Ceramic painting for dummies

For many years, a group of friends and I visited arts and craft shows together and came up with a simple mantra — “We can do that”– which we intoned after each show. After years of completing, collectively, dozens of craft projects, a recent experience challenged that mantra.

On a guided tour of Portugal, our group visited Ceramicas de Coimbra and saw demonstrations of the steps involved in creating glazed ceramic ware — vases, dishes, flower pots, trays, pitchers, tea pots, and more — also called majolica. Painting the completed pieces was the mosDSC01696t intricate step in the production, and probably a fast road to slumped shoulders and poor eyesight. Yet the all-female painting team worked silently and efficiently, too busy to utter a discouraging word.

We saw about a thousand ceramic pieces waiting for someone to paint them. I DSC01672imagined a painter completing one project, and shouting out, “Hooray! I’m done,” then looking up at the shelves filling the warehouse and crying. Sisyphus, who was only required to roll a boulder uphill for eternity, had it easy. Still, countless completed pieces were stacked on other shelves, proving these women weren’t quitters.

DSC01698After the tour, our guide, Cristina, ushered us into the factory lunchroom. There she gave each of us a white tile. Our instructions? Simply turn out a beautifully decorated tile and finish before the employees needed the space for lunch, that is, in twenty or twenty-five minutes.

“I’m not doing it,” said my husband, who, unlike me, actually does have artistic talents.  “I’ll watch you paint.”

Six of us sat around each table.  Bowls of paint — primary colors, plus black and brown — filled the center.

We could choose a stencil or paint freehand. I went for a stencil of a pear, because it was the simplest design among the dozen available. The first step involved tamping black powder over the stencil. It was not a difficult task and lowered my stress level…for a second.

Now that I had my design, all I needed was to fill in the blank spaces, a sort of paint-by-numbers without the numbers.  I reached into the container of brushes and pulled one out, only to find that each was a two-in-one. One half contained spindly bristles for fine work, and the other half broader bristles to make sweeping strokes.

It took only seconds to discover I could not make the spindly brush paint anything fine, and using the larger one I swept far outside the lines of my stencil. Enter my husband.  His strategy was to add borders and extra lines to take the viewer’s eyes entirely off the pear. I glanced at other people’s tiles. Not too bad.  Their brushes must have been better than mine.

Finally, Cristina announced that we needed to clear out.  Before I could search out a waste basket, the owner of the factory had collected all the tiles.

pear tileFour days later in another city, Cristina invited us to a happy hour on the rooftop of our hotel. She had laid out every tile. “Quick. Find ours,” I said to my husband, “so we can hide it.” Regrettably, before we found it, twenty-six pairs of eyes had already viewed it.

We packed our tile and took it home with us.  It lasted as long as the walk from the suitcase to the garbage can. Scrapping the evidence allows me to keep saying, “I can do that.”










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Pack light, gripe less

Map of Portugal and our route

Map of Portugal and our route

We recently returned from two weeks spent touring Portugal. The Rick Steves’ tour we were on involved white wine; a cork farm; cathedrals and medieval monasteries; ancient Roman cities; red wine; beautiful landscapes; Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque, and Rococo architecture; walled towns; art museums; aqueducts; and port wine. (By day eleven most of us were vowing to take a long break from wine.)

We were fortunate to have a well-informed guide, who was passionate about her country and its history, and very funny. We were in a companionable group of fellow travelers, ate ginormous meals, met and dined with members of two dynasties of wine and/or cork and olive oil producers, one in an area the typical traveler might miss, and another limited to Rick Steves’ groups.

Despite having most everything taken care of for us, from lodging to meals to city transportation, I found something to complain about. I had to refold my clothes and repack my suitcase daily, and after doing this, still couldn’t find what I needed. On day five I found the hairbrush I thought I’d left back home, and on day eleven I found the makeup I thought I’d lost on day four. Also, one compartment in my suitcase still contained brochures from a trip to Hawaii, which weren’t helpful when it came to locating the day’s agenda for this vacation.

