Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thanks for visiting my blog.  This is my space to share my general exuberance for life -- to share insights, art, book reviews and stories. 

I’m an artist and writer based in Portland, Oregon.  I moved here in 2006, but spent my first 46 years in Memphis, Tennessee. I started writing poetry and stories when I was a child but didn’t start making art until I was in my 30s.  All of my work is narrative with a hint of magic and wonder.

Since I was young, I have used the power of the arts to redefine, expand and celebrate life. I also write about using the arts to rise above chronic pain and health conditions. I had epilepsy as a teenager and am partially paralyzed from transverse myelitis.

I live in a unique community called Bridge Meadows, a unique multi-generational community which is set up to support the needs of families adopting children from the foster care system.  You can see a video about that here:

Enjoy my blog posts and let me know what you think!


Friday, November 14, 2014

It's a Bunny Life: El Deafo by Cece Bell

Many of the books I review I seek out, but some come to me in unexpected ways.  Along with the book Fleabrain Loves Frannie, I was given one I'd never heard of, called  El Deafo by Cece Bell, a graphic memoir novel.  I flipped through it  -- bunny characters, a deaf girl, school problems, and intriguing scenes like this:

I love seeing Spock with bunny ears
In this after school special, the character is deaf and some one calls them deafo, which causes Cece some soul searching.

I was hooked, started reading, and pretty much devoured all 230 some odd pages.  It tells the story of a girl who contracted meningitis and lost her hearing at age 4.  She gets a bulky hearing aid she wears in a pouch around her neck with wires and earbuds.  It's only partially successful.  What she hears is not what people are saying. 

She learns lip reading, but that's not easy either. 

At first she's in a school with other children who have deafness.  Then she moves and enters first grade with a device called the Phonic Ear, another bulky device, this one strapped to her chest, with more wires and earbuds.  

The teacher must use a microphone, but with it, Cece can hear perfectly.  In fact, she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in the building -- the teacher's lounge, the bathroom.  When she get's older, she finds that El Deafo, Listener for All can help mere mortals when the teacher's out of the room:

El Deafo also urges her to defend herself against the indignities she suffers from bullies and manipulative friends.  But it's harder to manifest her El Deafo nature outside her imagination. 

This is a funny and perceptive book and is a great read for anyone who has felt different growing up, but especially for those who have obvious physical challenges and impairments.  Cece often lives in a bubble.  Friends don't seem to understand her.  The one close friend she has abandons her after an accident.   There are touching scenes of friendships gone sour, first crushes, and family interactions.  The drawings are so expressive -- tender and sweet and melancholy like childhood itself.
In her author's note, Cece Bell, says, "El Deafo is based on my childhood (and on the secret nickname I really did give myself back then).  It is in no way a representation of what all deaf people might experience.  It's also important to note that while I was writing and drawing the book, I was more interested in capturing the specific feelings I had as a kid with hearing loss than in being 100 percent accurate with the details....But the way I felt as a kid -- that feeling is all true."

Though it is her specific story, it's got a universal feel.  We've all had to deal with shame and desires to fit in.  And in overcoming that, we find a source of creativity.  "With a little creativity and a lot of dedication, any difference can be tuned into something amazing.  Our differences are our superpowers."

Marketed to children ages 8 and up, I think it will help anyone tap into their superpowers, even readers in their 50s like me.  

Cece Bell has written and illustrated several books for children, including the Geisel Honor book Rabbit and Robot: The Sleepover and The Sock Monkey Series.  She lives in Virginia with her husband author Tom Angleberger.

You can learn more about her at her website, click here,  and see some of the inspiration for El Deafo, including a picture of the Miss Bunn doll that may be the origin of Bell's delightful way of telling stories through bunnies. 

Miss Bunn was a gift when Cece was 4 and still in the hospital

Thanks for reading my blog.  For a very different but equally as fascinating graphic novel memoir, click to read this review of The White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez,

 I'd love to hear your comments.  If you like this post, feel free to share it.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How to Build a Robot

Noah Tanatchangsang is a 10 year old boy who lives in my neighborhood, Bridge Meadows. We are set up to help children being adopted out of the foster care system.  He’s one of 4 brothers who regularly come to my all ages art class in the community center.  I’ll never forget the day he came to me with the idea of building a robot.  We were drawing at a table with his rambunctious 4 and 2 year old brothers. 

