08 September 2013

Autumn 2013

One of the craziest things I've ever done was try to take six Coursera classes at the same time. I signed up this past spring in a fit of exuberance — university level courses available online, free! — and ignorance — online and free means denatured, I thought.

The classes were a challenge. They hammered my available time, will and experience. The MOOC environment put more of the work of succeeding directly on me. At the same time my work hours almost doubled. The result? After a month I whittled participation down to four classes. A couple of weeks later, I washed right off the deck. It was an eye-opening initiation.

I had also signed up for a couple of autumn classes. These are starting this week, and I'm going to try to hang on. They're Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, offered by U. Penn and taught by Kelly Professor of English and Faculty Director of Kelly Writers House, Al Filreis; and Accountable Talk®: Conversation that Works, offered by U. Pittsburg's Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, Pam Goldman and Lauren B. Resnick.

Here are my worries: First, one class requires 5 to 9 hours a week, and the other 3 to 5, for a total of 8 to 14. From the previous experience, I'd say twice the time is needed. That will be 16 to 28 hours weekly. Second, my work hours are supposed to go back to an average 45 a week, but haven't yet. Third, in the last few weeks of the classes when the work is toughest, NaNoWriMo starts up, and I'm attempting it (for the fourth time).

But the biggest and scariest worry for juggling all this is the northern hemisphere's autumn and early-winter seasons, with their ever-shortening days. I'm paying close attention to this, because in past years I didn't and it hit me hard.

To repair my work-fatigued mind, I've been using Lumosity. At the best of times, I mix up east-west directionalities (or, as I view it in the Northeast United States, left-right orientations), and I can manipulate shapes or colors but not both at the same time. When I'm tired, both faults get worse, and I also have an emotional disconnection from numbers so profound that they lose their hard values and turn expressive and amorphous — rather like metaphors — for me. Lumosity has a few games that fight these problems and help keep my mind in trim. The games have also uncovered other fatigue-related things, like unsynchronized anticipation of patterns, which are interesting — I was not aware of these.

To quiet my mind and increase stamina, I chant Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha, and meditate, I've been reading more, and listening to music and movies less, and when I work or read, I assume partial yoga poses sometimes.

The repair of the partially-slid hill and damaged buildings just to the east of where I live is done, and the neighborhood is somber — disaster can happen in a moment, even in old NYC nabes! — and quiet. That's a big improvement over the construction noise of the past few months.

With particular awareness, I'm tapping into my known Scandinavian heritage, and a guessed-at, older, mountainous and partly nomadic one, to learn better ways to deal with this season. We don't have Polar Nights in the Northeast United States. But there is a pervading sense of mourning and loss, as darkness increases and cold advances from the north.

Most autumn and winter holidays emphasize the importance of light. Their traditions of warm colors, and associations with fire, candles, twinkling lights and such, as well as of physical warmth and bountiful foods, are antidotes to darkness, and the dangers of cold weather. But participating in the holidays takes time, and what if you don't have enough and you need to wing it, like I will? Can I make enough warm feelings happen?

I read something last year on the importance of lighting for Scandinavians, as they get their homes ready for short days. Unfortunately I didn't bookmark the article. But this year I found something called How to Survive the Dark Winters at MyLittleNorway.com, a site run by two bloggers, L-Jay and Moose, who love to share about Norway. L-Jay wrote How to Survive... and she's provided lots of practical advice.

various lamps, image via Wikipedia
Feeling rather like a series of gentle slaps, L-Jay's wake-up points are ones we usually wouldn't think of — take cod liver oil to get enough vitamins A, D and E; recognize that SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, a darkness-triggered seasonal depression that can be lethal) exists and be proactive fighting it; stay active and upbeat; intentionally tap into the spirit of holidays; and do lots about using or finding light in unexpected ways. For example, L-Jay writes, "Window lamps are in every house. In the dark season Norwegians place hanging lamps in the windows to mimic the sun." Mimic the sun! Who knew!!

Last year I got some buffet lamps. With their long columns and narrow-diameter shades, they can be clustered together, or placed in tight spaces, to make soft pools of light at standing-eye-level. They made a big difference in my place. I'll be looking at window lamps, lantern-like candleholders, and such, for this year.

Writing a piece like this is a way of sharing with you all what's up with me. But, perhaps more, it's also a way of me putting myself on notice that trouble is coming and I need to do something about it. I feel as if my naked toes are curled over the lip of a precipice, and the valley and river I want to get to are far below. That I'm here because I want to be doesn't make it feel easier or less tense.

