Month: February 2015

YOCR #4 – Sidetracked by Four Books

The Year of Creative Reading continues, although not quite as I anticipated. I have been sidetracked by four books that aren’t on my original list of creative books to read for the year.

Strike that. As a creative soul, it should not surprise me that I’m getting sidetracked. Because, you know, the library. Because, you know, it’s hard for a creative person to color (or read) within the lines.

What books have taken me away from my list? It started with Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made to Stick,” which is about methods for making ideas memorable. I own this book, so simply pulled it off the shelf to read.

That led to requesting from the library another of Chip and Dan Heath’s books, “Switch,” which is about trying to change when your instinct is to play it safe and stay in a stable situation. It was a pretty good book, but not quite as memorable as “Made to Stick.” (Natch.) (I forgot to take a pic of this book before returning it to the library.)

When I returned “Switch” to the library, I couldn’t not look at the shelf of new books. I immediately spotted two crisp white covers, one of which I recognized as a title by Malcolm Gladwell … “David and Goliath.” I’ve read every book by Gladwell to date. Four of his books sit on my shelf next to “Made to Stick.” I hadn’t gotten around to “David and Goliath,” so I snatched it up.

The book next to it was “It’s Not About the Shark: How to Solve Unsolvable Problems” by David Niven. It looked interesting as well … shiny object! … so I grabbed it.

I can read Gladwell until the cows come home, which is quite a long time because we don’t own cows. “David and Goliath” was as good as the rest of his books. He explains how those who appear to be at a disadvantage in society (like David) may not be as powerless as they first appear to be. Those who appear to have all the advantages (like Goliath) may be operating at a disadvantage precisely because of their advantages.

“It’s Not About the Shark” drove me nuts for the first few chapters. The author starts with a story about how Steven Spielberg could not get the mechanical shark to work for his movie “Jaws.” He ended up scrapping most of the shark footage and merely indicating the shark, which made for a more powerful movie. After explaining this and repeating that you can’t solve a problem by looking directly at it, Niven provides story after story about people having problems, but not providing examples of how they solved them. And then I caught on. At the end of each chapter are 2 methods for dealing with problems by not concentrating directly on them. Plus, it felt as though more solutions were forthcoming in the text after the first few chapters.

While none of these books is on my original creative reading list, they all would be useful to creatives. Perhaps I’ll just expand the list.


Unflattering Self Portraits

There is a long tradition of artists creating self portraits. It’s not because we’re all screaming narcissists, although I suppose some of us are. It’s because we can’t always find subjects to paint or draw or photograph.

It was for this reason that my grandpa became a landscape painter. Jens Rasmussen was a naturally gregarious fellow who would talk to anyone. When he was younger, he’d periodically find someone to sit for him so he could sketch. If he’d had his druthers, he would probably have been a portrait painter, but most people didn’t have the patience to sit for him, so he turned his attention to landscapes.

When it comes to art, I, too, love to create portraits, but it’s difficult to find people willing to stand still long enough for a photo, let alone a drawing. (My son’s fiance had to wait until he was sick and asleep in order to sneakily capture him in pencil … and my son is also an artist, so he surely understands the need for models. Such is the aversion to sitting for an artist. Even artists won’t do it.)

Thus, I decided to use myself as a subject for a series of portraits using the macro feature of our digital camera, playing, as well, with the sepia feature. While this was great fun and there are some surprising shots and angles, quite a few of these portraits are unflattering. Eh, so be it.

Making Hold Less Maddening

observations2I have had occasion recently to be put on hold. Who doesn’t in this day of telephone menus, answering services, and spotty customer service?

I hate being on hold.

In order to avoid being put on hold, I will do whatever I can to figure out answers prior to picking up a phone. Usually, this involves extensive search on an organization’s website. If I can’t find answers, I begrudgingly dial a number, making sure I have plenty of time for “Hold Hell.”

Waiting on hold wouldn’t be so bad if those who set up the service would change the experience a bit. I’m not talking anything big, like hiring enough people so that a real person answers the phone right away (although that’s my preference), but a couple of little things.

The State of Minnesota is notorious for making people wait on hold, particularly MinnesotaCare. This state-subsidized health insurance program for low income people is very difficult to reach by phone. Either you’re stuck on hold for upwards of 15-20 minutes or more or you’re given a message that the call volume is so high that you need to hang up and try again later. (Do they not realize that working families can’t sit on the phone all day waiting to speak to someone because we have to work? Naturally, state offices aren’t open on weekends or evenings, so we can’t call outside of a regular work day.)

