Mind over Medium

Art, Literature, and Pseudo-Science

1864 Math Book with a Mysterious Secret

I’d like to introduce you to a flaky, mouse-nibbled math textbook from 1864:

Christopher found this book moldering amongst a the brittle remains of many other leather-bound tomes at my new favorite treasure hunting ground, Maine Barn and Antiques in Azle, in July of last year– quite some time ago! But I wanted to save this gem for March. Why?

It does have marvelous marbled pages, great geometry graphics, and a wonderful gilt-stamped spine, and it was published in the midst of the American Civil War.


Besides the poetic surprise that Victorian math has “couplets,” the pages of this book were filled with more than complex word problems. In fact, as soon as Christopher picked it up to show me the red-rot dusting the cover (I was looking for another candidate for using up the last of my Cellugel), we noticed that it felt like something thick was tucked inside…


What’s that?!

The book blossomed open to reveal an amazing surprise: a pressed four-leaf clover and a thick lock of dark hair!


They had been in the book so long their ghostly shadows had burned into the acidic paper

This was a math book with a special sort of story problem– why would someone press a lucky clover and a lock of hair in a math textbook instead of, say, a diary or a book of poems or an album? There were no inscriptions anywhere in the pages to indicate that this book had special significance to its owner. There was no bookplate or dedication or anything…just the antique store owner’s penciled in price and inventory numbers.


But the story doesn’t end there! When I got it home, I was taking pictures for this very blog when I turned another page and discovered yet another clover tucked inside! This one wasn’t just four-leafed, either…it has FIVE!



Excitement mounting, I continued carefully rifling through the pages and found two more clovers and a bunch of small slips of paper with the word “Credit” handwritten over and over again in script:


I am thoroughly delighted by this unexpected trove of unexpected tokens! Was this the sentimental horde of some Victorian accounting student or did someone choose to save these things in a book that they believed was so unassuming no one would disturb their secret stash?


I did not want to risk losing any of these puzzling pieces, so I carefully coated the cover with Cellugel and, after it had dried, wrapped the whole tome–flora and all– in archival tissue to hold everything in place before putting it away.


I tucked a note under the knot so that I’ll remember what’s inside, but can you imagine someone finding this curious package after I am gone? What might they think of such a strange bundle?


If you like intriguing antique finds, you are welcome to check out my “Find of the Month (ish)” posts on my other blog, The Pragmatic Costumer.


But Here’s My Application, So Email Me, Maybe?

A Simple HR Solution for Handling Online Job Applications Courteously and Efficiently

I recently moved to a much larger city than Carlsbad, NM: Fort Worth, TX. I assumed that by moving to a larger city, there would be more job opportunities. I was, of course, correct, yet vastly incorrect at the same time. There are many more job opportunities here. Within a month of moving, I had applied to several positions at a local college and a few businesses, mostly for tutoring positions and secretarial work. Thus began the long wait. Having been through the gamut of government hiring, I am used to long waits. It is not unusual to wait 2-6 months from application to finally getting your butt into an office. I am also aware that many institutions and businesses will not hire anyone unless they physically apply in person at headquarters. Many local government listings, even if posted online, will notify a candidate that applying online is not an option, and will provide printable forms to be mailed or delivered in person to town hall. I am not talking about these types of physical applications, though. Rather, I am going to focus on electronically-submitted, online applications. Submitting the application is rarely the problem. The trouble begins after the application has been submitted.

An HR department’s purpose is to work with employees, including potential ones. According to Lisa Mooney of Hearst Communications, Inc., “Recruiting and training new employees are primary responsibilities of the human resources team. This part of the job often entails advertising open positions, interviewing and hiring candidates and setting aside hours devoted to training the new recruits” (Key Functions of  an HR Department). Once an applicant has submitted their forms, the accepting HR department should immediately filter and file the application. The HR department should be prepared for processing and communicating with applicants in whatever form–electronic or otherwise– the department accepts applications. In the digital age, communication is nearly instantaneous and is extremely cheap. In addition, applicants submit their contact information to the hiring company, so communicating with online applicants should be fairly easy, especially via email.

An ideal HR situation involves two-way communication between HR staff and potential employees.

