The Joy of a Trashy Novel

imagesPeople who work on airplanes are admirable. I watch them take out their laptops, open documents and work as if their lives depended on it. Maybe they do. Then there are the game players who hold their iPads like steering wheels and race through narrow lanes on their screens. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the people who are watching a movie on their iPhone. Seriously, I would not want to watch a movie that expanded across a big screen shrink down to the size of my phone. I’d keep wondering, “Which one is that? Was he the driving the getaway motorcycle or was he the guy who crashed through the window in France?”

On airplanes, I bring a book. The kind you don’t have to put away until you are at 10,000 feet. The kind the flight attendant doesn’t ask you to turn off until the Captain tells you it’s OK to read. The kind that makes you look like a matronly grammar teacher on her way to teach a class and . . . let’s leave her alone.

These airplane-reading books are a slice of heaven. I keep my eyes glued to the pages tPile-of-Bookshrough turbulence. Ignore the man in the next seat whose head is on my shoulder and he’s drooling. Ignore the squalling toddler who is kicking my seat.

For I have the trashy novel and am loving it. I pick them carefully. They have to be well-written and the plot has to capture my attention. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief if the main character is flawed in a believable way and has to struggle to solve his problems.

When I say “trashy,” I don’t mean bodice-busters or Fifty Shades of Gray. I have standards. There are genres I don’t like (but not many).  Give me a good mystery with an interesting protagonist, and I’ll have to be pried off the plane like a dried-on diaper from a baby that’s been asleep since we passed over Cleveland.

pile-of-books-1During the work week I often read non-fiction books on writing, coaching, critical thinking. Art books and magazines for fun. But I do have a weakness for novels, and audiobooks have made many a car trip not just fun but deeply satisfying. Airplane books fall into that category. Yes, I’ve read Middlemarch and Moby Dick, Light in August and The Gulag Archipelago, but I don’t read classics on an airplane. I read books that hook my interest and my imagination. Some of them may even be literature. But all of them hold my attention.

My latest airplane novels:

Inferno by Dan Brown. More of the same, but if you love Italy or are a folklorist, there is a wealth of interesting information buried in the so-so plot.

A book of short stories by Neil Gaiman. That led me to reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane and then onto American Gods and The Ananzi Boys. Not trashy, incredible. Some of the best story-telling I’ve read.See where a book of short stories can lead?

Several by Jodi Picoult. She writes page-turners with interesting characters and interesting plots.

Peter Robinson writes about an English detective, Inspector Banks, who is flawed and troubled and a very stubborn and a good detective. The books are always interesting because they weave the personal life of the characters into the crime plot.

J.A. Jance now lives in Seattle, but she’s from Tucson. She wrote a series that takes place in Tucson (Joanna Brady and another set featuring Diana Ladd Walker and Brandon Walker)  another in Seattle (J.P. Beaumont),  a few where the detectives from each town meet. Then there are some about a woman newsreader who gets bounced from TV because her face is starting to look old (Ali Reynolds). J.A. Jance is prolific and a kind and generous woman who once comforted me with a funny story that made a clever blog. And she writes page turners. If I finish one on a plane, I put a note in it recommending it and leave it in the airplane. Someone will be delighted.

You don’t have to get on an airplane to read an interesting novel you like. Good writers almost always are also voracious readers–of anything. Enjoy an old-fashioned book. You won’t be disappointed.

-Quinn McDonald reads books in bed. Her iPad hurts too much when it drops on her face as she falls asleep.

 

Saguaro: Home in the Desert

cactus1Saguaro cacti (Sa-WAR-oh) provide food and homes for a large number of desert animals. You wouldn’t think so–the cactus has big thorns, are tall (40-60 feet), and live for 150 years. Doesn’t sound like a friendly place to set up housekeeping.

Saguaros attract Gila Woodpeckers. With their tough beaks, they drill holes in the low- to middle areas of the cactus, between the ribs.  You can see one in the center of the cactus in the photo on the right.

A saguaro is not hollow. It’s made up of tough, long ribs and woody structure. This is what a cross section of a dead saguaro looks like:

Cross-section of a saguaro, showing the woody interior and the ribs that hold it upright.

Cross-section of a saguaro, showing the woody interior and the ribs that hold it upright.

A bird has to be pretty persistent to drill through the outer skin into the cactus. When the bird breaks through and hollows out a space big enough for a nest, the bird abandons the cactus. The cactus protects itself by secreting a material that hardens into a waterproof lining for next year’s nest.

