Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I’m holding a contest.  Not just any contest, but a contest wherein people make art about one of the mechanical characters in my new novel, Songs for a Machine Age. This character is a 300-year-old secret whom no one understands, a cornerstone of history and culture in Devien, where Songs takes place.

Here’s the deal:

You email me at heather at heathermcdougal dot com, saying you’d like to participate, and I’ll send you a document with snippets from Songs, along with some extra information about the Steam Beast, a very mysterious and mechanical character.  In fact, you will receive a segment of never-before-seen writing from the prequel to Songs, in which the Steam Beast is being worked on by its creator.
What I’m looking for is artwork showing the Steam Beast.  It can be computer-made, hand-drawn, painted, mixed-media or sculpture; whatever you are best at.  You create it, and send me high-quality digital images of it (1 image for 2-D work, and 3 images for 3-D work) by midnight on Sunday, October 28th.  I’ll be the judge, and you will hear back to me by Wednesday, October 31st (Halloween!).
  • The winner will receive $200 and a signed copy of Songs for a Machine Age
  • The three runners-up will each receive a signed copy of Songs, and will be posted (with credit, of course) along with the winner on this website, Cabinet of Wonders, and Facebook, among other places (more to follow on that; I have some very interesting places up my sleeve).
For some early tidbits about the Steam Beast, you can see the video at my Indiegogo campaign, or go to my blog-serial Neddeth’s Bed, where the Steam Beast was first conceived.

Let the art-making begin!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Getting Published

Well, it happened.  I got published.

I finally finished the extensive edits on my novel, Songs for a Machine Age, which will be coming out in late October.  I really have to apologize for my absence here, but the editing process has been a long and arduous journey (one I misled myself about the extensive need for, and then had to learn the hard truth) and now the galleys are done, the cover is designed, the maps inked... I wanted to come back here and let everyone know why I've been gone so long.

This new universe of publication is going to have an impact, I think.  I'm going to be migrating the Cabinet to my extremely new website, as a sort of archive.  I'm not certain yet whether being a Real Author, and all the attendant marketing effort -- keeping up my authorly presence and so on -- will mean I simply can't write for the Cabinet anymore, or if it means I will write only occasionally (which, to my shame, I've been doing for the past year).  I love the Cabinet and all the interesting things we've talked about over the years, but I'm already working on a prequel for Songs, and have a dozen short stories that have been on the back burner with all the edits.  I've tried to find co-authors for the Cabinet, but without much success, so it's all down to what I have time for!

Being an educator, I am also pondering --at length-- the idea of starting a blog about education, media literacy, and the impact of advertising and other factors on growing minds.  Many, many times have I not posted about education here, because this feels like the wrong venue.  I don't want to be a dabbler, but I do work in the field, and there are things that clamor to be written, and I don't think I can hold out any longer.

I'll keep you updated about what's happening, and if there are further Cabinet-like posts in me, I promise to put them up here for the near future, as well as archiving them in my website!  Eventually, though, I'm going to have to put everything together in the same place, so I can keep track of it all.

It's been great knowing you all, and I wish I could just go on endlessly welling with ideas, but somehow the time has passed when I could pound out ten posts a month.  Please keep in touch, and if you hear of anything interesting, let me know.  I'll post about them either here or in my author blog over at the website.  You can contact me at heather -at- heathermcdougal -dot- com anytime, about anything, and I will do my best to answer.

And come look at the author blog on Mondays -- I'm trying to bring a little of the Cabinet in there by posting a Brain Fodder link every week.  Things that make you think, and maybe even inspire new stories!


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When I'm Old and Rich

For some reason recently I've been getting into a lot of conversations about what-ifs with my kids. Weirdly, though, it's not just them, because once the ball is rolling, other people always want to participate. The two most popular what-ifs among grownups are what will you do with yourself when you're old and retired? and what would you do if you suddenly came into a lot of money?

 I think a lot of my friends are starting to experience the aging parents syndrome, and they are discovering there are as many ways of growing old as there are individual people in the world. A lot of people our parents' age had a job that they plugged away at for years and years, and looked forward to retiring so that they could have leisure time. They had good retirement funds and houses that they bought and paid for, back when that was still possible: the American dream. They dreamed of the day they would retire, secure in the knowledge that after sixty-five, they would be free. Most of them imagined they would finally do with themselves what they really wanted to do all along.

