Yesterday morning I sat in the waiting room of the clinic where I have my annual medical exams. Something had changed since my last visit: a huge black television monitor occupied one wall, with the channel tuned to CNN.
It was impossible to ignore; the small waiting room had been turned into a screening room, where even patients who didn't want to watch were forced to listen. In the space of just a few minutes, I heard commentators speculate that this might be the day that North Korea decided to launch a missle. I heard reports of a new, deadly strain of bird flu in China, and an outbreak of meningitis among gay men in Los Angeles. There was discouraging discussion about the gun control bill, and a story that parents in Japan are starting to refuse to allow their children to come to the U.S. for university study, because of a perception that the country is becoming too dangerous.
A white-coated tecnician came into the room to get a cup of coffee just as the meningitis story was playing; the screen showed large electron-micrographs as the journalist's voice intoned the latest statistics. Oh dear, said the man, turning to me with a dismayed look on his face. He stood for a few minutes, riveted to the screen, and then walked out the door to begin his day.
My doctor came to the door and called my name; I was glad to escape. But during the morning I had to come back to the waiting room several times, between visits to the nurse for blood work, an EKG, and various other appointments. Each time, I watched the behavior of the other people in the room, all of whom would turn to face the TV, shaking their heads at each grim, frightening story. Last year, most of them were absorbed in their cell phones. I looked for a magazine or newspaper; unlike former visits, this time there was only one, an old issue of Vanity Fair; instead I pulled a book out of my pack, but it was very difficult to concentrate on the words.
Finally I turned to one of the other women and said, "I'm American, and really, this is part of what I came to Canada to escape."
As it turned out, she was originally American too, from North Carolina, but we had a pretty different take on things. She was conservative, I more liberal. While I objected to being force-fed anxiety by inflammatory stories in the media, she insisted it was "important to be informed." "I'm really worried when I go to the U.S. now," she said. "If I go to a shopping center across the border I really look around me at the people; it seems like anything could happen. Everyone has guns." Well, yes, I agreed, many people do, and I think that's a big problem. But you have to look at the statistics as well; your chance of being killed in a Wal-Mart in Burlington, Vermont, is not extremely high.
We both finished our appointments and went home, where in the afternoon we learned what had happened in Boston, and the cycle of horror, speculation, analysis, and fear began spinning all over again.
I don't want to add yet another voice to that sad and mostly-well-meant cacophony. I've spent many days of my life in Boston, and my heart goes out to the people of that city. If there is something concrete I can do to help, I will do it.
What I've been thinking about is the television in the waiting room, a Canadian waiting room, that once was a quiet place where people read, or talked to a companion, or even simply sat and looked out the window. Its presence seems to me an ominous symbol of something that has gone very wrong in most western societies: our inability to be with ourselves, to cope with the essential human condition of solitude, especially in situations that cause our anxiety to rise. It concerns me that, in our secular, post-liberal-arts, technological, perpetually-connected society, so little effort goes into teaching children how to be alone, showing them the richness and solace of time spent with nature, with the arts and handcrafts, with books and music, with oneself walking in a city or sitting on a bench: eyes open, ears open, mind and heart awake to the dance of life flowing around us.
When I return to the United States, as I did just last week, I'm always struck by the palpable level of general anxiety, so much greater than it is here in Quebec. But is that anxiety, and the corresponding reactiveness -- even in the wake of tragedies such as have been experienced in the past decade -- justified? In today's New York Times, University of Maryland criminologist Gary LaFree states, “I think people are actually surprised when they learn that there’s been a steady decline in terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 1970.” Speaking of both domestic and foreign plots, he noted that there were approximately 40 percent fewer attacks in America during the ten years after 9/11 than there had been in the previous decade. (LaFree is director of the highly-regarded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which studies terrorism and keep a Global Terrorism Database. He adds a note that nearly half the worldwide attacks, and 1/3 of those in the U.S., have never been solved.)
However, I think the media bears a large responsibility for fanning the flames of American anxiety. Supposed neutral channels like CNN feed viewers an endless diet of anxiety-producing stories, while the left and right square off in loud, combative talk shows and news hours, each side trying to out-shout the other. Television is a very powerful medium. Is it any wonder that so many people feel under attack, vulnerable, and constantly anxious, worrying about what is going to happen to them or to their loved ones? It it any wonder that they feel like the entire world is taking sides, at war, that it's us-against-them, myself against the potential unknown assalilant, intruder, terrorist, crazy person lurking in every community? Furthermore, we know that violence begets violence, that copycat crimes proliferate, and that what a lot of perpetrators want the most is publicity.
