Friday, 29 December 2017

Major Light, Minor Shadows: Changing a Song from Comedy to Tragedy, Part One

Years ago on a CBC Radio 2 show, the host Tom Allen played a transposition of REM's "Losing My Religion," written in a minor key, into a major key. Tom giggled, and so did I. Long ago I took some music theory, and I remembered transposing melodies from one key to another, and I remember learning about the different modes of western music with exotic names like Dorian, Lydian, and Mixolydian.

Scholarly journals such as Psychomusicology and Music Perception operate on the assumptions that music and mind have a relationship and that the scholarly study of such a relationship is worthwhile. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book, Musicophilia, about the ways that music perception is influenced by neurological conditions.

The idea that a specific key can have a specific meaning and emotional effect is something that western composers took for granted, at least until the twentieth century, when the idea of keys were called into question. Beginning in the eleventh century, western musical theorists associated different modes with different emotions, though the different theorists didn't necessarily agree (Temperley and Tan 239). Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries gives examples of these emotion-key mappings. Here is one specific scheme in Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806), where, for example, C major connotes "innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children's talk" and F# Minor, the "gloomy key," "tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language."

David Temperley and Daphne Tan of the Eastman School of Music did research whose aims and conclusions are nicely summarized in the article's title, "Emotional Connotations of Diatonic Modes"  (DOI 10.1525/mp.2012.30.3.237) published in Music Perception in 2012. on the emotional reactions of non-musicians on hearing pairs of same melody written in two different modes, specific patterns of whole tones and half tones.

The mode most people call the major key is in the exotic naming I learned as a teenager called Ionian, while the Aeolian mode is similar to the type of minor key called descending melodic minor (Temperley and Tan 238). According to tradition, the major key has positive connotations and the minor key has negative connotations (Temperley and Tan 239).

In their acknowledgement of their predecessors in the study of music and emotions, Temperley and Tan make the distinction between perceived emotion and felt emotion. A song may sound sad, but the listener may nevertheless feel happy when they hear it (239). For example, I feel happy when I hear the song "Tennessee Waltz" by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart because I think the melody is beautiful, but the song sounds sad to me, perhaps because I am influenced by the lyrics, or perhaps for another reason.

Thus  a few difficulties arise with my experiment to add "shadow" to a song that seems "light." What do I want to do: make a song that sounds "tragic" or a song that makes me feel "tragic"? Besides that distinction, what is it that a song must to be "tragic"? In their research, Temperley and Tan asked participants to classify songs on how they sounded, rather than how the songs made them feel. They also simplified the categories of emotional reaction to two: happy and sad.

Temperley and Tan's participants were fairly consistent with their categorizations. They identified the Ionian mode, the familiar major key, as "happy." That result confirmed Temperley and Tan's prediction. Ionian mode is extremely familiar to begin with in popular music, for one thing, so they result may come from the comfort afforded to something familiar. As for the results generally, Temperley and Tan acknowledged that, generally speaking, modes considered to be "far away" from Ionian were classified as "sad." The researchers noted, however, that the nonmusicians were quite able to distinguish between different modes, despite their lack of music training, and that familiarity with certain modes that often used in popular music, did not explain their preference for some modes over others, beyond their shared preference for Ionian mode (the major key). The researchers played six different modes (Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian) of the same melody, and reactions to the modes suggested that the participants had the ability to distinguish them, to the point that participants' reactions to a specific mode was fairly consistent. Participants didn't necessarily prefer modes that should be more familiar, either. Temperley and Tan wondered if a mode that sounded "sharper" than others made people sense it as sadder.

For my experiment, I have  only myself and my limited musical abilities (two years' worth of music theory and several years, long ago, of accordion lessons). I read and listened to a good tutorial of the modes, and then I decided to play around with Audacity, a free music editing program.Audacity can certainly change pitches, but it can't autogenerate a transposition such that some notes are dropped by a semitone while others remain as it. I frankly was hoping for autogeneration.

