October 21, 2016

The Palindromedary

        Today is Ursula K. Le Guin’s birthday, worthy of celebration as she’s a towering figure in speculative fiction, particularly in the idea of making speculative fiction into a form every bit as serious, thoughtful, and well-written as “literary fiction.”  (Indeed, she loathes all these genre divisions and the intellectual snobbery that always seems to go along with them.)  Le Guin has experimented for some 60 years with using speculative fiction to make us consider our own universe in new ways, as well as with writing simply beautiful prose.  She also writes poetry, and since it seemed about time for more poetry here, I thought I’d share one of Le Guin’s fantasy poems.  But as I went looking through my various sources, I find that while much of Le Guin’s poetry is set in fantasy worlds (indeed Le Guin was a major influence on me in my youth in the matter of using the everyday poetry of life in world-building) most of it concerns life and death, the deepest things and the most ordinary things, that are true in every universe and thus not exclusively fantastical.  And as I read through poems this morning it was this silly, flippant piece that tickled me.

A palindrome I do not want to write

The mournful palindromedary,
symmetrical and arbitrary,
cannot desert the desert, cannot roam,
plods back and forth but never reaches home.
Mental boustrophedon is scary.
I do not want to write a palindrome.

        This creature must clearly be some relative of the pushmi-pullyu, the double-ended gazelle-chamois-unicorn cross from The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting.  The pushmi-pullyu, however, is generally a happier beast than the palindromedary, though terribly shy.  As for me, I’m a fan of palindromes as well as dromedaries, so I’m very sorry to see the palindromedary so mournful!
        Happy Birthday, Ms Le Guin!

[Picture: The Palindromedary, drawing by Ursula K. Le Guin, 2009 (Image, and poem, from Le Guin’s web site.)]

        P.S. It's Roslindale Open Studios this weekend.  Be there if you can!

October 18, 2016

What's New Outside the Studio

        I’ve been too busy with preparations for upcoming events to write anything insightful.  Indeed, last Friday it turns out I was too busy even to post - too busy even to notice I'd never posted, until I sat down to the blog this morning.  So I’ll just share the schedule and if anyone is in this neck of the woods, come see me at one or more of these events.  I promise I’ll be wonderfully insightful in person!
        Last weekend was Natick Artists Open Studios.  This is one of the big shows where I bring just about everything: racks for framed work, tables for matted work, cards, books, and all.  I’ve been busy printing, matting, framing, and sketching new designs for the past few weeks.  I carved one small block, finished another I'd started previously, and got about two thirds of the carving done on a pretty complicated one.  Alas, traffic was not what I would have liked.  Is everyone too stressed about the upcoming elections to enjoy some art?  But it's not too late; I've got plenty more events coming up...
        This Thursday, October 20 I’ll kick off the Hills Hearthside Talks series at the Wellesley Hills Branch Library.  This year the theme is “Artists’ Perspectives,” and I’ve prepared a slide show and demonstration about relief block printmaking.  The little Wellesley Hills branch is a cool old building and the titular hearth has been restored to its rustic historical glory.  Its stone surround and mantel could frame a mighty blaze, although I’m told that fire regulations prohibit actually lighting a fire in it!  My talk and demonstration will be the basics of relief printmaking, and then a little about my particular focus and inspirations.  Rumor has it that there will be light refreshments.
        This weekend will be Roslindale Open Studios.  Most years this is my show with the biggest crowds, and there’s always a great buzz in the air.  They’ve changed the dates this year, so I don’t know what difference that will make, other than my having to work two weekends in a row!  But I’ll be in my usual location, the big auditorium at Roslindale House, which has stately architecture and a large group of artists showing a wide variety of media.  I don’t yet have a block prepared to carve, so I need to rack my brains and come up with something to demonstrate and keep me busy.  Any ideas?
        October will end with a program at North Hill in Needham on Tuesday, October 25.  This one will be concluding the Curtin Lecture Series, and I’ll be there not in my artist hat but in my linguist hat.  The topic is the effect of immigration on the English language, and how the language we speak reflects past generations of immigrants, and past generations of English-speakers’ attitudes towards immigrants.  It’s a fascinating topic and I’ve really been enjoying preparing my talk.
        And then I’ll get a few weeks’ break before my next open studio, in November.  It’s really exciting to have all these great opportunities and it makes me very happy to get the chance to talk with people about art and language… but this was never supposed to be a full-time job, so if I’m still anything resembling sane by the time we get to Thanksgiving, it’ll be a big relief.
        Follow the links for more information about any of these events, and I hope to see some of you there!

