My child’s texture
Limbs longer always than I last remember
Coiled with youth
Springy and joyful like undercooked pasta
My child’s texture
Limbs longer always than I last remember
Coiled with youth
Springy and joyful like undercooked pasta
(I’m doing the autobiographical water chapters all out of order. This is 5 or 6.)
We moved from West Point to Buffalo, NY between my Sophomore and Junior years in high school. I finished out my last two years at Calasanctius School for the Gifted. It was tiny, run by Hungarian Piarist priests, and full of brilliant misfits. My graduating class had eight people in it.
There were many amazing things about Calasanctius, including a tradition of reading and discussing original texts which served me well later at the University of Chicago. Another was the field trips. These weren’t a simple day trip to the museum. No. These were week-long sojourns with long stints in the one bus that belonged to the school, punctuated by overnights in campgrounds in the middle of nowhere.
This resulted in many formative, unsupervised moments that make me cringe as a parent, in retrospect.
We were at one of those campgrounds somewhat late in the season. There was a lake, out of sight of our tents, over a slope. There were no docks or boats, at least not then, and it was too cold for swimming.
That didn’t stop me, though, and I was determined to go in. The boy and girl I was with were not so enthusiastic. The boy, averting his eyes, set about making a campfire. The girl happened to be wearing shorts and waded in with me, whereas I stripped down to my underwear and jumped right in.
Okay, it was a little too cold, and it didn’t get deep for a long way. I persisted, though, staggering my way carefully over slippery rocks. It was some distance from shore when it was finally deep enough I could crouch in the brisk water and count myself as actually /in/ the lake.
It was rather more cold and uncomfortable than I had imagined when I had decided to make my way out there. I was just considering the treacherous walk back when the catcalling started from the other side of this, the narrow end of the lake. I couldn’t see who was yelling, since there were trees right up to the edge of the water, and I had taken my glasses off, but I could very clearly hear the suggestion that I perform a certain lewd act upon the speaker, and recognized the voice of a fellow student who was in the year above me (one who had been described by another student, a female friend, as a walking hard-on). There was chuckling, in several voices. He wasn’t alone.
I suppose I should have felt embarrassed, or threatened, or excruciatingly vulnerable in that moment, blind, cold, unclothed. Young. Female.
But I didn’t. And rather than duck back into the frigid water, or try to cover myself, or dash myself against the slick rocks in an attempt to flee, I stood there and shouted back, “What?” still unable to see where the speaker was.
The lewd suggestion was repeated, louder.
I shook my head as if confused and yelled back, “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble hearing you.”
He repeated it again, louder, sounding frustrated, incredulous.
I put my hand up to my ear as if listening hard and said, “Still not sure what you said.”
He screamed it, his voice cracking finally, and I could hear his cohorts laughing at him out loud now. It was obvious to them I heard him just fine the first time.
I shrugged and shook my head. There was muffled cursing and laughing as the group of boys moved away, and I went, calmly and carefully, back to my own group at the waiting campfire on my side of the lake.
It was uncomfortable, trying to pull my clothes over wet, clammy skin, and the campfire wasn’t really fiery enough to provide much heat, so I sat there blue and chattering.
But that was okay.
I was warmed by an inner sense of justice served.
In this modern age, there would be a digital record of the event, no doubt uploaded onto the internet before I even stepped out of the lake, and it might have haunted me through the rest of high school in a very different way. But there was no video. No record but this one.
And nobody ever brought it up with me after, either.
I like to think they were prevented by a new-found fear of watery tarts.
The first water I ever floated in was probably the North Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Hawaii. My two brothers and I were all born in Honolulu Hospital. Although a military family, we didn’t live on base. We lived in a small house in a local neighborhood, which I only remember in the form of plentiful stories. The local Hawaiians, our neighbors, helped the poor, deserted Army wife raise her three kids while her husband was off in Vietnam. We were born there, so we were dubbed kama’aina (native Hawaiians), although we tended to stand out.
However, even if my first experience with water was something so majestic, so primal, as the ocean, the first time I remember swimming, is in our backyard pool in Alabama.
Our house was on a dirt road, and had a sprawling back yard with a big strawberry patch, a chicken coop, and woods that went on a ways. Summers were hot and dusty, with no air conditioning.
We lived in that pool.
