Monday, December 29, 2014

A related literary genre

In my last post, I forgot to mention a genre that I think of as related to Survival Literature: the I-Hiked-a-Thousand-Miles Confessional. In these narratives, autobiographers challenge themselves by hiking and camping their way across vast distances. The stories are framed by precise geographical coordinates (starting at Official Point A with the plan to reach Official Point B before winter); the threats faced are more often from people (including the authors themselves) than from the great harsh outdoors; and the authors discover great things about themselves and humanity in the process. They are self-absorbed seekers, like Siddhartha, but enjoyably so and, despite their flaws, way less annoying.

The genre includes books like Bill Bryson's laugh-out-loud funny A Walk in the Woods and Cheryl Strayed's recent Wild. I read most of A Walk in the Woods several years ago but, as is also my propensity with peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, never quite managed to consume it in its entirety. I read all of Wild on a binge this fall, following Alive and Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

I have a friend who has hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail each at least once, and the frequency with which people ask her if (as a woman) her experience is like Wild drives her nuts. I understand why people ask, though. Wild is to literature as a woman is to an academic department dominated by men, asked to serve on more committees than anyone else in order to speak for The Female People. On the bright side, if Wild were fiction, the protagonist would be dead by the end, or at least plain, if not ugly--the traditional literary ways to punish women who have sex and do drugs, let alone hike solo.

The great literary experiment falls into a crevasse and dies

2014 is almost over, and I haven't written about my epic Books-I-Hated-in-High-School Literary Revisitation Experiment since April, when I discovered my affinity for literary characters who most other people think are evil. There the experiment ended. I left my hero, Madame Dufarge, in the middle of her revolutionary subterfuge; may she continue to knit secrets in perpetuity.

Was whatever spark I once had for reading permanently dimmed by the literary canon forced upon me in high school, when I was too young to appreciate it? Yeah, probably. Did I enjoy rereading any of it as an adult? Yeah, OK, some.

To cleanse myself after the year of dutiful experimenting, I turned to a genre I usually enjoy--Survival Literature--and reread Alive for the third time. If the High School Literary Canon Committee ever wants to drop Siddhhartha, they could surely pull some excellent replacements from Survival Literature, which offers real-life tales of self discovery to shock and awe any teen. Consider the following:

* Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read. A Uruguayan rugby team charters a plane that crashes in the snow-covered Andes in 1972. The narrative explores the emotional and physical endurance the survivors tap into to stay alive during their 10-week ordeal, including their difficult, respectful, and transformative decision to cannibalize frozen corpses. Although search efforts are launched by friends, families, and Chilean, Argentinian, and Uruguayan government agencies, rescue comes only after two survivors trek 60 miles through the mountains to find help.

* Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. Simpson and his mountaineering acquaintance Simon Yates pair up for an ill-fated climb up the north face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. When Simpson breaks his leg near the beginning of their descent, Yates rigs together a pair of ropes that he uses to lower Simpson down the mountain. At one point during the descent, Simpson unexpectedly slips over the edge of a cliff; dangling from a taut rope, can neither lower himself down nor climb back up. Yates, holding onto the other end of the rope a few hundred feet up the mountain, is unable to help without also sliding off the cliff. After a few hours, Yates cuts the rope. Simpson falls into a crevasse, but miraculously lands on an ice table; knowing he's presumed dead, he spends the next four days dragging himself physically (and mentally) back to the base camp, arriving just before Yates' departure.

* Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston. The author does what parents always tell kids not to do: he goes hiking without letting anyone know where he's going or when he'll be back. While exploring a remote canyon in Utah, a boulder slips, crushing his arm against the canyon wall. The emotional drama isn't told with the same quality prose as Alive or Touching the Void, but the story is nonetheless riveting; near death after being trapped for several days with barely any food or water, Ralston amputates his own arm--and then manages to hike out of the canyon and several miles back to a trail for help.

* Into the Wild by master story-teller Jon Krakauer. This isn't really Survival Literature, since the protagonist doesn't survive, but Into the Wild would make a great replacement for Siddhartha, should the Canon Committee ever feel so moved. Christopher McCandless does what Aron Ralston did, to the nth degree: he not only goes hiking without letting anyone know where he's going or when he'll be back, but he does it for months at a time and on purpose, intentionally cutting himself off from family and friends to live an ascetic life in the wilderness. Whether he was seeking Nirvana or something else, no one will ever know, since he didn't have any maps with him when he died of starvation in Alaska in 1992.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Paint colors

How does one get a job naming paint colors? I would like to offer my services to this needy industry,

There are a lot of awful paint color names out there--names of things that few people should rationally want smeared on their walls. Food, for instance. Behr offers an extensive menu of sweet and savory puréed edibles, as well as a range of non-puréed but generally easily-digested solids: cranberry whip, pumpkin butter, sweet marzipan (vs. unsweet? do they know what marzipan is?), cilantro cream, hummus, creamy mushroom, rye bread, toasted wheat, tapioca, cherry cobbler, and seaweed salad.