Yet, HR departments across America hardly communicate with job applicants. In fact, many job applicants never receive any notifications whatsoever, not even cookie-cutter rejection notices. This is unbelievably nerve-wracking for an applicant, especially for midlevel jobs. A”midlevel job” is a one that requires education beyond high school or that requires some level of specialized experience: managers, educators, specialists, and the like.  The people applying to these positions have usually invested a great deal of time and effort to prepare themselves. In addition, applications for midlevel positions can involve intense work, often requiring detailed resumés, references, cover letters, curriculum vitae, portfolios, demonstrations, background checks, and the like. For example, one of the jobs I applied for required an education-specific resumé, three references, a cover letter, a questionnaire, and a short answer questionnaire in addition to the regular application (demographic data, age, background, etc.). I submitted all these documents directly using the institution’s career website in early October. It is now December and after logging in (many websites require you to create an account) to check for updates, calling, and emailing, I received no response at all, not even a form letter. People have not answered the phone, returned my calls, replied to emails, or changed the status of my application online (“Pending” has almost become a taunt). Some might chalk this up to any number of reasons, but I am not alone in my experience. You can do everything right and still a company will never contact you.

No Calls Accepted” listings are especially suspect and aggravating. It removes one of the applicant’s active roles in the hiring process, grinding progress to a halt, especially if the HR department isn’t communicative. In that case, the candidate may be stuck in a terrible Catch22: they’ve applied to a “no calls” jobs that they are very interested in and qualified for, but have been waiting a long time with no response. However, a lesser job replied quickly and wants to hire them. What should they do? Take the job offered to them immediately, but sacrifice the possibility of the “dream job,” or hold out in hopes that the no-calls job will “get back to” them? It can be an agonizing decision. I’d rather get a nasty rejection letter rather than a fuzzy, static silence. It’s very unprofessional to treat people like paperwork (file them, stack them, stuff them in a drawer, forget). My advice: call them anyway. At least you might annoy them enough to get a polite, perhaps even rousing, rejection. If you’re lucky, you’ll get someone on the phone who can get you some worthwhile information about the status of the job.

The lack of communication isn’t just frustrating, it’s a huge red flag to a potential employee. I have been told that I “didn’t try hard enough” or that I “didn’t want the job bad enough,” but that’s not the case. I did try and I do want it, but if I can’t even get a straight answer (or any answer at all) out of someone in the HR department after multiple tries, it makes me wonder: if it’s so hard to get ahold of someone before I’m hired, how hard is it going to be to get help from them once I’m inside? Will I be waiting three weeks for someone to file my insurance paperwork or discuss a mistake on a paycheck?

What is lacking from the hiring process is a good communication process. I have worked in an office. I have dealt with the deluge of phone calls, emails, and visitors that seem to come in crashing waves. It can be hard running an office of any sort: people are always asking questions and demanding swift answers that you may or may not know. It’s constant work and it can be hard to get around to satisfying every inquiry while still completing a myriad of other office duties. The way to keep afloat in such situations is by putting processes in place to control the flow.

An ideal HR department would have such a process in place for job applications that has distinct steps for both applicants and the hiring staff. Right now, the process for each company is dependent on the individual company. There is no standard hiring process for any given career, as the processes vary by state, institution, even by hiring manager. It’s foolish to think that there is any “one size fits all” hiring process. However, there is just one simple process that would make the whole online hiring process so much easier and concise for both the candidates and HR staff. It’s as simple as an email list:

Step 1

step 1

HR: List the Job

HR (or the responsible manager) posts an approved listing. Most larger companies and institutions have templates and requirements for such things, but just in case: How to Write a Job Posting. Potential employees appreciate having all the specific duties outlined in simple bullets. Generic “team attitude” and “fast-paced environment” do not help us understand what’s expected of us. List the duties honestly. We also appreciate if the hourly wage range (or salary range) is posted clearly. Most importantly, include the name of the responsible hiring party (contact “Mrs. Leveries” for example) and both their phone and email if possible, as well as available hours. It’s hard for potential employees to give important follow-up calls if we don’t know who to call!

Step 2

step 2

The Candidate: Submit Application

We work hard putting together our documents, so if one is missing or corrupted, we are always grateful to hiring managers who let us know! If your company has a preferred file type (MS Word or PDFs, for example), please make that clear in the listing. The only complaint I have is being asked to upload a resumé and then being confronted with six pages of forms that want me to cut and paste the entire thing into separate boxing is annoying and wastes time for everybody. I know that it helps filter out applicants quickly, but please, pick either an upload or a form, not both. As long as you make your application process preferences clear, I will do my utmost best to get all the materials together for you, from typing tests to driving records and beyond!

Step 3

Step 3

HR: Create a Mailing List

This is what all my rambling has been building up to: The List. All applicants are required to submit their contact information, including email. As soon as a job is created, a mailing list for that job listing is also created, i.e. as soon as a “Senior Marketing Specialist II” listing goes up, a “Senior Marketing Specialist II” mailing list is created. These lists can then be populated as applications come in. Every time a new application is submitted, the person’s name and email is immediately added to that job’s mailing list.

