Year of a Hundred Things: “Thing #74 – Gypsy Heart

“You’re a gypsy. You know that?” He said.

“Yep. But you love me that way.” I am confident in that. It’s not as though he has a choice, really. 

I can’t be without something to do, so I carry with me, at all times, at least three things to do. I am never without a book, my pencils and sketchbook, and some kind of camera. There are times when I wished my OCD expressed itself in my household, in keeping everything in its place. But alas, it does not. 

I can laugh at myself, hauling a good 10lbs in art supplies and books in my backpack. Occasionally, I look like a hermit crab adapting every spot I visit into my own little creative space.  It makes my gypsy heart happy.


“Didn’t have a camera by my side this time,
Hopin’ I would see the world through both my eyes,
Maybe I will tell you all about it
When I’m in the mood to lose my way with words.”
(John Mayer)

I’ll have to beg your forgiveness for beginning this piece with song lyrics, but it is among my favorites songs, and every time I hear it, it takes me down the same path.

A few years ago, I officially retired from IT and decided that I’d pursue photography as a profession rather than the hobby it had been. While I have enjoyed the work most of the time, I now find myself having learned an unexpected lesson. The business of photography sucked the joy out of the art of photography, for me. I wanted to capture a story in every frame. That is not what happened. It became rote. It made me very depressed. Most inquiries wanted cheap, quick, painless and Photoshop. I wanted to create. More and more of my friends are leaving the “business,” as well, for the same reason. In an effort to love the art again, I cut jobs down to only a few a month. It has been a relief.

I have had several heart-to-hearts about this with a friend. He is my creative conscience, and he gives my fears no quarter. Stop taking your gear, he said. Just use your phone. See things. And this weekend, on a trip to Minnesota, I did as he said. The process was, at first, frustrating as hell. I know my gear, intimately. I know the buttons and dials. I can control depth of field, and ambient light, and compression. With my phone, I could only control composition and focal point. It was a bit like someone had cut off my hand. I forged on, nonetheless. And I did, in fact, see small things I might have missed. As usual, my friend was right about what it takes to get out of my head space.

All of these images were shot using my iPhone. It is proof of two things: (1) seeing requires your eyes first, (2) the camera is only the tool.

I’m slowly getting my mojo back, and for that I have to thank my friend. I don’t enjoy looking inward, because that’s where the heavy lifting is. But I’ll do it every time for the payoff. It’s priceless.

More on these images individually, in later posts. Some warrant their own.

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The Kraken

I lost my mind, yesterday. I admit it. I could feel it happening, too, and I was nearly powerless to stop it. My voice grew louder. My face twisted into ugly rage.

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Pinus Contora 

Ouch, I thought, a splinter?  As my hands caressed the weather-worn, greying plank, turning it, examining it for weaknesses that might eventually compromise the finished piece, a tiny prick made me drop it as though it had opened a vein.

It was, after all, a good excuse to walk away.

I had sat down expressly to transform it. I had had some idea of what I wanted, but no inspiration. I saw red: not in the angry, metaphorical way, but the color red filling my imagination, bursting, a clouded Holi festival in every shade from rose to sanguis. It is in that space where all the joy and wonder of a creative moment, all of the air that fills my lungs spreads to my waiting hands, only to explode from my chest in a rush of despair.

“Why” begins to interrupt. Do I have a voice? Is it worthwhile? Who will want to see this? 

The answer is an apparition.

It is often said of artists that narcissism is the first requirement. Thumbing through even the thinnest of art history books, one finds edgy, erratic, often abstruse behavior among the great masters. Art, it seems, requires a dance on the tightwire that hangs between sanity and genius.

Having grown up in a household where art had no value, I now find myself opening every creative vein I can just to find the one that flows freely. So far, none have. I push, every day, learning the tools and techniques. With each new medium I touch, with each surface I alter, I understand better and better the act of love that art truly is. Even as I write these words, I am utterly gripped by creating a melody within them that will compel you to keep reading. These are experiences I did not have at a time when painting a pig blue or a tree purple was the process in which one idea might fluidly transform into another. Occasionally, I color outside the lines, and I don’t feel the need to correct it and then, as I let go, more and more, I begin to love what I am touching and changing. It comes down to that one nebulous moment when I give myself permission to do whatever I want without needing a reason why. It is the moment when the wildfire clears the way for the new seeds.

To the many whom I’ve heard say, “I have no talent for art,” I say, expressing yourself doesn’t require “talent” in the traditional sense. It requires that you somehow package what you feel in a way that makes you happy. A year ago, I said I couldn’t draw, but I’ve changed that. I’m learning about the many mediums and tools. I’m immersing myself, and therein lies the danger.

Just as when I began to write publicly, I now study, rather than just view art. I find myself hyperfocused, deconstructing method, material, meaning. I become so lost in the detail, that I must navigate both the joy of understanding and the defeat of accepting that I will never create something so exquisite that it moves mankind century after century. And that is the moment I burn.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a friend who is a successful artist. He spoke candidly about having an artist’s statement and an idea of the theme in his work. I realized that, fundamentally, art is a commitment to visually communicate something for which the artist has no words. Ultimately, I am compelled by an unusual tendency to assign color to emotions. I reach my roots into that fleeting moment, and that is when I grow.