But the thing that's fascinating is how many of them really didn't envision what those activities would be. There are so many ways to "do" leisure, and a lot of people simply don't put time into anything but work and not-work. They don't have something they love, something they pursue with passion outside their work or family selves, and when they retire they suddenly find themselves at loose ends. There are lots of people who, having put in their time, simply end up not doing anything. I mean, they walk the dog, chat with their neighbors, watch movies and tv, read the newspapers, and go to the grocery store, doctor, whatever. But they're done contributing; they have no particular hobbies, and they are perfectly happy just to exist, to consume, to live a purposeless, pleasant existence. I think that, in the distopian universes where old people are euthanized, these people would unfortunately be the first to go, because from a societal standpoint they are no longer adding to the status quo, even if they did their bit earlier. They are just... coasting along until it's time to die.

Then there are the ones that become suddenly aware of the time they have left, who take long walks and look at the world around them; they babysit their grandchildren, they go to weekly games of cribbage and book clubs, volunteer at the local school, try zip lines, learn to use Photoshop. At the opposite end are the ones who can't seem to sit still, and are always organizing other people. Their lives are never dull, and neither are the lives of the people around them. They run youth clubs, drama groups; they sit on school boards and interfere with their neighbors' lives. They are a constant presence, and often great fun to have around.

Or how about the gardeners? The contemplative ones, who just want a bit of quiet, but who always work on something to make it better, always out enjoying the day and seeing to the endless, silent, simple work of whatever needs doing. I have always imagined myself a gardener, a keeper of bees and chickens and possibly goats, a maker of cheese. A knitter, maybe, and a writer, of course: always a writer.

Unfortunately, there are people who didn't organize themselves so nicely in their younger lives. Through bad management or late divorce or simply through not having a good income and being dependent on social security, they are at the mercy of their income. They spend all their time clipping coupons or, in some cases, trying to shore up the holes in their bleeding finances, and there's no time nor money for all the fun stuff. This is who I don't want to be, and it's a crap shoot, so it's scary. What if your retirement is in stocks, and the crash hits?

Which brings me to the question of becoming rich.

"I don't know what I'd do with all that money." I hear this comment a lot from a surprising number of people, usually when the subject of the state lottery comes up. I think they look at that $46 million dollar mark, or whatever it is, and think (rightly, perhaps) "it's just too much to take care of." Or perhaps they don't want to end up running around having pictures taken of them like Tamara Ecclestone, or whoever the disgustingly-wealthy-person-du-jour is.

 In any case, I always tell them, "I know exactly what I'd do with all that money." And I do. I could spend that $46 million in a couple of years. And I wouldn't be buying yachts with it, either. Of course, when I say that, people always look at me strangely and then sort of shut up, as if I've been rude, or perhaps as if I'm showing distressing signs of avarice; but honestly, there are so many things I would love to spend some money on!

 So here, for the benefit of you people who have won the lottery, I have decided to write both some suggestions for what to do with you money, if faced with enforced leisure, and what to do with yourself, in the process. Or... let me rephrase that: these are ten things *I* would do, if I had the opportunity.

#1 (Boring but useful suggestion: get a good accountant. You can pay this person well, but make sure they're good, and make sure they're honest. It's astonishing how many people who win the lottery end up broke and embezzled from (or had someone dance a financial jig around them and then move on).) Okay, now on to the real list.

#1A. Get an art/music/writing/voice/skydiving/etc tutor. Do this even if you have no interest in art/music/writing/voice/etc. Sometimes, we don't know that we like some activity, or even have a proclivity for it, unless we do it for awhile. Learn to play a bluegrass fiddle, or make faux finishes. Learn to paint excruciatingly detailed photorealistic paintings. Think about something you've admired, and try it. If you like Van Gogh, go buy a s**tload of paint and start laying it on, and get someone to show you the ropes of composition and color. It's extraordinary how many doors creativity can open!

#2. Give a bunch of money to the schools in your area -- the poorer the district, the better. Earmark what you want the funds to go to: technology, art, music... all the things those schools can't afford to pay for anymore (in California this is a statewide problem, since we are 50th in education among the states, but there are always poor schools that need help).

