Sunday, July 31, 2011

Twenty-two days

Twenty-two days ago I decided to write a blog post every day until July 31st. And here we are! I made it! (Except for one busy Saturday. See below.)

It has been a real shift in habit for me, getting up and writing each morning. It's been absolutely dreamy. It feels important. I feel important. I feel more important if I've already taken a shower when I sit down at the computer. Much more official.

“There is something very right about simply letting yourself write. And the way to do that is to begin, to begin where you are.”
-Julia Cameron, The Right to Write

I gave myself an assignment to formally note what I have learned/noticed/relearned over the course of the month. Here’s what found its way to my list…

~ Writing is magical.
~ Writing is hard.
~ You've got to show up every day.
~ Sometimes you have nothing to say.
~ Time off is also important. We need to fill the well, let things simmer. (Reason for the missing Saturday post.)
~ Some ideas take time.
~ Length does not equal profundity.
~ I'm really wordy.
~ I'm perfectionistic.
~ Being the caretaker of Six Giraffes fills me with elation.
~ It also feels like a big responsibility.
~ This belief often leads to fear.
~ Meeting like-minded strangers is exhilarating. So is turning them into new friends.
~ Knowing I’ve impacted someone's day gives me a tingly thrill.
~ I crave validation. Especially for my personal ideas.
~ I’m still finding my voice.
~ I love telling stories with visuals.
~ I want to create a realistic blogging schedule for the school year.
~ I love teaching people things.
~ I love musing on personal life journeys.

I am a writer.

I’ve been saying that for about eight years now, and it has been true all this time. I’ve gone through periods where I spend copious time in my notebooks, carrying around small journals to capture unusual moments throughout the day. And then I get "busy." Notebooks start to collect dust.

But now I am consistently writing, and that is all it takes to be a writer.

“I think the angels reward people who show up at their desk at 6:00 a.m.”

-Elizabeth Gilbert 

Last night I just had to draft out a snippet of an idea. It was as if I had suddenly stoked a previously invisible smoldering fire. Energy rushed through me and onto the page until I could no longer fight off sleep. This morning I felt a weight had lifted, as if that idea had been taking up internal, spiritual space. The bubble gum that had been holding the envelope tight was gone. Once I freed that character onto the page, I was able to speak about new things. Literally.

This fascinated me. Do I show less of myself when I don’t provide an outlet for the characters inside me? When I am really committed to my writing schedule, will I feel more space to express new ideas? I’m curious to see as well as curious to read what finds its way to my pages.

Thanks to everyone who has spent some time here at Six Giraffes during these inaugural months. I love reading your comments, and your encouragement lands like a bouquet of bright daisies in my happy hands.

Next week I’ll be taking you on a road tour of the California coast. Stay tuned to see what magic awaits—hoping to have lots of special things to share!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A lesson via Coleridge

My mother is ambitiously sorting through all the STUFF in her house. I was informed that I needed to come over and go through various old boxes of mine to decide what I intended to keep. (She is graciously still storing some of them for me. Thanks, Ma!) In one of the boxes was a selection of old books that I had chosen from my grandparents' collection when we cleared out their house, years ago. To my surprise, I discovered an ancient artifact among the pile...

(The title on the spine, Coleridge's Poems, fell off just this morning...)

This leather-bound collection was awarded to my great-grandfather for his academic accomplishments at St. John's College in Toledo, Ohio in 1906! The cover feels silky soft, and the book smells like an old, antique library.

I was introduced to Coleridge and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in high school senior English. We did "Kubla Kahn" too, which always childishly made me think of Olivia Newton John's cult classic - "In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn..."
We read a lot of romantic poetry that year, and I was completely entranced by the fanciful odes to nature and the faery realm. I've found myself re-creating a relationship with poetry this week, and I felt the power of this volume not just in my hands, but deep in my soul. An affirmation, if you will. 
I'd love to be invited to this party...

Delicious! It makes we want to sit amongst the trees all day weaving words about mossy banks and stream-soaked pebbles. Am I allowed to do that? Well, I am on vacation. 

Isn't this the kind of question that plagues so many of us? If this is what I love, why am I not doing it all the time? That doesn't mean I have to quit the job that pays my bills (and fortunately also feeds my soul.) It is possible to keep our passions present using smaller chunks of time. I know a successful business man who travels abroad several times a month who is also a gifted portrait artist. He uses his time on the plane to sketch, and it's amazing how much he accomplishes.

I've heard this message before. Nothing new. It really comes down to choice. Art, while seemingly thriving in dreamy freedom, needs structure. It needs regular time set aside to perform, develop, grow. The question really becomes...when will I give my art the structure it deserves?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Nobody tells beginners...