Then a blog called Jane’s Journals arrived in my inbox. The title was “What would you pack?” The question referred to what Syrian refugees were bringing with them to Europe. The blogger linked to a website called Quartz, which shared photos from the International Rescue Committee of the contents of a few of the refugees’ backpacks.

For a mother: “A hat and a pair of socks for the baby; an assortment of medication, a bottle of sterile water, and a jar of baby food; a small supply of napkins for diaper changes; assortment of pain relievers, sunscreen and sunburn ointment, toothpaste; personal documents; wallet; cell phone charger; yellow headband.”

And from a six-year-old boy: “One pair of pants, one shirt; a syringe; marshmallows and sweet cream; soap, toothbrush and toothpaste; bandages.”

None of the backpackers sampled seemed concerned about a hairbrush or makeup. And none carried an itinerary. For them there were no schedules, no menus set in advance, and no means of transportation except their feet. Maybe for future trips I should pack fewer things, organize my suitcase better, and stop complaining.

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A different kind of self-help

geeseWe live in a me, me, me world. Or as the Beatles said, “I me mine.” Often, when “the me” isn’t getting its way, isn’t losing weight, getting rich, finding true love, or gaining more confidence, it turns to self-improvement products to make things better. You know what I’m talking about, the books, audio recordings, and classes that lead to an even greater focus of attention on “me.”

Recently, I read about a different kind of self-help in an article by Gregg Krech, ToDo Institute, which in this country is the main champion of  Japanese Naikan therapy.

The article lists skills that are the foundation of Japanese psychology.

*Acceptance. We’ve all heard this one.  If you can’t change an unpleasant situation or experience, stop focusing your attention on it . Easier said than done, but Krech makes it seem more doable when he says, not to let go “is to fight against reality.” When stated that way, do any of us really have time to invest in a fight like this?

*Coexisting with conflicting feelings. Krech says, “accept them and take them with us as we do what we need to do in our lives.”

*Shift our attention away from ourselves. “…self-focused attention is associated with psychological and emotional suffering.” When we stop obsessing about our problems and shift our attention outside of us, the problems lose their power to make us miserable.

*Courageous self-reflection. This involves focusing attention on all the people who have supported or cared for you in some way. If you consider all you’ve received from others, whether in the form of a friendly smile, a cooked meal, help making a purchase, or clean teeth, it’s easier to spend a little less time in a me, me, me world.




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Homage to dilettantes


knitted scarf, collage, accordion book, necklace, two-ring book, polymer clay journal, Polaroid transfer print

Clearing out years of accumulated stuff is like shining a spotlight on your past.  As part of my current focus on de-cluttering, I have found all the evidence I need that I’ve been a lifelong dabbler. And I’m certain I’m not alone. So here’s to all you dilettantes out there.

My mother’s critiques of my elementary school drawings told me early on that my path would never take me toward a career in the visual arts. But that doesn’t mean the wish to create has ever left.

I’ve tried everything. Sewing was my first hobby and it turned out less than fulfilling. Nothing I made fit. And then there were the zippers. Knitting was a little better. Despite the sweater I made for my dad, which would have looked fine on a man five times his size, I did manage to knit a nice-looking sweater and plenty of scarves.

I’ve stamped greeting cards, carved rubber stamps, marbled paper, and created books with different kinds of bindings, as well as one paperless book, and journals.  I’ve made jewelry, taken zillions of photos and even had my own bathroom darkroom. Most of these hobbies required taking a class, which pulled me away, physically, from work or home and my normal routines. They also took me away mentally. How can you fret about what might happen tomorrow, when you’re busy trying to follow someone’s directions while designing, cutting, gluing and coloring and glancing nervously at the clock that is telling you class time is almost up and you haven’t finished. Plus, unlike in many jobs, you leave with a product, a sense that you have something concrete to show for your efforts.

