Re-Packing Your Brain

Bo Mackison is a photographer, and a busy one. She has an art festival coming up in Milwaukee this weekend, and we were talking about her preparations. Bo was describing her organization habits; she mentioned her one special container that has the electronics to make sales, change, and keep track of sales. She calls this box “the brain.” In a rushed voice she said, “And after all that sorting, I have to re-pack The Brain.”

We both laughed at the image of re-packing your brain, and then we saw the deep wisdom in that simple phrase.

Every time we start a new project, change our business, choose a new perception, we have to “re-pack our brain.” It means opening your head to new ideas, taking out old thoughts, habits and assumptions and taking a good look at them. Maybe you shake those assumptions up, get the wrinkles out, maybe you toss it into a pile to re-use as a dust cloth.

In re-packing your brain, you allow yourself, new ideas, new paths. You make more room to add new thoughts and new perspectives.

And then, when your brain is re-packed, you head out into a new day with a new-found eagerness.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. She re-packs her brain at least one a season.

Cold, Crisp and Not Soda

Frying-pan-hot late summer days make the words “gin-and-tonic” seem perfect. But I’m not a liquor lover. The calories add up too fast, and I’d rather splurge my calories on chocolate.

 Gone are the days I’d start off with a Diet Coke at breakfast–althought the caffeine jolt and brain freeze did wake me up fast. Iced coffee and tea are great, but I can drink only so much tannin without wondering if my gut is going to be used to make a Birkin.  So I began to explore drinks that I can sip, gulp, quaff, and chug cold and in quantity without packing on calories and without the cardboardy, acidy taste I get from tubed drink mixes.

So I tried something so simple, so easy, I can’t believe how good it is. Take a glass, put in as much ice as you love, and then add 3-5 drops Angostura Bitters. Fill with club soda or selzer. It’s a perfect drink. Clean, crisp, refreshing, bubbly, and a great herbal taste that’s interesting but not overwhelming. Goes with sushi as well at with PBJs. (I’m not a fan of milk with PBJs. Suit yourself).

Gentian, known for its blue color and delicate flavor.

Angostura Bitters are a bar staple.  They aren’t really bitter, the word is derived from aromatic concoctions that contain gentian–a flowering herb that is used in perfumes. It’s also been used as a malaria cure and insect repellent. Versatile plant. Bright blue flowers. Gentian is bitter, but there is a lot more than gentian in bitters–a mix of aromatic herbs that is lovely in smell and dark brown in color.

I originally used the bitters for tea-staining  papers, because it worked faster and was darker than tea,  and I loved the smell. I swear, if they made this substance as a fragrance, I’d wear it every day.

But until then, I’ll use a few drops over fresh strawberries and in my soda-and-bitters. It’s an inexpensive joy that pays off in big ways.

Quinn McDonald is counting the days until she no longer drinks a gallon of liquid a day just to keep up with sweating. She no longer remembers a time when the nape of her neck wasn’t wet 24 hours a day.

Working With Natural Materials

Natural materials appeal to me. Whether it’s hammering leaves to get the green out of them or using tea bags to stain paper, the natural world holds mysteries and wonders for me that make me feel like a magician whenever I use the materials I find in the yard or kitchen.

I love white on white. And I love mosaics. Here’s the beginning of a mosaic made out of egg shells. They take a bit of work to prepare–I use the ones that were broken raw, rather than boiled. I clean them in soapy water and peel off the inner membrane, let them dry and then break them and glue the pieces on a piece of watercolor paper. I love the mosaic look. Eventually, I will paint them, but for now, I love white on white.

Backlit, the egg shells appear as a very different thing. They look thin and fragile, which they are. This is not a project for the impatient.

I love these cabbage roses. Except they aren’t made with cabbage, they are made with celery. Take a bundle of celery, leave the rubber band on, and cut off the root end about two inches from the bottom.

Then put paint on the cut end (not the cut off part, the long stalk part) and print on paper. Presto! Cabbage roses.

I’ll be teaching this technique on December 8 at the Shemer Art Center in Phoenix.

And finally, I am taking an on-line calligraphy class from Val Webb. I’m enjoying it immensely. This week we are learning a cat alphabet. The letters make me laugh. This is my first try at the letter A.

Love a calligrapher with a sense of humor.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and an art experimenter. She is waiting for a big idea with those egg shells.

Standing Up For Yourself With Kindess

Today was a day of administrative chores. One of the deep wisdoms I’ve learned from owning my own business is that administrative work is also working. Going to the bank to make deposits, the post office to mail out books, answering emails from clients, going to the mall to take the computer to the Apple Store–all that is work. Hard work. In my case, hot work. It was 106˚F. And I came home and wondered “What have I accomplished today?”