There was no formal education to it, no swim lessons at the Y, we just jumped in and taught ourselves. As Mom puts it, we ‘discovered our natural buoyancy at an early age’. There was adult supervision, sure. Dad, who was a medical officer in the Army by then, but had started out as an engineer, was making and installing concrete tiles in a patio around the pool (which I think was previously surrounded by just more dirt), so he would keep an eye on us as we cavorted.
The pool had a level shallow end, which, after ten feet, sloped down to a deeper end where you could dive.
I would have been four or five when I first started spending all my time in that pool. (Like, all my time. There was a point at which I was spending so much time submerged, that my hair never completely dried, and it was all cut off because of the constant mildew smell.)
I was supposed to stay in the shallow end at first, but there was this one time I didn’t.
Not necessarily on purpose.
I was too close to the edge of the deep end, where the slope began. Having taken one step too far, I found myself in a position where I couldn’t keep my head above water, but I also wasn’t heavy enough to stand on the bottom. My toes would brush the surface, but rather than allowing me purchase enough to scramble back to the safety of the shallow end, it just pushed me further away. My as-yet-insufficiently-discovered buoyancy worked against me.
So I drifted just under the water, my hair (not yet reduced) floating above me in swirling tentacles. Below me, and deep into the mysterious unknown of the deep end, the light, fractured by ripples above, raced around the bottom in schools of glowing, glass fish. It was so pretty.
Reaching for the bottom with my toes was useless, so I stopped doing that. Waving my arms didn’t get my head above water, so I stopped doing that. Realizing that the issue of breathing would have to be addressed in the near future, I focused on that instead.
You can’t breathe water, so despite the growing urge to do so, I didn’t open my mouth to draw it in. I knew that much. Instead, I focused on that urge itself. I experimented with it. I pulled my diaphragm down, as if I were breathing, and let it back up again a few times and found this calmed the urge to inhale somewhat. Was there any reason that wouldn’t work forever? I could only try and see.
And so I hung there, suspended in between, both too high and too low, a state which would resonate throughout the rest of my life, until the whole thing ended in a confusing jumble of pain and broken light.
I was told later that my father saved me from drowning by yanking me out by my hair.
I was convinced at the time that I had almost figured out how to breathe underwater, and he ruined it.
Alas Uncanny Magazine did not find this to be a good fit with their Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue…
Bodies. When you own a healthy body, it’s invisible to you most of the time. You don’t have to think about grabbing a cup of tea. You desire tea, and find the cup at your lips. Effortlessly. Invisibly.
I lost my left shoulder to cancer, an incredibly rare chondrosarcoma. Through some very talented, innovative, well-nigh unique surgery, I was able to keep the arm and hand. But I now have a (3D printed!) metal hinge in my body (an endoprosthesis!) where the scapula used to be. All the subtle, useful bits, like the rotator cuff and half the clavicle, were removed because they were too close to the tumor. Muscles that remained, going as far down as my waist on that side, were pulled up from their normal places and wrapped around the endoprosthesis like a burrito to attach it firmly to my torso. I can’t use the prosthesis to raise my arm, or extend it, or any other shoulderly things, but it holds my arm on. So, although I had to prop my computer in my lap (because I can’t keep my left arm at table level under its own power), and arrange the pillows just so, I have typed this just fine with two hands. I can still write.
I’ve mostly adapted. It’s been exactly a year since the surgery, and I find I can figure out how to do most things. Although some of them I choose not to do in front of people because they require strange contortions and take three times as long as they used to. Some things are just beyond me. What remains of the left arm isn’t rated for anything heavier than 5 pounds.
I stare wistfully at heavy boxes on high shelves.
(In truth, if no one is looking, I will reach up to the elusive box with my right hand, and inch it off the shelf by wriggling my fingers beneath it. Back and forth. Then, when it’s almost over-balanced off the edge, I’ll tip it down onto my shoulder, holding it steady with my head. Clasped between my head and arm, I’ll bobble it over to a table and bend down until I can shrug it off and push it away. If it’s not too heavy. Or too fragile. And if I really need it right then, more than I mind the bruises.)
My goal is for my body to be invisible to me again. I’m tired of looking at it all the time, figuring out the angles and logistics of making and drinking that cup of tea. I would rather just do it. Effortlessly. Invisibly.
