Monday, June 15, 2009

Family Reunion Special Guests edition

My family and close friends of my parents (father & step mum) are gathering weekend after next in a 50th wedding anniversary/family reunion event in Ocean Grove that is sure to bring my parents joy, their grandchildren delight, and for those of us in the middle, a memorable mix of roles and reactions.

What I expect: some tension, mosquitoes, and an unexpected heat wave competing with my own daily hot flashes. Pack two swimsuits and plenty of tee shirts. What I also expect are moments where I think how lucky I am to be part of this crazy creative smart snappy snappish warm and unpredictable clan.

What I didn't expect, the dreams I am having for those who would like to attend but are otherwise unable to appear.

Last night I was talking to my daughter Natalie. Which isn't odd since she was here for a visit. This talk however was happening while I was sleeping. As we talked about her upcoming acting apprentice year in Louisville, I noticed someone appear behind her right shoulder, at first in silhouette and then, yes, oh my god, it was my mother! My mother looking good, before the cancer whittled her, a glowing 35, and she had her delighted proud grin. Natalie noticed I was no longer making eye contact.

"What are you looking at Ma?"
"Can't you see her? It's my mother, your grandmother, she's right behind you." And my mother could see us both, had been enjoying our conversation.
Natalie couldn't see her. But I stepped over and gave mom a huge hug. And even in my dream state I could smell the familiar mix of gardening mulch, lightly sweaty skin, and marlboro smoke in the weave of her cambric shirt. I could feel her warm solid body.
I had so much I wanted to say, to ask, but as soon as I started to be aware this was Only a Dream it faded away.

When we all woke up I told Natalie the dream. She said, "I have a dream to tell you, I've had it several times. Just as I doze off I can sometimes enter a meditative state. I come to a place that is a huge grassy plain. There is cloudy light everywhere, it is a feeling of whiteness. I arrive alone. Then off in the distance I see two small figures. I am not afraid. They come closer and closer and then I see they are Grandma Helen and her mother Great Grandma Rose. They smile and tell me how happy they are to see me. I am happy too but also weirded out and want to go and I tell them this. They say it is OK. They are glad to see me, anyway. We hug. Then I leave. I've had this dream during tough times. Once I had it after our building burned down, another time after our babysitter Pat died and she came with the grandmothers and I felt less odd with her because I had really known her in life. I think they are protective spirits."

"Well next time you see them, don't be afraid, give them my love, talk awhile if you can. They both would have been delighted by you, they each did community theater and wrote plays... and at least Grandma Rose got to hold you when you were a newborn..."

At this point Natalie and I are both crying.

I wonder who else didn't get an invitation? No doubt they will let me know.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Great lunch with my friend Jeff

I had lunch today with my former colleague and now friend Jeff Krum. Jeff is one of those guys who is always excited about some aspect of creativity and teaching. He regularly checks out Life hacker and other good places to get ideas on the Internet. If Santa Claus were Jeff, he'd be considerably thinner, but his bag of gifting ideas would be even bigger.

We went to a Mexican place. After I tucked into my delicious almond/mole glazed chicken tortilla, which strangely looked like a sweet French pastry but was utterly subtle and not sweet (and I must bring my brother Anders there when he next comes East, we are both people who are delighted by almost anything almond and chocolate) and I ate enough to return to the world of talking...

Jeff asked me how freelancing was going. I told him I was still in the say yes to everything phase and it was seeming like I should turn down a job or two when they bore signs of inducing strife or insanity, or worse, weeks of utter dullness.

Jeff then asked if I had a sheet of paper. I did. He took my pencil and quickly sketched a nifty diagram that he'd seen by Bud Caddell "how to be happy in business--venn diagram." Here it is:
To take it further, if I get paid only for what I do well, I risk getting bored unless I keep learning what I want to do (passions). This diagram is so useful. I understand it has gone viral across cyberspace. So yes, I will continue in my quest to draw better, design better, write better and make all the things I do play nice with each other...and earn me a living.

Jeff was a teacher before he became an ESL editor and publishing manager. He once told me one of his favorite aspects of working with authors was the phase before the book was even written, when they could take a walk and talk about the concepts, how the ideas could be used, could be expressed... He is clearly an idea junkie.

I think generating ideas and synthesizing concepts must also be one of the intelligences that come in a bell curve. Jeff would be at the far end, where ideas are as plentiful as several bags of jelly beans filling a big bowl. And then there are the people who can entertain only one concept at a time. You know, the ones that tell you the only way to get to heaven and avoid freelancing in hell is through playing simon says with their prophet. These are people whose jelly bean bowl has only one stale bean.

Thank goodness for friends with lively minds!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Teaching what you have known so long you can't teach it.

I come from a proud line of teachers.
And I'm proud of them too.

My father Elof Carlson with his 50,000 former Bio 101 students, 99.2% of them grateful. And I run into them. And they tell me his was one of their very favorite classes at Stony Brook or he inspired them to teach with his dramatic, at times funny, and warm style or his class led to a change of major and the career they now embrace. Certainly he won awards for his teaching. My mother Helen Carlson taught, with wit and ripostes, more in the The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie style, but her favorites were inspired and the students she publicly whipped with sarcasm (for not doing the work or paying attention), I am sure they didn't forget her or the poems she was explicating.

My step-mother Nedra has a masters in teaching. My sister Christina has a teaching masters and taught for many years. My brother John was a teacher. My brother Anders is about to turn to teaching full time. With this background, it is easy to see why I thought I was qualified to teach without any training or experience whatsoever.