Wish me luck, if you care to. I won't be around social media much, because it takes too much time. But I will be around in spirit, and you will all be in my heart. Blessings to all.

12 August 2013

The Edit

It started when I shared my last week's short story with my son. He said it was overwritten. After he kindly highlighted the overwritten parts for me, it was clear that he was right.

A dose of objectivity from a trusted source is always refreshing. In this case, it was revolutionary. My son uncovered a wider-than-expected gap between what I want to say, and how I say it. He showed me there's more work to do, if I'm to learn to edit well.

In any medium, edits are a tool or element of process. As an artist, I build up, then take away, doing as much work with a gum eraser as with a piece of charcoal. The taking away is an editing process, and it's always been more important to my art than any other aspect of it.

In writing, I had edits on an equal footing with inspiration, time management, technique, story structure and voice. Now I've learned that edits are my primary tool there, too. I also see just how much the emotional connection to one's work needs to be broken when one edits - otherwise, one seduces oneself into keeping dross.

I'm not upset by this discovery. I'm thrilled. A facing-off with a previously-unrealized fact is a moment on a long journey, it's movement, it's real, it affirms the work I'm trying to learn to do.

A cascade of events followed that took me to a new place, a country almost, where there are plenty of things to say, no lack of courage to say them - and edits rule.

In that place, I found: a New York Times article by Vanessa M. Gezari, titled "How to Read Afghanistan," a second New Yorker Magazine article by Richard Brody on the Godfather movies, titled "'The Godfather' and Style," a photograph by Hendrik Kerstens of his daughter wearing a plastic shopping bag on her head, lit and composed like a Dutch Old Master painting, further readings from William Least Heat-Moon's "Blue Highways," especially his descriptions of the Palouse region of America, excerpts from Carl Jung's autobiography "Memories, Dreams, Reflections," Arthur Szyk illustrations for Andersen's fairytales, and finding that all of Andersen's stories are now available online, and, finally, a series of movies that are either modern fairy-tales, or are allegorical: Tangled, The Rise of the Guardians, Paheli, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Jab We Met, and Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi's version).

From the Gezari article:

"...Afghanistan is a predominantly oral culture, where stories may be read aloud once, then memorized, told and retold, changing slightly or significantly with each telling. The door between literature and everyday language has long been ajar; even in casual exchanges, Afghans rely on allegory, metaphor, parables and jokes to convey meaning. / Such indirection is common in violent and repressive societies, but after more than 30 years of war, the Afghan penchant for elegant and oblique expression is particularly well honed. Stories give the teller power over the chaos that surrounds him. They are also a kind of code. Knowing how to read them separates Afghans from the people known in Dari as haraji, outsiders — namely, everyone else..."

From the second Brody article:

"...golden-age Hollywood style essentially depends on collectively acknowledged codes—on repression, omission, even censorship. The very nature of style is irony: a secret public confession of saying what one isn’t saying, of showing what one isn’t showing, of confiding publicly in sympathizers, and assuming that those who don’t see the style are complicit in the code of silence at which style is a sly wink. Style is a mark of savvy that creates its own secret inner circle, a dispersed and democratic aristocracy of taste. (Perhaps the ultimate evidence can be found in the films of Howard Hawks, whose apparent clarity of manner, which mimes transparency, is as severely artificial as the prose of Ernest Hemingway..."

This soup of seemingly unrelated items has a point of unification: we tell stories to understand who we are and to tell others of ourselves, and in doing so, we make personal myths, these myths are our most lasting and valuable artifacts, and edits are integral to story-telling and myth-making.

I'm full of insights that are fresh, to me. Like a someone who's just quit smoking, I want everyone to see through my eyes. But I recognize the tunnel vision that afflicts me for now, and how strange this state of mind will come to seem in a week or two.


What I've learned is so valuable to me that I made a Fairytales, Myths and More Pinterest board, with links to all of the above, as a memory aid.

And I've started adding more old poems to a Scrivener project in which I hope to revise the poems into a body of work. I've worked on the project off and on, but had not been feeling too confident that I'd be able to do what I wanted.

And I've come to a fresh awareness of the importance of stories, whether written, told, acted, or made into art, and that good edits are the making of any strong story, poem, piece of art.

Finally: from the bottom of my heart, I affirm my appreciation for the truth-tellers amongst us - the silent ones, the outliers and the clowns - who pay a price for that, as they keep us closer to what's real.

