Thursday, April 28, 2011

Art for the Soul

It looks like at least one of the three skills I learn this year will be art-related, on account of the fact that I've sort of already started.

First off, you need to know that for most of my life I've considered myself to be one of the masses who "can't draw." About twenty years ago, I ran across a book called Drawing With Children by Mona Brooks. Since at that point I had young children I was attempting to homeschool, I read through the book, and decided after reading to use the method to teach my kids to draw.

I drew along with them.

I actually (gasp!) liked what I drew. I kept drawing.

Then Real Life hit in the form of a return to university, and I stopped drawing. Forgot that I could draw.

A month or two back, I decided to rejoin a group at church that I'd been briefly part of some fifteen years ago (also before university) called "Art for the Soul." When I was first part of the group, it was a dedicated watercolour painting group. Let me tell you, I don't get along with watercolours. Not for me the washed-out look, or paint that doesn't stay where I put it! But Art for the Soul had evolved, and they welcomed me and my pens and my markers (as long as I don't use the scented ones) with open arms.

So I'm drawing again, and finally accepting that a realistic style just isn't my thing any more than watercolours are. I still aspire to learn how to draw at least semi-realistic figures, but only as a stepping stone to better looking flat style drawings that I prefer to do.

Anyhow, I'm having a ball, and spending time outside of "class" actually doing "homework." I convinced my daughter and her friend to join the group as well, and last week I dragged along my son's boyfriend. Which means that in a few short weeks, I've doubled the size of the group.

We had a woman come in and do a workshop where we painted irises on slate. I bought two slates, one for myself to paint and one for whichever of the kids wanted it--Ally took it over. We used acrylics, which I enjoyed, but the woman was old school and if she didn't like what you did, it wasn't right. She also violated my sense of possession by actually taking the brush and messing up my work a couple of times.

I put up with it because I knew she was only there for the day, and she did teach me some things about painting, but if I had a teacher like this on a regular basis, I'd give up. If this woman's methods are indicitave of how art is taught in some schools, it's no wonder most people don't draw!

In the introduction to her second book, Drawing With Older Children & Teens, Brooks tells the story of a young woman named Noel, who was three when she started instruction at her preschool. She was shy and spoke no English, and for weeks she hid in her cubby. One day, however, she felt safe enough to join the class, and from there her drawing took off.

The change didn't just affect her drawing--once she felt confident being part of the class, she bagan to interact with the other kids at the daycare even when it wasn't drawing time.

At age seven, Noel returned to her native Japan, and in high school eagerly enrolled in drawing classes. But her American-trained teacher was of the same school as our workshop leader, and Noel's confidence quickly declined, to the point that she felt she really couldn't draw. Like me, she preferred "flat style" drawing, not the more realistic shaded drawing.

She came back to the States briefly at age 15, and talked to Brooks about the problem. Brooks showed her a picture of a horse, and asked if she liked it. Noel liked it, but thought her teacher would criticize it.

Brooks told her that the painting had been done by Picasso!

There is no one "right" way to draw, any more than there is a "right" style of music or writing. There is only art, and art is interpretation of what is seen and heard, not a photocopy.

This weekend I'm up to my armpits in culture--on Saturday, the orchestra I play in has a dress rehearsal and a concert, and on Sunday, our group is having an art exhibition at church. Hopefully someone will remember to bring a camera, and I'll have pics of some of the stuff I've done to post!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Week 1 Summary, and a Question

So I'm finished my first week of "school," and things are going reasonably well. I'm finished my first book and started on my second, John Shelby Spong's book Why Chirstianity Must Change or Die. I've had this book for years, but it's mostly been on the shelves of one of my two elder children, so I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I'm not expecting any big revelations--I've read some of his other work, and this seems at first glance to be more of the same. And while he wrote the book for a lay audience, I already have theological training that takes me beyond that level. But I do hope that in reading the book, new questions will arise for me to tackle during my year.

As far as some of the other "requirements" are concerned:

1) I tried setting my home page to the Wikipedia random article, as suggested. It drove me nuts within the first two days, and I switched back to Google, where it will remain. I use Google half a dozen or more times per day, and having it as one of my multitude of bookmarks instead of my home page was, to put it simply, a pain in the a$$. And far too many of the random articles that came up were one or two line "stubs" with no real substance to them.

