Monday, August 31, 2020

The Seduction of a Series

Back in the spring when many of us were in full quarantine, there was chatter in various periodicals and on social media about reading: whether people can focus on a book or not; if they are reading, how much; have their reading tastes changed; what are they looking for at the moment. The Washington Post even tried to help you identify what type of quarantine reader you might be.

Pre-pandemic--last Thanksgiving in fact--I started N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy and finished it this past February. It's been a long time since I finished a series. And it felt great. There's a sense of comfort when starting a new book in a world and with a set of characters you already know. 

Previously, I've read Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy, The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the Dead is Better series (thanks for the rec, Nicki!). But that's been over the past 15 some odd years. That's it. Thinking back, my childhood was stuffed with the ubiquitous kids' series. In my case, there were the series for horse-crazy girls like the Thoroughbred series, The Saddle Club series, and the Animal Inn series. But as I reminisce, I realize I never finished any of these series. They were more like those TV show syndicates: you pick up the same ones from the library but you never reach the end.

Now I find myself thirsting for comfort and escape and lookee here, SFF to the rescue (as usual, right?). I purchased V.E. Schwab's Shades of Magic series after drooling over it at my local indie book shop Curious Iguana for the past few years and now that Brent Weeks has finished the fifth and final installment of his Lightbringer series, yep, that's on the list this year, too. In prep for the movie release this fall, it's time to re-read Dune and, what the hell, dive into the rest of that series too. Oh, and the Hitchhikers' Guide series. And I picked up the first three installments of Game of Thrones from a local little free library last winter so . . .

Whew, that's a lot of series. Quite a shift from my "normal" reading but as it feels like lately with everything else, what's normal? I demand escape and comfort. And I'm finding it (as usual, right?) in books. Are there any other series out there I'm missing? What are you reading lately?

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Resetting the Lens

My view has shrunk. Although I'm aware of national and global issues (at some times hyper-aware), because of the pandemic, resultant social distancing, and previous (and future!) quarantines, my lens has been honed to local: country roads, state and city parks, backyard, front porch, office, chair.

A summer azure in the rain in July
I think time has shifted, too, and lock-down has forced me to alter the way I think.

For example, I'm noticing things right in front of my face. I am focusing on the little things, like local wildflowers. The joy of learning about fleabane has been a surprise. It has become my new favorite flower and it was everywhere, at least in May in Maryland. How could I have never noticed this before?
Fleabane in May
After eyeing it from the car and bike, I picked some (it's neither protected nor rare). I discovered how it is surprisingly soft despite the petals appearing rather pointy. And before the flowers uncurl, they look to me like miniature balls of wound yarn. If you get close enough, you'll notice they have a mild, general "flowery" smell.

This resetting of my lens reminds me of the lab at the vet clinic. When you peer into it trying to look at a smear of ear gunk to find mites or yeast, or count white blood cells, or examine a manure sample to count parasite eggs, and find someone's been messing with the settings, you have to fiddle around to get it right again so you can see properly. Recently, I feel like I've gone from 100X magnification to 400X and someone's messed with the focus. But on the other hand, sometimes at the microscope, you realize that you did need a higher setting, to see things in greater detail. 

Purple crown vetch in June
I'm reminded of my favorite poet Mary Oliver who wrote extensively about nature. I've been propelled to pull out one of her collections from my shelf and sift through it again, as I do from time to time. Her words ring true as always; they are soothing, a balm. And also confirmatory. Here, from her poem "The Sun" (New and Selected Poems Volume One):

"Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon . . . "

And Virginia Woolf, who is not my usual go-to when it comes to observational quotes, but really should be:

"Happiness is in the quiet, ordinary things. A table, a chair, a book with a paper-knife stuck between the pages. And the petal falling from the rose, and the light flickering as we sit."

What small new things have you discovered recently?

Sunday, May 17, 2020

One Small Thing

Summer Pierre is a cartoonist I have admired for a few years now after I discovered her on Instagram. I love her style and the fact that she focuses on autobiographical cartoons/graphic novels. Her skills of observation make even the most mundane environment or everyday task seem whimsical and endearing, new and interesting. In a way, now that I think about it, she sort of reminds me of an illustrated version of the novelist Elizabeth Strout, whose novel Olive Kitteridge blew me away, namely due to her sublime ability to describe everyday people in the most interesting and complete ways.