The short answer is “Work. I did work.” And the longer answer is, “I stood up for myself. With kindness. And that was the most work of all.”

There are many reasons people treat anyone else rudely–they are tired, angry, you look like an easy target because you look different, belong to a minority, don’t look like them. But it hurts. It diminishes people. It feels unresolved.

I decided that part of my work today was to return to the eyeglass store because my glasses, which I have now worn for 10 days, do not help me see clearly. What I’ve been chewing on the last 10 days is not the fact I don’t see well. Rather, that when I mentioned it at the fitting, the staff passed me back to the eye doctor who ran me through the eye test again,  lightning fast, not giving me a chance to decide if I really like 2 better than 1, or if there was a difference between 3 and 4.

When I told her that I was an artist and a writer, and needed excellent vision, she sighed and said, “Oh, yeah, right.” She then said that the prescription was fine and left the room. I followed. In the hallway, in front of both store employees and other customers she said, “I TOLD you it would take 10 days for you to get used to the new glasses, but I guess you DIDN’T LISTEN” I felt as if I were 80 and had wet myself in public.

So today when I returned because the lenses on my sunglasses had a light leak at the edge of the frame, I mentioned that I had been treated badly by the doctor. The woman got the manager, and I repeated the sentence. The manager said, “Everyone loves Dr. X”

And this is where I stood up for myself. I said, “Dr. X treated me disrespectfully, scolding me in front of three staff members and five other customers. I was humiliated. But most of all, I cannot see clearly out of any of the glasses that I just paid $668 for. I want to have glasses that I can see clearly with. If you cannot provide me with a doctor who will solve the problem for me, I will go to an ophthalmologist who can, and I expect you to pay the full fee. Can we discuss these choices?” I spoke clearly and calmly. And I smiled at the manager when I was done.

She stammered at first, said that it was impossible. “Which one of the choices is impossible?”

“That you go see another doctor and expect us to pay.”

“It solves the problem that you could not solve. I have another suggestion: I return the glasses and you return my money.” I was still calm.

She looked scared.

“Please tell me your solution,” I said, still calmly.

“How about we let another doctor examine you and see what the problem is?”

I agreed to this solution, because it is on the way to getting me glasses that work. So now I have an appointment, and I worked hard today.  I stood up for myself. Not with anger. Not by insulting people who were not involved, but with kindness. And that was the hardest work of all.

-Quinn McDonald is an artist and a writer and needs glasses that correct her vision to 20/20, which she does not find unreasonable.

The Dark Side of Facebook, Blogs and Twitter

Skim through Facebook and you’ll find tons of perfect classes being taught by fabulous instructors. Online, through e-books, in-person. In just the topic you need a class in.  You’ll also find people doing amazing things: eating only raw food and loving it, painting amazing paintings, sewing breathtaking clothing,  creating work so detailed that it leaves you breathless. And not only that, they are on gorgeous, well-designed blogs with tons of paid advertising.

The quote is Pema Chodron, but the lovely painting? I’ve found 37 “original” sources for it on Google. I don’t know who did it, but it’s lovely. It’s signed, but I can’t read the signature.

How come do those people have so much time to do their work while you are working so hard and not getting enough done? And what do those people know that you don’t, anyway? How come are they getting what you need and aren’t getting? And then you suddenly snap awake and know–you are in the firm grip of social media envy.

It’s a disease you catch from your computer. From spending a lot of your time digging out the perfect technique, the best instructor, the finest. . . of everything. And then mourning that it’s not yours.

You aren’t alone. I fell for it again this morning. And it won’t be the last time. It’s a weird mix of feeling that starts with research and ends up filling you with feelings of “not enough” Suddenly you are hooked on what you can’t do and don’t have. Lack and attack.

When I get that sad, draggy, not-good-enough feeling, I get off the computer. No work is getting done, but I’m allowing myself to wallow in envy. Once the computer is shut down, I remember two things:

1. A perfect blog is not an indication of a perfect life. The blogger could have dust bunnies the size of cats, fight with loved ones, discover a stain on the rug that won’t come out, and have credit card debt that’s too high. I’m just seeing the nice polish on the exterior, and I may not want the whole package that comes with the perfect blog.

2. Marketing is built on a need that’s uncomfortable. “Write to the pain point,” is the marketing mantra. So when I see a perfect class, what I’m really envious about is the video skills or equipment. When I see a huge teaching itinerary, I’m envious of the organization, time and energy an artist took to make classes, take photos, and fill out those applications. And that was why I was on the computer to begin with–I was working on that. Envy isn’t a bad emotion unless it spill over into self-loathing (or loathing strangers.) Envy is an early warning sign of something missing from your to-do list.

