Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Lesson and the Game

The Lesson and the Game
digital composit of images harvested from internet
click image to view larger.

The Lesson and the Game

My first round of practice teaching occurs at a mixed-race, inner-city school.  Most of the kids are black and the teacher is also black and male.  The two student teachers are my friend and classmate, Hank (Henry Phalange) and me.  Hank, biracial, is equally at home with whites or blacks and can switch speech and mannerisms in the blink of an eye.  I, on the other hand, in spite of having been here for some time, have trouble making out the speech of some of the children.

The lesson for the day is trees, tree ecology and tree identification.  We study trees in math, social studies, reading and science.  During science, Mr. Hollinger passes out leaves to each student, and to Hank and me. The leaves seem to be hand-carved out of ebony or some other dark expensive looking wood, but they also feel very strong.  Each leaf is on a black chain and can be worn around the neck.

Hank’s is an American elm, Mr. Hollinger’s a white ash and mine a sugar maple.  Mr. Hollinger’s looks fragile, with its separate leaf-lets, but I finger it, and it seems sturdy.  Chantelle has a big-tooth aspen, Tyrone a cottonwood, Egyptia a red oak, DeShaun a white oak, Jonas an American beech, Micah a chestnut and so on.  We talk about the characteristics of the trees and walk in the new school arboretum so that each child can find his or her tree.  We learn three things about each tree, as we go around, and then, when we stop at the end, the kids each recite the three things about their own tree and the other kids repeat them.

My three things are that we can make maple syrup and candy from the sugar maple, that they are used as shade trees, and that they are part of the beech-birch maple hemlock climax forest in this area.  Also we say the Latin name, for me, Acer sacharum.  I didn’t learn the Latin names of trees until I got to college, so it seems strange to be teaching them to these kids.

When we come back in, the girls in the class are sent next door to Miss Johanna’s room and her boys are sent to our room.  Mr. Hollister pulls down the room-darkening shades, leaving only a slit of light visible at the bottom of three of the shades.  The room falls into darkness.  He directs our class sit on one lab table and the other class sit on the other.  Then he says we’re going play a game called pickpocket. I am immediately concerned, and wish I had been sent over to Miss Johanna’s with the girls.  I am guessing they are not playing pickpocket.

The object of the game is to acquire as many leaves as possible.  He does not say if the leaves will be returned, and I feel fearful of losing my own leaf and of other kids losing theirs and being sad.  I think that this is an inappropriate game, and I am unhappy about it.  However, I am the student teacher, and at this point am only observing, so I keep my opinions to myself.

When Mr. Hollister blows the whistle and the game starts, I back into a corner and hope that everyone forgets me.  The room falls into pandemonium, kids dashing everywhere, hooting and laughing.  Unlike me, they seem to be happy.  At one point, a whole crowd of them sweeps past me, and someone grabs one my arms and I twirl helplessly into the running mass of kids and bang against a lab table, not hard enough to hurt, but I am surrounded by bodies moving, thumping and laughing.

Then I realize my leaf is gone.  I pat myself down and I definitely don’t have it.  I feel a sense of loss and grief and also anger and something akin to hatred for being forced to play this stupid game. It seems to go on and on and I make my way back to the corner and sulk.  I have no desire to touch male students in the dark searching for hidden leaves.  The whole idea seems ludicrous and inappropriate to me.

Finally, Mr. Hollister blows his whistle and the game stops.  Kids turn on the lights, pull up the shades, and hold up their trophies—the ones who have trophies.  The others stand back, but they don’t look sad.  They look surprisingly cheerful.  Hank comes over to stand by me.  He is grinning ear it ear.  “I got your leaf,” he says, and holds out his hand.  I stare at all the stuff in his hand.  “Here,” he says, “take it,” and pushes his hand closer. 

Hanging from his hand is my leaf, my camera, my necklace, and laying in his hand is my cell phone, my wallet, a pen, a paint-brush in a metal tube, my glasses.  Everything is intact.  I look in my wallet and my money and cards seem to be there. 

Hank looks pleased with himself, and happy.  He seems to think I should praise him. But I feel violated and sad.  I wonder if he or anyone else has taken anything from me and not returned it.  Something I will miss later, when it is too late.  We stand staring at each other, our face inches apart.  When he leans and gives me a small kiss on my cheek, I steel myself against drawing back, not from Hank, who I love, but from this terrible game and his acceptance of it.

