Archive for the ‘cultural influences’ Category


A•Musings from The House of Stuff

May 14, 2010

It’s good to be a seeker, but sooner or later you have to be a finder. And then it is well to give what you have found, a gift into the world of whoever will accept it.
• Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Richard Bach)

Orville Wright wrote numbers on the eggs his hens laid so he could eat them in order. I read this somewhere and wrote it down. I collect such bits of strangeness. I collect lots of things, but those that fascinate me the most on my sliding scale of attraction are oddities, those small reminders of the idiosyncrastic sea I swim in daily.

You can never have too many books.

To discover what normal means, you have to surf a tide of weirdness.
• Charlotte Rampling

Rampling is right. There are waves of weirdness to be surfed, but many people do not see them. They float contentedly in their boats of normalcy and do not know that the depths hide unimagined delights. Or they see those things and find them ugly. Ignore them. Despise them. I understand this. I have my own contemptuous moments, although there aren’t very many of them. I actually like accordion music and am entranced by many things that repel those of you with good taste.

I've been good. Can I go out and play?

Junk is the ideal product. . .the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.
• William S. Burroughs

As much as I love awful stuff—quite possibly the junk of which Burroughs speaks—I do not purchase most of it. Take Shoedini, for example. As delightful as it would be to have a shoehorn with a handle long enough to prevent the backbreaking work of putting on my loafers and saddle oxfords and get a free shoe polisher that never needs polish to boot, I do not bite. Not even when offered a second one absolutely free (just pay shipping and handling).

As I said, you can never have too many books.

Come good times or bad, there is always a market for things nobody needs.
•Kin Hubbard

So true. This is actually a much deeper statement than it might appear to be. Think about it. How much of what you purchase represents things you actually need? How much represents choices that could be filled by other cheaper and less tasty items, for example. Food for thought. (Second pun alert. Just FYI.)

So that’s the question today: What’s your list of absolute necessities?

A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.
• Gene Wilder as Willie Wonka


A Job Well Done Is Its Own Reward, but I Like Money Too

May 10, 2010

Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.
• Horace

All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.
• Aristotle

Never continue in a job you don’t enjoy. If you’re happy in what you’re doing, you’ll like yourself, you’ll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined.
• Johnny Carson

I just tried to make a list of all the jobs I’ve done for pay in my lifetime. I’m doing this because yesterday was Mother’s Day, a celebration of the unpaid work of millions, and because I’m reading Gabriel Thompson’s (2010) book, Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won’t Do. Thompson reports from the front lines of picking lettuce, working in a poultry slaughterhouse, and tempting death as a Manhattan bicycle delivery boy.

Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2001) minimum wage adventures in Nickel and Dimed, Thompson isn’t attempting to live on his earnings; he’s just trying to survive the work.

I’ve been a babysitter, a seamstress times two: designing and making clothing for other people and sewing pockets on pants in a huge warehouse with dozens of other women. I’ve been a short order cook and I’ve made chocolate- butterscotch- and strawberry-dipped soft serve ice cream cones. I’ve sold fabric and radio advertising. I’ve been a graphic designer and worked a cash register.

I’ve written newspaper columns and feature articles and radio advertising copy. I’ve created character voices for radio commercials. I’ve painted houses and cleaned them. I’ve picked strawberries. I’ve taught high school English and radio and lots of college courses. I once got paid fifty cents apiece for calligraphied names and titles on certificates.

Until I went back to school to become a teacher, my jobs were sometimes interesting yet mostly paid minimum wage (the piecework of pocket sewing paid extremely well if you were fast, ditto painting houses). Ehrenreich’s essential question, from the introduction to her book is this: “How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?” (p. 1) Sometimes low wages go to the skilled as well. There are many jobs that do not pay well and I have worked a number of them. Interesting work is purported to be its own reward, but I have never found this to be entirely true.

In the foreword to Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Studs Terkel’s (1974) interviews with people about their jobs. Terkel’s quest to understand people and their work is described: “Mr. Terkel found work was a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, ‘for daily meaning as well as daily bread.’”

I want both. Meaning and bread. I imagine most people do, yet the disparity among wages is particularly dramatic in this country. I don’t have an answer for this problem. The outrageous salaries of sports figures are justified by those who support them because the players’ career lifetime is short, but the ability to do backbreaking minimum wage jobs is also time-limited. Teaching is not poorly paid compared to many jobs, yet it’s considered overpaid by some very vocal commentators.

