The front of the house


There’s not much blooming yet (although the roses in the back yard are opening up more each day) but what’s there looks sort of pretty in the evening light.

I walked two miles this morning on my way to work — I had to stop by the pharmacy, mail a letter, return a library book, stop by another pharmacy when I remembered what I had forgotten. It was pleasant. The air was cool, the light was pretty and it gave me time to think.

I find myself thinking about how people end up connecting with the world, or doing something in the world. I’m sure I’m thinking about this because N is graduating. And as she is graduating, and starting to do something in the world, I’m not that far from retiring. Have I really done what I wanted to do? If I were to write a book, it would be about houses, and how people live in them. But other people take on much larger topics.

I read an article yesterday about Elizabeth Spelke in the New York Times yesterday. It was in the Science section, which I love. She is a cognitive psychologist who studies babies. According to her colleague Stephen Pinker, “She is trying to identify the bedrock categories of human knowledge. She is asking, ‘What is number, space, agency, and how does knowledge in each category develop from its minimal state?” It’s a really interesting question, and some of the answers she’s found are interesting, too. Apparently, babies above all care that people who take care of them speak the same language, and even better if they speak it with the accent babies know. But another thing I also found interesting about this article was that pictures were of her as a family person — beautiful pictures of Dr Spelke as a child with her mother, pictures of Dr Spelke’s daughter as a child and as a medical student in Africa — and that we found that Dr Spelke felt guilty that her mother gave up a career as a pianist to take care of her, and that we hear about how she raised her children:

When her children were young, Dr. Spelke often took them to the lab or held meetings at home. The whole family traveled together — France, Spain, Sweden, Egypt, Turkey — never reserving lodgings but finding accommodations as they could. (The best, Dr. Blass said, was a casbah in the Moroccan desert.)

Scaling the academic ranks, Dr. Spelke still found time to supplement her children’s public school education with a home-schooled version of the rigorous French curriculum. She baked their birthday cakes from scratch, staged elaborate treasure hunts and spent many days each year creating their Halloween costumes: Bridget as a cave girl or her favorite ballet bird; her younger brother, Joey, as a drawbridge.

It’s such an odd thing. We’re interested in her because of her public life, and is it appropriate that we hear so much about her private life? There is, for instance, no picture of her lab. But I confess, I am interested in how she lives her life. Spelke’s daughter says, “My mother is absolutely brilliant, not just in science, but in everything. . . Growing up in my house was a constant adventure,” Bridget said. “As a new mother myself,” she added, “I don’t know how my mom did it.”

It’s part of a series of Profiles in Science, and I confess that I don’t know if they’re all so intertwined. I guess what I am interested in here is how people, and specifically women, make their way in the world.



5 thoughts on “The front of the house

  1. If the front of the house is what you show, a look at the back of the house could be revealing. I made cakes and icing from scratch until my first child’s fourth birthday, when the icing kept caving in the cake. I think I made two cakes before caving in myself. Since then, I use the bought kind of icing that comes in a can.

  2. I’m always interested in that. I love to know how people live their lives. And I love to bake cakes from scratch. I don’t sew costumes or plan elaborate parties but I suppose if I had those skills, I’d find time for them too. I admire her adventurous spirit. I’m too much of a planner to ever be able to just….go and assume something will turn up, accomodation-wise. I think much of this has to do with temperment and personality.

  3. I particularly loved this part of the Spelke profile: “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!”

    And this: “I don’t place much faith in my intuitions, except as a starting place for designing experiments.”

    I wonder if it’s not facts that makes it harder to study adult brains, but rather adult intuitions and assumptions and our abilities to articulate them, and obsess about them, and hold onto them even when confronted with information that debunks or disproves their validity and/or usefulness.

    My wife is working on a grant proposal to get funding for her sabbatical next year. The topic of the proposal is “What will make your heart sing?” For long stretches of time in my young adulthood, stretching into middle age, the things I did that made my heart sing were mostly walled off from my professional life. I wonder, but I don’t know, if some of that had to do with how long it took me to figure out–and then become comfortable with–the fact that I was queer.

    Now that I’m in my 50s, everything is intertwining in magical, marvelous ways, and I feel like my heart is not only singing, it’s on fire. Or, to tie back to your post, I’m all abloom. Just the other day I realized how incredibly lucky I am to have lived long enough to find myself in the midst of Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation: the place where my deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. I didn’t even think it was possible until a couple of years ago. Which just goes to show that slow and steady can work just fine, as long as you’re not so slow that you get run over when you jaywalk. (:

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