Monthly Archives: July 2012

Distractions

“Foolish Fashions” – from the Library of Congress website.

When I decided to write a little bit today about writers and “distractions,” I went straightaway to the Oxford English Dictionary to check out what the pronunciation of it looks like ( “/dɪˈstrækʃən/” ) because – well, because it’s pretty – it’s the phonetic equivalent of an ideogram. A word, but not a word.  I also checked out its etymology (<from “the Latin distractiōn-em, n. of action < distrahĕre to pull asunder”) and I confirmed different definitions (all basically dealing with the pulling asunder of something – severance, dispersion, stretching, extending – either mentally, emotionally or physically – ouch.) The different definitions all emphasize how a distraction is seen in an “adverse” light, though one definition pushed the word toward a rosier definition, one of diversion and relaxation. While I was at the OED site (thank you, wonderful Seattle Public Library, for your research databases, which save my bookshelves from having to accommodate all 11 volumes of the OED) I also took a look at  some of the earliest examples of the use of “distraction,” such as this one in William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “While he was yet in Rome, His power went out in such distractions, As beguilde all Spies.”

The New Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, London, 1909.

Of course, then I looked up “beguiled” since it’s such a lovely word. The OED is a poet’s equivalent of falling down the rabbit hole. You find yourself in a strange, swirling, distracting and beguiling world, and it’s difficult to find your way back up to the surface. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction.”

All eleven volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary

Let’s hear it for distractions like the OED and even Browning herself. What would the world be like if we always stayed on task? What would clear our palates, and when would we make room for the new? I believe in distractions, a fact my students all know, since in addition to sending them assignments, I send them enough website distractions to derail them from their work. I do that to encourage them to let in the fresh air of new ideas from time to time.

Every so often here at Books Around the Table I’m going to offer up a few websites that I consider good generative distractions – generative in the sense that they lead to new story ideas.  Here are three Alice-in-Wonderland-style rabbit holes (aka distractions) that I’ll send your way today in case you suspect  the air around you is getting a little stale.  Click on the website name below – and get distracted.

Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of Alice in Wonderland

1. Brain Pickings - It’s the “brain child” of Maria Popova, and its stated purpose is to a be a ” human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are.” A typical post has many subjects, such as this one about the artist Maira Kalman.

Maira Kalman and Pete

Or this one about the “sculptural soundtracks” of Nathalie Miebach: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/07/12/nathalie-miebach-musical-weather-data-sculptures/

A 3-D rendering of the soundtrack of a storm – Nathalie Miebach

2. TYWKIWDBI - yes, that’s the name of the site. It stands for “Things You Wouldn’t Know If We Didn’t Blog Intermittently.” It is self-described as “an eclectic mix of trivialities, ephemera, curiosities, and exotica with a smattering of current events, social commentary, science, history, English language and literature, videos, and humor. We try to be the cyberequivalent of a Victorian cabinet of curiosities.” For example: Did you know that Cleopatra lived closer chronologically to the moon landing than to the building of the pyramids?

Marble Bust of Cleopatra – 30-40 A.D.

3. The Library of Congress - very dangerous site. You can get so distracted you never get tracted again. Maps, manuscripts, prints, photographs – and a search engine that brings up everything in an instant. The next best thing to actually living at the Library of Congress.

Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress

More distractions soon. Whenever I discover them, I’ll pass them on.

Pay Attention, Report Back

It seems my monthly turn at this blog comes around too quickly. Then I think of my Dad. For 25 years, he wrote a three-times-a-week column that ran on the front page of his newspaper, the Sonora Union Democrat. Three times a week.

A precursor to blogging, Dad’s Sierra Lookout column was a forum for his take on the life and times of his beloved “poison-oakers” in California’s Mother Lode. Dad wrote about his childhood, family, local issues, world news, and rural life, all from the perspective of a self-described “country editor.”

Harvey McGee, 1990

The following column seemed to raise its hand to be included on our Books Around the Table blog because it was written on July 19, 1977. That’s 35 years ago, almost to the day. I think of it as an ode to the Sierra.

     WHEN THE insides of your knees are chafed all the way up to the end of your spine.
When anything you sit in seems to lurch and shake.
When the backs of your hands and ears are chapped and sunburned.

     WHEN YOU can’t get the smell of fish out from under your fingernails and the smell of smoke out of your clothes.
When the porch railing is draped with an open sleeping bag.
When the air mattress that stayed puffed up only long enough to lure you onto it is on the way to the dump.

     WHEN YOU’VE said thanks to Mr. Cutter and his magic mosquito repellant and drained the pollywogs from a glass of Tang for the last time.
When you can smile again without your lips cracking.
When old “Mac” is again munching hay in Willy Ritts’ Kennedy Meadows corral.

