Creativity, power, and compliance


The writing of this post, though not the content, was inspired by this link, on writer’s block, anxiety, and writing itself as the therapy:

It may be that learning to do creative work of any kind—not just direct imagery exercises—may help combat writer’s block. Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist who is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of “Wired to Create,” says, “When one feels writer’s block, it’s good to just keep putting things down on paper—ideas, knowledge, etc.”

I don’t feel as though I have writer’s block, but I haven’t been writing. Why not 20 minutes a day? Start now.

I went to a lecture today for one of my classes at MIT, 2.00b Toy Product Design. The professor was leading students through a list of commonly misunderstood and misused terms: engine vs motor; nut vs. washer; die vs. tap; and so on. He got to energy vs. power. He asked for the definition of energy, and a student answered close enough.

He asked, “What is power?” and a student blurted out, “A great responsibility.” I laughed, the professor laughed, and many students in the class laughed.

The definition for power actually is “amount of work or energy transfer per unit of time.” It’s a rate.

I learn a lot in these classes about engineering. In another class this week, I deepened my knowledge of stepper motors. These are very ingenious things.

But this afternoon, as I left class and walked to get some dinner because I have a night lab at 7 PM also in the toy design class, I was thinking about power as a responsibility. The professor had added, after the laughter died down, that he hoped it wouldn’t be used for evil, and he meant the social relations kind, but I suppose also you could apply it to the physics principle. Let’s not use machine power, for example, to plow a vehicle into a crowd.

I have power, and I have prerogative as to how I’ll use it. Over the weekend a dear friend gave me a high compliment: she said I was one of the two most “self-directed people” she knows. That is a kind of power. Therefore, it makes me bristle sometime to have people try to exert their power over me – not the law so much (I’ll comply with that), but the demands or instructions of others especially when they are not consistent with my values or desires.

Jimmy, my husband, once said I am “typical GenX: outwardly compliant and inwardly defiant.” This is true too. Even when I bristle at the demands of others, I often will fulfill them, for peace or ease or even the satisfaction of others.

Is there another generation that is inwardly compliant and outwardly defiant? Some people are this way. They act out, though inside their desires are conventional. (I think of compliant as having to do with some set of rules or expectations or sentiments shared broadly in the culture, and not, oh, compliant with the weather.) An employee, for example, may make a lot of commotion at work in the form of complaints or acting out, but inside s/he is really wanting job security, a promotion, and praise. S/he looks like a change maker or ballbuster but really her/his comfort zone is in safe territory.

Some people want others to have power OVER them to keep themselves in line. Like a friend who says, “Please yell at me if I start drinking too much.” Okay, in that instance, that can be a nice thing for a friend to do, be your external monitor, but it also means you don’t have to muster up your own power. Continue reading

It was a beautiful morning for nematodes

Sometimes I do these things just to do them. For example, I saw on MAKE this watering can made from an empty milk jug, and I had to make one simply because I could.

nematodes_sprinkleLast year my cheap plastic watering reached the point of battered beyond use, and I threw it away. I haven’t replaced it because it seems an unnecessary purchase. The hose will do.

But I had a sudden urgent need for a watering can: 10,000,000 beneficial nematodes (Steinerema feltiae) in our refrigerator that had to be applied to the lawn on a rainy day. Today was that day.

nematodes_fridgeWhat are nematodes? They are microscopic parasites that kill other parasites, namely the grubs in the dirt under our lawn. Those grubs grow up to be some kind of scarab beetle, and beetles eat the fibrous roots of turf grass.

A mournful violin tune could be played every July in my front yard after the bright green grass starts to die off and wither in patches. I’ve done the soil analysis, and we have applied compost and extra nitrogen. No matter how much we tend to it, the lawn gets sickly after its early summer burst. I don’t want to spread a toxic chemical like GrubX on it. That seems like a greater harm than good. Nematodes, purchased from Gardens Alive!, are benign to all organisms but for beetle grubs, into which they burrow and eat their guts out.

Plus, I have seen grubs while planting — their fat, white fetal bodies curled into a C shape, so visible against a scoop of dark soil.

This morning, the ground was wet, but there was a lull in the rain. Under Winston’s supervision, I made a watering can from an empty water jug: I heated the tip of a brad nail with a BIC® lighter and pierced the jug lid many times.

nematodes_punctureThen I mixed 5,000,000 nematodes with tap water I had already put into the jug. (After I used up the first solution, I came back and repeated the process with the other 5,000,000 nematodes for the other half of the front lawn.)

nematodes_mixtureWith my homemade watering can, I applied the water-and-nematode solution to the grass by shaking the jug and squeezing it a bit too.

