Thursday, August 30, 2012

On My Soapbox For Art

Last week I was enjoying a comfortable morning, sitting in a friend's backyard swing. We talked about knitting (she is my knitting mentor) and then we started chatting about my grand art theories and my recent blog post about measuring the physical effects of art on the brain. We are both into Waldorf Education, so I consider us very like-minded. In the midst of the conversation, my dear friend jumped in with a great pointreally the "aha" momentwhen she said that petting a cat lowers blood pressure, which is measurable. My point exactly. No major scientific breakthrough needed...it really ought to be possible to measure the impact of art on the brain (and/or the body).

So back to my previous blog post: This Is Your Brain...On Art, I think the connection to be made is this: given that Happiness and Compassion studies are happening right now, an important task would be a long-term study about how interacting with art has a measurable impact on the brain and could possibly counter-balance the effects of digital consumption.

Stanford has The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Since the fear and measurable probability is that brains are being changed by digital consumption, for example: are violent video games making kids more violent? With the brain as the last frontier, what scientists should consider is what makes a healthy brain. Measuring the brain centers that link to compassion and altruism, one has to wonder where art interactions fit. 

I think there is a strong connection between "beauty" and compassion and altruism. Of course, I can only discuss this anecdotally, but consider the impact of nature. Studies have been done, are being done that show how important connecting with nature is to the human psyche. Much of what people connect with is the beauty. Is there a value in beauty? 

Now let's consider the Puritans, whose impact can still be felt when it comes to art. Is it possible to discuss the intersection of a Puritan ethic in art rippling toward a wave that crashes against joy, beauty, digital consumption and brain health? (That is probably a dissertation waiting to be written.)

As a summation of the tumultuous thoughts swirling in my brain, here's what I think we need: a national conversation about the "value" of art and the human mind's need for it (What makes us human? Our ability to make symbols?) This is a conversation that needs to happen now, to figure out how to balance the brain changes that are happening from digital consumption.

Phew...I know it's just a blog post, but finally I get to have my own soap box. My call to arms: WE NEED ART!





Wednesday, July 18, 2012

This Is Your Brain...On Art


Folks, I am reporting at the scene of a head-on collision. Art, life and motherhood lay before me in a gnarled messy mass. I went to get new tires this week and thought I would have a relaxing hour of knitting—my newish favorite activity that provides me with zen relaxation and funky home-made stuff (think: pillow covers, kid purses and scarves)—instead my eye was drawn to the magazines (listen for the crescendo in the music) particularly the latest issue of Newsweek featuring a cover article by Tony Dokoupil, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad? The new research into the Net’s negative effects.” 

Ahhhhhhhh, there’s the crash...I’m a mom and I just bought an iphone, HELP! 
It’s a fascinating article, with lots of information about the now-measurable—hitherto unknown previously, except through behavioral studies—changes in brain matter from the use of digital media that can now be recorded through brain scans. Frightening...one of my colleagues that I bumped into by the copy machine—when I was at my office at ERAU (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) to finish grading summer school papers—made a comment about how students’ brains really are changing because of technology. Now she’s vindicated. We really are becoming the Borg. (Pretty crazy to think a Star Trek concept is being discussed in Newsweek magazine regarding real life.)
And what does that mean for me as a mom? I already have the digital media faucet on a drip, drip, drip for my daugther: our family does not have TV; we only watch movies once a week on Friday or Saturday nights (and once in awhile on Saturdays when I have a writing deadline—shh don’t tell anyone); I only permit her two 15 minute increments a day for playing with her kid computer that she got from her auntie; and she goes to a Waldorf charter school where media consumption is frowned on. But, I did just buy an iphone and she keeps asking what games I got for her to play. HELP!
So here’s more of the collision: besides thinking about technology in regards to education, which is not going away (I teach writing and ERAU has just added a new electronic portfolio program for students, I will be using it this fall); I am also an artist, a former gallery owner and frankly, someone who can’t live without making and viewing art. 
The Humanities/Communications departmental homework I am doing right now involves crafting my version of a seven-year plan that has as it’s focal point a return to art-centric coursework (yes, I know ERAU is a technology-focused institution.) But, Occasional Paper Number Ten entitled Shakespeare For Analysts: Literature And Intelligence from the Joint Military Intelligence College has been a fascinating read (a little something from my department chair) as has a 2009 article by Angelika Festa in Human Architecture entitled “Teaching Critical Thinking to Freshman Writers by Engaging Contemporary Artists’ Work,” which was sent out through a department-wide email. 
Something is happening...humanity can not live on technology alone. From Dokoupil’s Newsweek piece, the below quote really articulates this for me.
Recently it became possible to watch this kind of Web use rewire the brain. In 2008 Gary Small, the head of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center, was the first to document changes in the brain as a result of even moderate Internet use. He rounded up 24 people, half of them experienced Web users, half of them newbies, and he passed them each through a brain scanner. The difference was striking, with the Web users displaying fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes. But the real surprise was what happened next. The novices went away for a week, and were asked to spend a total of five hours online and then return for another scan. “The naive subjects had already rewired their brains,” he later wrote, musing darkly about what might happen when we spend more time online.
So what’s the rest of the smash up? Art and art education—for everyone—needs to make a comeback. What researchers need to start measuring and studying through brain scans is how the interaction with art—the making of it and viewing of it—impacts the brain. Of course, there are some studies out there about the importance of “art education” in the elementary grades and maybe even studies at the post-secondary level—now there’s a dissertation to pursue. But, what most of us in Humanities departments (and English and art teachers at every grade level) across the country already know intrinsically is that creativity and all it’s byproducts—literature, poetry, painting, performance, photography, drawing, etc., etc., etc—are vital for developing and maintaining a healthy mind (i.e. a person).
So how about a few brain scans for a potential public service announcement: This Is Your Brain...On Art.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Everything's Changed

