Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Re-Post and a Conspiracy Theory

The political season is in full-swing again (does it ever stop?) and we're getting ready for another mid-term election. Fingers are pointing, excuses are fumbling and fear is mongering. Same old stuff. I was going to blog on this topic and lead into a conspiracy theory that's been percolating in the back of my head, but I decided to repost the following instead, one of my favorites from the last election:

I Got the Foghorn Leghorn Blues 
 "The blues isn't about feeling better. It's about making other people feel worse..."
   -- Bleeding Gums Murphy to Lisa in The Simpsons 
Have you been reading SalonHuffington Post? Watching the news on MSNBC? If you have, you know the Democrats have got the blues, and they've got them bad. The Democrats are good at having the blues. It keeps them from having to do anything substantive, but provides great talking points and finger pointing opportunities.  
There are rules for having the blues and I highly suggest you read them here. The Democrat Blues differ somewhat, however: 

  • You cannot have the blues on the back porch or "down by the river". You must have the blues in public, preferably in front of a camera.
  • Even if you shot a man in Memphis, it wasn't your fault -- but you can tell everyone which obstructionist Republican tripped you on the way to a meet & greet and made you fall on the gun he was carrying and it discharged, killing the man in Memphis (who, by the way didn't have health insurance).
  • Your blues tragedy cannot be brought about by hubris. Rather, you were done wrong by a low-lyin' Don't Tread on Me snake who had promised you his/her vote, but instead voted the other way after some soul searchin'.
  • Et cetera...
Politically, the blues are the irrefutable domain of the Democrats. But if the Dems have the blues, what's left for the Republicans? Well, there's no need to worry. They got something even better. Republicans got outrage. Luckily for them, outrage has no rules and the Republicans, those champions of deregulation, like this a lot. They can, will, and have been outraged over everything. They don't much like Bleeding Gums Murphy, for obvious reasons. Instead they've modeled themselves after the irascible Foghorn Leghorn.
There are no accidents in the universe, so it is not in the least surprising that Foghorn Leghorn was brought to us by Looney Tunes in the1950s. Foghorns don't need to make sense -- they just have to be loud. They can rev up indignation over anything: replacing crรจche scenes with "holiday trees," Super Bowl ads, and video games that reward sustainable community choices.
They rant against and blame the current administration for our economic woes, blithely forgetting their role in its inception. In the name of protecting life, they can vilify a woman who defends access to health services and at the same time support the death penalty. They can spout a simplification of any complex problem into an endless loop of self-serving sound-bytes that appeal to the ignorant masses who are products of a school system they continue to cripple. Blather, wince, repeat. It really doesn't matter which side offends us the most or more slyly undercuts our liberties and livelihoods: there's not much to choose between them.
But where do we fit in? Don't fret. We also play a role in this cartoon show: the dependably trusting Yakky Doodle who doesn't realize his own peril until he's roasting in the Fibber Fox's oven, and finally quacks: "I think you're the FOX!" In the series, Yakky was always rescued by his friend Chopper the Bulldog. But this is where my metaphor breaks down, as metaphors always do. However much politics in America may resemble the funnies, it's very real. And all of us are sitting in a pot waiting to be stewed again.
Well, we only have to change out a few words--Ebola or ISIS, for instance--and this post is completely up to date. However, I'm beginning to think it is no accident that politicians can't compromise anymore, refuse to consider the common good and fling a constant barrage of accusations: lying, treason and horn-swaggling. The atmosphere of distrust and aggression is so consistent, I begin to fear it is deliberate. I fear the "opposing sides" are actually working together to ensure that nothing gets done. A frustrated populace eventually tires of the farce and turns its attention elsewhere. Why else would anyone play Candy Crush into the late hours, photograph their dinner for the delectation of FaceBook friends or watch Honey Boo Boo?
Safely attached to our various devices, as I so surely am, there is little fear we'll notice what's going on in Washington, much less the rest of the world. Perhaps we'll sign a few more petitions or post a few protests. But the blinking ads in the margins of our monitors call like Sirens to Odysseus and we sail faithfully into oblivion.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The line draws me

I made yet another New Year's resolution this year.  I've done this before, but this time I've actually honored my resolution for the month of January and the first of February. Before, I never got much past the first week, as abandoned folders on my desktop ("Poem of the Day," "Story Idea of the Day" -- never, mind you,"Housework of the Day") will attest. But this time I put it out there -- as on FaceBook-- that I would create "a picture a day."