Having been such a committed dabbler for so long, I was curious as to whether dabbling was a sign of some deep and permanent psychological flaw. So far I haven’t found anything but positives. Pursuing hobbies is a known way to relieve stress.

In retirement, I’ve become less of a dabbler. Writing is now my creative outlet. Occasionally, I return to paper crafts that don’t involve putting words on a page. This summer, I took a class to learn how to make Japanese-style travel journals. The teacher prepared all the materials we needed ahead of time and loaned us the tools.

One drawback: to recreate these on your own you have to buy more stuff.  I bought paper, a couple of punches, string, and a few beads. Moral of the story:  In the process of cleaning out and reflecting on your past, you could find yourself buying more stuff to take up the space you just emptied.

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Putting early learning to work with literary agents

PNWA 2015 Conference Program

PNWA 2015 Conference Program

Recently, I had a chance to do what I do best, namely, read aloud in front of an audience. Not exactly a big claim to fame. Since I was attending the annual Pacific NW Writers’ Conference at the time, reading was of no help in getting a book contract. However, the experience did save me from public embarrassment, as well as provided me with happy childhood memories.

When I was four, my dad taught me to read.  I asked him to, so he came up with a system similar to what teachers used back then:  flash cards. These were little index cards on which he printed a word. He’d hold up the cards one at a time and make me pronounce the word.

(I once saw a case where a child taught by this method could read aloud, but had no idea of the meaning of the words she was reading. Her parents wanted her to skip a grade, because she read so well. Oops. So I understand that learning how to recognize and pronounce English words is not always enough. But this method worked fine for me.

Friends from first grade still tease me about our teacher, Mrs. Carlson, whom they remember as the one who kissed us all goodbye each day as we left her classroom — another practice not current in today’s elementary schools. She had me read aloud in class often and sent me to read to third graders.  Not a good strategy for encouraging other students to become better readers, I’m sure, but one that got me oodles of attention.

One of the sessions at the writer’s conference involved having a panel of four agents critique query letters submitted by members of the audience.  I turned mine in with the others.  According to the rules, the letter writers’ names were confidential, so a conference volunteer was to choose and read a letter aloud for the agents to comment on.  He read one and I cringed. He was not the reader to present our queries.  When he stumbled over the protagonist’s name in the second letter, its author jumped up and said, “Would you like me to read mine?” My query was the third chosen, and I wasted no time racing to the stage and grabbing the mic. I looked out at the crowd. As an audience to perform in front of, they were no different from the first and third-graders of my past. I filled my reading with emotion and energy. The critics all said, “Good letter.”

I noticed after I left the stage that the most enthusiastic among them was reading my letter to himself, and had begun critiquing again. He suggested shorter sentences and fewer clauses, and complained that one sentence was in passive voice.

Maybe I read aloud with too much fervor. I might have to look for an agent willing to listen to my novel being read to her (agents are almost always women) or one who specializes in audio books.



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The joy of getting rid of things

My bookcase

My bookcase

Clutter drives me nuts, yet other than occasionally going through my closet and sending a few bags of clothing to Goodwill, I don’t do much about it.

Someone who believes she has the answer to clutter is Marie Kondo, a professional tidier.  She’s written the book, “the life-changing magic of tidying up.” When I first put a hold on the book at my library, I was number 143 on the list. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one with the problem. The end goal of Kondo’s work in helping people get rid of things is to bring joy into their lives, the joy that comes when the clutter is gone.

I like much of what Kondo recommends.  Her approach does not call for more shelving, bins to store more things, or extra closet space. She’s merciless in telling her clients to get rid of stuff.

Her first piece of advice is not to take one room at a time, because you soon stop before you’ve accomplished anything. No, she says, Get in there and discard it all at once and do it by category, e.g., clothing, books, papers, miscellaneous items. I’m currently ignoring the “don’t try to deal with a whole room” advice, because I have one room that needs my full attention for as long as it takes.

