Lots and lots of people watched a YouTube video yesterday of a young child’s trip down a tricky mountain bike trail.  The camera is attached to the rider’s helmet, so the viewer gets to experience the ride with him.

The whole thing made me a bit uneasy at first, mostly because I’m not much of a risk-taker and I wouldn’t have wanted to ride a bike down that trail myself.  It didn’t seem safe and I was concerned.  I got over that after a few seconds when I realized that the rider is very skilled and probably wasn’t in much more danger than I am when I ride around on streets with zero grade.  (Actually he’s probably safer, given the absence of cars and drivers.)

Once I got over that I could enjoy his enjoyment of the ride.  I think much of the appeal of the footage lies in the tone and articulation of his commentary; he’s still getting some of his consonant articulations worked out, so his expressions of the large emotions he has over the course of the ride are especially endearing.

But for me the most striking thing about the soundtrack is the quality of attention in his voice and his breath.  Behind the young exclamations it’s possible to hear the thrum of vitality, as he calls on everything he’s learned about moving his weight in concert with his bike, regulating velocity, negotiating turns and terrain.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a treacherous trip down a mountain to call forth that kind of aliveness.  It’s not the ride itself that inspired the quality of this child’s commentary.  It’s his relationship with the riding. He’s been practicing, studying the skill and performance of his dad and others, in order to be able to do a thing that delights him. Everyone has a thing they can be like this about.  At least one.

Thanks for the reminder, Malcolm.

Not just about the math

Paul Lockhart has a new book out.  The title (Measurement) will likely strike dread in the hearts of those who despise mathematics for one reason or another, but I mention the event not for the math but for the potential contagion of Lockhart’s delight in his work. He’s made a short video to accompany the release of Measurement. Even if you want nothing to do with the math, you may find that the way Lockhart is about it inspires and reinvigorates – that he reminds you of what you care most about and why you care about it.

Also, though, if you are looking for a gentle invitation into the world of numbers, shapes, patterns, and mathematical happening and inquiry (whether for your own sake or that of your young), you won’t likely find anyone more eager to hold the door open for you than Lockhart.  He knows we won’t all love math the way he does, but he sees room in it for everyone who comes inquiring after it.  No matter how many times they’ve been otherwise told they’re not welcome and don’t have what it takes.


“One of Tetzlaff’s most striking technical gifts is an ability to project extremely soft sounds in a large hall; it’s like whispering in a way so that two thousand people can still hear you.” (from Jeremy Eichler’s profile of violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff)

I spent part of yesterday afternoon with a pair of siblings who reminded me how different the likes of vitality and engagement can look on two people.  These siblings are close in age, and spend much of their daily lives together, immersed in the things that mean and matter the most to them. Their days are full of physical and intellectual activity, of participation in the upkeep of their home and the feeding of their family and neighbors. It’s clear that they’re fully and eagerly engaged, but they wear it two entirely different ways. The one is often exclaiming and grinning, the pleasure or victory of a task written plainly and unmistakably on her face.  The other’s contentment lights him up more subtly, though he seems no less delighted and peaceful in his work.

I’ve always found vitality difficult to describe, but fairly easy to recognize.  What I realized yesterday is that if I’m too attached to my know-it-when-I-see-it notions of what it looks like, I might miss it.  The same is true of the absence of vitality – where resignation and lethargy live.  All are worth watching for, and worth being careful to hone our understanding of.  Even if children aren’t making a fuss, aren’t actively resisting or locking horns with us about the content of their lives, there may well be more available to them in the way of fulfillment and engagement.

I guess there’s more than one way to be pretty much any particular thing.  Being around these two children reminded me of that, and of how much inspiration is available in vitality however it comes – in big audible grins or in bright, whispering, eyes.

Trees and arborists

A pair of arborists spent the day on my street working on an enormous old tree.  There were ropes, harnesses, helmets, assorted saws and other tools involved.  There were also spectators, ranging in age from 2 1/2 to 98.

I’m not sure exactly what the allure was for my various neighbors, but what kept me watching throughout the day from my desk was that these two moved around, up and down the trunk of the tree, in amongst the trimmed branches, on and off the truck bed with vitality.  I realized that it’s not very often that I see vitality on people in the context of their work.

I was reminded of the one thing that stayed with me from my high school biology class. At the very beginning, we were charged with coming up with a way to describe the difference between things that are alive and things that are not.  There was a definition our teacher was after, which few of us arrived at, but we all discovered that the identifying features of life are tricky to articulate.  I found myself in a similar inquiry this afternoon as I watched the tree folks at work.  What was it that made them seem so alive, so much more alive than many of us seem most of the time?  Was it the way they were moving?  The way they were moving in relation to each other, and to other things?  The expressions on their faces?  The tone of their voices?

I eventually found myself thinking that maybe vitality is one of those things that eludes description.  You just know it when you see it.

It’s also certainly something we could use an awful lot more of.

The arborists finished their day at 8:00 as dark descended, twelve and a half hours after they arrived.  As the trucks pulled away I wondered what might change if we put as much emphasis on preparing kids for lives of vitality as we strive to prepare them for lives of employability.  What would it mean for our collective physical, emotional, and intellectual health?

And might it actually lay a more sustainable generative groundwork for the outcomes – things like happiness, safety, health, comfort – that inspire our commitment to employability?

Built in

There’s a pair of kids in my neighborhood I probably wouldn’t recognize without their bike helmets.  Whenever I see them they’re on wheels – scooters, bikes, skateboards, Ripstiks.

There’s a pattern in the way they use the equipment at hand.  When it’s new or recently borrowed, they ride it around in front of their houses, getting acquainted with it and its basic functionality.  Then they ride to the end of the street and back a bunch of times.

Once they’ve got the hang of transport, they start looking for other ways to use their wheels.  One day I walked by and one of them was balanced on his scooter handlebars in a plank position, angled such that the scooter was still able to move without tipping over.  Another day there was a pile of loose stone in the street for a construction event and they were out on their bikes experimenting with the speed and rider position required to skim up and over the pile without getting lodged in the top layer of stone.

No one tells these kids to be creative, to challenge themselves. They just do it.  It’s built in, this drive to raise the level of one’s craft.  It’s expressed differently in different people – might be drawing, talking, writing, building, organizing, inventing, snowboarding, researching, cooking – but it’s a built-in feature.  A tremendously valuable and potent feature that’s often overlooked and undermined in the name of education.