The notion of audience is powerful, as are digital tools. Using those at catapulted me past the logistics of supplies, and messy spaces, spaces for display and allowed me that remarkable--almost godly--bulwark against false starts, the UNDO button. (Which of us doesn't wish we had one in life?)

I've been hearing the call of art from the time I could hold a pencil, and avoiding it like crazy. Drawing in the flyleaves of books, on the woodwork, on the cardboard rectangles that used to be part of the packaging for my mother's hosiery, and later the margins of notebook paper in school and yellow legal pads at work, I made almost all of my efforts casual. In these latter places, I rarely wrote down much and, although I could usually remember what I should have been writing down just by looking at the pictures, I was often reprimanded by teachers and even written up by a supervisor for my "inattention" during meetings.

I've done some formal art from time to time--a couple of restaurant murals, a few paintings that went to a friend's gallery (where my mother promptly bought them so I'd think I was successful, just as she once sent me an anonymous bouquet of pink roses in college so I would think someone liked me) but little else. Usually, however, the burden of knowing I only had one canvas or sheaf of paper stunted whatever free-flow might otherwise have emerged. (I am the same way when someone gives me one of those beautiful blank books to write in--the stress of writing something worthy of the gift closes me down.)

I began without expecting much of myself -- it was to be a discipline. I believed real art was always done with brushes and paint, or chalk or ink. Sadly, I've even held that photographs weren't quite on the level with other art. Snob! Further, I've always seen my art as going from brain to hand to canvas or page. I didn't realize it could happen the other way around.

In the past when I've done digital art, I've used a stylus and tablet. This time, however, that would have meant actually going downstairs to my desk. The dogs need supervision, however, so I stayed in my chair and drew with my finger on the track pad and drifted back to my days of finger-painting, admittedly with a much better set of paints. My first efforts resembled my marginal doodles, especially the man in the moon I've been drawing for about 20 years. There was a progression, though, especially when I started using filters and overlays, achieving effects I could never approach with my own techniques. Such fun!

"Evil Moon"

With the three images above, I already knew I was going to draw a moon and play around with it. The art became better, however, when I started without an idea and let the initial lines not only tell me what they wanted to be, but began to tell me stories as well. I revisited memories and the titles of the works changed according:

"Wyoming Road Trip, January, 1963"
"Moscow Pullman Highway in Spring"

The line I didn't know became both evocative and communicative, and I would suddenly understand, remember what I was drawing.

Even more interesting was when the line took on a life of its own, and I had no idea what the picture would be until it was done. Here is an example:
Beginning line: I had no idea what it was.

Second line, all in one stroke: It was a face in a babushka!

When I saw the addition of the babushka had turned the first line into a face, I thought for a moment I was drawing Baba Yaga. I decided to add some shadowing where the eyes would be and start the body. Again I was surprised. The eyes, the emerging face and body were young and joyful. I knew, too that my girl was blind.

She emerged, unexpectedly.
I added a background, a skyscape, I had created some months before and for the first time saw the image of a swan I hadn't noticed before. Cygnus.


"Blind girl sees Cygnus"

What's happening here seems miraculous to me. I begin to feel as if I have channeled this art. It came to me, and all I had to do was recognize it, birth it, and send it out into the world. It is the same when I write. I have so often begun one story that became another, encountered characters who would not behave, and words that became the instigating line in a world of surprises. All art is in a constant state of becoming.

In both art and writing, it seems, it is the line that draws me. My friend Tim Gillespie once told me, "The muse follows the call of the moving pen..." or cursor. It surely does. And perhaps I am not even writing or drawing, rather pulling a thread from the web of meaning that surrounds us, and following it into possibility.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve 2013-2014

Sufficient Moment

Where we live
Overhead the stars are quiet, 
their heat a glow,

fire a distant promise.

I feel your eyes on my words tonight,

searching, searching.

Tarot cards are on the table. I know what I wish to see.

The night is full of it already: possibility.

Mary Chase
Dec. 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Adventures in Dreamtown

Paul Klee Dream City 1921

There's a town  I visit in my dreams almost every night. It's the same every time I'm there--only the plot changes.

