Friday, April 26, 2013
Someone asked me recently how long I'd been birdwatching. It's a hard question to answer, because birdwatching isn't usually something one acquires passively. In my case, the knowledge of birds -- the desire to know about them -- seems comparable to knowing your parents are your parents, or that your feet are your feet. You had to discover these things at some point, yes, but those discoveries were made before memories were being recorded. And as such they just seem...natural. Inevitable. Obvious.
Of course, if this were true everyone would be able to identify birds, and enjoy identifying birds. So it has to come from somewhere. For me, it came gradually at first. My mother was an avid birdwatcher, and judging by her parents' house she inherited this from them.
My grandparents lived in a semi-forested area on the edge of a tiny town in central Oklahoma. They had a big picture window looking over a yard that backed onto unkempt woodland, and near the window there was a pair of binoculars and a bird book. There were birdfeeders, three different bird baths out back (and two in front). The yard, fields and forest were dotted with little birdhouses that Grandpa made himself. They were all identical - smallish, grey-blue all over with a red roof on top. Most of them were on poles unceremoniously strewn about the property, and as memory serves they were almost exclusively occupied by phoebes. Year after year.
So I knew a bit about birds. I couldn't help it. I was surrounded by people that would point to something at the feeder and identify it, so I knew the names of certain birds. But I didn't understand how profound Mom's gift was until one day when I was about five or six. We were sitting out on the back deck and Grandpa's in the morning. Something flew over our heads and into a tree. She mentioned in passing what it was, and I was stunned. How could she know that? It passed by so fast!
This was before I knew about tell-tale flight patterns, or distinctive songs (nothing but a jay sounds like a jay, with those loud, raspy cries), or that a flash of red in Oklahoma is almost certainly a cardinal, particularly if there's a pair of them that have been hanging around the feeders all morning. All I knew is my mother had some sort of magical powers of observation. And I wanted those powers.
I went inside for a piece of paper and pencil and asked her to list all of the birds that she saw. I wrote down the name of everything she said, and put a tally mark next to subsequent sightings. Cowbird, phoebe, sparrow, purple martin, blue jay, cardinal, chickadee, scissor-tail flycatcher, house finch... I'd had no idea there could be this many different kinds of birds in a place at once. I have been an avid amateur ornithologist ever since.
I suppose it's the artist's eye that lends one so easily to this sort of thing -- wanting to see something in the blink of an eye. To know what it was, record it in your mind's eye, store it, and recall it as needed. And I do get a quiet thrill when a junco flits by with his white-and-black tail feathers identifying him so neatly. Birdwatching (bird identifying, anyway,) is often a game of knowing these little tricks. You very rarely get a textbook view of something, so you have to know a lot of little things about birds. And at long last I have begun what is, for me, the last frontier in birding. At long last I have got my hands on a copy of Roger Tory Peterson's Birding By Ear, a three disc set designed to teach that notoriously difficult (for me) practice of discerning birdsong.
Don't get me wrong, I can do the basics. I can distinguish a corvid from a robin, know a chick-a-dee-dee-dee when I hear one, and I now know the trilling beeps of a cedar waxwing. I can distinguish a mourning dove from an owl. (Don't laugh, give it some thought. They both have a lowish "ooo" sound and it can be deceiving for a beginner.) And I know the tiny baby-bird sounds of the bushtits and know if I hear distant honking to look up and find the geese.
But I can't distinguish the wrens, or the sparrows -- really all the "songs" of the songbirds are right out. And that's a pity, because a lot of the more glorious ones (particularly the warblers, which are darting back into town even as we speak) are often impossible to spot -- they'll be flitting in the undergrowth or prefer to sit on the very tippy-tops of trees. There's a bird that lives around the Oregon Country Fairgrounds that has a very distinct call, one I have never heard anywhere else (because otherwise I don't tend to hang out around an inland flood plane). As resident "bird nerd" I was called upon by Anthony to identify this bird and I failed to make the grade. For three years that bird has stumped me, because we never SEE this bird. We only hear him, and his distinctive song, for the entire week that we are out there. I hear a lot of birds when I go for walks around my neighborhood. But I only know a fraction of them, the rest is just joyful noise.
And so Birding by Ear has entered my rotation. Within the introduction there are several suggestions as to how one might go about "facilitating learning", which is possibly my most favorite phrase. I do so love to facilitate the learning. I listen to it in bursts, (too much at once and suddenly they all start sounding the same again,) and already it helped me spot a pileated woodpecker a few weekends ago. High hopes for that 'Fair bird. All I have to do is keep listening...