You may have seen this already or even watched the original interview with Ira Glass. I can't help but post this anyway. I passed it by once, feeling the little, nagging tug that meant I should probably listen. When I ran across it a second time, I figured I'd better give in.

Brilliant iteration by David Shiyang Liu

I love this idea of good taste. Artists need to hear stuff like this. I often wonder, unconsciously I suppose, "Why is it I've been called here to do this work, yet when I sit down to do it, it comes out so much differently than it felt inside my head??" I understand that skills need practice and time to grow strong. Still, how easy would it be for me to give up? Well as a perfectionist, very easy. But hearing that I have "good taste" is a special kind of reassurance. I need to know that eventually, someday, what I believe to be good work when I read it, will come out of my own pen. I just need to keep showing up. And read good books. And play. And be gentle with myself.

It's okay to be a beginner.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cookies and milk

I've been steadily making my way through a package of amaretti cookies, which I recently bought for my nectarine galette. They're a perfect, bite-sized treat and I have to admit that I've snacked on them before breakfast. More than once. Like today.

I stood looking out the kitchen window enjoying the sweet almond flavor and the quiet neighborhood when Bam! A memory flooded its way back into my brain in full technicolor. You know that feeling?

My grandparents lived only twenty minutes away growing up, so I would often go spend the night with them, especially in summer. They were quiet, neighborly folk who enjoyed speaking French and listening to classical music. Many of my personal influences come from early days spent at their house.

If I happened to be there on a weekday, my grandpa (Boppa) would leave me a special breakfast treat before he left for work early, early in the morning. This was one of the best parts of staying at Grandma and Grandpa's house. Sliding my way into the kitchen in my nightgown, I was sure to find a small plate with four or five Stella D'oro cookies and a tiny glass of grapefruit juice. If you never had the pleasure of encountering these cookies, here's a picture.

They look almost as I remember. But the rainbow sprinkles used to belong to a flower-shaped cookie, and they were extra rainbow sprinkly.  I really don't remember that obnoxious green frosting. Weird.

Anyway, these Italian cookies were such a warm way to wake up. I would eat them while Grandma slept, imagining what Boppa's day was like at work. The cookies were our own little secret, Boppa and I. "Be sure to finish them before your grandma wakes up," he would say in hushed tones. I'm sure she knew, but at the time I felt so...sneaky. In a good way.

These memories are important for us writers. I know this to be true. But I'm having trouble putting my reasoning into words. Anything that zaps out of the ether into my consciousness has got to be worth remembering, right?  I think my job is to write it down and keep it in the Well of Ideas. It might not get used immediately but it's ready to serve at a moment's notice.

This is such an offshoot of my recent ponderings on Flow. I've noticed a lot of other wonderful, creative people who have been musing about the same the past few days. I'm going to let this idea simmer. What do you do with those lovely memorable tidbits? How do you keep them with you and do they ever suddenly reveal their purpose? Big questions...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sunset Love: cocktails and cabins

“The new Sunset is here! Wahoooo!”

My mailbox has become familiar with my monthly little jig. Today (the day after receiving the August issue) I just had to throw some love out to the West’s best magazine. For those of you who don’t have the privilege of living on the “right” coast, never fear! You can join my party, too.

While there are an infinite number of places on the interwebs to find uniquely awesome DIY projects, green thumb inspiration, quick and delicious recipes, and travel tips that get you packing, for me, nothing compares to receiving this all-encompassing present in the mail, wrapped in savory oak woodland, rocky coastline mist, and kitschy food truck wonder. Turning each page, wondering what surprise awaits on the next, is a joy I savor each month.

And if that rousing cheer doesn’t entice you, here are some snippets to show you what I mean.

The Party Starter - a tempting little number I plan to serve at an upcoming summer shindig. Freeze watermelon ice cubes to create refreshment as cool as a dip in the pool. Puréeing watermelon can be a sticky endeavor but my mouth says it was absolutely worth it.

Finally I made me some edamame hummus! It’s been on my list for a while, and I couldn’t resist it paired with this super healthy, hippie burger. I added a good measure of mustard and used Trader Joe’s tomato basil pizza veggie burgers for the base. Tasty blend of flavors!

SoCal Veggie Burger

I love, love, love this idea for an outdoor table by FarOutFlora in San Francisco. Made from a repurposed palette, a table runner of succulents adorns the middle providing an everlasting centerpiece. Brilliant!

