50,000 Words and Lots of Paint Dribbles

In 1508 Pope Julius II decided the Sistine Chapel with its blue, star-spangled ceiling was in need of a little interior punching up, and he knew just the artist for the job. Already the thirty-three-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was hard at work on the Pope’s marble tomb and it was only grudgingly that he accepted the new commission.

Not known for painting, the artist had made a name for himself producing marble masterpieces like Pietà and David, carefully detailing human anatomy and capturing subtle expressions of emotion like no one else. He hadn’t really had a great deal of experience with painting, and none with frescoes.

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I bet this young Michelangelo wondered from time to time if he could really be a ninja. photo credit: Gonmi Tortuga Ninja via photopin (license)

There are some theories about why the pope may have approached this unlikely choice to spruce up the chapel ceiling. Perhaps Pope Julius, not especially happy with his tomb-in-progress anyway, decided it might be tempting fate for his tomb to be built while he was still alive and so wished to redirect the artist’s efforts. It’s possible, too, that some of Michelangelo’s biggest rivals on the art scene encouraged the choice, suspecting the sculptor would fail spectacularly when forced to work in such a different medium.

Obviously that notion backfired. Though he claimed to have despised every moment of it, Michelangelo bent and stretched and painted his heart out above his head. Over the years he worked on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo sealed his reputation as one of the greatest painters in history, and got quite a bit of paint on his face.

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I mean for a non-painter, it’s not too bad. By By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
I share this story today, on November 1, because this is the day when a lot of artists throughout the world are stepping out to create something new. Today is the kickoff for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that time of year when otherwise sane people from all walks of life, sit down at their computers (or typewriters, or notebooks) and attempt to scribble out a minimum of 50,000 words that will hopefully become the rough draft of a novel.

Some of these folks, like me, have written novels before, and though 50,000 words in a month can be a pretty tall order, they may not find the experience too overwhelming. However many other NaNo writers aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. They have regular day jobs and responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, and the experience can seem pretty uncomfortable and messy.

But they have these great ideas that’ve been tickling the backs of their minds for years just looking for an opportunity to jump onto a page and into the world.

These are the writers I think are the most exciting part of NaNoWriMo, and the reason that year after year, more and more people join in the agony fun. Not everyone will finish. Even some of the more seasoned writers won’t make it to the end of 50,000 poorly written words. Those that do will find the hard work has only just begun.

But that’s okay. Even Michelangelo took a break in 1510 from painting the chapel ceiling. When he returned to the work, it was with a new eye and a somewhat altered style, and that is when he produced many of the most iconic scenes, including The Creation of Adam.

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This kind of iconic image is probably worth a little agony and a few paint dribbles on your face. Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He was still in agony and struggled with the work, writing in a poem to a friend (because Michelangelo was also not a poet, who wrote quite a bit of poetry), “My painting is dead. . .I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

In this next thirty days, I suspect a lot of NaNo writers, experienced or not, will utter similar words. They may hit walls when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a creative effort that pushes them outside their usual spheres.

When they do, and when I do, I hope we remember that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by a man who claimed he was not a painter and who suffered a lot of cricks in his neck and had a lot of paint on his face. But this amazing work is imbued with the exquisite textural depth perhaps only a sculptor could have produced and that millions of people have literally looked up to.

I hope we remember that no one would ever tell our stories the way we will tell them. Whether you’ve written twenty-seven novels or work as a full-time accountant but have one really great idea for a book, know that even when you think your writing is dead, you’re not in the right place, and you have paint dribbling onto your face, your words might offer a perspective and textural depth the world has never yet seen.

Happy NaNoWriMo!

A Study in Buttery Bovines

When she was a little girl Caroline Shawk dreamt of being an artist. She painted. She drew. She sculpted childish figures with clay from the creek. By age twelve she had won her first art award for her fine wax flowers. Then in 1862 when she was twenty-two, she married a railroad worker named Samuel Brooks, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Within a few years she and her husband had moved to a farm near Helena, Arkansas and, an artist to her core, Caroline found a new medium calling to her. Many of the farm wives around her, in order to better attract customers for their butter, used molds to makes their product into simple decorative shapes. Of course Caroline thought she could do better and she began carving intricate shapes by hand.