28 June 2013

Early summer education, 28 June 2013

No Coursera classwork has been done for a week now... for twelve days in a row, I've worked long, long hours.  

Negro Attacked by a Jaguar,
Henri Rousseau,
oil on canvas, 1910
I was thinking about H. Rousseau again, and the idea that his style is based on him seeing Kashmiri papier-mâché boxes, the kind decorated with naqashi painting.

His mature palette (his colors) and style are unique in Western painting. The rhythms in his work, and the people, animals and settings he portrayed - where did they come from?

He lived in Paris, and never traveled to lands with jungles.

Yes, he sometimes went to zoos or botanical gardens.

But I don't think that accounts for his warm-toned, intense colors...

Henri Rousseau,
Or how he painted vegetation outlined in lighter hues, and silhouetted against luminous skies.

Or how he built up dense scenes from layers of simple shapes.

Or his smooth brushwork, an unusual technique at the time.

Kashmiri papier-mâché box
However, consider:

He was a tax collector. He handled goods that came in to Paris. To collect the taxes, he would have viewed goods and assessed their values. Over the years, then, how could he have avoided seeing hundreds, and maybe thousands, of naqashi-decorated Kashmiri papier-mâché boxes?

The boxes were very popular and the French were importing them like crazy, in those days.

Here are two close-ups of naqashi work. See what you think:

close-up of naqashi painting
on an antique Kashmiri papier-mâché box 
close-up of naqashi painting
on a Kashmiri papier-mâché box

I have no idea if Rousseau was actually influenced by Kashmiri painting.

But I react to Rousseau's work the same way I do to Kashmiri design and painting: I hunger to touch it, and to see it every day, a visceral reaction I don't feel for other kinds of art.

So I'd love it if it's shown that Rousseau saw those gorgeous boxes, and worked out how to paint that way, and dreamed fables and scenes set in Kashmir, and did his best to translate his dream-stories, with his hands, into African-themed pictures, to make something unique.


I've kicked some of the work pressures away. Emergencies are temporarily under control. 

I won't be able to catch up any of the classes in full. But I will be able to go back to watching lectures & reading.

May the God of Work Emergencies take a vac for a few weeks now.

19 June 2013

Early summer education, 19 June 2013


A twelve-hour workday on Monday, and an eleven-hour workday yesterday, ensured I did nothing for classes, and I'm honestly in an overwork daze. Today is likely to be an eleven hour day, as well..

Blessings to me for not giving up on the classes. 

When it's time to rest, I lie on my bed, Kindle beside me, think about picking it up, then sleep. When I wake, I'm so disconnected from my personal life, I kinda don't see the Kindle is still there. I go into a meditation of sorts, something to get my internal rhythms soft and calm, then allow my awareness of the work ahead of me to rise (still feeling calm), then think about things like shower, breakfast... and then it's to work right away. If I can get through this week and accomplish my work goals, the next week should be lighter, work-wise. Here's to that. 

To show just how scrambled my brain gets with too much work, I wrote "did I nothing" above, when I meant "I did nothing." All spelled correctly. But in the wrong order. It took six hours away from the writing before my mind could see it.

16 June 2013

Early summer education, 16 June 2013


Relationships fiction:As I didn't finish Manon Lescaut in time to complete a required analytical essay, I won't earn a certificate of completion for the class. But the lectures and readings are wonderful, so I'll continue with the class. I did five peer reviews for the previous week's writing assignment.

Behind the scenes in archaeology: Again, I did nothing here really. Looking at the list of lectures, and the tweets the class is doing, it's clear they're discussing things I'm really interested in, but I don't have time, yet, to give to this class.

Art concepts and techniques: I watched the lectures, and conceptualized an art piece for the week's assignment, but didn't have time to make the piece.

Fantasy, science fiction and the mind: I still have two days to finish the two Alice's, which are this week's reading, and which I haven't yet started on.

Each of these classes is so interesting that I don't want to un-enroll from any of them. I overbooked my time. My time is overbooked even without classes. I'll be reading, and fall asleep without being aware of it, then wake up forty minutes or three hours or whatever time later, having lost that time for good, work-wise, but also having gained it, health-wise. 

This is a purely voluntary effort, and it's mostly free. So I shouldn't feel bad if I don't complete any of the classes. There's so much of value in each, I won't turn my back on them.

Though I didn't have time to, I roughed out the beginning of a short story on Friday, and revised and expanded it a little yesterday. 

