Category Archives: Blogging about Life

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

Reading the Times

WE’RE SITTING TIGHT here in Seattle, at the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus, while news of Boeing’s 737 Max crisis, the Democratic primaries, and the stock market’s volubility swirl around us.

How to stay calm in these stressful times? Curl up with a good book.

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From its first sentences, a good book opens a door into the story and you are welcomed in. Everything in the ‘real’ world – from big concerns, like global warming and homelessness, to the quotidian, like the dog’s teeth that need brushing, and piles of laundry, and unpulled weeds – everything fades away. You may find yourself with that other Laura, settling down to sleep in the loft of a Little House in the Big Woods, or howling with a wolf pup on a faraway mountainside, or summoning an owl messenger to Hogwarts with a certain boy wizard.

Stories give us a chance to live forward and backward in time; to inhabit other places, be they real or imagined. We can put on the skin of a dragon or a fox or another person. In stories, we can experience things that are way too scary or infuriating or heartbreaking to experience in real life. If, subsequently, our own lives serve up fear, or anger or heartbreak, sometimes it is a story that helps us through, offering information and comfort.

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The wonderful irony is that while a story can offer refuge from the ‘real’ world, it also has the amazing power to connect. We humans are story people. I wrote about the chemical reason for this in my last post.

When we share our stories – in both reading and writing – that connection leads naturally to empathy, an empathy that sends us back to the ‘real’ world refreshed for the challenges ahead. I like how Barrack Obama put it: “The thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories.” I hope other politicians know about this.

WE MADE A RUN to Costco Sunday and I can assure you that should we be quarantined because of the coronavirus, we have sufficient maple syrup, guacamole and toilet paper for the duration. More importantly, should the weight of the current news cycle become too heavy, the Seattle Public Library offers an escape to ebooks and audiobooks, all easily downloaded from the comfort of our isolation.

We’re up to the challenge, here, holding down the northwest corner of the map. But a little bibliotherapy may be necessary.

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The characters from Little Wolf’s First Howling, as featured in the Mazza calendar last year. Thanks to my sister Kate Harvey McGee for the lovely colors.

 

 

 

 

Story Chemistry

“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”     – Gabrielle Roth

I think she’s got it right – better mental health through dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, and comforted by silence. To which I would add two more questions: When did you stop gardening? and When did you stop hanging out with your dog?

But that story thing. That’s what’s on the plate here today. Stories. From daily incidents – what elementary school writers call “small moments” – packed with meaning and humor and pathos, to the big arcs of a lifetime that spool out of the ephemera of past generations. Through stories, we connect. It is one of my favorite things about being human.

Turns out there is a chemical reason why we find stories so satisfying, according to neuro-economist Paul Zak. Zak measured his subjects’ brains’ oxytocin before and after watching character-driven videos. The oxytocin levels took a definite jump.

His verdict: human beings are “wired for story.”

You know that pleasurable feeling you get from a good story? That’s oxytocin synthesizing in your brain. In further studies, Zak found that the more oxytocin a person released, the more likely a person would be willing to help others, for example, by donating money to charities associated with the video’s narrative. This mechanism will play out repeatedly Sunday in Superbowl commercials whose stories will tug your heartstrings and then your wallet, all in 30 seconds flat.

Zak wrote, “Many of us know from Joseph Campbell’s work that enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity; my work shows that the brain is highly attracted to this story style.”

Zak noted people respond most strongly to narratives with beginnings, middles and ends that used dramatic tension to sustain attention. That’s the basic structure of many Superbowl commercials – but also of typical picture books. Here are some examples from our BATT  group:

Margaret and Julie P’s recent Where Lily Isn’t, the tender story of a little girl struggling with the death of her dog.Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 6.31.38 PM

Bonny’s The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, where a small boy finds a surprising way to deal with a scary bus driver.

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My sister Kate’s and my Little Wolf’s First Howling about a wolf pup finding his voice.

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 6.32.16 PMThe same story structure is also found in a spare form in this poem from Julie L.’s Imaginary Menagerie, illustrated by Julie P.:

Firebird

Who will bring me golden apples?

Calls the firebird

From her silver tree.

Who will sing me a golden song?

All day she waits

In the tsar’s garden.

Who will set me free? Who?

If given a feather

Bright as heaven,

Would you?

I still wonder why stories have this oxytocin-releasing affect on our brains. Perhaps over the eons, as humans evolved, stories were necessary to survival. I like that hypothesis. Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy the pleasure of good stories, as they spark our ability to connect, to empathize and to make meaning.

Poems That Are Part of Me

It falls to me to complete this tour Around the Table, our fifth post about poems we met as children.

