Journal

What Do Thomas Jefferson, Oscar Hammerstein II and My High School Chemistry Class Have in Common?

by | Apr 3, 2016 | Editorial

So what do Thomas Jefferson, Oscar Hammerstein II and my high school chemistry class have in common? As it turns out, something rather significant, though it took me many years to figure it out.

What on earth am I talking about? I’m talking about desks, standing desks to be precise. You see, all of these extremely talented people worked at desks that were of a height that required them to stand as they wrote. Not all great writers do so, of course, but quite a few did and do. Is there a reason for this, or is it just another one of those inexplicable idiosyncrasies of the creative process? And then there are those who do sit at a desk to work but report frequently getting up to pace, stretch or even go out to retrieve the mail. Are they merely procrastinating? Why is it that if I am at a loss for the next line of poetry or the transition to my next paragraph, I instinctively get up from my desk? I may take a short walk outside, get a glass of water or replace a book on the bookshelf. Is this procrastination? Mere distraction? And if distraction is the motivation, why is it that invariably when I return to my desk, the precise words that I needed just happen to spill out of my pen?

When I was in high school and had an essay to write, I would forego the desk in my room as well as the kitchen table and retreat to our finished basement. And there I would pace around in circles, stopping to write down sentences as they came to me. I thought this a little strange on my part, and was very glad to be holed up where no one else could bear witness. I could do other kinds of homework upstairs, but I instinctively found that stories and essays seemed to flow when I could walk my endless circles. I’m no Oscar Hammerstein II, but decades later when I read that he used to pace his courtyard in circles as he composed his immortal lyrics, I was fascinated. He also, of course, used a standup desk. What was going on here?

I have long found that new stories start coming to me on my morning walk, as do stanzas of poetry, one after another, so that sometimes I find myself cutting the walk short to head home and record it all. My new book, <em>Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey</em>, first began coming to me in snippets of rhymed poetry, day after day, on my walk.

What does any of this have to do with my high school chemistry class? Ah, well, I’m getting there. There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about the deleterious health effects of the basically sedentary lifestyle of the industrialized world. The idea of treadmill desks to combat obesity, heart disease and the like has been gaining traction for years. Then researchers started saying that walking promotes new connections between the brain cells. It makes the heart pump faster, circulating more blood and bringing more oxygen to the brain. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people claiming to think better on their feet, or that they do their best thinking while walking. The late Steve Jobs was famous for holding important business meetings on long walks, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also held walking meetings. The writer, poet, philosopher and great walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1851: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

But apparently it’s not just walking; even standing has an impact on creativity. New studies have been revealing that standing desks—no treadmill in sight—can benefit not just heart health but brain health. There is growing evidence that standing itself increases blood flow to the brain, improves the ability to focus, and may stimulate neural connectivity. In other words, standing versus sitting may allow the brain cells to connect in new ways, to let new ideas come to us, to let the words flow in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. That is because when we stand, we are not perfectly still. Our feet shift. Our legs move, however slightly, however unconsciously. And as the body moves, so the brain seems to move if you will, to open to new possibilities.

I do not pretend to understand the brain chemistry, and I’m sure I’m not unique among writers to have discovered the benefits of movement for our creative process, whether it be conscious or not. The scientific studies now coming out are a gratifying corroboration of what we instinctively know. And if these studies lead to greater creativity and productivity in the workplace, then that is a fine thing. But my hope is that one day this will filter into the classroom, and our understanding of the way students learn. Which brings me, finally, to high school chemistry.

A little background is in order. I was one of those students who was considered “good” in English and history, and I enjoyed those subjects immensely. But I was not at all good in math and science, and not surprisingly, I disliked those subjects immensely. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, et al were a form of torture to me. They were completely opaque and incomprehensible, and I twisted myself into knots trying to succeed in those classes. Not to mention that I was bored to tears. The same could be said for physics. Anything to do with numbers was my nemesis. Biology, which involved a great deal of reading and writing, wasn’t all that bad (other than the dissections, which made me ill.)

The odd exception to all of the above was chemistry. It certainly involved numbers, formulas, equations—plenty of math—and yet I rather enjoyed it. I understood it and did well in it without torturing myself. And I never knew why. Why was it that I “got” chemistry while all other such subjects were impossible for me? It wasn’t about the teacher. While I did have an excellent high school chemistry teacher, I was blessed to have gone to schools with excellent teachers all around. I knew, even at the time, that my math and science teachers were good. They really tried to help me and were as frustrated by my inability to “get” what they were teaching as I was. So what was different about chemistry?