I have now discovered a corollary, the more years you have been immersed in a profession and it's tools and jargon, the less able you are to remember what it was like to know nothing and explain it in plain English. I have been trying to describe what I do to Jim. I have been trying to tell clients why things are Done A Certain Way.


Teachers of the world, I salute you.

Last night I attended a terrific well attended free seminar at Noble Desktop. For two hours Daniel Rodney explained how websites can be built more efficiently, using Dreamweaver software and cascading style sheets. But it was way more than a pitch for taking classes in software. He managed to give an overview of how all projects can be better managed when they are better planned. That this method of building sites allows for the minimum fuss and time in making changes. That his approach frees him to try things, allows him to be more creative as well as efficient.

As we talked about it over a Wendy's dinner with our friend Michael, the three of us were inspired. Enjoyed the concepts. Felt excited about the possibility of working in the way Dan showed us. Now that is teaching.

Wish I could send all my clients to Dan's seminars for an overview. Then they'd stop saying, could you just change this or that, I'm sure it won't take long. They'd know which was a lot and which was a little work. But no, I can't send them all to Dan the Man. I have to be the Dan. I am going to remember how he explained things. Clients, I will do my best to use regular words, not webspeak, so we can talk about the jobs I'm doing for you. I will channel my inner Dan.

Monday, June 8, 2009

My four Fridays

Friday 1.
I had a huge freelance project to finish. Illustrating a picture book for a sweet guy who wants to give wife a surprise gift, her story turned into a book. So when the first hour of Friday shows up I'm still printing it out onto special Kolo pages (with borderless printing turned on, edge to edge color thank you very much and thanks to Flash Rosenberg for showing me how to do this Kolo thang) and assembling it all into a presentation binder. 32 pages of last minute hysteria to finish. Hands hurting from so much digital painting. Jim cheering me on in an increasingly fainter voice. I finally wrapped the book at 3 am and fell asleep on Friday morning.

Friday 2.
Woke at 6:30, not refreshed. Waited for employee of the man who wanted me to illustrate the book to drive by and pick it up. SUV pulls up to my building. I walk out with package. Guy in vehicle takes package and hands me an envelope containing my check. Very spy feeling. But he is nice, says the whole office has been enjoying my progress reports (I sent PDFs of work to date), and great that I made the characters look like real people, namely the boss and his family. Not feeling sleepy, yet, I clean up huge cyclone both on dining room table and in my mac. Stagger to bed at some point.

Friday 3.
Woke at some hour in early afternoon. Am feeling it must be Sunday by now. But no, it is actually and really Friday. How can it still be f*gging Friday? I ask my dog. Silly question, for dogs, it is always Saturday. Check email. Client lets me know he is very happy with the book. Now hoping wife will like it. We both hope she will. Just before dinner I lay down for a nap...

Friday 4.
And it is still Friday when I wake up. I stagger with arms out and gaze at hands that are not drawing.

And then, unbelievably, finally, I had only one Saturday and a singular Sunday.
On Saturday I went to the New York Public Library and heard a slide show and talk by William Low about becoming a digital illustrator after starting in oils and other traditional media. One of the many events that the lively, smart, and well-connected children's librarian Elizabeth Bird organizes for people who love children's books. I was familiar with Low's lovely, painterly, approach to illustration. It was great to see how he uses a Wacom digitizing tablet, photo reference, and his many years of training to create original art digitally. He told us that some of his students at FIT fail to transform the source material, they just apply an effect in photoshop and he can still see the copyright watermark on their bits and pieces. A real artist takes sources and reimagines them with the lighting, perspective, gesture, and mood that the illustration demands. Low has a Bronx accent mixed with Chinese. His parents ran a laundry. The drawings he did as a boy are astounding. Meticulously correct super heroes and space ships. At the same age I was still doing blob heads with stick arms and legs.

On Sunday I went to Books of Wonder, one of my favorite bookstores in the world, for a reading from the new fairy tale anthology for kids 8-12, Troll's Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales. Edited, natch, by Datlow and Windling. Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, and Holly Black read teasers from their stories. I bought a copy for my niece and two nephews. Planning, of course, to read it myself before sending it on. I am now more convinced than ever that I want to resume my efforts to write short fiction. There is something just so delightfully unfussy about a good short story. Concision. Brevitas. As Delia said, a 3,500 word story is a lot like writing a poem, every word has to count. They all read well, I just love that, authors reading to me, their own expressions given their signature phrasing. Then it was time to buy the book and get it signed. As I waited, lucky #13, as the line wound past the shelves of expensive "older" editions. It sort of horrified me how many of them I have read (almost all) and actually own (more than half). The man behind me on line, about my age, had the same thought at the same moment. He murmured that he'd recently realized you can't take the books with you. Yes, I replied, my father recently donated his collection of genetics books to the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory library. But who will want my collection of YA, picture books, poetry, and fairy tales? Hmmm.


I finally catch up on email and gossip. As I suspected, Neil Gaiman is dating Amanda Palmer. Despite the fact I've never met him socially and am older and, OK, I'm married, I just sort of had a baseless crush on him...and the horror is that at his book readings or signings I see all these other middle aged women who doubtless have that same wee crush. There must be millions of us. And now we can all take that big sigh. Ooooh ungh. He's with a sexy 33 year old punk rock experimental artist who used to be a living statue and likes to pull her clothing off as often as possible for Arts sake. I went to a Ramones concert in the 80s, I wore fish net stockings in the late 60s, I went skinny dipping--in darkest night--during college in the 70s...but no, not even close. Lets face it, I'm practically the face of October in the Upper Westside Mom calendar. Except I have cool glasses. Take that Amanda Palmer, I have very cool glasses.