Green light, rainy morning

A nice, gentle spring rain was falling this morning as I waited for the light to change acros the street from my office. I loved the abstract image of the green light glowing through the circles of raindrops on one of my go-to “picture” puddles outside MSOE’s Campus Center.

I’ve gotten lots of great photos over the past several years in the reflections of these puddles at the junctures of uneven sidewalk slabs. It’ll be a sad day for me when the Department of Public Works decides to fix it all up with freshly poured cement!😂

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Writing Exercise – “Plain Talk”

It was my turn to select an exercise for writing group this week. Being incredibly busy at work and opting for shortcuts wherever legitimately possible, I turned to Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful Steering the Craft once again and found a nice short exercise. Too busy even to retype it, I simply took screenshots of pages 97 and 98 on my tablet and emailed those to my group. The basic gist of the exercise was to write a page or two of pure dialogue in a way that tells a story and presents two characters.

Write like a play, with A and B as the characters’ names. No stage directions. No description of the characters. Nothing but what A says and what B says.  Everything the reader knows about who they are, where they are, and what’s going on comes through what they say.

That’s basically it. Le Guin also offers some topic suggestions, as it’s kind of hard to create dialogue in a vacuum. Her suggestions didn’t really grab me, though (“put two people into some kind of crisis situation: the car just ran out of gas; the spaceship is about to crash; the doctor has just realized that the old man she’s treating for a heart attack is her father”), so I had a difficult time getting started.

What helped was thinking about the exercise as an improv assignment. Not that I actually know much about improv other than you’re supposed to say “yes” and build on whatever your co-performers say in order to create a sketch out of thin air. I started with a question: “What’s wrong?” And the rest kind of flowed from there. Although my dialogue exercise doesn’t develop enough to make a story or even wrap up with a clever punchline of sorts, I thought I’d share it anyway.

So first, my usual disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Blah, blah, etc.

And now, here is my exercise. It’s really LONG in terms of how much space it takes up running down the page, but individual “lines” are pretty brief.

“Plain Talk”

A:  What’s wrong?

B:  What makes you think anything’s wrong?

A:  You’re playing with your food.

B:  I always eat this way.

A:  No you don’t. Separating your peas from the potatoes? Tearing your bread into tiny pieces before you butter it?

B:  That’s good manners.

A:  The peas and potatoes?

B:  No, the bread. I read that once.

A:  Stop changing the subject. What’s wrong?

B:  I didn’t like what you said back there.

A:  Where?

B:  At the theater.

A:  What did I—? Oh, you mean about the coat?

B:  You know how I feel about that.

A:  I was joking!

B:  The bully’s defense.

A:  Oh, I see. This is my fault.

B:  If the shoe fits.

A:  Don’t lecture me, B.

B:  Don’t ask what’s wrong then.

A:  You always do this.

B:  So do you. We’ve had this conversation so many times that I can tell you exactly what you’re about to say next.

A:  I doubt it.

B:  “Have you seen Aunt Edna yet?”

A:  Do you really think so little of me?

B:  But I was right, wasn’t I?

A:  I’m leaving.

B:  It always comes back to Aunt Edna. And this is how the conversation always ends, too. With you leaving. Like you’re the aggrieved party.

A:  And you’re so innocent? I saw you, don’t forget. I know what you are.

B:  No, you don’t. You don’t even know what you saw.

A:  You were in her room, wearing her clothes. Trying on her shoes. Dripping with pearls.

B:  Meaning . . . ?

A:  Did she know you were there?

B:  Of course not!

A:  Exactly.

B:  How could she know? She was in the hospital.

A:  The nuthouse.

B:  The sanitorium.

A:  Whatever. The point is, she didn’t know. You shouldn’t have been there.

B:  Neither should you. Which is what this really comes down to, isn’t it? I did nothing more than you were about to, except I got there first. Don’t act all high and mighty with me, sister. You had no reason to be upstairs.

A:  Well, it doesn’t matter now anyway.

B:  No, it doesn’t.

A:  She’s going to do what she wants.

B:  Yes, she is.

A:  I suppose we’ll have to accept it.

B:  Already have.

A:  You know, you can be an insufferable pain in the—

B:  Weren’t you leaving?

A:  Is that what you want?

B:  Actually, I wish you’d stay. Truly. Can’t we put all this behind us?

A:  “This”?

B:  The inheritance. The family drama. We always hated watching our parents and the relatives snipe at each other. Aren’t we better than that?

A:  I have no idea, honestly.

B:  It’s exhausting.

A:  Then why do you keep on with it?

B:  Why do you?

A:  I need the money. You don’t.

B:  Neither do you.

A:  That’s where you’re wrong. Frank’s business has been losing money for years.

B:  Really? You’d never know from the way he . . . never mind. I’m sorry to hear it.