#3. Set up an endowment for something you've noticed is lacking and you care about. In my case, I would start a Barn Society, dedicated to fixing up all the old barns in California which are being left to fall down because the farmers can't afford to pay the permit fees to resuscitate them. Or I would buy the huge ranches I see going up for sale and put them in a trust, to preserve the beautiful coastline where I live.

#4. Give to a worthy cause, or many worthy causes. Amnesty International, for example. Charity is possibly the most obvious of these ideas. Do it anonymously, so they don't send you junk mail!

#5. Pay off all your debts. Pay off all your family's debts: your siblings, your parents, your children. Give each one of them whatever the maximum gift allowance is. Start college funds for every child in the family.

#6. Set up a travel fund for you and your family, so that every year you can take a modest vacation in some interesting place. Not huge fancy hotels, not expensive tours, just medium-sized. But it will alleviate the impossibility of those airfares, the ones that put you in debt for the rest of the year.

#7. Set up an educational fund. If you care about educating children about the environment, earmark it for that. If you feel that people don't understand the fiscal side of their voting choices, make a fund that will educate the masses. Raise awareness, help make us all smarter, and the world will be a better place.

#8. Create an endowment that preserves something. Gypsy songs. Chair caning. Tatting designs.

#9. Make your house beautiful. I don't mean make it worth more, by turning it into a McMansion, or tiling all the floors in expensive materials; I mean, really think about what would make you happy. Making your garden into a jungle, for example, full of rare, scented herbs and overhanging fruit. Or repainting it in amazing, rich colors. Or redoing the bathroom so it's like an old-fashioned Japanese bath. Or just getting a new stove. See more about the house, below.

#10. Lastly, set some of the money aside for things like retirement and house-cleaners. Take $1 million and put it somewhere so that you have a cushion when you are old and want to retire, and then put a bit more into a fund which will send you the interest every month so that you can not work so hard. If that means babysitting and laundry help, so be it. It may mean continuing to get tax help after the money's gone and you just have your regular income again.

At this point, a few things NOT to do are probably also in order.

First off, keep the things you get for yourself modest. If you plan to spend pretty much all the money as fast as you can and then move on, like I do, buying yourself a huge house is a mistake. Partly because most huge houses are not designed to be lived in comfortably; they were built by developers who got designers to make the things as flashy as possible, but they never imagined happy people living there in love and stability. Those houses are mostly created to show off how rich the owners are. Also, the taxes will kill you -- for as long as you live there. The same holds true for fancy cars and yachts -- they cost a pile to keep up, and need someone to put time and energy into them even when they're working fine. If you have to get out of your tract house, or buy a new car, find something modest that you love, that you can imagine growing old in or with, something that makes you comfortable and cozy and happy -- and then do it!

In other words, hanging onto your wealth (and your idea of wealthiness) means you will spend most of your time managing your money, as well as all the things your money bought. Is that what will bring you the most happiness in life? If not, take a little bit of it and walk away from the rest. Turn it into endowments that run themselves, and then be happy you could help people.

Lastly, don't make new friends who like a luxurious lifestyle -- or if you do, don't buy them stuff, throw parties, invite house-guests, etc. Keep your life private, or you'll be the next Hugh Hefner -- until they all move on to the next sucker.

Unless, of course, that's what you've always dreamed of.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shades of Old Detroit

I just came across this while looking for something else in Google images: a project by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, called The Ruins of Detroit, a 5-year collaboration between 2005 and 2010.  This is part of what they have to say about the work:

"Detroit, industrial capital of the XXth Century, played a fundamental role shaping the modern world. The logic that created the city also destroyed it. Nowadays, unlike anywhere else, the city’s ruins are not isolated details in the urban environment. They have become a natural component of the landscape. Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire."

