WHY DID YOU TAKE THAT PICTURE?

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“Why did you take that picture?” I was startled. No one ever asked me before. Photographers instinctively know the answer; non-photographers don’t normally think to ask. It gave me pause.

To me, it’s obvious why any picture was taken: the photographer saw something. Light, shadow, image, color. Abstract or representational, something about the image appealed to the photographer’s inner eye.

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I don’t need a reason to take a picture, though I may have one. I don’t take pictures of churches for religious reasons. I like the architecture or how the light plays on the steeple or reflects in the windows. If I think it will make an interesting composition, I’ll take pictures of my feet. I have taken pictures of my feet, with and without shoes.

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I think if anyone asks such a question, one of two things is true. The photographer has failed to convey his or her vision. Or the viewer doesn’t understand art or artists. Either way, it’s a failure to communicate. You can’t explain art. You get it or not. It speaks to you or not. No amount of studying will make art comprehensible if you don’t have a fundamental sympathy for it.

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I know I’m going against the current mantra that “If you try hard enough, you can learn anything.” I don’t believe it applies to the arts or other things, such as sports. Or mathematics.

If you have no eye, no course will give you one. It would be like trying to cure color blindness. If you are tone-deaf, you won’t be a musician. No matter how many lessons you take or how many hours you practice. If you have no gift for putting words together, you will not be a writer. Not everyone is equally talented, even within the arts … but anyone earning a living in the arts has some talent. Some natural gift.

It’s cruel to tell kids they can be whatever they want merely by working harder. Because it’s not true. We should try to find out what our kids are good at and encourage them to go in directions in which they have some reasonable chance of success. Not everyone has talent for art … but everyone has a talent for something. The challenge is determining what it is.

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A CURIOUS ACCOUNT OF NATIVE PEOPLES IN NORTH AMERICA

THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN – A Curious Account of Native People in North America

By Thomas King

University of Minnesota Press
Publication Date: September 1, 2013

272 Pages

Before starting it, I was a bit dubious about the book. The title seemed just a bit … I don’t know. Off-center? I wasn’t sure if I was about to read history, anecdotes, opinion, humor or what.

It turned out to be all of the above and more. This is an entertaining book — humorous, elegantly written and witty. It’s also serious, but the seriousness is somewhat cloaked by its style. Unlike so many books written by oppressed minorities that aim — almost exclusively — to make one feel guilty for not being one of the oppressed, this book helps you help see the world through the eyes of Native Americans. What we see is beauty, horror and hilarity … a mad world in which you can’t trust anyone and you have to make your own rules because that’s the only way to survive.

We have slaughtered our Native Americans. Hated them, admired, adulated, tortured, enslaved, jailed and utterly misunderstood them since our first encounters.

The single thing we non-Natives have never done is accept the Native American claim to this country as more legitimate than ours. At the core of the relationship between Native peoples and the white “settlers” was and will always be land. It was theirs. We wanted it. We took it. They objected. We killed them. And we kept the land and tried improve our position by slander and slaughter.

These days, feelings towards Native American runs the gamut from awe, to bigotry and loathing. Despite the passing of centuries, there is little understanding. That the Native community is less than eager to let outsiders into their world should surprise no one. Their experience with us has not been reassuring. To quote Calvera from The Magnificent Seven: “Generosity. That was our first mistake.”

For anyone interested in discovering the meaning of cognitive dissonance, growing up Native in today’s America is a good start. Natives are by no means the only minority to have to hold completely incompatible world views simultaneously, but Natives have a legitimate claim to first place for the most cock-eyed and complex relationship with the larger society in which they must live.

This isn’t exactly history. It isn’t exactly not. It’s stories, history, opinions and anecdotes presented in a non-linear, almost conversational style. It is easy to read, lively and not at all pretentious. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, but probably will. Logic would dictate that our Native population regard us with at the very least, skepticism and possibly deep-rooted hostility.

This isn’t a deep analysis of the history of this relationship, though for some I suppose it would be revelatory. I would call it “Native American History Lite.” It is a good starting place for those who don’t know anything — or know a lot of things, all of which are wrong.