It wasn’t long before people started calling her the Butter Lady, and wondering what weird, wonderful artistic butter piece she’d come up with next. Then in 1873, she read King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz and was so moved by the character of Iolanthe, she created a sculpture of the blind princess.

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Dreaming Iolanthe, A Study in Butter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In butter.

Dreaming Iolanthe was a masterpiece. It was displayed, on ice, at a gallery in Cincinnati to a great deal of success. Even the New York Times took notice, with one critic writing that “no other American sculptress has made a face of such angelic gentleness as that of Iolanthe.”

Brooks created another version of her Iolanthe that exhibited at the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia, where she also participated in public demonstrations of her impressive, albeit kind of weird, skill. The artist went on to create great wonders, exhibiting her butter work in Washington DC and even in Paris. Eventually, she gained enough financial success from butter that she managed to transition to marble, but Caroline Brooks had inspired the imagination of countless (or at least a few) budding young artists, who took the fair circuit by buttery storm. So began the super weird tradition of butter sculptures at state fairs throughout the Midwest.

In the 1980s, another young girl who dreamt of creating her own form of art stood in the dairy building at the Illinois State Fair, her eyes wide as she took in the wondrous site of the traditional annual butter cow sculpture, and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Can I ride the Ferris wheel now?”

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If you look closely you can see a state fair goer at the window in the background asking himself, “Can I go to the beer tent now?”

And folks, that young girl grew up to write about some of the weirdest things she came across on a weekly blog that was part history, part humor, and now occasionally, part butter.

Growing up in Central Illinois, I went to the state fair almost every year, and without fail, I felt myself drawn to the dairy building, to gaze upon each year’s buttery bovine masterpiece.

I don’t get to attend the fair this year, which is ongoing through this weekend, but I do have several dear friends, including my sister who knows me pretty well, who made sure I saw pictures of this year’s cow.

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An Illinois State Fair tradition since 1922.

I’m grateful to them. This has been a busy month for me, getting kids ready to head off into a new school year while preparing to launch my own unique art into the world with the release of my debut historical novel September 6th. I don’t know that my book will garner as much attention as the masterful works of the Butter Lady, but maybe someday the New York Times will take notice. A gal can dream, right?

I’d like to say a special thank you to my friend Dee Dee, who graciously agreed to let me share her photography talents on this post so that you, too, don’t have to miss this year’s Illinois State Fair butter cow.

From Amish Ladies to Sexy Vampires: One Mustn’t Judge

In 1860 the world was introduced to George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss, the story of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. The book includes some complicated themes of frustrated love and the struggle for acceptance. And not to spoil the story for you a mere 158 years after its publication, but it also ends with tragic deaths. Or something like that. I don’t really know. I’ve never read it. But I’m sure it’s good because it has a bang-up cover.

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Actually I kind of enjoyed Chapter 3. I may go ahead and read the rest.

The reason I mention it is because this Eliot book is the oldest solid reference I’ve been able to find, to the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In Chapter 3 (the only part of the book I have read, because you, dear reader, are worth the effort) young Maggie’s father defends the choice of reading material to which his daughter has been exposed. He explains that he picked up Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil because it had such a good binding. The man then goes on to lament, “But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.”

Versions of the expression pop up once in a while after that, and there’s probably a valid argument that the sentiment is quite a bit older. We pretty much all accept that it’s true, right? Of course the adage doesn’t always apply literally to books, but there’s little doubt that some great books are housed in awful covers and that some truly terrible books are also quite beautiful on the outside.

But as any author attempting to sell a book today can attest, we definitely judge books by their covers. In some ways that can be good. Often with only a glance we know roughly the genre to expect. It would be difficult to mix up the ubiquitous beautiful bonneted woman who invariably advertises a work of Amish fiction with the young seductress in black and red and plenty of gothic flare of a good (?) vampire love story.

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A book that is obviously not a vampire romance. Don’t worry, there’s more information coming soon. For now, you can judge it by its cover.