Certainly my sense of language and story were shaped by the many poems our mom read to us five children at bedtime. I especially loved There Once Was A Puffin by Florence Page Jaques (1890-1972), and proposed it as a text that I would illustrate for Dutton Children’s books early on in my career. It came out in 1995. The dedication reads, “To Mom, in whose voice I hear this still.”

Oh, there once was a puffin

Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the bright blue sea!

He ate little fishes,
That were most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea.

But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn’t play nothin’,
For he hadn’t anybody
To play with at all.

So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.

Then along came the fishes,
And they said, “If you wishes,
You can have us for playmates,
Instead of for tea!”

So they now play together,
In all sorts of weather,
And the Puffin eats pancakes,
Like you and like me.

 This poem was previously published in Child Life magazine and then reprinted in The Big Golden Book Of Poetry by Jane Werner Watson (1947).

Other childhood poem favorites were by A.A. Milne: Binker in Now We are Six, and Disobedience in When We Were Very Young, all with wonderful “decorations” by Ernest H. Shepard. I loved reading A.A. Milne’s poems to my own children and look forward to sharing them with grandsons, too.

Binker is about an imaginary friend who never lets the young protagonist down.

A sample:

The curious Disobedience is about a mother who does not mind her three-year old’s rules, which made me wonder if my mother needed better taking care of.

Here, in it’s entirety:

DisO1DisO2DisO3DisO4

 

Last but not least, here’s a shout out to the story-poems that Mom recited by heart. Once when I burnt my hand badly and couldn’t sleep, Mom sat beside my bed long into the dark night. I was comforted by the glow of the tip of her cigarette and her beautiful voice reciting one poem after another: The Flyaway Horse, The Owl and the Pussycat, The Highway Man, Custard the Dragon. Those cadences are as much a part of me as the genetic material I inherited. Little did she know she was nurturing a writer.

 

 

 

 

The Children’s Hour

 

Last week Julie Larios wrote about the poem The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat on this blog. It brought back memories of my dad reading to us every Sunday night. Every once in a while it was an evening of poems, including that Gingham Dog and Calico cat one.

Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?

T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.

It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:

I never saw an abominable snowman
I’m hoping not to see one,
I’m also hoping if I do
that it will be a wee one.

The Cremation of Sam McGee (Robert Service), Casey at the Bat (Ernest Lawrence Thayer) and The Jabborwocky (Lewis Carroll) were favorites.

Sometimes the poems were sentimental like Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud  or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Children’s Hour.

But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.

It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:

“How To Treat Elves”

by Morris Bishop

I met an elf man in the woods,
The wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall–
‘Twas taller than himself!

“How do you do, little elf,” I said,
“And what do you do all day?”
“I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he,
“‘N scuttle about and play;”

“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when
A katydid I see,
‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he
Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!

“I hide behind my mushroom stalk
When Mister Mole comes froo,
‘N only jus’ to fwighten him
I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’

“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing
Up in the air so high,
‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing
‘Upsy-daisy-die!’

“‘N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
‘N what do you think of that?” said he.
I said, “It makes me sick.

“It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool.”
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The God damn little fool.

Now there’s a kid’s poem!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43190/bed-in-summer

 

 

 

CAUSE AND EFFECT

Sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a picture book project until you are well into the work. So it was for our new book, SQUEAK!

The text and thumbnails were done and sketches well underway on a beautiful morning in Spring 2016 when insight struck. It hit during our docent group’s tour of Dunn Gardens, led by then-head gardener Zsolt Lehoczky.

As we headed out onto the Great Lawn – which is an important feature of this 100-year old Olmsted-designed estate garden – Zsolt noted the lush grass was pocked with gopher mounds. He explained that the rich soil attracts lots of worms and the worms attract the gophers.

I was walking beside fellow-docent Elizabeth Conlin. Under her breath, she murmured, “We’re all in this together.”

And I realized that’s what SQUEAK! is about. It’s the story of how, in a cause-and-effect way, a little mouse’s squeak can wake up all the animals in the meadows and mountains. “We’re all in this together.” Elizabeth’s comment became the epigraph for the book.

SQUEAK!  itself caused a further effect: I have come to know Elizabeth better. It turns out this cause and effect mechanism is key to her way of being in the world. She writes:

“I was tickled about the meaning of SQUEAK! when you told me about it. We were standing outside the classroom and I think the wisteria was in bloom. I’ve thought about it often. I love the possibility of kids experiencing your book and realizing that every sound and every movement they make can reverberate far beyond their imaginings. I love the idea of children being exposed to that concept.