Continue reading

Almost one month later, the never-ending holiday ends

We returned the unwanted gifts to the stores in time for the 30-day return limit.

I packed up the ornaments, took down the artificial tree, vacuumed, undecorated the mantle, and got Jimmy to help me put the Christmas things in the attic. Then I went outdoors and stripped the yard of ornaments.


I signed and stamped my second batch of holiday cards. I had ordered some with the New Year’s theme, knowing I’d never make a Christmas deadline. I bought some Taza chocolates and Effie’s oatcakes, local products to send to friends in Germany and son Eli in Burlington, VT.

This morning, I mailed the cards and packages. New postal clerk in Brookline Village: very friendly and efficient.

post office

I declare Christmas officially done. It’s been a long month.

What will I do differently next year? It was fun having dinner at our house; I would cook again, and perhaps the same meal. But the whole presents scheme must change. Next year, it will be quality over quantity. I ended up returning a lot of the gifts bought for the teenaged Gutermans and giving them cash to buy what they want. In the future, I will (a) not shop at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, which I love and they seem to hate, and (b) buy one special gift, fill the stockings, and give the rest in cash.

I will send holiday cards again. I haven’t done that in years, and I enjoyed the opportunity to reminisce about my cousins and childhood family friends and simply write by (private) hand and not via social (and public) media. At my sister Sally’s suggestion, I made a file with all the addresses in it, so that will be streamlined next year. I even added a few names of people I intend to send cards to next year; this year I ran out.

Here’s the New Year’s card photo, taken August 2012:

Mighty Gutermans

Also, now that the big push of Christmas is behind me and the choke points of the semester still to come, I am going to attempt to blog much more frequently, even if most of the offerings are slight. The accumulation of a lot of small gestures may add up.

It’s a new year and time for new experiments.

Speak, Memory, about a dress

On the road from World’s End to the harbor, we drove through Hingham center slowly enough that I could look at store windows as we passed. In one, I saw a dress that turned my head. The image of it hovered in my imagination as we walked through the farmer’s market, bought homemade cider donuts, and sat on the strip of sand, ate donuts, and looked out at the boats and one swimmer.

I wanted the dress that I was remembering.

In my mind, I saw dark wool knit more charcoal than black, trumpet sleeves wrist length, and the only ornament a double row of appliquéd rings the color of coffee ice cream on the bell of each sleeve.

my dress, from memory

I told Grace and Jimmy about the dress and said I wanted to stop and look at it again on our way back to the highway.

It’s funny how memory works: when we got back to the store and I was standing on the sidewalk and taking pictures of the dress, I could see how my version of the dress was both like and unlike the original. Already, my imagination had refashioned the dress into what I wanted it to be. Continue reading

Second chance for the rejected

On the floor in the cellar, I found an encouraging rejection — part form letter, part handwritten note — I had gotten from an editor at The Sun and then set aside for safekeeping. The letter must have slipped out of one of those cardboard boxes I’ve marked JANE – STUFF and put on a shelf, intending to sort its contents (some day).

So, the rejection stuck in my mind for a day and prompted me to think about all the good writing out there that never finds its place among readers. A lot of writing no doubt gets turned away because it’s not good. Some writing, the kind I’m interested in here, may get turned away because it’s not a so-called good fit for the publication.

These literary misfits need a place, like the Island of Misfit Toys where cool playthings hung out and waited for the day when Santa would take them to the right child. There are cool poems, stories, and memoir that didn’t make it into one of many (low paying, highly competitive, and prestigious) literary journals.

Good yet misfitting submissions need their own Santa Claus. I have an idea for a journal, called Displacement (for the condition of having been displaced, and also the psychological defense mechanism in which emotions or desires are shifted from some original object to another one), that could be it. Continue reading

Bits and pieces

By the back door, on the way into our house, I empty my hand or pocket of whatever acorn or stone that has caught my eye as I rake, sweep, or beachcomb. Leaves occasionally fall there too and hang out for a while, until a wicked wind swirls them away. When I emptied the planters of their spent annuals yesterday, I set aside what I call the tree bones — small pieces of weather- or insect-rotted branches I collect on walks and then strew around the yard — and put them in the growing pile of finds.

I have no idea what I will do with this hoard, and yet it accumulates.

Writing can go like that sometimes.