Over and over, I’ll burn when I despair over how much time was lost to fear, but in between, in fleeting moments, new roots grip the ground as from my hands, something lovely comes.


Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #75 – Language

A few years ago, my family took a trip to Cozumel for a birthday celebration. Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking family, I thought it would be rather easy to communicate while in Mexico, but in the end, having had for years no one with whom to practice the bastardized Tampa Spanglish I learned, my Spanish is now spotty, at best. So, in trying to communicate in Spanish, I frequently made a mess of the truly beautiful language it is, and comically put myself in some precarious situations.

For example, I responded “¡Soy caliente!” to a lovely, “¿Como está, Señorita?” from the towel-attendant at the beach. He chuckled. “Sí, hay mucho calor, hoy,” he responded. Now, if you know any Spanish, you understand that we were discussing the weather. But it took me a moment to realize that he chuckled at my phrasing. I asked, knowing how badly I butcher Spanish these days, what I could do to be more exact. He said, in perfect English, “You meant to say ‘It is hot,’ but you said, ‘I am hot’ as though complimenting yourself on your attractiveness. While you are lovely,” – yes, he said that – “I think you meant to say you feel hot from the weather.” We laughed, heartily, and I thanked him for his kind lesson on Spanish. He didn’t make me feel small, or insulted. I took the opportunity to better learn how to communicate with the citizens whose hospitality I enjoyed for four days.

Why? Because it was the right thing to do.

I have worked in other countries, short term. On those rare, wonderful occasions, I had not the time to learn to communicate well in their native language, which I regretted for two reasons. (1) I do not expect that they should have to learn my language to accommodate me on their soil, and (2) learning many languages expands our understanding of the nuances of communication.

Now, having expressed how I feel about this, imagine how appalled I was to read that a journalist in the UK has decided that correcting grammar is both racist and a sign of “white privilege” because it inhibits the ability for “the poor” to communicate. I’m curious, because I grew up poor and bilingual, why she thinks that only the English correct grammar. My Abuela corrected my Spanish, constantly. My mother is a voracious reader. Her father, the eldest son of Sicilian immigrants, read constantly in English, Spanish and Italian. He spoke all three languages beautifully and correctly. These were my role models.

I’m a grammarphile but not because of some lofty sense of privilege. It’s because I believe in clarity, and in the power of meaning. And in a small way, I love the mechanics of the kind of sentence structure that evokes a visceral response from my reader. A good sentence is sexy.

Sunday, I had just read the article written by the aforementioned journalist, and I happened across the only five minutes of Game of Thrones that I had the opportunity to watch as I went about cleaning the kitchen. In the scene, Tyrion Lannister attempts to give charity to a woman so that she can feed her baby, but in Valerian he says “for your baby,” from which she inferred that he wanted to buy her baby. A simple error in phrasing and the meaning was entirely changed from charity to cannibalism. Note that I did not say “that I could watch” instead of “had the opportunity to watch.” Considering the regular violence on Game of Thrones, there are many scenes for which the first phrase would apply, but that is not what I MEANT in this case.

The fact is, if you don’t apply grammatical rules in ANY language, your meaning can be misinterpreted to such an extent that you could possibly insult the person to whom you speak. In fact, it happens often. I’ve seen discussions in social media decompose into vicious attacks because of misinterpretations that could easily have been solved by simple punctuation. The number of times I’ve read “that’s not what I meant” simply confounds me. The thing is, English has a lexicon of 450,000+ words. It’s not an easy language to learn. But if you genuinely want to be heard, and UNDERSTOOD, you have to accept that using proper grammar will help you achieve that end. In contrast, if you want to be genuinely innovative with meaning, you have to know the rules you are creatively breaking.

I think it’s deplorable when one attacks another publicly for improper usage, even if in response to something combative. It furthers the idea that privilege, or arrogance, is always the motive. I have been tempted, especially when I’ve read responses that have devolved into personal attacks. But even in opposition, meaning must be clear, or your argument is lost the moment your reader trips over the first missing comma.

Finally, if you do want to work on grammar and meaning, and better learn how to express yourself, I highly recommend a book called “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale. She takes an “out of the box” approach to illustrating how subtle changes can lead to much better communication. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing or saying, but it matters greatly whether you are understood.

YofaHT: “Thing” #76 – A Good Product

I believe it was Homer Simpson who said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” All kidding aside, and in complete deference to Plato, no adage more aptly explains the appearance of the world’s most inspiring conveniences. Convenience is an amazing thing. It immediately creates an adoption, then a reliance, then a complete dependence in the organism it benefits. I thought about convenience when I stumbled – okay, okay, honesty – when I was presented through a Facebook ad a new concept device called Kano.

I have many years experience in the informations systems business and was hardly surprised when my offspring showed an aptitude for technology and talent for the logic skills that will eventually make him as formidable a diagnostician as is his mother. (Alright, alright, I admit, I’m a bit biased.)