About the author:

Thomas King is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and photographer. His many books include the novels Medicine River; Green Grass, Running Water; Truth and Bright Water; two short story collections, One Good Story, That One (Minnesota, 2013) and A Short History of Indians in Canada (Minnesota, 2013); nonfiction, The Truth About Stories (Minnesota, 2005); and the children’s books A Coyote Columbus Story, Coyote Sings to the Moon, Coyote’s New Suit, and A Coyote Solstice Tale. King edited the literary anthology All My Relations and wrote and starred in the popular CBC radio series, The Dead Dog Café. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western American Literary Association (2004) and an Aboriginal Achievement Award (2003), and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004. He has taught Native literature and history and creative writing at the University of Lethbridge, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Guelph and is now retired and lives in Guelph, Ontario.

The Inconvenient Indian is available in Kindle, Hardcover and Paperback and worthwhile in any format.

ON A FIRST DAY WHEN I WAS SO SMALL …

My father drops me off and just leaves me there in front of the huge brick building. Me, little me, standing on the wide sidewalk, autumn leaves swirling around my ankles. I’ve arrived but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do next. I’m starting kindergarten. I am four years old. Some strange calendar thing means I’m the youngest kid in the class. And the smallest. All the other kids are bigger, taller, bulkier. I will always be the shortest or second shortest until size places ends in 6th grade.

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I wait, looking — hoping — for help. Eventually someone collects me, asking me my name, herding me towards a group of little kids, some of whom are crying, all of whom look lost. If any parent stuck around to watch over us, I never saw them. 1951 was not a year for coddling kids. When the time to leave the nest came, mama birds gave a push and out you fell, tiny wings flailing.

Kindergarten was in a huge room on the ground floor. They didn’t want us little kids getting run over by bigger ones. Or getting lost in the hallway. The ceilings are miles above us, 16 feet or more. Standard on very old schools. The windows go to the ceiling so Miss O’Rourke has to use a hook on a long wooden pole to open or close them. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows like at home. Ours open by turning a crank.

The teacher is ancient and wrinkly. Blue eyes behind steel-framed glasses and frizzy grey hair. She dresses funny. She is tall, talks loud and slow. Does she think I’m stupid? Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

Now it’s nap time. We are supposed to put our blankets on the floor and go to sleep, but I don’t nap. I haven’t taken a nap ever or at least none I can remember. Anyway, I don’t have a blanket. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have them. I wish I had one because I feel weird being the only one without a blanket and no shoe box.

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Worse, I don’t have crayons. I wish I had some because the ones in the big box for everyone to use are broken, the colors no one likes. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring crayons. She’s busy.

I got a new sister a few months ago. She  cries all the time and mommy didn’t have time to come to school and find out all this stuff all the other kids mothers know.

So I sit in a chair and wait, being very quiet, while every one is napping. I don’t think they are really asleep, but everyone goes and lays down on the floor on a blanket and pretends. It gives Mrs. O’Rourke time to write stuff in her book.

It’s a long day and I have almost a mile to walk home. My mother doesn’t drive and anyway, she doesn’t worry about me. She knows I’ll find my way. It’s just that the walk home is all uphill. I’m tired. Why do I have to do this? I could have stayed home and played with my own toys.

By the time I know the answer, I’ll be 19, graduating from college. When I know the answer, it still won’t make sense. School — including most of college — will be where I sit around doing things slowly so other kids can catch up with me. Or — for math — where I sit in a haze and have no idea what’s going on, so lost I don’t even know what questions to ask. But who needs that stuff anyhow?

I’m going to be a writer. Unless the cowboy thing works out.

IT DOESN’T ADD UP …

I always say I’m the queen of typos, but lately, I’ve been noticing the problem isn’t typos. Entire words and pieces of words go missing while extraneous words and word fragments that should vanish hang around. Word bombs lurking in my text.

I’ve always had a problem with numbers. I was bad at math but since I have a high IQ, the assumption was I didn’t try hard enough. I can’t remember how many report cards I got saying I wasn’t making an effort. Underachiever is a label that has haunted me.