The answer hit me only recently, like the proverbial ton of bricks, when I was reading about standing desks and the brain. You see, in school I sat at the same desks most students sit at—small desks with chairs that barely fit underneath, that allow for little movement. And sometimes we had those combination desk-chairs, one attached to the other with no movement possible at all. But in chemistry we had lab tables. High lab tables. And we had high stools on which we were meant to perch as we listened in class. I didn’t like those stools. I am five feet tall and it felt like too much of a climb to get onto them, and the swivel made me dizzy. The lab tables came up to my chest and I found it comfortable to stand. No one, including the teacher, paid much attention as I wasn’t high up and disrupting anything. I simply stood with my notebook in front of me at a comfortable height, listened and took notes. And I “got it.” No one noticed, but apparently my brain did. My brain opened, or formed connections, and allowed me to learn in a way that I could not in other math and science classes. All because of the lab table! I was able to stand, and my brain was somehow able to do chemical equations!

And so today, many years later, as I stand or walk around as needed while I write, I think about kids in school. And I cannot help but wonder how many of them sit, their young brains as confined as their legs, in furniture that may stifle their ability to learn. How many essays could be better written if students had the option of standing while writing? How many more students might pursue career paths in math or science if they could stand while in class? How many more insightful analyses and answers to questions might they generate? How many more young people might consider themselves creative?

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson and others like them have a lot more to teach us than we ever could have imagined!

</div>

And it’s not just our third president and the lyricist half of the Rodgers and Hammerstein team that brought us such great classic musicals as Oklahoma and South Pacific—we can add Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis Carroll and a host of other luminaries into the mix.

What on earth am I talking about? I’m talking about desks, standing desks to be precise. You see, all of these extremely talented people worked at desks that were of a height that required them to stand as they wrote. Not all great writers do so, of course, but quite a few did and do. Is there a reason for this, or is it just another one of those inexplicable idiosyncrasies of the creative process? And then there are those who do sit at a desk to work but report frequently getting up to pace, stretch or even go out to retrieve the mail. Are they merely procrastinating? Why is it that if I am at a loss for the next line of poetry or the transition to my next paragraph, I instinctively get up from my desk? I may take a short walk outside, get a glass of water or replace a book on the bookshelf. Is this procrastination? Mere distraction? And if distraction is the motivation, why is it that invariably when I return to my desk, the precise words that I needed just happen to spill out of my pen?

When I was in high school and had an essay to write, I would forego the desk in my room as well as the kitchen table and retreat to our finished basement. And there I would pace around in circles, stopping to write down sentences as they came to me. I thought this a little strange on my part, and was very glad to be holed up where no one else could bear witness. I could do other kinds of homework upstairs, but I instinctively found that stories and essays seemed to flow when I could walk my endless circles. I’m no Oscar Hammerstein II, but decades later when I read that he used to pace his courtyard in circles as he composed his immortal lyrics, I was fascinated. He also, of course, used a standup desk. What was going on here?

I have long found that new stories start coming to me on my morning walk, as do stanzas of poetry, one after another, so that sometimes I find myself cutting the walk short to head home and record it all. My new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey, first began coming to me in snippets of rhymed poetry, day after day, on my walk.

What does any of this have to do with my high school chemistry class? Ah, well, I’m getting there. There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about the deleterious health effects of the basically sedentary lifestyle of the industrialized world. The idea of treadmill desks to combat obesity, heart disease and the like has been gaining traction for years. Then researchers started saying that walking promotes new connections between the brain cells. It makes the heart pump faster, circulating more blood and bringing more oxygen to the brain. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people claiming to think better on their feet, or that they do their best thinking while walking. The late Steve Jobs was famous for holding important business meetings on long walks, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also held walking meetings. The writer, poet, philosopher and great walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1851: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

But apparently it’s not just walking; even standing has an impact on creativity. New studies have been revealing that standing desks—no treadmill in sight—can benefit not just heart health but brain health. There is growing evidence that standing itself increases blood flow to the brain, improves the ability to focus, and may stimulate neural connectivity. In other words, standing versus sitting may allow the brain cells to connect in new ways, to let new ideas come to us, to let the words flow in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. That is because when we stand, we are not perfectly still. Our feet shift. Our legs move, however slightly, however unconsciously. And as the body moves, so the brain seems to move if you will, to open to new possibilities.

I do not pretend to understand the brain chemistry, and I’m sure I’m not unique among writers to have discovered the benefits of movement for our creative process, whether it be conscious or not. The scientific studies now coming out are a gratifying corroboration of what we instinctively know. And if these studies lead to greater creativity and productivity in the workplace, then that is a fine thing. But my hope is that one day this will filter into the classroom, and our understanding of the way students learn. Which brings me, finally, to high school chemistry.