As a writer, I’ve been watching myself go through this recovery process. The desire for a return to invisibility has given me a good hard look at what I was taking for granted before, and I’ve decided the body is an illusion. A persistent, well-maintained illusion, that the brain uses to interact with the outside world. So really, there are two bodies. The meat one and the virtual one. That’s why, when people lose a limb, they can still feel it. The meat one may have changed, but the virtual one hasn’t.
When I was first able to start moving the arm, six weeks after the reconstruction, I would try to do things with both hands, automatically, and the left arm would just fall or flop or unbalance everything. Or not move at all. I would be surprised and frustrated every single time. The inconsistencies between the meat arm and the virtual arm were a constant source of disappointment.
So I mentally disowned the arm entirely. I couldn’t update the virtual arm, so I deleted it. I mentally amputated the arm so I could start over. I was a one-armed person. It cut down on the frustration immensely.
Then I started building it back up. If I had a little extra time and energy, I would ‘allow’ the left hand and arm to try to do things. As I found out what it could accomplish, I would slowly build up the new virtual arm and integrate it more into my daily life.
My physical therapist, I think, is fascinated with it. Every time I go in, there is a new, wide-eyed intern following along.
The therspist says to try to lift the arm. I will never lift the arm again, but I still hold out hope of getting more stability, so I try. He holds it a different way and says, okay try to rotate it outward.
And I try. Really hard. I imagine the arm moving, and I’ll have muscles bunching and pulling all over my body that have nothing whatsoever to do with my arm. Like I’m trying to rotate my left arm with my right big toe. And then something will flash or shudder somewhere in my underarm.
Encouraging, the physical therapist says, “There! Did you feel that? Do it again. Imagine reaching out.”
And the freaked out muscle fiber jumps again. We don’t even know which muscle it used to be, everything’s been so rearranged, but after two weeks of trying to activate it, I can get it to contract smoothly and with more control. Who knows what that little fiber will be capable of in another year?
Mechanically speaking, there’s nothing in my shoulder that resembles a shoulder. But there are dribs and drabs, scraps and scars, chunks of meat, that we are trying to repurpose. As I rebuild the virtual arm, my brain is reaching out through abandoned nerves, finding out what they can do, and rewriting them into new movements, new activities. Some of which never existed in the first place. Because the nature of the joint has changed, it can bend frontward and back, in a sort of flapping motion, a little farther than it used to. Is it useful? I don’t know. But it’s already being worked into the virtual model, because I find myself doing it deliberately when I’m getting dressed, without thinking about it ahead of time.
I drive with one arm now. Sometimes the left hand will help out by stabilizing the steering wheel from where it’s sitting in my lap, but that is all it’s good for. The surprising part about relearning how to drive with just the one arm is its similarity to moving my own body in its new conformation. There were new sequences and pathways that had to be adjusted. Driving used to be effortless. Invisible. It’s becoming so again relatively quickly.
I came to realize that the car was every bit a part of my virtual body as my arm was. I didn’t have to think about the car to drive it. I just had to think about where I wanted to go, and the brain would trigger whatever pathways were necessary to get me there. There’s a virtual car connected to my virtual body.
What else fits that category? The computer keyboard, for one. I don’t think about hitting the keys when I’m typing. I just think about the words I want to have appear on the screen. As I type this, I’m conscious of how my mind has generated that virtual keyboard. I type without looking, because muscle memory tells me that this series of impulses generates an ‘e’, and this series generates an ‘h’. As though each symbol existed in my mind as solidly as my own conception of my limbs and fingers. There are letters attached to my virtual body, right there along with the car.
Maybe, given enough training and expertise, this applies to any tool. When you first start using a new tool, it isn’t a part of you. It’s just your meat body touching things and making them go. But eventually, the virtual body becomes so familiar with the use of the thing, that it incorporates it into itself. The piano. The hammer. The paintbrush. The scalpel. The sword. The fighter plane. The prosthetic leg.
Our tool-using monkey brain is so greedy, snatching up new virtual pieces and sticking them to itself our whole lives, a subconscious Katamari Damacy. When we think of it at all, we think of our virtual self as being roughly the shape of our meat self, but the truth of it is that our virtual selves are vast and complex, operating in more than three dimensions, slapped together like Swiss army knives, bristling with skill sets.
