December 26, 2012

Merry Christmas!

A (belated) Merry Christmas!  Happy Holidays!

Coca Cola Santa Claus, by Haddon Sundblom (via)

December 5, 2012

'Meditation XVII' by John Donne

In a dark mood, and so a poem.

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887) (via)

Excerpt from "Meditation XVIII"

by John Donne

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

December 4, 2012

The Techniques of Art

Oct. 1, 2012. An Afghan refugee girl stands next to her family's sheep
in a field next to a slum area on the outskirts of Islamabad (via Time Lightbox)

Since beginning the Project 365, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about art in the broader sense, art with a capital A, and how techniques from one medium translates to another.

Take this photo, for example.  It’s one of Time Lightbox’s best photos of the week for Sept 28 - Oct 5. What makes this photo so amazing?  Why is it any different from any girl standing in front of a herd of her family’s animals?

Well, first and foremost because she’s wearing red.  The eye loves red.  It is the most alluring and seductive of colors, and it screams, “Pay attention to me!”  But I don’t think it’s simply the red by itself.  It’s the contrast of the red against the natural colors of the background and also the contrast between the everyday job of tending goats with this beautiful red of her garment.  She is dressed to the nines, as if someone is wearing a beautiful evening gown to muck out the stables. 

It’s not only the red.  This is a beautiful and mysterious girl.  The way she looks at the photographer with this unreadable and cryptic expression.  She’s thoughtful and penetrating.  And her hands.  She holds them in thought, picking at her fingers. 

The late afternoon light coming full onto the scene gives it a glow that it wouldn’t otherwise have.  This is one of my favorite kinds of light ~ first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon.  It imbues everything with honey gold undertones.  What is it about this light that appeals to me especially?  I’m not sure.  The equal balance of light and dark, how it brings out undertones and makes colors richer.

The pastoral setting, too, brings something special to picture.  They’re goats, for heaven’s sake.  Not cows - expected and normal in America.  No, goats.  This lends it a bit of exoticism. And these are not puny ordinary goats ~ these are huge and rich in color and vibrance.

But this pastoral setting is marred by what seem to be plastic garbage bags, which means this has to be near a dump, where the winds have blown the bags away and they’ve become caught in the grass.  So the rural pastoral nature is contrasted so strongly to decay and garbage, and there’s this beautiful girl, this Cinderella.

Composition plays a part as well.  The eye loves thirds.  Yet this photo is set up in such away that it doesn’t portray the ideal proportions.  No.  Instead, it makes you uncomfortable.  By choosing to place the girl almost in the center, it puts you off balance.  Right in the center would be boring, but the human wants things proportional, so just off center gives it a bit of tension, just as edge anxiety ~ the figure right next to the edge ~ would make people nervous.  That’s horizontally.  Vertically, it is nicely proportioned into thirds, which somewhat counteracts the horizontal tension.

Then there is the depth of field.  We get such a sense of distance here. The tight focus on the girl to the fuzzy mountains in the background gives us room to breath.

All this makes me think about how these techniques translate into writing.  The red color.  We want something astonishing.  I say astonishing, not shocking, because (as the recent FB meme pointed out) shocking is boring.  Shocking means you haven’t given it enough thought or development. Astonishing means you’ve put so much of yourself and your art into it, it transports the reader. 

All the other elements also translate into fiction writing.  Contrast.  You have to set things up and then have a payoff in writing.  If you don’t, the reader will not believe you.  This is where contrast comes in.  You have use like elements and contrasting elements judiciously.  In literary fiction especially, you have to do the unexpected and contrast it with the everyday.

Composition.  Writing is a linear meeting you have to encounter through time, through a line of words.  In that way, it is a performance piece.  Therefore, it has to have a beginning, middle, and end (thirds again) or some structure that gives the reader an aesthetic pleasure.

You have to have a sense of depth.  There has to be setting and backstory and depth of character, even if they don’t immediately show up on the page.  The writer has to know.

I better stop.  I could do this all day.  It’s so fascinating.  All the different creative acts feed into each other.

December 3, 2012

Essays and Anger


I finished an essay this weekend and sent it off to a contest.  It felt great!

As I said the other day, a lot of what I’m writing now is preparation for writing a memoir.  Which, as I said, scares the dickens out of me, but then I’m excited too.

I also find that I’m angry.  Very angry, sometimes.  I have a long history of suppressing anger and having it turn in on myself in pretty unhealthy ways. 