A little background is in order. I was one of those students who was considered “good” in English and history, and I enjoyed those subjects immensely. But I was not at all good in math and science, and not surprisingly, I disliked those subjects immensely. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, et al were a form of torture to me. They were completely opaque and incomprehensible, and I twisted myself into knots trying to succeed in those classes. Not to mention that I was bored to tears. The same could be said for physics. Anything to do with numbers was my nemesis. Biology, which involved a great deal of reading and writing, wasn’t all that bad (other than the dissections, which made me ill.)

The odd exception to all of the above was chemistry. It certainly involved numbers, formulas, equations—plenty of math—and yet I rather enjoyed it. I understood it and did well in it without torturing myself. And I never knew why. Why was it that I “got” chemistry while all other such subjects were impossible for me? It wasn’t about the teacher. While I did have an excellent high school chemistry teacher, I was blessed to have gone to schools with excellent teachers all around. I knew, even at the time, that my math and science teachers were good. They really tried to help me and were as frustrated by my inability to “get” what they were teaching as I was. So what was different about chemistry?

The answer hit me only recently, like the proverbial ton of bricks, when I was reading about standing desks and the brain. You see, in school I sat at the same desks most students sit at—small desks with chairs that barely fit underneath, that allow for little movement. And sometimes we had those combination desk-chairs, one attached to the other with no movement possible at all. But in chemistry we had lab tables. High lab tables. And we had high stools on which we were meant to perch as we listened in class. I didn’t like those stools. I am five feet tall and it felt like too much of a climb to get onto them, and the swivel made me dizzy. The lab tables came up to my chest and I found it comfortable to stand. No one, including the teacher, paid much attention as I wasn’t high up and disrupting anything. I simply stood with my notebook in front of me at a comfortable height, listened and took notes. And I “got it.” No one noticed, but apparently my brain did. My brain opened, or formed connections, and allowed me to learn in a way that I could not in other math and science classes. All because of the lab table! I was able to stand, and my brain was somehow able to do chemical equations!

And so today, many years later, as I stand or walk around as needed while I write, I think about kids in school. And I cannot help but wonder how many of them sit, their young brains as confined as their legs, in furniture that may stifle their ability to learn. How many essays could be better written if students had the option of standing while writing? How many more students might pursue career paths in math or science if they could stand while in class? How many more insightful analyses and answers to questions might they generate? How many more young people might consider themselves creative?

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson and others like them have a lot more to teach us than we ever could have imagined!

What on earth am I talking about? I’m talking about desks, standing desks to be precise. You see, all of these extremely talented people worked at desks that were of a height that required them to stand as they wrote. Not all great writers do so, of course, but quite a few did and do. Is there a reason for this, or is it just another one of those inexplicable idiosyncrasies of the creative process? And then there are those who do sit at a desk to work but report frequently getting up to pace, stretch or even go out to retrieve the mail. Are they merely procrastinating? Why is it that if I am at a loss for the next line of poetry or the transition to my next paragraph, I instinctively get up from my desk? I may take a short walk outside, get a glass of water or replace a book on the bookshelf. Is this procrastination? Mere distraction? And if distraction is the motivation, why is it that invariably when I return to my desk, the precise words that I needed just happen to spill out of my pen?

When I was in high school and had an essay to write, I would forego the desk in my room as well as the kitchen table and retreat to our finished basement. And there I would pace around in circles, stopping to write down sentences as they came to me. I thought this a little strange on my part, and was very glad to be holed up where no one else could bear witness. I could do other kinds of homework upstairs, but I instinctively found that stories and essays seemed to flow when I could walk my endless circles. I’m no Oscar Hammerstein II, but decades later when I read that he used to pace his courtyard in circles as he composed his immortal lyrics, I was fascinated. He also, of course, used a standup desk. What was going on here?

I have long found that new stories start coming to me on my morning walk, as do stanzas of poetry, one after another, so that sometimes I find myself cutting the walk short to head home and record it all. My new book, <em>Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey</em>, first began coming to me in snippets of rhymed poetry, day after day, on my walk.