Noah jumped up and said, “I forgot to bring something!”

His brothers were a little alarmed, but he said he’d be back soon.  To console themselves, the brothers wandered over to the ping pong table and tried to figure out how to play, even though both of them were shorter than the table. 

About 5 minutes later, I heard a muffled knock on the door.  I opened it to find a tall box at the door.  The box shuffled in and bumped into the ping pong table.  The boys laughed and began to beat the box with their ping pong paddles. 

“Stop, stop!” cried Noah from within the box. 

I got the boys under control while Noah wiggled out. 

“We could make a robot out of this box.  My mom was just going to throw it away.”

The younger boys couldn’t leave the box alone, so we decided it was best to keep it in my apartment.  That was in the spring.  For the next few months, when Noah was free from school work, after school activities, camping and traveling with his family, soccer games and home work, we built a robot. 

It was a  project that engaged his mind and fired his imagination.  A few days after he delivered the first box, he was at the door with another smaller box with clear plastic panels, perfect for the robot’s head.  Again, he said, “My mom was just going to throw it away.”

I tried to explain that we sometimes have to throw things away because there isn’t enough room to keep everything, but he’s not entirely convinced.  But it's truly inspiring to watch a kid build things from things what would otherwise be thrown away.  It lets them see the magic of transformation in a way nothing else can.  You can read a post about how Noah first became aware that things can be fixed and transformed here.  We made a prosthetic leg for his Godzilla toy.

So I hope I’m inspiring an artist and not a hoarder.  I had a bag of odds and ends including pill bottle caps we could use as dials, paper towel tubes for the rockets, and fabric scraps for the cape.

Just as we were getting close to the end of the project, I found the book, Welcome to Your Awesome Robot, by Viviane Schwarz, Flying EyeBooks, a book I wish we’d had when we started.  It’s both a story and a manual, and it’s perfect for creating a project with a kid.  I love that it features a girl.  Noah loved that it came with cut-out decals, and instructions on how to make fuel input additions and functioning dials.  

He didn't want to cut things out of the book, although we could have.  He wanted to keep it intact for future use.  And it’s a lovely book.  It’s like a large Moleskine sketchbook with a gray paper flexible cover, and embossed print.  The illustrations are energetic and charming.  I’m so glad to have discovered Viviane Shwarz’s whimsical world.  Her website has a video of her reading her book, Is There a Dog in this Book, a fun one with foldouts and surprises.  She also has a place to post any awesome robots you make.  

Great End Papers

You watch a kid and her adult assistant build the 'bot

We copied and enlarged the Death Ray decal and pasted it by the robot dials to warn off any enemies.

We made a magic wand with an old outdoor light and the light from another toy

We got to  make certificates, too!
While we were working on the robot, Noah became enchanted by my reading light.

He wanted to make an angler fish with it.  I was reluctant to give it up and on a trip to the hardware store to buy robot arms (dryer vent tubes) we found another light that would work even better.  We’d learned a lot about cardboard with the robot, but with the angler fish, we learned how to bend it and shape it. 

Making Teeth

to welcome little fishies in with gently smiling jaws

When Noah made his debut at the community Halloween party last week, we had a story about the robot going to the bottom of the sea to bring back the angler fish. 

Kids of all ages at Bridge Meadows Halloween party

Between our own projects and what we learned from the Awesome Robot book, we’re ready to teach other kids how to build their own robots.  We figure the best time will be in January. As long as the other kids keep the boxes that their Christmas presents come in, we’ll have plenty of material to work with.  Now all we have to do is convince the parents not to throw all those cool boxes away.

Reuse and recycle!

Special thanks to Flying Eye books for Welcome to Your Awesome Robot.  Check out their website, they publish lots of amazing books for kids.  Their committed to sustainable manufacturing and encouraging creativity.  They're publishing new authors and helping children discover the joys of well made books.  