Step 4

step 4b

The Candidate: Contact Employer

This the traditional point at which the applicant should begin contacting the employer if they haven’t gotten any response from HR within a week or two. Calling too soon may seem presumptuous, but such nuances must be dealt with on a case by case basis. Some employers encourage applicants to call while other post the dreaded “no calls accepted.” However, if a company has gone to the trouble of including contact information (especially individualized contact numbers for specific managers, etc.), a smart applicant will ring them up to double check that the application has arrived. An equally smart employer will answer.

Step 4

HR: Send Notifications

The List for each job isn’t just there to keep track of candidates. It’s an active tool for keeping communication open with potential employees. If a job listing is “open until filled” and ends up dragging on for weeks or months, the mailing list tool offers a simple way to let applicants know you haven’t forgotten them. The hiring process often stalls if someone higher up retires or a crisis happens. Don’t leave us applicants in the dark! Send out a “Application received. Please be patient while we continue reviewing applicants. Thank you” notice. Continue to do so at regular intervals if the process is going to take months to complete or a project must be put on hold. Did a grant-funded position lose it’s funding? Don’t just let the applications fester and leave the candidates in the dark! They will be disappointed, but let them know the situation and keep their resumes (and Mailing List) on file just in case funding reappears.

Step 5

Step 7

HR: Filter Candidates

The List allows hiring managers to quickly send out interview info, hiring letters, and rejection notices.  Calling to schedule interviews is still the preferred method, but in an era of mobile networking, many people will appreciate an email sent out in tandem that details the agreed-upon times and address. Once the interview process is complete, it is quite easy to simply remove the chosen applicant from the rest of the mailing list and send them a congratulatory letter. Their email address can then easily be added to the regular employee mailing list. The unfortunate souls left on the job mailing list can then be sent the usual brief rejection letter. While receiving one is painful, it’s better than never receiving one at all, leaving you hanging onto vain hope for months on end! It can be as simple as:

“Thank you for your application. While we appreciate your interest in our company, the position has been filled.”

Bam. Two sentences. That’s all it takes.

I am well aware of the arguments that this is an “employers’ market” and “you take what you can get,” but that is no excuse for denying someone the common courtesy of simple communication. It doesn’t even have to be personal. I don’t need a cutesy letter riddled with entertaining one-liners and small talk from the president of the university. I just want an update, a rejection, or better yet, an interview! Anything but being left in the deep void of Application Land…waiting…

CENSORED! Nudes and the Immediacy of Art

So, this showed up on the walls of our campus a while back:


They are re-painting the walls of our building and after laying down a few stripes of primer before going home for the day, some artist-hopeful sketched this exceptionally flexible lady up on the wall, complete with frame. My co-worker found it and showed it to me, hence the hastily-snapped cell phone photo. We had a good giggle over the blatant ignorance of normal anatomy and range of motion, but we agreed that it wasn’t terrible (“Look how nice her butt is. That man has seen plenty of butts in his lifetime.”). It reminded me quite a bit of the Grand Odalisque by Ingres with a 1940s pin-up face.

The Grand Odalisque by Ingres, circa 1814
Again, the blatant misunderstanding of how the female back functions…



World War II Pin-up Painted on a Plane



Once we’d had a good giggle and snapped a few grainy pictures, I thought little of it. Soon enough it was going to be covered over by more primer and then paint. I’ve seen this sort of ephemeral art before in buildings undergoing restoration. It’s a small tradition in the house-painter’s world to doodle or sign names before covering it all with two coats of paint. What’s the harm?

However, the administration of the building found out about the spontaneous art and wasn’t pleased. The words were something along the lines of “inappropriate for an academic institution.” The nude sketch was reported and ungraciously sprayed over with whatever spray paint was lying around. I’m not much of a house painter, but as a painter in the artistic sense, I know that some paints do not cover others well. The haphazard spray paint may actually do more harm than good, requiring more primer and paint to cover than the sexy graphite sketch would have.


Was the nude really so ignominious?  The female form is widely admired, coveted, sexualized, demonized, and given every treatment from veneration to damnation.  True, the graphite portrayal was not the most flattering nor respectful of women’s “academic mind,” but how is it any different from the other nudes painted throughout history?

Such a small incident would have passed my notice if it had not been for a related incident that had occurred only weeks before. Our department had been granted permission to make a promotional video advertising our services, like workshops, tutoring, and computers. The majority of the room is exceptionally institutional looking, i.e. bare. The back nook, however, is decorated with posters of famous art. As the video administrator was doing a walk through, he spotted a small 8″x 8″ poster utterly unsuitable for an academic institution:

Leda Atomica by Salvador Dali, circa 1949

He ordered it to be taken down entirely. I protested. Not only is this a work with great artistic significance by a well-respected artist, the poster itself was so small and placed so low that, unless the camera was pointed directly at it, it would be impossible to see, much less discern that there was a nude woman.