What does any of this have to do with my high school chemistry class? Ah, well, I’m getting there. There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about the deleterious health effects of the basically sedentary lifestyle of the industrialized world. The idea of treadmill desks to combat obesity, heart disease and the like has been gaining traction for years. Then researchers started saying that walking promotes new connections between the brain cells. It makes the heart pump faster, circulating more blood and bringing more oxygen to the brain. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people claiming to think better on their feet, or that they do their best thinking while walking. The late Steve Jobs was famous for holding important business meetings on long walks, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also held walking meetings. The writer, poet, philosopher and great walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1851: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

But apparently it’s not just walking; even standing has an impact on creativity. New studies have been revealing that standing desks—no treadmill in sight—can benefit not just heart health but brain health. There is growing evidence that standing itself increases blood flow to the brain, improves the ability to focus, and may stimulate neural connectivity. In other words, standing versus sitting may allow the brain cells to connect in new ways, to let new ideas come to us, to let the words flow in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. That is because when we stand, we are not perfectly still. Our feet shift. Our legs move, however slightly, however unconsciously. And as the body moves, so the brain seems to move if you will, to open to new possibilities.

I do not pretend to understand the brain chemistry, and I’m sure I’m not unique among writers to have discovered the benefits of movement for our creative process, whether it be conscious or not. The scientific studies now coming out are a gratifying corroboration of what we instinctively know. And if these studies lead to greater creativity and productivity in the workplace, then that is a fine thing. But my hope is that one day this will filter into the classroom, and our understanding of the way students learn. Which brings me, finally, to high school chemistry.

A little background is in order. I was one of those students who was considered “good” in English and history, and I enjoyed those subjects immensely. But I was not at all good in math and science, and not surprisingly, I disliked those subjects immensely. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, et al were a form of torture to me. They were completely opaque and incomprehensible, and I twisted myself into knots trying to succeed in those classes. Not to mention that I was bored to tears. The same could be said for physics. Anything to do with numbers was my nemesis. Biology, which involved a great deal of reading and writing, wasn’t all that bad (other than the dissections, which made me ill.)

The odd exception to all of the above was chemistry. It certainly involved numbers, formulas, equations—plenty of math—and yet I rather enjoyed it. I understood it and did well in it without torturing myself. And I never knew why. Why was it that I “got” chemistry while all other such subjects were impossible for me? It wasn’t about the teacher. While I did have an excellent high school chemistry teacher, I was blessed to have gone to schools with excellent teachers all around. I knew, even at the time, that my math and science teachers were good. They really tried to help me and were as frustrated by my inability to “get” what they were teaching as I was. So what was different about chemistry?

The answer hit me only recently, like the proverbial ton of bricks, when I was reading about standing desks and the brain. You see, in school I sat at the same desks most students sit at—small desks with chairs that barely fit underneath, that allow for little movement. And sometimes we had those combination desk-chairs, one attached to the other with no movement possible at all. But in chemistry we had lab tables. High lab tables. And we had high stools on which we were meant to perch as we listened in class. I didn’t like those stools. I am five feet tall and it felt like too much of a climb to get onto them, and the swivel made me dizzy. The lab tables came up to my chest and I found it comfortable to stand. No one, including the teacher, paid much attention as I wasn’t high up and disrupting anything. I simply stood with my notebook in front of me at a comfortable height, listened and took notes. And I “got it.” No one noticed, but apparently my brain did. My brain opened, or formed connections, and allowed me to learn in a way that I could not in other math and science classes. All because of the lab table! I was able to stand, and my brain was somehow able to do chemical equations!

And so today, many years later, as I stand or walk around as needed while I write, I think about kids in school. And I cannot help but wonder how many of them sit, their young brains as confined as their legs, in furniture that may stifle their ability to learn. How many essays could be better written if students had the option of standing while writing? How many more students might pursue career paths in math or science if they could stand while in class? How many more insightful analyses and answers to questions might they generate? How many more young people might consider themselves creative?

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson and others like them have a lot more to teach us than we ever could have imagined!

</div>

And it’s not just our third president and the lyricist half of the Rodgers and Hammerstein team that brought us such great classic musicals as Oklahoma and South Pacific—we can add Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis Carroll and a host of other luminaries into the mix.

What on earth am I talking about? I’m talking about desks, standing desks to be precise. You see, all of these extremely talented people worked at desks that were of a height that required them to stand as they wrote. Not all great writers do so, of course, but quite a few did and do. Is there a reason for this, or is it just another one of those inexplicable idiosyncrasies of the creative process? And then there are those who do sit at a desk to work but report frequently getting up to pace, stretch or even go out to retrieve the mail. Are they merely procrastinating? Why is it that if I am at a loss for the next line of poetry or the transition to my next paragraph, I instinctively get up from my desk? I may take a short walk outside, get a glass of water or replace a book on the bookshelf. Is this procrastination? Mere distraction? And if distraction is the motivation, why is it that invariably when I return to my desk, the precise words that I needed just happen to spill out of my pen?