Hand holding a saguaro boot.  © Take a Hike, Arizona.

Hand holding a saguaro boot. © Take a Hike, Arizona.

The lining is called a boot, and the Native American tribes used the boots to carry water and to use as waterproof shoes. The next year, when the boot is firm, Gila Woodpeckers will build a nest. After the woodpeckers abandon the nest, elf owls, screech owls, purple martins and starlings will take turns. There is a strict pecking order (yeah, I said that) of birds.

cactus3Higher up the saguaro, the Gilded Woodpecker can drill through the harder ribs. They build nests underneath the arms of a saguaro, which protects the entrance to the nest. It can also provide important shade in a landscape that rarely has overcast days.

In late April the saguaro sets flower buds. Bats, moths, and small birds pollinate the flowers.

Once the fruit forms–at the top of the arms of the cactus–it provides necessary liquid and food for birds, and the chunks that are spilled and drop provide food and liquid for rabbits, desert squirrels and rats.

A saguaro grows slowly. A 10-year old plant may be only a few inches tall. While they are still small, the cactus is food for bighorn sheep and mule deer.

Those that survive to the 30-foot mark or higher and develop arms (at around 75 years of age) provide the support for the large platform nests of Red-Tail and Harris Hawks. Once the nests are built, Great Horned owls and other large hawks might battle for the nest. Harris Hawks are team-hunters and they get the first call on the nest. Take on a Harris Hawk, and you have the whole family to deal with.

Saguaros are fascinating and do a lot more than stand around and look tall.

Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and writer who lives in the Sonoran Desert.

 

Kickstart Your Journal

Yesterday, my friend Marit said she was “waving from her journal page to mine,” and I thought, “what a great idea!” Need something to focus on? Need a jumpstart on writing?

Dialog can intersect and circle around, like this path in King's County (Washington)

Dialog can intersect and circle around, like this path in King’s County (Washington)

This is more than a journal prompt. It’s not a word to write about, it’s a whole technique. And it’s powerful. Let’s get started:

1. Warm up by focusing on your emotions: Right now, I feel [fill in the blank.] One word may be all you need.

2. The reason I feel [blank] in 20 words: [describe how you reached this emotion.]

3. Almost always, someone else is involved in this story about your emotion. Whether you are happy, anxious, excited, or skeptical, most of our emotions are connected to other people, often for reasons we don’t understand.

4. Use the next page to write a dialog between you and the other person. Writing dialog means you will make things up. That’s fine. You want to figure out a reason for the emotion and what your role is and what the other person’s role is. By putting words in someone else’s mouth (and you know you are doing this), you are resolving old issues, exploring new ways to happiness, or clarifying ideas.

Example: I’m feeling anxious. A friend has asked me to help her in a way that I feel uncomfortable with. I want to help my friend, but I want to hold onto my values.

Q: I’m not sure I can do this, Friend.

F: But it will help John and it will be a big favor to me, too.

You can also draw speech bubbles and fill them in.

You can also draw speech bubbles and fill them in.

Q: I think speaking up at the Writers’ Club and supporting John as another member isn’t a good idea. The club rules say you have to be a published writer, and John isn’t.

F: It’s not about you, Quinn, it’s about getting John into a place where he can find business. And the club is great for that. You’ve gotten business that way. John is a good guy.

Q: I have gotten business from the club. But I was a published writer when I joined. And John isn’t.

F: He writes his own blog, and that’s publishing. You are just afraid he’s a better writer than you.

Q: A blog is not publishing. And I want what’s best for John. But getting him into the club is not in his best interest.

F: What’s wrong with you that you won’t help this friend? Haven’t you needed a hand before?

Q: I’ll be happy to help John in some way that helps John. Being dishonest doesn’t help anyone. Least of all John, if he gets a job he can’t handle.

. . . .the dialog can go on as long as you need it to. In this example, I see my own stubborn character, but also my clarity in not being dishonest. Yes, it’s a small thing, but I can see that if I vouch for John, and he doesn’t do well, the lie I told will be the reason John got in over his head. What I am understanding from this dialog is that my need for approval is pretty big, not not big enough to lie for someone.

Is this the dialog the way it really happened? No, but by making up the other half, I’m giving myself the opportunity to dig into my own emotions in ways that help me see my own motives clearly.