Sunday, April 21, 2013
I've been spending a lot of time in Sellwood lately. There's a great riverfront park down there that is quiet, accessible, and has dual features that appeal to the artist: houseboats and a glorious hillside dotted with trees and houses.
(To say nothing of the people, their dogs, the geese, the barges, the construction at the Sellwood bridge, and the old men illegally fishing from the dock.)
I go down there all the time, but I can never settle down for a long session -- I tend to get antsy and move on too quickly. I'm having a problem generally right now of not being able to stay. There's a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason I think is my stressed out head. There's been a lot of sickness and injury lately, and not a great deal of resolution in every case (my Grandmother is home, stable, but the prognosis still isn't completely clear). Some deadlines that are getting uncomfortably close -- both on the painting side and paperwork side. And of course there are national catastrophes to worry about. (Here's looking at you, Boston.) Just a lot of turbulence. This week was all about getting back on track, and also about finding space to start working again. I just haven't done a lot of good, solid painting lately.
So Thursday I decided to go back to Sellwood, but to walk. The Springwater Corridor starts roughly where the Eastbank Esplanade leaves off, just south of OMSI on the Portland waterfront. From my house to Oaks Bottom Amusement Park is about five miles, which turned out to be about two hours. (Granted that was meandery, stop-to-look-at-wildlife-and-construction-projects walking, not my usual vigorous walking.) And it was the best two hours I'd had in a long time.
Without the ability to leave, I had no choice but to stay. To stay right where I was supposed to be.
And to see.
And of course, to paint.
Monday, April 15, 2013
Our trip to the Oregon zoo yesterday turned out to be a serendipitous one. We walked through the gates just fifteen minutes before Packy, our beloved old elephant, received a "cake" in celebration of his 51st birthday.
His cake was of course actually a pile of alfalfa bedecked with carrots, parsnips, coconut shavings, and various other elephant-appropriate goodies. The crowd was packed so tightly up to the observation points that we didn't get a great view until the initial novelty wore off on people and they began to wander off. But we stuck around so we could get a good view, sang happy birthday with the crowd, and enjoyed a free piece of cake offered by zoo staff.
Friday, April 12, 2013
Been a sort of turbulent time around here. Two very serious hospitalizations back to back. The first was a friend of mine, the other was my grandmother. My friend is here in town, and we were able to visit him and bring him flowers (and fast food and other decadent snacks). My grandmother is far away, so I am unable to visit her and bring her flowers personally, so I got to work and did the next best thing.
Saturday, April 6, 2013
After four months of living in a place without internet of any kind (and really, about 5 years of living without legitimate internet), we have surrendered and paid a national company to send us a router and the magic fairy dust that fills the wifi-indicator with dark lines.
When I first moved here five years ago, the city was experimenting with a city-wide Free Wireless For All type of program, which was wonderful, but was also in 2008 and I suspect it was a victim of budget cuts. It peetered out shortly after I moved in. For a long time after I was able to pirate unsecured connections from neighbors -- being careful never to do any banking or bill pay whilst connected to these. Sorry, neighbors. But it was very helpful. At the time I was broker than I've ever been, no day job and living very small indeed, and it was because of this pirating that I got my housecleaning gig. (And was able to keep it, since our correspondence, scheduling, hour-reporting and so on is done entirely online.)
Then I got a future-phone and learned I could tether it to the laptop to get online. Many things didn't load properly and I had to ignore java or flash relient pages (including my own website), but it meant I could send real emails and update my various web-places without much hinderance. Finish a painting, post it, share it. This was all with an unlimited plan of course, and when I updated my phone that had to be scaled back. A lot. I was back to saving a lot of "computer chores" for later and then nursing a cup of tea or getting a cup of soup at a coffee shop to try and get everything done all at once. This then became my ONLY means of internet-ing, as with the latest system update killed all of my tethering capabilities, and my attempts to figure this out (sans internet) was completely maddening. I gave up, and for about four months we've been just going without.
That was an interesting time honestly, because it reorganized home life and work life completely. In some ways things got way more productive around here, without the internet to distract me. It was very clear what I would need to work on at home.
But of course in many ways it has put other aspects of my work life at a standstill, particularly in the midst of the difficult cyborg words I am trying to figure out. And this phase of my career in general, where maintaining a good web presence and sharing images and filling out forms online to apply for grants all need require an internet connection.
It has made me feel, well, disconnected.
