Monday, September 15, 2014

64 x 40 (XXXX)

Well, we all know what XXXX means and I don't think I want to go there. So I think tonight this will be a 64-word freewrite. Which means I'm already half done.

I made chicken marsala tonight. I've been tweaking an old recipe and have got it about right now. Cooking, like watering, is a self-justifying activity: feels good before, during, and after. Pau.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

64 x 39 (Thirty-Nine)

Thirty-nine consists of two digits, a 3 and a 9. One is a prime, the other is the square of that prime. 39 itself is not a prime, but it is the multiple of two primes, 3 and 13. Legend has it that good things come in threes. Thirteen, on the other hand, is supposed to be bad luck. Thirty-nine has a split personality.

Process Reflection: When I sat down to write tonight I did not have anything in particular lined up. I opened up the master file for the sequence of sixty-four word posts I've been working on and typed in XXXIX. Then I sat looking at the screen, and the shape of that roman numeral (especially in contrast the previous one, XXXVIII) got me thinking about the shape or iconography of 39 both as a roman numeral and and as an arabic numeral, and so I thought I'd just try to say something true about the number 39 in exactly sixty words. Which turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. I wrote four sentences, and was just getting warmed up, and was already up to 71 words. So I cut a bunch of stuff and got back down to 51, then started adding again and eventually landed on 64. 

So yeah, okay, it's not a post of any particular insight or importance. But this project is of its nature more about lateral thinking than depth: I haven't done anything like that before. And just to dip my toe into that water conjures oceans of questions that it would take a lifetime to navigate. 

One obliquely relevant question that came up as I was writing this process reflection was whether or not the terms Roman numeral and Arabic numeral should be capitalized. And it turns out that there is some disagreement about that, in honor of which disagreement I've done it both ways here. 

A better question has to do with how the way we represent numbers to ourselves in our minds directs and shapes the mathematical thinking we do. For example, anyone reading this probably isn't using roman numerals anymore. You probably use arabic numerals almost exclusively, or think you do. The digits are deployed in groups of ten: 0123456789. But most of the real work being done with numbers today is being done in base two, binary code. This actually came up today in conversation with my granddaughter, the question of how streams of 1s and 0s can make it possible do something as miraculous (and invisible and easy to take for granted) as providing a voice to give us accurate directions over the phone to the volleyball game in Terra Linda. I mean, what's up with that?

During the time I was in school I had mostly very bad math teachers. I didn't realize how bad until my sixties, when I started getting involved with professional development programs for math teachers run by people who actually were very good math teachers. Dan Meyer, for example. Then I wound up reading stuff by Joanne Boaler and Paul Lockhart and Karen Economopoulos and many others and basically wound up wishing I could rewind the clock and go back and do it all over again.

Anyway, here we are, once again. Sixty-four words have led us into the maelstrom. If you think that I thought, when I started, that we would be getting into all of this, you have another think coming. Go for it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

64 x 38 (Alex Malcolmson)

I'm about as excited about discovering a new artist as I have been in a very long time. I've been doing paper collage for some time now, but recently I've been playing with wood. Today I discovered a British artist, Alex Malcolmson, who does beautiful, inspirational collages using wood. I'm excited about exploring the new possibilities his work suggests. Examples from his web site:

Friday, September 12, 2014


It occurred to me as I was falling asleep last night (which is when many of my more generative ideas arise) that the post I had written might be giving the impression that I think of myself as some sort of new-age adept, an evangelist of attentiveness and deep meditation. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's precisely because I find those kinds of states so infrequent and ephemeral that I honor the attempt to seek them out. They certainly don't happen spontaneously, at least for me. There were a couple of posts on Tumblr today that showed a cartoon panel of a woman with her hand on the side of her face and her eyes downcast, as if she were thinking, but there were different captions on each of the  posts. The one that stuck in my head, and that I in fact wrote down in my newly created Spark File—a new section of my not-so-newly created commonplace book—was this:

You will find exactly what you are looking for, and it will not be enough.

That little epigram pretty much sums up, IMHO,  the dilemma of human experience. Even when we get what we want, we are not satisfied. (There's a parallel formulation that has the disadvantage of having become a cliché: Be careful what you wish for; you might get it. Cliché it may be, but that doesn't mean it's not accurate.) For most of us, most of the time, function is indeed smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not.