As I've never been able to get very far writing short stories (the form is so condensed!), I put it down to the deeper experiences of understanding and analysis I've been exposed to in the two weeks of classes so far that I was able to do this. 

Since my goal with the classes isn't to earn a degree, but rather to improve my understanding of, and skills in, whatever I'm learning about, the classes have been a success so far, despite my meager official participation in them.

Writing this blog is helping me compose faster. I should post more often, to magnify the effect. Also, maybe I can shift my voice to a more casual one. For about a year, I've been writing too formally, as if I haven't been introduced to my "audience."

11 June 2013

Early summer education, 11 June 2013


Yesterday, another out-of-the-blue happening: my laptop's sound card got confused, and blasted some bad data onto the hard drive. It took four hours out of my day to recover from the problem.

The result: the essay I'd expected to submit for one class today will not be submitted. I wrote about a third of it, and need three more hours to finish. And I don't have the time. 

However: I made big efforts for three of the four classes. Of the four classes, I couldn't complete the work for two, and have not done any work at all for one. But I've been adaptable, and have not been thrown off track.

Once again, writing about the imperfections of this effort takes the sting away. I end this brief blog un-guilted and at ease, which sets me up to continue.

09 June 2013

Early summer education, 9 June 2013


The wall collapse emergency settled down last night (see 8 June), though there were still times when posses of fire engines came roaring through the neighborhood, and sometimes the news helicopters returned.. I was able to do classwork yesterday afternoon and evening. After a few hours sleep, work continued through the night into today's early morning.

Fantasy, science fiction and the mind: I need to finish Grimm's Fairy Tales, so I can write an essay due Tuesday. That might seem an easy thing, but I need to take notes as I read, I prefer to read in the dark (Kindle), and sometimes I'm so tired I can't get the cap off my pen.

For these classes, I got a new Cross gel pen, a deep purple one with a cap that's too tight on the writing end and falls off the non-writing end, plus Moleskine notebooks in three sizes - two quite large, and three each of two smaller sizes. Six of them are the Kraftpaper cover ones, which I love because I don't feel bad when I need to bend them back on themselves. I keep the small Moleskines together with a soft hair elastic, and clip the pen on the cover of the top one in the stack. I'm so organized. This is how it should have been for school and college. The difference between then and now is that no one is MAKING me take Coursera classes. Big yes for that.

Art concepts and techniques: I finished the lectures and took the week's quiz. I still need to make a piece of art in accordance with the class's "Fantastic art" guidelines, scan or photograph the work (in full and in closeup), and submit the resulting images. I have till 7 tonight to finish. Update: I fell asleep twice while reading for other classes, and don't have enough time left today to do the art.

* * *

cover of Abbé Prévost's
Manon Lescaut
The other two classes I'm taking are relationships fiction and behind the scenes in archaeology.

Relationships fiction: I've done the first week's required work, which was lightweight intro stuff. The professor running the class gives lectures so aware and humane, he brought eyes to my eyes. I didn't expect to run into a mind and heart like this in a Coursera class.

Now, on to reading Manon Lescaut in full.

Behind the scenes in archaeology: I haven't done anything for this class. Though it seems like fun, this class also has the least importance for me, given my current focus. Yet, given the novels I'm trying to write, it may turn out to be more important than I'm allowing it to be right now. So I'm going to try to keep on track with it.

* * *

Writing this blog is good. I haven't blogged for a while, and my casual writing technique has kind of slid away. Most of the time I use to compose these posts is spent simplifying and clarifying the story. Uh oh, fire engines again.

Besides practicing simpler writing, blogging makes my classwork more visible to me, which has the strange effect of making me worry less. I guess by writing down what I've done, I don't care quite as much about the things I haven't done.

I hope writing these blogs will push me to doing class essays and peer reviews faster - right now, I'm taking too much time to do them. I'll report back about this in a few weeks.

I'm referring to classes by description, rather than their official titles. I don't like bowing to officialdom. Professors can be awfully officialdom-ish. This is one way I keep what's mine mine. So is calling the courses "classes,"  - the official term at Coursera is "courses." Ya didn't know I was that rebellious, did you? I didn't either, till now. 

08 June 2013

Early summer education, 8 June 2013


I'm taking four Coursera classes. The two that seem most important are: fantasy, science fiction and the mind; and art concepts and techniques.

Already the classes are paying off, with new knowledge about the class subjects, and better understanding of myself.

frontispiece of first volume
of Grimms' Kinder- und
Hausmärchen (1812)
Listening to fantasy/science fiction class lectures, then doing the first week's readings (Grimm's Fairy Tales), has helped me understand that I see life primarily through a lens of personal and social danger. These are common themes for fantasy and science fiction.