Thanks for reading my blog!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Ghost Story: Driving Home

This is a story I wrote a few years ago.  I like to re-post it on Halloween:

Driving Home 
A Story 
Joy Corcoran

I never learned to drive because I’ve had health and mobility problems most of my life.  Part of my condition includes really bad fatigue, where I get so tired I can’t think straight.  I always told myself that if I went a whole year without experiencing that kind of fatigue, I’d learn.

I got an opportunity when I was about 43.  I was recently divorced and spending a year house-sitting for a good friend who was spending the year traveling.  She said I could use her car while she was gone.  She thought it was absurd that I never learned. 

I hadn’t gone a full year without fatigue, but it’d been several months.  I had started a B-12 therapy, and was pretty energized.  I got a crash course in driving, got my license and was on the road on my own for the first time. My whole world opened up.  Without long bus rides, I could go to work, go to the gym, go to a volunteer meeting, visit a friend, and get groceries all in the same day.  It was amazing.

And it was too much for me.  I was driving home one night after an exhausting day and I kept making mistakes.  I didn’t remember to use my turn signals.  I spaced out and veered into the next lane which brought on a blare of horns.  I was so nervous I was shaking.  I pulled over and parked at the first place I could find, stopped the car and rested my head on the steering wheel.  It took me a minute to realize where I was.  I was in a part of town I only knew from the news.  It was where all the gang warfare, murders and muggings happened.  I was in the parking lot of a row of seedy dance clubs.

If I could just rest for a minute, my head would clear and I could make the short drive home.  I couldn’t relax and I couldn’t get the sound of those car horns out of my ears.  I closed my eyes and tried to will some energy into my brain when I was startled by a knock on the window.  I looked up and saw my brother.

I rolled down the window.  “Oh, my God, I’m so glad to see you.  How did you find me?”

He reached in, unlocked the door and put his hand on my shoulder.  It felt cold but soothing.
“What are you doing driving a car?” 

I couldn’t explain, the words got stuck in my mouth.  “Friend gave me lessons… I can... It’s just… I mean today… the horns…I don’t know.”

“Come on,” he said, then helped me out of the driver’s seat, and escorted me around to the passenger side.  “Put on your seat belt.”

I obeyed.

He got back in and started the car. “You really aren’t meant to drive.  You’ve got a good life, but you’ve got to take it slow.”

“It’s just a bad day,” I said.

“It’s going to be a lot of bad days if you have a wreck.  You’re always trying to be something your not.  I can’t keep getting you out of trouble.”

I wanted to argue with him but couldn't find the words, so I asked, “How’d you find me?”

“I had a gig over there and imagine my surprise to see you weaving your way off the road like some old drunk.”

“You had a gig?  They like your music over there?”

“Something like that.”

By then, he pulled into my driveway.  He turned to me and put his hand on my shoulder again.  “Really now.  Don’t drive any more.  It’s not for you.”

From where his cool hand touched me, I felt warmth spread all through my body and I got so tired, I fell asleep right there in the car.

When I woke up, the sun was peeking through the car windows. I was still in the passenger seat and the keys were in my lap.

I rushed into the house, called my sister and told her everything that happened.  I don’t think she believed me, but she came over in her car and picked me up.  We went to florist and bought a huge bright bouquet.  We spent the rest of the morning cleaning and decorating my brother’s grave.

I've always wondered why there weren't more ghost stories where the ghosts were helpful and lovely to behold.  We get so macabre, and we glorify the evil dead -- but I have to say I've never had any problem from monsters or ghosts.  It's the living that have been the evil bastards in my life.  I've also been blessed to know many saints here on this earth.  I hope you are blessed that way, too. 
Thanks for reading.  Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Small Fantasy, Big Dreams