Begin with what you want to keep. But what if you want to keep everything? Kondo says, if it gives you joy, keep it.  You pick up each item, examine it and ask yourself, “Do you give me joy?” If you can’t answer yes, dispose of it. My advice: If your neighbors can see you quizzing each of your possessions, you might consider drawing your blinds.

I’m not sure how the joy rule applies to items in the kitchen. Few spatulas give me joy; but I do see how the basic de-cluttering ideas work with clothes, books and other personal possessions, which is where she focuses.

After you group your possessions by category, work on them in that order. Clothing first, books second. Don’t start the process with the beat up Raggedy Ann doll your grandmother made for you when you were a child. When you get to a sentimental item, say a high school dance program, think back to the dance, who you were with, how much fun you had, and then move on.  The program isn’t doing a thing for you now. Same with your elementary school report card. “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past.”

What are traps that prevent us from getting rid of stuff?  1)We think that one day we might still use it; 2) it contains information we might need at some future date; and 3) it is hard to find parts for.  This doesn’t mean you have to keep out-of-date warranties, manuals, cables and cords. And as far as paper, Kondo’s tongue-in-cheek recommendation is, “discard everything.”

Unread books?  Give them away.  If, ten years from now, you really, really wish you had read one of them (and that means you remember which books you gave away), you can always get one from the library or even buy it if it’s that important.

I recommend this book to anyone who dislikes clutter.  I appreciate Kondo’s arguments that there are only benefits attached to getting rid of things we’re no longer using.  She says, “Letting go is even more important than adding.”  And this could be said about more than our possessions.

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How much money do you need?

origami money

Origami heart dollar bill

How much money do you need? Recently someone told me that twenty million dollars was the current number being tossed around in a local football player’s contract negotiations. If you earned twenty million over a course of a few years, would you think that was enough? I’d hope so. But if the athlete is comparing himself to another player making more, it might not be.

No matter how much we earn, we always know of others in our field who earn more. And these comparisons lead to crazy-making thoughts and behavior. In “The Soul of Money,” global activist and fundraiser Lynne Twist says, “redesigning our relationship with money will be the key that transforms the condition of life, both physical and spiritual, for all of us in the twenty-first century.”

Twist thinks a lot about money, since much of her work focuses on ending hunger on a world scale. The belief that all resources, such as nutrition resources, are scarce, even though we know we pay farmers not to grow more food or to plow it under before it’s harvested, guides us to the conclusion that there is not enough food to go around. We worry we don’t have as much money or stuff as the next person. That accounts for some of the success of stores that sell products in bulk, which leads many of us to use our garages as storage containers for everything but cars. (If you looked in my garage you’d think I had anxieties about running out of toilet paper; honestly, the problem was not making a Costco shopping list…twice.)

Talk about scarcity brings to mind descriptors such as “fear, competition, greed, mistrust, envy,” winners and losers, successful and unsuccessful.  In addition to fear of scarcity, another cultural belief we hold is that the more money we earn, the more successful we are. The more possessions we have, the more we identify with them.  I remember as a child connecting with a pen pal in England.  I started my first letter with a list of worldly goods, as in dolls, toys and pets. Years later, I’m thankful that my parents convinced me to come up with a different opening.

According to Twist, the opposite of scarcity is sufficiency, a sense that there is enough. “Sufficiency is a context we bring forth from within that reminds us if we look around us and within ourselves we will find what we need.” Words aligned with this perspective include “gratitude, fulfillment responsibility, resilience, and inner riches.”

One nice thing about retirement is that you no longer have to compare yourself to others, though sometimes we do. Admittedly, for some retirees, scarcity is still an overarching and legitimate fear. In my case, I have too much, which is leading me to spend time each day going through closets, cupboards and drawers looking for items to get rid of. It’s a harder job than it sounds. Today I came across a few zillion nylon stockings.  I haven’t worn nylons for more than five years. Still, I ended up saving them. I can’t predict when I might get an invitation to Buckingham Palace, and I feel certain the Queen will expect to see me in stockings.






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