I’ve started back at aikido, a martial art. I had trained for about 15 years on and off before the cancer. I find myself back on the mat with very low expectations, and a body much more brittle. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Rather than destroying one’s opponent with brute force, aikido is about instinctively understanding another person’s movement and balance so well that you can manipulate it with minimal interference. Since I can’t wave my left arm in dramatic arcs anymore, I find myself closing the distance, refining my position, and throwing very surprised attackers with a well-timed shrug. (Thankfully I can still shrug. Without a way to physically manifest my natural cynicism and ambivalence, I fear this essay would have been much more of a diatribe.)
In training, we talk about reframing the interaction between attacker and attacked, uke and nage, as a collaboration rather than a conflict. You are not being attacked so much as ‘given energy’ which you can choose to use as you like. In the context of the virtual body, in aikido, I wonder if it’s a matter of the ever-acquisitive mind reaching out and using other people’s meat bodies as its own tools, however briefly.
I had trouble getting around to writing this at first. I’m still very angry about how my once strong, dependable shoulder has turned into this crumpled thing, so I didn’t want to give it credit for giving me this insight. It hasn’t been punished enough yet for such an intimate and unforgivable betrayal. After all, it tried to kill me. But it turns out I can be sincerely furious and grateful and appreciative at the same time. The damage extends to about a sixth of my meat body, but, I’ve come to realize, when compared to my virtual body, it’s almost insignificant.
It has changed the way things look to me. When I watch my friend’s three-month old baby flail, I’m seeing her learn to use her first tool, her own meat body. The first of many tools.
So now, when I think about fictional humans, either with new, strangely articulated bio-engineered limbs, or high-tech prosthetics, or plugged into whole structures or cities, I no longer wonder if it’s possible for the human mind to adapt to such things. I know it is. The brain, in its mysterious and powerful way, will find its way to it, like water flowing downstream. All it needs is a connection, feedback, and purpose. Whether the connection be as direct as a nerve, or ephemeral as a touch, our minds can use it to extend the virtual body. I theorized about it in stories before. Now I’ve watched it happen, from the inside.
It’s what we do as humans.
The irony will be that when we’ve invented and incorporated these new miracles into our virtual bodies, into our very identities, we won’t be able to see them anymore. They’ll be effortless.
I love them. I’ve loved them since college. My roommate’s boyfriend would leave stacks of them when he came to visit. That’s how I first was introduced to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and it was all over after that. My roommate didn’t even read them, but I convinced her not to tell her boyfriend, so every time he came by, he would bring a fresh pile and remove the old.
That was over twenty years ago, but I still devour graphic novels hungrily.
I went to my first writer’s conference last month, World Fantasy in San Antonio, November 2-5. I went because that same roommate, Mary Anne Mohanraj, now an accomplished author, said, “You should go. It’ll be fun. I’ll show you around.” Which she did, and it was great. But we struggled with how she would introduce me. I’ve been writing for years, but in secret. I have five complete NaNoWriMo novels that maybe only two people have ever read. Nothing published. It was easier to show people my art. So I was introduced as her college roommate who has been writing in secret for years and is a fabulous artist, look at these pieces she has online. And then friends of hers would see me elsewhere in the conference and introduce me to their friends as a fabulous artist, really you should see her stuff. The writer part got dropped because there wasn’t a publication to hang it on.
Which is fine. It was great meeting editors and publishers and fellow writers. I wasn’t there so much to sell myself (yet) as to find out what kind of product I am.
One of the panels was ‘Artist/Authors’. These were people who had started out as artists illustrating other people’s books, but decided that they had their own stories to tell.
I had illustrated a children’s book with a fellow parent, Demery Matthews, whom I met through my kid’s school. It was something I offered for a school fundraiser: I would develop a character and do a few black-and-white images for someone’s story. Demery, an architect (whom I strongly recommend for all your building needs), had this story she had written for her boys years ago. So I did a few illustrations and we loved them and did a Kickstarter for it and distributed it in glorious full color to a bunch of family and friends. You can buy a copy on Amazon if you like, Captain Devin and His Little Red Boat. It’s fun.
I’m glad I did it. It’s cute, and now I know I can. It might never have happened if I didn’t have a partner. But I have my own drawer full of stories, and I felt a little bit as though I had betrayed them.