This in and of itself is pretty scary.  I’ve had nightmares where I go on a murderous rampage because I can’t control my anger.  I of course would never do this, but it’s a testament to how much fear I have surrounding anger. 

What’s really funny is that everyone around me, to the man or woman, would say I’m this sweet passive person. Well, my husband might have something to say about me being pig-headed, but that’s different.

So I’m trying to find healthy expressions of my anger in any way I can.  I need to start running again.  I’ve even got a bunch of very zen-like plants.

But what’s going to happen when I start writing the memoir for real?  Blow my lid? 

Nah.  I believe I have the fortitude to work through it and hopefully emerge whole and much more healthy. Hence the purpose for it in the first place.

November 30, 2012

Nick Flynn and Experience

Don't you love it when you come across a writer who does something that makes you go, "Wait! You can't do that?!" but then they totally get away with it?  Like in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald tells it from Nick Carraway's point of view yet you slide easily into Gatsby's past without raising a question.  Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is the same way.  It's a memoir, and Nick does things that with any other writer you'd say, "You can't do that!" but Nick gets away with it.  For example, he tells parts from his father's point of view. It's amazing and he pulls it off.  So, speaking of memoirs, today a quote from Nick.

Nick Flynn (via)
"In my experience, whatever happens clings to us like barnacles on the hull of a ship, slowing us slightly, both uglifying and giving us texture. You can scrape all you want, you can, if you have money, hire someone else to scrape, but the barnacles will come back or at least leave a blemish on the steel." ~ Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City 

November 29, 2012

Spout, Ho!


I’m working toward starting the memoir.

Ooooh!  Did you feel that?  The chill that went from  the hairs on my head to the tip of my toes?

That’s because it scares the batshit out of me, yet it’s the thing I think I was meant to write, the work that I’ve been trying to get good enough to attempt my whole life.

I have a YA manuscript I want to finish, and then I want to go full steam ahead on the memoir.  Many of the small things I’m doing right now ~ essays, etc. ~ are work toward the memoir.

But the thing is:  a memoir that includes your family is nothing short of treason, isn’t it?  In order to write truthfully about the secrets of the family, you’re betraying them in the process?  See, that’s the part that scares the heck out of me.  Me being the youngest and the peacemaker, am I brave enough to be truthful about my take on things? 

Yet it’s a story that I feel HAS to be told.  You see, I want to focus on the 80s and 90s when my family had a whole Hatfields and  McCoys thing going ~ no one was ever shot but dogs were and gas tanks were sugared and there were fist fights and people tried to run over people with cars, legal battles.  I want to find the truth of it, to try to suss out my truth.  And interwoven through it is the whole gender thing ~ women in my culture are second-class citizens, something I struggled with for a lot of my life.

One of the reasons, though, I feel that it’s the story I was destined to tell is that I had no voice as a child and so this is the story that will vindicate that feeling of helplessness and ~ I’m just now realizing ~ rage.  I don’t want revenge.  I just want to understand.

November 28, 2012

A Conspiracy Against the Cultivation of His Talent

James Baldwin (via)

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent--which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next--one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next. When one begins looking for influences one finds them by the score. I haven't thought much about my own, not enough anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech--and something of Dickens' love for bravura--have something to do with me today; but I wouldn't stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.) ~ James Baldwin, "Autobiographical Notes"

November 12, 2012

In Honor of Veteran's Day and All Who Served

In honor of Veteran's Day and all those who served, an amazing painting and an amazing poem.

Soldier, by Adi Nes

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

November 9, 2012

“What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Dr. George Vaillant (via)

An absolutely fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking, nuanced piece in the Atlantic:  What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. It was published in 2009 but I just came across it thanks to the wonderful Byliner.

Shenk reports on one of the longest running longitudinal studies in the United States, the Grant Study, named after its initial benefactor W.T. Grant. It is a study of 268 Harvard men, began in 1937, that would “attempt to analyze the forces that have produced normal young men.”  They are anonymous, though JFK and Ben Bradlee were two of them. 

There are so many fascinating things about this study, and Shenk does an amazing job of following the threads and illuminating the complexity of it all.  For example, he investigates the psychological complexity of the study’s long-term director Dr. George Vaillant.  Of course I would encourage you to go read the whole thing yourself ~ or like me, print it out and read and reread it. 

I love the fact that Vaillant uses pseudonyms for the subjects that are literary references ~ names like Bill Lomen and Alan Poe ~ and this: “Above his desk hangs a letter from a group of his medical residents to their successors, advising them to prepare for Vaillant’s ‘obscure literary references’ by reading Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.”