Read Johnson’s book and you’ll realize that even a task like lettuce-cutting is artful work, requiring practice and skill. Regardless of the job someone is doing, s/he deserves a wage that will provide what the striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, wanted in 1912. “We Want Bread and Roses Too,” the mill girls’ signs proclaimed.

What are you looking for in a job? If you had to choose between an extremely generous salary and boring work or a barely adequate salary and satisfying work, which would you choose?

It does not seem to be true that work necessarily needs to be unpleasant. It may always have to be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing at all. But there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed, it is often the most enjoyable part of life.
• Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990),
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


:) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) Smiley Faces Banned at Meeting

April 29, 2010

It’s so easy for a kid to join a gang, to do drugs. We should make it that easy to be involved in football and academics.
• Snoop Dogg

It’s true. I was once asked to remove my watch at a meeting of teachers—after school—in a high school library. The face of the watch was a smiley face, a gang symbol, I was told. No students were around. I was not an employee of the school district. I was an invited guest at the meeting. I reluctantly removed my watch (at least they didn’t confiscate it), and here’s what I wondered as I also thought about how often schools push students out with arbitrary and sometimes senseless rules: Why don’t gangs adopt the clothing of mainstream upright uptight folks. What would we do then?

Suits and ties would be verboten for principals and other male administrators and teachers. Ladywear would be restricted for their female counterparts. No suits or dresses or pencil skirts. Sansabelt slacks would be forbidden for teachers and visitors alike. Muumuus and other loose and comfortable dresses, polyester slacks with lots of stretch, and dozens of other choices meant to provide room for visiting the all-you-can-eat buffet after school without pain would suddenly be off limits.

No more sweatshirts and t-shirts and track pants with school logos. No one could wear those probably very comfortable yet truly ugly shoes that promise good arch support and practicality right down to their soles. Every comfortable and traditionally uncomfortable piece of clothing would be co-opted. Parent conferences would be a nightmare as clothing police personned the doors, banning unsuspecting folks who’d come to school in inappropriate attire.

And then there would be the gang that festoons itself with holiday-themed clothing. Elementary school teachers everywhere would awaken each morning with nothing to wear. Instead gang members would glitter with rhinestoned snowmen and show off their sequined valentines and bunnies and firecrackers. Crocheted pumpkins and cornstalks, bats and belfrys, holiday trees and menorahs brightly adorning vests on male and female alike would be off limits for staff and proudly worn by youth. You’d be able to see them coming for miles on a sunny day in their sparkly and colorful garb. (Hmmm—delightful as this is to imagine, it’s improbable that such visibility would be appealing to any gang.)

And colors? No more navy blue or maroon or forest green. Forget about plaid jumpers and striped ties. White button-down shirts? Polo shirts? Nope. All gone. As fast as a school could come up with a list of the forbidden, the gangs would move on, adopting the allowable in an ongoing dance of futility.

It’s not that gangs aren’t a serious issue in schools. They are, and not just the organized and sometimes violent gangs that plague larger—and even some small—cities. Everywhere that outsiders are created by groups of “others” is fraught for opportunities for bullying and violence, mental and physical. Technology has made bullying even more prevalent. But it’s not a problem to be solved by banning smiley faces :).

What can schools at all levels do to support inclusiveness? What can you do?

I had friends at school, but I was never part of a gang and I dreamed of that sense of belonging to a group.
• Emily Mortimer, British actor

Every city in the world always has a gang, a street gang, or the so-called outcasts.
• Jimi Hendrix


From Carol Sue Floyd to Cookie Crumbles to Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn: Choosing a Name You Love

April 14, 2010

To name oneself is the first act of both the poet and the revolutionary. When we take away the right to an individual name, we symbolically take away the right to be an individual.
• Erica Jong (1977)
, How to Save Your Own Life

In The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935) Gilman said, “It would have saved trouble had I remained Perkins from the first; this changing of women’s names is a nuisance we are now happily outgrowing.” For some people this is true, the hyphenating or keeping of “maiden” names is certainly much more prevalent than when I first married many years ago.

Even when I married, I did not feel that I brought to the union a name that was my own. I’d been through many names: the last name of a father no longer married to my mother, the last name of my grandparents who registered me for school using their name, the last name of a step-father. Names matter and I’d long felt disconnected from mine, comfortable only with the family nickname Cookie, nothing I’d want friends or classmates to call me. (Note: I did once write a few poems calling myself “Cookie Crumbles,” but that was long ago and I was very young.)