“We are, essentially, vibration. The only true choices we have are in how to use and direct our energy/vibrations. I became a Kundalini yoga teacher when I discovered that I have the ability to positively effect the people I come into contact with — that I could learn to do it better and more consistently with just my vibratory frequency.”

When you put a book out into the world, you really don’t know what the effect will be, much as the mouse in SQUEAK! has no idea his tiny utterance will awake an entire ecosystem. Books themselves are both a cause, and the result of a lot of effect.

•• • • •  •  •   •

Next Monday evening, Sept. 16, at 5 pm, we will have the first public reading of SQUEAK! at Seattle’s University Bookstore. We plan a participatory reading. Everyone who comes can be part of the cause and effect of the story. The initial squeak will come from our grandson Otto, age 2, in his mouse suit. You are invited to get in on the fun. Plus, there will be snacks!

Note: Dunn Gardens is open through October and offers docented tours as well as ‘wanders.’ It is one of Seattle’s secret treasures. For more information about visiting: https://dunngardens.org/visiting-tours

 

 

 

 

 

THE WELL-SAID WELL

Most my life I have been saving quotes. Today I offer a few that encourage me as a writer and a human being. Hope they speak to you, as well.

“Writers are like the cheese in the ‘Farmer and the Dell’ – standing there all alone but deciding to take a few notes.” – Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird.

“You absorb these influences almost by osmosis and then how many years later – it’s been 22 years – they just come out. I think it’s beautiful. It’s like when there’s no rain in the desert for a long time and then it rains and these beautiful flowers pop up.” – k.d. lang speaking on NPR about the influence of Roy Orbison on her new songs. April 16, 2011

“Maclean was deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s notion of ‘spots of time,’ or moments that give life shape and meaning, ‘as if an artist had made them,’ in Maclean’s own words… His aim, he wrote, ‘was to study the topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul.’” – from my sister, Susan Britton’s notes of a Norman Maclean interview

“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” – John Muir

Do you have some quotable quotes to add to the stack? Extra points for inspiration and humor.

 

 

 

Still Life: The Show

Last weekend, May 11, was the opening of the Troika Still Life show at the Bitters Co. barn that I wrote about last month. Troika is what Julie Paschkis, Deborah Mersky, and I call our joint collaborative endeavors.

The barn is a beautiful old building near the town of Mt. Vernon in the Skagit Valley of Washington State. The slanted ceiling is high and the beams and rafters are dark, aged wood. The weather for the day was clear and sunny. Light streamed through the windows at both ends of the space. Bitters Co. is owned and run by sisters Katie and Amy Carson, who design beautiful and useful goods made by craftspeople from around the world. 

Here are some photos from the installation:

The hanging of the first of our three fifteen-foot long collaborative stenciled banners:

Julie is looking for the best spot for her larger-than-life paper lady.

She found it!

Here, my daughter Ella is helping fill the pockets in my “Correspondence” piece.

Katie Carson has just helped install the hooks to hold the dowels to hold my “Cream Top” and “Sugar Shirt.”

And here are photos from the day of the opening! (I forgot to take pictures during the event itself, but here are photos of the work before and after attendees were there).

Julie’s paper lady welcomed our guests.Our three “Cloud Banners” graced the center of the gallery space.These are some of Deborah Mersky’s collaged clay prints.

These are two sugar lift prints by Deborah.

Julie installed a wall of cut paper pieces, painted and poked.

Here are two more paintings by Julie.

This is my Entwined I piece, knitted from twine.

This piece is titled Correspondence. It is sewn from cotton batiste fabric, and includes 33 pockets that hold letters and cards that my mother and I wrote to each other over many years.

Below is Loneliness, sewn from denim, but maybe I should have titled it “Solitude.”

And Workmen’s Circle, also sewn from denim. Six pairs of continuous jeans – each right leg becomes the left leg of the pair in front of it. This piece required a lot of planning and engineering on my part. Added plus: it spins in the breeze.

And outside the barn hangs one more banner. Three wheels of Troika. 

The show will be up till May 27. The barn is at 14034 Calhoun Rd. The hours are 11-4 daily. 360-466-3550. The new Bitters Co. shop is in La Conner: 501 1st St. Call first to make sure they’re open if you plan to stop by.

Still Life: In Progress

I have been working on pieces for a joint art show with two great friends and artists, Julie Paschkis and Deborah Mersky. The show opens May 11th at the Bitters Co. barn in the Skagit Valley, WA. Julie, Deborah and I have a long history of collaborating on art for items that we have then had produced to sell, but this will be our first art installation together. We call ourselves, TROIKA.