The reading public has certain expectations. Like Mr. Tulliver, they are impressed by good bindings, and sometimes will pick up a book that turns out to be an imperfect fit. As an author facing the rapidly approaching publication date of my first historical novel, I find this to be a little intimidating. Fortunately I’ve been blessed to work with a brilliant artist, who designed a cover that completely thrills me. I hope you’ll like it, too. Or if you don’t care for it, I hope you’ll still give the book a chance, because it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.

Just 49 days until publication! (September 6th)

The Father of Wine Snobbery and Pinterest Magic

On May 1, 1633, thirty-two-year-old beauty Venetia Stanley Digby was found dead in bed in her London home. A popular lady at court, her surprising demise set the city abuzz with rumors, many of them focused on her husband, the grief-stricken Sir Kenelm Digby.

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Sir Kenelm Digby, father of wine snobbery. And Pinterest wine bottle centerpieces. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A popular man himself, Digby was a scholar, an off-and-on Catholic, and a former privateer. He was also a noted chef, alchemist, and enthusiastic supporter of sympathetic medicine (in which treatment was applied to the injury-causing instrument, rather than to the injured).

He was kind of like your favorite crazy uncle who dabbles in a little bit of everything. And who might accidentally kill his wife in the process. Of course this is a hypothetical uncle. I certainly have no such uncle. My uncles are wonderful men who occasionally read this blog.

Though he wasn’t a particularly faithful husband, Digby took Venetia’s death pretty hard. He retreated from his life at court, renewed his devotion to Catholicism, and found solace by throwing himself into his studies. He found greatness at the bottom of a wine bottle. Also in its sides and neck.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of drinking wine pretentiously. photo credit: NwongPR The Somm Team via photopin (license)

Because it was around this time that England faced a wood shortage that led to an increase in hotter coal-burning furnaces rather than the wood-fed ones typically used for glassmaking. Digby fired up his furnace and went to work producing a dark, thick bottle suited for elegantly storing wine.

Up until this point in history glass hadn’t been up to the task, and if it held wine at all, it was for presentation purposes only. Since the early days of its development in about 3000 BC, glass was generally too thin and delicate for wine.

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This bottle was mocking me.

That is until Sir Kenelm Digby became the father of the modern wine bottle. It’s a good thing he did, too, because before his thick-glassed bottle, wine didn’t get stored and savored and swirled and pretentiously sipped. And even more important than that, there weren’t thousands of empty, standard-sized bottles awaiting magical Pinterest transformation into dreamy wedding centerpieces.

It’s Sir Digby, then, I can thank for the hours and hours I have spent these past few weeks collecting, rinsing, and wrapping wine bottles in yards of twine. One of my nieces is a soon-to-be bride. She needs centerpieces for her reception, and I’m kind of like that favorite crazy aunt who will volunteer to do just about any tedious wedding-related task you require without complaint, though not without a blog post.

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Best. Aunt. Ever. Not that it’s a competition. That I’m totally winning.

Of course my niece has many wonderful aunts who occasionally read this blog, and she has never publicly declared that I am her favorite. But I think we all know.

I also think the bottles turned out pretty well. I know the centerpieces will be beautiful, the ceremony will be perfect, and my niece and her groom will remember their special day for all of their long, happy lifetime together. I also think Sir Kenelm Digby would have been pleased to know to what great use his bottles had been repurposed, as part of a celebration of marriage and love.

 

Here Be Dragons at the Edges of the Map

I don’t know about you, but to me it feels like the world gets to be a little bit scarier every day. This probably has a lot to do with our 24-hour news cycle. That opens up space for the regional tragedies of which many of us might have remained blissfully unaware, preoccupied with the goings-on in our own little corners of the world. More news also invites more commentary, creating increased competition to place the most sensational spin on every big (or not so big) event, whether it carries a ring of truth or not.

It can get overwhelming, and there’s little doubt, at least here in the US, we are more stressed out than we were when we didn’t have to pay as much attention. A glance at our social media feeds might suggest, too, that we’re not as kind and gentle with one another, either. Because the world is a more frightening place when the dragons in the fairy tales become real.

Encased in an armillary sphere among the rarest of rare collections in the New York Public Library is a sphere about five inches in diameter, which carries this dire Latin warning: HIC SUNT DRACONES or “Here Be Dragons.”