And it’s like panelist Jeffrey Alan Love said, “Illustrating other people’s work is like being in a cover band.” Not that there aren’t really good cover bands out there, but it’s not the same as being the sole author of your own work.
The Artist/Author: A New Wave of Storytellers panel was moderated by Irene Gallo, and populated by Kathleen Jennings, John Picacio Moteria, Jeffrey Alan Love, and Gregory Manchess.
John Picacio Moteria was doing a series of illustrations for a card game, the Loteria Grande, using fantasy characters, which was based on a Mexican game where you had to get so many in a row (and here I had a bit of a twinge over how much it sounded like a project I had just started with my own friends). His evolution toward author began when he realized he was weaving background stories in his head for all the characters in the illustrations, and that they were linked in a common world, a running narrative. So, instead of just a card game, it became a story, with a card game on the side. It’s very pretty. I plan on buying it when it comes out. My favorite line of his from the panel is about when he realized the images were becoming more nuanced and connected: they became “more eye protein than eye candy.”
Gregory Manchess, who does giant oil paintings with lots of palletknife-work, is not your typical graphic novel artist. But he too, after a career of being commissioned for numerous covers, decided he had his own stories to tell. I bought the book, Above the Timberline. It’s gorgeous. There’s text in it, but there’s so much story in the images themselves that the text is almost a distraction. Or the words serve to slow down the observer enough to appreciate the images more. When I started reading the book, after overcoming my initial awe of the style, I began to wonder if it was too ponderous. It wasn’t the clean pen-and-ink I was used to in a graphic novel. But then I remembered my own advice when approaching new art, to ditch my expectations and shut up. Look and listen first.
Then I was able to notice things. As ‘realistic’ as his subject matter and composition were, his use of broad strokes and the pallet knife frequently suggested details rather than explicitly representing them. I really appreciate that in art. It engages the observer’s brain to fill in the details and appeals to a subconscious curiosity. His snowy, windy backgrounds and stark, dark figures use extreme contrast to create drama. even in still scenes. The depth of his landscapes is cinematic.
Yep. It’s pretty.
If I were in a different emotional place, I might have been intimidated out of ever showing my art again, but next to him on the panel were Jeffrey Alan Love and Kathleen Jennings who were showing their monochromatic prints, or their silhouetted cutouts. And I admired them too.
I am not a masterful oil painter it’s true, but neither are the other artists on the panel, and they’re telling different kinds of stories. And at some point, all these people had to decide what they were, in a creative industry that struggled with finding a category for them. It was good to see bits of my own struggle reflected on the outside. The echo chamber in my head had been getting loud and crowded.
A related panel, New Graphic Novels You Should Be Reading, was similarly awesome. There was a retired staffer from DC Comics moderating, Bob Wayne. He coauthored Time Masters and has written some Wild Cards stuff. There were three panel members. Marta Murvosh is a librarian by day, and contributor to Tales of the Sunrise Lands and Legends of the Mountain State. Carol Burrell (aka Klio) is a writer and editor for Workman Publishing. Finally, Leo Vladimirsky has stories on Boing Boing and in F&SF. They recommended examples of everything from children’s graphic novels to the almost pornographically intense adult tomes. All of which I enjoy, so when I list them below, be warned that they might not all be appropriate for your kids. (After I’ve been through them all, I’ll write up a list that is good for kids, since I’ll be curating for my own 8 year old.)
On the subject of graphic novels for kids, Marta, the librarian, made some good points. Some teachers don’t like their students reading graphic novels, because it’s ‘cheating’, and it keeps them from reading ‘real’ books which could be helping them develop their reading skills. I’ve never understood this. Graphic novels have plenty of text, and the stories aren’t necessarily even all fiction, another prejudice some teachers have. Some of the titles which were recommended are even historical or political nonfiction. Important stories well told. But all these illustrated stories help people develop empathy, just like un-illustrated novels do. They also help students develop visual literacy.
The panel was about new works, but the panelists did mention a few that they credit as the first visual stories they read that got them started down this path. Sandman was mentioned of course, but also Elfquest, the collected Prince Valiant, Wonder Woman (those molemen, amiright?), Dark Knight, and Chandler.