Finally, my travel bug gets very hoppy when I read about all the featured amazing places I might journey, like the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge in Alaska or hidden waterfalls in Hawaii. I downloaded the Best of California’s Central Coast guide for our upcoming trip down Highway 1. I know Sunset understands my desire for out-of-the-way wineries and charming bed and breakfasts. (See, for those of you who only visit the West, here’s a handy resource for you!) They even think about my dog and her travel dreams.

Sunset's website is exquisite, and I could easily be lost there for days. But not everything featured in the magazine is easily found there (or found there at all.) I think this makes my paper companion extra special.

What will I be doing today? Continuing to dream about how I might live out of a recycled shipping container or decompress from city life in a tiny lodge in Lassen Volcanic National Park...

Sound good to you? I thought so.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within.
~ Eckhart Tolle
{artists unknown}

Monday, July 25, 2011

Curiouser and curiouser: Hummingbirds

I'm hoping this is the first in a new series on Six Giraffes. I'm often fascinated by the living and non-living objects in our everyday experience, and I like to give myself a mini-class on different subjects from time to time. Of course, I hardly remember any of the facts I learn later on, which makes it fun to reread when the mood strikes. So without further ado...HUMMINGBIRDS!

Who can resist this swift little creature with its iridescent flashes?

One of my new life goals is to capture these intelligent aviators with my camera. They are often bold. I've come face to face with three at once, determined to figure out what I was doing in their backyard. My current hummingbird friend seems to visit my hanging fuchsia every day in the noon hour. I'm tempted to silently camp out on the patio to see if I can snap a shot of her in action. During my "classtime" I came across the World of Hummingbirds website and was quickly enthralled. I do love a good list.

Here are some interesting facts about the tiniest bird in the world.

Favorite color: red
Favorite flower: anything tubular
Favorite pet name: Joyas Voladoras (Spanish for Flying-Jewels)
Common foreign name: Colibri

Smallest: Bee Hummingbird (5 cm)
Largest: Giant Hummingbird (8 ½ in)

The Numbers
~ Breathing: about 250 breaths per minute while at rest
~ Heart rate: up to 1,260 times per minute
~ Metabolism: roughly 100 times that of an elephant
~ Body temperature: about 107 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius)
~ Weight: anywhere between 2 and 20 grams (A penny weighs 2.5 grams.)
~ Lifespan: average 5 years but can live for over 10
~ Feathers: about 940 for an average sized hummingbird
~ 30% of a hummingbird's weight consists of flight muscles. (Humans’ pectoral muscles are about 5% of body weight.)

A hummingbird's brain is 4.2% of its body weight, the largest proportion in the bird kingdom. With their high intelligence, they can remember every flower they have been to and how long it will take a flower to refill. They can hear better and see farther than humans. They can see ultraviolet light but have no sense of smell.

Food Frenzy
Hummingbirds do not drink though their beaks like a straw. They lap up nectar with their tongues. A hummingbird's tongue is grooved like the shape of a "W".
Hummingbirds need to eat on average 7 times per hour for about 30-60 seconds. They will visit an average of 1,000 flowers per day for nectar. They also eat small soft bugs for protein.

Hummingbirds will not get addicted to a hummingbird feeder, so fill with abandon! They know when to migrate south for the winter if necessary.

Patriarchy or Girl Power?
Male hummingbirds are very aggressive and will chase another male hummingbird out of its territory.

Hummingbirds do not mate for life. Male hummingbirds do not help raise the young.
Female hummingbirds do all the nest building, and they will lay a clutch of two eggs. Female hummingbirds are usually larger than male hummingbirds.

A hummingbird baby is about the size of a penny. They cannot fly at birth and will remain in the nest for three weeks.

Take Flight
Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly both forward and backwards. They can also hover in mid-air, fly sideways, and even upside-down. A hummingbird's wings will rotate in a full circle.

A hummingbird can fly an average of 25-30 miles per hour and can dive up to 60 miles per hour. A hummingbird’s wings will beat about 70 times per second and up to 200 times per second when diving.

World Travelers or Homebodies?

Hummingbirds are only found naturally in the Americas. They are found as far north as Alaska and as far south as Chile.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds have been known to travel 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico to breeding grounds, which takes about 20 hours.

Some hummingbirds will travel over two-thousand (2,000) miles twice a year during migration times. The Rufous Hummingbird travels the farthest north of any other hummingbird to migrate, all the way from Mexico to Alaska.

Apparently some people think hummingbirds migrate on the backs of geese. This is not true! Geese fly on different migration paths or fly-zones than hummingbirds.

*Most of the 300+ members of the hummingbird species do not migrate.

Hummingbirds have very weak feet and can barely walk. While they are very comfortable in flight, they may actually spend most of their life perching.