October 11, 2016

Day of the Girl

        Today is International Day of the Girl, so I’ve got a wonderful woodcut of a girl.  I’m always a little ambivalent about these days for important causes - I mean the day of the girl?  Just one?  The other 364 days of the year we don’t need to worry about girls at all?  On the other hand, of course, there are many places and situations in which one solid day of bright spotlight on the needs of girls is a big improvement over what they might be getting otherwise, and baby steps are certainly better than none at all.
        All those issues aside, here’s a woodcut from 1917 by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.  It seems really perfect to me today because this girl is so bright-eyed, so radiant, so strong, so curious, and yet she isn’t simply smiling happily.  She’s really quite serious, maybe gazing on something awe-inspiring, or maybe faced with some challenge that’s taken her aback.  The carving makes her monumental, sturdy, bold, and yet also full of light and energy.  What a great symbol of all that children are - all children, girls as well as boys.  As writer G.D. Anderson says, “Feminism isn’t about making women stronger.  Women are already strong.  It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.”

[Picture: Mädchen mit Zöpfen (Girl with Braids), woodcut by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1917 (Image from MoMA).]

Don't forget, Natick Artists Open Studios is this weekend.  If you'll be in eastern MA, come by and visit me, and see all the other wonderful artists who will be exhibiting in town.  I'll be at a new location this year, so I hope to see lots of visitors there!
Also, the following weekend will be Roslindale Open Studios, so if you can't make it to Natick, how about Roslindale?

October 7, 2016

5 Counting Books

        I’ve done lots of previous posts about alphabet books illustrated with relief block prints, but I just received a review copy of a lovely counting book illustrated with wood block prints, so now’s the time to do a post on the handful of block-printed counting books I’ve found, starting with the brand new one.

One North Star by Phyllis Root, Beckie Prange, Betsy Bowen (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)
      The illustrations - watercolored woodcuts of nature scenes in double-page spreads, each one with a north star up in a corner.  I see more of Bowen’s rougher style than Prange’s in these illustrations, although perhaps Prange gets credit for some of the more unusual viewpoints, such as the view of the river from underwater looking up.  (I wouldn’t have minded a note in the back about how these two wonderful artists collaborated!)  The later numbers get quite complicated and will definitely challenge children to find and count everything.
      What’s special about it - Each page introduces a new number, but also counts down all the previous numbers.  Unlike most cumulative verses, however, every number represents a new animal or plant each time instead of repeating the previous pages’ animals, leading to a huge variety of different species over the course of the book.  Also, each page, with all its appropriate plants and animals, is set in a different Minnesota habitat.  Finally, humans are reminded that we live under the North Star, too.  It counts from 1-10, and includes at the back information and scientific nomenclature for all 55 species, as well as information about the habitat areas, and instructions on how to find the North Star in the night sky.  There’s a lot of great natural history here for any curious child.
      My favorite - 4 dwarf trout lilies

Teeth, Tails, and Tentacles by Christopher Wormell (Running Press, 2004)
      The illustrations - richly colored multi-block linoleum prints, set apart on single pages.  I always love Wormell’s dramatic depictions of animals.
      What’s special about it - Rather than showing numbers of animals, this book counts parts, such as 4 giraffe legs, 10 bear claws, and 14 rings on the lemur’s tail.  It counts from 1-20, and includes at the back a sentence or two of information about each of the animals featured.
      My favorite - 6 frog eyes

One Potato by Diana Pomeroy (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996)
      The illustrations - detailed potato prints in warm autumnal colors, with decorative borders framing each numbers’ grouping.  Each number is represented with fruits and vegetables, along with their leaves and occasional sunflowers for extra decoration.
      What’s special about it - It counts from 1-10, but also shows 20, 30, 40, 50, and 100, a bonanza for the child who loves to count!  At the back there are instructions for potato printing.
      My favorite - 50 blackberries

