The Golden Circlet

All the good things in life


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On Printing Poetry (and Being Supportive)

I’m taking a letterpress chapbook printing class. I’ve wanted to learn printmaking for a long time, for a project I have in mind, and the opportunity came up to learn in this way, so I grabbed it. Everyone in the class is printing a chapbook of poetry, for a practical reason. Setting type into paragraphs isn’t a good beginner letterpress exercise, because one error and you have to redo the entire paragraph. Which, at the rate I set type, might take me 8-12 hours. For one paragraph. So the instructor doesn’t let you set prose. Poetry it is: Make a mistake in typesetting, and you only have to fix one line.

There’s another restriction set by the instructor, too, which is that — given that we are publishing an edition of 20 copies of each chapbook — the poetry set has to be free of problems with copyright. Either you own the copywright, or you have permission, or it’s in the public domain. I’m setting my own poetry, but I’m the only one. The other women in the class — the class is all women, except the instructor, this time — are setting various things.  Some Gerard Manley Hopkins, some Victorian doggerel, some other things I haven’t kept track of. But this was the interesting thing to me: There are eight women in the class. Two are setting their husbands’ poetry, one woman her boyfriend’s poetry, and one woman the poetry of a friend.

Here’s the thing: I’m a feminist. I’m a skillful apprentice writer and poet. I’m a talented behavioral scientist. (Does that sound arrogant to you? Maybe so. I’m also a little bit arrogant.) Not only that, I’m used to being extremely well-supported by the men who care about me. My husband is a stay-at-home parent for our son. He makes nearly all of my meals. He does most of the child care and always has. He does most of the housework. In the most fundamental sense, he supports my career.  In fact, almost all of the men I’ve loved have been feminists, all of the men I’ve ever loved have cared about me and wanted my success in whatever endeavor I put my mind to.  I’m privileged to be able to say I’ve always been very well supported by men.

I’ve been well supported by men (and women) specifically as an artist and scientist. I’ve received lots of encouragement and praise for my writing and scientific work from male teachers and colleagues. I’ve received excellent criticism, extended, time-consuming, focused criticism over multiple drafts  of my writing, from male poets at my online poetry workshop, and detailed reviews of my scientific work from male scholars and editors. All of my mentors, of both genders, have always done their jobs for me and given me tremendous opportunities (although with my sample n = 1 I can say that the female mentors have always been more generous, and occasionally the male mentors have hit on me, which the female mentors never have done). Male editors have published my poetry and my scientific work. Male judges have awarded me prizes. The men who love me have — when I’ve asked — read manuscripts, made copies of grant applications, run things to the post office at midnight to meet a deadline. I’ve had plenty of privileges given to me by my betters and loved ones (of both genders) as an artist and a scientist, and I couldn’t possibly ask for more.

But I really, truly, cannot imagine any man in my life taking it into his head to learn to typeset so that he could set a chapbook of my poetry. If they had that kind of time or energy for art, it would be their own art they would be investing in. (And rightly so!) That kind of support — the kind of support where someone believes in your art or your ideas to such a degree that they take your success on as a personal project of their own — is not support I’ve ever received from anyone, with one exception. When I was a little girl, 9 or 10 years old, my favorite aunt, also a fine poet, submitted my poetry to literary magazines and contests. The accolades she worked for on my behalf were my only publication and prize credits for poetry until I was well into my 30s. It took that long for me to develop that kind of drive for myself.

I’ve  provided this kind of support to a few artists I’ve known and cared about, mostly men, sometimes lovers and sometimes “just” friends, gifted people who captured my imagination and whom I wanted to prod onto a wider stage. Not because anyone asked me or expected me to, but because I loved and admired the artists and/or loved and admired the art. Because I wanted the best for them.  And looking around my letterpress class, half full of women setting their beloveds’ poetry, I know I’m not alone.

Recently I approached a male poet friend about a possible collaboration, and he turned me down in a way that was mysterious to me for a long time. He suggested that I had the talent to do this work for myself, ought to develop the confidence to do it for myself, and therefore didn’t need him as a collaborator. I was mystified because my sense was that confidence had nothing to do with it. (I have my insecurities, but not so much about writing.) I wanted to collaborate because I like to collaborate — I like the energy of two or more people writing and making art together, encouraging each other, challenging each other. I get more done in groups and pairs than I do on my own, because it’s so artistically satisfying to work in collaboration. What did confidence have to do with it?

But then I remembered this brilliant article, that I’ve always assigned students to read when I teach about the psychology of gender. Maccoby’s point is that gender is not mostly learned from parents and families. It’s learned on the playground, from other same-gender kids. What do little boys teach other little boys?

That life is about dominance, about victory, about success, about who wins at King of the Hill. So the men I’ve known have mostly been focused on their own careers, their own ambitions. When they think about others’ careers, it’s mostly to compare and figure out how to get ahead. They might like me, love me, care about me, be in love with me, but they certainly don’t have time to typeset my poetry. No wonder my friend assumed if I wanted to collaborate it must be because I didn’t think my work could stand on its own. Why else make the effort?