My father grew up in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, worked in the auto factories during the summer, and went to the grand movie houses during the height of the movie era.  I have always wanted to visit the Detroit of his youth, and looking at these pictures is, in some ways, like looking at him: under the age are traces of a marvelous youth, a grace and power that still speak to us, despite the passage of time.  It's both breathtaking and heartbreaking to see these remains of another era.  Particularly, I find the image of the theatre to be beautiful and sad.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Those Who Come While We Sleep

I used to have these naps.  They were strange naps; I would lie in the sun in my apartment some afternoon when I'd been working really hard, and I would fall into a sleep so profound it was almost painful.  And then, when the first depth of it had passed, I would find myself lying there, unable to move, trapped in my nap.  It was like I was pinned to the couch or the floor -- wherever I'd been lying -- and the nap went on, and I couldn't move, the sleep was so intense; and yet I wasn't fully asleep.  It would go on for some indeterminate amount of time, and then I would be released.

Being the kind of person I was, I didn't worry about these naps.  Sometimes I thought they were brought on by sugar, sometimes I thought they were a gift, a kind of ubernap that refreshed me more than usual.  Once or twice, though, I thought I saw something that really shouldn't have been there: a small man sitting on the foot of my bed, a strange glittering shape in the corner of the room.  And I remember all the way back to being a baby, lying in my crib, terrified, unable to move while these shapes streamed at me from the ceiling.

These unmoving waking-dreams have a name, as it turns out; it's called Sleep Paralysis.  Apparently, when the body is moving between sleep and wakefulness -- at either end of the sleep cycle -- the body can be in REM sleep while the mind is awake.  It's related to lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and is able to gain some control of the dreaming experience, and to out-of-the-body experiences; in sleep paralysis, the sleeper tends to fixate on re-establishing control over their body, but in an out-of-body experience, the sleeper perceives themselves as being separate from their body.

The body naturally falls into a sort of paralysis when it is in REM sleep, called REM atonia, where muscles are kept from reacting to the dreams the sleeper is experiencing.  Think of cats or dogs twitching while they dream of hunting: most of the muscles are disabled, but the echo is there, the ghost of the movement. 

Then of course there is the sexual dimension:

"The release of certain neurotransmitters... is completely shut down during REM. This causes REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body's muscles do not move. Lack of such REM atonia causes REM behavior disorder; sufferers act out the movements occurring in their dreams... Erections of the penis (nocturnal penile tumescence or NPT) normally accompany REM sleep... In females, erection of the clitoris causes enlargement, with accompanying vaginal blood flow and transudation (i.e. lubrication). During a normal night of sleep the penis and clitoris may be erect for a total time of from one hour to as long as three and a half hours during REM." [wiki]

Which brings me to another point: sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, perceived loud noise, and sometimes an acute sense of danger.  So how does this work, if you feel that you are pinned to your bed, unable to move, feeling anxious, but at the same time you have a big stiffy under the covers?  What would your hallucination be?  Would it, perhaps, be that of a demonic lover, keeping you still by evil magic while taking advantage of your manly charms?  Conversely, imagine how confusing it would be if you were a staid Victorian lady who was pinned frighteningly to her bed while experiencing distinct stirrings in the night?

Enter the incubus, one of the oldest forms of supernatural creature, a male demon who lies with women at night -- and its counterpart, the succubus.  Tales of these visitors can be found from South America to Africa to Eastern and Northern Europe.  One of the earliest mentions of an incubus "comes from Mesopotamia on the Sumerian King List, ca. 2400 BC, where the hero Gilgamesh's father is listed as Lilu. It is said that Lilu disturbs and seduces women in their sleep, while Lilitu, a female demon, appears to men in their erotic dreams." [wiki]

There was a great deal of debate as to these creatures' purpose in early Christianity, but the common debate was whether the demons had any reproductive capability, and were they using humans in order to reproduce (a la Rosemary's Baby).  It became commonly accepted that incubi and succubi were the same demon, changing shape: by taking female form, they were able to collect male sperm and then turn around and impregnate a human woman using their male form -- and the collected sperm.  The Malleus Maleficarum states:

" beget a child is the act of a living body, but devils cannot bestow life upon the bodies they assume; because life formally proceeds only from the soul, and the act of generation is the act of the physical organs which have bodily life... Yet it may be said that these devils assume a body not in order that they may bestow life upon it, but that they may by the means of this body preserve human semen, and pass the semen on to another body."