To a degree it was true. I didn’t have to try particularly hard at some stuff. I read very well. I was a natural researcher and historian. I always talked a blue streak. I wrote stories. I was 10 when I learned touch typing. I type quickly, but the number of mistakes I make can equal the number of words on the page. Inaccurate doesn’t begin to describe it.

I did well things that came naturally. Everything else didn’t come at all. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. Physics was meaningless. Trig was random numbers. If I could remember what I was supposed to do with numbers, the odds were no better than 50-50 I’d come up with the right answer. We did not have calculators, but even if we had, it wouldn’t have guaranteed I’d get the right answer. I also can’t key numbers with any accuracy.

Today, when I commented on a friend’s blog, in a fewer than 10-word sentence, I omitted one word and mis-wrote another. I thought the missing word, but failed to type it. Missing in action. By the time I saw the problems, it was too late to correct them. I’ve been doing that a lot and I finally started searching to see if there was a name for the problem, other than creeping senility.

Dyscalculia. A learning disability with which both my son and granddaughter have been diagnosed.

How did I miss this? How come I never connected the missing dots? I have had all these symptoms for my entire life. It never crossed my mind, or anyone else’s, that there might be an actual problem. Lately it’s gotten worse and I attributed it to getting older and more forgetful. But age tends to exaggerate symptoms of this type. It’s both comforting and frustrating to realize I’ve spent my life successfully functioning despite the problem. As have millions of people because the world doesn’t adjust to your problems. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got because … well … what choice do you have?

When I was growing up, kids with dyslexia and/or dyscalculia were assumed to be stupid, lazy or both, I’ve been called many things, but never stupid. So I was told loudly and often I was lazy. Eventually I came to believe it. It never occurred to anyone that maybe I really couldn’t make sense of numbers. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They didn’t like me. Sometimes, it felt personal.

Because I was good with words and concepts, I wrote very well. I didn’t spell very well, but I learned to look things up and if I wasn’t sure how to spell a word, I used a different word. I rewrote whole pages to avoid having to use a word I couldn’t spell. Sometimes, I still do. I don’t trust the spell checker to know what I meant.

Lately, I find my finger typing words that start with the same letter as the word I meant to write, but which are otherwise entirely different. When eventually I see the error, I’m totally baffled how my brain can be thinking one thing and my fingers typing something entirely different

A short post … like this one … can take me hours to proofread and when I’m done, there will still be wrong words, missing words, missing pieces of words, words in the wrong order or wrong form (e.g. gerund instead of past tense). I just don’t see the errors.

If you have a child in school who is doing poorly but is bright and should be doing better, before you assume that he or she needs only to work harder, take a look at dyscalculia and dyslexia websites. They have diagnostic tools for all ages and stages. Not every child or adult has every symptom, nor are all symptoms present at all times. Intermittent memory loss is common. You may know how to solve an equation today, but not recall how to do it tomorrow. Gone from your memory without a trace.

Check out: The Dyscalculia Forum and Dycalculia.org. Meanwhile, here’s some basic stuff to help you decide if you want to search further.

From The Dyscalculia Forum:

The Basic Facts

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in mathematics. Dyscalculia is a word you use to describe when people have significant problems with numbers – but still have a normal or above normal IQ. It seems that no dyscalculic has problems with math alone, but also struggle with problems being able to learn to tell time, left/right orientation, rules in games and much more. See the list of symptoms. Also, there are more types of dyscalculia, and all types demand specific learning methods aimed at the specific problem.

How Common Is Dyscalculia?

According to UK studies done by Gross-Tsur, Manor and Shalev in 1996, 6.5% are dyscalculic. According to studies done by Lewis, Hitch and Walker in 1994, 1.3% are dyscalculic while 2.3% are dyscalculic AND dyslexic – that means that according to this study 3.6% of the World’s population are dyscalculic.

That gives a total of between 3.6 and 6.5% of the World’s population. And again: That means, according to these two studies, that between 216.000.000 (two hundred and sixteen million) and 390.000.000 (three hundred and ninety million) people are dyscalculic – if we say that there are 600.000.000.000 (six billion) people in the world. No international study has been done on how common it is.

