapter in Coyle's book that addresses what motivates us to want to be great in the first place. Why did Roger Bannister break the four minute mile? And how did his seemingly impossible accomplishment fuel subsequent athletes to feats of equal or better time? While the examples are many, the finding Coyle arrives at is this: Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act (that necessary ten thousand hours of practice/ten years), ignition is a hot, mysterious burst. An awakening, he calls it. Our brains are organized to look for terrifically good uses of available focus and energy. Primal survival cues also leap-frog learning, seeking inspiration from copy-cat "Ah-ha!" moments (If he can do it, so can I!). The right mentoring, supportive environment, opportunity or impetus, and suddenly we are committing ourselves to a goal for the long haul.

One section of Daniel Coyle's research that I found personally fascinating (well yes, I'm the target subgroup), were the links between cognition and aging. The continual proof in the data of that old refrain: use it or lose it. It's simple, according to UCLA neurologist and researcher George Bartzokis, whom Coyle quotes extensively: "The myelin starts to split apart with age. This is why every old person you've ever met in your life moves more slowly that they did when they were younger. Their muscles haven't changed, but the speed of the impulses they can send to them has changed, because myelin gets old." No wonder, I thought reading this. It's a fact I run slower these days. My myelin is aging along with my knees.

But not so fast. It's a balance of natural entropy and regeneration, apparently. Bartzokis continues, "You must remember the myelin is alive, always being generated and degenerating, like a war. When we are younger, we build myelin easily. As we age, the overall balance shifts toward degeneration, but we can keep adding myelin. Even when the myelin is breaking up, we can still build it, right to the end of our lives." (I'll keep lacing up those running shoes.) Situations in which people are forced to adapt and attune themselves to new challenges (i.e., make errors, pay attention, deep practice) tend to increase cognitive reserve. Daniel Coyle concludes that "use it and get more of it," is what we need to remember as we age.

Finally, how do we raise motivated children and encourage budding talent? Coyle turns to psychologist Carol Dweck, who studies motivation. Her advice is distilled into two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by, and praise them for their effort. The author's final observation in The Talent Code touches on the essential unique mystery of our brains, "In the whorls of myelin resides a person's secret history, the flow of interactions and influences that make up a life..." To be the best you can be? Embrace your passion, anchor your faith in the knowledge that failure is the path forward, and practice your way to "super good."
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The Rage to Master

Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code credits psychologist Ellen Winner with the phrase "the rage to master" as a description of the focus and intensity that sets some of us apart from others in the development of performance and skill. (He makes the point that if you have to ask if your child possesses the rage to master, they don't.) Research clearly shows, even in the case of well known prodigies, that possessing a high level of skill - mastery - is not accidental. Expertise is not strictly a matter of nature vs. nurture, or because some of us fell on the right side of the "genius gene." (There is no such gene.) Some of us just want total domination more than others. Expertise is defined by Coyle as "deep practice" learning broken into three parts - chunk it up, repeat it, learn to feel it.

The concepts are simple and logical: "Chunk it up" is a strategy for mastery of technique undertaken by breaking a subject into concrete, defined, manageable chunks of new learning, sometimes broken down to the most minute levels (e.g. a challenging two-note measure on a single page of sheet music, the twisted arc within a complicated dive), slowed way down in practice, and then reassembled into an integrated whole. "Repeat it" touches on the research of 20th century Swede Anders Ericsson that found behind every so-called expert or super-talent, roughly ten years/ten thousand hours of committed practice - which Coyle believes foots perfectly with the intense and repetitive brain process of coiling myelin insulation layers around neuron circuits strengthening developing skills.

The third rule, "Feel it," is about learning in practice to sense the gap between what you are aiming for and a mistake. An awareness of a missed note, a feeling in the slightest off movement of a bad javelin toss, an ear for a mistake in grammar. Coyle describes this awareness in the words of Glenn Kurtz from Kurtz's book Practicing, "Each day, with every note, practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture - reaching out for an idea, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers." Now if that doesn't capture the struggle of learning, what does? Most important, it is the struggle that builds the skill.

These building blocks are simply not enough however without motivational fuel: the "rage to master," that ignition factor that leads us to want, to commit, to do. I'd welcome your thoughts on what made the difference for you between a routine practice and one that "clicked." What do you see in yourself, or in your children when they struggle to master something they passionately want to learn?

Let me close with an evocative poem by Billy Collins that speaks to me of the mystery and beauty of "deep practice."

PIANO LESSONS
by Billy Collins
1
My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.