But on to the recommendations. I know my librarian friend (Danica, this is for you) will be interested, but others of you may also want to know what new graphic novels have been generating buzz. Saga, Bitch Planet, and Lumberjanes were all mentioned, of course, but considered maybe not new enough for this panel. (I would recommend all three of those, although only Lumberjanes for kids.)
Heathen – Natasha Alterici
March – a history of civil rights – Congressman John Lewis
World Without Fish
Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb
Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur
Malice in Ovenland
Princess Princess (manga)
Nathan Nails Hazardous Tales
Lowriders in Space – Cathy Camper
The Nameless City Series – Faith Erin Hicks
Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science
Tetris: The Games People Play – Box Brown
Becoming Andy Warhol – Nick Bertozzi
The Midas Flesh – Ryan North
California Dreamin’ – Pénélope Bagieu
Sing No Evil – JP Ahonen
Multiple Warheads – S Clay Wilson
O. M. W. O. T. Terror Assaulter
Last month was Inktober. This month is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. So, even though I’m not posting everyday, I AM writing everyday. This year’s NaNoWriMo story is about the near future, when, as a part of sustainability and anti-global warming efforts, a new highway system has been developed that uses a tightly engineered moss, instead of asphalt or concrete. Which works great until it starts behaving in independent and inconvenient ways. It takes place in Indiana. (Please remember that, while I’m writing everyday, editing is going to happen some other time.) Some of you might recognize the description of Mt. Baldy…
Just out from the the trees, the Indiana Dunes rose, enormous piles of sand, tufted with brave splotches of greenery, blocking the view to Lake Michigan. The roots of the tall, waving grasses battled the wind for the grains of sand. The occasional tree could be seen, impossibly, halfway up the slope.
Conservationists had their own struggle, keeping the locals from trying to snowboard or ski down the slopes, just to see if they could. There was enough damage from people just making their way to the beaches, despite the fact that some days the ‘fresh’ water lake wasn’t so fresh, and swimming less than advisable.
A young couple looking for privacy in the tall grass and sparse bushes might learn quickly not to show too much skin. The water pooled in quiet ways in inlets and marshes nearby so as to support a robust population of mosquitoes. At least, it had. In the last couple of years the blood-suckers just didn’t seem as bad. Whether or not that corresponded to an increase in local teen pregnancies was yet to be studied, but residents were generally appreciative of the change. It was put down no doubt to government efforts to suppress West Nile, and then the Zika virus.
Those cicadas though.
The evenings especially were getting so bad, people had started staying inside their beach houses with the news on loud of an evening. It had gotten so that the constant chirping even drowned out the roar of the high, off-season waves hitting the sand.
Somebody ought to do something about those, they said, when they got together at the neighborhood mailboxes at the entrance to their small beach community, where they would gossip about basketball, the noisy timeshare that never cleared their garbage bins when they were supposed to, and oh yeah. That new road. It wasn’t supposed to extend out this far until next year, but they must have finished it early because there it was.
Like it sprang up overnight.
Art is scary. A lot of people don’t know what to do with it, so they avoid it. I’ve created art my whole life, and worked in galleries, too, although mostly in charge of the funding. Still, the only formal art appreciation training I had was in a high school art class. I retain only vague recollections of which artists did what, or what their styles are called or influenced by, or which are historically implicated in which revolutions. But the thing is, you don’t need a formal education to look at art. It’s not a rarified skill reserved only for the few. I’ve outlined a few steps for anyone who’s ever felt they couldn’t relate to art because they didn’t know how. We’ll get into the useful parallels for relating to people further on.
Step 1. Find some art. You could go to a museum, or stop by a mural on the outside of a building, or go to the library, or surf somebody’s sketches online, or visit your neighbor’s garage where they’ve converted the back room to a gallery.
Step 2. Shut up. I don’t just mean to stop talking. You need to stop all the noise in your head. It keeps other things from getting in, and it’s not about you, not yet. Shut up and look. Approach the work without expectations or judgement. Hang out with it. If it’s a complex work, leave it for a bit, days even, and come back later to hang out some more.
Step 3. Listen. Some works are dripping with deliberate and obvious symbolism. Some are subtle. Some are literal renderings of everyday things. Some are amorphous colors and shapes. You’ve been waiting patiently, what do you think it is? Do you hear it telling you anything?