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Illustration of Hunt-Lenox globe.By Kattigara (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Known as the Hunt-Lenox Globe, the hollow sphere of engraved bronze is one of the oldest existing globes produced since Columbus originally sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Though it bears no date, people who know about these things have placed it somewhere in the 1504 to 1511 range, when the Pacific Ocean didn’t yet exist and the continent that would come to be known as North America was no more than a spattering of islands.

But what I find most exciting about the Hunt-Lenox globe is that it warns of the dragons of Southeast Asia. Dragons weren’t an uncommon sight on maps of the era, often gracing the edges or wide open spaces, but this is the only globe (with exception of a matching one created on an ostrich eggshell and probably the original from which the Hunt-Lenox was casted) that actually bears the warning.

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Okay, maybe they’re not all scary. Image courtesy of cocoparisienne, via Pixabay

The expression is probably borrowed from maps of Ancient Rome, that often displayed the phrase “Here Be Lions” in unknown territories. Of course everyone knows dragons are scarier. And I mean everyone.

From pretty much every corner of the world, comes a fairy tale or two in which a dragon kidnaps a princess or guards a mystical treasure or becomes a frozen zombie creature north of the wall. Whether being slain by St. George, or ending a drought, or befriending a runaway foster child named Pete, dragons are everywhere in the stories people have been telling for millennia.

It’s no wonder the phrase “Here be dragons” has come to symbolize the frightening unknown on our maps.

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Komodo Dragon. No wings. No fire breathing. Kind of cute. Might just eat you if given the chance.

Except that it hasn’t. Not really. It’s just this one globe. And there’s even an outside chance that the unidentified cartographer was referring to literal dragon-like creatures in Southeast Asia, where the Komodo Dragon can be found. Though it has yet to breathe fire, this creature is pretty cantankerous and can give you a nasty infection. And maybe eat you.

I would prefer to think the creator of the Hunt-Lenox globe, like the ancient cartographers before him, chose to issue a warning a little more vague in nature. Like the rest of us, he’d surely heard tales of dangers unknown. And maybe sometimes that’s quite enough to cope with. There’ve always been dragons at the edges of the map. We just haven’t always had to attempt to slay them all at once, all day, every day.

So this coming Monday, February 26, to celebrate National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, I’m going to take a little time to ignore the dangers and nastiness that threaten to infect and consume me. Instead I’m going to turn off the news and let the dragons recede, for just a little while, to the edges of the map.

You Probably Don’t Give a Flick

Earlier this week, social media giant Facebook, which has dramatically altered the way we interact with the kid we used to sit next to in second grade, announced that it has also invented time. The idea comes from designer Christopher Horvath, who first brought up the notion in a Facebook post in October of 2016.

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How else would you ever keep track of the fascinating life of that counselor you met one weekend thirty-seven years ago at Scout Camp?

Because Facebook has been useful for connecting people with similar concerns, the post generated a large, productive response.  A whole bunch of geeks chimed in and more or less agreed that a new division of time would be a pretty handy tool for more precisely synching media frames.

The new time measurement is 1/705,600,000 of a second, which makes it just enough bigger than a nanosecond that it evidently makes a difference to those in the know. These tiny units of time are called “flicks,” not to be confused with “Netflix,” a unit of time defined as the span of one full night of binge-watching The Walking Dead instead of sleeping.

Perhaps, like me, you’re not a media geek, and fail to see how this particular invention will affect you. And you can relax, because most experts who have bothered to comment on the new time division agree that it really won’t.

The flick might make some of your video experiences just a little bit crisper, but your alarm clock isn’t suddenly going to start going off 1/705,600,000 of a second earlier. Most of us ignorant schlubs will go happily on with our lives until sometime at a trivia night we’ll be asked, “What is the smallest unit of time that is still larger than a nanosecond?” and we’ll say, “Shoot. ..I think I read about that once.”

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So there are 42,336,000,000 flicks in a minute and 2,540,160,000,000 flicks in an hour, in case you do happen to give a flick.