I've come to know the neighborhoods, shopping malls, an enormous grocery store, the school, hospital, even a small casino. In homes, towels and mixing bowls spill from partially packed boxes and I never know if the residents are moving in or out. Some of these are houses I used to live in, but they are no longer my home. Wandering through the neighborhoods I used to know, I cut through back yards and living rooms, encountering children who run to find their parents. After all, I am sometimes in a hospital gown, dragging my drip IV behind me like a hobbyhorse.

I'm often on my way to a hospital which I enter through a loading dock.  I never really know if I'm there to visit or to have another surgery. I try to find out at the nurses' station, but it is always deserted, except for an old man smoking a cigarette. He has nothing to say. Sooner or later I encounter my mother who is strangely calm. She wanders off find someone to help me, much as she would to find a cup of coffee.

Dream window
Walmart-esque nightmare
I shop at a mall where most of the stores are closed or understocked, but through the windows I sometimes see outlandish but beautiful clothing: tall hats made of silver fur, silks figured with scenes from a fairytale, whimsical crafts clicking with magic. When I open the door I am in a Walmart-esque nightmare.

There are a few spots of brilliant beauty in Dreamtown, for example, a bare silver tree in whose branches a hundred yellow canaries wearing red pagoda-shaped hats trill Vivaldi. For the most part, though, the light is always dim and ramshackle buildings sway under matchstick scaffolding. Every street ends suddenly and my dreaming self asks endlessly, What is this place? Why do I return here night after night?

Freud might say that the houses, which in women's dreams represent their bodies, demonstrate my unhappiness with the way my own aging corpus betrays me. Jung might identify the old man smoking as an archetypal gatekeeper or mentor who will remain silent until I unlock his tongue with the right sort of magic. In these dreams I trespass in homes no longer my own and in hospital wards marked DO NOT ENTER. According to Dream Moods, one of the most popular dream interpretation sites on the Internet, "To dream that you are trespassing suggests that you are forcing your beliefs on others." Perhaps. Readers? Students?

Writing, we are told, is a process of discovery. I write this blog as a way of thinking, more than as a means of communication. And as I've written this particular post, I've remembered that, whatever else dreams may be -- portents, warped figments of the mind at rest, echoes of the deep, dark past -- they are always metaphors. But what does this one teach me? Perhaps that I know more as a dreamer than as a waking being. As a citizen of HereAndNow, I am so often frustrated, afraid and angry. I curse while I drive and as I read the newspaper. I worry about the prices of gold and gas. I continue to despise Karl Rove and Reinhard Heydrich.

My Dreamtown may have emerged from unresolved fears and thwarted expectations, but oddly enough, I am never afraid there or angry, merely curious. So, is this series of nightly vignettes instructing me to meet what I encounter with curiosity? With acceptance? Not expectation or judgment? Will calm consideration dispel the threat of whatever I confront? Turn a bomb into a bubble or a serpent to a string of pearls?

I don't know, but I suspect there is something to this lesson.  I will try for now to unclench my mind from expectation and my heart from fear. I think that such a change can at least do no harm.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


September the Eleventh

If you, knowing what you know,
Having read what you have read,
and remembering
All the tales you’ve heard

Should despite these warnings
name your son Icarus,
You cannot feign surprise
When blood of your blood
reaching wide as a swan unfurled
steps forward from the sill
And into the arms of flames.

The updraft buoys him like cinder
So that he might instead be flying
And for a moment the air is his.

So, too, Daedalus treading the shore, brushing
feathers of ash  from his dusted shoulders
Still thinks of cheating disaster.

Mary Chase

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Overcoming the Gruesome Legacy of English Composition

Like many in education, I have been plagued for some time by just how useless the whole endeavor seems to be -- and how meddling in education by non-educators has made it even more lame, bored more students and made teachers' jobs even harder than ever (viz., the disproportional amount of time spent preparing for and taking standardized tests that focus only on what can be quantified--therefore multiple choice questions at the expense of  descriptive/analytic responses). It's more than this, though.  It's sacred tradition as well. 

I taught Writing 121 - Introduction to Composition this summer, trying once again to make it both interesting and useful. The class, as you might suspect, is dedicated to the production on large scale of unreadable essays whose uniform badness exerts an intellectual lethargy on those who must write or read them. 