It all came to a head last month, when I crunched the numbers and figured out that I was actually spending more on cafe food and drink per month than I would be for slowish internet with our selected national provider. Silly. Plus all that time wasted getting from here to there. I may as well do all this at home. And thus we are.
I've missed weird things. Being able to comfortably read blogs -- simply not possible on the smaller screens, I completely lose interest. (Which is a PERSONAL issue, not a DESIGN issue, nor a CONTENT issue, please don't try and make things even more digestible, tech-world.)
Blogging is another thing that has gone by the wayside. I have touched base here and there, but when the sanctioned internet-time was needed to be spent on more important things, like paying bills, little text-files inevitably started popping up on my desktop, filled with dated stubs. (Those may in fact be post-dated and posted, and if so a link will be posted on my Facebook page when that happens, like my page to stay abreast.)
So here I am, back aboard the USS INTERNETS. I have a whole lot of catching up to do, but the good news is I will be able to talk about it as it happens.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
I've been listening to a great deal of talks given by Pema Chodron for the past year or so. I was originally directed to these by Keri Smith's blog, wherein she praised Pema's Getting Unstuck as a great way to get used to the idea of "letting go" of your art work -- but also as just a helpful practice in ones everyday life.
And so it has been.
Since then I've borrowed several more talks from the library. Chodron has a gentle modern -- but not TOO modern -- take on these ancient teachings, and because of that (and because I am not approaching this like a Real Practitioner but as a Curious Person) I find I am getting a lot out of them. The bulk of the teachings could boil down to brain-shaping exercises, the next logical step after one learns about neuroplasticity. Your brain is yours, it is in flux and adapts with you. So use that to your own advantage and cultivate good things in your life -- and rule out those things which ultimately do you harm.
The emphases on struggle is another useful tool for the creative, who has to battle, battle, battle to find the good idea, the most creative solution. Recently I watched part of a lecture on creativity given by John Cleese, and he insisted that the struggle is the most important part of the process. Learning to struggle, sitting with that discomfort. Pushing through the resistance. Because your best work is on the other side.
Of course, my slant on all this is unquestionably a result of all this time I'm spending reading peer-reviewed papers on things like ludic space and spime.
One of my topics this week has been "wearable computing" -- something we've touched on before. Oddly, one of the key advantages touted by enthusiasts seems to be the ability to block out things in the world. Offensive things, advertisements, graffiti, (certain kinds of people?), anything that doesn't jive with the user's preferences whilst experiencing reality.
I cannot deny that a filter is a useful thing to have at times. It's why I no longer listen to the news first thing in the morning.
But it's interesting to read this stuff while thinking about these Buddhist things. Here's a list given in answer to the question, how can I awaken from my suffering?
1. Confess your hidden faults
2. Approach what you find repulsive
3. Help those you think you cannot help
(sometimes translated as: Help those you do not want to help)
4. Anything you are attached to: give that
5. Go to the places that scare you
The other night I started listening to Chodron's Awakening Compassion, wherein she spoke of things eerily similar to this "diminished reality" thing.
"If the ego is well-fortified and strong, the suffering is great."
This word "ego" is different in the Buddhist teachings than in the the Freudian ego…in Shambala teachings it's called a "cocoon". It's a word that means "how we protect ourselves". (In fact, how we imprison ourselves)…
If this protection mechanism -- that's always trying to get things to come out on our own terms, always trying to edit out that which will upset or go against what we wish -- if that is well fortified and going well, the suffering actually is great. We do that because we desire happiness, but the end result is that there's a lot of pain…
To make this clear, I'd like to use an image for "ego"…."ego" is like getting a room of your own. That you can have just the way you like it. That is to say: that it's just the right temperature in there. Not too hot and not to cold. And also you can play the music you like in there. You're not like blasted and abused by everyone else's choice of music. In fact you could have no music at all if that's your preference. Or you could have very loud rock 'n roll, or whatever's your taste! That's the music that would happen in that room.
In this room also only the people that are on your wave-length come in. None of those ones that really get on your nerves, and actually don't seem to even understand what you're saying to them. Just people that you really just feel really comfortable with. They can come into this room. And the food? It's the kind you like. In fact, I don't have to go on and on. It's just this great place, for you. It'd be hard to find a roommate who will like it as well as you do! But you like it very, very much.
There's only one problem: you find that as you stay in there, the outside becomes more and more threatening to you. Because maybe you have to go out to your brother's wedding, or to shop. And you find that when you go out there, that music you don't like? It's still out there, and it actually irritates you more than it ever did before. And people that you used to be able to get on with actually bother you, and in fact you feel much more as if you have no skin, everything is much more irritating, much more prickly.
