Monthly Archives: September 2015

Hitting the Bump

bumps ahead

We live in a sweet old neighborhood of Seattle which is just north of the University of Washington. It’s full of tree-lined streets and post-WWII bungalows that used to be called “starter homes” but which are now – given the crazy real-estate situation in Seattle with low inventory and high demand – being pulled down or renovated and modernized for people who expect a lot more space. So far, we’ve resisted renovating our place if doing so involved more than a few cans of paint. We did, however, take down two non-producing cherry trees in our back yard recently – they made small bumps in the lawn and didn’t give us any cherries. It was sad taking them down. I like trees. I even like bumps.

Just to our west, we have relatively new neighbors who moved in after developers finished a total re-design of their home. It’s sleek and hip now. I like the new couple well enough, but I miss our old friend, Sonny, who lived there even longer than the 28 years we’ve lived in our place.  I miss talking to him over the rickety picket fence (a fancy new fence went in) and I miss helping him with the harvest from his Italian plum tree, which got pulled down when he moved out. Another sad moment, watching that tree come down.

As Sunny aged, it was harder and harder for him to take care of the house and yard; eventually he went to live with his daughter in Atlanta, and his yard got stripped down to just about nothing – I think the new style is called “low-maintenance.”  Bye-bye, plum tree.

But a huge evergreen still looms over the northwest corner of what will forever be called “Sonny’s place”; everyone in the neighborhood uses the tree as a landmark for friends who visit – you tell friends to either turn right or turn left “at the big tree” to get to a particular house.  It anchors the neighborhood the way a needle anchors a compass.  A couple of winters ago, a huge branch broke right off in a storm and fell on a car parked in the street – no one was hurt, but neighbors began asking about the roots underneath the tree. What direction does the tree lean? Which direction will that tree fall if/when it falls down? How deep do its roots go? Evergreen roots are notoriously shallow – that’s why so many evergreens pull up their root balls when they fall.

tree rootball 2

Not an evergreen, but yikes.

As it turns out, one huge root of the tree is now making a large bump in the street in front of the house. Five or six times a day, I hear some car hit the bump going way too fast. You know the sound: metal hits asphalt with a bang. I can hear the ka-klank even from inside our house with the windows closed, and I can imagine the scene inside the car: brain jarred, yelp of surprise, driver’s hands gripping the steering wheel a bit tighter, car brakes applied too late to make a difference. If a Fed-Ex truck or an open-bedded pick-up goes flying over the bump with packages or equipment or a load of lumber in the truck bed, forget it: it sounds like there’s been an accident, and more than once I’ve gone outside just to reassure myself that it was only another driver who didn’t know what was coming.

So: hitting that bump. Isn’t it weird how things like that can take over your thoughts? I’ve been obsessing about the bump. I think of it as something completely organic and natural, made by a beautiful tree which was already large before our homes were built, before the street  was paved, maybe before there was a street at all.  It’s normal to think about the tree because we can see it – it’s elegant, threatening, dark, gorgeous, powerful, stately. It’s a terrifying and regal monarch that is showing its age.

What we don’t think much about are a tree’s roots, hidden until we trip on them or go flying over them. Of course, anyone whose been down that street more than once or twice knows the root-bump is coming and slows down. We learned our lesson the first time sparks flew from the back fender. We love the tree, so we don’t mind the bump. We respect it.

Is it too much of a stretch to think about that bump in terms of our writing lives or our current writing project? I think the metaphor is easy: bump = difficulties. Who doesn’t hit bumps along the way? And who expects there to be NO bumps? And who, having hit bumps before, doesn’t reconsider the speed at which he or she is traveling? Who doesn’t take a big deep breath and slow down?

Ah, there, I knew it, I knew I could get around again to slowing down. That seems to be my mantra lately. My advice always seems to be to slow down, ponder, observe, learn lessons, move on with care. Don’t avoid the bump, just anticipate it.

bump-in-the-road

Does this obsession with the bump (that is, with respecting its inevitability) have something to do with age? Well, yes, I know I took more risks when I was younger. I drove faster, wrote faster, hit more bumps and simply gripped the steering wheel with whiter knuckles.  But it’s also about an approach to problem-solving (whether the problem is with your writing, your relationships, your attitude) that makes sense to me. Bumps happen. If you know they’re coming, you can decide whether to take them slowly or go sailing over them and lose your fender. You can choose, you can learn or you can forget about learning. Depends on how much you like your fender, I guess.  And let’s see: your fender is a metaphor for…for…

Oh, forget it. All I know is I’m fascinated with that bump. It speaks to me right now. It says “I’m here.” And I say, “I know you’re here.” I talk to trees, I talk to tree roots, there it is.  When I sit down to write, I don’t expect it all to be smooth sailing. Same with life. All smooth sailing???? Who believes that? Sparks are bound to fly, sooner or later.