I’ll still feel social media envy and I’ll still stumble. But when I can be clear about what I can and can’t accomplish (or didn’t make myself do), it feels cleaner. I know who I am again. I am enough, and armed with a to-do list.

–Quinn McDonald wishes she could be lots of things she isn’t. But she’ll have to make do with what she is, because it’s unlikely there is a fairy godmother and a transformed pumpkin in her future, and she wouldn’t want to wear glass heels anyway.




Weekend Plans

There is a pile of administrative work to do, and yes, I must do it. I hate administrative work, and routinely ruin the best part of the day struggling with it. So today, I’m off to the studio early and will leave the admin work to later in the day when I’m slower.

What to do today?
With a bunch of classes coming I’m, I thought I’d try some new ways to get ink on paper:

This is such a clever idea set from Mark Montano–not just the vegetables, but the foam stamps, too.

Her’s a detail of how Alisa Burke uses foam to print on fabric. This looks fun, too!

Need inspiration for the weekend? Tammy at Daisy Yellow is a fearless painter. She uses color in bold ways. I love that she stepped in pthalo blue paint and walked it around her kitchen and then told us about it. You have to love someone who is so open about flubs and color!

Have some creative fun this weekend!

–Quinn McDonald is looking in the direction of the studio and planning some time experimenting. After a trip to the produce section of the grocery store.

The Fragrance of Books

Very seldom do I talk about my passion for perfume. It’s hard to explain how fragrance can alter a mood, created a unified thread through the day, bring back memories in a powerful way, but perfume does all that and more.

Image: Luckyscent

I have a collection whose size both delights and embarrasses me. The scents I buy are ones I like–that may sound odd, but many perfumistas buy fragrances that “challenge” them or that you can’t wear anyplace but in the studio. Me? I buy fragrances that I like, whether store brands or niche fragrances. But I have to like them top note to bottom.

Noses (perfume designers) are artists. They work with ephemeral and shifting materials that blend and shift over time. Scent is four dimensional, in addition to top, mid- and bottom notes, there is an element of time that makes them glow or fade.

Gutenberg bibles in the Yale Rare Book Library. There are no windows in the library to prevent the breakdown of paper and parchment. Light comes in through marble slabs cut so thin they admit light, but no UV rays.

Paper Passion is a perfume that evokes the smell of books. Yep, paper books. I’ve stuck my nose onto paper and inhaled deeply from the time mimeographs were fresh out of the machine to the time I stood in the Yale Rare Book Library breathing the smell of brittle and fragile history and art.

Paper Passion comes packaged in a hollowed out book. The idea of a book fragrance in a book doesn’t strike me as being clever, although the design has gotten a lot of print. Personally, I would have wrapped it a cover made of incredible handmade paper. But no one called me to ask.

Paper Passion is a collaboration of Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld, Göttingen book designer and publisher Gerhard Steidl,  perfume nose Geza Schön, and Wallpaper* magazine.

Luckyscent, the internet store for hard-to find niche perfumes, lists the notes as: “osmanthus, copaiba balsam, amber accord, air accord, paper accord, musk accord.”

This may be the first fragrance I purchase, not to wear, but just to sniff for memories. It’s been accused of smelling like glue, old books, and appropriately, paper. Can’t go wrong.  Even if I don’t want to smell like a book, I would love to smell a book whenever I want.

Paper Passion is available from Luckyscent and Aedes in 1.7 oz. bottles for $98.00 Luckyscent has samples available.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer who has bottles stashed in the linen closet and her dresser. She can time travel on the scent of a perfume.

Ups, Downs, but Never Still

One of my clients was sad. “Something has gone wrong every day this week,” she said. “It’s not supposed to be this way. Life is not supposed to be this hard.”

I asked what she thought life was supposed to be like.

“Smoother.  More effortless. It shouldn’t be so hard. I should be happy.”

Some boats come in faster than others. Photo from Kifu.blogspot

Interesting to think about. My thoughts always go back to immigrants–people who left everything that was familiar to them and traveled (not without danger) to a country that was new and different and probably frightening. Because they wanted something better and were willing to risk. They hoped for a better life, but never expected happiness as a requisite life in their new home.

When my parents were young, they worked hard, studied hard, and created a life that created respect and work they loved. But a few years after they were married, their world fell apart. A war wiped out their house, took their possessions, took the lives of relatives and friends. They arrived in America with a few wooden crates with what was left of their lives and started over.

In my entire childhood, I cannot remember hearing my parents complain about having to work hard or wishing they were back in Europe. My father believed that you built your own happiness, that the effort you put into being happy determined how happy you were.