A couple of weeks ago I was rummaging in my desk drawer for quarters. I needed two to get a cup of coffee from the office Keurig. Under the pencils, binder clips, box of tea, folded canvas bag, and loose band-aids, I saw a stapled document. I started reading the page I could see. It was not about science and therefore out of place; usually everything I read at work has to do with the technical. Whose is this? I wondered as I read about a dream of an unknown man, a car, and two people kissing. Who gave this to me? I was perplexed, almost disturbed. Continue reading

Potato farmer’s progress

new potato plant, June 11

I have been wanting to report on the progress of my first attempt at potato growing, and I have been wanting to try Vuvox, a multi-media slide and collage making tool on the web. Two-for-one: I composed a story, with pictures and video, of the first weeks with my potato patch.

Note: My potatoes and Vuvox are still in beta. If you go to the Vuvox potato show, click on the play arrow and let it run through. (If you hold the cursor arrow in the collage field, you can control the speed and direction of the show, but the slide bar is clunky and to be avoided.) When you see the arrow for the video of rototilling, you can click on that, too. It all won’t take very long: 1 minute or so.

Where did I get the instructions for how to grow potatoes? The Maine Potato Lady, of course. Go to her site, and click on “Growing Potatoes Successfully” for a one-page PDF. And because she was out of seed potatoes by the time I was ready to order them, I got them instead from the Gerritsens of Wood Prairie Farm in Maine.

– Potato lover

Whenever I have been asked the question, “If there was only one food you could eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?”, I have answered: “Potatoes.” And since the waning days of last summer’s sunflower folly, I have been daydreaming about filling my only sunny patch with the tubers. Today I did a little more than dream, and I went over to Wood Prairie Farm and ordered 6 pounds of organic seed potatoes (Caribe, Reddale, and Yukon Gold) and packets of carrot and beet seeds, too. There will also be a few sunflowers, to please the neighbors (and bunny) who enjoyed them last year. My plan is to plant 4 12-foot rows of potatoes, 1 12-foot row of carrots and beets, and another 12-foot row of sunflowers. That might seem modest, but come August, I hope to have an abundance.

Now, if only I had a root cellar.


Image of Caribe potatoes by rovingsprout on Flickr.

– Draw a picture. Make a sandwich. Teach writing.

Grace comes to work with Jane and finds the art supplies.

Grace comes to work with Jane and finds the art supplies.

During a scheduled hour to discuss their upcoming proposal drafts, I asked a group of 10 chemical engineering students to explain to each other their research projects, the rationale, the experimental design, and prior research. They talked productively for a half-hour and listened to each other with curiosity and asked relevant questions. All good. Certainly, we could have filled the rest of the hour with more talk.

I looked at the classroom’s two white boards and one easel pad and clutch of dry erase markers and Sharpies. I invited them, instead, to draw.

In small groups, they drew branching diagrams of their proposed experiments and explained their plans — and, even more importantly, gaps in their plans — to their peers. I walked around. They asked questions about how they might frame their experimental design in their drafts.

My friend and colleague Lisa had the classroom reserved after me, and she came in five minutes before we finished. Later, on the way to the copy machine, I saw Lisa’s students (in a different section of the same class) sprawled on the floor with big pieces of white paper and clustered around the white boards, drawing and gesturing with hands and markers. Continue reading

– Writing in the snow

Brian is the first to tell me about Ommwriter. Telling, in this instance, involved posting a link to my Facebook page. I happen to like, in our Internet age, how much we can learn about each other, even our siblings, via blogs, e-mail, and social networking sites. He guessed right that I would be curious about this.

Ommwriter is a new text-processor (dowloadable, not web-based) that creates a distraction-free space for writing and concentrating. The image of the space — a range of grays: snowed-over field, storm sky, tiny tree silhouettes, and six buttons — is what made me want to try it. To be bodily in the space was the dream; to type in it, the reality.

I tried it on Thursday, when I wrote my Beck post. Instead of opening up a new post field in wordpress and typing, formatting, uploading, googling, and linking as I wrote, I just… wrote. Did I like the experience? Eventually. Did it work? Yes.

With Ommwriter, what you see and hear is what you get. Everything is available in the space: the text box, sound control, and save button. It’s supposed to be an immersive experience, so immersive that, when you open a file, there’s a vivid and gentle reminder to use headphones to get the full experience. (I didn’t, because my house was empty and quiet.) The music is like what you get with The Buddha Machine: tonal, steady, and low. I’ve never studied Zen Buddhism, so I have no idea if this adjective actually applies, but I could imagine some person saying, “How zen,” and getting started with Ommwriter. You open it; the music starts; and all there is to do is write. Continue reading