2
He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.

3
He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.

4
I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladder of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.

5
I am learning to play
“It Might As Well Be Spring”
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him in to the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

6
Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

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Deep Practice

photo credit: WestEnd61
"We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that's wrong. It's a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build. The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn." - Dr. Robert Bjork, as quoted in THE TALENT CODE by Daniel Coyle (Bantam Dell, 2009)

As part of my next few posts this month I'd like to present a very interesting book on the characteristics of talent and talent development by Daniel Coyle called, "The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's Grown. Here's How." Of course the concept of talent has fascinated humans for as long as there have been contests of skill and intellect. History and science have long questioned the rise of particularly gifted individuals at crucial moments in human evolution. We are all aware of the prodigy, the late-bloomer, the ne'er do well... Is destiny an inherent measure of talent? Not necessarily. According to Coyle, prodigies have a fairly poor record of success over the long-haul, so he defines talent more narrowly as a set of repeatable skills that do not depend on physical size (with apologies to jockeys and linebackers. Yes, his book is funny as well as informative.) He then goes on to share what he learned traversing the globe researching "chicken-wire Harvards" - unlikely places of humble disposition with a track record of producing hugely talented folks. From ramshackle soccer fields to aging tennis courts, small vocal studios to jerry-rigged laboratories.

Coyle introduces a concept he labels "Deep Practice" - a form of focused, integrated thinking on a problem or goal frequently just beyond our present abilities that supersaturates the brain with deepening attention and analytical thinking. "It's all about finding the sweet spot," Bjork is quoted as saying. "There's an optimal gap between what you know and what you're trying to do. When you find the sweet spot, learning takes off." What makes this idea intriguing, and indeed recapitulates the subject of the book, talent, is the author's discovery that talent is a learned ability, not an innate given. Coyle says quite clearly at the beginning of his research, "Deep practice is a strange concept for two reasons. The first reason is that it cuts against our intuition about talent. Our intuition tells us that practice relates to talent in the same way that a whetstone relates to a knife: it's vital but useless without a solid blade of so-called natural ability. Deep practice raise an intriguing possibility: that practice might be the way to forge the blade itself." What follows is a book stuffed with science and studies that supports the idea that greatness is made, and anecdotal case stories from his research that prove talent can both be taught and fostered for almost any individual or pursuit. This is an idea well worth exploring in my opinion, as "Deep Practice" speaks to what the human brain is organically gifted at doing - learning.

A cross-sectional microscopic image in Coyle's book highlights two nerve fibers wrapping ever deeper in myelin - nerve insulation that increases neuron signal strength, speed, and accuracy. "Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals. The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin." Here is where science bites into the talent code, and where we begin to pay serious attention. The more we work at something, the more myelin we lay down, creating super-broadband connectivity within our brains associated with that task. With myelin we create a better brain for the job.

We focus our attention on those tasks we determine to master and then excel through better, more targeted practice learning. Looking inward I ask, What are the habits of practice I engage in as a writer that are pointless and unfocused, and those that are great plunges into the building blocks of performance? The writing tools on the table range from the well-read mind to coaching, personal daybooks and writing practice. Self-editing is a particularly important learned skill for the writer. Editing engages the writer in a deep critical analysis of one's own technique and writing style as well as "the voice" of the project. Working until the objective of a better sentence is achieved, is, as Hemingway remarked, working to a true sentence. When the thing is made, not described.

Deep practice into the art of language.

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Ode to Gear

Brooks, Ghost 4 running shoes

I was musing today on the pair of running shoes you see in the photograph above. The breathed their last (with me in them at any rate) in Zermatt, Zwitzerland. Poised in the firs under the peaks of the Alps for a final portrait, and left behind in retirement, having done their last. What shoes. Demoted to mere gardening clogs after the prerequisite number of miles had been accumulated in them on my hometown streets, surely having lost all cushion and structure in the workouts that took them through two seasons. Yet, when it came to packing a travel pair of runners for Europe, for my workouts, for runs along the Dutch canals, the streets of villages and towns along the Rhine river - even the infamous "Bridge Too Far" which for a good workout, turned out to not be far enough - I picked my old Brooks runners.