These two creative women remind me that anyone who, in any capacity, can take the ordinary and make it feel extraordinary and wonderful (literally, fill me with wonder), has a gift to be treasured and appreciated. Anyone can make a labyrinth or flying saucer seem remarkable. But try tackling something like the kitchen sink. If you can make that seem novel to me in a way that's both relatable and refreshing, my hat's off to you. And probably my credit card.

Oops, I've wandered a bit.

So Summer Pierre hosted a comics workshop yesterday via Zoom from her home in upstate New York. It was fun and made my brain hurt. You try drawing a cat in three minutes, then one minute, then 30 seconds, then 15, 10, and lastly 5. These are called repetition drills. They get your brain to distill your subject down to its very essence because, Summer says, comics rely on the essence of how things look, not really how they actually look.

My "cat in three minutes". You do not want to see the five second version. Trust me.
Apart from the actual comic drawing instruction, though, I also got a lot of value from what Summer said about the creative process. This is really what I wanted to get to today. At the very start of the class, Summer said something that just about made my head explode: "The hardest thing in any creative endeavor is finishing." Ka-pow! (That's a comic term, by the way.)

"The hardest thing in any creative endeavor is finishing."

Honestly, though, how true is that statement?! How many of us (me) have a long list of ideas and/or a long list of half-finished projects. How many times have I become so frustrated with something only half-finished that I trash it. Why do we (I) do this? And boy oh boy does it hamper the ambition to do something new. And now we (I) enter a viscous circle of starting, getting frustrated, quitting. I think this applies to any work, be it writing, art, music, a sport, making a piece of furniture, baking, etc. etc. Apply to anything where you might be expected to think and create and do. Apply and repeat.

But, if we focus on the completion, it breaks the cycle. I frequently get stuck on something because half-way in--horror of horrors--it's not yet perfect. (Why we demand perfectionism from ourselves half-way through something is a huge topic for another time but it's so annoying, right?) Summer has a balm to sooth this sore: "It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be true."

Ka-pow again.

And so, a challenge: practice completion, Summer says.

"It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be true."

So then a swell of ambition rises in our hearts and we burn to get started and to finish and to do and. . . but there are so many things. So many ideas. Where to start, how to choose, how do I know when I'm finished, how to be satisfied . . . and under the Wave of Overwhelmishness I am dragged again. (Yes, overwhelmishness. My word. Mine.)

The Wave of Overwhelmishness. Not as big as you thought, right? Doesn't take much. Source:
But here Summer saves us again. "Set a minimum each day," she says. "One small thing a day. Promise yourself that. A lot grows from this."

One small thing a day. That's it. Think about it. Every Monday, I have a list of all the things I want to read and write and draw for the week. And it makes me fret. And I maybe get two things on the list sort of accomplished over the course of five days. Sort of. But what if I focused on one small thing a day? And better yet, frame it as a promise to myself? How's that for a positive spin?

I like this way of thinking. I like it a lot. I'm going to try it. Thanks, Summer.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Hello Again

Oh dear readers. What to say? What not to say? Even without the current world events, it's been eleven months since my last post. I've lost my posting ways. If I didn't have anything of import to say ten months ago, surely I don't have anything now. And yet. And yet we move forward.

So much on social media and numerous publications has examined, explained, bemoaned, sympathized, and excused the current state of cloudy thoughts and lack of creative ambition. I've read some of it. And it sort of helps until it gets to a point where it doesn't. I don't have anything new or unique to add to this new canon of pandemic paralysis. So I won't.

Instead, what to say? What not to say?

Found a beautiful morel a few weekends ago in the woods. Magic!

Here's something: I have been journaling more frequently than before. As in almost every day. It will usually take me six months or more to fill an average size journal and the one I'm currently working on, started in mid February, will be finished before May is over. What's in it? Mostly navel gazing and the self-pity spiral that ends with the gnashing of teeth and catatonic stares at the wall but also some note taking of current events. For posterity. A "Quarantine Diary" if you will. The New York Times even exalted the virtues of keeping a Corona Virus diary. Mine started in March, dutifully reporting the total number of Maryland cases each day. Lately, though, I've stopped doing that. Seems futile. Depressing.

Instead, as I flip through the pages over the last two months, I see lots of quotes. Quotes from newspaper and magazine articles about other's takes on the situation, those who are much better at words than I. Books recommended. Architecture to admire. Instructions on how to draw an illustrated map.