The easiest thing, at least for my talents, to do is to take a tune I know and transpose it myself. As part of my novelty year (which  I have posted about), I wrote a tune called "Walk On By." It is in G major. My goal, then is to transpose it to a minor key and see what happens. I am tickled by the list of keys and emotions on David Loberg Code's website, so my plan is to transpose my G major tune to G minor, which Christian Stubart describes as "Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike." To me, this characteristic is close to what tragedy often derives from: a plan to ameliorate one's condition through a plan that ultimately fails.

That transposition will take me some time to do.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Shadows and Light

My first "change of lighting" experiment will use a photograph that I have taken. Some time ago I bought a decent digital camera, and I have been taking photos as a way to expand my creative output and stretch those creative muscles.

I selected a bright photograph and changed its lighting digitally to create a comedy/tragedy pairing from the same image. The experiment will involve me making a formal change and see what "content" changes result.

Before I select a technique, I must decide what I mean by comedy and tragedy. I look at these words in terms of drama, particularly Greek drama and its re-uptake in Renaissance drama. 

Comedies begin with disorder and end with harmony. In comedic drama, the initial disorder derives from scenarios such as mistaken identity, ambitious goals that are poorly planned or that fall victim to the unpredictability of human will, or protagonists trying to mitigate their powerlessness against antagonists and making mistakes as a result. Eventually, the problem is solved and the disorder is halted.People reveal their true identities, goals are achieved, and the powerless gain power over the antagonists: they convince antagonists to release their hold or they usurp the antagonists and take their power away.  Marriage is the traditional outcome of comedy. In Shakespeare's comedies, three or even four couples will become engaged. Dancing and music signals the good social relations that arise when people learn to get along and be fair and honest with each other.

Tragedy is the reverse of comedy in some ways. In tragedy, protagonists pit their will against the world. The desire to achieve goals creates disorder, at first only in the community, but later in the protagonists themselves. The protagonist's goals are destructive and selfish even if the goals didn't start out that way. A good person may get bad advice from a bad person (think of Othello and Iago), or a  good person may be put in a bad situation that the good person cannot full rise to the occasion to combat (think of Hamlet), or the community as a whole is to blame for harming good people (as in Romeo and Juliet). Death and disintegration signal a tragedy, but not all death is tragic. Death in tragedy is unnecessary and wasteful rather than natural. Even if the community rights itself after the death, the sense is that the deaths were unnecessary. 

My pairing will attempt to show this contrast between comedy and tragedy through lighting. In the term "lighting" I include colour, since colour is an aspect of lighting.

What does light change do in a photograph?  I looked at a book on photography called Stoppees' Guide to Photography and Light to see what I could do. I learned that in photography, light can emphasize some details over others, whether positively (increased light on an area) or negatively (decreased light on an area). Some lighting seems more familiar and thus natural or normal. Darkness created by shadows and dark backgrounds obscure details and create a sense of depth (complexity) or danger (lack of knowledge about the subject). 

Colours also play a role in what a photography can seem to mean. Bright colours  tend to be seen positively, but colours that are too bright for the subject at hand or are an unusual shade or tint create unease. 

My goal, then is to create a sense of unease by using colours that are unnaturally bright or tinted an unnatural colour but that are accompanied by heavy shadow. I also want to emphasize unusual details that seem off-putting or somehow "incorrect."

I chose a bright photo of a bridge in my city that crosses the North Saskatchewan River. Using photoeditng software that came with my camera, I changed the photo to emphasize the posts of the bridge rather than the span. I decided to keep the colour in the tragedy photo instead of using heavily shadowed black and white, an obvious choice for tragedy.  I chose filters that minimized contrasts and maximized shadows. The image is tinted an unnatural blue-green, the river is too bright a blue, and the sky is nearly white, as though something bright has just exploded in the sky. I wanted the shadow under the bridge to seem darker.

The result may not seem obviously "sad" but I didn't want to go with simply sad. I wanted some eeriness as well.