A:  Well, don’t be. I’ve had time to reconcile myself. At least now you understand.

B:  I suppose. But A? I wouldn’t count on Aunt Edna’s money.

A:  Why? What do you know?

B:  Only that the sanitorium is expensive. And she seems over-fond of her attendants. Plus, I understand she had a meeting with her attorney last week.

A:  What?

B:  So I don’t think we should expect anything from her.

A:  Oh, my God.

B:  I’m so sorry.

A:  Now what am I supposed to do?

B:  We have to find a way to protect you.

A:  From bankruptcy? Frank says—

From Frank.

A:  I . . . beg your pardon?

B:  You heard me.

A:  How dare you.

B:  You have to get away from him. We both know the business isn’t his only problem. He’s not been good to you in other ways, either.

A:  Yes, he has. Stop looking at me like that. He has!

B:  Come on, A. Let’s have some truth between us at least.

A:  Look, I don’t want your pity. I don’t need it! And now I really am leaving. No, B, take your time. Finish your neatly arranged peas and potatoes. Enjoy those individually-buttered tatters of bread. I’ll take care of the bill on my way out.

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The White Sea, Parted

The view of our front walk this week.

Doesn’t that wall of snow look a bit like the wall of water left by the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments?

DeMille remade The Ten Commandments in 1956 with Charlton Heston as Moses, which is no doubt the version you’d recognize from its annual Easter broadcast. But the1923 version is the one in which DeMille ingeniously figured out how to make the Red Sea part by flooding a tank with water and Jello, and then reversing the film shot so that the watery gelatin appears to be parting and rising instead of flowing downward and together. The standing walls shown here were made of molded Jello with water trickling over the top and edges to add to the illusion of huge amounts of water being held back to allow the Israelites’ passage. 

Check out this video explaining the special effects associated with the Red Sea parting over the years.

By the way, the story of finding Cecil B. DeMille’s “Lost City” Egyptian set from the original 1923 film is really cool. Read about it here, or watch the excellent documentary. I was able to view the documentary film free on Amazon Prime a couple months ago. If it’s no longer available free, you can rent it for under $5.00.

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Paw prints etched in ice (and in my heart❤️)

I love the abstract images resulting from close-up views of this very mundane subject. A tribute to dogs everywhere who must brave the elements every day to take care of their canine business. With a special shout-out to Coco❤️

Original view of our back porch steps
Abstract 1
Abstract 2
Abstract 3
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February evening sunlight

This is what greeted me yesterday as I left my office in the Grohmann Museum at MSOE shortly before 5:00. The reflected streaks of orange sunlight across the pavement seemed very cheerful to me. And at this time of year, with snowstorm after snowstorm followed by bitterly cold air sweeping down from Canada, well, I think we need all the cheerful moments we can get❤️

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PSA – How to save your phone from a watery grave

This WIRED article (link HERE) makes clear that using a hairdryer and/or putting your phone in a bag of rice are not good ideas. Your best strategy (my take on the article):

  1. Turn your phone off ASAP to prevent short circuits.
  2. Wipe it dry with a paper towel (or whatever you have handy), trying to keep water from leaking inside.
  3. Put your phone into a sealed container (or zip-tight bag) filled with desiccant packets like the ones that come packed with shoes or vitamins for 24-48 hours. (That’s a long time!)

My key takeaway? I need to start saving those random little desiccant packets now so we’ll have them on hand when a wet-phone emergency happens. And maybe carry a little zippered bag of them with me in case things go terribly wrong as I’m taking pictures on a rainy day or during a snowstorm.

David Carrington, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

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Writing Exercise – “Protest Night”

Here’s an exercise from late October or early November. I can’t remember which member of our writing group assigned this exercise, but it’s another taken from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. 

Exercise 1 (Le Guin Chapter 2)

Paragraph of narrative with no punctuation (and no paragraphs or other breaking devices). Suggested subject: A group of people engaged in a hurried or hectic or confused activity, such as a revolution, or the scene of an accident, or the first few minutes of a one-day sale.

I decided to write about a protest march that gets out of hand. I found myself less interested in focusing on the details of a “hectic or confused activity” than I was in exploring how anger feels as it’s spiraling out of control. As it turned out, however, it was those specific “action” details that allowed me to experience anger as a physical sensation, so there you go.

Inspiration for the exercise—beyond, obviously, the numerous protests of 2020—came from some fleeting recollections of “anger” that sprang to mind from literature:

The opening line of Edgar Allen Poe’s chilling 1847 short story “The Cask of Amontillado”: The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. (This one goes beyond anger and is really more about coldblooded murder, but still, “the thousand injuries” and “when he ventured beyond insult” kept coming back to me.)