I’m sure Sonny didn’t expect it to be all smooth sailing either.  Eventually, the big tree might need to come down, just like the plum tree and the cherry trees. We might need to find another anchor for the neighborhood. Meanwhile, when I hear those bangs and ka-klanks, they don’t annoy me. Just the opposite: they make me smile. I tell myself, “If you like trees, Julie, you better like their bumpy roots.”

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Note: I have a poem of mine about the strange nature of mammatus clouds at The Drift Record today. Click on the link if you would like to read it.

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SURPRISE, SURPRISE

“Unpredictability is important to film. Know the objective of the scene, and then surprise yourself.” Veteran actor Stacy Keach shared that insight with an audience of theatre-goers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR last Saturday. While never quite sitting down on a high stool, he recounted highlights from his over-50 years in the acting biz, and offered advice he gives students when he teaches at George Mason University.

keach

Unpredictability.

Keach said an actor can use unpredictability to amp up the vigor of a character. I flashed back two years to a performance of My Fair Lady at OSF. Ken Robinson, the actor who played Freddy, and sang “On the Street Where You Live,” was wildly unpredictable. He began the song typically, the opening notes delivered in a resonant tenor as he strolled the sidewalk in front of Professor Henry Higgins’ house, where Eliza Doolittle had taken up residence. But things diverged as the song progressed. Freddy sprawled on the street, hugging the pavement. By the end he was lying on one side and bicycling his legs in a circle, still singing full voice his love for the “street where you live.” The traditionally poignant song soared with this fresh and hilarious and unforgettable delivery.

We were hooked. We couldn’t wait until Freddy came on stage again, just to see what he’d do. We’ve seen many fabulous performances in the seven years we’ve been going to OSF. This performance stands out.

Unpredictability is something I appreciate in books, too, as a reader and also as a writer. What can be better than discovering the unexpected bits your characters offer as you write your way through a scene?

So here’s some advice from Stacy Keach, transposed for writers: Next time you get bogged down, try injecting some unpredictability. Commit to the intent of a scene, then let something unpredictable happen: write in an unanticipated character, an unexpected action, a less-obvious reaction. Or play around with the mechanics in an unpredictable way: point of view, verb tense, chronology, word choice, sentence structure.

Surprise yourself and discover a more compelling story.

Flutter and Hum, Aleteo y Zumbido

I have a new book out! Flutter and Hum, Aleteo y Zumbido.Flutter Hum coverI am not a poet and I my Spanish is awkward, but somehow I wrote a book of poems in Spanish and English. Here’s how it came about.

In 2009 I illustrated a biography of Neruda written by Monica Brown. In order to understand and illustrate Neruda I needed to learn Spanish, so I started classes right away. I loved learning Spanish. I loved the structure of the language and the sound of the words. I illustrated Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People using pictures and words. The words, which are integrated into the art, are in Spanish and English and were influenced by the words of his poems.PabloNerudaWhile I worked on this book I swam in the Spanish language and in the poems of Neruda. That experience changed my life.Paschkis neruda by seaSince then I have taken many more Spanish classes including immersion classes in Guatemala and in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I have visited Chile, Guatemala, Oaxaca, Morelia, Cuernavaca, Mexico City and Spain. I would like to return to all of those places! I continue to study and read and write. My vocabulary is large and I understand the grammatical structures, but my speech is slow and simple.Flutter&Hum snake But in a strange way, my awkwardness with Spanish is what allowed me to write these poems.
When I hear a word in English my mind leaps right to the meaning of the word, bypassing the sound. I am ABLE to hear the sound but I have to make myself listen.Paschkis word birdWhen I hear a word in Spanish I notice the sound and feel of the word first, and then my mind gropes for the meaning.palabra

For example the word PALABRA (which means word), sounds like a shape to me. I hear the beauty of the word before the meaning. I see a shape like this:finialThe poems in this book often started with me rolling a word around in my mouth. The word for moth is polilla – such a soft word. And the word for lightbulb is bombilla. Bombastic! I put together words and ideas in Spanish until I had the beginning of a poem. That is how I began all of the poems. I always started in Spanish. Then I would work back and forth in Spanish and in English until I had a poem that I liked in both languages. I threw myself at the light – sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.Flutter&Hum mothWhen I painted the illustrations for the book I had another chance to play with words in both languages – to pick words in Spanish and English that bounced off of each other and added shades of meaning and emotion.