Barn Cat by Carol P. Saul, Mary Azarian (Little, Brown and Company, 1998)
      The illustrations - brightly watercolored woodcuts of nature and farm-yard scenes in double-page spreads, each one featuring the eponymous cat.  
      What’s special about it - This includes a very simple story in rhyming text with a repetitious refrain, counting all the small animals the Barn Cat sees.  It counts from 1-10 and ends with the cat getting milk.
      My favorite - 1 grasshopper or 6 dragonflies

Gathering: A Northwoods Counting Book by Betsy Bowen (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999)
      The illustrations - multi-block multi-color woodcuts of scenes of people in the north woods, with sidebars framing the text and a simplified picture of the countable objects.
      What’s special about it - Like Bowen’s Northwoods Alphabet, the text follows the year (May through December) as it counts all sorts of different things, and includes interesting explanations about the various tasks to prepare for a rural winter.  It’s the only one of these books to include zero.  It counts from 0-12.  (But I do have to quibble that Bowen misstates the woolly bear caterpillar myth, saying a wider light band means a harder winter.  In fact, the myth is that the narrower the light band, the harder the winter - although in fact in fact, it’s just a myth anyway and the woolly bear’s stripe pattern doesn’t have any correlation at all with the coming weather.)
      My favorite - 11 friends

        I’m a big fan of each of these illustrators, and they’re all beautiful books.  All of these artists except Beckie Prange have also done alphabet books, which you can see more about here.  (Come on, Prange: it’s your turn now!)  I’ve been toying for some time with ideas of doing my own animal counting poster, or possibly a book, so it’s fun to see some of the different ways others have approached it.

[Pictures: Four dwarf trout lilies nod, wood block print and watercolor by Betsy Bowen and Beckie Prange from One North Star, 2016;
6 frog eyes, multi-block linocut by Christopher Wormell from Teeth, Tails, and Tentacles, 2004;
Fifty blackberries, potato print by Diana Pomeroy from One Potato, 1996;
6 dragonflies, wood block print and watercolor by Mary Azarian from Barn Cat, 1998;
Eleven friends, multi-block woodcut by Betsy Bowen from Gathering, 1999.]

October 4, 2016

Rain of Frogs

        Rains of frogs, fish, and other unusual things are the stuff of spells, omens, apocalypse, and magic.  They’re clearly unnatural, irrational, and impossible, so they make a great magical element for prophesies, curses, and fantasy worlds.  However, there’s just one thing: they really do happen.  Strange things have been known to fall with the rain not only in the distant, credulous past, but right up to the present, and not only in the distant, superstitious hinterlands, but all around the world and in well-populated areas including London.  Scientists, of course, have come up with an explanation involving tornadic waterspouts.  The idea is that vortices of air cause low-pressure zones that can lift up small, lightweight objects including frogs and fish.  The mini-tornadoes travel along, carrying their aquatic passengers (which may or may not be surviving the experience), until eventually the pressure drops and the foreign objects rain down on a surprised populace.  In 1919 Charles Fort, famous sceptic of scientific claims of understanding and explaining everything, pointed out that rainfalls never seem to be a mix of species and other aquatic debris.  Furthermore, he objected, no one ever reports on seeing frogs getting sucked up, only on seeing them rain down.  No one ever seems to have documented a complete cycle of this unusual weather, so perhaps there remains something a little uncanny about it.
        In any case, it’s equally certain that these strange phenomena have happened in real life and that these strange phenomena are perfect fodder for fantasy.  They also make great woodcuts, sufficiently strange and whimsical to catch the attention of ancient and modern viewers alike.  We begin with frogs, emerging from the clouds and diving down near a village.  They look like they’re reaching the ground in good shape, which makes the whole thing cooler.  I like the way the shading lines across their backs add to the impression of critters soaked by the rain.  The fish in the next image are even more fortunate, because it looks like they may be falling back into the water, although the two on the right may be aiming straight for the deck of the ship in the lower right corner.  The fish in this scene aren’t raining evenly but in fierce spurts down from the clouds, where they seem to
be swimming along merrily until their precipitation.  Finally I have a rain of snakes, far more torrential altogether, with fiercer clouds and more driving rain.  On the other hand, this could be in the wilderness.  All we see are trees with no evidence of a town or human habitation to be snaked upon.
        I feel that this post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the better-documented modern instances of such strange weather phenomena.  In 1982 weather girls in the US reported that with humidity rising and the barometer getting low, according to all sources, at just about half past ten for the first time in history it started raining men.  For complete details, listen to the report.