The first book I read by Joanne Rocklin was The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook, which became one of my favorite middle grade novels.  It examines the power of stories, and that fine line between lies and illuminations, in the voice of one of the most charming whopper-tellers I’ve ever run across.  You can read my review of that book here. 
Rocklin’s new book, Fleabrain Loves Franny, is a very different novel.  It’s the story of a young girl, Franny Katzenback, who is recovering from polio.  It’s set in 1952, in a suburb of Pittsburg, where a sense of quiet optimism is surrounding the development of a vaccine.  One of the men who works with Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburg, Professor Guttman, is Franny’s neighbor.  But for Franny, the vaccine comes too late.  Her dreams are of a cure for the neuromuscular damage that has left her unable to walk, a dream that will not be fulfilled.   
Confined to the upstairs of her house, she endures the treatment of a mean nurse who tells her she can walk again if only she follows her exercises, ice packs and heat treatment.  Meanwhile, Franny must adjust to life without the use of her legs.  She is only happy when she’s immersed in the book Charlotte’s Web, which also came out in 1952.  In wishing for an insect companion to cheer her and save her from feelings of helplessness and anger, she begins a fantastic relationship with a flea. 
Fleabrain, a pompous and erudite flea, lives on the tail of Franny’s beloved dog.  Franny is able to see him through the bottle cap of Sparky’s Finest Soda, which has a small magnifying glass imbedded in it – “so the about-to-drinker would have a magnified view of all the bubbles, like luminous marbles swimming up from the bottom of the bottle.”  
Fleabrain tries to be luminous, and Franny is the light of his life.  He’s multi-lingual, highly educated, super-strong, and often ridiculous.  He’s jealous of Charlotte, even though she’s a fictional spider.  In this book, all the lines between fiction, fantasy and reality are blurred.  The simplicity of the setting for Charlotte’s web and its pastoral view of childhood is not replicated here.  Fleabrain is as likely to irritate as to be helpful, but he's a flea, after all.  And Franny seems only to be able to imagine such a creature.    
And this flea is a magic flea, so he leads Franny on adventures saving people from fires, visiting the Seven Wonders of the World and lighting Christmas tree stars. Franny is whisked away from the cruelties of her nurse and the even more painful interactions with her former friends. 
None of her neighborhood friends will get close enough to her that she could touch them and infect them.  They believe she's contagious and wear bags of garlic around their neck to ward off her germs.  Franny has to endure their patronizing and pity. While she’s grateful for a March of Dimes Walk to help fund the search for a vaccine, she feels awkward and unhinged by it all. 
“Other kids were calling her name from across the street…People began to clap for her – Franny! FrannyFranny looked up and at her father and saw tears in his eyes.  She didn’t want her father to cry.  Franny understood a little better then how a poster child must feel, relieved to know that others understood the difficulty of it all.  She was grateful to the newspapers and the March of Dimes for educating the public.  But they were clapping for her as if she’d done something.   All she’d done was get polio.   
“’We miss you, Franny, ‘ called Teresa. 
But which Franny?  Franny wanted to ask.  Which Franny do you miss?  Because, actually, I’ve been here all along.  In the flesh.” 
As her world becomes more complex, and she gets more control in her real life, her adventures with Fleabrain diminish.  Though the interactions with Fleabrain make up a lot of the book, it feels like he’s a conduit for her to get her back to a healthy image of herself without his help, that is, without the help of fantasy.  At first, no one understand Franny but Fleabrain, but as she grows, she outgrows her need for him.  Even as Fleabrain’s prickly ways soften, she goes about fixing herself in ways that are brave and audacious but much bigger than the flea inspired fantasies she’d previously allowed herself.  
Joanne Rocklin is a wonderful writer and her descriptions make even the most audacious events come alive.  She's added newspaper reports of a helper/angel that describe some of Franny and Fleabrain's adventures, leaving the reader to ponder what is real and what is fantasy.  This is a unique portrait of a complex girl in a complex time.  You can see a book trailer about it here, and also a link to a PDF document of all the books, movies and cultural events that Fleabrain and Franny refer to. The book has a great "Author's Note" describing the race to find a vaccine for polio.
These references make the book somewhat dense, and this might be better for a teenage reader or younger reader who’s quite bookish.  It made me want to re-read not only Charlotte’s Web, but Kafka’s MetamorphosisHow many books can you say that about?

By the way, for a charming post about why E.B. White chose a spider for his heroine for Charlotte's web, read this post on Brain Pickings, and altogether engaging and insightful blog:
Thanks for reading my blog.  I appreciate any comments and shares.