Now, while I’ll gladly toot my own horn at my ability to creatively unravel complex problems, I will admit with equal humility that I lack patience as a systems teacher. Anyone who has suffered that impatience (and you know who you are) will gladly throw me under the AS400. So, as I watched my child deftly manipulating Minecraft after assimilating new techniques by watching YouTube (StampyLongHead, I’m watching you), I realized he was going to come to a place soon where he’d either learn bad computing habits (read: fat, sloppy code) or he’d learn it the right way from me.

Enter Kano.

Before I write about the actual product, I want to mention why I’m writing about the actual product. Making good stuff for kids is a lost art. The volume of things that break, or don’t work as promised, could fill a good-sized airplane hangar. So, when I stumble across something that works well, I’m inclined to reward the manufacturers. I prefer to encourage good business, rather than denigrate bad ones (although, I’m frequently tempted).

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog…

Enter Kano (again)…

It’s a cute little thing, built on the Raspberry Pi platform. As I read the web site (read more here), I quickly realized that I had a convenient solution to my teaching problem. The hip peeps at Kano had developed a tool that would help me visually teach my kid operating system commands and code logic, all while he would swear he was playing computer games. It’s his “size” and “feel.” It comes with clear, concise and visually stimulating instructions. I ordered it immediately as his big Christmas present.

At first he didn’t know what to make of the parts, but once I explained what it would allow him to do, he dug in with both hands. As my husband and I watched, he put the whole thing together, and powered it up, with very little intervention from me. A tear of pride bobbled in my eye for a moment as I realized the apple was still hanging around the roots.

My husband had a completely opposite but interesting reaction. He has little experience with technology, and noted that because our child is more likely to design a baseball video game than to actually play baseball, a good father-son relationship might require that dad learn along side mommy’s little prodigy.

In our household, this cool little device serves two important purposes. It gives me the tool to teach him the tools he’ll need in his future endeavors, and it provides an avenue for dad to relate to interests foreign to his own, but deeply rooted in his son. Granted, that’s much more than convenience. In fact, it’s a gold mine. If you have a kid who has an aptitude for technology, I highly recommend that you look at this product, especially if you yourself do not have that aptitude.

Now, 75 more “things” to go…better get back on that writing horse, eh?

Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #77 – Abuela

  I have no memory of how I perceived loss before the year my Abuela died, but I clearly, concretely remember how I felt, sitting at the end of the kitchen counter in her kitchen, lonely in a room filled with people. The yellow formica stretched out before my gaze as though it were infinite.  I was transfixed by the mottled 70s pattern. It was consistent and predictable, the antithesis of the disconnected spectrum of emotions that wracked my small body. I was ten years old and my everyday was gone.

My Abuela “Annie,” as she was known, was the constant in my life. Before my father was hurt in a car accident, I spent every morning before school in my Abuela’s kitchen, drinking café con leche and eating the best Cuban bread in the universe, from the bakery at which my Abuelo worked. (That’s not hyperbole. It has actually been voted the best many times over the years.) I watched her struggle from place to place because four strokes had taken her entire left side from her. She was determined, and strong, and had adapted. I wish I had understood at ten what an extraordinary achievement that was. You see, I didn’t know it at the time, but she had been left-handed.

Since that day, forty years ago, I have learned a great deal more about her than I could possibly have perceived at ten. But I knew one very important thing, even then, clinging to that counter and sobbing. My life was about to change drastically, and not having her as an anchor was going to make that much harder.

I found myself standing in my kitchen this afternoon, making yuca and mojo, and for a moment, my Abuela returned to my consciousness. I saw her there, standing at the stove, left arm contracted severely, right arm stirring the spanish bean soup I wish I’d learned to make.

“Abuela,” I had said one afternoon, “why did mommy and daddy go to your ami?”

She chuckled, and flashed her perfect smile at me. “Niña, it’s not ‘your ami,’ it’s Miiii ami.”

“Okay, but why did they go to yoooouuuurrrr ami?” I remember clearly that I’d stretched it out, thinking that she hadn’t understood me.

“Aye, niña, it’s a city, named ‘Miami.’ It’s not ‘my’ ami. And they’re visiting friends.”

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” I finally said, as she scooped two ladles full of soup into the blender. Whiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrr, the blender screamed, having only soft foods to pulverize. I watched as she carefully poured the resulting mush into a melamine bowl, and then slowly hobbled over to the table with it.

“Come, sit,” she said. She hobbled back to the counter, pulled a spoon from the drawer and with the same slow drag of her left foot, brought the spoon to the table.

I had no idea at the time what tremendous effort it was for her to do simple things like that, but now, at this moment, standing in my kitchen cooking, I understand that she loved me enough to know that I hated (still hate) the texture of garbanzo beans and she turned that soup into mush because that’s the way I liked it.

I have many memories of my Abuela, but not nearly enough. I relish those moments when she comes back to me because I find myself doing something she did, without realizing that it was from her that I learned it. Her memory, and the memory of my father, made me realize that our people never really leave us. They are in our DNA. They are the warp and weft of our memories. To visit them, we need only do what they taught us, without our even knowing what we’d really learned.