Why the baby conceived in this way is not simply a normal baby, no one seems to know; but in the Christian tradition, a baby conceived this way (a cambion) is usually wickedly smart and able to get people to do their bidding.  Some texts hold that a cambion does not exhibit breathing or pulse, but appears to be alive -- until they are seven years old, at which time they begin to appear more like normal people.  Caliban, from the Tempest, was supposedly a cambion, as was (according to some stories) Merlin.

When the experience is not sexual it has still been attributed to demons or other supernatural presences.  The word nightmare, for example: mare in nightmare does not stand for female horse, but for mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers' chests, causing them to have bad dreams.  In Newfoundland, the sleep paralysis experience is referred to as the "Old Hag," similar to the Night Mare: a creature who sits on the sleeper's chest while they sleep, making them helpless.  Similar stories can be found in Sweden, Fiji, Turkey, Chile, and many other places; one of the interesting things about sleep paralysis is that it is completely cross-cultural -- a product, simply, of being human.  Studies done in Canada, China, England, Japan and Nigeria found that 20% to 60% of individuals, across the board, reported having experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.  

Often, sleep paralysis is associated with narcolepsy, a disorder where emotional excitement makes the sufferer fall asleep.  More rare, but also associated with both sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, is cataplexy, a disorder that makes one lose control of muscles, either totally or partially, in muscle groups.  Thus, for example, one woman I know falls to the floor when she gets overstimulated -- but is famous for being able to set her glass on the nearest surface on the way down.  Common cataplexy responses are buckling at the knees, weakness in the arms, and lolling of the jaw; but the effect is brought about the same way that REM sleep temporarily paralyzes the muscles.

This makes me wonder about myths such as Rip Van Winkle.  Was he, actually, asleep the whole time?  Or did he have some kind of waking dream -- was anyone sitting on his chest, causing him to neglect his life and let his house and crops fall to overgrown ruin while he lay, unable to move?  (What about the guy in the song "Four Minutes of Two," who fell asleep waiting for his girlfriend and woke up to gigantic metal bugs?)

And lastly, in the spirit of things falling to overgrown ruin, here is a quote about Lillith, the demon/goddess/early feminist (depending on your source) -- whose origin can be found in Lilitu, the Babylonian demon described above.  The quote comes from the Bible's Book of Isaiah 34:13–15, describing the desolation of Edom:

"Her [Edom's] nobles shall be no more, nor shall kings be proclaimed there; all her princes are gone.  Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches.  Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.  There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate.  Look in the book of the Lord and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the Lord has ordered it, and his spirit shall gather them there.  It is he who casts the lot for them, and with his hands he marks off their shares of her; They shall possess her forever, and dwell there from generation to generation."

This is supposed to be about an accursed place, and the passage, in Old Testament tradition, shows that accursedness by listing eight different "unclean" -- possibly demonic -- animals (including the Lillith, apparently).  However, from my contemporary perspective the beauty of the description gives me chills; it looks to me more like a blessing.  In fact, there are places I would like to invoke this curse in the here and now.  Wouldn't it be amazing?

Other links:
- Narcoleptic dog on YouTube

- Windsor McCay's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, my favorite book on dreaming: hilarious and true to life, and drawn in the early 20th century.   Pay no mind to the poor design of the modern cover (unlike the cover of my edition, below); the inside is what matters.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What Ever Happened to Dog Carts?

I happened across this some time ago, at Terrierman's Daily Dose.  He has a large number of old photos of dogcarts all around the world; mostly they are carts for milk delivery or other kinds of small delivery, pulled by one or more dogs.

An example of a milk cart, full of canisters.  The unhitched terrier is probably a guard dog.
 Dog cart mobile tea delivery, Brussels, with three dog team.

Dog cart postcard, Quebec.

There are lots more pictures on his blog; check it out.  He is a great believer in working dogs; in fact, the blog is connected with his website about working terriers: his hobby or possibly profession is hunting groundhogs, foxes, etc in their holes using terriers (often the prey are caught around farms and relocated to wilder areas).  

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Secret of Kells

I just watched The Secret of Kells tonight.  I've had it on my list for a long time, and thing after thing has thrown itself in the way of my watching, but tonight I had a time limit.  And that was when I said, "Hey, I've been meaning to watch this for a long time.  C'mon, I've heard it's good."