Martha Beck, the life coach and author, has a wonderful quote about how we view life:

As long as we are breathing, the conditions of our lives will always be in flux, our ships still sailing in, the things we already own potentially dissolving (or disappearing). To accept that fact without anxiety is
to enjoy the process of living. Anything less, and we are simply suffering until we die.
–from  Enjoyment in the waiting

I’m not much for suffering. I think we are here to enjoy life. How much we enjoy it, and how we feel about our life, depends largely on how we look at ourselves and our experiences.

Bad things will happen. We will lose those we love when we are not ready. We will make choices we regret. But for all that, we can still enjoy our lives, balancing the joy with sorrow, for neither one can exist without the other.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. Not every day is a bowl of cherries and ice cream, but very few days are cactus spines, either.

Typing Fingers, Thought-Out Brain

Ink and graphite on watercolor journal page. © Quinn McDonald, 2012.

After getting up at 5 a.m. this morning, I did three coaching sessions, then spent the rest of the afternoon writing seven articles (about 5,000 words in total) for three different clients.

That many words (5,000) is about the length of a book chapter. I did not write a single word in the book today. I’m not sorry about that.

Writing for clients serves a very important purpose in my life: it helps me pay my mortgage and my health insurance, which is now more expensive than my mortgage.

But it made me think of the quote by Henry David Thoreau:

“The price of anything is the amount of your life you exchange for it.”   Indeed.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer. She’s working on a book and about six other projects. So far, her head has not popped off and rolled on the floor, but she’s got a roll of duct tape on her desk, just in case.

Eat Your Beets (in a cake!)

When Patti Digh mentioned the beet cake, my eyebrows went up , but my heart skipped a beat. Earthy beets, dark chocolate–yes, it could work. And having just finished Patti’s book Life is a Verb (I read What I Wish For You first)–either one make great gifts, but read them both–I would have tried boiled socks if she recommended it.

We both love beets, so I asked Cooking Man if he’d give it a try. It wasn’t a hard sell. The recipe calls for a lot of beets, so a big pot went on the stove, and the smell of cooking beets leaked through the air-conditioned house. It was odd, smelling beets in summer. But we all suffer gladly for art and cooking experiments.

The batter was as red as could be expected from five-beet puree.

Once the thick batter was in the pan, Cooking Man dropped the pan sharply on the counter to get the air bubbles to rise to the top.

And now it was ready for the oven. The beets add the majority of the bulk in the cake, which reduces the sugar and flour.

The kitchen smelled great while we waited for the cake to finish cooking. This time the smell was chocolate–and that’s a good smell any time of year. We knew it wouldn’t rise much. Those are beets in there.

Once out of the oven, it looked dense, smelled great, and the chocolate won the color battle. The fabulous beet stencil from the original recipe was beyond my pay grade, so I settled for a celebratory candle and my trademark wavy line.

Homemade paper stencil is on the cake, complete with my signature wavy line.

Powder sugar covered the entire stencil to make a clear image.

I removed the stencil pieces with tweezers to keep from spilling any sugar in the negative space. There were a few tiny crumbs of sugar. I picked them off with a damp watercolor brush.

Nothing left to do but whip the cream. We like it flavored with a bit of vanilla, but unsweetened. The cake is flavorful, not overly sweet, rich in earthy-chocolate flavor. Cooking Man said he could get a hint of beet, but I couldn’t taste the beets. The texture is smooth, with a great mouth feel. Cooking Man thought that next time, it might be fun to split the cake and add a center layer of banana cream. I suggested a topping of creme anglaise, a vanilla-rich sauce. We can dream, can’t we?

Early in the beet-puree process, Cooking Man asked if I’d like to lick the blender–a treat for me with almost anything except beet puree. But wait! There is always room for art, so I took the leftovers and soaked different substrates in beet mash.

Top to bottom is a cotton/poly blend of fabric–it took on a bit of color, but almost all of it rinsed out. Next is a piece of canvas that took the color well. Below that is a strip of Arches Text Wove (now called Velin). The fabric and paper were dried, and then the beet mash rinsed off. Before all the color came off, I heat set the pieces by ironing them. Beet color is fugitive, and without a mordant to hold the color, it won’t last. Over time, it will fade, but I find the reddish brown an acceptable color.  The bottom strip is a very fragile paper that dissolved when I rinsed out the beets. To preserve this piece, I put the paper on a piece of parchment (still visible underneath all the papers) and sprayed it with a squirt bottle. It rinsed off some of the beet paste.

The next step will be to cover the paper in clear tar gel to preserve the color and paper.

Satisfying all the way around. Nothing is better than a cake and some new art papers, all in one afternoon.

-Quinn McDonald loves to cook, but leaves complicated recipes (or those that require upper body strength) to Cooking Man. She’s writing a book about the Inner Critic (and the Inner Hero.)