Dream April 5, 2014

Sugar maple leaf by me,
Mary Stebbins Taitt
How does this make you feel?  What does it remind you of?

It may have been influenced by Reality TV, movies and books, such as Hunger Games.  I have fearfully been avoiding seeing or reading any of them, but they leak into my consciousness anyway.  I guess I am a big wimp.  I hate even the idea of them.

I worked for a number of years teaching in inner city schools, but never played a game called pickpocket.  I have no idea where that came from except perhaps because I have jury duty coming up and worry about the pickpockets downtown.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Traveling Treadmill Desk Goes to Dodge Park

Scenes from Dodge Park today*
Click any image to view them all larger
* ("today" being a few days ago when I wrote this)

My Traveling Treadmill Desk Goes to Dodge Park
           Recently I read several articles about treadmill desks.  You stand at a special desk doing your work (or play) and walk along on a special slow-paced treadmill, killing two bird with one stone.  You get your work done and you get some exercise, too. And, elsewhere, I read that if you walk at a pace that is comfortable for you, you can be smarter, more creative and more productive.   What could be better? 
           My own personal "treadmill desk" could be better for me.  It allows me to work and simultaneously get exercise, be creative and productive, and see an ever-changing scene.  The desk is air, the treadmill is the sidewalks, paths, roads and floors I travel along as I walk.  I have a small "palmtop" computer called a Psion that allows me to write while walking, which is what I am doing right now. 
             Today, the treadmill slipping under my feet is the plowed and paved multi-use path along the Clinton River at Dodge Park.  The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the river is flowing past but there is almost no one else here, maybe because there's a foot of snow on the ground.  I have the whole park to myself.
           One problem with my treadmill desk is the temperature control knobs.  They're non-existent, and it is twenty degrees and windy.  That's 20 degrees Fahrenheit, way below freezing.  My fingers get cold when I write.  Since I can’t type with gloves on, I have to warm my hands in my pockets between sentences.
            Although today, the sky is blue and the sun is shining, other days, I can't control the snow or rain that falls on my "treadmill desk."  I could, however, choose to use my "treadmill desk" at the mall, or, if I could afford a gym membership, doing laps at the gym (not my favorite activity, but still better than an actual treadmill for a change of scene.)
            Another disadvantage of my "treadmill desk" is that the Psion requires XP, and Microsoft is phasing out support for XP.  XP is the last windows that supports the Psion software necessary to download my work form the Psion.  Sadly, Macs do not work at all.
           On the Psion, I've written Cowbird stories (many never published due to computer and other issues), blog posts, flash fiction, poems, short stories and entire (as of yet unpublished) novels.  But my virtual-treadmill way of life may be coming to an end soon because of the lack of compatibility of the Psion with newer computers.
            I could never afford a real treadmill desk; they're bit pricey.  Even if I could, would I like it?  No trees, birds, flowers, dogs to greet and pet.  Then again, no freezing fingers, no rain, snow or wind, no sidewalks treacherous with snow and ice.  Okay, it might be nice sometimes in the winter.  No unbearable heat, sweatification, or bugs and less opportunity for beggars or thieves.  Okay, it might be nice during summer hot spells.
            But then I might miss people stopping me to say they see me all over town, miles from home.  They ask me, "Did you really walk there?"  Yep.  I walked.  And I carried my “desk” with me and wrote a chapter in current novel, while admiring the scenery between thoughts, words and sentences.
            I wonder if there's somewhere you could try out a treadmill desk, to see what it's like.  My husband says, probably not.  Manufacturers have learned that it's best to play on hype, notions and fads.  Most of these things, he says, end up at the curb when people discover that it's not as much fun as they imagined and involves real work and commitment.
           I have plenty of commitment for walking and writing.  I walk and I write every day.  But that commitment might not translate well to an indoor treadmill desk, and that's a lot of money to experiment with.  A moot point anyway, since we can't afford it.
            I like my own special "treadmill desk" anyway, with the big blue dome of sky overhead, the foot of snow underfoot (at the moment, since I'm off the paved trail), the river sliding by and ducks and geese paddling and talking quietly among themselves.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014