Symptoms In Brief 

Normal or accelerated language acquisition: verbal, reading, writing. Poetic ability. Good visual memory for the printed word. Good in areas of science until higher math is required and creative arts.

Mistaken recollection of names. Poor name/face retrieval. Substitute names beginning with same letter.

Difficulty with the abstract concepts of time and direction. Inability to recall schedules, and sequences of past or future events. Unable to keep track of time. May be chronically late.
Inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Poor mental math ability. Poor with money and credit. Cannot do financial planning or budgeting.

When writing, reading and recalling numbers, these common mistakes are made: number additions, substitutions, transpositions, omissions, and reversals.

Inability to grasp/remember math concepts, rules, formulas, sequence, basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. Poor long-term concept mastery. May be able to do math one day, but draw a blank the next..

May be unable to comprehend or “picture” mechanical processes. Lack “big picture/ whole picture” thinking.
Poor memory for the “layout” of things. Gets lost or disoriented easily. May have a poor sense of direction, lose things often, and seem absent-minded.

May have difficulty grasping concepts of formal music education. Difficulty sight-reading music, learning fingering to play an instrument, etc.

May have poor athletic coördination, difficulty keeping up with rapidly changing physical directions as in aerobic, dance, and exercise classes. Difficulty remembering dance step sequences.

Difficulty keeping score or remembering how to keep score in games, like bowling, etc. Often loses track of whose turn it is during games. Limited strategic ability.

NOSTALGIA: 15 CREDITS OR SOMEWHAT FEWER

My 6th Grade class.

In sixth grade. Still wondering what I’m doing there. Probably so were most of the other kids.

I’ve arrived. School has begun, if you could really call it school. I’m the youngest kid in the class, only four, but somehow, here I am anyhow. I’m certainly the smallest. All the others kids are way bigger than me. I don’t know it yet, but I will always be either the shortest or next to the shortest kid in every class for the next six years. After that, they stop measuring.

P.S. 35 is tiny but to me it looks gigantic. Monstrous. Many years later, I will come back here and see this school as the miniature it is, but not yet. Even the stairs are half the height of normal stairs. I don’t know about stairs. Kindergarten is on the ground floor. Always. They don’t want us little kids getting run over by bigger ones. Or lost in the hallways.

The windows go all the way to the ceiling. Very tall. To open or close them, Miss O’Rourke uses a long hook on a pole. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows like at home. Our windows open by turning a crank. Anyone can open them. Even me.PS350001

Teacher is pretty old. She’s got frizzy grey hair and glasses. She dresses funny. She talks loud and slow. Does she think I’m stupid? Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

Now it’s nap time. We are supposed to put our blankets on the floor and go to sleep, but I don’t nap. I haven’t taken a nap ever or at least none I can remember. Anyway, I don’t have a blanket. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have them. I wish I had one because I feel weird being the only one without a blanket and no shoe box.

Worse, I don’t have crayons. I wish I had some because the ones in the big box in the classroom for everyone to use are broken, the colors no one likes. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring crayons either. She’s busy. I just got a new sister who cries all the time and mommy didn’t have time to come to school and find out all this stuff all the other kids mothers know.

So I sit in a chair and wait, being very quiet, while every one is napping. I don’t think they are really asleep, but everyone goes and lays down on the floor on a blanket and pretends. It gives Mrs. O’Rourke time to write stuff in her book.

It’s a long day and I have almost a mile to walk home. My mother doesn’t drive and anyway, she doesn’t worry about me. She knows I’ll find my way. It’s just that the walk home is all uphill. I’m tired. Why do I have to do this? I could have stayed home and played with my own toys.

By the time I know the answer, I will be 19 and graduating from college. Even after I know the answer, I don’t understand the question. I read so much on my own — that’s where I really learn everything.  School will forever be where I sit around doing everything slowly so other kids can catch up with me.

Except for math. And French. But who needs that stuff anyhow? I’m going to be a writer. Unless the ballerina thing works out.

HERE’S TO US … WE MADE IT!

I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the 1950s, but there are some truths worth remembering and revisiting.