From the Let's Imbibe! palette, Behr offers several alcohol colors that probably won't complement the meal: mojito, reisling grape, coco rum, so merlot (vs. for/and/nor/but/or/yet merlot), and royal liqueur. Alcohol accent colors include intoxication and cork.

In the Relics of Imperialism palette, Behr offers colors such as folklore, ethiopia, tibetan temple, tribal pottery, japanese kimono, congo, kenya, and amazon jungle.

Perhaps it was after a night of inhaling fumes in a room freshly painted with cranberry whip, hummus, and congo that Behr's color namers came up with lizard breath.

Over at Sherwin-Williams, the color names are more matter-of-fact (or the color namers are more depressed). People who don't already spend enough time staring at computer screens should consider web gray, online, and software. For those who see paint colors as expressions of personality, a limited range of hues are available, including notable hue, sensible hue, spicy hue, and nervy hue (roughly speaking, light blue, gray, yellow-green, and brick red, respectively).

To my delight, someone with a sense of humor has infiltrated the depressed Sherwin-Williams naming think-tank and has inserted, in the midst of the many many shades of gray, the color names dorian gray (which ages nicely in your living room but not in your attic), gray matters (for the cerebral citizen), gray area (for equivocators), amazing gray (how sweet the sound), rock bottom (for those who aren't feeling sufficiently depressed), spalding gray (for avant-garde autobiographers), and anonymous (which would probably go very nicely with stenciled wall flowers).

As a snarky, over-degreed artist who experiences only mild depression, I feel I would be a perfect fit for the Sherwin-Williams family of paint namers. Naturally, I find inspiration and joy in the vivid colors I encounter daily in the world around me. Thus, Sherwin-Williams (whose sky high, maison blanche, bittersweet stem, and pebble now freshly grace upstairs walls in my house), I gift you with damp freeway, gravel shoulder, white stripe, yellow dash, and dried weeds.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A thank you poem for our local independent bookstore

Reason #412 to love The Regulator Bookshop: when your child is waiting for you in the car, bored, so he plays around with his brand new Regulator gift certificate so full of potential, leans it against the window to admire it, and it slips down the window and into the door, whereupon his lower lip trembles and salty tears leak out of his eyes, and the mechanic up the road laughs and tells you it's gonna cost way more than the value of the gift certificate to retrieve it, and, while your child stands by avoiding eye contact and feeling mortified, the kind folks at the Regulator listen to your story with a reasonably straight face, agree that it's too strange to make up, ask you to burn the gift certificate if you ever manage to get it out of the car door, and write your child a new one.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


We went to Ocracoke Island with friends for Thanksgiving break. We don't visit the coast very often, maybe every 2-4 years or so; but we wanted to get away over break, far but not too far, and after much late-in-the-game searching, we finally landed on Ocracoke. Only one of the eight of us travelers had ever been there before. We left pre-dawn on Wednesday, driving three-plus hours through pouring rain and wind to Swan Quarter, where we arrived, full of adrenaline, with 5 minutes to spare before the ferry departed for the 2.5 hour scoot across the sound. Ocracoke was spectacular, and well worth the trek.

Leaving Swan Quarter
Our first beach day began with lots of clouds...
...but the sun poked through...
...and drove almost all the clouds away.

E's a sandcastle kinda guy...
...while his friend E prefers running with pelicans.
After a few hours of wading and building sand
castles in wind and sun, boys needed to rest.

J and I came across a dead turtle at the northeast end of the island. J reported it the next day to the Park Service.
On the sound side of the island, sandpipers run in the water; they're more cautious on the ocean side.
Orion and Taurus over the beach

Harbor view
Wishful thinking
Like father, like son
We ran into friends from home as we were getting on the ferry back to Swan
Quarter. They had left their car in SQ and were travelling by little red wagon.
When we left Ocracoke, the sky and ocean were almost indistinguishable. Then the sun broke through...
...and the clouds cleared away. Several dolphins waved to us, but none agreed to pose for this photo.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


The pair of interlocking sliced tori that went to the Bridges 2012 conference are now part of the permanent collection of the Bridges Organization and are traveling with a series of weekend math-art conferences called MoSAIC (Mathematics of Science, Art, Industry, Culture; what a math-artful acronym!). MoSAIC landed at Berkeley College in Berkeley CA this past weekend; it's next stop will be Columbia University in New York City, followed by my fist Alma Mater, the University of Illinois in Urbana IL, next month. The complete schedule for this year is here; check out a conference if it comes your way!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Porcelain and a spider

One of the joys of culling together three part-time jobs doing three different things I (fortunately) really enjoy and that require reporting largely only to myself, is that when things pile up, they really pile up. At some point, I will take photos of the new glazes I've been using. Initial results have ranged from truly spectacular to good-for-under-plants to not-even-its-mother-could-love.

