Thursday, February 21, 2013

"God have mercy on the [domestic longhair] who doubts what [s]he's sure of"

I've been listening to one of the best Springsteen albums ever, Tunnel of Love. When we were kids, my sister (codename: Cordelia) and I came up with a theory, convincingly backed up by textual evidence, that the song "Brilliant Disguise" was about our cat Sugar, a beautiful and secretive creature one was likely to cross paths with "out on the edge of town." The person "call[ing her] name from underneath our willow" was, of course, Mom (who went outside every night to call her in), and the thing Sugar had "tucked in shame underneath [her] pillow" was, as I recall, a hairball.

It made sense at the time.

This is the album with "Tougher Than the Rest," "Spare Parts," "Cautious Man," "Tunnel of Love," "One Step Up," etc., plus, Bruce Springsteen wearing a bolo tie. If someone said to me, "For a period of one month, your half of every conversation about anything that matters must be conducted solely in lyrics from this album," I would say, "That is not a problem. Where did I put that harmonica?"

This is actually the nail polish post I mentioned a few posts ago, but I'm getting there in a roundabout way. It has to do with Springsteen's Bill Horton, the "cautious man of the road." Do you know about Billy's tattoos? "On his right hand Billy tattooed the word 'love' and on his left hand was the word 'fear.'" I've been feeling a kind of camaraderie with Billy lately when I paint my nails, because while I don't know that I've ever been moved to paint my nails in "love" and "fear" colors, the colors/arrangements I choose always have significance to me. I love that Billy knows what matters to him and has the urge to be representational about it on his own body. I love being thoughtful about the way I decorate my body, which is, after all, the container of my life.

Some recent expressions:

Also, you should read that story in the background.
"A Rose for Ecclesiastes," by Roger Zelazny -- so good.

On my left hand, little suns rising...

... and on my right -- this was really hard to photograph, so it might
be hard to parse, but those are little moons in a dark sky over water.
If you look closely you'll see the moons are crossing the sky nail to
nail. It's time-lapse nail polish :)

Maybe clearer here?

Or here. If you're curious about what I was
reading when I snapped these pics, it's the story
"Judith" by C.E. Montague.

By the way, I've blogged before about how important it is to make messes when you're writing. I also recommend it when self-decorating.

Left hand in progress.

Almost done with the left hand.
Wait for it to dry... you can use that hand to paint a mess on the right :)


Final note: I am planning a small blog break, starting now, during which I intend to contemplate my bloggy equilibrium. Be well, readers, and see you on the flip side.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


That bud on the upper left has been
curled tight for two and a half months.

Look what it did today.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Here Lies Kristin. She Paid Attention

I wouldn't mind if that's what it said on my tombstone.

So, recently, I got into a bit of a plotting pickle with this thing I'm writing. I just couldn't figure out a particular aspect of the story. In my usual fashion, I threw myself at it, then threw myself at it again, and again, hoping that my self-propulsion would manage to bash me through it, because sometimes, it does. This time, it didn't. Realizing that what I needed was a break, I put my notebook away. For several days, I did other things, anything, provided that it was neither writing nor thinking about writing. From time to time, the writing tried to lure me back. It has a whole bag of tricks it likes to use on these occasions: it tried to make me feel guilty; it tried scaring me into believing my book was in peril if I didn't get back to work; it tried presenting me with a nice, tempting, challenging wall to throw myself at. Every time, just like with a meditation practice, I smiled, noticed what the writing was trying to do, and said, "No. I can't figure you out today. Go away. I'll come back to you later." And it did go away, and I had my break, and when my instincts told me I was ready to try again, I got back to work. And wouldn't you know it, something had untangled itself while I was gone, and I could see the problem -- and begin to see the solutions -- from all kinds of new angles I hadn't even realized existed before. The solution, in fact, involved letting go of a number of basic assumptions I'd had about the structure of the book.

What my book most needed when it -- and I -- got all tangled up in each other was for me to let it go.

Writing is my practice. The recognition of this need for time away from writing and the wherewithal to follow through with it is a writing skill it's taken me many years of practice to hone. I spent a lot of time in the past trying to push through blocks and burnout, too afraid that taking a break was equivalent to giving up. Eventually, with curiosity, experimentation, and practice, I learned to recognize the part of my writing nature that will gnaw at a bone until the bone is gone, then gnaw my own teeth down to my gums, and I've learned to recognize that it's a potentially harmful writing tendency that I need to monitor and keep in balance. My tendency as a writer is to overwork? Okay then. That leaves me with the (truly pleasurable) responsibility of making sure I pay attention to the need for breaks. I've learned that writing improves with breaks; that breaks show you the errors in what you thought you knew. I've also learned to trust myself not to give up while I'm away, and to trust the book not to give up on me. Through practice, I've found my faith as a writer.

