Category Archives: Quirky-ness of life

On Delight, Despair and…Musical Chairs

cat_musical_chairs

Two things happened this week which made me pause amid the busy-ness of every day life (painting a bedroom, reorganizing the linen cupboard.)  The first was my grandson’s birthday. He is  seven wonderful years old – a whirlwind, a dreamer,a talker  – and his imagination never stops. He’s learning to play the piano and recently performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the one-handed  version on piano) by heart in front of a live audience of adoring parents and grandparents at a pizza parlor in Eugene, Oregon. We’ll have a little family party in Seattle for him this weekend when he comes up with his parents, and we have two presents this time around that he’ll get with the usual books and art supplies and stickers – one is a Superman robot with helicopter blades attached to his head (he flies up and down – not forward, not backward, apparently – and spins via remote control – not fancy, but fancy enough for a seven-year-old) and another is the same thing only the figure is Batman. Great stuff, if I do say so. I mean, who wouldn’t want helicopter blades that could make them levitate? Of such imaginings, delight is made.

The second thing that happened was a posting on Facebook by my good friend Leda Schubert that quoted Tomi Ungerer (“A talent without despair is hardly useful”) and asked for comments. I replied that I might revise that to read, “hardly interesting,” believing as I do that quite a lot of fascinating art comes from melancholy, dissatisfaction, darkness (think Maurice Sendak.) Within hours, a different person replied by saying, “Sorry but, blah blah blah. What is your comment? I am not interested in talent or despair.

Not interested in talent? Not interested in despair? Whoa. That threw me for a loop.  You can be interested in happiness, that’s fine with me – who isn’t? But to the exclusion of sorrow? And why not interested in talent? I suspect that the comment was not meant to be as flip as it sounded.

I also suspect sometimes that I have a dark edge that bumps up against the sweet world of children’s books and their authors –  a very kind and happy bunch of people, I’ve learned. I like their influence on me, and I thank them for keeping me slightly more balanced than I used to be when I was just writing poetry for adults (no shortage of despair in some of that.) But I do wonder from time to time about the energy it takes to approach the world “without a cry, without a prayer, / with no betrayal of despair” as Tennessee Williams put it. It exhausts me, the idea of trying to do that. Is that what the commenter on Leda’s post meant when he said he’s “not interested in despair.” Maybe he thinks it’s exhausting, and doesn’t want to go there. Or does he just not want anyone to mention it? Or was he just kidding, and I missed the humor of it?

Seems to me that not being interested in sorrow would eliminate about 51% (maybe more – 99%? –  let’s just say a great deal) of all the music, visual art, dance, film, theater and literature that is produced out of discomfort, melancholy, grief, or any of  the million small heartaches that move us to create – a longing for home, a dream gone up in smoke, missing someone, running out of hope. Those things happen in life, and to express disinterest feels very odd to me. “All you have to do,” I replied again on Leda’s Facebook page, “is listen to a sad fiddle tune or a good Rhythm and Blues song to know how interesting despair can be and how intricately it is linked to creativity.”

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's "Children's Games."

Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s  “Children’s Games.”

The intersection of the Happy Birthday moment and the Not Interested in Talent or Despair moment came yesterday when I read a poem  by Josephine Jacobsen, a Canadian poet whose work I’m looking into for one of my Undersung essays over at Numero Cinq. She wrote the following poem about children playing musical chairs at a birthday party. It has delight, it has sorrow – neither one eclipses the other. The two together deepen each other, don’t they?

Seems to me that the lesson to remember is this, so basic that it’s got to be true:  Don’t worry about those two crayons in the Crayola box – Delight and Despair. Use them liberally. Both – light and dark – make your work interesting.

Hope you all enjoy Jacobsen’s poem as I did – the terza rima form seems perfect for something that looks at a children’s game. It has a nursery rhyme feel to it, but packs a punch.  I bet both melancholy and delight played a role in her writing it.  We see the children running, we hear their eager cries, we worry about that dark slope, and we know that “somewhere hidden” there is “the shape of bliss.”

The Birthday Party  by Josephine Jacobsen

The sounds are the sea, breaking out of sight,
and down the green slope the children’s voices
that celebrate the fact of being eight.

One too few chairs are for desperate forces:
when the music hushes, the children drop
into their arms, except for one caught by choices.

In a circle gallops the shrinking crop
to leave a single sitter in hubris
when the adult finger tells them: stop.