[Pictures: A Rain of Frogs in 1355, woodcut from Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon by Conrad Lycosthenes, 1557;
Rain of fish, woodcut from Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555;
Rain of snakes, engraving from Der Wunder-reiche Überzug unserer Nider-Welt by Erasmus Finx, 1680.]

September 30, 2016

Words of the Month - Loanwords

        English is notorious for being a borrowing language.  As the famous epigram puts it, English doesn’t just borrow from other languages, it follows them down dark alleys and rifles through their pockets for loose vocabulary.  Of course, the beauty of linguistic borrowing is that the donor language doesn’t lose what the borrowing language takes.  Everybody wins!  And English has enriched itself to a remarkable degree with its insatiable borrowing habit.  Consider the following story:

Remarks on a Timid Explorer
        Last Thursday a Massachusetts oil tycoon named Dan lost his final dollar.  He did not even possess an extra nickel for the jukebox, so he decided to depart on safari.  He packed his rucksack, duffel, and tote bag, put on a khaki suit and a plaid bandana, and bid his bungalow adios.
        He trekked a couple hours and paused for refreshment.  He devoured bananas and barbecued beef with catsup.  He opted to drink lime soda, not tea or coffee, because caffeine irritated his nerves, but soon he became anxious anyway.  He was terrified of cougars, coyotes, jackals and alligators, and especially bandits, hoodlums and thugs.  He was not naive, but in kindergarten he had read too much about ninja assassins.  It bothered him.
        First the only animals he observed were a gecko and an ebony and ivory skunk, but suddenly a horde of yaks galloped up in a stampede.  Fortunately, it did not take a sleuth to deduce they were coming.  Without panic, Dan hid behind a hickory tree.  When it was over, he was beat -- a zombie from exhaustion -- and he stumbled home, put on his flannel pajamas automatically, like a robot, and slept.

        Okay, it isn’t the finest literature, but the question is how many loanwords do you see in this story?  You presumably noted adios and ninja, perhaps naive and Massachusetts.  Maybe you found ten or even twenty more…  This story uses 135 unique words, of which 60 (44%) are borrowings into Modern English, and another 29 (21%) were borrowings into Middle English.  Moreover, those 89 loanwords - yes, 89 - were borrowed from more than 33 different languages.  So, 65% - considerably more than half - of the words in this story are not actually native to Old English.  Now that’s a language that likes to borrow!
      Of course it changes a little if you calculate the percentage not by unique words, but by taking frequency into account.  In that case there are 202 total words in the story, and only 44% are loanwords.  Here’s the story again, so you can see which words are which.  Those borrowed into Middle English are in italics, and those borrowed into Modern English are in bold.  (There are also links to some of the words that have been discussed in previous posts.)

Remarks on a Timid Explorer
        Last Thursday a Massachusetts oil tycoon named Dan lost his final dollar.  He did not even possess an extra nickel for the jukebox, so he decided to depart on safari.  He packed his rucksack, duffel, and tote bag, put on a khaki suit and a plaid bandana, and bid his bungalow adios.
        He trekked a couple hours and paused for refreshment.  He devoured bananas and barbecued beef with catsup.  He opted to drink lime soda, not tea or coffee, because caffeine irritated his nerves, but soon he became anxious anyway.  He was terrified of cougars, coyotes, jackals and alligators, and especially bandits, hoodlums and thugs.  He was not naive, but in kindergarten he had read too much about ninja assassins.  It bothered him.
        First the only animals he observed were a gecko and an ebony and ivory skunk, but suddenly a horde of yaks galloped up in a stampedeFortunately, it did not take a sleuth to deduce they were coming.  Without panic, Dan hid behind a hickory tree.  When it was over, he was beat -- a zombie from exhaustion -- and he stumbled home, put on his flannel pajamas automatically, like a robot, and slept.

