Friday, December 18, 2009

it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

'Tis the season for the frantic... end of semester assignments to grade... final grades to submit... cakes to bake... parties to attend... cookies to bake... parties to attend... cakes and cookies to bake... more parties to attend... oh, and gifts to buy!

I used to enjoy the run-up to Christmas, but it just hasn't felt like Christmas, this year (despite four, yes four separate Christmas events at the kids' kindergarten). Or maybe I should say it didn't feel like Christmas until it started snowing the day before yesterday. I never realized how strongly snow factors into my mental image of the Christmas season, but the moment the flakes started swirling through the sky and sticking(!) to create a white blanket on the ground, I felt like Christmas was actually here (or on its way, at any rate).

Not that this year will feel very much like Christmas come next week: we'll be in Greece, sitting on the beach, in ridiculously warm weather. Coming from cold (four-season) country, that will be difficult for me. But we will be able to relax and enjoy a true vacation with my in-laws. I can't wait!  Less than 24 hours until take-off (not that I'm counting).

But this fits the season, it's my favorite carol (I know, I know, it's a total waste of electricity, but I am a sucker for Christmas lights):

Merrry Christmas to all! With luck I'll be back before the new year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

the power of what if

In thinking about the types of books I most enjoy reading, I realize that many of them are based upon "what if?" What if the stories from an ancient mythology were true? What if local legends were based on reality?

In today's world of science, we think we know everything, and those mythologies, which helped people cope with the mysteries presented by their world, no longer seem relevant. In her book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong (who provided the inspiration for the Charter for Compassion) describes the importance of God (or gods) in helping people cope with the trials and tribulations of life. As science has broadened our understanding of things like weather and natural disasters, our need for mythological stories to help us grapple with the great unknowns that change our fortunes has diminished.

But if we think about the vast number of cultural beliefs regarding mythical creatures (gods or otherwise), we find a fascinating array of ideas that can become the basis for new stories. All we need to do is ask, "What if?"

Stephanie Meyer did this with tremendous success in her Twilight stories (which I am still reading, hence their frequent appearance in my thoughts). What if there really were vampires and werewolves? What if the legends were true? She based the werewolf part of her books on the existing legends of the Quileute tribe. J.K. Rowling did the same in her Harry Potter series by asking, What if there really were witches and wizards, existing right along side us (or at least in some kind of parallel world)? Diana Gabaldon, in her historical Outlander novels, examines what would happen if someone really could go "through the stones" and travel through time.

"What if?" does not need to be limited to mythology. It can apply just as well to current scientific hypotheses. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is based upon the idea of multiple parallel universes, as is The Man Who Turned Into Himself, by David Ambrose. The concept of parallel universes is a difficult one to wrap one's mind around (I certainly have difficulty with it!), but when someone assumes it is a reality and uses it as a basis for their stories, the potential for new and exciting adventures multiplies.

Personally, I have always been fascinated by Native American Indian mythology. So now it's time for me to ask, "what if?" What if the stories and legends were true? What would that mean for someone in the present (or the future), if they were suddenly to discover this alternate reality? I'm not thinking about werewolves, but of other, more widespread beliefs shared by many native peoples.

What other kinds of things are out there, on the fringes, just waiting for someone to ask "what if?"

Friday, December 4, 2009

Catching up

So much for writing every day... or even every other day... I do have a good excuse, however, as I traveled in and out of a day and across an ocean (but not in a boat with Max and his wolf suit) to visit my family for the Thanksgiving holiday. My wonderful husband took the kids for the week, so that I could spend some quality time with the people who are most important in my life (outside of my husband and kids, of course). I must admit, it was a strange experience to discuss something non-child related with other adults... and to finish the conversation without interruption. I had completely forgotten what that can be like! Now I'm back to the world of barely-controlled chaos, and I must say that I'm glad to be home.

Unfortunately, I wrote next to nothing the whole time I was away. I guess I can chalk it up to a true vacation, although I had envisioned walking around in the mountains where my parents live, mind alive with new ideas for my current story. Maybe the fox that haunted the driveway kept the creative spark at bay.