The dialog exercise is a good way to find out more about yourself.

–Quinn McDonald is an explorer in her journal

Journaling as Building Block

I’m working on the journaling process again. I’m focusing on writing and Commonplace Journaling for right now. I got a 5 x 8-inch journal in which I can’t draw (paper is too thin) so I would write more. I’m fond of doing mind maps, and I’m doing a lot of them, too. Why writing instead of art journaling? Right now, I have a lot of ideas to clear, a lot of inner critic arguing to do, and that (for me), is done by journaling.

Yes, I’m still working on my art. The latest piece is also about writing, though!

Book of letters. © Quinn McDonald 2015

Book of letters. © Quinn McDonald 2015

The collage uses an older idea I had, but the letters around the book actually are words that relate to writing. I often sit in front of a blank journal while my mind writes and my hands don’t. That’s what gave me the idea.

To make myself focus and write, I create a list of problems, worries, and ideas at night, right before bed.  (That goes in the journal, too). The next morning, I choose an item from the list and set the timer for three minutes. When the timer rings, I finish the sentence and shut the book. No re-reading. That comes later.

mindmapOn the left is a mind-map from Journaling from the Inside Out by Susan Borkin. I use mind maps to capture pieces of a big idea when I don’t know the connection yet.

The mind-map helps me grab all the pieces of the brain dump. Sorting them comes later. I’ve found that mind maps are still maps, another one of my favorite concepts.

When I’ve got a book filled, I can go back and distill ideas and save them. The books have cardboard covers and have about 50 pages. They aren’t attractive, but they allow me to be messy and not try to design a page. Sometimes, quantity is as important as quality.

It doesn’t matter how you tackle journaling, it always helps. It always heals. As long as you keep writing, your life will begin to make sense.

--Quinn McDonald keeps journals. In many different ways and styles.

 

It’s Random

Consider this: The Raptors, a baseball team, has won the last four games played on a Tuesday, but only if it rained. No rain, no win. Rain? They win. Today is Tuesday, and it is raining, and the Raptors are playing. Should you bet on them to win?

It's not rain, but a forest fire behind a high-school game in Colorado. I found it randomly.

It’s not rain, but a forest fire behind a high-school game in Colorado. I found it randomly.

Of course not. Winning and the rain are not related. It’s a coincidence. Correlation does not imply causation. Which is a compact way of saying that the rain, Tuesdays, and winning are not related to each other. Even if it happens four times in a row. It’s random.

Random is much easier to accept if it’s in your favor. When things go your way for a while, it’s easy to pat yourself on the back, tell yourself how much you deserved it, and how you are smarter than your idiot competitors.

When things go wrong, of course, we look for the idiot who screwed us up. Sometimes we blame ourselves and beat ourselves up.

This is a good time to make sure what went right and what went wrong wasn’t random. If you were involved, good to see how, admit it, fix it, take credit for it, or cheer.

© Scott Adams

© Scott Adams

If it was random, and it often is, don’t spend another second looking for secret reasons, lessons from the universe, a ghost in the machine, or divine retribution. Correlation does not imply causation. What’s your next best move? Time to get busy.

--Quinn McDonald knows that over-thinking “random” resulted in the Salem Witch Trials. They could have spent the time better overcoming fear of outsiders.

 

Triggers: How to Outwit Them

Triggers–we all have them. That word, smell, comment, gesture, song, childhood memory that brings back a bad memory in full, vivid color. We are snapped back in time and behave as we did the first time–although we may be decades older.

In mild cases, they cause us to cringe with the old memory. In severe cases, they cause us to behave badly, drop years of therapy, coaching, or conditioning. In the worst cases, they aren’t  just flashbacks, they are the symptoms of PTSD.

From the album "Love Trap" --what a trigger feels like.

From the album “Love Trap” –what a trigger feels like.

In this case, I’m talking about the milder triggers. The relative who says something thoughtless, taking you back to childhood. You uncharacteristically snap at them. A friend teases you and pushes an old trigger, you reply harshly.

This afternoon, I was on the phone, chatting with an acquaintance, who pushed a trigger. My guess is that it was a casual, teasing move on her part. In my head, it felt like a slap, a reminder of a mistake I made that I’d rather not re-hash. I was at the point where my tongue already was sharpened to smack down the remark along with the acquaintance, when a thought flashed across my mind:

“You aren’t the same person as you were back then. Time has passed. You have changed. Circumstances have changed. Use the new reaction. You won’t be sorry.”

