Chickens and Eggs


Courtesy, “hand writing science formulas” by Mr. Lightman


Sometimes it feels like Plato and Aristotle are sitting at my kitchen table, arguing. This happens because where my kids used to bicker over who elbowed whom in the back seat of the car, as they’ve grown up they’ve moved on to better things – debates over ideas. And I have to say that while the squabbling in the back seat used to make me want to scream, the disputations that happen at the kitchen table leave me thinking. Here’s a case in point: the other day, the Rocket Scientist and the Conductor got into an epic talk about whether math is only a product of the human mind, or whether it has some reality in the world. The Rocket Scientist maintained that math is the name we give to things – amounts, shapes – and that, as such, it’s only a human construct. We see a tree outside, and connect the lines of its branches to other lines we see (the horizon, for instance), and come up with this idea we call a line. We see things and call them squares, even though no perfect square exists in the world. Meanwhile, the Conductor argued back that math grows out of physics – things exist in the world, we see them, and so we name them. Therefore, there’s a line because lines exist in the world, we see a bunch of them that look very similar to each other, and the idea of lines is born. To put the question another way, does the abstract grow out of the concrete, or do we pull the abstract out of nothing and lay it over the world we see? Sometimes These are chicken and egg questions that are just interesting to think about, and have been throughout time. As usual, I don’t think about them in terms of math and physics, but in terms of people and the telling of stories. The questions are equally tough in that realm, though, because while you often see that people tell themselves stories about what should be, or what the world is like, and then build their real, lived lives around that made-up story, you’ll just as often see stories that grow out of life. A person will experience kindness or cruelty, and go on to tell stories of the same. This gets writ large all over history – we tell ourselves that the king is born to be petted and obeyed and the serf is born to be abused and commanded, and then we make that story true by making sure everybody lives that way. And yet, that’s not the only way it happens. For a thousand reasons some other idea might develop – the concept that we human beings have inalienable rights, for example – and it works its way in, eventually changing the story for everyone. Chicken and egg, math and physics, reality and story. Is it a seesaw, or does one always lead to the other? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to think about. 

Words Carrying Stories


Courtesy, “alphabet in the ball” by Vlado.

Recently looked into my old blog again, and found this post on the origins of language: 

Last year I took a trip to St. Mary’s City, the original capital city of Maryland. It’s a great place where re-enactors dress up as 17th century Marylanders, living as they did when St. Mary’s was the hub of activity in colonial Maryland.  One of the main attractions, besides the Indian village and the Maryland Dove, the merchant ship at St. Mary’s dock, was the printer’s house, where the town’s newspaper was printed. The volunteer there showed us how the printer’s letter blocks were set in two cases – capital letters in the upper case, and non-capital letters in the lower case. This is the origin of the words uppercase and lowercase in English. We no longer see the “case” in our mind’s eye, but it was there once. Countless words grew out of physical realities we have long forgotten. We don’t think of newspaper correspondents as writing letters, but in the nineteenth century, that’s exactly what they did. The famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” came from a letter written to the New York Herald by its correspondent in Africa, Mr. Henry Stanley. His newspaper reports from Central Africa were introduced with the following telegram from the London correspondent in July of 1872: “It is with the deepest emotions of pride and pleasure that I announce the arrival this day of letters from Mr. Stanley, Chief of the Herald Exploring Expedition to Central Africa. I have forwarded the letters by mail.” Sometimes it’s nice to realize how much language tells stories, down into the words themselves.

Well, that last year I referred to is a long time ago now, but it’s funny how much all of these old entries still speak to me. The way words wrap up history and culture inside them has always been a fascination. Letters, too, have histories. For example, the letter z was imported into English from French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and the name “zed” – used in Britain to describe the letter – is thought to come from the Hebrew word for weapon, because the letter shape: ז looks like a weapon. Interesting, isn’t it? 



Courtesy, Tree Silhouette On Book by KROMKRATHOG

Last week after my post “a single word” I got the most wonderful comment, asking me to explore how much people need connection and how to develop empathy in people who don’t have enough of it. It all came from the power of the word “alone” which evoked such a response in the kids I was talking to.

We human beings need each other. That’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. That word – alone — evokes so much pain when we think of someone left behind, unable to find comfort and company. And yet it’s true, for all we want other people, sometimes we don’t understand them very much. It would be nice if everyone grew up in a loving family, with friends and neighbors who shared the ups and downs of life with them. After all, we’re communal creatures, and even our smiles are contagious to each other. 

Of course, the strong social networks that seem to produce healthier people are not a given for too many, and so we have this problem of alone. Other words figure in too – alienated, selfish, cold, angry.