But I have been reading. Voraciously so! Quite unintentionally, I ended up with all four volumes of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series in my carry-on luggage (yes, the books took up almost the whole bag). I began reading the first novel as I waited for my plane in Chicago. I managed to sleep for a couple of hours on the way to Brussels, but found I couldn't put the book down, even while eating my meal (it was a good distraction from the airplane food). I finished it before landing in Berlin. And I've already finished New Moon (that one took three days).

I find myself completely drawn in to the story. I must confess, I'm a sucker for fantasy. My favorites include Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and now the Twilight series (although not truly fantasy, I am also a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series). I love the way the authors create a world (or worlds) that differ from our own, even if only in small ways. Those changes result in unexpected events, rife with conflict, that allow the characters to discover themselves. I find that when I read a novel from one of these authors, my mind begins to create worlds on its own. And I love nothing more than to get lost in those worlds.

Twilight and New Moon have jump-started my creativity, getting me writing again, with a clearer idea of who is in my story, what is happening to them, and why.  Now I just hope that I can portray the events as well as the aforementioned authors do, to create for others the same excitement, anticipation, even fear, that I see in my head. And for that, I'd better get back to writing... before I get sucked into Eclipse.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Creativity Challenge 1: crab, pirate, candle

Here it is, the results of the first Creativity Challenge. Still too long, but if I don't post it now, I never will. I look forward to any constructive criticism you might have!

Something was crawling on him. In the darkness, he lay still, not knowing what it was.  The creature paused, seeming to sense his alarm, then continued its march across his stomach toward his right hand. He heard a soft sound, like the crinkling of paper. He frantically tried to think what could be causing the noise but came up blank.

A few moments passed as he tried to remember where he was.  Suddenly he felt a tug as the creature pulled something from his grasp, and it came to him: the map!

He had been on the island for three weeks, searching for this map, so that the captain of the ship might take him to port in Barbados. He didn't want to be a pirate anymore. It wasn't nearly as fun as it had seemed in the stories. All he wanted was to see home again, and this map was the key. He had found it hidden in an aloe plant, shielded by the broad leaves.

Now he was waiting for the ship to return to check on him, which should be a day or two from now. He wanted to know for certain, but clouds had moved in, shielding him from the light of the stars and moon, and he could not tell how many days it was until the full moon. That also explained the unfathomable darkness...

A tearing sound yanked him from his thoughts. The map was no longer in his hand, and he was sure it was the source of the sound. If anything happened to it, not only would he not get back to Barbados, he wouldn't live to see the next new moon.

His heart beat fast as he fought back panic. He forced himself to focus on the sound, to locate it. The creature had taken the map and moved away through the sand to his right. He sat upright to better localize the soft scurrying sounds that drifted to him. A pause, then another tearing sound.

Cursing, he shifted to his hands and knees, prepared to crawl after the thief. As he inched forward in the darkness, he put his hand on something that felt suspiciously like the corner of the map. The little devil was tearing it apart! He stuffed the piece into a pocket and began crawling faster.

The shuffling noises were getting harder to follow, drowned out by the incoming tide. What he wouldn't give for some light!  Crawling still faster, now parallel with the lapping waves, he yelped as his hand hit something hard and sharp poking out of the sand. What was this? He cradled his injured right hand and felt the object with his left. It felt like a box of some sort. Perhaps washed up from the ship that had wrecked out on the reef a few months back? He and the others on his ship had plundered what was left of it. This felt similar to the boxes they had discovered then.

He dug at the sand with his left hand but made slow headway. Wincing with pain, he put the injured hand to work, as well, and had the upper half of the box uncovered within a few moments. He felt blindly for the lock and found it, to his great relief, to be broken.

As he opened the lid, he realized that he had no idea where the creature or map had gone, or whether the map was in one piece or twenty. He felt frantically through the contents of the box, searching for something that might be of use to him. His fingers brushed past soft pieces of cloth that seemed to hold something fragile within. Beneath it, he felt something long and narrow, then another. He grabbed them, trying to determine whether they really were candles, or whether his overstressed mind was deceiving him. But no, it was true!