When I was in high school and had an essay to write, I would forego the desk in my room as well as the kitchen table and retreat to our finished basement. And there I would pace around in circles, stopping to write down sentences as they came to me. I thought this a little strange on my part, and was very glad to be holed up where no one else could bear witness. I could do other kinds of homework upstairs, but I instinctively found that stories and essays seemed to flow when I could walk my endless circles. I’m no Oscar Hammerstein II, but decades later when I read that he used to pace his courtyard in circles as he composed his immortal lyrics, I was fascinated. He also, of course, used a standup desk. What was going on here?

I have long found that new stories start coming to me on my morning walk, as do stanzas of poetry, one after another, so that sometimes I find myself cutting the walk short to head home and record it all. My new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey, first began coming to me in snippets of rhymed poetry, day after day, on my walk.

What does any of this have to do with my high school chemistry class? Ah, well, I’m getting there. There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about the deleterious health effects of the basically sedentary lifestyle of the industrialized world. The idea of treadmill desks to combat obesity, heart disease and the like has been gaining traction for years. Then researchers started saying that walking promotes new connections between the brain cells. It makes the heart pump faster, circulating more blood and bringing more oxygen to the brain. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people claiming to think better on their feet, or that they do their best thinking while walking. The late Steve Jobs was famous for holding important business meetings on long walks, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also held walking meetings. The writer, poet, philosopher and great walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1851: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

But apparently it’s not just walking; even standing has an impact on creativity. New studies have been revealing that standing desks—no treadmill in sight—can benefit not just heart health but brain health. There is growing evidence that standing itself increases blood flow to the brain, improves the ability to focus, and may stimulate neural connectivity. In other words, standing versus sitting may allow the brain cells to connect in new ways, to let new ideas come to us, to let the words flow in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. That is because when we stand, we are not perfectly still. Our feet shift. Our legs move, however slightly, however unconsciously. And as the body moves, so the brain seems to move if you will, to open to new possibilities.

I do not pretend to understand the brain chemistry, and I’m sure I’m not unique among writers to have discovered the benefits of movement for our creative process, whether it be conscious or not. The scientific studies now coming out are a gratifying corroboration of what we instinctively know. And if these studies lead to greater creativity and productivity in the workplace, then that is a fine thing. But my hope is that one day this will filter into the classroom, and our understanding of the way students learn. Which brings me, finally, to high school chemistry.

A little background is in order. I was one of those students who was considered “good” in English and history, and I enjoyed those subjects immensely. But I was not at all good in math and science, and not surprisingly, I disliked those subjects immensely. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, et al were a form of torture to me. They were completely opaque and incomprehensible, and I twisted myself into knots trying to succeed in those classes. Not to mention that I was bored to tears. The same could be said for physics. Anything to do with numbers was my nemesis. Biology, which involved a great deal of reading and writing, wasn’t all that bad (other than the dissections, which made me ill.)

The odd exception to all of the above was chemistry. It certainly involved numbers, formulas, equations—plenty of math—and yet I rather enjoyed it. I understood it and did well in it without torturing myself. And I never knew why. Why was it that I “got” chemistry while all other such subjects were impossible for me? It wasn’t about the teacher. While I did have an excellent high school chemistry teacher, I was blessed to have gone to schools with excellent teachers all around. I knew, even at the time, that my math and science teachers were good. They really tried to help me and were as frustrated by my inability to “get” what they were teaching as I was. So what was different about chemistry?

The answer hit me only recently, like the proverbial ton of bricks, when I was reading about standing desks and the brain. You see, in school I sat at the same desks most students sit at—small desks with chairs that barely fit underneath, that allow for little movement. And sometimes we had those combination desk-chairs, one attached to the other with no movement possible at all. But in chemistry we had lab tables. High lab tables. And we had high stools on which we were meant to perch as we listened in class. I didn’t like those stools. I am five feet tall and it felt like too much of a climb to get onto them, and the swivel made me dizzy. The lab tables came up to my chest and I found it comfortable to stand. No one, including the teacher, paid much attention as I wasn’t high up and disrupting anything. I simply stood with my notebook in front of me at a comfortable height, listened and took notes. And I “got it.” No one noticed, but apparently my brain did. My brain opened, or formed connections, and allowed me to learn in a way that I could not in other math and science classes. All because of the lab table! I was able to stand, and my brain was somehow able to do chemical equations!

And so today, many years later, as I stand or walk around as needed while I write, I think about kids in school. And I cannot help but wonder how many of them sit, their young brains as confined as their legs, in furniture that may stifle their ability to learn. How many essays could be better written if students had the option of standing while writing? How many more students might pursue career paths in math or science if they could stand while in class? How many more insightful analyses and answers to questions might they generate? How many more young people might consider themselves creative?

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson and others like them have a lot more to teach us than we ever could have imagined!

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