Step 4. Respond. (Please wait until this step to do this. So often people respond first, and it will derail the process.) This is not necessarily separate from the previous step. Whatever you heard when you were listening is a big clue to your response. Do you feel something? Irritation? Anger? Amusement? Curiosity? Joy? Kinship? Did you learn something? What do you know now that you didn’t before? That bone structure looks a lot like sponge candy close up? That smears of bright red always remind you of violence, but you think it’s beautiful anyway?
Good job. You’ve just appreciated art.
Well, you might learn something about the artist. The human on the other side of this tenuous, mystical thread of communication might be trying to say something worth hearing. Regardless of whether you know more about the artist, though, you will always know more about yourself. All of that response came from you. Did any of it surprise you?
Also, it may not look like it, but this is skill-building. Being able to observe the signals around you without making yourself the center will help you evaluate situations and resources, make decisions, and yes, communicate with other humans.
What? Looking at art will help me not be an abrasive jerk?
Yes. Follow the steps.
Now let’s say the art is a person. This person is in your space, but they are not like you. You have no idea how to relate. You’ve found the art.
Remember step 2? Shut up. Again, not literally, but do keep oral communication neutral. ‘Hey, I’ve got that report for you.’ ‘It’s supposed to be really hot this weekend.’ ‘Do you want fries with that?’ Whatever expectations or judgement you brought with you to the interaction, the ones clamoring in your head for expression, should be quietly decanted out the back. Again, they will only get in the way of observing the actual person in front of you. (Also, you should never, ever touch this art/person uninvited. The oils from your fingers will indelibly mark the art, and what are you doing anyway? That’s not your art. Were you raised by wolves? If you can’t keep your hands to yourself, don’t be surprised when you’re banned from the gallery.)
Next, listen. But what if you are listening, and the person/art won’t talk to you? The thing is, your understanding of it is ultimately not actually the art’s responsibility. It is doing its thing, living its separate existence. You would look a damn fool standing in front of a painting demanding that it explain itself. Yes. You would. The metaphor stretches a little here, since, obviously, humans can usually talk, but you’re still no more entitled to that person’s time than you are to an explanation from a painting. Even if they took the precious time and effort, if you aren’t ready to listen, you’ve just wasted that much of their energy in a truly ungrateful way.
And if you were really listening, you would have learned something already by now. Things like, ‘That person likes cream in their tea,’ ‘That person is really good at logistics,’ ‘That persons stops smiling and talking every time someone comments on their outfit,’ ‘That person is working three jobs because they’re taking care of their mother and two kids on their own.’ It doesn’t matter if the things you learn directly pertain to your own agenda. They will inform and change you in subtle ways regardless.
It’s hard work, but like any skill, gets easier and more enjoyable with practice. It will change the way you think and open up a whole new dimension of cognitive resources. Not kidding.
So remember, appreciating art, or humans, is not just for people with lots of formal training. You can do it and benefit from it right away. With practice, it will really add to your quality of life. For the sake of easy remembering later, either when faced with a complicated piece of art, or a person you don’t know how to relate to, we’ll boil this down to the two most important steps.
1. Shut up.
Plane and hotel reservations are all finalized. I’m looking through the program now, and it looks exciting. This is my first time at this conference, so I’m doing a lot of research online about the presenters. I don’t want to accidentally miss that one must-see presentation.
This will be my first flight on my own with the new shoulder. People usually see my big, tall self and ask for help putting their bags overhead. I wonder what kind of looks I’ll get when I ask for help with mine. Even though I don’t actually need it anymore, I consider wearing the sling when I’m out in new surroundings. Yes there’s a reason I’m not holding the door for you. It’s not that I’m insufferably rude. Sorry about your nose.
Thankfully, I don’t need both arms to write. Or draw. Or sing.
I should hurry up with that movie deal so I can hire a personal assistant to travel with me. Preferably one with leet martial arts skills.
Margaret A. Frey is a freelance writer who writes from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. The author of over a hundred published essays and short stories, Margaret is invested in the public sphere. Isn’t everyone? Margaret holds a BA in English and a graduate degree in dog appreciation. Margaret lives with her husband of 38 years and canine literary critic, a fractious Bernese Mountain dog.
This Margaret is not me, which brings up the question, when I write, who should I be? I’ve been using Margaret Treanor Frey on FB so I can be found by people who knew me then, but it’s still too confusing with that other Margaret Frey out there.