But what do little girls teach other little girls on the playground? That life is about love, relationships, braiding hair and telling stories, who likes you, who you can be kind to in return. So I know lots of women that work in groups, or that get personal gratification and enjoyment out of developing and promoting other people’s art. Think of Julia Cameron and her former husband Martin Scorsese. They’re both famous. But he’s “one of the greatest directors of all time.” And she’s “most famous for her book The Artist’s Way,” which was “written to help people with creative artistic recovery.” He makes masterpieces, and she makes masterpiece-makers. 

Scorsese and Cameron weren’t married long, but they were married at a pivotal moment in his career. Would he be “one of the greatest” without her midwifery? Maybe he would. But how many men would be the artists or scientists they are today, without the personal investment of the kind of women who would learn to typeset so they could publish a book of his poetry?


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Dancing!

I love to dance. Dancing is more fun with a crowd, so I’m always trying to convince people to go dancing with me. It’s always kind of a task. Dancing, like singing — this basic, primal, human thing that people have done in all societies since the beginning of time — somehow got turned into this thing that you had to be a certain kind of person to be allowed to do: Young, probably female, definitely beautiful-looking, and with that particular nonchalant, sullen superiority that passes for hip in this broken country. I’m only one out of the four, and most of my friends are also acutely aware of where they fall short on the checklist. It’s a hard sell.

But I’m a great believer in what Morrie Schwartz called “create your own culture,” and I *do* love to dance, so I keep on selling. It’s gotten extra difficult since I moved to the middle of nowhere. Even if I can get willing partners, sometimes there’s nowhere to go. I’ll dance to anything with a beat, honestly, but part of getting people comfortable with dancing is going somewhere they feel comfortable, and the choices  are limited.

Yet, really, what’s not to love? A crowd of people all moving together, arms waving, feet stomping, colored lights flashing, music shaking your veins — if you don’t think about it too hard, you can rise right up off the floor and float until morning.

So I was excited when a friend invited me to a dance party at a quirky local museum. It was in honor of her friend’s birthday, and dancing was the main attraction in a night that also featured meditation, a powerpoint history of social justice, and a potluck. That’s how we do our revolutions in Northern New England in January. We brought the kids and danced to amazing West African music courtesy of Landaya. It was fun to watch the kids — at 10, the boy is on the cusp between heartless adolescent embarrassability and a child’s readiness to get down and boogie. Initially he was all frowns, but he told me later he simply wanted to see “what I was supposed to do.” When he concluded that “dancing is just like airbending” (and somehow telepathically communicated this to his friend), the two of them airbended their way up to the front and center and took it on down to the floor. Talk about rising right off of the ground.

I didn’t airbend — that I know of, anyway — but I did enjoy the music, lights, and being out with friends and family on a Friday night. And I can recommend it: So would you. Create your own culture. Go dancing. And invite me, next time you go.


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The Artist’s Way and What God’s Got

I have mixed feelings about The Artist’s Way.

On the one hand, I know lots of people who have found it instrumental in developing their own creativity and careers. On the other hand, I don’t believe in anything like the spiritual power of positive thinking. I just don’t believe that God provides gifts, help, or aid to people who are on the right spiritual path, at least not on consistent basis. My belief in God is a tenuous thing on the best of days, but as my rabbi said when I asked him about his own personal faith, “The question is not, ‘Do you believe in God?’ Of course I believe in God. But how much God? Clearly, not enough.”

To look around at a world full of believers, full of people trying hard to do the right thing, full of people with rich faith throwing their entire hearts into the enterprise of making this world a better place, and to know that despite all their efforts and all their creativity, the world is in terrible peril, is to know that there is not enough God to go ’round. What else can we conclude? Humans have wrecked the planet using their God-given free will (and therefore deserve what we get)? God wants us to suffer as part of some grand, mysterious plan? We’re just not praying hard enough, or doing the right things, to make God help us? I don’t believe any of that. I know that good people can try hard to do the right thing their entire lives in this unfair, unequal world, and not get any heavenly help to escape their situations. I know that powerful people motivated by greed may very well wreck my home, and yours too, and God may not show up to stop them. Unlike Jesus, I’m not surprised anymore that God has forsaken me.

So when Julia Cameron claims that all I need to do is say what my creative dreams are, begin to act on them, write about them, treat myself with kindness, and pray for divine assistance in my creative work, God will help me, I don’t entirely believe her. I do believe her a little. I believe in God, a little. And the God I believe in, or want to believe in, is indeed a creator. My God has abundance and blessings to share. My God doesn’t want me to suffer, or to struggle. My God wants all good things for me, and will add fuel to my fire — if I build it — the way sparks burst out of a log: inconsistently but explosively. That’s how God works. That’s all God’s got: everything you need, but only some of the time.

That said, my experience of the Artist’s Way is mostly that it is a helpful experience. Talking about, writing about, acting on, and being kind to yourself about your creative dreams is a good thing. I’ve been through the book twice on my own, and right now I’m working through it again in a group. I have some thoughts about why it might be helpful from a scientific, rather than spiritual, perspective, but I’ll save that for another day.