Now I'm trying to learn how to live the way I write. What do I mean by that? Life is full of questions that have no answers, or questions that we -- I -- don't have enough information to answer reliably. I watch myself throwing myself at those questions, over and over and over, and I know there's no answer to be reached, but still I can't stop throwing myself at them. So, what if I apply the skills I've learned from writing, and give myself a break? What if I pay attention to the things I do know, to who I am and what actually is, and learn to say to the unanswerable questions, "No. I can't figure out the answer to you today. Go away. I am okay with knowing merely what I know, not knowing what's coming, and still being open to this life."

The other day, as codename: Apocalyptica the Flimflammer and I unpacked some groceries, she said something about how she was striving to be more equanimous in life. "Equanimity!" I exclaimed.

"You say that as if it's something you just found in a bag," she said.

It was more that I'd found the word for the thing I was also trying to achieve. I think equanimity is like a person comfortably at rest on a tightrope. Not really at rest, because the balancing requires a keen awareness and an active openness to factors outside your control. A poise. But not in motion, either. Balanced and safe, but prepared to move in any direction, should motion become necessary. Balanced and safe, but with no idea, until the rope tells you, what form that motion will need to take, or which way it will send you, or when it will happen. Maybe there are other people on the same tightrope with you. Well then – letting go of your assumptions about the things you think you know about other people, and what they'll do. Waiting, instead, ready, with openness and curiosity, to find out who other people are, who you are, what does happen, and how you will choose to react to it.

This requires an enormous faith in yourself, and a practiced comfort with the unknown.

And so I'm practicing.

Novel Snowstorm

Me in an email: Guys, it is snowing like the dickens.

Rebecca in response: It is snowing like the Dickens, the Austen, and the Brontë.

Friday, February 15, 2013

It'll Probably Pass

As I take breaks from writing yesterday and this morning, I'm getting a lot of joy out of the song "Orpheo Looks Back" by Andrew Bird. It makes me feel brave. I'm listening to the album version (from Break It Yourself), but the link takes you to a review of the song and vid of a live performance, in case you're curious. It's on iTunes etc.

I'm slowly compiling a post about how I'm trying to use the tools I've learned from writing to make me better at life. Also an important post about nail polish. But these things have minds of their own and today it's sunny and soon I need to catch a train. So. Happy weekend everyone :)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rumi Strikes Again

Does sunset sometimes look like the sun is coming up?
Do you know what a faithful love is like?

You're crying; you say you've burned yourself.
But can you think of anyone who's not
hazy with smoke?

- Rumi

Sleep, Pretty Darling, Do Not Cry... and Other Thursday Randutiae

  • Someone who uses voice recognition software and draws should start a VRS comic strip. The objects that appear suddenly in my scenes because my VRS has misunderstood me are visually amusing. I just dictated the line, "'I will,' she said with a sob," and my VRS typed, "'I will,' she said with a saw." I feel like a spontaneous saw could really add something to a conversation.
  • Gentlemen of Cambridge: to the man, when faced with a long, narrow corridor of sidewalk between snowbanks, you have waited at your end and let me pass first. This has literally happened to me twelve times since the storm (which I know because at a certain point I started counting). In this northeast USA city (meaning, a city where strangers tend not to pay much attention to each other and rudeness is not particularly unusual), I am startled and touched by this thoughtfulness, then startled that I am touched. Thank you for your gentlemanly behavior.

  • Housekeeping: in an attempt to get more organized on the blog -- and less self-promotey in my blog posts -- I've started posting book news behind my News link again.
  • I just can't take Captain America seriously. He has a big A on his head. It stands for America.
  • And in the end... some of you will have recognized my subject line today. I can't stop listening to the back half of Abbey Road, the medley that starts with "You Never Give Me Your Money" and goes through to "The End." So much oddness and wisdom in that 16 minutes. Abbey Road is one of about five albums I grew up with from the time I was a baby, pretty much imprinted into my DNA. Listening to it is (almost) a way to get back home.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

It is the use of increasingly sophisticated tools that separates man from beast.

(Demonstrated by some young goofballs who, by my best guess, are Harvard grad students.)

Hey guys, let's dig a snowcave inside this drift! I am burrowing into this snowbank using my arms and hands and head!

You look tired. Maybe we should use this 2 x 4?

I guess so... wait, hang on! I have a better idea!

I'm back and I brought a scraper. Let's get back to it.

Hang on, what's that lady in the long coat carrying?

Oh my goodness! This skillet is shaped like a snow-mover!

These skillets work great. If only we had... hey, who's that guy?

Friends, I'm here to show you how it's done.

Make yourselves comfortable. I'll take care of this in no time, and by sunset

no one will be able to find us.