If the U.S. wants to worry about drugs and terrorism slipping across its porous northern border, then I am concerned about the insidious infiltration of this kind of secular preaching, these incessant sermons of anxiety and fear originating from the south. And much more than that, I wonder if those of us who have chosen to live our lives differently can perhaps be more vocal and intentional about why, and how. The world has always been dangerous for a vast majority of its citizens, but we in the west have been able to ignore that too long. Living positively, with awareness and joy in each day -- in spite of the possibility of death, which can and does happen anywhere, anytime -- is actually possible, as our brothers and sisters in war-torn, poverty-ravaged societies can teach us. And to look closer to home on this sad day: who knows better the fullness of solitude, or the potential triumph of the human spirit, than the long-distance runner?
Wednesday night we went to an event I'd been anticipating for weeks: violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the MSO. Mutter, a former child prodigy, now in her mid-40s, is one of only a handful of top-flight violin soloists in the world, but it seems as if she's as well-known for her long hair and signature strapless gowns as for her virtuosic playing. I heard her play once before, maybe ten years ago, in a much more intimate concert of violin sonatas that moved me a great deal; her recent recordings of Mozart have been flawless, but I wasn't sure what to expect last night.
I certainly didn't expect to be blown away by her playing, but that's what happened.
The form-fitting mermaid-like outfit (she wore the CD-cover dress the first night, a blue-grey one the second) was beautiful but ceased to be a distraction after the first few bars, when it became all about the music. The concentration and intensity she brought to the performance was captured in the photo La Presse ran with its review, but that's all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that she's been touring all over Europe and America this season, playing this same piece over and over. The ability to be "on" and give 110% night after night has to be one thing that separates the top performers from the next-lower tier of simply exceptional players. Of course, everyone has "off" nights, or "just so-so" nights. I've heard a number of acclaimed soloists perform and not been touched or excited at all - the performance here by Hilary Hahn last year was one of those; I also felt very lukewarm about a performance by Emmanuel Ax; by contrast I've heard some fantastic performances by young and unknown musicians. But the point is that you can't sustain a concert career at Mutter's level and not give extraordinary performances continually and reliably.
Sitting between my husband and my dear friend Jon, a composer and professional musician, I was spellbound, not only by the lightening tempi she chose for the first and third movements, but by the range of emotion and tone she brought forth from her instrument - undoubtedly one of the two Stradivarius violins she owns. The orchestra played very well too; Mutter hadn't been in Montreal for 20 years, and I hope she enjoyed the warmth of the audience's appreciation.
Later the three of us were talking about Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, and his "10,000 hour rule" - that in order to master a field, people have to have practiced it for 10,000 hours. Noodling around the web for other people's takes on this idea, I see that the rule works out to 24 hours a day for a year and 3 months (think of new parents); 8 hours every single day for three years and a half; or 3 hours of daily practice - 21 hours a week - for 10 years.
As you might expect, I'm skeptical: it's a catchy idea that sells books and creates good fodder for blog discussion, but so much depends on how we define "mastery", and on the individual combinations of quality instruction, inherent talent, personal discipline (all practice hours are not equal), the level of feedback one receives...and on and on. There's no way that every aspiring violinist can become an Anne-Sophie Mutter on 3 hours a day for 10 years, and plenty of people who've put in that level of effort only to become highly-accomplished amateurs.
But I do think Gladwell makes a good point about the investment of time that's required to become good at anything. Thinking back over my own life, I decided I've certainly put in 10,000 hours or more of musical practice during the 50 years between age 5 and 55, but they've been split over choral singing, piano, flute, and voice training -- which has made me into a good, skilled, all-around amateur, but not nearly at the level of accomplishment or ease as people who've concentrated one discipline only and made it their life's focus. The most progress I ever made in music was during a period of four years, as an adult, when I was taking lessons from a very good teacher and practicing an hour every day: but that's only 1,440 hours. By contrast, my college roommate, a highly-accomplished piano major, practiced more like 4-5 hours every day during the four years of university - 7,200 hours - and that followed many years of long daily practice. It's a pretty big difference.
In other areas of my life, the most sustained effort has certainly been in my profession of graphic design. In writing, starting from a fairly skilled level, I began writing much more seriously at age 40 and told myself it would take ten years of daily disciplined effort to be good at it. That turned out to be just about exactly right, though of course, in writing as in any art, you never "arrive" at a fixed point and stop there.
What about your life: where have you put in the most effort, the greatest number of hours? Do you agree with Gladwell's "rule?"
(I realize, amusingly, that one of the things I do best, and most easily, is cook. (Let's call it 350 days per year, 2 hours per day, for 35 years - a mere 25,200 hours!)