The ending of Athol Fugard’s 1982 play Master Harold . . . and the Boys, where neglected, abused teen Harold (“Hally”) lashes out at the only true father figure in his life and, unable to provoke a reaction and start the fight he apparently needs in order to vent his extreme anger/frustration, employs an unforgiveable insult and changes the relationship forever (although the play leaves hope that some level of reconciliation may be possible).

The last line of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” which serves as the final potential answer to the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” after other possibilities are proffered and apparently rejected:Or does it explode?”

Given the violent events of this past week, it seems like maybe today is a good day to post this exercise. It was disturbing to write and therefore may also be disturbing to read, so I apologize if it is. Then again, you may think it’s garbage writing too weak to prompt any emotional response besides boredom, in which case I don’t apologize at all 🙂

So, first the usual disclaimer. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

And now my exercise. (By the way, I thought my title was all clever and literary, as “protest” could serve as either an adjective, describing the type of night, or as a verb, meaning to object to and rage against a metaphoric “night.” Sorry for the self-indulgent aside, but because I no longer teach literature classes, and MSOE’s Great Books has been shut down for months because of the pandemic, I never get to fool around with this kind of analysis anymore.)

“Protest Night”

We’ve been walking for hours and finally they start handing out broken cinderblocks through open car windows now that we’ve almost reached our destination punctuating rage at the police at the pandemic at life and at these smug suburban neighborhood storefronts the cool cement heavy in our hands but swung easily in graceful arcs crashing with musical laughter as splinters of glass fly and now the group is moving forward again through the relentless honking of our escorts and helicopters droning overhead shaking the glittered sidewalks behind us so I said that bitch better have my money when I get into work tomorrow I’m tired of this shit and take my brick up a green lawn to where a curtain flutters shut against me how dare you how dare you and the brick is flying before I know it and a voice cries out that’s somebody’s home and flashing strobes of red and blue light and the cops standing in a line with shields watching us advance and helicopters shaking the glittered bushes but no one inside responds so I pick up the pot of geraniums from their doorstep surprisingly heavy and it’s done now I’m committed and I hurl it against the door where it shatters into clay shards and dirt and scattered red petals and I hate everyone so much that I turn toward the police standing in their silent line craving the confrontation about to happen.

Appleswitch via Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

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The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2021–2022

Since 2013, I have been regularly updating this informational chart about the key book publishing paths. It is available as a PDF download—ideal for …

The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2021–2022

Jane Friedman writes, speaks, and teaches online courses about all aspects of writing and publishing. She has decades of experience and is the most straightforward, down to earth, friendly source of info out there on this topic. Because I’m teaching a “Writing for Digital Media” course in our UX program now, I’ve made a point of paying even more attention to what she has to say. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, she is someone to follow if you intend to publish your work.

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Writing Exercise – “Heart in a Box”

Another writing-group exercise, this one from the end of last March. What an eerie, different time to remember. We understood almost nothing of Covid/COVID-19 (which we were still calling “the coronavirus”) and were newly under lockdown in Wisconsin, the governor’s “Stay at Home” executive order having just been issued. People were at a loss about where to get masks, and social media was full of videos showing how to make them out of bandanas and rubber bands.

This exercise was very simple and straightforward: Write about a “heart in a box.” It was one I came up with for the group, inspired by that very phrase popping into my head as I lay in bed shortly after awakening one morning. I had no clue what the words might refer to, although they sounded kind of creepy and at the same time vaguely reminded me of the Nirvana song “Heart-Shaped Box,” but with sort of a David Lynch twist. This was actually an interesting exercise, I thought, in that everyone came up with highly individual, really different responses.

Like last week’s exercise, my “Heart in a Box” was set in my fictional town of Adell Ferry. Some background on this town is in last week’s post (link HERE) if you’re interested.

So first the usual disclaimer. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

And now, my exercise.

“Heart in a Box”

“You’ve heard of people wearing their heart on their sleeve, right? Well, this is like that, see. Except it’s a heart in a box.” Aunt Shelley snaps the lid closed and glares at me, daring me to ask one more question, just one more.

I don’t. I learned my lesson about that the hard way a long time ago. I pick up the box and place it into the basket with the floral arrangements I’m delivering by bicycle around Adell Ferry this afternoon.

Luckily, except for the Heart in a Box, today it’s all “in town,” meaning the flat streets of the city proper. We don’t deliver “out” to the county, but there are still plenty of neighborhoods scattered along the river and up into the surrounding hills. I’m saving for a ten-speed like the one Bobby has. Then I’ll be able to ride up every hill instead of having to walk my bike at the side of the road up the long, steep ones. It’s embarrassing to have people see me do that.

The flowers are mostly Happy Birthdays and Get Well Soons. They’re first on my route, and I’m glad. Floral arrangements take up a lot of room in my bike baskets. I have one basket on my handlebars and two that hang like saddlebags from my rear fender. A terrarium goes to the funeral home for the football player who died in last Friday’s crash out 137.