But because time measurements are imposed human constructs that help us make sense of our world, it’s not always been easy for humankind to be so nonchalant. From Ancient China’s 100 “mark” day measured between midnights, to the 12 hour day and 3-4 watch night of the Ancient Greeks, every culture has attempted to mark the passage of time through the signs of nature and habits of the population in their particular corners of the world.

And so throughout most of history, everybody just did their own thing. That resulted in a confusing assortment of time systems, but it kind of worked up until 1876 when Scottish-Canadian railroad engineer and manager Sandford Fleming missed a train in Ireland because he couldn’t figure out the local time. Miffed, he joined a movement to standardize time, proposing a universal “cosmic time” based on a common meridian from which twenty-four time zones would spread out across the world.

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To me it’s really all just more wibbly-wobbly, timey- wimey stuff. photo credit: Rooners Toy Photography The Victorious via photopin (license)

Fleming shared his idea with anyone who would listen, including the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference where it was partially accepted. The conference liked the idea of Greenwich Mean Time, which adopted the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England as the center. Worldwide standard time zones, however, were harder to impose.

It turns out time, and how it’s calculated and divided and used, is pretty central to unique cultural identity. The system took some tweaking over the years and the occasional leap second adjustment, and it actually wasn’t until 1972 that every major world nation had finally jumped on the time zone wagon.

So if you aren’t too sure you’re ready to embrace this latest adjustment to the now standard divisions of time, and you’d rather Facebook just stuck to reintroducing you to those friends you haven’t seen in more than a few flicks, it might be that you’re following in the footsteps of history.

The Art of Pumpkinization

Between the years of 1503 and 1508 in Touraine, France, artist Jean Bourdichon, at the direction of Anne of Brittany, two times queen of France, spent a lot of time sprinkling pumpkin spice in the queen’s prayers. What the queen recruited the artist to do was illustrate Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, a book filled with prayers, monthly calendars, and religiously themed images.

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Who doesn’t love pumpkin? photo credit: Geert Weggen walk in fear via photopin (license)

For the work, the artist focused on painting more than three hundred plant species represented in the Royal Gardens, one example of which may be the first known illustration of the pumpkin, a plant native to Mexico and transported to Europe after the first voyage of Columbus to the New World.

And what that means is that in the course of about sixteen years or so, this one plant, with its basketball fruit, went from unknown to worthy of royal attention half a world away. It’s probably not hard to imagine why.

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It’s possible my local grocery store has gone a tad overboard on the pumpkinization.

Pumpkins aren’t exactly hard to notice, and as anyone who has ever allowed a Halloween Jack-o-Lantern to decay in his garden could tell you, they’re certainly not hard to grow. Archaeologists have found evidence of pumpkins as a food source as far back as 7000 BC in Mexico and there is a long history in Native American cultures of using pumpkin seeds medicinally for treatment of parasitic infections and kidney disease. Today they are touted as a sleep aid, heart healthy snack, anti-inflammatory, and cancer-fighting super food.

 
I don’t know if all those claims can be substantiated. What I do know is that at least in the United States, it’s not fall until every product on the grocery store shelf has been pumpkinized (which I’m confident will soon be a word defined by Miriam-Webster).

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Some products can’t be saved by any amount of pumpkin spice. But I imagine these aren’t any worse than traditional Peeps.

Each fall, stores are taken over by the pumpkin and its accompanying spices. No longer is pumpkin relegated to pies and prayer books, with the truly market-savvy adding more inventive (and often revolting) options each year, including: Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, Pumpkin Pie Kit-Kats, Pumpkin Pie Spice Pringles, Pumpkin Spice Chewing Gum, Pumpkin Spice Candy Corn (though to be fair, it is not the pumpkin spice that makes this product revolting), pumpkin spice pasta, liquors, yogurt, pudding, peanut butter, donuts, soaps, and shampoos. And every year I try an embarrassing number of these freshly pumpkinized products. Because everything is better with pumpkin, right?

So I think trend-setter Jean Bourdichon was on to something. He was bold enough to think outside the traditional religious artwork of his day and add to it the one thing that makes everything better. Or worse. But I suppose there’s no way to know until someone pumpkinizes it.