I'm experiencing some impressive, unpredictable bloating in my dark clay (Standard 266). This was something a friend had warned me a while ago to expect with this clay but that I've never had problems with until recently. For some reason, only bowls bloat; chickens, zigzags, salt rocks, and mugs have been fine. Meanwhile, my favorite white clay, Li'l Loafers, is leaving annoying little bubbles in the new glazes (unless the clay is super thin). From what I've read, I suspect there are impurities in the clay that can't quite burn out through the glaze. Slower bisquing hasn't seemed to help, so I'm trying a switch to Helios porcelain.

Porcelain and I haven't gotten a long so well in the past; it's finicky, while I'm generally an impatient kludger. Having avoided porcelain for a few years, I'm currently pretending we're just meeting each other for the first time, and I plan to try to get to know porcelain for what it is, as opposed to what it isn't. All I shall observe at present is that, astonishingly, I can throw a bowl out of two pounds of porcelain that's about twice as big as what I can throw with two pounds of Li'l Loafers or 266. Also, porcelain doesn't rinse off as well as the other clays. (I'm shedding clay dust on my computer as I type; new studio cleaning habits will commence shortly.)

Since I don't have a photo of pots, I'll post this photo of a hard-working spider that was hanging out near the porch studio last night.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Clay's Lament

Sometimes folks in the communal pottery studio leave their clay on the plaster part of the wedging table to dry for a bit, and then they forget about it. Tonight, an accumulation of dried out clay lumps inspired this:

The Clay's Lament
~ in tragic verse ~

High atop a mountain born,
Across millennia, ground and worn,
'Til rested I in a riverbed,
For thy art then harvested.
My life, once formed, was all too brief:
My form, once lived, brought thee but grief.
Now on th'wedging table, I:
Abandoned here, out to dry.
Will no artist's hand or eye
Alter this cruel destiny?

Friday, August 15, 2014


I went for a jog this morning at West Point on the Eno, and found the remains of most of a dragonfly near the end of my route. I brought it home with me and photographed it on the porch. After downloading the images, I went back outside to try to get a better color shot at the angle I liked best, but in the meantime, ants had found the dragonfly. Perhaps I will continue to take photos all day long, to see how this ends up.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lessons from the spray booth

Well folks, I've finally done it! Thanks to a grant from the Durham Arts Council, I have, in the past few months:

  • organized a space in the basement for storing glaze chemicals and mixing glazes (which involved removing a lot of junk, and nudging S to organize his hoard. Despite adding a few hundred pounds of raw glaze chemicals, the basement is now a far far safer place than it was previously);
  • purchased or collected the necessary equipment for mixing glazes (buckets, jars, sieves, scale, scoops, cabinet, drill & mixing extension, table, etc. etc.);
  • replaced the homemade spray booth that S designed for me from a 45-gallon chemical storage keg (a cool idea, and much appreciated, but tiny) with a much more spacious, easier-to-clean, affordable booth I nabbed from a potter who was closing up shop;
  • and reorganized my porch studio to accommodate the spray booth, which was originally supposed to go in the basement, but--ha--it wouldn't fit through the hobbit door; so we decided to put it on the front porch, but it wouldn't fit through the human door either; so S took out a screen panel, and we lifted the booth over the railing into the porch studio and re-installed the screen. That was some unexpected fun.

Finally, finally, I spent last weekend in the basement hanging out with the camel crickets and the mosquitoes, mixing up glazes.

And then, finally, finally, finally, today, I plugged in the compressor and the hood, hooked up the sprayer, and set to work.

Here is what I have learned so far:

Lesson 1: Before spraying, you're supposed to make sure your glazes are well sieved, lest they clog up the sprayer. Something clogged up my sprayer almost immediately, but it wasn't the newly mixed, freshly sieved glaze. I noticed little black threads accumulating in the sprayer nozzle. I took the nozzle apart and discovered the problem. Turns out, ants are not well sieved. They come through the nozzle in little shredded bits of abdomen, legs, and who knows what. There were about one and a half survivors; I'm not sure how many casualties there were. It has never been my practice with other spray booths to check for ants in the hosing first, but from here on out, it will be part of my plan.

Lesson 2: The compressor draws too much current and keeps tripping the circuit breaker. This is very annoying, and more than a little disappointing on Spray Booth Grand Opening day.