        One perpetual note of caution: etymology can be very difficult to pin down, and a few of the words in here are uncertain or debated.  I tended to go with the interpretation that would swell my count, just to make my point, so it’s fair to say that there’s a margin of error of a few percentage points in either direction.  Still, the conclusion is valid: people accuse English speakers of failure to learn other languages, and in all seriousness I absolutely agree that we need to do better.  But give us credit - even when we speak only English we’re speaking dozens of other languages, too!

[Pictures: A Horde of Yaks!
Yak, wood engraving by Alan James Robinson from An Odd Bestiary, 1982;
Yak, linoleum block print with multiple blocks by Christopher Wormell from An Alphabet of Animals, 1990;
Y, wood block print by Antonio Frasconi from Bestiary, 1965;
Yak, wood block print from An Alphabet of Quadrupeds, 1852 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Y is for Yak, wood block print with multiple blocks by C.B. Falls, from ABC Book, 1923;
A Yin and a Yang of Yaks, linocut by Elizabeth Rashley from Ark-Bound Creatures, 2014 (Image from Avenue Press).]

September 27, 2016

Albrecht and Jerome

        September 30 is St Jerome’s Day, in honor of which I have several of Albrecht Dürer’s depictions of him.  I don’t think Jerome and I would have been best buddies back in the day (347-420 CE), but he is the patron saint of librarians and translators and is said to be the Church’s first linguist, so I’ve got to cheer that.  He’s also famous for befriending a lion by removing a thorn from its paw a lá Androcles, so points for kindness to animals.  At any rate, Albrecht Dürer (Germany, 1471-1528), most famous of renaissance printmakers, illustrated the life of Saint Jerome numerous times - more than he did any other saint (at least, not counting Jesus and Mary, I think).
        We’ll begin with my favorite, which D and I saw at the RISD museum of art this summer, and which got me started on this topic in the first place.  This is a great example of Dürer’s best work.  It has an enticing composition with the curtain drawn aside to invite us into the saint’s private cell.  It has a variety of textures.  It has tons of interesting details, giving us both clues about what would have seemed appropriate for a renaissance’s scholar’s study, and giving us symbolic clues about Jerome’s saintliness.  You can see the inkwell, scissors, brushes, and of course books, while the hourglass reminds us of the passage of time.  I especially like the lion, who looks very sleepy and contented, and may even have been playing with his tail.  One of Jerome’s other traditional symbols is the hat of a cardinal, which in this
case is off his head, hanging on his back.  Historically in Jerome’s time cardinals hadn’t been invented yet, but he was traditionally depicted as a cardinal because he was effectively the secretary of a pope, a role which by the renaissance was generally held by a cardinal.
        Compare now with Dürer’s earliest known book illustration, in which Jerome is in the act of pulling the thorn from the lion’s paw.  Dürer was younger, and so was Jerome - he doesn’t yet have his long beard.  You can tell this is an earlier effort, much simpler and more awkward.  In fact, it looks almost medieval with its not-quite-right perspective and anatomy, and its areas of more-or-less empty space.  Still, though, there’s a wealth of detail, including the unique touch of Jerome’s books in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, for which he was famous.  Note also that he’s dressed in the robes and hat of a cardinal, this time more obviously.
        My third example shows Jerome as the ascetic as much as the scholar, living in a cave with civilization off in the distance.  The lion, unusually, seems to be prowling about instead of resting peacefully by the saint’s feet, and the cardinal accessories are heaped on the rock Jerome's using for a desk.  Jerome’s writing hand looks dreadfully awkward, but I love the framing of the cave with its rocks and plants.
        And finally, another scene back in the study.  This one is a copper engraving and the level of detail is exceptional: the light thrown on the walls by the tiny round glass panes of the windows, the wood grain on the ceiling…  In addition to the hourglass we also have a skull, another traditional symbol of mortality and “vanitas.”  Jerome’s cardinal hat hangs on the wall behind him and for the first time Dürer gives him a halo.  He also gave Jerome a second pet, who looks to me like a corgi.  One other fun detail is the gourd hanging from the foreground ceiling.  Jerome had a famous dispute with Saint Augustine over whether the correct
translation of Jonah’s plant in the Bible was a gourd or, as Jerome claimed, ivy.  The humanists of Dürer’s day were fond of the story of this debate as illustrating Jerome’s profound scholarship.
        As an artist I sometimes think it’s boring to do the same subject multiple times, but Dürer manages to do something a little bit different each time he comes back to Saint Jerome.