I could go on and on, but instead I just wanted to highlight the findings ~ what Dr. Vaillant suggests are contributing factors of happiness.  From the article:

The story gets to the heart of Vaillant’s angle on the Grant Study. His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.
Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.
At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).
In contrast to Anna Freud, who located the origins of defenses in the sexual conflicts of a child, Vaillant sees adaptations as arising organically from the pain of experience and playing out through the whole lifespan. Take his comparison of two Grant Study men, whom he named “David Goodhart” and “Carlton Tarrytown” in his first book on the study, Adaptation to Life, published in 1977. Both men grew up fearful and lonely. Goodhart was raised in a blue-collar family, had a bigoted, alcoholic father, and a mother he described as “very nervous, irritable, anxious, and a worrier.” Tarrytown was richer, and was raised in a wealthy suburb, but he also had an alcoholic father, and his mother was so depressed that he feared she would commit suicide. Goodhart went on to become a national leader on civil-rights issues—a master, Vaillant argued, of the “mature” defenses of sublimation and altruism. By his late 40s, staff researchers using independent ratings put Goodhart in the top fifth of the Grant Study in psychological adjustment. Tarrytown, meanwhile, was in the bottom fifth. A doctor who left a regular practice to work for the state, a three-time divorcé who anesthetized his pain with alcohol and sedatives, Tarrytown was, Vaillant said, a user of dissociation and projection—“neurotic” and “immature” defenses, respectively. After a relapse into drug abuse, Tarrytown killed himself at 53. Goodhart lived to 70. Though Vaillant says that the “dashing major” of midlife became a stolid and portly brigadier general, Goodhart’s obituaries still celebrated a hero of civil rights.

And so this hierarchy of adaptations is how we deal with our world and shows how healthy are reactions are to it.  I’ve heard other studies and approaches that mirror these findings in different ways ~ Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs, Shann Ray’s ideas based on Jung about writing from places of darkness and light, and more.

One of the things I love about this is that it shows I’ve come a long way with my adaptations but that I also have a ways to go.  My adaptations are healthy to mature.  Not that I don’t sometimes lapse (like when the cat wakes me up yowling at 3:30 in the morning and then my back goes out as I’m stretching, as happened this morning - my adaptations were somewhat less mature).  But I think it’s the journey that’s important and so I feel like I’m making progress but still striving. A good place to be. Writing is my saving grace.

Here are some other things that make a different, the study says:

What allows people to work, and love, as they grow old? By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant, who had then been following them for a quarter century, had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.
Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.
What factors don’t matter? Vaillant identified some surprises. Cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age. While social ease correlates highly with good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, its significance diminishes over time. The predictive importance of childhood temperament also diminishes over time: shy, anxious kids tend to do poorly in young adulthood, but by age 70, are just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” Vaillant sums up: “If you follow lives long enough, the risk factors for healthy life adjustment change. There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.”
The study has yielded some additional subtle surprises. Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health. And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health: of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63. More broadly, pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves.
Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

So, in additional mature adaptations, it’s “all the things you learned in kindergarten.”  Eat well, exercise, do unto others what you would have done unto you.

It’s comforting to find that everything you thought was true is borne out.

November 7, 2012

Yes! But ...

Yes, I am ecstatic! Yes, I am elated!  Because my guy won, and everything I believe has been affirmed.

But has it?  This country is split, and I remember how I felt in 2004, and so I mourn too for a little less than half the country, even as I don't understand why.  How can they possibly believe some of the things I find so repugnant? Something I'll be investigating for a long time.

Was it a crushing victory? Did the voters give an overwhelming mandate? Yes we won, but are we any closer to working together for the good of everyone?

I'm not nearly as confident as everyone else seems to be.  But I'm hopeful.

November 5, 2012

Getting to Know the World One Person at a Time

Something I've wanted to do for a long time is to find an English-language newspaper from somewhere across the globe and follow it for a week or two.  Read the local news and the obits and the feature stories.  Then find another newspaper and follow it for a while.  The world is such a fascinating place.  It strikes me that this would be the ideal way to find out about the world ~ get to know it place by place, person by person, story by story.

November 2, 2012

Cool Person Guest Blogger Daisy Hickman

You know, there are some people in this world who always show up, who always support those around them.  In a small town, they’re the ones welcoming their neighbors with cassaroles and volunteering at special events.  Daisy Hickman is one of those awesome people, and I feel very honored to know her. 