     WHEN ALL these things are done you lie on that bed that never deflates and remember –
The gentle plunk of the lure on the long cast.
The dart of a shadow from a deep pool, the splash and flash of silver – then nothing.
Or maybe a solid tug – too soft for a snag, too firm for anything but a lunker.

     OR VAST ranges of granite pocked by blue jewels with revered names – Black Bear, Bigelow, Emigrant, Dorothy, Maxwell.
And in the folds of rock: lush meadows, green groves, clear streams. Far beyond and below, the grey-brown air trapped in the simmering valley.

     SOON forgotten are the lurching chafing and burning of the sometimes rider. Even the memory of Pear Ripple, wet clothes and gin rummy defeats begins to fade.
What remains as clear as the night sky over Bigelow Peak are the steaks, shishkebob and basted eggs by an expert volunteer cook, the sweet meat of camp-smoked trout and the fellowship of others who share an unspoken appreciation of the remote magnificence.

     VISITORS to the wilderness are apt to feel some guilt about the privilege, but that’s the paradox of the place. If it were easily available to more, it would soon be enjoyed by none.         –Harvey C. McGee

Emigrant Basin. Photo courtesy of Susan McGee Britton.

As writers and artists it’s our calling to pay attention and report back. No one sees the world quite the same way. I’m lucky to have my Dad’s columns – his keen observations and amused take on the human condition, his personal stories and opinions – to guide me. Not to mention the gold mine of over 2,500 columns that will come in handy when I’m looking down the trail for a blogpost idea.

Riding into the high country, 1968. L to r: Marny Gorgas, Kate McGee, Laura McGee.

Black Cats

Today is Friday the 13th.
Although I should know better I am superstitious. I would never submit a manuscript or deliver finished artwork on a Friday the 13th. If a black cat crosses my path I walk backwards for 7 steps or throw salt over my left shoulder as soon as possible. (Salt tossing is my all purpose antidote for bad luck).

Several years ago I illustrated the book Knock on Wood: Poems About Superstitions by Janet S. Wong. It was great fun to illustrate. Unfortunately it taught me new superstitions to worry about. (For example, you should never leave your hat on a bed.) Here is a black cat from that book.

Earlier this week I began a draft for this blog post. I was unable to finish it because my previously perfect computer stopped working midstream; after several hours on the help line I found out that the hard drive was broken. No amount of salt tossing could fix it. I am working on a different computer now. Even as some primitive part of my brain thinks that my computer problems were related to the date or the subject matter of my post, another part wonders how I could ever give these superstitions credence. Why should black cats be considered bad luck?

kotofei ivanovich by Tatyana Marevna

Why not black horses?

Why not orange cats?

Art from Where Is Catkin? by Janet Lord

Do you indulge in any superstitions? Can you recommend any charms or antidotes to bad luck? Can you remove the hex from my hard drive?

Looking Up

We have sun in Seattle today. Not a cloud in the sky. This is the kind of day that makes Seattleites smile at each other in a goofy, I-love-you-man sort of way.

So I pick this day to write about clouds, and not looking at things very carefully.

Last year when I was illustrating Dinosaur Thunder (this is my last post about this book, I promise! maybe) – along with stalking dinosaurs and going bowling – I was also researching clouds. I’d never really looked at clouds that carefully before (yes, Joni, I hear you), because clouds are something we usually try to ignore in this town. What I found was that clouds are amazingly diverse, colorful, and full of personality, just as Marion Dane Bauer‘s text describes.

Everywhere I went during the months that I was working on the book I kept looking up to check on the latest cumulonimbular developments and whipping out my camera whenever the clouds were particularly interesting or useful reference. Like this view looking out over South Seattle.

Does that not look like a lion roaring to you? Well, it did to me.

Here are a few more photos from my cloud collection.

I would say to my husband, “the clouds this year are bigger and fluffier and more thundery-looking than before!” and he kept assuring me “no, they’re always like this, you’ve just never noticed.”

Well, today being the exception and with allowances made for global climate change, I think he may have been right. Now that I’ve had another year to look, I concede that we really do have impressive cloud formations here too.

I also discovered in my researching that there are many avid cloud observers out there, some of whom go out of their way to record cloud activity, setting up time-lapse cameras to run for hours over one vista. Some of these videos are inspiring to watch. Here’s one of my favorites:

Those colorful roiling puffs influenced illustrations like this one.

Hurricanes and tornadoes and derechoes aside; seeing the force thunder clouds can wield it is understandable why they are so scary, and not just for children. But that only underscores their allure. Sometimes bunny rabbits, sometimes monsters. Always in motion, always changing. Now I pay more attention and look up more often.