Should I reclaim my maiden name for authoring? Should I be Margaret Treanor again (a name which doesn’t pull up anything of note on Google (yet))? Or should I use a new one completely?
I’m going to need to figure this out soon, because I’m submitting stories again. And I’ve signed up for a writer’s conference, the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, so I’ll need business cards.
This is not an update. I was thinking of something that happened weeks ago, and thought it deserved documentation.
It was shortly after the reconstruction. The endoprosthesis was installed in the shoulder, but the only thing holding it to my body was a bunch of very freshly stitched raw meat. The healed tissue and scars that were going to do the job later didn’t exist. The arrangement was very fragile.
The sling had to come off, temporarily – to adjust it, to clean off, to replace the soft fabrics around the arm that were keeping it from wearing holes in my elbow. Drains twisted over and under everything. I couldn’t let my arm be unsupported for even a moment. To complicate matters, the sling itself needed to be reshaped. The under-arm pillow was attached to the underside of the sling via a long piece of velcro. Unfortunately the fabric of the sling wasn’t attached straight, and the velcro was holding the wrinkles in place. The resulting ridges had begun to wear holes in my forearm.
So, lots of things needed to be done, and it was more than a mere three hands could accomplish, between Mark and myself. I decided it finally had to be dealt with when our friend Paige was over for dinner.
(In fairness, I waited until after dinner.)
But Paige was up for it. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate that she jumped right in. I was thinking about it from the point of view of the person who just had to get it done. There are moments in your life when you are beyond caring about what state you’re in, like when you’re giving birth. The last thing you’re worried about in the room full of strangers is that you have no clothes on.
So I was busy directing traffic. (Hold this here and don’t let it move. Hand me that washcloth.) I wasn’t remotely self-conscious about being shirtless and oozing bodily fluids (although see above for what a great sport Paige is).
And then Paige said to me, “You have such nice skin.”
When I was in graduate school with Mark in Buffalo, his mom got a rare liver cancer. They told us that only oriental men get this cancer, so they didn’t know what a white lady in Michigan City, IN was doing with it, but she only had a few months to live.
She lived three years. (So there.) They were a good three years for the most part. The last few months were hard. Mark and I put our studies on hold for a little bit and came out to be with her and Mark’s sister Jennifer, who was her full-time caretaker in the little ranch house they had both grown up in.
Toward the end, Ann stopped being able to speak. We knew she was still in there. There were small looks and gestures. She would tell us things and ask us things with her expression and we would answer her back and get what she needed. We weren’t sure how much clarity she had, but she knew she was surrounded by family and that we were doing everything we could to make her comfortable. For the most part she was very calm.
Until the one day we had a hospice worker there to check on her meds, undress her, and give her a sponge bath. This girl was young, less experienced than other people who had been there before.
I don’t know who started it, but they began fighting. Since Ann couldn’t speak, it took the form of a stubborn resistance when the girl tried to move her limbs to perform the bath. Maybe all she knew was that she was naked and some stranger was putting hands on her. The girl in turn would push harder, and eventually became rough, exasperated. Ann became more stubborn, brows furrowed with irritation, and, increasingly, fear.
I was watching this from the end of the bed. We didn’t want to leave Ann alone with strangers. So there I was. Guarding.
But how to stop this bizarre, nonverbal altercation? Do I yell at the hospice worker? It didn’t seem like a way to get her to perform her task with a little more empathy. Would I have to send her away? Do I tell the nonverbal cancer patient to relax and stop being so troublesome? As calm and proper a person as Ann was in life, she would still have figured out how to sign ‘Screw you’ with her eyebrows, I’m sure.
What I did, was stretch out my hand to Ann’s leg and stroke her ankle, gently. “Ann. You have such beautiful skin,” I said, appreciatively, breaking the tense silence.
Patient and caregiver froze, hostility suspended.
Then Ann relaxed into her bed and let the girl have her arm. The girl, for her part, resumed her ministrations, but this time her movements were more respectful and sympathetic.
I’m not sure why I did that, specifically. But it worked so much better than any lecture on ‘Hey now, we’re all just humans trying to get through this’ would have.
You have such nice skin.
A split second and twenty years later, I replied to Paige, “Thanks.”
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