Some years ago I invented my own poet’s name, Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn, choosing to hyphenate my grandmother’s and mother’s maiden names as a symbolic representation of the loss of identity that dogs women as they move through life with multiple names as though it didn’t matter what they are called. It matters. When I made Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn my legal name about eight years ago, I felt at home with it.

Zinn is not my “real” last name. It does not represent any part of my heritage, making for awkward conversations with people who want to know about my German ancestors. Adopting Wilkins and O’Riley makes my cultural heritage part of my name, connecting me with Ireland and England and with the immigrants who made their way to this country. Why adopt Zinn? Why not? Aside from the fact that it’s a delightful last name, I have no connection with the Irish last name Floyd, even though it’s on my birth certificate.

I also choose Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn because the initials, W-OZ, represent my very favorite books, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. My Aunt Mildred had the entire set and the character I identify with most is Scraps, the Patchwork Girl. Meant to be a servant, but overloaded with brains, she’s irreverent and outspoken. The initials also remind me of the Wizard, a humbug behind a curtain. I never want to become a pontificating humbug, a potential danger for teachers and college professors. I also like to be reminded that what teachers often do is put people in touch with qualities they had within themselves all along and just didn’t recognize: brains, a heart, courage, and the like.

Even if you love the name you were born with, consider adopting a poet’s or artist’s or writer’s or athlete’s or actor’s or other name that represents your creative aspirations. Create the persona that goes with that name. Become the person who can do what you dream of doing.

If you had to choose a different name for yourself related to some creative aspect of your life, what would it be, and why?

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his [or her] skin. The talent of a writer is his [or her] ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him [or her].
• Mel Brooks


Books Can Be Dangerous. The Best Ones Should Be Labeled “This Could Change Your Life.” *

April 11, 2010

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
• Oscar Wilde

The things that influence a person’s reading choices are another of life’s many chicken/egg questions. What comes first? Do we seek out books—or websites or magazines or other reading materials—because of what and who we are, looking for affirmation, or do the things we read influence who we become? Is there power in any kind of reading to truly change who a person is? No simple answers here.

I cannot imagine that anyone who writes for public consumption does not harbor some small hope that her or his words will make a difference for someone. Of course, writers intend to resonate with others of like mind, but there must also be some small secret dream that words can change minds.

I have long been a fan of Martin E.P. Seligman’s work. Seligman is the author of Learned Optimism (1990), a book that influenced my work with students in a dropout prevention program. His work in positive psychology also affirms my research into fun in learning. Focusing on the positive through discovery of students’ strengths and virtues and passions rather than targeting solely what they cannot do well is at the heart of my explorations into building students’ skills of interest and activating their desire to learn.

If students only learn to do adequately that which does not appeal to them, if they spend day after day doing things that they don’t enjoy or do well, if no opportunity is provided to become immersed in things that interest them, it’s not surprising that many students do not like school and that they view their experiences with teachers as largely adversarial. Teachers become people who keep smaller or younger or less experienced people from doing what they love, drowning them in a sea of “not fun.”

In 2001, my mother, a talented musician who started playing the piano by ear before she began kindergarten and a poet whose work has comforted hundreds of people, told me, “I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.” In 1988, three days before he died, my youngest brother, Greg, told me that he didn’t understand why I was hoping to become a teacher “because no one ever has any fun in school.”

I have a stack of books in my bedroom, overflow from multiple bookshelves in the room. The stack includes books I revisit and reread regularly because they remind me of important truths. Seligman’s (2002) book, Authentic Happiness, is in this pile. I remember it, oddly enough, when I am quasi-watching an episode of The Real Housewives of New York City (yes, I know this is trash, but I’m not really watching—just listening for breast quotations while I do other things).

It’s not just boobwords that tickle my antenna. I’m working on an exhibit I call The TechNObots about the human costs of technology, and when I hear Jill, one of the housewives, playing a months-old voicemail message for another housewife and a psychic, saying that she keeps it and listens to it to remind her to stay strong in her fight with the person who left the message, I hunt out Seligman’s book. Jill is wallowing in hurt feelings and determination not to forgive and her choice is not making her happy.

In Authentic Happiness, forgiveness and mercy is a category in the “signature strengths” the book helps people identify. I make myself a note to add to my TechNObot Collectory: technology makes it much easier to capture and cling to hasty or intemperate words spoken in anger and frustration. I also note a benefit of technology. If you’re looking for real life examples of psychological theory, reality television is a bonanza.

You need not buy a book to find lots of information about Seligman and his work, just Googling® his name will work. I recommend doing so if you are hoping to activate your inner relentless optimist.