Still, I was ordered to “fix the problem.” I reluctantly promised to do so and did:


The posters are all laminated, so I used a whiteboard marker to sketch a bathing suit over her “offending” body. The marker is completely erasable, so the art itself is not directly damaged, just shamed. I have to wonder how Dali’s “The Lugubrious Game” would go over. If male scat goes uncensored but a female nude is, what sort of statement does that make about society?

When asked why I didn’t just remove the painting, I explained that modern classrooms are bare and uninspiring as it is– few if any windows, little color, concrete walls– and art is a human tradition born alongside music and fire. I consider it a vital part of culture. I cannot justify removing something widely agreed to be inspiring in order to make a room more “academic.” Academia was born of art and without it, academia is conceit without the poetry.


The Three Graces Roman, Imperial period, second century A.D.
You can remove the heads from the Three Graces and they are still the Three Graces. Remove their bodies, however, and they are just three heads.

Now there are lines to be drawn, especially in a small, conservative community college environments. The naked human body is highly controversial and many people are upset by it, so I can understand that administrators would rather not deal with nude art at all. If it isn’t there to begin with, no complaints can be filed about it. People are far more likely to protest the presence of nudes rather than the lack of nudes around campus! Some nudes, while still academic, would not be suitable for uncontextualized display in college common areas. For example, I would not post a large images of Grecian brothel frescoes in the public spaces around a college campus. However, I would not attempt to eradicate them from existence since they have anthropological significance. They would be completely justified in a human sexuality, psychology, architecture, or art history class. To be offended by nude art but not the theories of Freud is hypocritical. It is decidedly unacademic to omit things not to our individual tastes. Encountering and reacting to new things–good, bad, or ugly–is the very definition of learning. If a student limits their encounters to the things they already accepted and know, they are not a student.

But back to the nude on the wall. Why was she deemed unsuitable and “unacademic?” Most obviously she was created without permission on school property, amounting to little more than graffiti and so was covered as offensive graffiti would be. However, if she was not a nude, but a portrait delicately drawn, perhaps of a sister or celebrity, would she have been thus condemned? More likely she would have been noticed and positively complimented upon, admired for the skill of the rendering before being painted over with little comment. Could it then be inferred that her amateur nature and generic sexual subject matter are what condemned her to censorship? Perhaps.

The most likely culprit is her immediacy. Art, especially nude art, is notorious for being condemned when it is first presented. She’s a modern woman, not some long-distant ancestor put to memory. She’s too close to us and her proximate sexuality makes us uncomfortable. The humanity is too fresh and unnervingly direct. I once heard that art is like wine: it’s not fine art until it has fermented a while in our collective conscience. The crudeness of her figure, twisted repose, and nudity are not yet treasured like a Picasso because she has not yet aged into acceptance.

Nude with Picasso by her feet by Pablo Picasso, circa 1903

Does she present any significant addition to the world of art that, when covered over, is defeated? No. I do not think so. In four days she would have disappeared from view under layers of “Institutional Ivory #8.” She was destined to be hidden; the only change in her fate is that it came a few days early. That brings us to the ultimate question, then:

If she fails to present any lingering, significant addition to culture, is she art?


Untitled (Nude in a Desert Landscape), circa 2013

She is not meticulously studied like an anatomical Leonardo da Vinci, aesthetically pleasing like a Grecian goddess, disarmingly intimate like Degas’ bathers, or socially charged like Manet’s “Olympia.” She doesn’t offer anything other than a twisted spine, an overtly perky breast, and luscious buttocks. She is an excellent case study of sexuality, and to some degree, lighthearted humor. I found her to be a delightfully cheeky addition to my otherwise mundane day at the office. Her appealing, unintentional humor is worthy of Banksy. To others, she is offensive. Art is entirely subjective and offers every viewer the right to choose what is and isn’t within the confines of their individual definition of art. It is ultimate free will. I do not quibble with them for disliking something I found entertaining. They had every right to remove her (she was vandalism after all).