Monday, 16 October 2017

A Change of Lighting

The next few entries will be inspired by the following excerpt from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus:

"We might laugh, but there was no amusement in the virtuous roar that went up from a stunned world at this execution of a cut-and-dried plan of campaign, knowledge of which had long been public property. However, I saw that our host liked this line much better and was glad of the chance to laugh, so I willingly joined in, not without recalling what Plato had said of comedy and tragedy: how they grow on the same tree and a change of lighting suffices to make one into the other" (Chapter 30, 295)

I am going to try to change the lighting for some works of art to see what happens. "What happens" means "assessment or analysis," and I know that my assessment will differ from other people's.

1. Change of "Lighting" on a photograph from shade-busting to shade-enhancing.

2. Transposition from a major key to a minor key.

3. Diction Switch up from positive connotations of a word to a negative connotation.

4. Translucent sculpture into an opaque sculpture.

5. Recoloration of a film snippet from high key to low key.

6. Recasting of a short play so good guys are bad guys (but with the same dialogue)

Friday, 6 October 2017

Follow Virginia Woolf's Advice

I am re-reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, and I found a few things relevant to this blog's mission. Woolf is a writer, and her long essay is, understandably, about writing, but her advice can be transposed to other creative endeavours.

1. A creative person requires solitude and a modicum of financial independence.

"[A] woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (Chapter One). 

2. Don't bow down to critics.

"[D]elightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bit in comparison" (Chapter Six).

3. If good art is important, then someone must create it. That someone is you.

"[G]ood books are desirable and . . . good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings. Thus when I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large" (Chapter Six).

4.  "Greatness" is not inherent in individual people. Greatness is a potential that exists in society. Only when people exercise this potential can it ever become reality.

 "[G[reat poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh" (Chapter Six).

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Interdisciplinarity for Art's Sake

To stretch myself creatively, I have been sketching and drawing.

I started with a book called Basic Drawing Techniques by Richard Box.  It was short and simple. Mostly I appreciated its emphasis on materials. I went out and bought charcoal pencils, conté sticks, graphite pencils, and two kinds of paper. I happened to have oil pastel sticks and colour pencils because of many years' worth of unused school supplies for my son when he was in elementary school.

I am not a visual artist and make no claims for my abilities. I do make a claim, however, for the principle of my objective, which is that stretching myself creatively will improve my skills in my chosen specialization, writing.

My interest lies here in multidisciplinarity in the arts: do artists gain strength in some way if they work in more than one discpline? 

Academics have looked at this question through various points of view. 

I have started to look at this idea through the lens of multipotentiality, an educational idea that argues that some students have the potential to excel in in more than one kind of skill. Such people should be encouraged to develop these skills, to be, as Robert Twigger argues in his article "Master of Many Trades," a polymath rather than a monomath.

Multipotentiality has a relationship with interdisciplinarity. People with multipotentiality may engage in interdisciplinarity. When I think of interdisciplinary artists, I come up with a long list of  people across time and geography: William Blake, Joni Mitchell, David Lynch, Margaret Atwood, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Edgar Degas, Marcel Duchamp, Julian Schnabel, and Tom Ford.

I could have added to this list. I avoided thinking about high-profile celebrities who put their names on products that they had little hands-on contact with.  

My search for information about these artists made me realize that few artists remain in one genre. Sometimes the genre-jumping is more extreme. Tom Ford's shift from fashion designer to director is one such example. Even within a  genre normally considered to be "one thing," such as drama, shifts in roles can put the artists on different sides of an art form's production and reception. I think of the wide difference between being an actor on stage and writing a stage play, a shift that Sam Shepard made frequently. 

The benefits for interdisciplinarity must be balanced, mind you, with an awareness of the benefits of specialization. In "Creativity and Interdisciplinarity: One Creativity or Many Creativities?" (ZDM Vol. 41, no. 1-2, 2009, 5-13), Jonathan Plucker and Dasha Zabelina review the literature on teaching creativity and conclude that neither a generalist approach nor a specialist approach in education helps students develop their potential in terms of creativity. Plucker and Zabelina define creativity, by the way, as "the interplay between ability and process by which an individual or group produces an outcome or product that is both novel and useful as defined within some social context." To foster creativity, education must allows students to sample both generalist and specialist foundations, since overly general learning does not give enough context for students to transfer their knowledge, and overly specialized learning does not encourage students to look outside the bounds of a narrow discipline.

