Friday, March 25, 2011

Shining Through

Inspiration Green is a New York-based company website, with blog (link at the bottom of their page), about green...everything. Issues, resources, music, tech, art, food, and more.

It's visually compelling design. Especially when you look more closely and see that all those blocks with patterns are close-ups of leaves. Or tree trunks.

Plus there's this page, a compilation of glass bottles used in walls in various ways -- decorative, functional, both.

Sometimes, like now (election season in Canada), I suffer from "too many words." Images like these are an oasis. Thanks, Green Inspiration!!
Sunday, March 20, 2011

So Many Thousands

That's how many words this video is worth. During the first minute, you get to watch cracks in the earth open and close. After that, it gets even freakier.

The videographer talks of feeling woozy and wondering if he was sick. While it's interesting to know that the human body may experience earthquakes in that way, that knowledge pales in comparison to the images. Wow.

So many effective visuals from this disaster--a good reminder that sometimes, words just don't quite get there.
Saturday, March 12, 2011

Too Big, Too Small

I was all set to write about Hana's Suitcase, another fine example of the power of story and symbol, but then the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent radiation stories have diverted my attention from whatever meaningful thing I wanted to say about luggage.

However, one thread ties two events: sometimes a story is too big, too abstract to tell without making it concrete and personal--but then again, sometimes the size is the story.

Hana's Suitcase as a story is an effective way to help everyone understand the horror and human loss of the Holocaust. Hana is today's Anne Frank--a real person whose real life was silenced, leaving us all poorer. Without Anne and Hana, and without some sense of the fundamental humanity of the victims, events of the Holocaust could become less real, less immediate, and thus less horrific as time passes. The personal is vital to preserving the essential meaning of the story.

Right now, this disaster in Japan, which has both natural and human-made elements, is too big to tell coherently. We know 8.9 is a big number for an earthquake; aftershocks measuring more than 6.0 also sound big--but what does that feel like? What does a wall of water look like? Fortunately, pictures and maps (including these fabulous ones at the BBC) give context--but shots of boats and cars and vans and houses and skyscrapers don't convey what the people are going through.

News writers are looking for human angles into the story in an effort to help people around the world connect personally with the unimaginable destruction. As time passes, we will likely hear more stories about individuals.

Yet the scale is an essential part of the story. The magnitude of the earthquake is part of its horror and meaning, as are the aftershocks, the tsunamis and reflected waves. That would be a frightening-enough story. Add in concerns about radioactive leaks and exposure risks, and the validity of the information released about them to the public, and what you have is even more frightening and more sweeping in scope.

Similarly, the stories of Anne and Hana, though touching, are only two stories. Six million people were systematically killed in the Holocaust. Six million other individual stories could be told. The current population of New York City is around 8 million. The greater Toronto area has something more than 5.6 million people. Big cities; lots of people.

And, those 6 million people killed in the Holocaust represent only deaths, not those incarcerated (and not the full death toll of WWII). Add in the fact that that the deaths were caused by the actions of other people, and the horror grows. Both the scope and the systematic nature of the Holocaust are inextricable parts of the story's devastation, its impact.

I've had two recent experiences with this "too big, too small" phenomenon, come to think of it, and one in each direction. "All I Can Say," the essay that was shortlisted for the CBC literary awards last year, is only part of bazillions of words I wrote about my mother's Alzheimer's disease in the space of three or four years. I was driven to write about the disease because it was happening to her, to my father, to me, to my family. I needed to make the story concrete, to show the world (or at least myself) the human cost of a nebulous disease.

Yet I suspect that the real story now is one of scope. In the decade-plus since her death and the fourteen years since her diagnosis and illness, care for Alzheimer's patients has improved. Patients have more medications to delay the disease's onset and progression; caregivers have more community support to call on. However, the real story is ahead: as the population ages, delaying the onset of the disease won't be enough to prevent dementia disorders from straining the healthcare systems in Canada and the U.S.

And then there's cancer. About 12 million people in the U.S. have cancer (or have ever been diagnosed with cancer), says the American Cancer Society. In Canada, almost 700,000 of those Canadians who were alive on January 1, 2005, had been diagnosed with cancer in the previous ten years. Cancer has always had a personal element for me--my sister had cancer when I was still in elementary school. She has been cancer-free since I was at university, and cancer thus became comfortably abstract again for years. Then my brother was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) four years ago.

The "zooming in" process from "too big" to immediate and personal accelerated in December, when my brother's oncologist found that his CLL had not responded to traditional chemotherapy. "Donating" in relation to the human body went from abstract to concrete in the seconds it took me to read his email asking if we siblings could help. Quickly, I learned about many other abstract concepts: peripheral blood stem cell transplants, bone marrow transplants, human leukocyte antigen matching, the stages of remission. I learned the hard way that "a one in four chance of a match in siblings" doesn't mean "you have four siblings, so one will surely match you."

Be the Match and became links on my blog and on this page.

However, thanks to the 16.5 million donors registered worldwide, my brother has a donor, ready if and when his transplant time comes. Someone else has also made the journey from the abstract "what can I do to make a difference in this world" thought to a concrete "here's what I can do" action. I'm already grateful.

Events in the disasters in Japan are still unfolding. Similarly, I don't yet know the turns my brother's story will take, except that his is not a story only of disease--he's a new grandfather! My mother's story is at times as immediate to me as when she died; and at other times, it seems to have happened in a different universe. If Hana's Suitcase is any indication, perhaps these stories will continue in both "big" and "small" dimensions as long as we continue to write them.
Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Learnin'

I'm working on an analysis of The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers--specifically of its narrative structure. I've analyzed several works during the past year, and I've learned a lot about narrative each time.

I'm also part of a group that reads and provides feedback on works in progress. Some call this a workshop, others a critique group. At the moment, our group is small but mighty, and one of my pieces is on tap for this coming week. It is always interesting to see whether this group of readers, each of whom is also a writer, confirms what I suspect to be the limitations of a story (in this case, a loooooong one). (Sadly, they often point out things I didn't even think about. Sigh.)

Both kinds of learning are important to my development.

That's why I was pleased, in reading an interview with Powers, to see him say that the workshop needs to be supplemented with direct learning about narrative technique. Here's why:

We never tell a person who wants to learn how to play violin or how to paint to go out and figure out all the skills on her own, and then come back and have a group of other autodidacts tell her whether everything is working. Surely it can't hurt a student writer to look at all the nuts and bolts that go into making a resonant story, and to work on exercises that isolate those components. In the class, I do lots of different kinds of exercises -- wordgames, syntax challenges, stylistic imitations -- as well as very close analysis of really masterful stories.

I would only add that I also learn from close analysis of non-masterful stories, with an eye to figuring out why they don't work so well. (Other books. Not this one. This one is puzzling and challenging, to the point that I can't stop thinking about it.)

The full interview with Powers relates specifically to his book Gain (1998), so I expect the interview is from that period. But there's lots of material about him online.

Although it's nice when I find justification for something I already enjoy doing, I get enough answers to "why does this work?" that I'd do it anyway. Just as I keep getting good feedback from the other reader/writers in the group.

A "both/and," not an "either/or." Love when that happens.