Just as fast as it came, it was gone, but the truth it left behind was huge. I paused, pushing away the hurt and embarrassment of the mistake I made, and stepping into the different person I have become since that incident. At that second, I could see the acquaintance meant no harm, I could see her remark from her perspective. I could take that sharp tongue, swallow the remark, and say something light-hearted back.

I was shocked out of my eyeballs pleasantly surprised. Instead of letting the trigger pull me back into the past, I brought the event into the present and saw that it had lost some of the power to shame and hurt. Time had made me capable of different behavior. Enough time has passed. I am different. It will always be a trigger, but I do not have to fire.

–Quinn McDonald still surprises herself.

Emotional Food Poisoning

Last week, after surviving the flu, sinus-infection, ear-infection-thing I had, we

Watercolor on paper. © Quinn McDonald, 2013

Watercolor on paper. © Quinn McDonald, 2013

went out to eat because neither one of us felt like cooking. And . . . I got food poisoning. No, I will not describe what happened next. You can imagine. Or you can look it up, but I’m not getting into graphic details.

I was amazed at how smart my body was, though. It was not going to allow, not for one minute, anything that was so harmful to stay in my system. My job was to stay in the house and drink water to keep from drying out. I dried out so fast my eyes had trouble blinking. The cure for food poisoning is counter-intuitive. After the first wave of death is over, you begin to eat a lot of fiber–red peppers, nuts, apples, celery. No clear broth for three days. You also eat yogurt to replenish the bacteria your digestive tract needs.

Why am I writing about food poisoning? Because I wish my emotional self were as smart as my physical self. How often have I known a relationship, friendship, client, job were not good for me and kept up the pretense. Wouldn’t it be great if our heart and emotional self were as good as rejecting what is bad for us, what will harm us, as thoroughly as our gut?

10403549_10152701851191439_940404957215462235_nWhen we do, we feel just as bereft and drained as our physical body does with food poisoning. But emotional poisoning is just as damaging, and there is no reason to clutch it to us.

The difference between emotional poisoning and food poisoning is that we can’t control our body’s defenses, but oh, what a bad job we do of holding on to emotionally damaging relationships. We are afraid of being alone, of change, or what we don’t know yet. So we keep clutching onto the bad relationship, hoping we will change enough to make the relationship work. The job is killing us, but we keep trying to prove we can do it well, because we don’t know for sure what we would do next. Although, if we listen to ourselves, we would hear what we want next.

So what’s the emotional fiber that restores us to balance? What’s the spiritual yogurt that puts us together again? It’s just as counter-intuitive as the physical fiber: trust your gut. Trust yourself to know what is not good for you. Don’t look at all the reasons you need to stay–look instead at their foundation. If all your reasons are based in fear, rooted in lack, or imagined attack, they are not real.

Your gut knows what you want, what is good for you, what you need. Look for what feels like freedom, joy, like breathing easily. Head toward that. It will restore you to the person you want to be.

Quinn McDonald learned a lot in the bathroom last week. And she is over the food poisoning, happier for having learned something.

Creative Hop, March 21, 2015

Paper arts stun me. The thinking, the manipulation, the engineering. Peter Dahmen, a German artist makes paper do things I could not imagine paper could do. Enough talk, here’s the video:

You can see even more on his website (above) and see more of his amazing work.

Peter-Dahmen-PopUp-07I couldn’t resist one more image of pop-up cards that Dahmen creates. If someone sent me this card, I’d put it in a glass box and use it as an altar. But then again, I was a papermaker and still love collage.

Another art process I love is artists who begin to wonder about something, and then create art around it. These are true creatives who explore their world in unusual ways.

Two artists, Luke Evans and Joshua Lake (both students) began to wonder what their insides looked like. And what digestive juices actually did. So they swallowed single frames of 35mm films, allowing their digestive tracts to “develop” them.  The work is called “I turn myself inside out.”

© Joshua Lake and Jake Evans, photography

© Joshua Lake and Luke Evans, photography, part of “I turn myself inside out.”

Before you say, “Ewww,” they put the film into a colored capsule in order not to damage their intestine, and retrieved the capsule (yeah, just the way you think) and yes, cleaned it, and then printed it into giant black and white prints.