The drifting makes me happy. I love the sharp lines

It's been snowing for about 25 hours. I keep thinking about Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland and hoping they're okay.* Here is the view from codename: Apocalyptica's garage in Swampscott.  That's her buddy Margaret's car, in case you didn't recognize it as such.

There are many magical things about a storm like this (provided you keep the TV off and ignore all the stupid hype. It's a snowstorm. We live in New England). One of my favorite magical things is the silence.  Aside from the occasional snowplow, there's no traffic, which is unheard of around here. And the snow insulates and muffles sounds.

* This is a reference to The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. During the fall, winter, and spring of 1880-1881, South Dakota had a particularly harsh season of blizzards (beyond anything Boston has ever known). The blizzards came hard upon each other, each one fierce and crippling. The trains couldn't run, supplies were running low, there was no new food or fuel. The people in Laura's town slowly began to starve (and freeze!). So Almanzo and Cap set out between blizzards -- so dangerous! -- in search of a rumored settler at a claim some 20 miles away who was said to have wheat the boys might be able to buy to save their starving town.  I won't tell you what happens, because this is Wilder's strongest book in the series, and you should go read it if you want a gripping winter tale.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Storm Views

It has been snowing for about 13 hours so far.

At first there was some light out there,

including the flashing one on this crazy person's helmet,

but gradually,

the sun went away and the darkness moved in.

(Except that it never gets all that dark when you've got street lamps and snow.)

The owner of this car will be surprised in the morning
to find it has turned into a marshmallow. (With ears.)

I am home now. It is cozy. Here is a view from my own window.

It's Like Waves Crashing Against the Sky

Today and tomorrow, the snow will rise upwards from the clouds.

On Monday, prepare for shooting iceballs.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pre-Snowstorm Randutiae

Over at her blog, Rebecca Stead has a wonderful new writing routine, which she explains in one line.


... my new matches are "sourced from responsible forests."

... I guess the irresponsible forests are always missing their appointments with the lumberjacks.

February 14: The Fifth Annual Pan-Universal Be Who You Are Day

If you've been around my blog for a while, then you know what I think of the societal assumption that a life isn't full without romance. You also know that while I sympathize with romantic (and every other kind of) cowardice, I really wish that after tea and cake and ices, J. Alfred would force the moment to its crisis. Finally, you know how much I dislike Valentine's Day. LISTEN, I have many opinions and they are all CORRECT.

Sigh. Valentine's Day makes me belligerent.

Pan-Universal Be Who You Are Day, on the other hand, makes me happy and proud. Click on that link if you have no idea what I'm talking about and are curious about why I have renamed Valentine's Day. I'm not being obscure on purpose, I'm being obscure because I am being hit over the head repeatedly by a manuscript right now and linkiness is possible whereas coherent explanations are not. Apologies; this is not going to be my best Pan-Universal Be Who You Are Day post ever. Here's a picture from one of the many bulletin boards in my house -- a Pan-Universaltine mailed to me last year by a darling dear.

(If for the first three years of Pan-Universal Be Who You Are Day, I was calling it Interplanetary Be Who You Are Day, is it cheating to call this the fifth annual Pan-Universal Be Who You Are Day?)

Be who you are, my friends, and be proud of it. For example, I am a person writing a rushed and incoherent blog post that relies too much on links and yelling, and I am proud of it. My sister's cat Tanker appears to be orbiting Earth, and just look, he is glowing with pride. Tanker, we applaud you.

In conclusion, just because I dislike Valentine's Day does not mean that I'm not wearing heart jeans right now, and whenever the spirit takes me. Sometimes I even wear them with heart socks. Because that's WHO I AM.

Wear your heart on your pants.

And so, my readers... who will you be this February 14?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Word Roundup for a Monday

Boustrophedon [boo-struh-FEED-n], from the Greek βουστροφηδόν, βοῦς (bous) meaning "ox" and στροφή (strophē) meaning "turn": An ancient method of writing in which every other line of writing is flipped or reversed, with reversed letters. The way oxen would write, you know, if they were turning back and forth in the fields in order to write, rather than in order to pull the plow. :D?

The derivation of this word brings back memories for me, because I took ancient Greek in high school, and I remember the word βοῦς (bous). Except that I remember it meaning bull, not ox, and I remember combining it with the word κόπρος (kopros), meaning "shit." Bouskopros [BOOS-KOP-ross]: A disguised way to say "bullshit" to the non-Greek-speaking Jesuit priests and brothers without getting sent to Jug. Jug [JUG]: What we had instead of detention at my Jesuit high school. An acronym for "Justice Under God." I am not even kidding.

Wow, is it ever hard to write letters backwards when you're not used to it. It was actually easier for me to write the Greek backwards than the English, I suppose because I'm working against decades of writing English letters forwards, whereas I hardly ever write Greek letters at all.

