Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Beauty of Every Brain

     I have been thinking lately (though lately covers a long period of time) about differences in the way individuals function. Not simply about personalities or Myers-Briggs tests, though these aspects also played a part in my pondering, but about brain wiring and communication and thought processes.(Excuse my randomness for a moment, it will come together in the end.)
    I try to keep in contact with my friends around the globe, despite our distance, and I have noticed that some of my friends communicate very well on the phone, while with others much more of a connection is established through instant messaging, or emails, or paper letters. For others I have not deciphered their best mode of communication, but they appreciate my efforts and when I finally see them again they do not feel any less close for never having responded. Interestingly, I have not noticed the extrovertedness of a person to have much to do with their strongest form of communication.
   Most nights I have dreams, usually three or four. Sometimes I wake up and tell my dreams to Nathanael and then they slowly fade away, sometimes I only remember that I drempt, and every so often I have a dream that sticks with me and I can picture it perfectly from then on. There are a few dreams I still remember from when I was three or four years old. Nathanael teases me that I live twice as long as some people. He seldom remembers dreaming, and even less frequently remembers what he drempt. During our honeymoon I awoke one morning, looked at Nathanael and asked,"How was your shop today?" Completely believing that he had opened a small business...until I saw the amused look on his face and woke up a bit more. 
    One day during graduate school I mentioned to some friends over lunch how I often wonder if someone else suddenly finding themselves with my mind would know how to use it. Somehow they took it very philosophically and thought I was saying that humans are merely machines with souls, which could be interchanged because bodies do not influence a person's self. I suppose I was wondering something nearly opposite. How much do the strengths and weaknesses of our bodies and our brain wiring distinguish us and the way we take in the world or lend it input? How has my visual thinking, vivid dreaming, and synesthesia given me a different picture of the world than Nathanael, who does not think in pictures. And why is it that both of us have trouble recalling species names of plants and animals we learned very thoroughly a few months ago, while friends who are self proclaimed "C students" seem to remember such things for years.
     Lately I have been thinking that God has given everyone their thing(s). That perhaps sanity and insanity is just a continuum of millions of characteristics and everyone has their strong points and oddities distributed in slightly different areas. (But perhaps I have just drawn this conclusion from being around too many eccentric, sock-in-sandal wearing professors.)
     My wonderings in mind, I was very glad to have recently come across the book, Thinking in Pictures: My Life With Autism, by Temple Grandin.

   Temple writes about her childhood and how her mother, certain teachers, and her aunt enabled her to excel despite having been a child who was hard to reach and might have been institutionalized by others at that time. She writes of feeling fulfillment in her work more than in a social life, and feeling attachment to place more than people. How in order to express herself in words she needs to translate her thoughts from pictures, as if she were speaking a foreign language to the world, even after all of these years of being well practiced at it. In a world where academic expectations are increasingly rigid, Temple Grandin was able to find and pursue her niche with the help of mentors who encouraged her to think the way she was built to think. She worked all the way through a PhD in Animal Science and has gone on to design more than 1/3 of the large scale livestock facilities and slaughter houses in the United States. In her book she also discusses why her designs are more humane and efficient than many of the facilities that were in place; and why she is not a vegetarian, despite feeling as though she sometimes relates more to the thought processes of cattle more than of the men and women she encounters.
     The book does not necessarily answer life's tough questions, or my little ones, but it does explore a lot of them and present a perspective I think is really helpful to consider. I would recommend it to any adult interested in having a lot of things to think about, but even more especially to individuals who sometimes have a hard time understanding or connecting with their friends or family members who have autism, learning disabilities or who just see the world differently.

"It's clear that genetic traits that can cause severe disabilities can also provide the giftedness and genius that has produced some of the world's greatest art and scientific discoveries. There is no black-and-white dividing line between normal and abnormal."  --Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures

Other media I highly recommend, which also deals with unique challenges and perspectives that are frequently overlooked:
  • Like Stars on Earth/Taare Zameen Par -- Dealing with dyslexia, and also with art, though on screen symptoms also overlap with the autism spectrum. (PG, In Hindi, with subtitles.)
  • An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks -- Stories about seven individuals with different injuries or challenges causing them to see the world in distinctly out of the ordinary ways (figuratively or literally). Oliver Sacks features both Temple Grandin and Stephen Wiltshire in the chapter focusing on autism. Many of Oliver Sacks' other books are also intriguing.
  • Stephen Wiltshire's website is worth exploring either before or after you have read his profile by Dr. Sacks. Be sure to watch one of the video clips detailing Stephen's amazing artistic process.
  • And on the topic of synesthesia, Cassidy Curtis has written a detailed article, which is quite an accurate representation of what I personally experience.  Many articles and fictional books are written (by people who do not have synesthesic experiences), which make this disorder sound disturbing and disabling, but very few people find their own synesthesia anything other than intriguing or helpful. In other words, don't believe those freakish videos you see on YouTube.

Do you have any thoughts on the ways people see or interact with the world? 
Any books or articles to recommend?
Do you remember any crazy dreams from childhood?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I Like Turtles.