My father died two weeks ago and one of my dearest friends from high school—who still lives where we grew up—gave me as a gift, Paul Simon's album Surprise. I listened to it on the drive home after my stay in California (for the memorial service). The whole album is great and most every song spoke to me. I haven't really heard new music is such a long time. I felt lucky for the gift and amazingly there was a song about a father's love. And another song with the line: "Nothing is different, but everything’s changed," which sums up my life right now.

Anyway, this morning I slept late. I am not quite settled into what will be my new writing and teaching routine. Frankly, I still feel tired, so I am trying to be gentle with myself. When the alarm went off at 5:41am, I ignored it and figured since my husband is working the late shift this week, he could take our daughter to school today. On a late day it so helpful to have him drive her since I am getting my daughter ready to go (and still running around in my pjs) while he is leisurely getting himself ready...no need to explain further this rather familiar scenario for moms everywhere.

After everyone left I found myself still slightly agitated by the inefficiency of six year olds and the stubbornness of husbands.

[We pause for an interruption: the Husband has returned...talk radio is on and out come my ignoraphones (BOSE acoustic noise canceling headphones) better than a door when I am trying write. Now we return to our previous programing...]

With everyone out of the house, I was alone thinking of what I needed to do. My usual habit when I am bugged or mad is to get online and surf around the trash magazines: People and US, but then I remembered the Paul Simon line from the album: "Nothing is different, but everything’s changed." I decided to figure out which song that was from. Oh how I love the internet. The song is "Once upon a time, there was an ocean."
Once upon a time, there was an ocean
But now it’s a mountain range
Something unstoppable set into motion
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed
Sitting at my desk, I thought I would write in my journal, but it's in the car and it's cold outside. My desk is a wreck. One of my tasks is to clean it up so that I can get back to my writing life, but not today. Instead I decided that today is the day I get back to this blog, which I started for myself last year. I didn't quite follow through with writing here as I had hoped. No single reason I kept me away, except maybe fear. Somehow for me, blogging is a scary endeavor, kind of akin to streaking: you don't really know who is seeing you naked as you run past.

Getting past the fear of making art is something I definitely want to consider in this blog. While I was at my dad's house I watched the movie The Time Traveler's Wife with my stepmother. A day or two later, I had a moment where life imitates art and I spoke to myself across the years. While sitting at my dad's desk after checking my email, I was looking at his things and thinking about what was important to him. On his shelf was a book I had given him ten years ago: Art and Fear, Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.