Instead, I have Stumble, which I use for about ten minutes at a time whenever I go on the web, which is at least twice a day. While a lot of what comes up is just cute kittens, I've also read a lot of good articles that I wouldn't otherwise have read. And about half the time, I end up at least once on a random Wikipedia page. So if the point is to read things you wouldn't necessarily read, and broaden your horizons, I consider stumbling to be an acceptable substitute.

2) I can't afford a gym or health club, or a trip abroad for that matter. So, since the good weather is finally here (touch wood!), I'm going to be walking three or more times per week. Did twice this week--not so great. But I did spend Monday night doing some fairly hard physical labour helping a friend clean a really, really dirty house. So I'll call that done, and do more walking next week.

Eventually, I hope to have some kind of home gym to do weights and maybe something like yoga, but this is a start.

3) Posted more than twice on my blog, though I didn't manage yesterday. Today is the post you should have gotten yesterday. Have some exciting plans for the future of this and my other blogs, but they're only in the embryo stage at the moment.

4) I have to check out The Economist at the library. If the content is too American, I'll be looking for a Canadian equivalent. But I will be looking to subscribe to some weekly journal or other in the near future.

Now on to the choices.

Languages: I have to choose a language to learn. I'm going to choose either Spanish or French, depending on whether or not I can find some conversation partners for either language. More on this later.

Three new skills:

My list of possibilities so far includes:

A martial art
Belly dancing
Aluminum can crafts
Drawing realistically, specifically the human figure
Model building
Music composition
Web Page Design
HTML coding
Arcylic Painting
Clay Sculpture
Social Networking (using Twitter/Facebook, etc.)
Making homemade organic cat food
Wood carving
Hunting (bow)

That's a pretty eclectic list, I know. But all of the above skills have some things in common:

a) I either have never done them before, or I have but never did them well and have forgotten how because it's been so long

b) Most of them require either materials I have on hand or can lay my hands on cheaply, and instruction available locally that isn't horribly expensive. The better options (and the ones I'm most likely to select) are free or nearly free. Some of them (bow hunting, skydiving) are expensive, but have appealed to my sense of whimsy for so long that eventually I'm going to give them a try.

c) I can believe that the options above are or will be by the end of the year within my physical and mental capabilities.

There are some ommissions to the list that others might think would be definite inclusions. I don't have learning to play a musical instrument on there. That's because I'd like to develop my viola and piano skills to a higher degree, and as soon as I'm employed, I'll be taking singing lessons again, too. That's enough of that area for now. So no instruments, and if you are tempted to suggest opera singing, well, what do you think I was doing in my lessons when I had to quit? :D

So my question to you all is: Do you have any suggestions for skills I might learn during the next year? Cheap is obviously preferred, easy not necessarily so.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Some Thoughts About Push

"First thing I see when I wake up is picture of Farrakhan's face on the wall. He is against crack addicts and crackers. Crackers is the cause of everything bad. It why may father ack like he do. He has forgot he is the Original Man!" (p. 34)

Precious seems to know almost nothing about Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, except that he condemns drug abuse and "crackers" (Southern slang for Whites). Farrakhan is like a god to the abused and neglected teen: "I jus' want to lay down, listen to radio, look at picture of Farrakhan, a real man, who don't fuck his daughter, fuck children." (p. 58)

Precious is like millions of other lost souls--confused about why she is singled out for abuse and poverty in a world where it seems that everyone else has it better than she does. And she begins, as we all do in such situations, to play what I call "The Blame Game."

I has to be (and usually is) someone's fault that we're so put upon. Someone other than ourselves, that is.

So far, so good. Precious seems to recognize, on some level, that the abuse is not her fault. A father should not have sex with his daughter. Mothers should be fixing dinner for their children, not the other way around. White people have a disproportionate say in what happens to Precious, and welfare workers don't really care about her or her dreams--they only care about getting her off welfare, despite the fact that prematurely ending her literacy classes and sending her out to do menial work for a living condemns her and her children to repeat the cycle of poverty and abuse.

But along with blaming others comes the attitude that the person who caused the situation should be the one to rectify it. Of course that doesn't happen--why would the abuser change a system that works so much in his or her favour?