They were perfect for the job. Squished into a suitcase, stuffed with socks and a deodorant stick, left under the bed, dried out after a sudden summer rain. And then, they faced up the Alps and in them I climbed the dream of a dream, and conquered Gonergrat. A mere straight up 5000' foot elevation gain to over 10,000' - scrambling above the tree-line. Nose in the clouds, high in the glaciers, blown by wind. Those shoes climbed the alpine trails, scrambled rockfall, waded through glacier melt and wild waterfalls, held sure on cliff sides and broken rock, and too many sheer rock faces. One relentless determined step after another. No blisters, no wet feet, no ankle twists, nothing but an ache in my footbed that admitted the cushioning was truly shot and I would certainly feel this terrain the next day.

My shoes were happy to ride down from the peak propped up on the seat on a cog wheel train. Happy to be pulled off and tossed by the side of the tub I soaked my spent, sore muscles in. Dignified, they poised in the Alps for their final Buck List shot. They did it, we did it. Shoes and master. Adieu.

(I left them in the closet of a room in the Alex Hotel. Has someone taken them up, laced them on for their next adventure? Living the life of Swiss chocolate and fresh mountain air? Hope so!)
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The Bucket List Challenge

The Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland
ON TURNING TEN
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light -
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
It you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

- Billy Collins

I fulfilled an important bucket list item on this recent journey: I climbed high in the shadow of the iconic Matterhorn. Unintentionally, accidentally, saying yes to a dream. I set out hiking in worn tennis shoes, scrambling over rock and glaciers, heart pounding, calves spent like stretched rubber bands as the trail, or what was left of it after the snow melt, snaked relentlessly upwards toward the peak of Gornergrat at 10,610'. Granite rocks, slashed by daggered glaciers, stood erie in the clouds. It was a daunting proposition. And I did it with an eleven year old girl.

But what a child. A sweet thing with English fair skin, an aversion to heights (or, as she later clarified as we navigated a goat track of a trail high above a rock fall, "I realize it's not heights I'm afraid of, but falling"), too-small rubber water shoes, floppy beach hat, and a repertoire of musicals she could sing by heart, even as I worked harder for breath at each spike up in elevation. Her Dad, the unlikely academic scholar leading our party of three, charged up the trail, scouting the wash-outs, cliff-hangers, and waterfall fords. Unstoppable despite his "best available" footgear of suit socks and dress shoes, his daughter's colorful school pack slung over his right shoulder. We were on a mad adventure and madly underprepared - without the proper clothes, boots, hiking poles, compass, packs, emergency gear. But we had a good weather forecast, cell phones, granola bars and apples, a trail map from the hotel, sunblock, and plenty of water. Oh, and the girl had her new Swiss army knife. We were set. At one with Billy Collin's poem: In the perfect simplicity of an adventure, nothing "under the skin but light."

What began as a lark to hike the mountains to meet our group (traveling thru the Alps to the viewing station at Gornergrat by cogwheel train) ended on a triumph of will. A celebration of the midlife human spirit, and, the pure possibilities of childhood. I know this sounds grandiose and corny, but when you are 4 hours out, the Matterhorn looming pristine in the thin sunlit air, climbing steadily over broken boulder and missing trail, you power forward through those last exhausting hours on will alone. The Dad and I exchanged glances on many a cliff drop-off: As parents, questioning our uninformed foray and checking the risk against the progress made, and as adults, wondering at the inspiring unformed fortitude of our youngest member. A kind of "embrace the impossible" work ethic invaded our group as we successively navigated ever more difficult trail forks and unmarked terrain, asking in all the languages we knew of anyone we met, "Gornergrat?" The girl said, "Daddy we're going to finish this. No quitting." Edelweiss and meadow flowers kept silent company.

The last third above the tree-line, far past the last meadows, was by far the most difficult, coming as it were from spent reserves. The penultimate triumph - "penultimate" defined so personally, at that exact mark - came as we crossed the glassed, elevated viewing station through crowds of international tourists to the cheers of our anxiously waiting companions. I'd made a bucket list dream come true - me and my aching middle-aged body, in the company of childhood. And that last bit is particularly meaningful to me. I do not suppose that as yet my fair English companion really understands what she has accomplished, but I believe the impact of such an odyssey will be with her forever. Like the murmur of the sea in the lost shell, "You can do anything" will whisper in her ear. She shines.

For me, the old guard, and perhaps for her Dad as well and for this child with unbounded opportunities still before her, childhood's "dark blue speed" - what it is to live and live fearlesslly and fully - was found that day at the Matterhorn.

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Gonergrat and The Matterhorn

Gonergrat, 3130'm, Photo credit: Greg Miller
The view from the top of Gonergrat Peak, Swiss Alps.
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Bucket List, Check One

Post-climb, the train back down from Gonergrat (3130' m), Switzerland
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