This area of study will take me more than one post to consider, so expect more on the subject of multipotentiality and interdisciplinarity.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Quiet Creativity

Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking posits that introverts, people who find the social world overstimulating and hence prefer solitude and small group interactions, are nevertheless vital components of the social world despite being in the minority. Like many popular books of this kind, Quiet directs its attention towards the usefulness of such persons in organizations. Nevertheless, Cain devotes one chapter specifically to creativity, so I have gleaned some information relevant to this blog.

Cain uses published research to bolster her claims. One such study was conducted in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Berkeley's Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, which compared well-known creative people (people who have made a name for themselves) in engineering, science, math, architecture and writing with others deemed "less groundbreaking" in the same fields. The well-known creative people tended to be "interpersonally skilled but 'not of an especially sociable or participative temperament" (74). Cain notes that current management models value social cooperation over  solitude, a style that Cain nicknames the New Groupthink (75). By borrowing George Orwell's term for the authoritarian suppression of intellectual individualism, Cain reveals her skepticism about management strategies such as open-plan offices and team-based organizational structures.

Many such management models like to use the idea of "networking," a term popularized by computer technology, but as Cain notes, technologies such as the Internet allow people to work alone in rooms that are geographically dispersed rather than crammed into a cubicle farm in a highrise. Computer scientists tend to be introverted people, after all. Even management styles tend to value the extrovert. Not surprisingly, Cain questions extrovert-centred ideas of leadership. She quotes Janet Farrall and Leonie Kronborg in their own book Leadership Development for the Gifted and Talented that some famously introverted people, such as Charles Darwin and Marie Curie, have contributed massively to the world.

Apple founder Steve Wozniak is Cain's exemplar of the social value of introversion, a man who, though he helped design the type of personal computers that made the Internet a world-wide phenomenon, developed his best ideas when he was alone.

The ideal quiet person that Cain describes is not a shy person, someone who is anxious in groups. A quiet person will think and wait before speaking up rather than bolt forward at the head of the line.  Noisy groups irritate this kind of person, so time alone gives a low-stimulus environment better suited to permit the quiet person to think clearly.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Imitative Exercise: Setting and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks

I sometimes worry about physical settings in my stories. How much do I need to describe, and how much do I let my readers fill in on their own? I found a passage I liked in Thomas Mann's second novel, Buddenbrooks (1901), translated by HT Lowe-Porter, which describes the idiosyncratic location of the Hansesaal, the assembly room for the Lübeck's government councillors:

The room belonged to the beer-hall and dance-establishment of a widow named Suerkringel; but on certain days it was at the service of the gentlemen burgesses. The entrance was through a narrow whitewashed corridor opening into the restaurant on the right side, where it smelled of beer and cooking, and thence through a handleless, lockless green door so small and narrow that no one could have supposed such a large room lay behind it. The room was empty, cold, and barnlike, with a whitewashed roof in which the beams showed, and whitewashed walls. The three rather high windows had green-painted bars, but no curtains. Opposite them were the benches, rising in rows like an amphitheatre, with a table at the bottom for the chairman, the recording clerk, and the Committee of the Senate. It was covered with a green cloth and had a clock, documents, and writing-materials on it. On the wall opposite the door were several tall hat-racks with hats and coats.


The language is fairly simple, so my attraction  to it does not lie in the sophistication of word choice. The verbs are not vivid: "were" is the most common verb. Neither is the sentence structure is  particularly complex: "The (noun) (verb)" starts most sentences. Quite possibly, the setting itself attracts me more than the way the setting is described. Government buildings I am familiar with are not rooms attached to a tavern. This particular meeting room does not seem opulent, either, or at least it is not described as being opulent. Photos I found of the actual Lubeck Rathaus make the building seem impressively styled, though it's true that in Mann's time they may not have been so impressive or at least not as impressive as other buildings the book described.