So today’s Cool Person Guest Blogger is Daisy Hickman, poet, author, and blogger.  She has a bachelor’s in legal studies and master’s in sociology ~ an interesting combination ~ and she is the founder and proprietess extraordinaire of SunnyRoomStudio, a creative space for kindred spirits. Every Friday she posts or hosts other bloggers on spirituality, creative pursuits, nature, and meditative musings.  You can find her at SunnyRoomStudio on Facebook, @dhsunwriter on Twitter, and sunwriter [at] via email.

A more caring person, you’ll never find! (A bit of a confession: she so generously sent me this guest post ages ago, and I’ve been a very neglectful host.  I apologise, Daisy!)


To Catch the Sky

Thank you, Tamara, for your kind invitation to share a few words with your readers.  It’s my pleasure.  And this morning, walking through McCrory Gardens—a wonderful 25-acre expanse maintained by SDSU in Brookings, South Dakota—I encountered some stunning autumn colors that seemed like an inspirational backdrop for a guest post.

It was the blissful kind of day when one could easily imagine sharing time with Thoreau or Whitman. 

Our dogs, Noah and Orion, two spirited, high-maintenance schnauzers, were with us, and apparently, quite happy to be running around outdoors on a 78 degree day at the close of September.  With nature as our other companion, we explored groves of trees—maple, ash, and oak—awash in color; marveled at the lush prairie grass, swaying in the warm breeze; enjoyed interludes of silence.  My husband, John, is from Ohio, so we went looking for the buckeye tree, and I was interested in finding the showy mum garden. 

But, otherwise, we walked along without specific direction or targeted ambition. 

Like small fish in a large pond, we swam easily with the motion of color that surrounded us.  Golds, reds, yellows.  The deep orange of a tall, striking tree that one could only notice by looking up and out. 

“Wow,” we said, when we spotted it.  It looked brilliant and imposing, like a skyscraper in Manhattan.

And the tree seemed all-knowing, as if a trusted keeper of important life secrets.     

I’m not certain what kind of tree it is, so am including a picture.  

Of course it doesn’t really matter.  A generic label could never capture its grandeur, its perfect sense of place amidst the hues of autumn, the silky blue sky overhead, which framed it. 

But when I looked for a quote to include, I found this:

“October's poplars are flaming torches lighting the way to winter.” ~Nova Bair 

Perhaps the tree is a poplar.  It fits the description.  If not, however, I’m perfectly content to simply let it be a tree.  An autumn tree that speaks of a dynamic, ever-changing universe and nature’s inexplicable beauty.  What we don’t know in life, can be as wonderful as what we do know. 

It’s purely a matter of releasing our minds from the drudgery of thought – permitting them to run free against the finery of an autumn landscape. 

The peacefulness of a moment in time is never dependent on thinking; rather, it is a powerful spiritual gift that awaits us when we decide to claim it.  When we are ready to walk with nature hand-in-hand as intimate friends, while looking up now and then to catch the sky.

Thank you so much for visiting, Daisy! I'm honored!
Daisy Hickman

November 1, 2012

Shrug Off Your Old Self

My daughter the Spider Princess and my son the Zombie went to Safe Treat at the University of Wyoming Student Union last night.  It was so fun.  I’m so glad all the groups across campus put this on.  Every year, the whole building is packed with ghouls and goblins small and large, and the grown-up kids seem to have just as much fun as the small ones.

My daughter looks forward every year to having her face painted.  Even if there’s a long line, she insists, and she agonizes over which design to select.  The line was short this year, so my son got his painted as well.

It’s fascinating to me, this assumption of another character.  One of the main reasons I’m a writer is because I’m always fascinated with people’s motivations, and so it’s doubly fascinating about why certain people choose certain costumes.  Someone withdrawn and demure goes all out for Halloween and puts on a costume of a true psychopath.  Someone who you’d think would be wild and go all out refuses or chooses something very conservative and traditional.  Very interesting stuff.

This fits well with other things I’ve been thinking about.  Self-improvement, for example.  That’s another way in which we envision a character and then we try to assume that character.  We imagine this ideal person ~ more beautiful, stronger, more effective, smarter, funnier, whatever.  Then we try to find ways to assume this ideal. 

We have these goals in life, and we try to achieve them.  Sometimes it’s something small like not eating that donut in the office break room, and sometimes it’s huge like moving to another continent or effecting world peace. 