[Pictures: St. Jerome in His Cell, wood block print by Albrecht Dürer, 1511 (Image from RISD Museum);
St Jerome, wood block print by Dürer from Liber Epistolarum sancti Hieronymi, 1497 (Image from Southern Methodist University);
Saint Jerome in the Cave, wood block print by Dürer, 1512 (Image from National Galleries Scotland);
Jerome in his Study, copper engraving by Dürer, 1514 (Image from deutsche Fotothek).]

September 23, 2016

The Stories in My Head Again

        Last post I mentioned my childhood habit of crafting fictional narratives to accompany my ordinary life.  Just for fun, here’s a short story I wrote in high school (c. 1991) illustrating that habit as it might accompany a walk home from the library on a winter’s afternoon.

        It took all of her strength to keep her hand from trembling with nervous excitement as she handed her card to the man behind the bare grey counter.  The thin-lipped man peered suspiciously over frameless spectacles, then stamped the papers and handed them back.  “You’ve got two weeks with these,” the man said, and looked to the next person in line.  Putting her papers carefully away in her bag, she thanked providence that she had not been recognized — but only two weeks?  She had only fourteen days to arrange the escape of an entire family and smuggle them to safety?  She smiled faintly.  She had rescued others in the face of even greater adversity, but she would have to work quickly.  She hurried to the door and resolutely walked out.
        Out, out into the cold!  The door closed firmly behind the poor maiden and she trudged reluctantly away through the snow.  Darkness was falling with the powdery flakes.  Warm, well-kept carriages dashed past in the street, but the waif was quite alone on the wet pavement where she walked.  If the warm, well-kept owners of the carriages had stopped to look more closely at the ragged figure by the side of the rode, they would have seen the radiance in her beautiful eyes despite her destitution.  But no one even slowed down, and the lovely maiden waited unnoticed for a break in the traffic.  She pulled her ragged scarf tighter against the bitter cold.
        With the collar of her dark trench coat pulled up around her chin and the brim of her fedora pulled low over her face, she knew that she would never be recognized by the drivers of the long black cars that roared by the corner where she waited.  She leaned her shoulder against the post of the dim streetlight, and the swirling snow obscured her figure almost as effectively as the wreathing mist that was usual in such scenes.  She pulled the secret document from an inner pocket.  Not one of the police experts had been able to decipher the cade, but she hardly glanced at it before she knew its secret.  They had all expected the decoded message to be in English, but she, with her fluent command of a dozen languages, instantly recognized what it said.  The traffic light turned yellow as she swiftly decoded, “Après moi le déluge, soupe du jour.  Bonjour, je ne sais quoi.”  She smiled grimly under the brim of her fedora.  “So the criminal mastermind thinks his big shot will deliver him the stolen goods.  He’s in for a disappointment.  I’ll catch him like a fly on fly-paper!”  And she snapped her leather-gloved fingers triumphantly.
        At the snap of her imperious fingers, the crowds that had surged forward held back, leaving her a space in which to cross.  “I need a dozen Raleighs here at least,” she thought as she stepped daintily but firmly from the curb into the slush of the street.  She walked regally, nodding graciously to her adoring subjects, and the air was filled with the white confetti these adoring subjects threw in her path.  Amidst the roared cheers of the joyous crowd, she came to the steps of her palace and stepped out of the street.
        Her feet sank deep in the drifted snow, and she took out her compass and studied it a moment.  She knew that she had nearly reached the South Pole, and when she was there she would be the first human ever to complete that cold and perilous journey.  The snow swirled madly and the intrepid explorer had to push against the gusts as though they were walls of ice.  All the others with whom she had set out on this polar expedition had long since perished, and now she knew herself to be utterly alone at the bottom of the earth.  Then she saw the light hanging over the door.
        She hurried toward the house and went in.  At the sound of the door her mother called out from the kitchen, “Who’s there?”
        “It’s me.”  She pulled off the arctic boots and unwound the ragged scarf.
        “Good.  Come set the table for dinner.  I thought you’d never come home from the library.  Find anything interesting?”
        “Yeah.”  She unbuttoned the trench coat, and hung the crown on one of the hooks.  Then she went into the kitchen, closing the entryway door behind her.