Now he just needed to light them. Surely there was something in here that would help? He dug around but found nothing. Discouraged, he glanced toward the sound of the sea. Where had his map gotten to?

As the reality of his predicament hit him in full, he sobbed, certain he wold never see his family again. Tears streamed down his cheeks, as he though of the last time he had seen his mother. He wondered whether the pirates would leave him on the island to fend for himself, or whether they would kill him outright.

He dimly recognized that the tears had blurred his vision, and gave a start when he realized he had vision! The clouds had broken and moonlight streamed through, lending the beach an eerie silver glow.

He frantically scanned the beach for any sign of the map or the creature that had stolen it. In the distance, he spotted a rock, dark against the pale sand. He stared at it for a moment, unsure where to focus his gaze, when the rock suddenly moved, trailing an object that must be his map!

He stood and ran toward the spot, keeping his gaze on it in case the light disappeared again. But the light held until he reached his nemesis, which he recognized as nothing more than a crab. Plucking the creature from the sand, he pulled out a knife, inserted the blade into the claw and twisted, forcing the crab to release its hold on his treasure.

He dropped the crab, clutched the map, and went in search of a safer place to sleep until he could get off of the island.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Writing, at last!

Well, it worked! The Creativity Challenge got me writing, again, yippee!  I wrote my short story based on the first challenge words, but it is currently almost 1200 words long, a bit much to post here.  I will try to cut it down. Hmm, perhaps we need a word limit? Is 500 words too few?  I'll have to think about it. My sister sent me a wonderful story of her own—thanks for doing this with me!!  Anyone else want to join in? Post your stories in the comments below (if they fit). 

Not only did I start writing for the CC story, I also sat down and put about three pages of background information on paper (electronically speaking). This was for an idea that has been floating around in my head for a while, now. There is a 15-year-old boy who has been sitting in the back of my brain, waiting for me to notice him. He is very reclusive; he is not interested in opening up about himself. All I know is that he is French-Canadian and he's running from something. I have no idea what. But I do know where he's going, and I've even managed to sketch a topographic map of it (once the creative juices start flowing, they go in all kinds of crazy directions).  It's been fun and I look forward to seeing just where this person takes me.

I nearly lost all of that hard work, however, when my file corrupted, just a day after I created it. NOOOOO! I thought it was all gone (when I had trouble saving, I really should have printed it out, just to be safe). But last night, I managed to find a backup. (Note to anyone using Open Office: use the "always create backups" setting, in case this happens to you, and many thanks to Digital Bits Technology Column for telling me how to find those backups when I needed them.)  I have since made additional backups and will do so after every writing session. Happy writing, everyone!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Creativity Challenge

I started this blog in the hopes that blogging every day would structure my "real" writing efforts, but it hasn't been working. Time to restructure and to issue myself (and anyone else interested) a creativity challenge.

Just what does that entail, you ask? This challenge is modeled on one of my favorite assignments from a drawing class I took in high school. We were told to find three separate, unrelated items and incorporate them all into one drawing. In that instance, one of the three had to be ourselves (it was a self-portrait assignment), but for the Creativity Challenge, there is no such restriction.

To meet the Creativity Challenge, I (and anyone who wants to join me... please join me in this!) must write a short story based on three randomly selected words. I will post the words for each challenge and, a day or two later, will also post my resulting story. I would love to see what others come up with for the same words. And I'm open to comments (and constructive criticism) on my own stories. 

With the rules in place, let's begin our first challenge with: crab, pirate, candle (don't ask where I get the words, it all comes from conversations or things I see at challenge time).  Let's get creative!

Now What?

My students have been looking at web sites to determine whether they are hosted by reputable sources, and whether the information they provide is sufficiently accurate to be of use in their final projects.  I had them evaluate a number of web sites, including this one:

Most of my students came to the same conclusion: dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) sounds terrifying! Why on earth hasn't anyone banned such a terrible substance from anything?  And it is used in everything! Students have the same reaction every semester. Given the other environmental problems in the world, this one seems to put them over their limit in terms of being able to cope. They express despair, hopelessness, repeat the refrain, "what can we do?"