And if you’re like me, when you’re in a mood of self-improvement, you try to do it all at once ~ lose weight AND eat healthy AND write the next great American novel AND be a better mother AND be a better wife AND exercise every day AND be more effective at work.  You know how it is ~ I want it all and I want it now.

But I think it’s a worthy endeavor in general, this assuming of alternative identities.  It allows us freedom to imagine ourselves as something different, to break out of our ruts and expand imaginings.  And we have these built-in times in our lives when we can do this ~ Halloween certainly, but also when we move or go away to college, when we make a new friendship or date a new person. 

Heck, when we get a haircut.  You know the saying: change your hair, change your life.

October 24, 2012

Climbing Up and Out

In the 80s, there was this great HBO comedy special called the Kathy and Mo Show.  It was absolutely hilarious.  Absolutely.  You don’t hear much about it, but it sticks in my mind as a watershed moment not only in comedy but also in women’s rights.  They were saying things that people only thought, that I only thought. It was put on by Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. 

One skit had no dialog.  It was Mo pantomiming a woman getting dressed in the morning.  Hilarious. Another, which I’ve put below, was two angels figuring out how to have humans reproduce.  But one that sticks in my mind is a typical bar scene.  Kathy plays a drunk and Mo plays a bouncy cocktail waitress.  There’s some funny banter, but then Mo looks at the camera and talks about how awful the life of a waitress is.  She says something like, “It’s the goddamn shower.  Every day, I have to get up and take a shower, but I think, what’s the point.  Tomorrow, I’ll just have to take another goddamn shower.”

That’s exactly what I’ve been feeling lately.  Yep, depression, part of my long-cycle mild manic depression. I think I get it every year at this time. Which is funny because I love the fall.

The symptoms are that I am just so tired that I don’t feel up to doing anything or facing anything—whether it’s taking the kids to another event or even just returning an email from a friend. When I’m in that state, the emotional energy it takes to read an email and respond feels like too much, and I avoid my email and the internet and Facebook.  I get a little phobic about it.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t get things done.  In fact, I’ve been busier than ever.  I love my day job, and it’s a great place to work, but I simply haven’t been able to keep up lately.  I have so many small things to do that the big things, like writing longer pieces, keeps getting shoved back until I feel overwhelmed with the big things I HAVE to get done.  So I have to shut my cube door to get one big thing done and then all the little things pile up.  Emails asking for this and that, oh, and that thing I asked for last week.

And then the ranch part of me says, just get a grip.  What are you whining for?  I watched a great documentary over the weekend called The Boy Mir.  It was done by the British filmmaker Phil Grabsky, and I watched it via this fabulous new service called Fandor. (I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more.) It’s this amazing 10-year look at a little boy who grows to a man in rural Afghanistan.  One of the many things that strikes me is, once again, what in the world do I have to complain about, for heaven’s sake?

And I haven’t been getting a lick of my own writing done.  Lots of work writing, but no personal writing.  Obviously not even this blog.  And I’ve been behind on posting my own photos.  My creative facility has just been tapped out. I’ve had nothing left.

But I’m feeling better now.  As you can see.  Climbing up and out.  So, hey, hi.

And, without further ado, the incomparable Kathy and Mo.

October 22, 2012

Hello There

I'll be back again this week.  Not today though.  But, in the meantime, your moment of zen.


October 9, 2012

Bear With Me ...

I'm not waving, I'm drowning.

Er, I mean, I've been incredibly busy lately.  Will get my virtual ducks in a row soon.  A great Cool Person Guest Blogger waiting in the wings, plus a report about that fab conference I went to.

October 5, 2012

The Literary Connection and Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

I am so so stoked!  I get to work with Tim O'Brien today and tomorrow over at the Literary Connection in Cheyenne.  I also get to work with John Calderazzo, Cat Valente, and Robert Caisley.  I saw Robert last year, and he is one hell of a speaker. 

So I am in the literary riches!  I'll report back on Monday. Yay!

October 3, 2012

'Faithfully' by Journey

All I have to do is hear the first bit of this song and I'm that aching 13-year-old again, yearning with ever fiber of my being for a soul mate, someone to merge my whole being with.

October 2, 2012

Physiognomy As Character


I was thinking this morning about physiognomy as character.  AKA beautiful people are good, ugly people are bad.  Young women are good, old women are evil.  Even more subtle, typecasting such as a man who is beefy with reddish hair and freckles is a bully.  Gap-toothed women are licentious.  Smaller traits that have been thought of as equating with the way a person is.