            Two men ride by on bicycles.  They each look strange in a different way.  One is whiskery, as in unshaven for two days, riding a small bike, and hunched over a large box he is balancing on his lap.  The other, riding on the other side of the road, is riding a very tall thin old-fashioned "English" bike and sitting up very straight.  He too is "whiskery." He has a fairly long grey beard and long grey hair.   He is sitting ramrod straight and riding a hundred feet behind the other guy and on the opposite side of the road. He is the one on the correct side of the road. The tall guy is tall and thin on a tall thin bike and the short guy, while not fat, is slightly plump. 
            They both strike me as strange, but then I think of people dear to me, Keith, for example, my brother Tom, Judy, Jaison, Rosy.  My parents. Everyone I know is strange and interesting.
            I remember one time when my kids were tweens and we were talking about one of our family friends, and the kids said that person was strange.  Then, one of us mentioned another friend, and that friend, too, was pronounced weird, and then we named everyone we knew, and they were all pronounced weird.  It turned into a kind of game, taking turns naming a person we thought might be normal and the others ticked off the weirdosities of that person.  Oh yeah.  We laughed and laughed.  Then we tried hard to think of someone who was not weird, but name as we might, we thought of weirdosities for every single person.  We finally settled on one person who we decided was not weird, Betsy Fallon. 
            Betsy, my husband's sister, had two children, taught preschool, lived in a nice house by the lake, had a nice dog, a nice husband (who was weird), and acted "normal," whatever that mean.
            Years later, we decided Betsy, too, was weird, and could think of no one who wasn't.  Including, of course, ourselves. 
            What exactly is normal?
            I remember reading an article in Science News about Perceived Beauty.   They showed a bunch of pictures of people to a bunch of people and had them rate them on a scale of one to ten for attractiveness.  The images had been produced by a computer that overlaid pictures of many people, 3, 5, 9, 15 and many more.  The more faces combined into the image, the higher the attractiveness rating. 
            What we perceive as most beautiful, according to the article, is actually most average.  The more average person is the most beautiful or attractive (handsome) she or he appears to our animal minds.  The too big noses are averaged out by the too small noses, the too big chins by the too small ones, the wide mouths by the narrow ones.  Something in our animal nature is programmed to find the most average face attractive. 
            There may be an adaptive advantage to this.  If I, who have tendency to gain too much weight, marry a man who is delightfully thin, perhaps our children will approach normalcy.  Or not--some may be fat and some thin.  Perhaps those people who look most normal have the greatest opportunity to be used as breeding stock if we perceive them as attractive.
            I wonder if that might also be true with behavior.  Those people who behave in a pattern closest to what society labels as normal have the greatest breeding potential and thus theoretically produce the most offspring and create the largest pool of their genetic material in future generations.
            I think of the two men who rode by on their bikes, and I think to myself that "the very fact that they are riding bikes with all this snow and these puddles makes them weird, especially since they are adults, not kids or teens."  Then I think, "I might do that myself."  And then I think, "Yeah, but I'm weird."  The “normal” people in my neighborhood go to the gym if they exercise at all.
            And then I think of the people I love best in the world.  They are all out on the tail ends of the bell curve for normalcy—not so far out as to be dangerous, gust far enough out to be really interesting.
            We tend to be afraid of unfamiliar people who look weird or strange.  But when we get to know them, they look like people we know and love.  Those two men--they might each be someone's dearly beloved. They may never have met each other, but this may be the day that they meet and become lifelong friends--or lifelong enemies.  I vote for friends. Or, they might be nefarious criminals bent on some far-out scheme, only pretending to not be together so no one will suspect that inside box are the weapons they need to rob the bank on the corner and begin a long and devious crime spree.

            Interesting as the crime binge may be, my guess is that they are probably ordinary people involved in ordinary lives, and I know from long experience that many of our ordinary lives are quite extraordinary!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

My Moleskine in Addis Ababa Ethiopia

Mary's book is in Addis Ababa Ethiopia
for 2 weeks
photo by Mike Kline
Mary's Moleskine in Accra, Ghana
"Pouring Creativity into Mary's Mole"
photo by Mike Kline