Perhaps this passage impresses me because it reflects the book's goal of describing a ruling class of merchants, who, despite their severe Protestantism, valued trade and wealth to the point where all other values were pressed into their service. The room is described prosaically and with an emphasis on its country plainness ("whitewashed," even "barnlike"); nevertheless, it is attached to a beerhall and dancehall, two places associated with the kind of licentiousness that the Buddenbrook family and its social class were supposed to reject. This rejection in theory does not always apply in practice. Some characters in the novel have their downfall because of scandals over drinking or associations  with people outside their narrow social circle.

Word choice plays an important role in this representation of Hansesaal, but only in conjunction with other of the book's motifs. This passage demonstrates the interrelationship between the sentence level of writing and the thematic level of writing. A description, therefore, can do more than present a sensory impression of a place to satisfy people's desires to "see" where characters are. The description of a specific setting can reflect and thus participate in the communication of thematic goals.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Creativity and Musical Arrangement

To find out what arrangers think about the creativity and music arrangements, I interviewed Allan Gilliland, dean of fine arts and composition at MacEwan University and a prolific composer and arranger. His base of operation is classical music, but his experience as a jazz trumpeter has allowed him to write and perform in many music genres for both small and large ensembles. When I spoke to him, his recent musical adventures included the scoring for the Edmonton Citadel Theatre's production of Sense and Sensibility and a new orchestral composition for jazz legends Tommy Banks and PJ Perry for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's 2017-2018 season.

Typically, Gilliland says, an arranger works with someone else's melody. The arranger must do, as Gilliland says, "everything else." This "everything else" includes scoring for the instruments in an ensemble, harmonization, bridging, transposition, and countermelody.  One form of arrangement popular in jazz is contrafact: the use of chord progressions, rather than melody, from someone else's composition. An arranger in contrafact thus creates the new melody over the chords.Thus George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" has lent its chords to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" and to Django Reinhardt's "Daphne."

Gilliland says that some "famous and great arrangements" have not received the respect they deserve because of the music industry's greater valuation of original composition. Arrangers are paid through fee for service. Unlike composers, arrangers tend not to get royalties, since only melodies can be copyrighted. Gilliland gave the example of Gil Evans, whose collaborations with Miles Davis are legendary. Also legendary is the fact that Evans received no royalties from the success of those collaborations. (Read Stephanie Stein Crease's biography of Gil Evans to find out more.)

In the case of contrafact, chord progressions cannot be copyrighted in American law, so a musician can generate a copyrightable melody over an uncopyrightable chord progression. The contrafactual arrangement, therefore, lies in a tender zone at the interstices of copyright law and the emulation of other musicians.

Gilliland says that the diminished status of arrangers is unfair because they are doing "really creative work." Jazz and big band in particular use arrangements heavily, so these genres lean on the labour and ingenuity of arrangers.

Gilliland  both composes and arranges, and he says the creative act is present in both. For arrangement, he says that creativity feels different, more "bound" to the originating melody. He agrees that there can be a "clash of creativity" between the original work and the arranger's desire to interpret that work through instrumentation and scoring. Some song standards have been arranged countless times, so the challenge is to make an arrangement that stands out from others. Gilliland says that some arrangers will ask themselves, "What can I do that people won''t expect?" Some arrangements, for example, are "deconstructions," such that the original has been dispersed in complex ways into the arrangement. Compare, for example, Dave Ballou's arrangement of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's "Smada" to a recording of the original.

Or compare a standard version of "O Canada" with Gilliland's arrangement.

Sunday, 2 April 2017


As part of my novelty agenda for this year, I plan to be a busker for a day. Why a busker? I was walking around doing chores and thinking of novelty ideas. All kinds of strange thoughts enter my head when I am desperate for ideas, as I often am. The word busker surfaced, and I had to admit that, yes, I have never busked before. No way around it.

Other ideas I generate I can eliminate because they cost too much money to arrange (go to Easter Island, buy a horse), or I can see no reasonable route to accomplishing  the novelty (compete in the Olympics, become an inventor), or I just don't want to do it (yell at a rude person I meet in public, rob a bank). Busking for one day, though, I could not handily dismiss.