Half-wits will work for less.
The essay as a form was invented in the 16th century by people who were no good at writing poetry. It did not reach its apex of unpopularity, however, until the late 19th century. Then it became the most ubiquitous and effective means of ensuring that students became disengaged from their educations and asked only the questions that would get them through the assignment. After all, who wants the world to be full of thinkers, when half-wits work for less?

In any case, the notion that emphasis on formal essay-writing is not only responsible, but also right and good, has become so fixed in the traditions of writing departments that debate is all but pointless. And as for students, is there any among you whose heart actually cried out with joy at the notion of outlining, creating a thesis statement, adding supporting details whether or not there were any to be had? If so, you were not among my charges who lined up obediently, if listlessly, for their dose of educational castor oil. They knew (because they'd been told) it was good for them, no matter how bad it tasted. Even when I allowed students to chose their own topics, write from experience and share with peers, the writing was lackluster more often than not. It was still something they had to do to get through my class on the way to some other goal.
From The Hapless Child by Edward Gorey (with my textual addition)

Age prompts us to be reflective and reconsider the various decisions we've made in life; for example, I used to require essays. Age also makes us less fearful -- we know where we're headed, so the threat of temporal consequences (losing my contract!) becomes less frightful than a sprinkling of gnats. Age has its benefits.

Taking advantage of the courage age bestows has brought about one of the most successful writing classes I've ever taught. How?  By not requiring any essaysStudents don't want to write them and I certainly do not want to read them. 

So what did my WR121 students doing instead? What they did instead was focus on research and reflect on what they'd found by keeping an online blog. "The blog," I told them at the beginning of the term, "has not yet defined itself as a form. We are pioneers, exploring a new, emerging genre. There is no length, except what your reader will bear. There is no formulaic way to begin or end. It is interactive. There is a real audience beyond the teacher." 

And what were they to write about? Donald Graves, one of my dissertation advisors, was keen on allowing students to "pursue their obsessions". So I told students to write about whatever drove them, fascinated them, made them angry or confused. They were in charge of the topic and the form. Graves' friend and colleague, Donald Murray, famously said, "We don't write with words. We write with information." So they would use the information they discovered as the raw material of thought.

I didn't know what would happen, but I knew that the writing could be no worse than what I had read over the years. I was floored, however, when I read the first posts: it was some of the best student writing I'd ever seen. Topics were important and unexpected: government surveillance, NRA funding, child soldiers, art therapy, rape as a weapon of war... Gone was the awkward flailing about for topic and theme, the padded sentences and crippled logic so often prompted by the need to support a thesis or find accordance with format. Instead, their writing was tip of the pen (or cursor) excitement. 

In some mysterious way, the requirements of the course combined to create a successful writing and learning experience. I have some notions as to why -- the discovery that their readers included not only me and their classmates, but perfect strangers who had stumbled across their blogs ("I have a reader from Russia!"); the luxury of deciding the content of their studies and the time to investigate it over weeks and weeks; the comfort of knowing no one was counting words, telling them how many paragraphs they needed, or even expecting them to arrive at a conclusion. Magic arises from the interaction between reading and writing, and from a marriage of investigation and reflection. 

There's a lot to consider about this pedagogical experiment. For instance:

  • Why did students think that this was one of the best writing classes they'd ever taken, when I didn't teach them about writing? Our discussions focused on where their research was leading them, which direction to follow, what new questions had emerged. 
  • Is this the kind of experience necessary to bring students to the point where a great piece of writing could really be crafted? In the past I'd spent untold hours trying to help students revise writing not worthy of revision. 
  • Why have teachers become an unimportant, nearly invisible audience for their student writers? 
... and more.

I'll try it again this fall with two more classes. I'll let you know what happens.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Since last I wrote

It's been a long time since I made an entry here. Several ideas have drifted by and faded into the collective morass of abandoned possibilities we call yesterday. Much has happened since last I wrote. To begin with, we have a new...


The Pope's nose
My family members have long been followers of all things Papal, beginning (in my experience at least) with Pope Pius XII. My memories of him coincide with my Protestant and highly anti-Catholic grandfather who always referred to the nether regions of a turkey as "the Pope's nose." This epithet  made my parents uncomfortable and did little for my piety during formative years. It may, in part, explain my eventual separation from Holy Mother Church.