Please note that according to my various sources (which include the Oxford English Dictionary, Wikipedia, and, traditional boustrophedon begins with letters going right to left, then switches left to right. I decided to start left to right because I didn't want to lose y'all before I'd even begun.

Ready for your next word?


Zugzwang [TSOOK-tsvahng], from German Zug meaning "move" and Zwang meaning "constraint" or "obligation": A position in which one player can move only with loss or severe disadvantage.

This word came to me one happy day via Morris in London, who used it casually in an e-mail to his daughter Rebecca, who then e-mailed me RIGHT AWAY to tell me about it. It's a chess term. It describes that moment wherein no matter which way you move, you're going to lose a piece you don't want to lose. I've been in zugzwang countless times while playing chess. But I'm a whole lot more interested in its metaphorical uses.

I bet you can think of a moment when someone or something has trapped you in a situation wherein every choice open to you is going to worsen your position and really, really hurt. So you make the best choice you can, proceed through the pain, and hope for the best. Like that guy in 127 Hours who had to chop off his own arm in order to escape from the canyon. Or, less dramatically, like when your recipe calls for a perfectly-ripe avocado but all the avocados at the store are hard as rocks, so you either have to make your recipe with an icky under-ripe avocado or figure out something else to make entirely. Or, like when you're scared of something, and your only options are either to give up or to open yourself to the scary thing. Often in life, every option hurts.

What I love about zugzwang is that even though, when it happens to you, it feels like you're about to lose the game, that is not, in fact, the inevitable result. Whatever sacrifice you decide to make, it's still with the ultimate intention of trying to win. You choose your loss, make your next move, and hold on to the hope that in losing the battle, you might win the war; that moving through the pain will get you to the other side of the pain. Zugzwang tests our faith.



So, the other morning in Seattle, I woke up to this frantic text from my sister, codename: Apocalyptica the Flimflammer:

skeuomorphism! skeuomorphism! look it up!

Confused and groggy, I did as I was told. Amazement and elation ensued, closely followed by an email to Marie in Paris.

Why? Because one day, four months ago, while taking pictures in Paris, I complained to Marie about how much I dislike the fake shutter noise my iPhone makes whenever I take a picture. It's a digital camera, so why does it have to make that big, loud, fake shutter noise? And Marie said, "There's a word for that phenomenon, but I can't remember what it is."

"Oh my god! I'm dying to know what the word is!" I said, which is how any reasonable person would react.

"Me too!" said Marie, because she is also reasonable.

A month later, while taking pictures along a Swampscott beach with Apocalyptica, I complained about the noise again. "Also," I said, "Marie says there's a word for the phenomenon, but she can't remember it, and we're dying to know what it is!"

"What phenomenon?" asked Apocalyptica.

"The phenomenon wherein a modern thing unnecessarily imitates the form of some other, older thing, but the older thing was in that particular form because when the older thing existed, the form had a necessary function," I said (but less eloquently than that). "My camera phone makes a shutter noise because old cameras made shutter noises, but old cameras made shutter noises because they actually had a shutter as part of their necessary mechanism."

"Oh my god!" said Apocalyptica. "I'm dying to know what the word is!"

Fast forward three months to the other morning, when Apocalyptica's coworker said to Apocalyptica, "I think you would enjoy this new word I just read in an article in Scientific American," then handed Apocalyptica the very word that she, Marie, and I have been striving after for months!

Skeuomorph [SKYOO-uh-mawrf], from Greek σκεῦος (skeuos) meaning "container" or "tool" and μορφή (morphê) meaning "shape": a physical ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques. Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal, or a software calendar application which displays the days organized on animated month pages in imitation of a paper desk calendar.

BTW, that definition came directly from the Skeuomorph Wikipedia page, which I recommend for further clarification. This is a difficult concept to paraphrase, and the Wikipedia page gives lots of good examples. Also, here's a blog post that shows a lot of interesting examples of skeuomorphism in design.

The shutter sound on the iPhone camera is an auditory skeuomorph.

Marie is now requesting the word for when you need a word that doesn't exist. Unfortunately, I don't think it exists :).  But if it does, I expect the fates will send it to us within... oh, about four months.

Here's a photo Marie and I took with her iPhone in Paris.

And one I took with mine,
of Apocalyptica's fingers in Swampscott.

Final word of the day:

Irony-yak [AHY-ruh-nee-YAK], compound construction, from Latin "ironia" and Tibetan "gyag": A large, stocky, shaggy-haired wild ox that appears on the scene every time there exists an indirect and often amusing contradiction between an action or expression and the context in which it occurs. Hmm? What? OKAY FINE I made it up. Welcome to the limitations of the English language (and also reality). I will merely comment that if there were such a thing as an ironyyak, I would've had a very special moment in my Scrabble game this afternoon.

That does it for my word roundup. Blessings on all those who, upon learning wonderful new words, share them.