I submitted the poems to Noa Wheeler who was then an editor at Henry Holt. She liked them, and Holt offered to publish them. It was a leap of faith on her part and I am grateful.
We eliminated some poems and I wrote some new ones. We tried to keep them juicy.Flutter&Hum fresa copyI showed the poems to Marta Seymour, my first Spanish teacher (who is from Costa Rica) and to my friend Fernando Larios (who is originally from Mexico and is married to Julie Larios). They read the poems and pointed out my most egregious errors. Ingrid Paredes also proofread the poems for Henry Holt and offered specific and helpful criticism. The book is dedicated to Marta, for igniting my love of Spanish and for her generosity in reviewing the poems.Marta Seymour

My joy in creating this book was playing with language in Spanish and English, and in painting with words and images. My hope is that the poems and paintings will encourage others to approach both languages playfully and with pleasure, whatever their native tongue.Flutter&Hum parrotIn Spanish you would say that I am a principiante. A princess? No – a beginner.

Flutter&Hum heronP.S. If you are in Seattle please come to a signing for the book at the Seattle Art Museum book store (SAM Books) on September 26th from 1-3. Some of the original art from the book will on display at the SAM Gallery Shop, along with paintings by my husband Joe Max Emminger and some drawings that we did together. There will be a reception for the show from 3-5. And the museum is free that day! The show will be up until October 16th.

P.S. Here is a review of the book by Julie Danielson at Kirkus., and here is a review from Deborah Stevenson at the BCCB . (The Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books).

Max Lingner: Künstler des Volkes

Max Lingner-mural detail 1Details draw me in. I can easily miss the forest (or wood, as they say here in England) for the trees. But, sometimes a detail fascinates me so much that I’m led to research its entire continent.

Last Spring I visited Berlin. On the side of the former House of Ministries building, (originally built for the Nazi Ministry of Aviation), there is a 60 foot long mural by German artist and illustrator Max Lingner (1888 – 1959). Lingner worked on the mural from 1950 to 1952. It was commissioned by the Prime Minister of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who had Lingner revise the drawing five times. Lingner’s original concept centered on the family. The final image looks stiff and militaristic by comparison. Apparently Lingner hated the final version, and refused to look at it when he went past.

Max Lingner-mural in situ

Nonetheless, the mural fascinated me. I didn’t take in the image in its entirety (which, granted, is hard to do as it is placed behind pillars), but I spent a long time studying how the image was built with layers of line, color and texture. (The image set into the plaza in front commemorates the Uprising of 1953.)

I took a number of photos so that I could examine the images further when I returned to London.

Max Lingner-mural detail 2 Max Lingner-mural detail 3

(I don’t have a thing for shoes, it’s just that the feet of the figures were at eye level and easiest to photograph up close.)

Max Lingner-mural detail 6

What intrigued me was the use of stenciling through a grid structure to achieve tonal variations. I often use stencils in my work, (it’s a printmaking technique, after all) and Lingner has inspired me to experiment with similar techniques.

Since visiting Berlin, I have been trying to gather more information about Lingner and the materials he used. Unfortunately, there is not much information available in English, probably because he was a communist artist working in post-war East Berlin.

I have purchased a number of books from Amazon.de, all in German. I studied German for one year in college. This gives me just enough German to (sort of) figure out what they are talking about, but not enough to know what they are actually saying. Translating online is a slow and inaccurate process, but here are some of my favorite pictures from the books I have collected.

Below is one of the initial paintings for the House of Ministries mural (in two parts because of its length).Max Lingner-preliminary for Haus der Ministerian-LMax Lingner-preliminary for Haus der Ministerian-R

This is the final painting that was then transferred to tiles and installed by a team of artisans from the Meissen porcelain factory.Max Lingner-sixth version for Haus der Ministerian-LMax Lingner-sixth version for Haus der Ministerian-R

This painting was for another mural: ” Construction in Germany.”Max Lingner-Aufbau in Deutschland-72

“Woman and Child,” Madrid 1937.Max Lingner-Mutter und Kind-Madrid 1937

“The Starving Child,” 1948.Max Lingner-Das hungerude Kind

Cover for exhibition catalogue, “Eigentum des Deutschen Volkes” (tr. Ownership of the German People?)Max Lingner-Ownership of the German people-exhibit cover

From the series, “As it was,” 1958Max Lingner-So War Est

“Peasant with wide eyes,” 1950-54. I believe Lingner was a colleague of Käthe Kollwitz.Max Lingner-Bauer mit aufgerissenen

Lingner also illustrated at least one book for children. This is the cover for The Goatherd, by Henri Barbusse. Max Lingner-Der Ziegenhirt-Jacket

I haven’t figured out the whole story yet. It’s something about a princess and a goatherd and forced labor and dancing and the future … for children aged six and up.

Max Lingner-Der Ziegenhirt-Alle grossen Gebaude Max Lingner-Der Ziegenhirt-Ach sagte die Prinzessin

Someday I hope to learn more about Max Lingner’s work. Maybe I will get lucky and someone will publish a book about Lingner in English.  In the meantime, Ich studiere, um mein Deutsch verbessern…