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Not "Just Writing" Exactly

Melting Snow
There is much more than shows here in most spots!
photo by me, Mary Stebbins Taitt
click image to view larger.
            Friday, March 7, 2014, 3:18 PM I am walking between walls of snow over wet and icy concrete.  The snow and ice are melting because the sun is shining and there are puddles gathering in the low spots. Deep puddles.
            Yesterday was my first day on this new Psion, whose name is Caution Bravery.  I woke up this morning with a very sore thumb and rubbed on some Voltaren gel in hopes of cutting back on the pain so I could function.
            So, this is my writing practice.  Slogging through puddles in the achingly brilliant sun.  Wait, that's too many adjectives and adverbs.  The snow has a high albedo, and could damage one's eyes if one were out in it too long in the sun.  It doesn't look dirty, as it often does when it melts, because there is a fresh layer over the old snow.
            What are today's goals for a writing practice?
            1) Awareness:  to be as fully awake aware, alive and present as possible in this moment of bright sun, splashing water, melting snow, water running down storm drains, thick and muddy.  To be awake in my own life and within my own thoughts, and to be awake to world and the people in it.  I see wet grass emerging form under the snow, brown and soggy, soggy leaves left from autumn.  I notice I am dressed too warmly and am getting overheated.  I notice the sounds of splashing as I walk, the birds cheeping, cars passing on the street, my discomfort walking over the ice.  I notice wanting to go home and divest myself of my heavy coat and hat.
            I try to save my words and get an error message.  I decide to go home and start over.
            I realize that I am carrying my backpack, because I was originally intending to go to the grocery store.  I take it off and cram my big thick coat and my hat.  I am STILL warm.  Water has splashed over the top of my boots and my feet are wet.
            I had attempted to stop my watch, but it had not stopped.  I am timing my walk because I have to walk a minimum of 45 minutes.  Sometimes, because of my fibromyalgia, this is difficult for me, and other times I can walk much longer and farther. 
            I have come out to Mack, a local main drag, in hopes of better sidewalks and less ice and water, and so far, this is turned out to be a wise move on those fronts, but now I have to endure constant traffic.
            I am carrying my little 2/3 Panasonic camera (“Pandora”) with the stereo close-up lens.  I would like to go in florist shop and photograph the flowers, but because of the biopsies on my face, and Band-Aids over them, I feel like a freak.  Keith says I look as if I've been in a knife flight, and that's not reassuring.  I feel shy about asking to photograph the flowers when I look like Frankenstein’s monster.
            2) Journal:  My writing practice often serves as a journal and record of my life, which feels valuable to me, so I continue with the goal of using my writing practice to record events and concerns.  I could go on about that, but several other things wish to be recorded.
            3) Discovery:  it is in my writing practice that I often discover that I am thinking or feeling.  I love the little aha moments.  I can't exactly write that down as a goal, or maybe I can.  It's sort of like expecting the unexpected.
            4) Generate ideas:  I wish, during some of my writing practice sessions, to generate ideas for my current writing projects, my poems, novels, kids’ books, short stories etc.  Often, bits that begin as "just writing" morph into goal-oriented writing, that is, a poem or story or an idea for novel. 
            I have a regrettable tendency to write myself into a corner, from which I can't find an exit without tracking over wet-paint or battling the Urgals.  Sometimes, in my writing practice, I can find a chainsaw or shoes with stickers on them so that I can walk through or up the wall and escape.
            In one of my novels, the bad guys orchestrated the killing of some lesser bad guys, some good guys and the protagonist in a complex scheme.  I knew what they were up to when I started, but I've had a senior event and forgotten what I had in mind.  I had this novel more than 3/4 written (first rough draft) and would like to rediscover my intention for it or invent a new one.  That would be a good thing to do in a writing practice--at least I think so. 
            Actually, what really happened was sadder (to me) and more complex that what I just wrote.  Here's what happened:  I took a vacation from work (in Syracuse, at the time) and went to the UP (Upper Peninsula) in Michigan and stayed at a campground right on the beach.  I set up a little table on the beach and spent two weeks working on my novel.  I'd already been working on it for a year and my goal was to finish it and I nearly did, but right near the end, there was a computer glitch and the computer blue-screened repeatedly and had to be sent back to IBM to be repaired.  Everything on it was lost.
            I had a backup copy on a CD, but the heat in the car warped the CD, rendering it useless.  I had another back-up copy on the Psion, but the day I returned from vacation, someone at the museum stole the Psion.  (I know who it was, but that's another story.)            For years, I hoped my stolen Psion would come back to me, but it never did, and I guess I have to let go of it.
            I had backed up the Psion on yet another computer at work, but Nerd Boys were updating the system, and when they saved my data, they missed that because it was in a folder labeled Psion and they didn't know it was important.
            So, in the space of only a few days, I went from having a nearly completed first rough-draft novel to having only a printed copy of a much earlier draft from months before my two weeks of work.  (There may be other copies extant, but I have not been able to locate any).
            Then, life came along, as it often does.  I met Keith, my mother was hospitalized, had a series of horrible experiences and then died, my aunt died, I had three houses to sort through, a romance and marriage, and so on, so I didn't have a chance to work on mentally retrieving the novel.  All I have left is that early version and my memories, which daily grow dimmer, of what I had wanted to write.
            The novel in question started as a gift to a coworker who liked Stephen King and was kind of preposterous at first.  It had all sorts of crazy, unbelievable events and characters.  For example, the protagonist has amnesia, which is something writing books admonish one to avoid, and I knew that when I chose to include it.  A giant turtle appears in the story.  But I had "solved" the problems created by the strange things I added for my friend.  Only the problem of the "mafia" types remained.  What exactly were they up to?  AND, fiddlesticks, I thought I'd solved that, too.  Only, I cannot remember what I'd come up with.
            I like the characters.
            Is the novel worth reinventing?  Or should I ditch it and go on to one of the others?
            Common sense says, ditch it.
            My heart says, revive it.
            I like to honor my heart, but my heart hasn't given me the key to the mystery that I had, or thought I had, and then lost.