My only argument against her removal would be the reasoning that prompted the censorship of the graphite sketch and Leda Atomica: Because they are nude, they are not fit for display in an academic environment. This logic is disturbing. Colleges should facilitate higher learning, which requires exposing people to knowledge and patterns of thought they would never encounter elsewhere. Art is an intrinsic part–indeed one of the founding principles–of academics. And for the ultimate expression of artistic expression, nothing is so iconic as the female nude. I am not suggesting that it is acceptable to judge women by their bodies alone. These female nudes are not brazenly pornographic nor are they something to be ashamed of. There are models of breasts, vaginas, and penises strewn about anatomy labs across the country, but they are not so censored. We are all adults here. We are not ignorant that women have breasts or buttocks (indeed, I see plenty of them hanging out of crop tops and short shorts in the least artistic way possible during nearly every class session). A corridor in a hallway may not be a place to post frivolous nudes, but to remove respected pieces of art with artistic and academic value just because it potentially offends someone undermines the exchange of knowledge. Do we censor something just because it makes us uncomfortable? Do we forget that women have bodies? Do we forget that humans are hardwired for sexuality? Do we suppress years of collective artistic record in favor of a vanilla past that we’ve carefully covered over with Institutional Ivory #8 all for the sake of never offending a mysterious someone? Controversy breeds argument, debate, creativity, passion, and discovery– the very lifeblood of cognition. Perhaps it’s time for all those naked ladies to teach us a lesson in learning!

Productive Meeting


“Plato Meeting 7/17/2013” a.k.a. The Blond
Pencil on Legal Pad scanned in B&W

I Liked to Read: A Note on the Death of Reading

Elizabeth Hayes

English 4360 – Literary Theory

4 February 2010

Losing Friends

I liked to read. I liked it very much, in fact. My marble-round child eyes slurped up words like alphabet soup. I remember Go, Dog, Go being folded, opened, cracked, crinkled, and thumbed until it became brown around the edges from finger grime, as did the mythology section of the Webster’s Dictionary. My mother can still flip right to that section because of the sepia line ringing the pages. My mother taught me to love reading when I was still very young. My mother read Laura Ingalls’ The Little House series to me every night before bed, chapter by chapter, for two years. I learned about wolves, maple syrup, sod houses, prairie fires, and buffalos while most of my friends preferred to watch TV and eat Spaghetti-Os. My mother bought all sorts of books for me, but none really felt like they were mine. I longed for a book of my own.

One day when I was six, I found a little green book called A Birthday is a Special Day at a church yard sale —a lithographed gem floating on a tiny island in the middle of a gelatinous ocean of burbling magma. Why so? The thin green volume rested at the very edge of Helen Rose’s booth. Helen Rose’s gnarly old hands laced with lavender veins, her gently curved back under her pink sweater, and her spider-web white bun made her sweet looking, but the woman raged as no bull ever has or ever will.

She clamped her arthritic hands around the church library like a miser’s fist around gold. The books did not budge from those shelves. If you did gather enough moxy to check something out, she became your personal poltergeist until every page, stitch, and letter was back on the shelf, snuggled into the blanket of dust from whence it came.

What brain aneurism, amnesia, or dementia prompted her to suddenly sell off  her printed treasure, I might never know, but A Birthday is a Special Day teetered at the edge of the table, tottering in the crisp September breeze.

I stole it—snatched it right off the edge more stealthily than a mouse steals oatmeal. I squirreled that book away, into the juniper bushes that prickled and bit. Blue juniper berries smushing my pastel dress into a pastel mess, I sucked up the happy rhymes and reveled in the spindly, curly font. The book was as friendly, spirited, and idyllic as the friends I didn’t have. I hugged it to my chest and felt fulfilled. I fell under the spell of words, into the binding embrace of an open chapter. The slender green book had stolen me in return.

The little book sent my desire to read spinning. I whirled through the family library, reading everything from The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar to the Encyclopedia Britannica and even some old chemistry textbooks. The back of the Frosted Cheerios box took two minutes in my morning routine and advertisements for discount shampoo and orthopedic shoes that scattered out of the Sunday paper never hit the floor. Anything with language on it, even unintelligible French warnings on the car visor, I strained to absorb as quickly as my mind could process.

By the time I reached middle school, I had read The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Greenwitch, The Unlikely Ones, The Cube Route, and The Giver. National Geographics that arrived in a brown paper sleeve printed with pandas or Neanderthals took thirty minutes to consume. The glossy paper, color pictures, and fascinating articles inside made my school work—mundane essays and state-mandated short stories—seem grey and distant: clouds edging a star-blazed sky. Nutrition labels on the over-salted cans of Campbell’s soup, annoying subscription postcards that tumbled out of Newsweek, and the anticipated bi-monthly Chemical and Engineering News spoke to me, shared their life experiences with me. They still held a warm friendship for me even as my human companions left me behind.

While my personal reading blossomed, my school reading wilted. I never liked school. I hated it, in fact. Screaming children, wicked playground games, rotten milk in gluey cartons, and over-worked teachers beyond retirement battered my body and scarred my brain with unwanted human truths. I tried to hide from the chaos in my books, but soon enough, my printed friends fell victim to education.