I admired Mutter's playing tremendously, and have some sense of what it has taken for her to achieve this, but I also realize it comes at a very high price. My friend Jon remarked, after the concert, "This is probably not very much fun for her," going on to describe the travel, the demands on her time, the social obligations, the fatigue, the repetition: he knows. We see the glamour and the fame, but she was a prodigy who stopped going to school at 13 and never had a normal childhood, went on to rapid stardom, international touring and recording; had two children, lost her first husband early to cancer, and has recently divorced from Andre Previn, her much-older second husband...it's not a life most people would choose or even be able to handle. On the other hand, for those moments of intensity and peak performance, there is no substitute - and I think she must know she is giving people like me a great gift. How do you ever quantify such things?
My husband received this letter today:
(New readers who aren't familiar with the stories of my father-in-law posted here over the past few years will find them collected, in reverse chronological order, under the title "The Fig and the Orchid.")
Here's a guest post from my husband and partner, known to some of you through his photo website and to others as the "J." of this blog. Enjoy!
From the back room where I work the persistent chatter of voices was the first tipoff that something was happening, the second the deep-throated drum beat that came and went. Finally, after a couple of hours it dawned on me that these sounds were not a normal demonstration. I got up from my desk and walked to the front window.
I now am accustomed to seeing demonstrators marching down our street, but peering out I was still surprised. This was not the political manifestation, but a meta-demonstration fed by dozens and dozens of bright yellow school buses which ringed most of the periphery of the 100 hectare park. Many of the buses had hand-lettered placards identifying where the students were from, and from each bus issued a demonstration unit: students, flags, costumes, posters, drums – the raw tools of political dissent. Yearly (since 1970) this event is organized by Oxfam-Québec (far right column, "Marche 2/3 2008") and involves about 15,000 students. This year's theme was "Provoque l’onde de choc solidaire/Provoke a Shockwave of Solidarity." I decided that the work that had been keeping me to the back room wasn't that important after all and grabbed my camera.
Inside the park the day was actually winding down, and the marchers were heading back to their buses. Still there were several thousand high school students. I had a role to play as well: spectator! As groups would pass the posters and banners would snap towards me (the spectator!) As such I was the only element not in generous supply. The theme of the demonstration was equitable distribution for each person of the world economy, and the injustices of the current system. From my point of view I was intent on watching and couldn't help but notice many things, but especially the teachers embedded in each group. Marching too as demonstrators with their students, undifferentiated except for their age, it was they who were transmitting the precious genetic code of political engagement to their already receptive students.
The signs in the photo above read " Later is Too Late" and "To recycle is to Predict the Future."
Click on the photos for larger versions, and here's a viewer for more photos from the day.
My morning began (after checking email, of course!) with reading several articles about education. An editorial in the New York Times commemorates the 25th anniversary of the publication of "A Nation at Risk", the report of a national commission in response to “the widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.” I had forgotten about the report and what it found, except that - contrary to what the administration expected - it corroborated the public perception. What was interesting about today's article was the before/after discussion of one of the report's conclusions: that a strong educational system focussed on "the basics" would result in greater economic competitiveness. American educators back in 1981 were very concerned about being outstripped by the much higher-performing, rigorous Japanese and Korean school systems. But then the American economy improved, while the Asian economies began to falter:
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear that the link between educational excellence and economic security is not as simple as “A Nation at Risk” made it seem. By the mid-1980s, policymakers in Japan, South Korea and Singapore were already beginning to complain that their educational systems focused too much on rote learning and memorization. They continue to envy American schools because they teach creativity and the problem-solving skills critical to prospering in the global economy.
Indeed, a consensus seems to be emerging among educational experts around the world that American schools operate within the context of an enabling environment — an open economy, strong legal and banking systems, an entrepreneurial culture — conducive to economic progress.
To put it bluntly, American students may not know as much as their counterparts around the Pacific Rim, but our society allows them to make better use of what they do know. The question now is whether this historic advantage will suffice at a time when knowledge of math, science and technology is becoming increasingly critical. Maybe we need both the enabling environment and more rigor in these areas.
My question, on reading this, is much broader: should the purpose of an educational system even be economic competitiveness? Does it distress anyone besides me that this is stated so bluntly as a given fact? First, who benefits from such a goal, and how? Are we raising children who are capable of thinking about the effect of globalization, for instance, or children whose primary goal is to make as much money as possible; i.e., are we raising yet another generation of capitalist consumers, or world citizens? On the other hand, I know that many young people today are quite idealistic - where are those values coming from? And is it only my perception that, 25 years later, an even greater percentage of kids are falling through the cracks, both in terms of secondary education and access to higher education, due to racial inequality, poverty, troubled family environments and many other factors?
What do you think? And I wonder if Canadian readers see differences between the stated goals of education between the two countries. In Quebec, at least, the values of the society are quite different, and it's hard for me not to think some of this comes from the focus of education, as well as what children learn at home.