If you’re “lucky” enough to be put on hold with MinnesotaCare, you are treated to music I can only describe as very poor quality Kenny G. Even worse, the music loops frequently and is regularly interrupted by a message telling you you’re on hold and thanks for your patience. Listening to continually interrupted crappy easy-jazzy music is maddening in more ways than one. I’m already impatient from having to wait to talk to someone; don’t make me angry with this lousy music that I can’t ignore because you keep interrupting it. It’s enough to make me want to snap at whoever eventually answers the phone.

I thought this music was only a MinnesotaCare thing, but I had to call the Minnesota Department of Revenue one day and ended up with the same track, so it has to be a state thing. Here’s my suggestion for the state: Pick more relaxing music, please. And stop interrupting it so frequently. If you can’t find better hold music, I’d be happy with silence because it would allow me to do other things while waiting to speak to someone.

The state is not the only one with rotten hold technology. I called a local clinic recently and discovered that its hold system interrupted the music every 5 seconds. EVERY 5 SECONDS! Good heavens, do you think I’m so cognitively challenged that I won’t remember I’m on hold? How about lengthening that to every minute or two?

Surely, someone has figured out how to create an effective hold experience. Why aren’t we using it?


The Van Gogh Chair

Ladder-back chair
Ladder-back chair

I’m not sure what it is about this chair, but it reminds me of a Van Gogh painting. Perhaps it’s the slight lean or corded seat or general tattiness, but it looks like something Van Gogh would put in a painting. (I can even imagine it in thick brushstrokes and vivid colors.)

Hubby and I were taking pictures of inventory for our business this morning. We purchased a great lighting set that came with 3 backdrops, including the black one in the photo. We’re really digging the set because it’s helping us to take better photos. (Although keeping the dog and cat hair off the cotton backdrop is a challenge. Lint roller to the rescue!)

I took all of these shots of the ladder-back chair, which looks artistic from every angle.

Zombies: Come for the mayhem, stay for the social commentary

DSC01651I just finished reading “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” by Max Brooks. The book was not on my list for the Year of Creative Reading, but I chose it in order to see how the author presented his story as oral histories. Working in the history field, one of our primary sources of information is oral history, so it was interesting to see how someone adapted this form to fiction.

This is a marvelous book, with the author providing convincing voices for each of the characters, advancing the story of the Zombie War through how the oral histories are arranged. There’s The Great Panic, when the zombie epidemic started and governments were reluctant to deal with it. Then, there’s a point at which survivors adapt and find safe places to live, learning how to cope with the dangers zombies present. And, finally, governments and survivors get organized and decide to take the world back from zombies, creating weapons, protective clothing, and strategies for defeating them in a logical fashion.

I am not a fan of horror, either in film or books. Too much gore. Yuck. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago to pick “World War Z” off a library shelf, I would have said, “No how, no way!”

What changed?

I got the idea to design a workshop session on museum disaster planning using a zombie attack as the fictional scenario. That led me to learning what I could about zombies. The first movie I watched was the George Romero classic “Night of the Living Dead.” What struck me about the film was how much social commentary was included. While there was mayhem, there wasn’t a huge amount of gore. The movie was made in 1968 in black and white film, so if blood makes you squeamish, it’s a good horror flick to start with. In a stroke of genius, Romero cast Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben. What made this such a bold move, one that Romero didn’t initially see as ground-breaking, is that Duane is black and he has to deal with a zombie attack amid a group of hysterical white people in an era of race riots. At one point, he slaps a young woman who’s screaming her head off. Think about how that might have played to white audiences at the time. At the end of the film, there’s a scene reminiscent of a KKK hunt.

The best zombie movies and books engage in social commentary, whether with the larger idea of having your loved ones turn into scary, ravenous beings, the general breakdown of society, or class and race issues. (There is a zombie movie – Zombies Anonymous –  wherein zombies are considered second-class citizens and are treated poorly as a result.) It’s this social commentary that keeps me engaged in the zombie genre.

“World War Z” does a tremendous job at social commentary, delving into potential military strategy and how individuals dealt with leaving survivors behind; discussing “quislings,” people who identified so strongly with zombies that they took on the characteristics of zombies without having been bitten; showing how different countries managed the zombie attack; and touching on feral children, those who survived their parents and had to grow up on their own.

When you think about it, much of horror has its roots in some form of social commentary, from the fear of scientific advances in Frankenstein to Victorian sexuality as presented in Dracula. It takes the shock, drama, and gore of such stories to get people to pay attention to the larger issues of the day.