But do they need to worry?  It helps to have some working knowledge of word etymology: di = 2, hydrogen = (well, hydrogen),  mono = 1, oxide = oxygen. So DHMO contains two hydrogens and one oxygen, which would make the chemical formula OH2, no, wait, H2O. Hmm... don't we know that formula? Isn't it water?  Ah, yes, and if we go to the main page, we find this disclaimer at the bottom: Note: content veracity not implied. Well, if you can't imply that your content is true, what are you doing on the web? 

This particular example is a hoax and was set up in part to demonstrate just how gullible people are, particularly when something is sensationally presented. It is so very easy to find erroneous, deliberately (or accidentally) misleading information on the web. So how do you know something can be trusted? Consumer Reports has WebWatch guidelines to promote credibility.

As for me, I will do my best to always cite my sources and to link only to sites that provide credible information (or that help to make a point, as above). I will strive to "blog with integrity". 

Monday, November 16, 2009

Journey to the North Pole

We started a new game with our children. Each day we ask them, "If we could go anywhere in the world today, where would we go?"  Then we think about what it might be like there.

The first day we tried this, we headed to the North Pole. What is the North Pole like in November? It is well into its six months of winter (I looked into this, the sun really does set for six months at a time), but can you just imagine what the stars and northern lights must be like?  I thought about it for a while and came up with this:
With six months of winter,
it's dark and it's cold
a vast sea of ice
lit with flashes of gold.

A quick change to red,
then some green filters through,
and all 'cross the sky
shimmer long wisps of blue.

Behind the aurura
shine pinpoints of light,
celestial calm
on a long winter night.

I would love to see it, despite the cold. It must be an incredible, awe-inspiring sight.

I have always loved the night sky, with constellations and the Milky Way. I have seen the latter only a few times in my life, when I have been high in the Rocky Mountains. There is nothing to make you feel small (and, more importantly, to make your problems seem insignificant) like looking up into a vast night sky, speckled with stars by the millions. And to see our own galaxy as a ghostly streak across the sky puts things into perspective: we live upon one planet among a nearly limitless number of others.

I find it sad that light pollution has prevented the vast majority of people from witnessing this extraordinary sight. I am considering joining the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), which defines light pollution as: Any adverse effect of artificial light including sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter, decreased visibility at night, and energy waste.

I want my children to see how the sky should appear. There is a fascinating article in the November 2008 National Geographic: "Our Vanishing Night." In this article, Verlyn Klinkenborg describes just why we need darkness. And photographer Jim Richardson's photos clearly illustrate the heart of the problem.  I would love to see the night sky it all its glory, and just as importantly, I want my children to experience it, too.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


So why did I start this blog, anyway? After many years as a scientist and professor of science courses, I discovered that I have lost my creative edge (anyone surprised by that?). I am terrific at reciting things I have memorized (and good at memorizing them), but I have a difficult time coming up with new ideas. In contrast, my children come up with wonderful, fantastical stories on a regular basis. I used to do that! Where does that imagination go?

I read an article, well, more of an interview, really, in Scientific American Mind about creativity ("Let Your Creativity Soar", June/July 2008), and the interviewees had some interesting things to say. Consider this statement by Robert Epstein (researcher on creativity):

"When children are very young, they all express creativity, but by the end of the first grade, very few do so. This is because of socialization. They learn in school to stay on task and to stop daydreaming and asking silly questions. As a result, the expression of new ideas is largely shut down. We end up leaving creative expression to the misfits—the people who can't be socialized. It's a tragedy."

I used to be creative. It lasted through high school, even (and I don't think I qualified as a "misfit", I socialized reasonably well). I used to play the piano, draw, paint, dance, and write.... Until I went to college and had to declare a major. Yikes!  I narrowed it down to my two favorite subjects, English and Biology.