Lesson 3: Spiders loooove bisqueware. There is no better place to start a web than on a bisqued bowl that is about to be glazed. The more recently the bowl has been wiped down, the better: there's no time like the present!

(Since I'm sharing bug lessons, I should add that the dried up palmetto bug that fell off a greenware bowl into the bottom of the kiln on Sunday combusted 100% at cone 06/1824oF.)

Now I shall eat lunch.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jamie Kirkpatrick workshop

Several years ago, I took two classes taught by Jamie Kirkpatrick at Claymakers: one on making larger pots and one on saggar firing. If I nudge my students now with the cheer, "you are the boss of the clay," it was in Jamie's classes that I started to be the boss of my own clay. So I was delighted that Jamie came back to Claymakers in early June to teach a saggar-firing workshop. The workshop (along with a workshop with Deborah Schwarzkopf last year) was a good reminder that, yes, you can make pretty much anything you want out of clay--you just have to figure out how. Jamie's pots are gorgeous, the cohort of students was a pleasure to spend a week with, and the results of the firing were dramatic and beautiful.

C.E.'s secret code soaked up the smoke
My best result: copper wire mask with oxidation spot from hole in saggar

Zigzag pot with oxidation spot from saggar hole (red slip on white clay)
Totally reduced chickens and nested spheroid with one of Jamie's pots to the right and K.S.F.'s pots to the left
Jamie pot with swirl
Heavy metal stripes on a Jamie pot
Jamie's carved pot
Fresh fern oxidation shadow on a pot by K.S.F.
S.S. dipped hexagon netting into copper wash and got this fascinating result

Monday, May 26, 2014

Fauna update

I went out to the garden the other day to feed the mosquitoes, and ran into this beautiful guy:

Here's hoping he sticks around to reduce the population of blood-suckers.

When I came back in, Schroeder was working his kitty magic out on the porch. Observe his well-honed moves--how, with minimal exertion, he entices humans to pet his adorable schnoz.

Friday, May 16, 2014


For the first time since we moved into our house 13 years ago, we've planted a real garden. Oh, we've tried a few things in the past, including an herb garden in the front yard (the survivors of which have been a 12-year-old pot of chives and an indomitable rosemary bush), and some tomatoes (imagine this: they don't grow well in clay, and apparently they expect to be watered). In the past two years, we've also tried three times, and failed three times, to grow mint, although I have high hopes for the sprig I found when we hacked back the rosemary earlier this spring.

I'm pretty good with indoor plants, though. My great achievement of the winter involved coddling a grief-stricken portulacaria afra back to vigorous health in our claw-foot bathtub upstairs; indeed, it was that victory that gave us the confidence to try coddling some outdoor plants this year.

Reinvigorated elephant bush is happy to be back on the porch for the summer.

We took our friend R's advice and built a raised bed. S built the frame out of some pine 2x4s; then he and E leveled the ground in front of where a gutter drainage pipe empties into the yard. We put the frame down over some mole-barrier cloth, filled it with several years' worth of beautiful dark compost from our immense compost pile, and topped it off with 10 sacks of organic soil.

E and I planted tomatoes (one heirloom variety and two kinds of cherries), herbs (basil, parsley, and sage), jalapeño peppers, watermelon, and yellow crookneck squash that should have been zucchini except someone had put it back in the wrong spot at Home Depot and I didn't notice the label until we got home. We also planted sweet mint in a terracotta pot and put it next to the garden bed, and we carried the big pot of chives from the front yard to the back yard so they could mentor the newer herbs. Finally, we planted radish seeds, to fill space until the squash and watermelon take over.

We did all of this at the beginning of May--a little late, but better than the previous never we were accustomed to. The weather was lovely and cool, and 2014's mosquitoes had yet to hatch.

Now, every night, squirrels dig holes in the dirt, and every morning, we fill the holes in. Generally, the squirrels avoid the larger plants, but one day we found shredded basil leaves in one of the holes, and the radish seedlings have been rearranged and buried a few times. We had dutifully followed the instructions on the radish seed packet, planting them 6 inches apart, but when R came by and visited the garden today, she gave us permission to live exuberantly and do whatever we want, so I planted 50 more seeds, 3 inches apart, in the space between herbs and peppers: some to defy seed-package authority, some for the squirrels to dig up, some for the squirrels to bury, and some, hopefully, for us to eat.

We had 3+ inches of rain last night, to the great pleasure of the tomatoes.

Early indications suggest that we will have at least three cherry tomatoes.

Shredded basil in a squirrel-dug hole. The squirrels will have tomatoes to play with 
later this summer, but where will they find fresh mozzarella and extra virgin olive oil?