[Pictures: Reclamation, linocut by Deborah Klein, 1996 (Image from Deborah Klein);
Paduan Matron, wood block print by Cesare Vecellio from Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il Mondo, 1589.]

September 20, 2016

The Stories in My Head

        Whenever I was alone as a kid, I spent a lot of time in my head, and much of that time was spent narrating.  Sometimes I put together the words I would use to describe what I was really experiencing - how I could weave into sentences the inexplicable antics of the squirrels, or the ridiculous decor in the corner house’s yard, or the color of the leaves against the shifting clouds in the sky.  I worked and reworked mental drafts of how I could write it all down later in my journal, although generally by the time I was actually writing in my journal I didn’t have time to record that stuff anyway.  Often I crafted more interesting, exciting, fantastical stories out of the raw materials of my mostly uneventful existence, and the more melodramatically romantic, the better.  While I was cleaning the bathroom sink I might tell a story of the Cinderella-like Princess.  While I was getting another box of cereal from the cellar I might tell about the Intrepid Detective exploring the dark and mysterious warehouse.  While I was walking home from school in the snow, I might tell about the Poor Victorian Waif, or the Rugged Arctic Explorer, or the Winter Woodland Fox.  Pretty much any time I was in a woods I’d be narrating something about elves.
        Perhaps this was the verbal equivalent of the stereotypical tourist so busy looking through the lens of the camera that he never sees the sights with his own eyes.  Perhaps this was Walter Mitty losing his grip on reality.  On the other hand, I think it often prompted me to be very consciously aware of what was going on, to note the smells and sounds and feelings in the moment, and to keep an eye open for the telling detail.  It was also writing practice, of course, as I sought the best arrangement of the most evocative words to turn a description of my plain life into something that could catch at the imagination.  For as long as I can remember, the urge to turn things into stories and to put those stories into words has been an ever present facet of making my way through my life.  I still do it, with fewer Cinderellas and Waifs, perhaps, but an equal urge to find the words to craft a narration of what I’m experiencing.
        Is this normal?  I have no idea - mine is the only head I’ve ever really been in, so I can’t compare it with what went on in other people’s heads when they were children.  I suspect, however, that everyone in my generation and earlier had to find something to do inside their own head, because what else was going to happen while you had to walk home from school alone?  I worry a bit that people no longer spend time in their heads.  The moment they’re alone (and often even when they aren’t) they can plug their heads into earbuds and listen to music, or a podcast, or chat with friends.  No one ever gets stuck with their own thoughts, or left alone with the world around them.  No one is ever forced to be in their own head anymore; there’s always an option that’s easier, or more immediately appealing.  Now, I don’t want to cry the catastrophe of change, the decline of the world, or the deficiencies of young people these days.  There are advantages to balance disadvantages, and the human spirit adapts to do what it does in whatever environment it finds itself.  All I can say with certainty is that when I was a kid I spent a lot of time in my head crafting narratives, and I can’t imagine being a person who had never done that.

        Tune in next time for a short story I wrote in high school capturing this habit of mine.

[Pictures: Illustration from Gods’ Man, woodcut by Lynd Ward, 1929 (Image from the Atlantic);
Frontspiece from God’s Man, woodcut by Ward, 1929 (Image from Amherst College).]