I was thinking about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, how the authors play off types.  With names like Draco Malfoy and Cersei Lannister, how can these characters be anything but bad, you know?  They’re both blonde and slim and tall and evil.  But the authors give them more humanity than that.  They explain the characters’ motives, so that you understand them and identify with them.  It’s like George R. R. Martin says, “The struggle of good vs. evil takes place within each character, not between characters.”  (I'm paraphrasing poorly.) In aggregate, these characters tip toward the evil side of the scale.

But we do this every day, don’t we?  We judge people by their looks.  It’s stereotyping, but it is human nature to stereotype.  Back when you could die at any instant, you had to quickly assess the situation and decide what to do.  You had to profile, big time.  Your life depended on it.  To this day, we depend on judging things quickly and altering our actions accordingly.

But we also have to fight against stereotyping and profiling, don’t we?  People ~ the world in general ~ is much more complex than we are comfortable with.  We like things to be black and white, when really they are all shades of gray. 

As an idealistic child, I was way into quotes, and we had a dictionary that had a huge section of quotes, which I poured over.  One from Oscar Wilde said this:  “It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.” Gosh, I remember thinking on this for days.  It didn’t seem FAIR, you know?  It really bothered me.  I wanted so to believe that your worth equated to what you did, to being good, and I so wanted to be good.  Why would the world be a place where looks matter more than character?  But, as we all know, looks matter a  whole lot.  That’s cause we judge.

It’s a whole other discussion to talk about whether physiognomy equals destiny.  If we look a certain way, are we subtlely and not so subtlely urged to be that thing?  If we look sweet and innocent (as I did), are you urged and expected to be sweet and innocent?  If you look pugnacious, are you urged to be pugnacious?  And names.  Is someone named Wiener bound to be a philanderer?   Is Art bound to be an artist? 

Chicken and the egg questions to be sure. I used to think we were much more molded by our surroundings until I had kids.  My two were who they are from the moment they were born.  In the womb, actually.  So I trend a little more toward nature than nurture nowadays.

So it was interesting to come across this article about a new breed of hunters, especially since I was pondering people’s preconceived notions about hunting the other day. Like this line:
Her friends and “hippie, blue-state parents” were dumbfounded. “Won’t you be the darling of the right wing?” her father says.
We are complex beings. That’s what makes the balancing act that is writing so hard. If you are trying to mirror the real world (not just provide stereotypes for entertainment), you have to work hard to make them real and unpredictable yet not “out of character.  

 Food for thought.

October 1, 2012

Junot Diaz and His Internal Critic

A great bit about and with Junot Diaz at the New York Times. I think we can all relate.

Junot Diaz (via)

There’s a classic bit of creative-writing-class advice that tells us we need to learn to turn off our internal editors. I’ve never understood how to unbraid the critical and the creative. How do you manage that? You’ve raised one of the thorniest dialectics of working, which is that you need your critical self: without it you can’t write, but in fact the critical self is what’s got both feet on the brakes of your process. My thing is, I’m just way too harsh. It’s an enormous impediment, and that’s just the truth of it. It doesn’t make me any better, make me any worse, it certainly isn’t more valorous. I have a character defect, man. 
So turn on your harsh paternalistic, militaristic critic — It’s my dad.
O.K., invite your dad in: I want to hear his review of Junot Díaz the bad writer. What is wrong with that stuff? What are the mistakes you make?  First of all, nonsense characterization. The dullest, wet-noodle characteristics and behaviors and thoughts and interests are ascribed to the characters. These 80-year-old, left-in-the-sun newspaper-brittle conflicts — where the conflicts are so ridiculously subatomic that you have to summon all the key members of CERN to detect where the conflict in this piece is. It just goes on, man. You know, I force it, and by forcing it, I lose everything that’s interesting about my work

September 28, 2012

The Eternal Question


My kids are taking karate.  They really enjoy it.  My son enjoyed it the first day but then was afraid he’d have to stand in front of the class and bow and so stopped for a bit.  Then he decided he wanted to do it again.

Wednesday night, they were doing their thing on the floor, in lines kicking and punching and kiai-ing, and I was sitting on the floor along the sidelines reading.  I glance up periodically to see how their doing, but generally I’m engrossed in my book.

This is different from when they were younger.  When they first were in sports ~ gymnastics, soccer ~ I would sit and watch them the whole time, sometimes proudly watching what they were accomplishing and other times cringing at them not paying attention or some other thing.  I don’t think I’m the only parent who has done this. 