I grew up in a very different world. Play meant using imagination. It mean physical activity. Jump rope, hide and seek, tag, Stick ball (no one owned a real bat). Stoop ball, jacks. Building a “fort” or climbing a tree. Cowboys and indians. Toys were simple, not electronic. Getting a new doll was a real thrill. She never needed a reboot, unless you count having to find her lost shoe.

If you were having a hard time with the bullies in school, you got up, got dressed and went to school. It didn’t mean you weren’t scared. I was plenty scared. It simply wasn’t a parent problem … it was mine. Yours. Ours.

Marilyn - Senior YearYou didn’t get a lot of pats on the back for “trying hard.” You might get an “attaboy” for doing exceptionally well, but you were expected to do your best. Nothing less was acceptable. Doing your best was your job. You took it seriously.

You learned your lessons in elementary school so you could go on to junior high school and then high school. You had to do well in high school because if you didn’t, you couldn’t get into college. We all knew — with 100% certainty — if you didn’t go to college, you wouldn’t go to heaven.

My son commented the other day we are raising — speaking of my granddaughter’s generation — a bunch of weenies. We are protecting from them everything, effectively from acquiring the coping skills they will need to survive when mommy isn’t there to bail them out.

I said this to my granddaughter too, because she needs to hear it:. No one gets a free pass. Even being rich doesn’t guarantee bad stuff won’t happen, that you won’t get sick, lose a loved one, a child, or for that matter, your own health. Nothing prevents life from happening. Pain is part of the package. Learning to deal with adversity is called “growing up.” If you don’t learn to fight your own battles, when you get “out there,” you won’t survive.

Just about every family has some members who didn’t make it. The ones who never got a real job, formed a serious relationship, accomplished anything much. If they happen to be our own kids, it makes us wonder what we did wrong … and usually, we have a sneaking suspicion the problem isn’t what we didn’t do. It’s what we did too much.

I don’t think we should be mean and uncaring. Nor am I an advocate of corporal punishment. But I think it’s important to recognize we didn’t get strong by being protected from every pain, every hurt. We didn’t get everything we wanted the moment we wanted it. Or at least I didn’t. If I got one really cool present, that was a big deal. Now kids get so much, it’s meaningless. They don’t appreciate anything because there’s always more where that came from.

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So, in memory of the good times, the bad times, the hard times, the great times. The schoolyard battles we fought and sometimes lost. The subjects we barely passed or actually failed and had to take again. The bullies who badgered us until we fought back and discovered bullies are cowards. Getting cornered in the girls’ room by tough chicks with switch blades, wondering if you can talk your way out of this one.

Being the only Jew, Black kid, Spanish kid, fat kid, short kid or whatever different kind of kid in a school full of people who don’t like you. Getting through it and out the other side. Being the only one who used big words and read books when everyone else was watching American Bandstand. Being the klutz who couldn’t do those dances and never had the right clothing or hairdo.

Then, finally, getting to college and discovering the weirdos and rejects from high school were now the cool people to know. Magically, we were suddenly part of the “in crowd.” Metamorphoses. No longer were we outsiders. What had made us misfits were now the qualities that made us popular. And eventually, successful.

The fifties and early sixties were not idyllic. Especially if you weren’t middle class, white and Christian. Yet it was a great time to be a kid. Not because we had more stuff, but because we had more freedom. We had time to play, time to dream. Whatever we lacked in “things,” we made up for by having far fewer rules. We were encouraged to use our imagination. We didn’t have video games, cable TV, cell phones and computers. Many of us felt lucky to have one crappy black and white television with rabbit ears that barely got a signal.

We learned to survive and cope, and simultaneously, learned to achieve. We weren’t scared to try. We screwed up enough to know if it didn’t work out, we’d get up, dust ourselves off and try again.

When we got out into the world, for at least a couple of decades, we had a blast.

Here’s to us as we limp past middle age into the laughingly so-called golden years. We really had great lives. We’re still having them.

Daily Prompt: We Can Be Taught! – GREATNESS

Greatness comes in many forms. From your best friend, to your husband and fourth grade teacher … the fireman, police and soldiers who protect you … the men who invent our world … the people who fight injustice. So  much greatness, too much for one post … this is a small start.