When that doesn't work, often what follows is a complete "renunciation" of the values of the oppressor. I put renunciation in quotes, because often what the abused person comes up with is a mirror image of the values that led to the oppression in the first place.

Such is the case with Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam: "First, the program starts with number one. That is number four. The first part of that program is that we want freedom, a full and complete freedom. The second is, we want justice. We want equal justice under the law, and we want justice applied equally to all, regardless of race or class or color. And the third is that we want equality. We want equal membership in society with the best in civilized society. If we can get that within the political, economic, social system of America, there's no need for point number four. But if we cannot get along in peace after giving America 400 years of our service and sweat and labor, then, of course, separation would be the solution to our race problem."

Let's go back to the fifties, when separation was the norm, only instead of white people having all the good stuff, black people will have it. Instead of black people being criminals by nature, more like monkeys than man, devils in the guise of humans, it's white people who are devils, criminals, and not "Original" humans, whatever that's supposed to mean.(Citations and quote here.)

It's typical fundamentalist dogma that requires little thought on the part of participants, and not much more from the leaders. It holds tremendous appeal for the masses, who have not, as a rule, been taught to think (or do) for themselves.

Precious manages to break free from this fundamentalist mind trap with the help of "Miz Rain," who teaches Precious not only to read, but to question and think. It's hard work, that questioning, that thinking. It's even harder work to pull herself free of the cycle of abuse and poverty that she's found herself in, because although she finds friends and helpers along the way, she realizes that it's Precious Jones who has to do most of the work--no-one can do it for her.

And she finds that her helpers aren't all (or even mostly) shining examples of the Perfect Black Man. Most of them are women. They're "faggits." They're hispanic. They've got rotten teeth. They're loud-mouthed and bossy. They've been abused, just like her. Some of them (gasp!) are even white.

When she accepts the imperfections in her friends, Precious can begin to accept them in herself. When she opens herself up to love from others on the margins, she can begin to break down the prejudices that enslave her more thoroughly than her mother ever did.

One of the questions I've asked myself over and over again is, "Why do people, especially people on the margins and the unchurched, turn to fundamentalist religion rather than more moderate and thoughtful religion?"

And I think Precious may have helped answer that question just a little bit. When we're hurt, we want the hurt to stop. Now! And we don't want to waste a lot of time or energy to get it to stop, because we don't have a lot of time or energy to spare. We want to box ourselves in and protect ourselves. We want to curl up into a ball and have the world go away.

But the world doesn't go away when we close our eyes and repeat the magic phrase, "There's no place like home." Instead, it just goes on hurting us.

More thoughts on this later, of course. I've only just begun to scratch the surface here. But Push was a good opening choice for my readings and thinking. I have some additions to my reading list because of issues opened up during the reading:

Freedom Writers (which I haven't read yet)
Oliver Twist (ditto, believe it or not)

My suggestions for other readings would be Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which I've read a couple of times, and her short story "The Welcome Table".

Monday, April 18, 2011

The First Book

My daughter pointed out something I'd already realized--that in order to make this course of independent study equivalent to a master's degree, I'm going to have to do the thinking and the writing to go along with the reading. Otherwise, I'd just be reading a bunch of books, and how is that different from normal?

Besides, after reading the first book on my reading list, I found I wanted and needed to integrate what I've read, and I do that best through writing.

Saturday afternoon, less than one day after "enrolling" in this course, I found myself at the library, looking for books to occupy me for the next three weeks, that being the loan period. I headed over to the classics section and grabbed a bunch of fiction that looked interesting. Wandered through the non-fiction sections, pulling stuff that looked like it might fit with my course of study, or that held wisdom I'd like to accumulate.

Went home, and pretty much at random picked Sapphire's novel Push as my first read.

There's nothing terribly original in Push. I've read The Color Purple and The Outsiders, and I know about Freedom Writers. I keep up with the news.

Despite the lack of originality in the overall concept, Push deserves every single bit of praise that's been heaped on it. Because Precious, from the first page to the last, is a real, living person to the reader. Over the last few days, I've had to keep reminding myself that Push is fiction, not a real story about a real person.

Except I know that when I say that to myself, I'm telling at least a partial untruth.

There really are kids who are sexually abused, beaten, neglected, enslaved. By their parents, more often than not.