Childhood encounters with abandonment, lack of nourishment and cruelty helped bring fairy tales to life for me. Fairy tales created a formal framework for the experiences, lending me a sense of protection and dignity, through knowing that such dangers are not invisible to everyone. They also gave me a way to see things more objectively. (I don't have enough distance from this, to say more right now.)

This week, the art concepts and techniques class is focusing on Fantastic artists, coincidentally, with lectures on nine such artists. The first two are Henri Rousseau and Marc Chagall.

Listening to the discussion of how Rousseau applied paint, I suddenly realized that Rousseau's mature style and techniques may have been influenced by the naqashi work used to decorate Kashmiri papier-mâché boxes with scenes of animals and nature.

Rousseau almost certainly would have encountered naqashi work firsthand, because, during Rousseau's lifetime, Kashmiri shawls were highly popular in France.

Kashmiri artists embellishing
papier-mâché objects with naqashi.
uncredited photo, c 1890.
The trade was important to both countries. The French term "papier-mâché" is used in Kashmir even today.

Imported Kashmiri shawls were packed in naqashi-embellished papier-mâché boxes. And the naqashi-decorated papier-mâché boxes became popular collectibles in their own right in France.

Kashmiri papier-mâché boxes,
decorated with naqashi work

I see lots of similarity between naqashi work and Rousseau's technique and style - things like: distinct form edges, enameled colors, layered brushwork, flattened perspective, smoothly-modeled textures, and the subject matter: stories of people, animals and nature.

I've always loved Chagall's work for its fantastical story-telling style. In this week's lecture on Chagall, I learned he used elements from Cubism.

Jiyong Lee glass sculpture
"Green & Yellow Cuboid Segmentation"
I was completely unaware of his connection with Cubism.

I also didn't realize that I have a sensitivity to Cubism itself. Just last month, I pinned an image of a glass sculpture by Jiyong Lee, on Pinterest.

It was only after watching the Chagall lecture that I realized that the sculpture uses Cubist structures called "interpenetrating planes."

And that is exactly what moved me most about it.

Marc Chagall's
"The Circus Horse"
Chagall's edges are usually curved and soft-textured, rather than linear and distinct. Yet his planar structures are often Cubist.

In fact, Chagal uses Cubist-style interpenetrating planes (new term for me) throughout his work.

Sometimes these structures are distinct, sometimes they're implied. But they're very common in Chagall. I think they're one of the most distinctive identifying features of his work.

* * *

It's a pattern in my life that whenever I start work that involves a heavy time commitment, and the work is meant specifically to benefit me, something strange happens. It's always something that could not have been predicted, something "out of the blue."

This week, with four classes active, I had my fingers crossed. There was more work on the job than usual. Early heat and, later, heavy rains, were uncomfortable. Around midnight last night, tired almost to the point of muteness, I let go of everything I was trying to accomplish and went to sleep. 

aerial view of collapsed
retaining wall. photo:
Seth Gottfried,
New York Post.
I woke at 3:45 am. Refreshed, I started watching art lectures. Loud whooshes of sound, like a sudden heavy downpour, started up. I was surprised. I thought it had already stopped raining. I listened, but when the noise stopped after a minute, I went back to watching the lectures, then put them on hold in order to write the Rousseau part of this post. A few minutes later, I heard the sound of a fire engine approaching, then stopping on the street outside the courtyard. Then more came.

It turned out the whooshing sounds had come from the collapse of a nearby retaining wall. No one was hurt. Part of a building, east and up the hill from where I live, was damaged - some of its fire escapes were pulled off. Right now, engineers think the wall was undermined by the rain from tropical storm Andrea. 

5:30 am.
uncredited photo:
There's been lots of activity and noise from firemen, police, onlookers, residents who were asked to leave the damaged building, news teams, superintendents, handyman, neighbors, community service volunteers, and news helicopters.

Everyone in this building is worried that we may be asked to evacuate, if engineers discover that whatever caused the collapse is deeper than they think. Everyone responding to the collapse has assured us that the building is safe, electric and gas and phones are OK, and so on. Which is good, if time proves it's true. I'm hoping it's true. The feeling from emergency people on the street is upbeat.

But it hasn't been a wonderful morning for catching up with classwork. And as if I needed more of the same, it's also one more proof for my childish sense that the world is a dangerous place.