I managed to overcome much grumbling from the other members of my household and force them to watch this instead of an already-seen Dr Who episode.  We sat back and prepared to be entertained.  And that's when the color and complexity of Kells burst over our eyeballs and we sat, entranced, none of the usual trips to the bathroom or other interruptions for the full hour and a quarter of the movie.

The story is about a child named Brendan who is growing up in the Kells monastery in Ireland, run by his uncle, who is building a huge wall to keep the Northmen out.  They take in a refugee from Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Mull, in western Scotland, where the Northmen have attacked and left no one alive.  In his keeping is a book, the Book of Iona, whose pages are filled with the majesty of generations of work; but the book is unfinished.

The refugee, a monk with the gift of fine illumination, asks the boy to go into the forest to find some oak-berries (probably mistletoe) to make green ink with, so for the first time, Brendan leaves the safety of the monastery and goes among the trees.  There, he is saved from the wolves by a girl who tells him to get our of her forest.  He accuses her of being a fairy, and she does seem to have a magical quality, flitting through the trees and making flowers grow; she gives her name as Aisling, and she consents to help him find the berries if he will then leave the forest and not come back.

Of course, they end up becoming friends, and Brendan goes back to learn illumination, against his uncle's will.  His uncle is obsessed with building a wall strong enough to keep the Northmen out, and does not see as his nephew begins to learn to create incredible illuminations, with the help of a magical glass which he wins from Crom Cruach, a pagan god whom St. Patrick is said to have overcome.

The extraordinary thing about the animation is the way in which you emerge at the end, feeling that you've just swum through the most marvelous illuminated manuscript.  The attention to detail, and the careful attention paid to Irish art in its execution, is overwhelming.  Apparently, the animators took a leaf from Mulan (which uses Chinese art as an inspiration) in its conception, and it works; the film is lovely, and very Celtic.

Throughout the film, too, are side-references and little references which, like the endlessly complex illuminary graphics of the film, thicken it into layers of meaning.   For example, the cat, Pangur Bán (whose name means White Fuller in Gaelic) comes from an Old Irish poem, written in the 9th century  by an Irish monk at Reichenau Abbey, in southern Germany:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translated by Robin Flower)

Which is excellent, because the movie begins: "I have seen the book which turns darkness into light."  And, of course, a large part of the movie takes place in the Scriptorium, where the illuminations are created, and where, I suspect, our nameless Irish monk was when he wrote the poem.  It's also possible that the author was from Iona, which was repeatedly sacked: a lot of the people fled, many to Ireland, but many of them went to the Continent to set up Columban monasteries.  So you see the references are circular, like an Irish knot, or a snake swallowing its tail, or a fine illumination.

Interestingly, there was a Saint Brendan, but he lived many years before Iona was even founded, so not all trails lead back round to the beginning.  But then, though art is about truth, it's not always about having the facts straight.

And just to give you an idea what they're talking about when they go on about the wonder of their book, here are some images from the real Book of Kells (its final name), which lives in the British Museum at Trinity College in Dublin:

Here is the page called the Chi Rho page, meaning the first two letters of the word "Christ" in Greek.

A detail from that same page, near the top.

And just to drive you crazy, here are two cats and their kittens worked into the bottom, in the reddish bit by the lowest part of the P shape.  Look carefully (try clicking on the image to see it in more detail).  See all that insane detail inside all the other bits?  The interwoven curlicues under the cats' feet?  That is all miniscule work, which could not have been done without at magnifying glass (the crystal?  From the eye of Crom Cruach?); the Chi-Rho page in total is about the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper.  Imagine trying to do that with 8th or 9th century technology, quill pens and such.

This page, by the way, shows up in the movie, so watch out for it.  And watch out for all the pieces and parts of the page to appear all through the movie as part of the storyline.  It's quite a work of art -- the movie as well as the book.  

Good luck -- you're in for a treat.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Misfit Zeitgeist

This fall, my older daughter entered middle school, and I was scared stiff.  This is a child who runs around in the woods with a cloak on, who has always had her own (sometimes very odd) sense of style, a person who has done conceptual art -- without any prompting -- from the time she was perhaps three years old.  She is intelligent, sweet, and totally unlike any of her peers.  I knew she was doomed: she'd get eaten alive.  I certainly had, at that age -- and she was like me, but more so.  (This is the same daughter who took those endlessly popular pictures of tourists at the Tower of Pisa when she was nine).