Consequent with my own life, a sequence of popes has reminded me that we never really left the Dark Ages.  Jolly John XXIII wrought havoc with the Latin Mass. Dour Paul VI brought us back in line. The abbreviated reign of John Paul I prompted one of my favorite questions from a precocious child: Pope dead again? John Paul II was both flashy and saintly, a tough customer who looked the leader. (J-P I looked like a clerk). Benedict, our new Pope emeritus,  looks guilty, as befits a former member of Hitler Youth. And Pope Francis? Interesting.

I wonder about Francis a lot. Will he miss the land of the tango? The sultry nights full of animal cries, barking dogs and sirens? Almost certainly he will miss his little apartment, anonymous rides on the bus, and perhaps even the Coriolis Effect. I picture him in his new digs, waiting impatiently for everyone to leave at the end of his first day so he could look in the closets and drawers. There he undoubtedly discovered his new papal duds-- all embroidered with the papal seal. Almost like going to parochial school and having to wear a uniform...hmmmm. I know he's conservative, but he is such a Bilbo Baggins type and has already offended fundamentalists that I have decided to like him, for now.


Observant readers will recall that I visited Brazil last year so that my husband and I could attend to the business of his late mother's estate. The cargo ship wended its way through the Panama Canal and arrived in January. Since then I have been spending much of my time finding places for, researching and generally shifting around the contents of 181 boxes and 500 cubic feet of furniture. Now...

I live in a museum!
Display cabinet with portrait miniatures
Pitching a TV series on the life I live now would include the sell line: Antiques Roadshow meets Hoarders. Honestly, I cannot get from the kitchen to the living room without having to side-step stacks of engravings, rolled carpets, Victorian curiosities and even four enormous cupboards circa 1600. Jose comes from a family of diplomats who travelled all over and collected whatever they liked: portrait miniatures (what rich people had before photographs), china (there are no sets with fewer than 20 place-settings), hat pins, books, snuff boxes, figurines, and unidentifiable Hindu gods in bronze.

Yamantaka? Anyone?

This is a delightful burden, but a burden nonetheless. At my best, I am a very bad organizer and very good procrastinator, a perilous combination. My housekeeping has always been "casual" and my tolerance for states of flux admirable. I need help. Help!


So, how do I survive? As ever: avoidance. Summer has brought the summer to-do list in the garden, but when I am avoiding that, I write instead.


High Spirits at Harroweby,
my Regency ghost story
I began this blog to help me overcome writer's block so I could work on my novels. Lately, I've had blogger's block, so I've had to work on my novels.  Ironic, isn't it?

I wrote five romance novels in the 1990s, short Austen-esque comedies of manners set in Regency England. They went out of print, rights reverted,  and I've finally gotten most of them up on Amazon. The interesting thing is that in the last 3 weeks they've sold better than they did in a traditional venue and I am finally earning something from them. Maybe I should abandon the mystery novel I've been working on and go back to the early 19th century. I have the furniture to go with it. 

and Teaching Writing...

I thought I was taking this term off, but about a week ago I got a call asking if I could take over for a staff member diagnosed with cancer. I could and did, and it has been a wild ride taking over with five sessions left before the end of the term and 50 students who had not yet received a paper back from their instructor. She was too sick. I was left with about 300 pages of partially marked work and the assignments were badly at odds with anything I would have done. Different philosophies are necessary in schools, of course, but I wish there had been a closer match. We are all working hard, reaching up to touch the ground. Let's hope we all come out the other end enlightened in some way.

But overshadowing all of this...

I write above about distractions from what has really been going on.

Our darling Irish Wolfhound, Silver, passed away two weeks ago after walking a long declining path. He's been my best friend for eight years--smart, funny, charming and demanding. It broke our hearts to see this big strong boy weaken with pain, stop eating, and finally have to be lifted into the taxi-van (I can't say enough about these good people) that took him to the vet. 
Where is my hero, my heart, my hound?
Where does he prance, my bright pawed darling?
In the fields where rabbits run, and roses are always blooming.

I was prepared for Silver's dying, but not for his being gone.  It's one thing to see the end of his suffering. As a student reminded me, putting a pet down is the final act of love. But Silver started and ended our days. He woke us in the morning, alerted us to strangers, oversaw cooking and eating, and, peeking around corners, grinned at us from doorways when he wanted a treat. 

I look for him everywhere, but all I can see is absence, in the shape of a dog.