Well, it's no illustrated map, but how about some radishes? Eh?
Writer Arundhati Roy in particular has some excellent observations on this pandemic and--hey, silver lining here--I'm now a huge fan.

[PANK] literary magazine posted a good article April 30 on "Discovering the Available Means: On Reading and Writing in Quarantine" by Nancy Reddy. So, there's also that.

In summary, I'm floating in a haze. Perhaps posting is a small act of "hey, I did something." Or perhaps, more likely, it's more navel gazing. But it also gives me an excuse to show pictures of my two new cats, Mars and Jupiter:

Mars (left) and Jupiter, the new tenants.
One final thought. One quote I spied recently said this:
"Now is the time to grab at every loose idea."
It's copied purple and huge in my journal. And I think about it a lot. Almost a mantra. Because why shouldn't we? Especially now?! Let's go grab at those ideas. We've got nothing to lose.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Zines as a Mean to Expression

Every late winter/early spring I get into doodling. It never fails. I don't know if it's the culmination of gloomy weather giving me cabin fever with a resultant desire to make maps or what.

Does this happen to you? This year, I got some decorated bee hives out of it, so there's definitely a perk to it all. But there's also a restlessness.

In the back of my head, I'm thinking: but what else? Is this a step to something bigger? Because tendrils of ideas have been sprouting, inspired over the past few years by various things.

Take this post by Linda Codega over at Luna Station Quarterly.

Take this article about the end of Subversive, the underground zine of downtown Frederick.

Take Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling and 50 Ways to Draw Your Beautiful Ordinary Life.

Take the monthly subscription called Zine-o-matic where you receive a collection of international zines, take Zine Fests, take the local donut shop stating they will only carry zines now as reading material . . . Take the concept of creative freedom as expressed by making something start to finish that can look and feel however you want, tell a story or not, make sense or not, be whatever media you want, and be so analog (or not) that you can freaking choose to hand stitch the binding.

Long story short: I want to make a zine. That's where this has been going all along and I recently put a name to it. 

I'm going full millennial here and searching YouTube on how to make a zine, looking for local classes, and then coming to the realization I just have to jump into the deep end, have fun, and figure some things out for myself.

Who cares right now if my T-Rex is a little mis-proportioned? Let's do it! 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Big Projects and Baby Steps

This past winter and early spring have been filled with a slow and (mostly) steady chipping away at big projects. As a planning sort of person, I love to sink my teeth into a long-term project, breaking it into smaller goals, checking boxes (oh, my love of to-do lists is fathomless), and measuring progress. But there's also that middle-of-the-project malaise when you're knee deep in something but on a day-to-day scale, feel like you're just treading water. Those days can be rough; they drain creative energy and make me crabby. However, when a major milestone has been met or -- gasp -- the entire damn thing is complete, I refuse to dampen the swell of unbridled joy that accompanies finishing something.

One major project that has recently checked the FINISHED box is something that sprouted in my mind about a year ago and I'd like to share it with you today. It starts with some exposition, so bear with me.

I have a friend I met freshman year of college. She was my biology lab partner (we sign letters "Bio 4eva") and we quickly found shared interests in jokes, Margaret Atwood, space exploration, physiology, and microscopes. Even after going our separate ways and over the years, finding ourselves on different coasts, we keep in touch. When she announced she was pregnant with her first child last spring, I knew something epic was required.

So I wrote her newborn daughter a book. A science book. Teaching the ABCs, to be exact.
Fair warning: I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination. But, by that same argument, I can pretend to be and have a hell of a lot of fun along the way. This turned out really to be half gift and half challenge to myself: can you, Anna, think of, then actually finish, this thing you dreamed up?

This children's book takes the reader through the alphabet in sing-song rhyming fashion, matching each letter with a scientific term, accompanied by hand-drawn watercolor illustrations.

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed sitting down on rainy, blustery autumn Saturdays last fall with Crayola watercolors in front of me, re-learning wet-on-wet technique and practicing some very sketchy calligraphy with some pens I bought at Barnes&Noble.

Perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, the part that took the longest was the part I dreaded most: figuring out how the hell to get these images (done on watercolor paper) into book format. Some high resolution scans and a large amount of internet searching later, I found UBuildABook. This company was exactly what I needed in terms of easy formatting and high-quality printing. My intention was never to have this be a "book" book - no ISBN number, not looking to sell online (my only hope is the amateur-ness of the entire production is viewed as "charming" -- I'll even take the slightly more patronizing "endearing"). This was intended as a single issue dedication to someone I hope will grow to love reading and science as much as her mother (and her mother's friend) does.

Just last week, the finished project (referred to as The Super Secret Project and Sorry This is Taking So Long in letters, given that the child this is in celebration for was born in November) finally made it into the hands of the intended and I received a few texts confirming what I expected: a thank you and the knowledge that the mother was going to get more enjoyment out of it for a while before her daughter learns her ABCs. But, you're never too young to start enjoying books. And I think the glossy print pages are probably drool-proof. So I wish you many adventures in both reading and science, little one. The world is your Crassostrea gigas (oyster).

Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Monday, March 4, 2019

A Parasite a Day Helps Creativity Stay

Hello and happy 2019, folks! Among marathon training and starting a new beekeeping hobby -- oh, and a bit of fiction writing as well -- I had the recent opportunity to snag an interview with Dr. Tommy Leung, one of the primary scientists behind the blog Parasite of the Day. Capturing the vast array of biodiversity in parasites across the globe, this blog is a must for anyone even remotely interested in biology. . . or monsters, for that matter. If you ever need inspiration for a sci-fi antagonist (or maybe sympathetic anti-hero? It's not their fault they feed off others. . . ), look no further than the world of parasitology. . . but that's for another post.

Tommy not only runs the blog but is also an artist, creating graphic narratives outlining parasite life cycles as well as creating his own creatures based on knowledge of evolutionary biology.


You see now why I had to have this chat.

So let's get started.

Admittedly, I forget about evolutionary biology. I love bio but become consumed with the here and now: why is that dog barfing, why is that horse lame, why is that amphibian species doing extinct, and so on. But I think a big part of understanding why things are now comes from knowing how they used to be and where they came from (insert all historians ever: "I told you so. . . "). I asked Tommy why and how he became interested in this niche subject. "What I am really interested in is biology -- in living things," he said. "And since evolutionary biology is the modern foundation to all aspects of biology -- it is like what the periodic table is for chemistry -- becoming interested in evolutionary biology became part of the ideal, so to speak.

"I am always interested in things that are quirky or unusual and for free-living organisms like ourselves, the lives of parasites are certainly that, even though it has been estimated that parasitism is probably the most common lifestyle on this planet which makes us the unusual ones. I want to know how parasites live their lives and how they came to be the way that they are, so naturally I became interested in their evolutionary biology as well."

Tommy then explained that he writes and draws things based on topics that he finds interesting, so it's natural then that parasites are the creature feature of the Parasite of the Day blog and his artwork.

Tommy's artwork is heavily influenced by comics and cartoons. "I guess anime and the graphic novel, in particular Japanese comics, i.e., manga, are particularly suited to exploring unusual stories or narratives because their styles and topics are less constrained compared to some other media," he explained. "I have adopted this style because it allows what I create to be more expressive. Art and science was a natural fit simply because I like both activities."

Artistically, Tommy did not have any formal training but has drawn since he was a child. Interestingly, his brightly colored creations are a result of scanning his work into TIF files and colorizing with good ol' MS Paint.

If you delve into Tommy's artwork, you'll soon see creatures not quite of this world, but make sure to get your terminology straight when it comes to fantastic beings. "Cryptozoology is the search for animals that allegedly exist but no solid evidence has been recovered, so this includes things like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Mokele-mbembe," he explained. "Speculative biology is a particular sub-set of speculative fiction that focuses on the made-up biology of fictional organisms. It is a common background component in many stories, especially those that take place in a fantasy or science fiction setting." Tommy gave some examples of novels, however, that make the speculative biology aspect the main focus of the narrative -- After Man: A Zoology of the Future by Dougal Dixon and Evolution by Stephen Baxter.

"If you've ever thought about questions like: if fire-breathing dragons are real, how would they work or what is the internal anatomy of a Tauntaun from Star Wars or what would have evolved if the end-Cretaceous Mass Extinction Event didn't happen then you have engaged in speculative biology thinking," he said.

For someone (me) who loves anatomy and monsters, well, speculative biology is right up my alley.

Until next time, dear readers -- happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.