She was aware of my anxiety, despite my attempts to be calm.  "Mama," she announced to me in August, after coming back from the be-who-you-are heaven of Camp Winnarainbow, which she says is like a second home for her,  "I've decided on a strategy.  I'm going to wear clothes that are totally me, and then see who wants to hang out with me.  If they don't like it, we'll both know we shouldn't be friends.  If they do like it, then I'll have found people like me to hang out with."

I was secretly skeptical of this idea, because I felt she had really no conception of how cruel people can be in junior high, but I stifled that part of me long enough to praise her for coming up with a plan.  And then the rest of the month she hit the thrift stores, and went through her clothes, throwing out anything that didn't fit in with the "real" her, with the exception of some comfy old clothes for around the house.

Then school came, and she wore... well, all of it.  Even the cloak.  And she got no grief for it.  Sure, she got a couple of annoying boys buzzing around, saying, "why are you wearing a cape?"  To which she answered, with admirable aplomb, "It's not a cape, it's a cloak.  Capes don't have hoods."  And they nodded!  And went away!  And the girls didn't even whisper about her!  Except for one couple of (potentially interesting) girls who said to each other "Wow!  That girl is wearing a cloak!  How cool is that?"

So either she's totally insensitive to the giggles and whispers, or middle school has changed inordinately since I was there.  True, that was a long time ago, and true, this is an unusual American town, being an easygoing surf town in California; but I don't think children that age have changed that much.  Instead, I honestly think the culture has morphed a little.  I think the geeks, by hook or by crook, have begun to inherit the earth.

This is what I arrange as my evidence:  Mulan, the girl who was not supposed to dress like a boy and go to war.  Harry Potter, who went against all that he was told to do, and endured whispers and self-doubt while hanging out with a girlgeek that we all loved.  The Incredibles, where a family of unwanted misfits save the world and learn to let their oddness hang out. Percy Jackson. How to Train Your Dragon.  The Sorcerer's Apprentice movie, which took a whole show you can see live at Maker Fair as a centerpiece of geek creativity.  Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, which turns the whole misfit thing wonderfully on its head.

Lesser known are things like the excellent young adult book Stargirl, and the incredibly inspiring graphic novel Page by Paige, as well as the fine novel A Mango-Shaped Space, and many, many others.  All about people who do things differently than the norm, and who are worthy role models.

Face it, this isn't the 80's anymore.  This isn't Pretty in Pink, where they changed the ending so Andie gets together with the boring jerk guy, simply because the sample audience didn't like it otherwise.  In this incarnation, Ducky not only wins, but the audience applauds because the misfits are happy being themselves.

In the adult world, we have the Maker movement.  Burning Man.  XKCD.  Steve Jobs (okay, that was obvious).  In other words, the geeks of the last generation got creative jobs, started companies like Pixar, and began to influence culture.  Or they took time off from their dayjobs to go out into the desert and build huge sculptures and hang out with people in an alternate city, where the whole local cultural system is based on the idea of giving, of creativity, of being eccentric.

And what about the Steampunk movement?  Before it was boiled down to gears and Victorian garb, it was a bunch of people making things, creating their own alternate aesthetic, revamping computers and rebooting scooters.  And all the other things people did before you just bought your stuff on etsy from people who still do make things.

My point is, even in the mainstream, it's all trickling in.  Children are being raised on a diet of misfit heroes, because the people writing the stories and making the films and producing the media were often misfits themselves.  And who doesn't create stories that are, to some extent, about themselves -- or at least about people they identify with?  And, when they get older, if they're lucky, they'll discover that a lot of misfits are now having a lot of fun doing weird, fun things they made up out of thin air -- and everyone's welcome.

There are a number of interesting factors here, besides the obvious "geeks growing up and taking over" model.  For one thing, the whole Web 2.0 model of users creating content means that people are taking control over their own creative production.  Communism, if you will, of the culture, where the most outrageously weird person can get seen for their creative genius.  For another, there is the way the Internet has allowed subcultures to flourish: geeks and eccentrics and anyone else can now band together with people of like minds to create a subculture, instead of sitting at home thinking they are the only one in the world who thinks the 17th and 18th centuries were the coolest ever.