I doubt he read it, which I will explain in a different blog post, but for me, that book is the book I need right now. "Nothing is different, but everything’s changed." I have a lot of writing I want to do and hopefully, writing this blog will help support me in my bigger projects.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Motherhood Is A Way Of Life

I started this blog because as a woman who thinks and as a mother who is finding her way, I wanted to talk about or rather to write about the state of motherhood today. Literally, motherhood for me has been a place, mommyville. A place where I felt lost. At different moments I have read books about motherhood, but recently I really found myself on a quest to understand and possibly figure out why I felt like s#$% so much of the time.

I have found mommyville to be a very lonely place. Intrinsically, in my own head, the solitary nature of my life feels unnatural. Intellectually, I know that mothering has been a more group endeavor thru the ages and of course there is the famous line: It takes a whole village to raise a child. What is most distressing is how hypocritical that line is given the structure of family life for the modern 21st century mother.

Years ago, before I became a mom I read misconceptions by Naomi Wolf. In my process of transformating into a mother I sadly did not reread it. During my daughter's first year I followed the babyfruit blog by Aliza Sherman. I lived very remotely at the time and this was the only daily contact I had with a woman of my age who was a mom that I happen to personally know from years before when I lived in New York City. I think because I actually once knew her, she didn't seem completely removed from me and instead there was the optical illusion that somehow we were friends even though our connection was only via me reading her blog. Also my cousin had a daughter about six months after I did. Even though we are similar in age we don't really compare child rearing notes as I think we came to the experience from very different places. And yet I believe our struggles have been the same. When we (my husband, daughter and I) moved to a town I finally connected with a few other moms through the daycare program where I enrolled my daughter. Also I am lucky that my own mother lives close by and has actively supported me as a mom by helping me take of my daughter. Our relationship is such that I tend not to ask her too many question about mothering, but I do listen to her when we check in about my daughter and take to heart a few of her suggestions.

Thus my experience as a mother has been a lonely journey. It is this loneliness that I want to address and figure out can it be changed. Even though I now have a few mommy friends and my daughter is five years old, the day to day existence of mothering in the year 2011 is still a solitary effort that is completely invisible to the world. How did this happen? Does it matter? Maybe...there are many books looking at the postfeminist world. What I am interested in is how to make mommyville a joyful place where mothers really do enjoy the rearing of children. I am sure that plenty of mothers will cry foul and say that they enjoy being a mom, but isn't it possible that the structure of the modern life has really robbed mothers of a physical existence that could be more aligned with how women are wired to function? Couldn't mommyville be a place where mothers pursue the work of childrearing and pursue their own development as people without the crazy juggling act that most moms try to do? Functioning in a world that treats motherhood as an invisible occupation is crazymaking...



Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Getting Into A Groove

Day two: 5:18am...yesterday my mind was on fire. After I worked in the morning I had a million things to say. This morning a bit foggy, but like exercise, the warm up is everything. Of course the fun of blogging is seeing the uncensored, sort of...

When I taught high school in New York City, besides generating great stories of students using expletives like "pussy" I was also working on my MFA at Brooklyn College. At the time, the amazing program coordinator of Poetry, Lou Askoff, said write one hour a day. It's not enough, but it will get me started and I am a much happy person for having done that.

This morning though, have I squandered my moment to write by surfing the net looking at my former professors? I suffer from lack of focus or comparison angst. So much of what I have done does not fit neatly into any category on a C.V., but has made for a great life. Now my film—which is fiction and inspired by the Emily Dickinson poem, "I heard a Fly Buzz..."—falls into the same category. Whiner is what I hear. The artmaking process is so high-maintenance and I should know since I ran a gallery for three years in NYC a life time ago. All artists are the same, even me. Would I want to be my gallerist? Probably not. Too whiny with a lack of focus and way too high-maintenance.

My old rule when I was writing every morning at 5:00am was that I had to be at my desk. Some days I didn't write, I read poetry. Today was maybe that kind of day. The daughter is up...and the chant of GET DRESSED has began. That needs to be a new kid chant. In my dissertation there are number of baby chants like:

Change my diaper!
Change my diaper!
I don’t care what’s in it!
But do it right this minute!
Change my diaper!