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Thinking About Ike’s Tax

Paul Krugman’s musing on the Twinkie era has me thinking about 1950s politics.

Let’s just get clear that even though I wasn’t alive in 1952, I am confident that I would not have “liked Ike.” I’m a hardcore lefty, my family campaigned that year for Adlai Stevenson,  I’ve read some of Stevenson’s essays, enough to get a sense of both his personality and his politics, and whatever: I’m pretty sure I’d have been an eggheaded Stevenson voter in 1952.

But even Truman hoped Eisenhower would run as a Democrat, so there must have been something to the guy. He was no Ronald Reagan, that’s for sure, that horror show of a president whose half-remembered, handsome movie-star smile seems to have rendered amnestic half the nation to the fact that he wrecked the farms, destroyed the unions, and impoverished the country for the next generation and beyond.

A quick look at the Wikipedia table with the history of U.S. income tax rates adjusted for inflation  makes clear just what legacy Reagan left us. In 1965, before the Reagan era, the top tax bracket (folks making, in 2011 dollars, $1.42 million a year or more) paid a marginal rate of 70%. By 1988, the end of the Reagan era, the top tax bracket included anyone making, in 2011 dollars, $56,000 a year or more, and everyone from there on up paid a marginal tax rate of 28%. And tax rates have stayed ridiculously low and ridiculously regressive ever since.  That giant sucking sound Ross Perot heard had nothing to do with NAFTA — it was the sound of money being sucked away from the public good and into the dragon hoards of billionaires.

But in Eisenhower’s era, taxes on the rich reached their apex, and Krugman points out that CEOs were feeling the pinch. He links to this fascinating article, which gives the impression that most presidents of corporations circa 1955 lived delightfully small, bourgeois existences, paying their taxes, avoiding politics and culture,  skippering their  Chris-Crafts on fishing expeditions and saving carefully for their children’s educations.

I might consider selling my soul if my government would tax David Koch into such a station in life.

However, until an underdemon comes calling with an offer, I felt compelled to make tea towels. A little playing around with my knockoff-Photoshop-for-dummies transformed this wonderful image from a mid-century clothing catalog into a broadside for tax relief, like so:

Using Zazzle, I put this little poster onto tea towels, which — if they turn out — may make it into my Christmas presents this year. (I think you can use the link to get a taxation tea towel for yourself, but I don’t get any kickback from that if you can. I assume this image may still be under copyright. I consider my playful use of it for political activism to be fair use, and if you do too, feel free to use the image widely for your own personal enjoyment as well, but this image isn’t for anyone’s commercial benefit, including my own.)


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Thinking About Lunchbox Trees

I’m plotting how to plant myself a lunchbox tree.

It’s the wrong time of year for gardening of all sorts, including the fantastical type, but even though the seed catalogs haven’t had their turn yet, it’s not too early to dream about a garden.

I know the boxes should be bright white, like these:

At least, the ripe ones should be. But they also need foliage, like any good plant. But the lunchbox tree bears fruit year round, so there should also be small green ones, unripe and empty of lunch. Probably there should also be lovely white paper blossoms, like so:


In my magical greenhouse, I cultivated this green, unripe lunchbox today. Maybe I can graft this one to an apple tree on the rail trail next summer?

Unripe Lunchbox
Here are some other visions I’m using for inspiration. From Giverslog:

The cupcake tree reminds me of General Jinjur’s cream puff bushes, and I would like to grow a cream puff bush, too. Would cream puffs be encased in parchment-papery shells, like ground cherries, do you suppose? Or would they fruit in the middle of winter, straight from long stems like winter roses?

L.Frank Baum’s world is chock full of magical trees and amazing orchards, and all of them are growing vigorously in my imagination. Check out the army of Oogaboo, for example, full of reservist soldiers — all named Jo — whose regular jobs include tending to orchards full of trees that grow apples, clocks, books, buns, ice cream cones, etc. Or Ozma, who gets dangerously transformed into a peach pit made of gold at the center of the only peach in Ugu the Shoemaker’s vast forest of fruit trees. I’d like to get some seeds from Tim Walker, because his dress tree must surely grow in Oz, and belongs in the orchard I am planning.

Then there’s the question of what would be growing inside the lunchboxes. L. Frank’s vision suggested standard box lunch fare — sandwiches, pickles, a slice of cheese. But surely hybridizers would have improved the fruit by now, don’t you think? I’ve always guessed Luxirare must have picked some of her creations from magical trees, like her bento box or her seafood squares or her trompe l’oeil avocados….

And everything from Made From Scratch’s Urban Garden Party seems like exactly something you’d eat in an Oz orchard, but especially these syllabub tulips:


I’m guessing that I may not be able to ape the very best of the hybridizer’s magical art, so the tree I’m growing may bear shrimp spring rolls and pocky. Or bagels and herring and lox. Something along those lines, anyway….