There really are kids who sit in class day after day saying nothing, learning nothing. The teachers don't help because they've got 30 other kids, most of them noisy, to draw their attention away from the quiet one. And they don't get enough help, and nurses and psychologists and teacher-librarieans are the first positions cut by budget fanatics who want to save money. No matter that somewhere down the line, we will end up paying a whole lot more...

Doctors don't report suspected abuse, because spending time investigating and writing reports and testifying in court takes time away from treating patients, and often it's unpaid time at that.

Social workers have heavy caseloads, programs are full to overflowing, and self-improvement isn't a worthy life goal in a society where money does all the talking. The only goal is to reduce the caseloads as fast as possible, and that means slotting the victim into some sort of workfare, rather than helping them realize their full potential.

And there are very few countries on earth (are there any, really?) where kid's voices are taken seriously, and where kids have the same rights as adults.

I fouund a decent study guide for Push. I'm going to take some time today and tomorrow to answer and enlarge on a few of the quesions in it. I'll post my ruminations on Wednesday.

In the meantime, I'd encourage you to read the book if you haven't already, and join me in the discussion.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I'm Going Back to School!

Sort of.

I was Stumbling around the net the other day, and came across this post. I read it. Then thought about it. And realized that while I couldn't afford to do everything on the list, I could certainly afford to to anything with a $0 price tag attached, and that it would be a pretty good substitute for playing Sims. Well, some of the time, anyhow.

Now I already have two master's degrees. I don't really need any more. But that doesn't mean my education's over by a long shot. There's a lot I haven't seen, heard, done, or read. A lot of things that I'd like to do before I finally kick the bucket.

You'll find online or in bookstores literally hundreds of books that tell you what you should do or see or learn before you die (or reach the age of thirty, whichever comes first.) If you took them at their word, you'd be spending every single minute of your time watching movies or travelling to far-flung places or reading books, and you'd starve to death before two months passed, because you wouldn't have time to eat.

This list is a little different. For one thing, there's a specific time period involved. One year (though in my case, it'll take longer due to the financial aspects.)

There's a limit to what needs to be done or learned. 20 fiction books, 30 non-fiction books, 3 new skills, 1 language.

And the skills and the books and the language aren't dictated by the author of the post. You can choose what suits you best, which means that everyone's "freeform master's degree" is going to be different.

In my case, I can forsee the non-fiction reading being along the lines of religion and society, religion and science, and a few economic and business texts thrown in. The fiction I've already decided will be classics I haven't read before.

I'm hoping that I can somehow upgrade this jackboot master's programme into a doctorate, which means I'd have to have a theme of sorts, and a topic for a thesis that would develop into a book. Most likely is something to do with the place of religion in society. I wouldn't get the piece of paper, but that isn't the point. The point is, in my case, to produce some original writing on the topic that may somehow be worthy of publication, and might make some contribution to the debate on the place of religion in modern society.

Looking down the list, there are a couple of things that I've already got well covered. Basic presentation and public speaking skills, for one. Been doing presentations of many sorts, and doing them well, for decades now. I don't think toastmasters is going to be able to teach me what I don't already know. Writing well is another skill that I've already acquired. Though I may well read the suggested text, Bird by Bird, as it's available in my public library.

On to what I can start to do, right here, right now.

Blogging is the most obvious choice. I have three blogs right now. One, "Death by Trumpet", I haven't used in years. It was devoted to a particular novel I wrote for November National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) in 2009. I didn't finish posting the book, and I haven't used the blog since.

There's "Confessions of a Slob" which details my somewhat haphazard approach to cleaning and re-organizing my house.

Then there is this blog, which was originally intended to collect my pearls of wisdom on self-improvement, actually became an outlet for publishing some of my sermons (I did tell you I had some public speaking experience, didn't I?), and is now being re-purposed to become the vehicle for this experiment in self-education.

It actually won't change all that much except for one thing: I hereby commit to posting at least twice per week--once on Wednesday, and once on Saturday. And the scope will be somewhat widened--I may publish sermons, or musings on what I've read, or my answers to strange and wonderful philosophical quesions from this blog, or...

So the blog will still be, I hope about building an awesome life. It just won't all be sermons. (Don't y'all deafen me with your cheers, now!)