There is a treasure, somewhere easy to miss.
In the blooms? by the pineapple-palms’ bark?
somewhere, hidden, the shape of bliss.

Onto the pitted sand comes highwater mark.
Waves older than eight begin a retreat;
they will come, the children gone, the slope dark.

One of the gifts was a year, complete.
There will be others: those not eight
will come to be eight, bar a dire defeat.

On the green grass there is a delicate
change; there is a change in the sun
though certainly it is not truly late,

and still caught up in the scary fun,
like a muddle of flowers blown around.
For treasure, for triumph, the children run

and the wind carries the steady pound,
and salty weight that falls, and dies,
and falls. The wind carries the sound

of the children’s light high clear cries.

Musical-Chairs-300x225

By the way, today is Poetry Friday.  Head over to Violet Nesdoly’s blog to see her round-up of what people around the KidLitOSphere have posted.

And by the way again, if you didn’t have time to check out the link to Ode to Joy above, take time to do it now. It’s the Flash Mob in Spain version – all delight. ———————————————————–

This Is Your Brain on Folk Music

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Poster_72dpi_RGBInside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the talented Coen Brothers, is finally out on DVD – I’ve been dying to see it, but it came and went quickly to theaters in Seattle, and I missed it. As a writer, I’m always interested in seeing what other creative people’s take is on creativity and the creative life in general. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it films (as is most of the Coen Brothers’ work) with quite a few people disappointed by it.  I loved it. I thought about it long into the night, and the next day found myself singing songs from the folk music scene of the early 60’s. Those were the years I began to get interested in poetry, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg and Kenneth Patchen. I subscribed as a teenager to the Village Voice (worlds away from my own non-Village home in San Jose, California – but hey, we had our own little coffee house called Freight and Salvage.) I took guitar lessons from Marty Ziegler, I listened to Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers. In the movie, when a young clean-cut duo gets up to sing “The Last Thing on My Mind,”  I could sing every single word of it. What is it about memory – our brains on music – that allows us to call up song lyrics (and the touch, taste, smell, sound, and sights of the moments that surround them) so easily when we can’t even remember where we put our keys or our reading glasses? Here’s a wonderful rendition of it with Liam Clancy and Tom Paxton.

And many years later, those evenings spent singing folk songs with other faculty members of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, up in the faculty lounge late at night during our residencies, with Leda Schubert on guitar and my fellow Books-Around-the-Table friend Laura Kvasnosky sometimes there on ukulele – those moments were golden.

But my reaction to Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t all about nostalgia.

The film deserves attention from anyone involved in the arts because it examines creativity, talent, personality, ethics, integrity, commercialism, perseverance – and how all those elements get harnessed or go wandering off in an artist’s life. [If you have trouble with spoilers, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. Me, I never mind knowing in advance what's coming - it helps me watch the scenes more carefully....]

There’s a scene in the movie where Llewyn has a chance, finally, to audition for Al Grossman (played beautifully by F. Murray Abraham, who did such a fantastic job in another movie which examines artistic talent, Amadeus.) Grossman was the manager in the 60’s of the famous music venue Gate of Horn in Chicago, and he represented most of the big folksingers of the decade – Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens, and – later – Janis Joplin.

The audition is Llewyn’s big chance, yet he chooses an obscure traditional ballad, a difficult song to perform, and Grossman responds by saying he doesn’t see much money in it. He gives Llewyn mixed advice, some good (look for a partner who can add depth with  harmonies) and some offensive (cut the beard into a goatee, clean up) and Llewyn simply walks away.

Llewyn's Audition with Al Grossman

Llewyn’s Audition with Al Grossman

It’s almost like the musician gives the manager a test by singing this ballad in its pure, traditional form – and Grossman fails the test. At least that’s how I saw it play out. Historically, of course, it was Dave Van Ronk (the real-life folksinger Llewyn is based on) who failed Grossman’s test and then drifted back into the small Gaslight Cafe scene of Greenwich Village rather than use the Gate of Horn and Grossman’s mentorship as a springboard for national success.

Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t garner the usual prizes or attention that Coen Brothers’ films usually do (think O Brother, Where Art Thou – which the wonderful T-Bone Burnett, a big part of Inside Llewyn Davis, also helped conceive.)  I’ve been trying to sort out why, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the hero of the tale is so complicated – it’s hard to understand him. Does he self-destruct over and over again, or is it just a hard, mean world for a struggling artist? He’s not always nice – in fact, he’s often unappealing: sarcastic, smug, dismissive, judgmental, irresponsible. He takes advantage of people, rotates through their apartments eating their food, using their couches to crash, sees himself as a person who does not compromise, is not interested in the real lives of other people. He’s all about himself and his music – and you never quite know if he lost his musical partner to suicide because of troubles the partner had or because of how little joy or support Llewyn was capable of. Nevertheless, one of the crew says (in the Special Features section – watch that, it’s fascinating, especially T-Bone Burnett talking about jamming for the movie) that she thinks everyone in the movie is a phony except Llewyn. I didn’t feel that way at all – I guess it’s all about perspective. But in a certain way, as a writer, I empathized with Llewyn’s attempts to stay true to his talent. Besides, he’s just so sad. Even a person who does it to himself deserves some sympathy, no?

So please, rent the movie, watch it and come to your own conclusions. Talented artists are not always easy people to get along with, and Llewyn is not a nice-guy hero. The same was true about Mozart in Amadeus, of course – Salieri, his less talented colleague, watches as the miserably adolescent Mozart giggles his way to fame and fortune. Llewyn has his own failings – and he’s no Mozart-level genius. So…is the film saying that a lack of talent does him in, or a too-highly-honed sense of integrity, or just plain bad luck being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or his own disaffections or….? What are the Coen Brothers telling us about artistic endeavors? I’m not sure yet. If you’ve seen the film, help me figure it out – add a comment below. Why do some artists make it and others don’t? What, as an artist, do you owe to your own talent? Is the world a hospitable or hostile place for artists? And is Llewyn actually a talented artist or an Almost-but-not-quite? Or is he despicable, as many viewers claim?  What does the world owe him? What does he owe the world? As writers, we can think about that a bit.

llewynAnd what do you think the cat is all about?

Gosh, I love a movie – or a book or a song or a painting or any work of art – that leaves you thinking.

While we think about the answers to those questions, let’s go put on a few of our old records (still have a phonograph?) and be amazed by our musical memory. How many you can sing along to from Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin’,” Richie Haven’s “Mixed Bag,” Ian and Sylvia, Peter Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez? Hey, how about Dave Van Ronk’s incomparable “Dink’s Song,” which you’ll recognize as Llewyn’s signature piece. Lovely song.

On Oaxaca Time

La Catrina

La Catrina

Estoy escribiendo hoy desde Oaxaca….no, no, no, I mean I’m writing this from Oaxaca today. I can hear the grinding of the gears as my brain switches between Spanish and English. I can hear a little more grinding in the switch from Go-go-go-go-go to relax-relax-relax-relax. and even more grinding between the London bobby style of giving directions (“Two blocks down, Miss, on your right, blue door, black doorknocker, can’t be missed….”) and the Policia Municipal (“Si, si, Senora, the museum used to be here, it moved, maybe a block down, maybe four or five, but not too far, over that way, just down that direction, maybe on the other side of the park….” and it’s always nice to walk through the park even if you don’t find the museum.

Eventually – a few days into things – the gear-grinding stops and all is smooth. You are not quite you, but you like the you you have become. The logical left brain gets quieter, the right brain sings.  Colors intensify.

Hand-made Paper, Taller de Papel in San Agustin Etla

Hand-made Paper, Taller de Papel in San Agustin Etla

Tastes intensify….

Breakfast

Breakfast: Molote con Chorizo y Papa

…and the sense of smell intensifies. You can smell ripening guayavas somewhere. There, on the other side of the wall, a guayava tree.

There, on the other side of the wall....

There, on the other side of the wall….

A green parrot hangs in a cage from a tree inside a cloister built in the 16th century. He looks at you sideways, his bright red eyes rimmed all the way around with yellow. “Hasta luego!” he says when you walk away.

 Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching….every sense intensified…this is what writers and artists need from time to time.  Walking, listening, seeing, slowing down.

It’s an important time in Oaxaca – the three-day spread that surrounds the Day of the Dead, and I’m headed over to the cemetery as soon as the sun goes down.  There are tubas and trumpets and drums; there are people who have become skeletons; there is dancing in the streets.  There are marigold-covered altars to the dead inside many courtyards.  There are images everywhere of La Catrina, the young lady skeleton with wide hat and parasol. Everywhere, Los Muertos  – the Dead.  And I am feeling quite alive.