We always start out by setting a theme. Our theme this time is ‘Still Life’. Still Life is defined as “a painting that features an arrangement of inanimate objects as its subject.” We often see comestibles, flowers, glassware, ceramics and textiles and other household items laid out on a surface in a domestic setting.

Still life as a known art form goes back to paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs from the 15th century BCE. The French call it nature morte, which translates, literally, as natural death. There is a connection to memento mori paintings, the purpose of which is to remind us that we too must die. So, not just a bunch of pretty flowers in a vase.

My mother died three years ago. I have a small sugar bowl and creamer set that belonged to her. The set sat in the kitchen cupboard when I was growing up and to my childish imagination they looked like some kind of exotic candy. I don’t remember my mother ever using them. They held a certain mystery to me: Where did they come from? Why did she never use them? Where they from her past life? Her first marriage? I have since asked my father and brother, but no one seems to know (nor care).

I wasn’t sure what medium I wanted to employ for this project, but I thought I wanted to use fabric in some way. I started by testing different approaches with the glass creamer set as subject matter. I imagined I would eventually use them as part of a larger, more varied, traditional still life arrangement. I experimented with many fabric swatches and painting and drawing media.

I never made it past the sugar and creamer set. Those pieces alone became my focus for several months. But nothing I had produced seemed like the right direction to go in. Painting or drawing on fabric didn’t feel right. Only a couple of the swatches – the ones that involved stenciling – intrigued me.

Yet using fabric as a backdrop wasn’t enough. I wanted to make something out of that fabric. Those who know me know I make a lot of my own clothing. I also teach sewing. My maternal grandfather was a tailor and my paternal grandfather was a sample-maker for Hattie Carnegie in New York. Garment-making is a thread that connects me to my heritage (pun intended).

So, what if I created garments for the show? What if the theme for me became Still Life-Size?

That idea excited me.

I envisioned garments that represented how I feel connected to my mother. How I am connected to others. How people connect to each other. Momento Mori in apparel form.

Everything connects in one way or another.

And back to the sugar and creamer set again.

It is all work in progress thus far. Those of you who live in the area can come to the show and see the finished work for yourself. For the rest of you, perhaps I will post again after the show is completed.

In addition to creating our own individual work for the show, Julie, Deborah and I together collaborated on three 45-foot long banners that will hang through the center of the barn (and there is that creamer again). Julie posted on her Mooshka blog about our process in making them if you want to read more. We will be leading a workshop the day after the show. Here is the information if you are interested in attending.

You Can’t Use Up Creativity

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows.”  
— Jim Jarmusch

Come tax season, I’m tempted to write off everything I do, because what isn’t creative fodder? We never know what’s going to click off an association, an idea, an insight, a solution.

Can I charge myself by the hour and write off that walk around Greenlake? What about that mobile I bought in Africa? Those paper cutouts from Paris? The feather I found at the beach?

Or how about the two hours this week at the Tacoma Museum of Glass watching glass artist Preston Singletary create one of his pieces (you can click the link to see a video of him at work), and then viewing his amazing show in the museum’s main gallery?

It was so peaceful to sit in the peanut gallery watching Singletary and his crew create something from what was once sand. Singletary works with Northwest Native American motifs from his Tinglit heritage–ravens, carved boxes, baskets, a canoe, totem poles. On this day he and the crew were making the body of a raven.

It began with a chalk sketch on the floor. Then he began to shape the molten glass.

The glass etching that characterizes so much of his work will happen in Singletary’s private studio, but the end result are objects like these on display at the Tacoma Glass Museum, some barely looking like glass:

Preston Singletary

Preston Singletary

Preston Singletary

Preston Singletary

If you’re in the Puget Sound area it’s easy to look to glass for inspiration. The Pilchuck Glass School founded by glass artist Dale Chihuly was instrumental in the development of the whole American glass art movement. Countless glass artists like Ginny Ruffner, Joey Kirkpatrick, William Morris, Flora Mace, Benjamin Moore and Lino Tagliapietra have studied or taught there making the Puget Sound region a birthplace and a showcase for glass art.

There’s also the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum at the Seattle Center.

Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum

In addition to the Tacoma Museum of Glass,  the Tacoma Art Museum just opened up a new Benaroya Wing based on the donation by Rebecca Benaroya of her and her late husband Jack’s private glass collection.

How many different directions can you take glass? Well, if you’re an artist open to inspiration from “bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows”, well, the possibilities are just about endless.

Cappy Thomson

Debora Moore

Lino Tagliapietra

Jack Storms

Ginny Ruffner

Marta Klonowska

William Morris

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
— Maya Angelou