I spent my teenage and college years in the sixties, and there were lots of people like Baba Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert) going around encouraging us to learn how to "Be Here Now." Put that way, it seemed easy enough. But it wasn't, and it isn't. Because it's not in our nature. At least it's not in mine, nor in anyone's else's that I have ever met. The closest I have been able to come to that state of present-mindedness is when I am doing artwork, when the part of my brain that is thinking about what happened yesterday and what is going to be happening tomorrow and what I should have said to Alpha or what I'm going to say to Beta gets shut down, when the whole verbal apparatus of my brain gets shut down and all I am attending to is what is under my hands and in my line of vision.

That may be one reason why I generally find abstract or art more satisfying than representational art: it exists unanchored and is essentially inexplicable, which is a kind of relief. (It can be entertaining to read the tortured and irrelevant prose the self-appointed explicators come up with when they DO try to find words to describe what they think they see. But I've read a ton of it, and my observation is that there isn't anyone who does it well, with the possible exception of Robert Motherwell, who presumably knew whereof he spoke. Mostly it's a matter of trying to find people who do it less badly than the ones who are flat out full of shit, and the woods are full of them.)

An example might help. Here's something I completed yesterday. It consists of black paper torn and mounted on black cardboard. When thought I was done I looked down on the floor and saw a scrap of purplish paper lying there and more or less on impulse I picked it up, tore the edges to make it feel more like family, and put it on last.

So there it is. I like it. While I was working on it, I wasn't doing a lot of discursive thinking. I was just working. Or, to put a different spin on the same idea, just having fun. I have no idea what it is, or what it means. Maybe you do. (Feel free to interpret. I'd be curious. And you couldn't do any worse than what shows up in the average museum catalog.) It is, like most of my art, and most of the artworks I respond to, self-enclosed: a world of its own. Any resemblance to the world we actually inhabit on a daily basis—or believe ourselves to inhabit, which is an essay for another day—is either coincidental, or so deeply buried in the central core of my brain that I have no ready access to it. It is merely an artifact of experience, a fossil from which a method and motivation could be inferred only if accompanied by a grain of salt.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

64 x 37 (The Well Rising)


The Well Rising

The well rising without sound,
the spring on a hillside,
the plowshare brimming through deep ground
everywhere in the field—

The sharp swallows in their swerve
flaring and hesitating
hunting for the final curve
coming closer and closer—

The swallow heart from wingbeat to wingbeat
counseling decision, decision:
thunderous examples. I place my feet

with care in such a world.

Process Reflection: 

I was thinking about this poem today after having written the acrostic poem about joy last night. William Stafford has always had a special place in my imaginary cathedral of literature. I've written about him on an number of occasions (for example here and here and here and here). The bridge between my poem and Stafford's is the notion of attention, the way the world rises and brims and swerves and flares whether we are watching or not, the way the sacred emerges from silence, the way attention is the gateway to appreciation. Of course, Stafford says it much better than I did. This is what he does, what W.S. Merwin does, what Mary Oliver does: they place their feet with care, and then they reflect on what they see and here. Here, for example, is Mary Oliver's poem "Praying":

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence
in which another voice may speak.

I used to work with a poet who dismissed Mary Oliver by saying that "she keeps writing the same poem over and over." There may be some slight element of truth in the allegation, but I don't agree that writing the same poem over again is necessarily a bad thing or an indication that a poet or an artist is out of ideas. There are some ideas that are worth returning to, even some ideas worthy of obsession. I do it myself often enough. Here's a poem I wrote almost twenty years ago which, it might be argued, is in essence the same poem I tried to write again last night:


-  written after  reading Seamus Heaney’s “Field of Vision”
            in the parking lot of the Eastern Martial Arts Studio on August 5, 1996  

If you gaze in one direction long enough—
it doesn’t matter which, so long as you
do it patiently, reflectively—an inkling
of the mysterious begins to assert itself:
majesty of tree against sky, reaching
after itinerant sun with imperceptible in-
clination; painstaking progress of shadow
on clapboard; faintest touch of wind
stirring the golden elasticity of living
branch and bough. Enough, after all,
to do nothing more than breathe, bear
witness, be present to such clarity.

To round out this sampling, here's Merwin, extending the conversation we are having back through the centuries:

A Letter to Su Tung-p’o 

Almost a thousand years later
I am asking the same questions
you did the ones you kept finding
yourself returning to as though
nothing had changed except the tone
of their echo growing deeper
and what you knew of the coming
of age before you had grown old
I do not know any more now
than you did then about what you
were asking as I sit at night
above the hushed valley thinking
of you on your river that one
bright sheet of moonlight in the dream
of waterbirds and I hear
the silence after your questions
how old are the questions tonight