I can more or less play a piano accordion, so I plan one day this summer to go outside to a street corner and play. All my work in coming up with a repertoire of songs got me thinking around music arrangements. I want to do one or two new songs to supplement my existing collection of accordion music, which is dominated by classical music, folk tunes and American jazz standards. Has someone out there, for example, arranged "Hotline Bling" for piano accordion? (Yes, of course.)  If so, where can I find the sheet music?

From this speculation, I asked myself, What kind of person would be in the business of arranging Drake songs to publish as accordion sheet music, or as sheet music for any other instrument, for that matter?

I need to investigate.

Monday, 6 March 2017


My local library branch has begun to display book-spine poetry. These are poems built with the titles of books as printed on their spines. To create the poem, you stack the books in the order you want.

Artist Nina Katchadourian tends to get credit on the Internet for this art form. Her website has many examples of her work.

Book spine poetry is a form of cento, a genre of poetry extent since the first centuries C.E. in which the lines come from other people's poems. 

I have books. I have been known to write poetry. Why not, then?

If you want to write
Primal myths
Daughter of Earth
Unwinding threads
Writing down the bones
Making a Difference
You can't go home again

The wars
inside memory
fatal passage
under the ribs of death
on the road
all on fire
under the banner of heaven
never let me go

The technique reminds me of using poetry magnets. The writing process is less flexible but permits flights of fancy that might not otherwise arise.

The waves
to the lighthouse
the known world

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Follow-up to Creative Stimulants 3

Below is part of the outcome of my creative stimulants exercise from last time. I did not include the entire story, since it goes on for some time and I wanted to spare the blog the long chunk of text.

 After I finished my story, I read the host story, as it were, Julia Alvarez's “Trespass." That story focussed on a child, while mine focussed on an adult who was visiting the American Garcias. My Garcias are Argentinian, a more or less random choice of country. I have some Argentinian relatives, whom I met once when they visited here. The father in that family was a doctor, so I made my father of the family a doctor too. The class differences have an impact on characterization as well as on the plot, such as it is in my story. I noted with interest the sordid turns that both of the stories ended up taking. I don't know why that would be. 

I have work to do on this story still. But for what it's worth, here is an excerpt of its first draft.

True Blue
“The day the Garcías were one American year old, they had a celebration at dinner.”  Julia Alvarez, “Trespass”