I’m still fascinated by what they do, but now sometimes it’s the only little snippets of time I get to read ~ while they’re doing their thing.

So Wednesday I was particularly engrossed.  I’m reading the third book in the Song of Ice and Fire Series (A Storm of Swords) so I'm totally in.  Suddenly, someone loomed up in front of me.  I glanced up.  It was my daughter.

“Mommy,” she said.  “Why aren’t you watching us?”

“Cause I’m reading my book,” I said.  “Go back onto the floor.”

She hesitated and then went.

Well, isn’t that the eternal question, one of the most basic things of human nature:  Why aren’t they all watching us?  Cause they’re hoping we’re watching them.

September 27, 2012

Which Character Are You?

Lady Stark (via)

Which character in a book you identify with, that you think you’re like, says a lot about you. 

As you know, I’m all things Game of Thrones lately ~ quality escapism, I can tell you ~ but it’s been curious to me to watch videos about it and see different people identify with different characters. 

George himself says it disturbs him the number of women who fall in love with the most morally decayed of his characters, say one of the Clegane brothers, who are both fierce fighters in service of their king, but one is a true psychopath and giant while the other, still a ruthless killer, is shown with more humanity.  It’s like the women who fall in love with death-row inmates convicted of killing a couple of wives.

One woman talked about identifying so much with Cersei, who is the evil queen who sleeps with her brother.  She also is a fiercely caring mother, but does that make up for all the horrible things she’s done?

There is Tumblr after Tumblr devoted to each character and the actor behind them.  Like this one and  this one and this one  and this one  It’s amazing to see them.  Rabid, I tell you.  “I am your number one fan.”  Lots of stalking going on.

George himself says he would like to be like Tyrion, the quick-witted powerful dwarf, but he says he is more like Samwell Tarly, the overweight coward who joins the Night’s Watch.

As a writer, I understand this.  I’m writing a YA based on Pride and Prejudice at the moment.  A lot of women identify with Elizabeth Bennet, and my main character is based on Elizabeth, but I have to say I am so much more like her sister Jane.  The same sort of thing ~ I would like to identify with the quick-witted feisty character, but writers are more often the quiet observant empathetic thoughtful character.  A curse and a blessing, but it makes us what and whom we are.

So which character in A Game of Thrones do I see myself as?  Well, once again.  I would love to say Arya, but no.  I am Lady Catelyn Stark.

PS I should add that people identifying with the basest of characters is a testament to George's skill and one of the many things I love about him and what makes his books so good ~ he doesn't see people in black and white.  I totally agree. As he says, "The fight for good and evil resides not between people but within the hearts of each person."

September 26, 2012

'The Hand that Wrote It Is No More'


Maria Popova over at Brainpickings has a great post about Medieval scribes' comments in the margins.  I love the subversiveness of this hand of God complaining in the corners, the assertion of self.

Here are a few:

Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.
As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.
This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, ‘The hand that wrote it is no more.’

September 25, 2012

Omens, Portents, and Metaphors


As I mentioned, I’ve been reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings.

Night before last, I got to the part where Jon Snow, a brave knight of the Night’s Watch, and his knight brothers are camped on the Fist, a hill that rises like a fist that is a ringfort.  It is singularly creepy.  One brother “smells” the cold, and Jon’s direwolf Ghost refuses to go to the top of the Fist.  Ghost is known for sensing a lot more than everyone and helping Jon out of many scrapes.  The landscape is describes as dark and foreboding ~ standing on the top of the hill, the ancient dark forest goes on and on, and it’s wet and rainy.  What we know from before that here past the Wall are the Others, an army of zombie-like people who haven’t really surfaced in the narrative but who loom over it like dread from the very first page.

I don’t do it justice in my description.  But I tell you what, it creeped me out like any good horror novel.  I’d just been reading that part when I had to go downstairs for something, and I kept looking around thinking, “We have far too many windows in this house.  Far too many.”  I turned on a lot of lights as I did my errand, I can tell you, which is silly because then anything outside can see in.

Then, last night, I was reading along, a lot about weirwoods and the old gods and the magic returning because of dragons, about omens and portents and what the future brought.  Again, I had to go downstairs for something, but I didn’t turn on the lights. Our back door is glass to let in the light, and through it I saw moonlight bouncing off the tin roof of our garage and the black outline of our cottonwood tree.  I walked over and looked out.  There was a perfect halfmoon shining brightly and illuminating the small and narrow groups of cirrocumulus clouds that crowded around it.  The lights and faint noise of trucks whizzed by on the interstate next to our house ~ never wall to wall, but persistent, enough to remind you how busy we are as a species.  And then as I watched the blinking lights of a small plane popped out from the clouds, disappeared into the moon, and then popped back out the other side.