Sixth grade brought Mrs. Lopez and her sentence by sentence plod through Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I could not force myself, even threatened with demerits, to slow down to her lethargic, clumping pace. As we took turns around the room I wanted to scream when Andrew Garcia missed his sentence once again because he was sucking the ink out of his golden gel pen.

“Let’s start at the beginning of the paragraph again, shall we?” Mrs. Lopez would say.

I had already finished the chapter and began to count off what passages I would have to read. I marked each one with a star and read the next chapter between sentences. My clever escape was discovered soon enough.

I had lost myself three chapters ahead, wondering how the rats came across their names, when I felt the teacher’s vile blue pen smack my neck.

“Elizabeth! Keep up!” Mrs. Lopez barked.

Punishment was hand-copying the chapter in cursive during lunch hour, but neat handwriting couldn’t save me. My constant reading ahead assaulted my read-aloud time and continued to cost me brownie points in the “smart kid” department. By ninth grade, my refusal to retard my reading pace finally caught up to me.

Assuming that I flat-out couldn’t read, the school put me in freshman remedial reading where I wrote haikus about Prince Caspian and did mindless plot worksheets until my bored brain finally exploded. Arching up like a cobra, I flung my pencil at the chalkboard, livid. I was ushered to the office where the principal asked what the class had been doing.

“Oh, we were writing plot triangles over chapter four,” Mrs. Greywell said. She held up the purple ditto sheet with a picture of a grinning cartoon boy holding up a pyramid labeled “Feeling Words.” I had filled my pyramid with a sketch of a ragged dancing bear, pierced through the nose by an iron ring, from that month’s issue of National Geographic.

“Dance, you fool, dance!” I had scrawled underneath.

I was eventually moved to the regular English class, but it was hardly different. The work was longer and stories duller. The large, purple anthology, six years old and tearing at the spine, held a few good poems, a smattering of fresh prose, a plethora of fascinating biographies, but we never read any of those. Instead, the class took up their pens and slashed through exhausted passages of Dickinson and Shakespeare like savages.

Sixteen is a turbulent time in anybody’s life, and I was no exception. Suddenly life was thrust at me on anything but a silver platter—more like a seething basket of snakes. I went to a private Methodist school because Espanola High ran rampant with drugs, gangs, and a vicious anti-white prejudice. A fair-skinned geek like me, my parents knew, would not survive for long at public school. What they did not know was that private Methodist school brought different challenges, forcing the war from the physical realm into a mental or even spiritual one.

The required religion courses were not intrinsically bad. The information they brought was actually fascinating, but the teacher, oh, the teacher! A small, fish-faced old man with a wild fringe of white wiry hair that flared out like a grass skirt over his ears ran the classroom. The first day of class every year he stood in front of the room, using a yardstick like a cane, and rocked back and forth on his heels. A ghoulish grin spread his mounded wrinkles.

“Welcome to my classroom,” he said. “I am Mr. Bruner.”

He rocked back and forth. His imp eyes glittered.

“Here, I am God.”

Mr. Bruner wasn’t joking. He wielded his power like the Old Testament God: wrathfully. You did as he said; spoke as he ordered; thought as he desired you to think. He assigned books not to read them, but so he could re-write them under his own divine influence. Hinds Feet in High Places, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and even Jurassic Park —all utterly decimated by the touch of his translucent, pink fingers.

The worst, the very worst, of the lot was The Screwtape Letters. Devils, voices, tricks, hellfire, and fouled religion brightened his imp eyes like no other story in his massive library. The mangled book scrambled my adolescent brain. The Screwtape Letters wasn’t like the other books I had read. Under Mr. Bruner’s oppressive preaching, the book offered no comfort, no kinship, no love. It growled at me from under my bed, breathing, haunting my nights with shadows in the corner of my room. I could see the specter’s claws reaching out from the darkness, black as India ink, spreading over my walls, carpet, sheets like a flood. The voices howled in my head, for the book had woken the devils of my dreams. The nagging voices laughed at me, taunted my insufficiencies, and circumvented my last threads of sanity.

It killed me. Verily, it did. More than the boredom of poetical annotations or theme descriptions, the words that skittered through my brain did more damage than any other literary exercise. The teacher’s twist of a book intended to enlighten plunged me into darkness instead. The world was no longer a safe place. Books were not all friends anymore. I discovered books shoved in the back of closets, on the bottom shelves of libraries, and in the backpacks of my friends, full of horror, desecration, hatred, and evil. I learned how distorted a book can become in the hands of a vicious teacher and how a book can destroy as much as it builds.