Last on my list is the Heart in a Box. The delivery I dread. It goes to the Adell Ferry State Institute, a vaguely sinister presence a mile upriver and set back quite far from the road.

At least it’s flat. But the driveway to the collection of white cottages and administration buildings is a long, winding pathway through fields and past the dairy barns. And it’s that time of summer when grasshoppers leap out of the tall grass along the fine-graveled cinder lane at me as I pass, hitting my legs and arms and probably getting their leg hooks tangled in my hair, I realize with a shudder. The crunch of their bodies beneath my tires adds to my revulsion. But the worst still awaits, even though all I have to do is drop off my Heart in a Box at the administration building and not at one of the cottages.

I lean my bike against the massive trunk of the hundred-year-old elm tree that was planted in front of the main building when the hospital was built. The sun is hot. I welcome the shade as I check my hair for insects (none) and reach into my basket for the Heart in a Box. The administration building’s pillared entrance always reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara’s house in Gone With the Wind. Of course, that romantic picture is spoiled by the loud hum of air-conditioners dripping their waste from every window. The cottages have to make do with fans propped up against screens, which clearly doesn’t cool them off enough. As I carry the Heart in a Box up the front steps of Tara, I notice patients sitting outside on several of the cottage porches.

My ninth-grade choir sang Christmas carols at one of the larger structures back in December. The patients crowded around, grabbing greedily at our dresses and jewelry. One old woman with bushy, chopped gray hair tried to trade me her popsicle stick for my bracelet. Her speech was unintelligible. I didn’t know what she wanted until she pushed her wet, wooden stick into my palm and began pulling at my wrist. I recoiled and swatted her hand—then caught Miss Swanson looking at me.

I shrank inside, ashamed of my poor Christmas spirit. Feeling trapped and angry, I undid the clasp and slipped my grandmother’s gift into swollen, grasping fingers. The woman beamed at me, an avaricious glint in her eyes and a stream of gibberish issuing from her gray-mustached mouth. Miss Swanson’s approval on the bus ride back into town could not warm my bitterly cold resentment. You shouldn’t have worn that bracelet if you wanted to keep it, she told me finally, a lesson for next time.

I hate this creepy, fake idyllic place, especially the patients. Mostly because I know I’m supposed to love them like Jesus would.

Cool air rushes out of the administration building as I open the front door. Instead of soothing relief from the heat, its rotting asylum smell makes me shiver with disgust as I imagine the stale, chilly air of a morgue or a dungeon. I drop the Heart in a Box at the front desk, trying not to be rude but with one hand on the doorknob and already backing away as I murmur detached, polite responses to the woman’s friendly effort to engage me in conversation.

And then I’m back on my bike, speeding through the grasshopper gauntlet to make my escape to civilization once more.

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Empty old-fashioned underground parking garage

Photo of my parking garage taken October 28, 2020, at 7:31 p.m. (thank you, iPhone for keeping such good records😄), after office staff had left for the day. Usually there would still be plenty of cars here belonging to profs teaching night classes or, like me, heading home later than the university’s office workers. But most people are teaching from home now other than those with lab classes, so I had this striking view of an entirely empty parking garage. I park in space Number One in the farthest corner, and although I was weirded out by the spooky emptiness as I walked to my car, it wasn’t till I was stowing my gear in the trunk that I realized how entirely empty it was.

And also, oddly, how aesthetically pleasing all that emptiness was. I was suddenly quite aware of how balanced the composition of slanted lines and planes was. There was balance even in the oppositional pairings of light and dark elements.

This garage would surely never win any awards for appearance. It’s not an especially attractive place and might be best described as “functional.” Although it’s always very clean (MSOE’s facilities crew is amazing!), and it has been painted and otherwise well maintained, let’s face it: It’s hard to brighten up what basically amounts to a dungeon.

But then again, sometimes lucking into the right lighting and perspective after extraneous clutter (i.e., parked vehicles) has been stripped away is all you need to perceive the “rightness” of a thing’s essential underlying structure. Which is very cool and always makes me think about God and the universe and all the really huge stuff that puts us humans in our place. It’s a paradox that never ceases to fascinate: how we can be so puny and insignificant against the massive scale of eternity yet at the same time be so present and central to the drama of our daily existence.

I guess this paradox is a bit like an optical illusion in the way it moves back and forth from inside to outside (emic to etic?) perspectives. And optical illusions are a lot like photography in general, now that I think about it. Multiple “realities” are out there, but the one you usually notice is shaped by ordinary lighting and perspective and probably some sort of already-present internal template.

Maybe what makes a really good photo is similar to what makes an optical illusion stand out. Right? That pleasure you feel when you recognize that there’s more going on than you initially realized and you can experience both realities at once.

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