Power Save Mode
When hummingbirds sleep at night, they go into a hibernation-like state called torpor to conserve up to 60% of their available energy.. When a hummingbird goes into torpor, their metabolic rate is 1/15 that of normal sleep. Their heart rate can drop to as few as 50 beats per minute, and their body temperature lowers to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius)! They will appear as if they are dead and have occasionally been found to be hanging upside-down. It can take up to an hour for a hummingbird to fully recover from torpor.

I hope you've been as fascinated as I was. Here's to backyard birding, art appreciation, and inspiration!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Weekend fun: alphabets

I'm in love with typography and alphabet inspired art. 
The ALPHABET is a key tool in the physical toolbox of expression.
I'm proud to honor it today, 
along with these featured artists! 
(credited whenever possible)

To start us off, here is a photo of the Celtic alphabet that hangs in my living room. I snatched it up the moment I laid eyes on it in a sweet, little shop in Dublin. It's based on the art found in the ancient Book of Kells.

{artist unknown}

As a teacher and children's book writer, I also swoon over alphabets created for children.

 My favorite board book

Admiring the intricacies of pen and pencil illustration...

Another collection of alphabet eye candy: FOUND ART

 French - avion, bicyclette, canard...

And finally farther afield...unusual examples of alphabet reverence.

And my FAVORITE of the day...

Find more ALPHABET LOVE on my Pinterest board!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wordplay: not just for kids anymore

“Language is most daring and most advanced when it is used in a playful setting.”
 -Jerome Bruner

We have been given the beautiful gift of luscious language, why not make it a regular part of our adult playspace? More and more research is finding its way into popular media on the importance of play in innovation, creativity, and personal health for both kids and adults. Words are with us every moment, which means we have an infinite number of opportunities to let loose, flap our traps, and cut a literary rug. 

"The opposite of play is not work, it is depression."
-Brian Sutton-Smith

I feel fortunate to belong to an urban tribe full of playful wordsmiths. We seem to find ourselves rhyming, alliterating, parsing, and coining with reckless abandon. Here are some examples that tickle my fancy.

I giggle inside at the use of Old Timey words used in modern contexts. Words like:
alas and alack

Some words just feel good to say like hoodikai. [(noun) the thing you can’t remember the name of]
“Where the heck is that hoodikai?”

Skedaddle, Roxaboxen, picnic, cinnamon...

My friend calls her Kitchen Aid stand mixer the “the Mixin’ Vixen.”

I also love moments that might call for super swags to use swear words or slang but they choose totally innocuous phrases instead, like:

 “You! You’re such a turkey.”

Did I mention that you are allowed to be as nerdy as you want in wordplay?

Invented Words
In an unusual energetic role reversal (I’m usually beat by 9:30 each night, he’s working hard to get to sleep by 11:00) Ben sleepily said to me, “Why are you so awake and I’m so…whomper??”

Last night, nine of us kids had a “Hangout” on Google+ (more to come on this soon!) We had aimed to have a Meaningful Creative Melding of the Minds, but the excitement of being together took over and “important work” transformed to pure silliness. Someone snapped a shot of the screen with their phone for documentation, and I quipped, “We’re so meta beta right now.” Like, commenting on our fumbling prototype? Get it?

Then we got lost with trucker lingo for awhile.
"Gotta get my covered wagon to the chicken coup before another Big R blows my doors off!"

One of my word champions started a game around the campfire in Yosemite. The goal: to make the longest, sensical string of rhyming words possible. (You can start it off with a non-rhyming word.)

I sought her hotter, broader, daughter.
Caught her.
Got her water, got her fodder.
Taught her, fought her,
shot her.

You need to read this out loud as fast as possible to really get it. Go on! You know you wanna try it.

Another 'king of non-sequitor' friend tweeted:
{Why sing a song of sixpence when you could just rob the "Feed the Birds" lady, who's clearly been raking in the tuppence all day?}

You may have hilarity oozing from every orifice. (Please share your kooky examples in my comments! Bad puns earn extra points.) Or you may not realize how much you already engage in wordplay. Give an extra ear to conversation, sports headlines, and commercials to find language being used in surprising ways. And listen to kids—they’re naturals at messing things up in funny ways.

Lucas: “I know why there’s a [-ber] in December. It’s because it’s so cold and usually snowing!”

It’s Friday—the perfect time to play!  So loosen your lips and let out some luscious language. If you're a writer, be sure to jot your findings down in a notebook for possible future use.

And as the truckers would say,

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Too much stuff

Okay, I admit it. I’m a collector. And a piler.

I think many teachers come by these traits naturally. It’s because we’re so creative, right? We can see the possibility for art projects in those weird pieces of plastic, just like we see the possibility of brilliance in wild, little James running amok in the classroom.