Studio Drift creates lights that look like flowers. In an amazing blending of technology, nature, and art, the lamps blend color and the idea of blooming to create a light that does much more than deliver light. It rises and lowers to the flower while opening and closing.  It illuminates.

Shylight-Rijks-8

The work, called shylights, have a mesmerizing effect. And is currently in the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. There are videos here.

Have a creative weekend!

-Quinn McDonald loves the simplicity and complexity that exists simultaneously in creative projects.

 

Your Life as Poetry

gold7Sometimes poems say everything that needs to be said.  Most of what I do today didn’t exist when I was in school.  What I still use today is the problem solving I learned. How to think, not what to think. And, of course, that art is the heartbeat of a culture. Everything I learned was by feeling my way along in the dark.

You and Art

Your exact errors make a music
that nobody hears.
Your straying feet find the great dance,
walking alone.
And you live on a world where stumbling
always leads home.

Year after year fits over your face—
when there was youth, your talent
was youth;
later, you find your way by touch
where moss redeems the stone;

and you discover where music begins
before it makes any sound,
far in the mountains where canyons go
still as the always-falling, ever-new flakes of snow.

—William Stafford, from You Must Revise Your Life

--Quinn McDonald loves how life imitates poetry and poetry tracks life across the desert under the light of the moon.

The Power of Stubborn

When I was very young, I became a mom. It was not unusual in those days–people were often grandmothers by the time they were in their late 30s. Like mothers of those days, I was pushed out of my job about halfway through my pregnancy. There was a war in Vietnam, so I was alone when it was time to drive to the hospital. My son was born at 4 in the morning, and one of the nurses had a staph infection, which she transferred to my son. And then everything went bad.

Bilirubin lights turn the incubator blue.

Bilirubin lights turn the incubator blue.

He went downhill fast with the infection. His liver stopped working. He turned yellow.  He lost half his birth weight. The doctor noticed that my baby had a single line across his palms–in those days called “simian creases.” It accompanies many terrible genetic diseases–among them Down Syndrome and Kleinfelter syndrome. The chaplain made it to my bed before the doctor and began to discuss picking out a coffin. The doctor followed and told me my son would most likely be low-functional, and never have a normal life.

I was young and alone. I was not allowed to see or hold my son, who was attached to so many tubes I could hardly know he was a real person.

Both sides of the family became silent. I learned what it meant to be alone. I saw a life of incompetence and struggling ahead of me. I was scared. Even at a young age, I was good at sucking it up and moving on. I was sent home 12 hours after the birth, and returned with breast milk the next day. For the next weeks, I stayed at the hospital until they threw me out, and sang to the little bundle amid the tubes. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and “Forever Young.” I have no talent for singing, and one nurse told me it would damage the child, and I should let his last hours be in quiet. I hated her.

He lived. He was stubborn and tough. He came home. No one gave me referrals or instructions for this under-functioning baby. He didn’t sit up until he was 8 months old. He walked late. He talked late. I tried to be brave. He kept me busy. And then he began to talk. In full sentences. Every night, I read him stories and sang to him. At 23 months, he read the stories along with me. At 25 months, he would put his hand over my mouth and say, “You are singing it wrong.” And I was. I can’t sing. Not even hum.

yale1-1

Yale University

A doctor examined him and told me, “Mothers of retarded children [that was the term in those days] often think their children are brighter than they are. You must accept what God has meant for you.” I don’t believe in a vengeful God who punishes children or their mothers. I was a little older and a lot tougher. Ian and I  left the office, both stubborn. He was reading chapter books before kindergarten.

I took him to a new doctor and didn’t mention the past. In a time without computerized medical records,  it was easier to lose the “retarded” label.  Over the years, it turned out that he was amazingly bright, determined, focused and impatient. He often didn’t understand that others weren’t as bright as he was. Bright children have their own struggles, and we muddled through.

When times got tough, I’d think about those first hard months. And those days were the first thing I thought of when he phoned me two years ago, to tell me he had achieved tenure and been promoted to full professor at Yale University.

It has not been without hardship, loss, sadness and struggle. But it has also been with laughter and growth and  just plain pride.

Today is Ian’s birthday and those memories are still strong. I’m so very proud of you, Ian, for not quitting, not giving up, not saying “I can’t go on, ” even when it got tough. I love you.  You have made me so very proud.

--Quinn McDonald is the proud mom, no matter how old the birthday boy is.