It is only fitting to me that a book should lay me open the way I have done to them for so many years, dirtying my edges as my fingers had crusted the pages of picture books so many years ago. High school might have frightened me from books, but I still found reading a comforting entertainment in the dull hours of the night. There was still the beauty of the language, if not of the content. The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Canterbury Tales delighted me during my junior and senior years of high school. I wrote some of my best essays, poems, and letters under the influence of these and other works. The way the words trickled, skipped, flowed like blood, even in the horror, was beautiful. Their words were worth a thousand pictures. Then the content, too, was suffocated from my soul.

I liked to read. I liked to read very much. Now, I do not read. I still long for the old books, the feeling of belonging and calm they gave to me when I sat under the ash tree and read until the sunset turned the light too purple to see. College stole the light utterly.

The dark clouds that had roiled on the horizon since grade school broke free from the mountains, roared over the valley of my conscience, thundering, flashing, and raging, and settled their darkness over my head. The storm of words and notions fogged over my vision as the wind of speculation picked up paragraphs and smashed them into theory. The bindings, empty, begging for me to save them, whirled away in the tempest like limp bodies.

The books I thought I knew, the plays I once loved, are actually thinly disguised smut. The beautiful words are only lies. The language is a Persian rug to cover a foundation of mud. Books are not friends, I was told, they are malicious mazes and monsters dwell between the lines. The scholars mocked my child-like love of literature, taunting me with spiteful vigor and turns-of-phrase. I put my hands over my ears, squeezed my eyes shut, and clamped my mouth closed because everything was wrong.

It was wrong to rip my relationship to the writing from me and substitute another; wrong to laugh at my emotional response, my ties, my devotion to these tomes; wrong to chase from my eyes the beauty I saw; wrong to change the way I think. To change me. It was wrong to rip the literature out of my soul and turn us into nothing but objects to be studied.

Books have souls. Ink is their lifeblood. I dread reading now, because I know that I will have to murder the work, dissect it down to its smallest organs. I am not a butcher. I am a small child who reads with a corrupted innocence that longs to read again, but I am given knives disguised as knowledge. Every word is cut out, ingested, digested, and vomited out again, a reader’s bulimia. I love the taste, but oh the horror of the weight it gives me! The Os plead with their gaping mouths while every “i” stares in horror. I cannot look at them. I cannot.

I do not fear death. I do not fear pain. I do not wish to remain naïve and oblivious to suffering. I can appreciate the turns in life, good and bad, but I cannot abide having something so close and loved rendered meaningless by blather. The world has enough noise and confusion as it is. I wish to read again, alone, in peace.


“When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.”

{attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery}

I see the problem more clearly now. However, this time, I am on the other side of the classroom, the wretched teacher forced to brandish the fiend knives and command brains with hardly a desire in them to dice up some essay on economical depletion or other such dense drivel. Many students of mine hardly muster the will to read the picture captions in People Magazine; a six page article on Abraham Lincoln explaining the complex relationships between his cabinet members is like having to eat a mill’s worth of sawdust.

What have we done to reading? What has become of books? They are no longer something to treasure or even respect. There is a huge split now and not just literate/illiterate. Books have become a religion. Those read to dissect a book brag righteously about it, lording it above others, while those who loathe reading fight vehemently against any mere suggestion of digesting a  written word. It is not because the books are objects to worship or scorn, but because many people have never been taught to read. Yes, I said it: in our attempt to foster educational growth, we have taught literacy, not reading.

I believe it is because our obsessive literary dissection has turned books from enjoyable experience into overwhelming puzzles. Some people are adept at these puzzles. They derive great satisfaction from finding all the hidden meanings amidst the double-speak. But others are not so inclined and they are not to be blamed for it any more than someone ought to be blamed for enjoying spicy foods or being terrible at basketball. However, the popular method for teaching literature is doing future generations a great disservice because it insists that in order to comprehend a passage, it must be completely disassembled and reassembled before you’re allowed to move onwards to the next victim.

Children are no longer taught to just pick up a book to read it. They are trained to pick up a book and pick it apart, which only teaches them that knowledge from books is a nasty chore akin to fishing a quarter out of the cafeteria dumpster. If reading a book is made into such tedious work without an explanation about the purpose or rewards for the labor, of course people will seek the comforting embrace of a movie that does the explaining for them! It’s human nature to find the easy way out, so the phenomena is not unexpected. It’s just sad that the thing most people are trying to escape from understanding the written word.