Curiosity Kills the Cat, but Not the Writer….

Woodpecker - Paper Sculpture by Diana Beltran Herrera

Woodpecker – Paper Sculpture by Diana Beltran Herrera

I love getting newsletters from Smithsonian magazine emailed to me once a week – they send links to their articles and I usually find a thing or two (or three or four or more) to think about and explore further.  I subscribe to the print magazine, too;  it’s the one I reach for first when the mail brings me lots of heady reading. I have a thick folder in my file cabinet that’s just for articles I’ve torn out from their pages. This week, it was the beautiful birds of paper sculptor Diana Beltran Herrera (see link below.) I sent the link on to my sister, who also likes such things and whose intellectual curiosity and capacity for wonder inspire me. It seems to me that the bottom line for all artists is curiosity, no?  If you want to be a better writer, try being more curious about the world and the way it works.

Here, then, are links to some recent Smithsonian articles (and there are links within those articles – you can get lost inside it all.)  I hope they set you wandering and wondering…and writing!  Just click on the description:

1. Paper robins, woodpeckers, cardinals, kingfishers…

Robin in flight...

Robin in flight…

2. An insect with “mechanical” gears…

3.  …and a mechanical insect! (this one is from the archives)

Man-made beetle...

Man-made beetle…

4. A “sonic bloom” at the Seattle Center

Sonic-Bloom-Dan-Corson

5. Making music with the Brooklyn Bridge …

6. Shooting frozen flowers? (Who would even think of it? Eerie and beautiful…)

Frozen Flower, Shot

Frozen Flower, Shot

7. Repairing memories and changing memories…

"Each time a memory is recalled, the brain rebuilds it."

“Each time a memory is recalled, the brain rebuilds it.”

8. There’s an exhibition of Brian Skerry’s photography up at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. right now. Here’s a slideshow of his work. 

This is how you photograph a whale...

This is how you photograph a whale…

(By the way, it doesn’t take much to support our wonderful national museum – just $19 and you automatically get a subscription to the magazine.  Click here to visit their website and become a member.)

****

The word is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson

On Goldilocks, John McPhee and Cows

goldilocks

I feel a little foolish this week, complaining about the weather in Seattle. “Too hot,” I whined on Wednesday when it reached 83 degrees (87 at the airport!) and we took to the shade. Last week I was putting on wool socks and whining the other direction – “Too cold.”  Weren’t we just looking out the windows at the rain and feeling sorry for ourselves?

Yesterday, my husband got out the garden hose and watered the clematis vines running along the rail fence: “Too dry!” he explained. Last week, my aunt and I were both talking about Seattle gardens looking like jungles this spring, with dandelions growing as high as the peonies: “Too wet!” we said, shaking our heads.

Death Valley: Too Hot. [photographer unknown]

Death Valley: Too Dry. [photographer unknown]

Too Wet: The Hoh Rain Forest (Photo by Kevin Muckenthaler)

The Hoh Rain Forest: Too Wet (Photo by Kevin Muckenthaler)

Have you ever heard of the Goldilocks Principle?

Don’t laugh. This is a term that psychologists, biologists, astronomers, engineers and economists (hot = inflation, cold = recession) use to describe an ideal state where “something falls within certain margins as opposed to reaching extremes.” In September of 2010, astronomers said they had discovered a “Goldilocks planet” circling a star in the constellation Libra, at a distance “just right” for the presence of water and possibility of sustaining life.  In our solar system, Venus is too hot and Mars is too cold. Earth is just right.  Earth is the eatable bowl of porridge.

What Planets Need In Order to Be Contented - That Middle Star

What Planets Need In Order to Be Contented – That Middle Star

Babies, according to some cognitive scientists, provide examples of the Goldilocks Principle, too, paying most attention to activity that is neither too complex nor too simple, but somewhere between the extremes, somewhere “just right.”

Even bloggers are asking people to leave effective “Goldilocks Comments” – not hot and bothered, not prim or abstract.  Instead, “just right.”

“Just right.”  It sounds like a term from a fairy tale – aha, it is a term from a fairy tale!  Like that other condition that eludes us called “happily ever after”?

How does anyone ever reach that cool center, that point of equilibrium? Maybe reaching the fairy-tale’s “just right” is about zoning out.   Maybe it’s a zen thing.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Carnation Milk, which started in Carnation, Washington, first came up with the advertising phrase, “Milk from Contented Cows.”

