What if?

book stack

book stack (Photo credit: ginnerobot)

As a fiction writer, I spend a lot of time asking myself the question “what if?” And the other day, the what if on my mind was “what if I couldn’t read?”

I got to thinking that awful thought because of a recent article by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker, a review of a book on female literacy by Belinda Jack, of Oxford. Acocella’s article traces the history of female literacy from ancient times, and she talks about the kind of introspection that comes from reading, as well as how reading allows a person to learn about the world beyond his or her own experience. She writes:

“Without such introspection, women seemed stupid; therefore, they were considered unfit for education; therefore, they weren’t given an education; therefore, they seemed stupid.”

This isn’t just a bygone mindset, obviously. In parts of the world today, notably in places like Pakistan, girls are kept from education by force. Just a little while ago, 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai was recently shot for the crime of advocating education for women. That’s how threatening it is to some men in primitive societies that a woman might become literate.

And so I thought, what would my life be like if I couldn’t read?

It’s actually hard to think it. Reading seems as natural to me as breathing. I can’t not read. When words are around, they catch my eye and just speak. And yet, I pushed my mind there. What if all those letters were like a foreign language to me? What if they were impenetrable?

My days, which now revolve around the written word, would be unrecognizable. In the modern world, especially, you can’t really maneuver most daily tasks without reading. I wouldn’t be able to drive, because I couldn’t read a sign. I wouldn’t be able to grocery shop very well. I wouldn’t be able to follow a recipe.

I also would likely have a shorter life. As many studies have reported, better education is tied to longer lifespan, and literacy especially is important to good health. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/31/health/31cons.html).

But on an even deeper level, I wouldn’t be me without reading. I wouldn’t know about the world outside my neighborhood, I wouldn’t have the fuel for all the thoughts and dreams that have shaped my life.

This, most of all, is why in primitive societies, both in the past and now, female literacy is so dangerous. Reading makes you ask questions. It gives you ideas; it expands the realm of the possible. Reading is power.

No wonder people kill and die for it. I thank God every day I was born into the richness of a culture where literacy is a given. I pray for a day when my next what if comes true: what if everyone could read? The world, I think, would be a nicer place.

Cross Country, part 1

Roswell NM

Roswell NM (Photo credit: Glamour Schatz)

This past summer, I had the rare privilege of traveling cross country along with my husband. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll call him Superman, because, well, he’s super and he’s a man, and because as a child he tried to jump out a window to see if he could fly. (Lucky for me, his mother caught him at it.)

Superman has, of course, superhuman strength, which in this case translated into being able to drive 1200 miles in 24 hours, from Phoenix, Arizona to San Antonio, Texas. I gave him a couple hours off, somewhere in New Mexico and then again in Texas (my gosh that state is big!), but basically I got to look out the window and make conversation, which is really the best part of any driving trip. We were driving from Arizona back to our home state of Maryland, to help my sister and her family move back east. (Our part, after helping pack boxes, was to drive the car.)

Our first major stop was in Roswell, New Mexico, home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center. I wanted to go there for the fun of it, because I’ve read so much science fiction in my life. It turned out to be every bit as strange as it sounds, though a lot smaller than I’d imagined. The museum itself actually had rubber aliens, lots of newspaper articles on the mysterious “Roswell incident” of 1947, and yellowing articles profiling people who said they’d been abducted by aliens. I did wonder at the couple, supposedly abducted by aliens in the 60s and subjected to painful tests, smilingly posing with alien manikins. And then there were the “how to tell if you’ve been abducted” tests and the instructions for “what to do of you see a UFO” which of course included contact info for the museum, which also bills itself as a research center.

The day we stopped in Roswell it was a quiet August Sunday with not much going on, and the place seemed much like any other small desert town off the highway – gas stations, one strip of Main Street, and little else. But I think Roswell must see more traffic than most, at least sometimes. As we drove in, we passed a small house with a large yard, filled with what some people might call household goods, and my mother would just call junk. By far the most prominent thing in there was a huge homemade sign painted with the words STAY OUT. I wasn’t sure if they were talking to the tourists or the aliens.


Usain Bolt in celebration about 1 or 2 seconds...

Usain Bolt in celebration about 1 or 2 seconds after his 100m victory at Beijing Olympics 2008, breaking the world record. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about the value of professional coaching. Written by a surgeon who wondered why more people in his profession didn’t employ coaches to help them keep honing their skills, he described two discrete attitudes about training: one found in sports, another in music. We expect athletes to have coaches because the understanding is that to sustain high athletic performance, you need someone who keeps you at your best. On the other hand, here’s what the author, Atul Gawande, says about how musicians train:

“The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself. This is how élite musicians are taught. Barbara Lourie Sand’s book “Teaching Genius” describes the methods of the legendary Juilliard violin instructor Dorothy DeLay. DeLay was a Perkins-like figure who trained an amazing roster of late-twentieth-century virtuosos, including Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, Midori, and Sarah Chang. They came to the Juilliard School at a young age—usually after they’d demonstrated talent but reached the limits of what local teachers could offer. They studied with DeLay for a number of years, and then they graduated, launched like ships leaving drydock. She saw her role as preparing them to make their way without her.”

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande#ixzz29TNw7RsL

Now, as a writer, I see the benefits of coaching every day. Not only do I rely on a small group of colleagues to help me “hear myself” better, but there is of course my wonderful editor, who offers another great model of professional coaching. But what this article actually made me think of first was parenting, and whether it’s more of a coaching-style role, or, as with musicians, a launching effort, where you get in all the training you can for a precious few years, and then your little birds fly.

It seems to me that American society has a prejudice toward the musician style of training for parents. I’m always reading one article or another about kids who fail to launch, with some vague sense of blame for their overindulgent parents. But as I prepare for the wedding of my son this summer, I’ve been thinking about this question – what is the role of a parent of adults?

My parents were definitely coaches. Though my father died ten years ago, I still think of some of the best advice he gave me, long after I was married and raising kids of my own. It still works. As for my mother, who lives close by, I’ll refer to her here as the Wise Admiral, because she’s wise, obviously, but also because she’s always known how to run a tight ship. She continues to be a font of very practical coaching for me as a parent and as a human being. The crucial thing about good coaching is, you know when to step back. As my editor said to me recently – in the end, it’s your story.

In the end, each person writes his or her own story. But that doesn’t mean that when you hit eighteen, or go off to college, or graduate, or get married, it has to just be: well kid, it’s been swell. Goodbye and good luck.

We can all benefit from a couple good coaches in our lives.