And in fact you find that when you get back in the room you're very frightened because you saw a lot of stuff out there that looks dangerous. And you smelled a lot of smells you didn't like. And you start putting towels under the door so no smells will come in underneath and you find you're actually allergic to the world. And you don't want anything to come in. And the threat of something coming in begins to make you more and more uncomfortable, and you get triple padlocks, quadruple padlocks, keep the shades down. And actually it begins to feel like a prison in there.
This is a good description of "ego"...
When your whole thing is just to get it right for yourself, you become like an invalid.
Or a victim.
Basically you're no longer at home in your world.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Motivation is a funny thing.
I am a stalwart caffeine addict, and I think a lot of my fellow creatives will sympathize. I have been drinking coffee since middle school -- heavily since high school -- and there's very little I enjoy accomplishing it without it. I am actually dialing down the volume a wee bit -- finally feeling the adverse effects on my sleep if I drink coffee in the afternoon -- but it's taken a very long time for the caffeine already in me to subsist to the extent that this is true. I truly never felt jittery or even different with coffee in my system until really just under a year ago. Thus the gentle, somewhat unconscious scaling down as I realize hitting that caffeinated sweet spot of wakefulness-without-jitters takes less than it used to. And that is no bad thing.
It's less in vogue now to be a coffee addict than it was, say, in the late nineties when espresso started becoming readily available. Right now people are apt to extoll the benefits of green tea or kombucha or spinach-kale smoothies. These are all fine and have their place. But I am a coffee person, and as such my first waking moments are often spent mechanically switching on the kettle and getting the coffee grounds scooped into the french press.
Which is why it is all the more interesting to me that I am currently awake -- awake hours before I should be -- this particular morning, when there is no coffee in the house.
We in fact ran out yesterday and I remembered last night, long after any store that would have been able to solve the problem had closed. So it wasn't that rude shock of the hoped-for item not being there. Instead I laid awake for a while thinking, oughtn't I try and get more sleep? There's no coffee waiting for me, and any burst of energy I am feeling now may well diminish -- rapidly -- and I may have to spend the rest of the day in a groggy haze.
But I went to a very enriching workshop yesterday, and met lovely people, and socialized with some of them long after the chairs in the conference room had been stacked and put away. I spent the whole day thinking about books and intent and getting work out in the world, paintings to revisit and modify, ideas for mailers, and absolutely everything an illustrator might want to think about if she weren't spending the whole day making something. I looked at gorgeous pictures that other people had made, learned about some books I need to get from the library, illustrators I need to find online. I crammed my brain full of all these wonderful things, from the very beginning of the day to the very end. So it was no wonder the quiet optimism that fills one at a beginning started to bubble up and gently woke me this morning, long before even I normally get out of bed. And so I got up, because I wanted to stoke this little fire building up under the kettle of my waking mind. Coffee or no.
I wish I could find a source for this, but a friend of mine once mentioned that there is a Hindu (Buddhist?) understanding that the hours of 3am - 5am are the "God's Hours" and that our best energy comes to us at that time. I am certain this is not true for everyone -- there isn't a soul I regularly associate with who claims to be a morning person. But it certainly feels true for me on mornings like this when I pop instantly awake at 3:15, feeling rested despite my raggedy five hours or so of sleep, feeling happy, feeling energized. Impatient to get out of bed and start properly digesting all the exciting things I'm thinking about.
It's mornings like this that reaffirm for me that yes, coffee is just a substance, the energy it fuels probably has to originate from somewhere. Yes, the natural-people blogs I'm reading are probably right, and it's probably good I've been able to cut back, and I really ought to flirt with the idea of going occasionally off the bean -- if only to make, say, future international travel easier. (Wouldn't it be wonderful if the black tea I'm drinking right now would cut it? Wouldn't it be wonderful if just orange juice or water could do it?) That isn't going to stop me from going to a coffeeshop down the road, three hours from now when they open, to get another batch of beans. Rhythms keep us grounded, and as things get more exciting around here I'll need as many grounding elements as I can find. And I love coffee, with a wild artless passion. It's one of the reasons I moved to Portland in the first place, though that isn't the first reason I usually give to people. My blood runs brownish with caffeinated desire. So many of my greatest friendships, memories and views-out-windows have been taken in over a cup of coffee. Any scaling back efforts are going to remain the low-level, back-burner type project they already have been. I have much more interesting projects to look forward too.