...I need kid chants now. 6:30am comes so quick. Now she and I are in a race to get ready. What's so funny and awful at the same time is that my beautiful spirited daughter is just like me. Let's review: Hocus, pocus, let us focus on our task right now. I should follow my own words...Hocus, pocus, let us focus on our task right now...Hocus, pocus, let us focus on our task right now...Hocus, pocus, let us focus on our task right now...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Getting Myself Started

I am so low tech that to start my blog I am using a pen and notebook. I have an ipad, but wireless connections can be sketchy in a small town and I don't like the ATT 3G network. So here I sit as my daughter is jumping around in her gymnastics class and I am using this hour to create a post. Every week I have this hour of waiting and here begins the collision of motherhood and artmaking. As a poet I keep thinking of a little poem I wrote when I was in high school...

HATE
inside the word hate
is a little word ate
hate ate me up

And still that poem rings true. I have had a lot of hate for the structure/nature/process of my life. This hate has been consuming. It is the conflict of what I imagine family life to be and what it really is...

I love my daughter, I love my husband, but I have not been able to find my place over the last six years with regard to my work—in any form: poetry, writing or filmmaking. The collision is constant and I am battered in the process. My daughter is five and only now can I breath and think.

The nature of hate is that it prevents one from really seeing things as they are. In six years of being married, I have finally begun to see my husband for who he is, not some unmet "Mr. Right" fantasy. I think that is what this moment is for me now, in writing here at "Welcome to Mommyville": seeing, letting the hate dissipate and reflecting on the collision, but moving beyond it as well. Hopefully, in this process of writing and exploring, I will uncover that mommy power I know exists.

I pause here for brief commercial break: my daughter is flipping around on the uneven bars. In 25 minutes that will be the topic of my conversation. It is so loud in this viewing section at the YMCA gymnastics center with all the kids in classes and parents plus siblings watching. It is this type of collision that I have resented—the total control of my time by others, by family. Now though, I have begun practicing the art of "tuning out" and hope to write through the static each week.

Probably due to my personality, I haven't really connected to other moms in this venue. Once and awhile a quick comment here or there, but so often folks seem connected to others and inaccessible. Breaching the mommy circles can be tough and intimidating. What's different now is that instead of heading into "the zone"—just sitting and vegging, I am taking back my time. I used to lead a life of quiet before I was married with a kid. I realized after reading The Highly Sensitive Person (www.hsperson.com) that my way of rejuvenating myself and destressing from overstimulation was to have total quiet—the kind where you lay in bed all day and watch the clouds pass by the window. Okay, so that is not happening with a kid.

Finding another way to rejuvenate myself is the quest. Writing my own blog as a way to focus myself and stretch my brain will surely improve my disposition and propel me towards...what, I'm not sure? And as I sign off at 6:30am to start my Monday morning, a discussion of undie selection has ensued: "Guess which underwear I picked Mama?" Then a quick of flash of the stripeys, of course. The collision continues...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Where is Mommyville anyway?

I have landed in an unknown place—Mommyville—and even though I have been here almost six years, I am only recently getting settled. Being a mom has been a life changing experience...I am surprised by this? Yes, still. Having gotten the hang of mothering, sort of—"Look ma, no hands!" (just before crashing that bike)—I am working on getting myself back out in the world as an artist and gasp...developing my career in this area.

I use the term artist in the old fashioned sense as "one who engages in artistic endeavor." My endeavor has evolved over the last thirty years from photographer, painter and sometimes poet into filmmaker, writer and educated poet—let's remember those lovely letters of MFA after my name (in Creative Writing: Poetry from Brooklyn College.) Yippy, that and a dollar might get me a cup of coffee...and yet even with that degree, I don't know why people, even me, separate poet from writer, but everyone does—consider the well respected Poets & Writers magazine—could be that we are afraid of poetry and hence it stands alone (just like the cheese.)

Beyond just artmaking in my existence, there is of course, the rest of life that is constantly keeping me awake at night, so finally I thought I would channel the insomnia and general feelings of uselessness into a blog. As a writer, I have wanted to blog...I admire bloggers, but I have been afraid. Afraid to put my thoughts out into the universe. Who will read my stuff, hard to say, but there it is: a fear of the power of words.

In the blogsphere there is a mommy blog for everything and I thought: yeah, we need one more. So along with the artist's angst, I am interested in the state of motherhood today and anything else my mind fixates on in the wee hours of the morning. As I like to chant to my daughter: hocus, pocus, let us focus on our task right now...I probably won't, but here we go anyway.