Friday, November 19, 2010

I Found My Tree

During a television interview Barbara Walters once asked Katharine Hepburn the infamous question "If you were a tree, what kind you be?"  It immediately became fodder for comedians everywhere and spawned an entire industry of Barbara Walters imitators. But it didn't end there. People took the question quite seriously. I even know someone who was asked about her inner tree at a job interview. (Here's some trivia: the great KH answered it by saying she wanted to be an oak, because they were "strong and pretty".)
There's no bad answer. Oaks are strong. Willows are graceful. Pine trees are majestic.You can't go wrong with any of them.
I've never given this question much consideration. But yesterday while I was driving to work, I saw a tree in one of those parking lot gardens next to the local WaWa convenience store and thought "that is so totally me."
There it was, all decked out in its fall color, a beautiful orange red, totally oblivious to the fact that in this part of the country all of the other trees had done this weeks ago. Oh sure, there are a few stubborn leaves clinging to some branches, but that flurry of color is over. All those reds, golds, yellows and oranges have come and gone.
 I think there's a hot, sticky day in August when everything changes. Even though it's 101 degrees outside and you're busy planning a picnic at the beach, there's something in the air that makes you want to move on. You start saying things like, "Summer will be over soon." The trees feel it too. If you listen, you can hear them nod.
Except of course for that tree in front of the WaWa. Somehow it didn't get the message. So now while the other trees are going into their slumber mode, this one has its red dress on and is ready to party. And next spring when they're all showing off their pretty yellow buds, WaWa tree will hold tight to its silvery winter look.
And that's the way it will remain. The other trees will move on, slipping into different seasons as fast as a runway model changes outfits. And my tree will always be a few leaf changes behind.
Don't feel sorry for it, though. It will find its own rhythm. Some of us just like to linger.

photo by Petr Kratochv

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Are we who we once were?

In grad school I met a scholar who told me that he could predict a person's academic and social success by their kindergarten interview. "It only takes a few minutes. We ask the five-year-old questions, evaluate their problem-solving skills and rank them. We can tell how well they'll do in life by how well they do on our test."
We were having a conversation before a class so it's not like I had a lot of time to probe, but I did manage to ask a few questions.
"So how do you know what happens to them?"
"We follow them through school. We interview them again in high school."
"Only a few kids, right? Maybe it's just the children you're interviewing?"
"It's a huge, multi-year study."
"And there are no surprises?  No one does better or worse than expected?"
He folded his arms. "Sorry. It's a pretty good indicator."
I didn't pay much attention in class that day. Instead, I spent my time trying to get my head around what this study meant.  Are we destined to be that person we were at the age of five for the rest of our lives?
That thought depresses me. I hate thinking that who we are is predetermined by some genetic roll of the dice or some early environmental factors that we have absolutely no control over. If that study is true, then it doesn't give much hope in our ability to change and shape our own lives. And what does it say about the literature we read and about the books we write?
Is that why we're drawn to stories? Because book characters make discoveries about themselves and the world around them and have the ability to grow and change while we are destined to be the person we always were? If that's the case, then it redefines the word "fiction" in a whole new way.
The reason I've been thinking about this stuff is because thanks to Facebook, I've been reconnecting with old friends. I'm happy to say they prove that study wrong. Sure, there are things about them that remind me of the teenagers (or children) they once were. And with some, I bet if we met again in person, we'd have that wonderful feeling of thinking that no time passed at all. Have you ever had met an old friend and picked up the conversation exactly where you left off all those years ago?
But I can see changes too. So forget the stupid studies. Of course, people grow and change in surprising ways.
And yet, it has me thinking. How much of that five-year-old is left inside us? And how much have we left behind?