Finding happiness in school takes work. You have to be determined to focus on your strengths and passions at the same time you’re working on things that interest you less or are more difficult for you to master. What are your strategies for building on your strengths and engaging your passions? What kind(s) of reading could help?

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little farther down our particular path that we have yet got ourselves.
• E.M. Forster (1951)
, Two Cheers for Democracy

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible.
• E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel,
Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

* Thanks to Helen Exley for the title quotation.


Collecting and Connecting in The House of Stuff or Did Ewoks Wear Ice Skates?

April 9, 2010

Every man’s [and woman’s] work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself [or herself].
• Samuel Butler

I am a collector and connector, and whether you visit my writing or my office or my closet or my home, you’ll see what I mean. I take this and I put it with that. I rearrange the pieces of my life kaleidoscopically, finding joy in combining old things with new to create the unexpected.

Here are three pictures from one incarnation of The House of Stuff:

Saddam, c. early 1990s, in The Amuseum of Un-Natural History

I don't remember Ewoks in ice skates, do you?

The Beatles' "Flip Your Wig" game and so much more!

I swim in a sea of stuff. I always have. I understand the simplification movement intellectually, but I’m not embracing it!

Whether you live in a house or a dorm room, there’s likely something to be learned about you from your space. What does your living space say about you and your interests?

Pictures help you to form the mental mold.
• Robert Collier


Saddam, The Beatles, and Ewok Ice Skates Are Coming, but Sometimes Pictures Are Not Enough

April 8, 2010

The greatest and most important problems in life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.
• Carl Jung

Much of my work as an artist and writer focuses on the blending of verbal-visual genres. I cannot say what I want to say using only one medium. I’d fully intended to insert pictures today, but then I found something that reminded me of the importance of other kinds of ephemera to evoke a particular time or place.

I’m working on an exhibit, “Flaming Youth,” that focuses on teenagers and societal views of adolescence across time. As I begin each Collectory project, I start with a file folder into which I put quotations as well as pertinent images. “Flaming Youth” long ago became a bookshelf full of related materials since I’ve been working on gathering things for almost two decades. I have books and videos and majorette boots and old yearbooks and a letter sweater and lots and lots of stuff that I’ll use as part of the exhibit.

Mostly stuff just accrues until I begin working actively on a particular show. Sometimes things fit into more than one category. The essay I’m including today was filed with another exhibit, “The Arts of Peace,” and I found it serendipitously while searching for something else. Life is full of such accidents.

I wrote this essay in English at the start of my junior year of high school many years ago. Note that I have used “he,” the universal convention at the time, even though I am a young woman writing about my life. I have also used “one” rather than the more personal first person—the only teacher markings on my paper remind me of these conventions when I accidentally lapse into I-ish-ness while expressing my thoughts. Even as a teenager, I loved semi-colons:

I’m Glad I’m a Teenager [I suspect from my response that this was an assigned topic. And shouldn’t the assignment have been “One Is Glad He Is a Teenager?”]

I’m glad that I’m a teenager? Why should I be? The teen years are not the carefree years they’re supposed to be. The teenager is not “happy-go-lucky.” He can’t be. Why. . . . .because, for one thing, the teen years are in-between years. One finds, if he is a teenager, that there are many things he is to old to do; yet, on the other hand there are things he is not old enough to do. If this is not enough to frustrate the teenager, he finds that he must grow up in a world his parents made.

The teenager of today has never known anything but war or threats of war; he has grown up with fear of Communism embedded in his mind. No wonder our teen years cannot be our happiest years when we don’t even know if we will live to see the end of them. This is not our fault.

The world isn’t in the state it’s in because of teenagers. Yet the teenagers of today will be the adults of tomorrow; we will have to try to straighten out the mess made by our parents. This is enough to worry us, but still people try to insist that teenagers don’t care. One begins to think, from reading the newspapers, that all teenagers do is get into trouble.

Our main problem is the fact that teenagers are old enough to worry about the world situation, but not old enough to do anything about it.

I am still trying to figure out the world and my place in it. I am still wondering how to make a difference. I still feel that most of the things that happen in the world are beyond my control. Sometimes I feel as though life is perpetual adolescence with increased responsibility and accountability and a heightened awareness of the consequences—intended and unintended—that accompany every choice. But perhaps that’s maturity.

Do you prefer to communicate using words or images or a blending of both?

Adolescents are not monsters. They are just people trying to learn how to make it among the adults in the world, who are probably not so sure themselves.
• Virginia Satir (1988),
The New Peoplemaking