I don’t believe that books are dead yet. We may have sliced them up and shoved the remains into the dusty closet of academia, but there is still hope for a revival. The electrifying kick literacy needs isn’t more essays, worksheets, or lectures. The hope for the book lies in the most sacred part of the school day: recess. Get poor, pale pages out of the sickly, yellow florescent hell of the classroom every once and a while and show people how to read just for the reckless pleasure of it! I am not against schoolwork, projects, and discussion. There are lots of important messages hidden in between the black and white type that must be found in order to fully grasp the gravity of a story. It is not discover that I am disillusioned with but our way of teaching dissection before the student fully comprehends and appreciates the object which they are slicing apart.

I realize that this is why I no longer read. I, too, have been sucked in by the complicated task of reading for tricks, rather than treats. I have only read about three books all the way through in the past two years, often because my whole day is spent shredding the same passages over and over for a group of students who were never taught the beauty of words. I used to be able to digest about three books in a day. Now, I feel a weariness towards them that I imagine my students have learned to feel.

But I am trying. I am taking the first small steps in my own Reading Rehab program. I will not let literary  theory/synthesis/exposition and its dogma weigh down the glory of enjoying a good book (or even a terrible one even now and then for a deliciously bad shock). I enjoy some of the little puzzles between the lines, but I have re-learned which ones are meant to be solved and which ones are coquettish phantoms that the author never meant to put there. The years have taught me what research is practical  and worthwhile and which is pointless. I have directionality now. I have hope that in the future, others will not have to re-learn how to read as I have. Books are your friends. Stop being their psychologist, and get back to being BFFs!

Second-Hand Masterpieces

It’s good to know that I’m not the only painter who recycles:


María Teresa Infanta of Spain, by Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, 1645

Hint: Look closely that the curtain behind the princess!

The House in the Meadow

An ancient grey house in the meadow
leans toward the morning sun
as light slants over the hills.
What little green paint was left
Has peeled off the door in papery shreds.
The worn brass handle is utilitarian,
Darkened by years out in the middle of the field,
unprotected by the porch which collapsed half a century ago.
A lazy cow beds down on the east side,
pressing the old structure into a further lean.
Wind carries a salting of spring pollens
through the empty window frames
and whistles out the other side, bearing a load of dust.

Death of a Camera

Sudden tragedy! My favorite camera– the one with beautiful light sensitivity, delicate focus, and insightful color patterning—drowned this afternoon. How? It fell in the cat’s water bowl. Of all the places it could have landed within a 360 degree radius, it had to land precisely in the center of the 4 inch diameter cat bowl. What are the odds? You’d have better luck on scratch-off tickets! Well, dear digital camera friend, you were a faithful companion these 13 years. You will be sorely missed.

Fond Memories Captured Together

Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art

I recently visited the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in Roswell after failing to find any extraterrestrial beings (other than a few inflatables lingering in the store windows wearing hideous outfits). Roswell isn’t just about aliens, though. In fact, it’s the least of Roswell’s charms. Don’t go to the town looking for spacecraft; instead, go for the hidden gems like the Anderson Museum.

“Donald Anderson has assembled a collection of over 300 works of art produced by the talented individuals that have participated in the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program. Housed in over 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, this permanent and growing collection represents one of the most significant gathering of contemporary art in the region.”

The place is brimming with everything from classical-style art to performance and outsider pieces. The museum works on a fabulous residency program. Artists are chosen and given a year of residence at the museum to create artworks, then one or more of their pieces are chosen for the museum.

Sooooo….where do I sign up? 🙂

The Average Criminal

The Special South Wales Mugshots of Criminals, 1910-1930

I found these during a researching binge.
They are extraordinary.
There are dapper gentlemen, murderers, ruffians, thieves, partiers, and ladies seeking “miscarriages.”
The humanity of them is astonishing as these were snapped soon after the arrest and not in the traditional measuring room, but in the cells, yards, and holding rooms where the accused waited for their trials. The photographs provide a rare glimpse into the faces behind the crimes, and the stories in their eyes are haunting.

Eugenia Falleni (alias Harry Crawford), murder, 1920

B. Moody, (crime unknown), 1919

Mrs. Osbourne, (crime unknown), 1919

Alfred Fitch, repeat offender, 1924

 Nancy Cowman, aiding abortion, 1924

Alfred Ladewig, con artist, 1920s

Barbara Turner, forgery, 1924

Frank Murray, burglary and sale of stolen goods, 1929

B. Smith, Gertrude Thompson and Vera McDonald, harboring thieves, 1928

Emma Rolfe, theft, 1920

Valerie Lowe, burglary, 1922

These people all seem very real. Some are frightening, like Eugenia Falleni who impersonated a man and murdered her wife, while others look deep in despair. Others look at the camera with a glint in their eye: the devil may care!

All of them are fascinating.