And the more this happens, the more the people who learn the technology are the ones who will be producing the creative stuff that influences culture... and on and on.

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that clothes fashions haven't changed much recently.  Car styles haven't changed much either, and nor has music.  No one is coming up with the new Punk Rock, or the bouffant hairdo.  Back in the last century, clothes and cars and other things were always very distinct from each other from decade to decade, but we haven't seen much of a shift in fashion or industrial design, other than fractional differences, for about twenty years.  Why is this?  Some people say it's because there is too much change: our technology changes so fast and so often that we have had to drop something.  But I think you could phrase it another way -- you could say: our attention is elsewhere.  Cars, clothes, songs, these things are parts of our lives that we live with but don't look at so much.  Many of us are busy with other things, things less everyday.

I am finding, suddenly, that my odd tastes, my weird interests, are becoming the rage.  Everywhere you look, now, references to Wunderkammern and Cabinets of Wonder are popping up, used in every possible way.  Martin Scorcese's wonderful film, Hugo, based on Brian Selznik's even more wonderful book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is full of things which I've been talking about for years.  It's weird.  I'm finding ideas I already wrote into novels suddenly cropping up in novels I'm reading (for example, there is the fabulous Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which I have just reviewed in the new book review blog Spec Fic Chicks -- where people are remade with machine-parts as part of their anatomies, and ultimately, part of their souls -- is disturbingly close to something I'm trying to sell in a children's book right now).

So this is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, something I hold very dear is suddenly seeing a surge in interest -- yay!  But on the other, it means that the cool things I am interested in are suddenly under public scrutiny, are being watered down as they enter the media and become part of the ad-cycle; and soon, Cabinets of Wonder will be passe, will -- oh horrors! -- show up at Costco.  Except... so little of the history will have been truly described, and thus will remain, mysterious and horrific and beautiful, and essentially untouched, the Platonic ideal of exploration and weird magical science.  I hope.

Despite the fact that I could be out of fashion next week, I find this spirit of the times to be incredibly exciting.  Watching my daughter go off to school in a tight leather vest over a cotton shirt, a Steamboy-style cap, and rainbow rubber boots, and knowing that she is doing it safe from severe criticism is honestly thrilling.  Knowing that my people, my kind, are out there remaking the culture from the ground up, even if I don't always like or believe in the things that they produce... just knowing that they're there, making stuff, questioning stuff, trying new cultural systems, makes my adrenaline pump as I think about all the doors that are opening.  Thinking about it, I get shifty in my seat.  I get excited, because you know what?

We're winning.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lena Herzog's Lost Souls

I came across this by chance: another photographer, photographing Frederik Ruysch's amazing birth defect displays from the Kunstkammern of Peter the Great, as well as Vienna's Federal Museum of Pathology at the Narrenturm.  I have always admired Rosamond Purcell's photographs, but now there is Lena Herzog.

On Science and the Arts, she does a good job of talking about the true nature of the collectors of the old days, the ideals of morality and aesthetic considerations, the way that art and science were not so separate as they are now.  Check out her narrated slideshow here.

In the meantime, I recommend her book, Lost Souls, which sounds like an amazing meditation on the the abstract beauty of these items of study:

"The arrangements of the fetuses, the specimens, the anatomical skeletons, was highly artistic.  Ruysch was a true artist.  The images I have created, I took special care not to take advantage, not to speculate, on the macabre -- on the horrifying.  I wasn't interested in shocking anyone.  They are shocking by definition because it's such complicated territory.  They're dead, they're children, they were meant to live, they never lived -- so I truly wanted to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Ruysch, who took special care.  For example, he would hide the especially frightening parts with lace, revealing it only to his students of anatomy and to himself to study, in order to help humankind.  The morality of the cabinet makers was never in question.  They were highly conscious of the moral and human implications."

 The preserved fetuses are glimpses into the perils of health and science back when medicine was in its infancy, but she manages to capture some of their ephemeral beauty, and some of the qualities which Ruysch so carefully preserved: that of error and loss, of humanity and the need to understand.


More on Ms. Herzog and the book in the Paris Review,
A rather technique-heavy conversation with Ms. Herzog at the American Society of Cinematographers.