Carnation Milk's Contented Cows

Carnation Milk’s Contented Cows

See in the background, behind those cows? That’s Mt. Rainier on a perfect day. No wonder they are calm and contented, those cows. No wonder they aren’t wondering or obsessing about anything, just slowly munching the grass. The day is just right.

But I find myself wondering: Is the Goldilocks Effect something artists subconsciously avoid, since contentment might be counter-productive when it comes to producing good work (or producing any work at all)? Are we most energetic when something is just slightly – not horribly, just slightly – off? When something bothers us – like the porridge being too hot, the bed too soft? When we sit down on baby bear’s chair, when people are too complicated or not complicated enough, and the chair breaks and we fall to the ground. Too big, too little – is that where we get our stories?

John McPhee suggests in his recent article in the April 29th issue of The New Yorker that revision is the way to produce good writing. You revise when you are dissatisfied. There are ways to work hard, and then harder, to make the writing perfect. McPhee’s own writing is all about revision and perfection, not about writing in a way which falls between “certain margins” of acceptability.

John McPhee - Hot, Cold and Just Right

John McPhee – Hot, Cold and Just Right

I wonder if he is a calm man? He doesn’t look obsessive. He looks calm and kind. How can that be? How can a perfectionist be anything but a nervous wreck? If you read the article, Mr. McPhee sounds like a nice guy, a sweet dad, but also like someone who has learned to strive toward perfection. Does he ever say, “This is good enough?” I doubt it.  But I wonder what he thinks about the maxim of “all things in moderation” – nothing too anything? I would like to hear John McPhee talk about the Goldilocks Principle.

I like the possibility that a life-sustaining element exists in me as it does in a planet that is “just right” in relation to the star it orbits. But I have the feeling I’m hurtling through space a little too hot or – sometimes – a little too cold. I whine a lot. Does discontent inspire me? Do I strive for perfection? That’s what I’m wondering on this hot day in Seattle.  One thing for sure: I wouldn’t be satisfied living in a barn in Carnation, coming out in the morning, chewing the green grass and going back into the barn at night.

Cows - Everything Is Good

Cows – Everything Is Good

Of course, something about that little scenario does sound sweet and appealingly simple. But no. Zoning out is not my thing. I failed at my first and only official attempt – a meditation class at UC Berkeley in 1968. I couldn’t keep out the metaphorical and literal noise of people protesting in the streets. Berkeley in the 60’s – talk about  a hot planet. Since then, I have not tried to meditate.

So – another hot day today.   If you have a logical mind, you’ll see that I’m contradicting myself, because I long for the weather to be just right. Shouldn’t I be loving the extremes? Shouldn’t I want heat so hot it makes me write a poem? Rain so wet I write the great American novel?

Oh, contradictions, schmontradictions. When it gets above 80 in Seattle, I sit in the shade and fail to make sense. I hear cows mooing from 50 miles off.  I fall asleep and dream that I am calm and kind.

Too Hot in Seattle

Too Hot in Seattle

IT’S SPRING!

Image

Baby hummingbirds just before they fledged from their nest outside my friend Samara Louton’s Seattle kitchen window.

A couple of months ago our bookclub decided that we’d each memorize a poem. I chose Pied Beauty by Gerald Manley Hopkins. I taped it to the bathroom mirror so I can work on a line or two as I brush my teeth, (while standing on one foot, I might add: trying to improve balance and memory along with good dental care).

 Pied Beauty
 
 Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
 
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.
                                      

                                  – by Gerald Manley Hopkins

 This splendid poem is called to mind everywhere I look this spring: in the dotted pink petal-fall on the patio around the cherry tree, the checkered frittilarias nodding in woodland shade, striped tulips, and notched and patterned butterfly wings. And, not least of all, in the sweet spots on our springer spaniel.

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Never miss an opportunity to include a photo of Izabella.

Once you start looking for it, you catch the quirky rhythms of pattern everywhere: yesterday in the decorations on Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s front door, today in the tiny deep blue pearls that circle the centers of the anemones we are arranging as we figure out table decorations for my daughter’s wedding.

photo

I love the images that this poem puts so succinctly before me. And the awareness of dappled-ness that it awakens. As I come to own each line, patting it into my memory to the buzz of the toothbrush, I have come to appreciate the texture of the words and the pattern of the lines. It is, in itself, a lovely pied creation.

IMG_2212

More patterns, along the driveway at the Captain Whidbey Inn.