In my frame of mind, I couldn’t help but think of portents and omens, of metaphors and signs.  I’d just been reading about the red comet in the sky and everyone interpreting it for good or ill ~ mostly ill ~ and what it meant that the wargs and direwolves were much more plenty and so much more.  So as I watched the moon and the plane I immediately thought of omens and portents and metaphors.  The small blinking lights of the plane merging with the overweening light of the moon.  How small we are and how above ourselves.  We think we have these mighty machines yet the comparably weak light of a halfmoon has such power as to obliterate our evidence.  And the scurrying along the interstate ~ all this busyness to mask our baser natures, and our higher ones.  And the black outline of the tree, usually ignored and taken for granted, yet there it is, it always is, patient as death, as plants always are.

Usually I’m a good rationalist, scientific method and all that, but then I thought, what are portents and omens but just another form of metaphor.  What are metaphors?  One thing that stands in for another, so that by comparison its characteristics are illuminated.  They may be small and clever in literature, but I have long thought that science and religion too are nothing more than a huge structure of interconnecting metaphors.  Useful ones to be sure, but they are simply structures to help us understand the world around us.

So why can’t omens and portents be thought of as the metaphors of people much closer to nature?  They would not simply be based on guesses, but instead be based on long study like science.  Sure, they weren’t backed by the scientific method, but our instincts and our guts tell us many things that our heads won’t, and we express those in metaphors.  They show ourselves to ourselves.

Not only that, but omens are a grasping at trying to predict the future in a thoroughly unpredictable world for people who had much less control over it and much more dire consequences for the lack of it.  It gave an illusion of control, which we all need. 

It was not an altogether unpleasant feeling, this reminder of the ineffable.

September 24, 2012

Reading A Clash of Kings

Reading George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings. Loving it of course.

I’m at that stage, halfway through, where I just want to burrow into my bed and do nothing else but read read read! Not eat, not sleep, not take care of kids.  Well, that won’t work, will it?  So I’m reading a lot, interspersed with a bleary-eyed emergence from my room to get supper.

Well, maybe it’s not as bad as all that, but you know how it is.

I am continually struck by how skillful George is.  As I’m reading, pulled inexorably along by the story, another part of me is standing back going, hmmm, I could learn a lot from this.  The series is so grounded in historical reality, and George takes no prisoners and you really don’t know who’s going to die.  It’s the perfect combination of fantasy and horror and history.  His world-building and -conveying is the best I’ve read in years.  And his characters.  He has strong women and strong men and flawed people and people trying not to be flawed.  They feel fleshed out and consistent but contradictory in a good way. Gosh, I wish I could do that.

I’m in, and I love it.

September 21, 2012


I was thinking about the medium of television and movies and how it is all external.  It is all image. Filmmakers use various techniques to try to circumvent that, to show you the internal life of the characters, whether it’s facial expressions or voiceover or symbolism or special camera techniques.  However, it is essentially an exterior medium.  It is the way we experience the outside world every day, and we have to try to figure out what’s going on inside other people.  We’re these scientists who investigate the clues to others’ inner lives.

Writing is not like that.  It is an interiority medium.  You have to make a much more conscious effort to paint a picture of the outside world, and even when the world is presented it’s a reflection of the inner life of the characters or of the writer. I’ve always said that this is why I love fiction ~ it’s as close as you can get to another person’s reality.

The internet is an interesting combination of both.  It lends itself to the visual and therefore the quick fix, the exterior.  Yet it’s also word driven and therefore we have the insides of people displayed for all to see.  Everyone can get past the gatekeepers to express their inner lives.  But the quick fix nature of the medium encourages the reader not to connect and understand but to form an instant opinion and move on.

Lately I’ve been finding this all exhausting, and I’ve been seeking out the little corners of the internet that have long quiet intense articles.  Anything by Roxane Gay.  Byliner and its long-form journalism.  The Rumpus.  Or I’ve been avoiding the internet altogether and going to the source, to my beloved books.  Still working my way through that fabulous short story collection The Story and its Writer, and also started the second in the Song of Ice and Fire series.  Seeking solitude and quiet.


September 20, 2012

Henry David Thoreau

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail." ~ Henry David Thoreau