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 28, 2014

Dreams Grow Despite Droughts

I found the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, from a display in the children’s department at the library.  It’s where I find a lot of the books I love.  I was enticed by the illustrations.  Zunon captures so much emotion in the faces she paints.  The collages of textured paper of her backgrounds give life and motion to the illustrations, they seem rise from the page.

This is the true story of how William Kamkwamba, a fourteen year old boy built a windmill to give his family electricity.  What’s more remarkable is that he did this on his own after having to drop out of school because of a drought and famine.  

He lives in Malawi, Africa, and his family was down to one meal consisting of one handful of food each day.

William loved school, so he was despondent about having to drop out, and then he remembered his village’s small library.  He checked out and pored over old science textbooks, painstakingly teaching himself English.

He fell in love with the idea of a windmill and decided to build one. 

Ever resourceful, he began to gather materials from the junkyard.  His two friends helped him, but almost everyone in the village thought he’d gone a little crazy.  Even his mother was alarmed.

But William persisted

 and brought forth the electric wind. 

This is a hopeful story and is a window into life in Malawi.  We know so little about Africa here in America.  This is a great introduction to one small village.  It’s also a great book for showing how even the fiercest obstacles to your dreams can be overcome. 

I have to add that the pictures I've posted here don't do the illustrations justice.  Zunon's work pops from the pages and adds magic to the story.  You can see more of her work at her website by clicking here.  I'm looking forward to seeing her illustrations for Miranda Paul's One Plastic Bag.

I was so impressed with the story that I wanted to find out how much of it was truly true, so I
got the other book called  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Currents of Electricity and Hope by the same authors.  It’s Kamkwamba’s memoir of how he survived the drought and built the windmill.

Kamkwamba gives insight on what it’s like to believe in magic, how it feels to have a village chief, what it means to have a good father, and how hard it is to survive a famine.  

If you ever wondered about the individual lives of people you see on the news stampeding for a bagful of rice or flour, this book takes you there.  The humanity and desperation becomes more real.  The famine forced people to sell things they’d worked for all their lives--from household possessions to the roofs off their houses.

Kamkwamba’s parents kept track of how much they ate and how much they needed for literal barebones survival.  His mother sold small bits of  food that very poor people could afford and with that money she bought enough flour for the family to survive one more day. 

There is corruption and brutality, but through it all, most of the villagers remain civil and try to work at whatever jobs they can.  I was amazed to read of the family’s first corn harvest after the famine, because even though people raided the cornfields, there was enough left to harvest.

Each morning we walked the road that bordered our field and found it littered with green leaves and dowe (ripe corn) gnawed to the pith, as if a battalion had feasted all night.

“Horrible stories of revenge soon began circulating in the trading center….

“Later that night, I asked my father how we should punish those who stole from us.

“’Should we kill them?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps call the police?’

“My father shook his head.

“’We’re not killing anyone,’ he said.  ‘Even if I call the police, those men would only starve to death in jail.  Everybody has the same hunger, son.  We must learn to forgive.’”

William Kamkwamba and his parents and grandparents

The story is compelling and engaging.  It’s a classic tale of triumph over adversity, but with a modern twist.  A respected teacher became interested in Kamkwamba, a radio station did a broadcast about his windmill, a blogger wrote about it, and the next thing Kamkwamba knew, he was giving a TED talk.  

It was touching to read about his first airplane ride and his first impressions of city life.  He’d never used a computer or had the luxury of an indoor bathroom.   The publicity brought in contributions and he was able to build a windmill to power a water pump.  His family could irrigate crops and would not starve again.  He also found himself the happy spokesperson for education in Africa.

His friend Erik Hersman, one of the first people to write about Kamkwamba on his blog Afrigadget, said, “Africans bend what little they have to their will every day.  Using creativity, they overcome Africa’s challenges.  Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles.  Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.”

This book is a great antidote to what we hear in the “news” about Africa.  It’s warm, human and full of hope.  It’s honest about the problems that plague the continent but very clear that Africans are working hard to solve them, and finding renewable resources in the process.  Kamkwamba graduated from Dartmouth College and is engaged in projects to help Malawi prosper. 

Kamkwamba is a gifted storyteller, though he had help with these books from writer Brian Mealer. In the acknowledgements, Mealer says, “First of all thanks to William for never giving up and for allowing me to help him share his uplifting story with the world.”  Mealer is the author of All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo.  He’s a former Associated Press Staff correspondent and his work has appeared in Harper's and Esquire.  Mealer thanks his wife, too, in the acknowledgements, who, he says “shared my joy of finally coming home from Africa with some good news to tell.”

I suspect there may be lots of good news in Africa, and in the world, waiting to be told.  I hope that we readers seek it out.

You can keep up with William Kamkwamba on his website.  He has links to his original TED talk and the one he did a year later.  He writes that there will be a feature length documentary about his project soon.  

Keep you light shining.  Thanks for reading my blog.  Your comments are appreciated.

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.