I have worked with managing STUFF for many years. And I have gotten better at it. Now it’s time to finish organizing this sweet, little cottage we currently inhabit. My primary goal is to get the studio (El Estudio!) in shape.

Here are some helpers I’ve found along my way over the years.

1. Julie Morgenstern - Organizing from the Inside Out

Her book still comes up first when you search for ‘organizing’ on Amazon. My biggest take away is her acronym for the organizing process.

S – sort
P – purge
A – assign a home
C – containerize
E – equalize (this is the only word I couldn’t pull out of my brain. no surprise that it’s the one I find most difficult to keep going—the daily maintenance.)

I had forgotten I had this book. A couple of days ago I was staring at the bookshelf, and the spine grabbed my attention. I figured I’d better take Julie down and see what wisdom I could glean this time around. Also, I like to be on a first name basis with my cleaning advisers. It makes the process feel less authoritarian.

2. Karen Kingston – Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui

Speaking of symbology, Karen talks about what your clutter represents in your life. She states that clutter can:
~ make you feel tired and lethargic
~ keep you in the past
~ affect your body weight
~ affect the way people treat you
~ make you procrastinate
~ cause disharmony
~ make you feel ashamed
~ put your life on hold
~ depress you
~ create excess baggage
~ dull your sensitivity and enjoyment of life
~ cause extra cleaning
~ cost you financially
~ distract you from important things
This list alone is enough to get me organizing. So why do people keep clutter? Here are two of my reasons: saving it for ‘just in case’ and ‘scroogeness.’ Both of these ideas show a distrust of the future and a belief in scarcity.

Scroogeness: “I must wring every last ounce of usefulness out of this thing before I can get rid of it, even though I haven’t used it in five years. Otherwise I haven’t gotten my money’s worth.”

If we change our belief system to trust that we will be provided for, we can let go of unnecessary space hoggers and smile when that new item comes our way just at the right time.

Still working on this. I feel a little itchy inside just thinking about it.

3. Lanna Nakone – Organizing for Your Brain Type: Finding your Own Solution to Managing Time, Paper, and Stuff

This book talks about our organizing styles the way Howard Gardner talks about his theory of multiple intelligences. Lanna classifies people into four different styles: Maintainers, Harmonizers, Innovators, and Prioritizers. She describes why people fall into each style based on their brain function, personality, and emotional style. (Click the link above to read more about this.)

My biggest take away: Pilers are often very visual people. Many pilers can pull out that one piece of paper within seconds when asked. They know exactly where everything is because they’ve memorized it visually. Pilers need to have things out in view because “out of sight, out of mind” is really true for them. But all this visual memorization is hard work! We can use our brain space more effectively. One suggestion she shares is to use wall files or vertical files instead of filing cabinets so that in-process work is visible yet not cluttery.

I have found these de-cluttering magicians indescribably helpful because they get to the heart of why people have the habits they do. Understanding the root of my cluttery ways allows me to acknowledge and let them go if I wish, developing new strategies. The contentedness I feel when a new space finally opens up is so energizing!

Do you have a favorite piece of wisdom that keeps you organized? Feel free to share!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Succulent storytelling: symbols

Yesterday’s post has initiated a wave of thoughts. My good friend, At the Dew Drop Inn, was synchronistically paddling in that same sea yesterday, and it got me thinking about how symbols might lead to storytelling.

Personal Messengers

Do you have something that finds you over and over again? An object? A creature? A certain phrase? What does it represent to you?

Like the bird droppings in Diane’s beautiful and humorous story, I realized birds have been capturing my attention for many years.

~The squawking blue jays in my grandma’s backyard during my preschool years

~The raven illustration that lived above their wall of bookshelves, now hanging in my mom’s house

~The hummingbirds we watched on the bottle brush tree and fuchsia outside my grandma’s front door

~The little bird that guided us through the rain to our backpacking site one summer in Yosemite

~The chick I hatched/raised with first graders, which died three weeks later

~My second graders’ growing fascination with all varieties of birds during a big research writing unit

~ Socializing baby penguins at the SF Zoo

~The red-tailed hawk that led me back to a missed trail while hiking alone in Mendocino (once again in the rain)

~The hummingbird that visited me at the beach days after my father died

Any of these moments might turn into a story or at least a featured detail. Did any moments in the list make you curious to know more?

I want to pay more attention to the collection of symbols that gather in my day-to-day world and see how or if they speak to becoming something larger. If stories come from an amalgam of our experiences, than I suspect symbols are crucial elements of our personal storytelling repertoire.

I would love to hear about your life story symbols!