Judging from all the studies going on, I know there are quite a few brilliant people working on all sorts of levels to counter this kind of painful disconnection. My small part is to write stories. I’ve always believed that stories are one of the best ways to teach empathy. By their very nature, stories make you live someone else’s reality. Recently, science has even begun to back this idea up — the most fascinating studies have been done to show that, when reading a good novel, a person’s brain reacts as though he or she were experiencing the events. Even more, reading literary fiction has been shown to actually teach empathy, because the characters are psychologically complex and the reader becomes a partner in imagining their internal realities. 

In that class last week, talking to the third graders about stories, I asked them what stories were for. The answer that came out of all the detailed responses was basic and profound: stories make us feel things and know things. They let us step outside ourselves into someone else. So my personal response to the question of how to build empathy in other people is first the most basic: reach out to them, welcome them, offer them kindness and aid, so they know what that feels like. (As both a parent and a teacher, I have always been a huge fan of modeling.) And then, dig down into life, think about the intricate world that is each human being, and write it down.

Tell stories. 

Cupcakes and Storytelling

Image courtesy of piyato /"

Image courtesy of piyato /”

Last week my niece, who is in second grade, told her teacher that her aunt is a writer, whereupon her teacher wrote to ask if I would mind coming in to talk to the class. I said I’d love to, but was a little stumped as to what to talk about, since Zebra Forest is not exactly right for second graders, given some of its darker themes. So she asked me to just talk about what it’s like being a writer.

What’s it’s like being a writer. Well, that’s a huge subject, and one I could probably talk about for a month at least, but for second graders, I decided it would be better to talk about what you do as a writer, since that’s at least more concrete and won’t likely bring me to tears of joy and gratitude (not appropriate for a second grade classroom).

First thing I did, though, was pass out cupcakes, because when I looked at the calendar, I realized I was coming in on my niece’s eighth birthday. For me, this was a most happy coincidence, and one that also made the kids especially receptive to my talk, since who doesn’t like cupcakes?

When the cupcake eating was done, I started by asking the class what makes up a story. I got one really great response to the question, when a girl said: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Yes, definitely!

I also got some answers that spoke more to the writing process than to the content of the story, for example, the kid who said: Brainstorming and editing. (This one was on a poster on the wall, and clearly something their teacher had been stressing, which was nice to see.)

But what I was getting at, and what eventually we talked about, was that a story will have a character and a plot. They knew the word character, not plot, but one person did offer that a story needed to have a problem, which I loved, and which is exactly right. Finally, we talked about how writers use the five senses to bring the story to life. We started out by coming up with a character – a girl named Sarah – and a setting – a farm. Then we began with the sentence “Sarah got up in the morning and went to milk the cows.”

From there, I had them embroider that little bit of narration with what Sarah might have seen in the barn. They came up with a red cow with a sore leg, a horse sleeping in a stall, and a bunch of chickens and their six new eggs.

And so the scene took on something:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame. The old horse still slept in his stall, and she shooed the chickens away to find they had laid six new eggs, bright as pebbles.

Next the kids thought about what she might have heard in that barn. They had a great list:

The cow mooing;

The horse snoring;

The chickens clucking.

So the scene changed again:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and as she shooed the chickens away, they clucked and scattered, revealing six newly laid eggs, bright as pebbles.

From there, of course, we needed to know what Sarah might have smelled, touched, or even tasted. When we’d gathered those bits, we ended with this:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and breathed in the scent of fresh hay and old food, the stinky-sweet combination of the pig sty and the barn. She saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and the chickens clucked as she shooed them away, scattering to reveal six new eggs, bright as pebbles. She sat down, fingering the rusty handle of the milk pail. Soon enough, the milk splashed, and she stuck her tongue out to catch a few drops of the warm, sweet spray.

We talked, then, about the difference between a scene like this, packed with the five senses, and our first sentence, which got us into the subject of the old writer’s rule: show, don’t tell. When you show, you feel like you’re in Sarah’s story, experiencing it with her. Of course, you can’t always show. There’s a place for telling, and I asked them what would happen if we decided to do this for every moment of Sarah’s story. What if she were going to go across the country to attend school in the city, where she’d meet a bunch of new friends. Would we want to feel her walking out of the barn, getting ready, going to the train station, buying her ticket, sitting on the train, looking out the window, arriving . . . . Well, no. That would get long and boring. And so the kids began to understand that wonderful balance of scene and narration that makes up a story.

After that, we had questions, some of which were great, including this one:

Do you eat sweet things to get you to think sweet thoughts?

Well . . . I definitely eat sweet things. Let’s leave it at that.

And finally, at the end of the week, my niece arrived with a packet of thank you notes and drawings for me. They were all spectacular, but here’s my favorite line:

“Dear Mrs. Gewirtz, Thank you for the visit. . . . I wish you could visit again. With more cupcakes.”