I chose biology. Why? Rather ironic reasons, it turns out: I decided that with an English degree, my only career option would be teaching, and I'd have to write all of the time. Instead, I got a biology degree, went on to graduate school (wrote all of the time), discovered that I love teaching and left the research bit behind to work at a teaching college. As for that writing bit, I found it to be less enjoyable doing the (substantial amount of) writing for science papers than writing just for fun.

But how do I get the inspiration for creative writing (or painting/piano playing/dancing) again? Once you've lost it, how do you get it back? The people interviewed in the aforementioned article noted that people must work at creativity:

"I think if we want everyone to have a way to be more creative, we have to convey the message that they have to work at it; creativity isn't necessarily going to come naturally." (John Houtz, psychologist and professor)

Robert Epstein and Julia Cameron (poet, playwright and filmmaker) agree that people need to take several steps to bring out their creative side: capture ideas (by writing or recording them, as soon as you have them!), by challenging yourself with new problems to solve, broadening your exposure to thoughts and ideas and surrounding yourself with interesting people and places (Julia Cameron suggests taking a weekly "outing" to expose yourself to new things).

This blog helps me in several ways, first by broadening and challenging (I am a very private person, by nature), second by forcing me to write (capturing my ideas). I hope that daily writing (blogging) sessions will carry over into my attempts at writing stories for my children, so that I can be more productive at that, as well.

As for how to help my children retain their creativity? I bought a tape recorder. Every time a story begins (which can take place anywhere, at any time), I turn it on to capture the wonderful imaginings of my children. They love to hear themselves telling the stories, and we illustrate the stories and make books out of them. I hope this small act will help to feed their imaginations as they continue to grow and develop, making them better problem-solvers and more creative people as they age.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Charter for Compassion

I seem to have a theme for the week... yesterday the Charter for Compassion was launched in Washington D.C. It is the culmination of an effort by Karen Armstrong, winner of the 2008 TED prize. Her wish when she won: for help creating, launching, and propagating a Charter for Compassion.

This respected religious scholar had found, though her own loss of faith, the thread that ties together all of the ethical, spiritual, and religious traditions: compassion. The Charter for Compassion attempts to bring together people from all cultures to rediscover our common humanity. Please read the Charter for Compassion, and affirm it by clicking on "Affirm the Charter" below the video and entering your name and email address.

The Charter is based on the Golden Rule: Do not do unto others, as you would not have them do unto you. Or as Confucius said, "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." I cannot see anything more important in a world where people twist religious doctrine to suit their political purposes (I speak broadly, this happens everywhere), where people walk past those in need, and where competition runs amok, benefiting the few while leaving many in the dust.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Festival of Freedom

On Monday, Berlin celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with their Fest der Freiheit (Festival of Freedom/Liberty). It was quite a spectacle, with 1000 2.5 meter-tall dominoes (painted by members of various organizations) lined up from the Spree River to Potsdamer Platz. They recreated the fall of the wall by toppling the dominoes.

We missed the actual event but saw the dominoes set up before-hand. An extraordinarily impressive array of designs illustrating what the fall of the wall meant to a variety of people (including our little artist!). This video shows the view from Potsdamer Platz as the dominoes fell, with marvelous percussion by Stamping Feet.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

St. Martin's Day

Today is St. Martin's Day, when we celebrate the kindness of St. Martin, a soldier who came upon a beggar in a snowstorm. Martin cut his cloak in half to prevent the man from freezing.

It's a lovely thing to celebrate: kindness. There's simply not enough of it in this world. We have plenty of days to honor the outcome of violence, to celebrate victory, to honor those who died, but too few of our celebrations focus on the truly positive. The beauty of celebrating kindness is that it reminds us of the power we hold, simply by listening to and helping one another.

In Germany, St. Martin's Day is celebrated in a beautiful way, with lantern festivals to light the long night. Darkness comes early this time of year (already!). For the past few weeks, children have been making lanterns, which they illuminate and carry during a lantern festival. Throughout the neighborhoods are lantern parades, songs, and often a bonfire.

We attended a Laternenfest last night with our children. This year, it came on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has been an extraordinary week, filled with excitement and festivities. Now we need to carry some of that optimism over to our daily lives, to help us remember what really matters.