            So, in my writing practice, I'm secretly looking for clues.  I'm hoping they might pop up the way lost dreams sometimes do.  A key on a battered, faded ribbon.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Fox for Judi Fox

digitally altered painting
original painting 5 x 7 in water color and sparkly pens
for Judi Fox
by me, Mary Stebbins Taitt

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Noah helped Frankie write words on some paper

Noah helped Frankie write words on some paper
Invitations to come to their party and caper
Watercolor and gouache on wc Moleskine
by Mary Stebbins Taitt
Click image to view larger
This is my latest painting (illustration) and is for one of the children's books I am working on, Frankie and Noah have a Party.  It is done in Andrea's Moleskine, Round 4, Pass 2 in my Moleskine Exchange group.  It is all watercolor except the blue background, which is gouache, on Moleskine watercolor paper.

Here is the text for this page:

Frankie helped Noah write on some paper                    
Invitations to come to a party and caper 
They’d fill up balloons with helium vapor
If they filled up enough it would lift up a tapir   
The pigeons and crows and the owls and wrens
carried the invites to their animal friends. (by me, of course)

The picture is of my grandson Frankie, who is three years old, and the finished book will be for him.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Half a Black Widow

Black Widow collab, 1st half,
for Mike in Andrea's
click image to view larger
This is my collaboration for Mike in Andrea's Moleskine, half a black widow spider.

Fun and Me-time

Two cards I made this morning for a friend
(They are very tiny)
I love making cards.

Fun (Time for me)

One of my recent goals in the goal track was to think about fun, so my challenge today was to do that.

Here are some of the things are think are fun:

Writing (when I want to),
Writing poems
Writing stories
Working on a novella or novel
(I often really enjoy it, but sometimes, it seems too much like work (a chore) to be called fun)
Painting, drawing, doing art
Reading a good book
Walking in nature (when the conditions aren’t too stressful—like, no ice!)
Chatting with my husband or a friend
Eating and/or walking with my husband or a friend
Shamanic Journeying
Visiting new places/travel
Taking pictures/
Working on Photoshop
Making gift cards (if I don’t do too many at once—then it seems like work and not fun!)
Listening to live music
Listening to good music on the radio

I do believe that balancing fun and relaxation with work and accomplishments is healthy and good.  Too much of either is not so good.  I am lucky that some of my work is also fun.

Scheduling fun seems like a chore and not much fun.

I hereby schedule myself to go to a DSS (Detroit Stereographic Society) meeting Wednesday IF the weather is appropriate to drive all that way, and I schedule myself the time to prepare some entries for the competition TODAY and to do some painting after dinner Monday night (or if there turns out to be a conflict, the first available evening.)

Too much scheduling of ANYTHING is not fun for me (because then I feel pressured and overwhelmed.)