     The oldest García, Jacinta García, was not an American. She was visiting from Argentina. She insisted on cooking, however. She made her version of a true-blue American meal: hot dogs and French fries for her son Diego’s two youngest children; roast beef, mashed potatoes and coleslaw for the adults and the two older children, who were teenagers; and apple pie with tiger tail ice cream for everyone.
     None of the children liked the pistachio ice cream. Pablo, the oldest grandchild, said, “Abuela, you should have asked me what kind of ice cream we like.”
     Jacinta nodded. A smile twisted her mouth even as an exasperated frown threatened below it. “You’re right, Pablo.” Jacinta was a diabetic and had not eaten ice cream in years, neither American nor Argentinian. “Here I thought ice cream on sale at Sam’s Club was ice cream most people liked.”
     “It is,” Diego’s wife Maria said. “Your grandchildren have become picky all of a sudden.”
     “You can’t know America from watching telenovelas,” teenaged Brisa said.  “You should have asked us.”
     Jacinta had waited ten years for this visit to America, and now, with a sweep of her hand, she had alienated her grandchildren from her. Since Diego, Maria and the two oldest had citizenship, she had felt safer coming over. She had heard stories about American immigration not letting their family stay in America if they let an older parent come to visit. In the past they had come to visit her for long periods, often taking advantage of the visit to sort out details of their planned application for citizenship. Once Diego had managed to convince Jacinta to come to America when they were in California but that was because Maria had just had given birth to Ana, and Diego had said that Maria needed help--the pregnancy had tired her out, and she was slow to recover. Maria’s youngest sister Nadia wouldn’t come, so Maria had no one else. Even so, Jacinta had stayed only for three weeks.
Jacinta was grateful for Diego’s courage in visiting Argentina so frequently and ensuring she could keep in touch with Pablo and Brisa. She had wept over her grandchildren the most when Diego moved to the United States. Her first two grandchildren had loved her so much. And now she had ruined this first attempt at showing that she loved them just the way they were, whether they Argentinian or American. Of course the littlest ones had been born in Spokane and so had always been American. They had never known their grandmother as anything other than someone from a foreign country. Jacinta had become like one of the itinerant parents she had been acquainted with through her childhood school friends. So many fathers of her friends lived somewhere else to work or do graduate studies and came to visit their children only once or twice a year. Her best friend Elenora’s father had been one of those men. He lived in Dubai many years. Elenora had told Jacinta that she had never viewed her father as a real father. Elenora’s mother had taken a lover, one of her many, in the meantime and considered him to be her real father.
     “What kind of ice cream do you like, then?” Jacinta asked all four children the question. The two oldest waited for the two youngest to answer. Ana, the five-year-old, looked up at her grandmother and opened her mouth. A word Jacinta didn’t understand came out.
     “Birthday cake flavour,” Diego translated.
     “Ice cream with the flavour of birthday cake? What does that taste like?”
     “You know,” Pablo said. “White cake, with sprinkles, and very sweet icing.”   Pablo smiled as though he shared Jacinta’s skepticism, but Ana seemed irritated. Nevertheless, she said nothing and neither did Brisa. Jacinta wondered if Ana knew any Spanish. Diego said she did, but she had never heard Ana speak a word of it. She had only heard Ana speak English, and only then when Jacinta was not in the room. Once Jacinta walked in the room, Ana’s eyes narrowed, and she shrunk into a small package of herself.
     The littlest one, Connor, just past one year old, didn’t speak at all, except for “Mama” and “Papa.” 
     Ana said something else, and Diego didn’t translate immediately.
     “What did she say?”
     Brisa said, “She asked you have any birthday-cake ice cream.”
     “Is there a place to get it?” Jacinta asked.
      “Oh, no, you don’t, Mama.” Maria shook her head in that exaggerated way she always shook her head, like a nervous horse tossing her head at a strange sound. “The kids don’t need birthday-cake ice cream.”
     Brisa wrinkled her nose at Ana. “You can’t even buy that in stores,” she said. “You can only get that in ice-cream shops.” She spoke in Spanish, as though she expected Ana to understand her. Ana frowned as though she had understood perfectly.
     Baby Connor picked up a piece of cut-up hot dog and pushed it cautiously into the scoop of ice cream in his plastic dish.
     “That won’t help, Connor,” Ana said in English.
     Later, while Jacinta, Maria and Diego were doing the dishes, Jacinta wanted to have a smoke. With Diego around, however, she didn’t dare bring up the subject. One thing she had liked about Diego not being home in Argentina was that she could smoke whenever she wanted to. Ever since Diego started medical school she had not been able to smoke around him. She had even quit smoking for his sake. Once he had moved to California for his residency, he had left her, yes, and taken his family with him, but he had also taken with him a barrier to one of his mother’s great pleasures. She restarted her smoking only one week after he left. Now in his permanent job in Spokane, he had not changed his ways, and he had his eye on her. “I hope you aren’t smoking again, Mama,” he said when they were driving from the airport to his home.
“Sometimes, yes.”
“Not inside the house, of course!”
“Of course.”

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Creative Stimulants 3: First line

Take the first line, sentence, or paragraph of a piece of writing and create your own story from it. You should acknowledge the authorship of the inspiring piece somehow. Otherwise, write it as you wish. This exercise is most interesting if you use a first sentence from a text you haven't read yet. Read the parent text afterwards and compare.

My parent text is "Trespass," a short story by Julia Alvarez, published in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.

"The day the Garcias were one American year old, they had a celebration at dinner."

The original story is 81 paragraphs long. Likely my piece will not be as long. Stay tuned for it.