In my last post I mentioned having recycled a shredded pillowcase, so here is the second project salvaging some of that material. Since I was motivated to sew, I decided I would sew whatever I wanted, so after the clothespin bag I wanted to make a gift for one of the (many) babies soon to be born to my friends. Sewing projects for infants are common, but I wanted to make something that would not be grown out of too quickly. Inspired by the simplicity of uglydolls, which provide no choking hazards but are a little bit creepy, I decided upon a turtle. The list of patterns I have created on my own is very short...ok, this may be the first one, but much to my surprise it worked without a single problem! That is until the thin, old fabric tore as I was stuffing the turtle's little legs. I almost stopped then, to add it to my half completed projects and move on, but Nathanael told me to keep going. So, I patched the turtle's wounds, gave it some hand-sewn detail to compliment its roughness, and voila! The turtle prototype for my future baby gifts. I am actually kind of glad it ripped, because now I get to keep it and remember fondly how I purchased the pillow case at a yardsale before college (against the advice of people who told me it was a creepy thing to do).

 My finished turtle is about six and a half inches long.  He is made of 100% cotton, inside and out.

His solid green body used to be the base of the pillowcase and his colorblocked shell used to be the decorative edge fabric. I was not able to find such super fabrics at the fabric store this weekend, but I think future turtles will still turn out satisfactory and squishable.

And he comes out of his shell! Which is a completely inaccurate representation of turtles to young children, but so fun. I am sure I would have preferred this falsehood as a child.
What do you guys think?
Would your child / friend / younger-self approve of this toy?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Brightening Laundry Day

In September I read nine books, plus one with Nathanael. None of them were bad books, but neither did any of them live up to the expectations I had when I borrowed them from the library. This, and the fact that the refrigerator was packed with leftovers (and I am doing my best not to be addicted to cooking), prompted me to say to Nathanael on Sunday,"I am going to paint today." It was a nice idea. Unfortunately, the amazing and creative images that flash through my mind as I fall asleep dissipate before the afternoon; I was not able to think of a design for my canvas. Not wanting to waste my creative motivation, I decided to sew a clothes pin bag for myself. I needed one. No more carrying clothespins in my pockets.
 I went in search of a pattern and ended up finding a really neat design for a tear drop clothespin bag, which stays open on its own. For fabric I used a green pillow case that was torn to bits (never put a Euro pillow in a ~40yr old standard pillowcase), and some yellow floral fabric that I purchased a few years ago during a Joann Fabrics sale.
I am pretty excited about this bag.
First, because it looks really suave. I kind of want to find more uses for it and make another one. I would hang it on our door for full of candy for trick-or-treaters if there weren't danger of the first kid taking all of the candy. Secondly, because it was a really quick project and has inspired me to attempt to complete (or at least work on) a creative project each weekday. Third, because it is just one of a series of projects from my destroyed pillowcase, and I think you will enjoy seeing all of them in the days to come.

 If you want to make one of your own have a look at this pattern by Leisl . I think there is a printable pattern on there, but I just freehanded mine on a piece of packing paper. 

 Inside my extra long loop I put some braided string, just incase the old fabric would not stand up to the job.

This is the bag laid flat, before topstiching.

In action.

 The apartment clotheslines do not have hooks beside them, so Nathanael helped me devise a way to hang the bag from the clothesline itself. I think it's pretty nifty. I also plan to put a button on the back, to loop around for easier storage indoors, but I am still in search of the right button.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

L.L. Bean Trail Bars: Two Ways...or Maybe More

 Nathanael is taking a wetland plant taxonomy class this semester. They have field trips on many of the weekends, which is a little bit of a bummer for Nathanael's cramped schedule, but he enjoys the interesting excursions nonetheless. The students are required to collect and press 25 herbarium quality plant specimens by the end of the course, but Nathanael has already collected more than enough even though they are not yet halfway through the semester. Preserving species is pretty invigorating once you get into it, and I know that sounds very nerdy, but it isn't really. It is more of a pleasure in understanding your surroundings I think.
  When Nathanael goes on these all day trips into the southern heat we are nearly always out of bread. So he usually requests oat cakes and I fill a container with fruit and vegetables, but I also make him a more outdoorsy snack to satisfy his hunger. So far trail bars have been just the thing.
      Today I would like to share with you this recipe, which is rather drab in terms of color, and probably also not the most healthy thing you have ever eaten...but that is what makes it tasty. Alright, it does involve prunes and an assortment of grains, so it has those things going for it at least. The real reason I am posting this recipe is because various members of my family have been searching for it at a given time, and since I have finally found it, I want others who are looking to be able to find it too. (There are other versions on the internet, but they are not all alike.)
My Mom cut this recipe out of an L.L. Bean catalog some time in the nineties, which I think is unusual because I don't think I have ever seen recipes appear in that catalog on any other occasion. There was a picture, which made the baked trail bars look like granola bars, but when my mom made them they looked like fiber filled brownies. However, when I (at long last) rediscovered the recipe I made one batch that looked like hers, and one batch that looked like granola bars. But, both were delicious and each one accompanied Nathanael as he collected plants. (I include the instructions for each outcome below.)
   You may be skeptical of prunes, but I would like to assure you that prunes complement chocolate wonderfully without being loud in their own flavor. If you are a big fan of original powerbars, make the brownie-like variation (they are not just like power bars, but reminiscent of them), and if you are more of a chewy granola bar person, make the original version. I have substituted almost all of the ingredients at one time or another, so just make these with what you have or see my ideas below.


L.L. Bean Trail Bars (original recipe)
Dry Ingredients
1c. quick oats
1 c. flour
1/2c. wheat germ
3 Tbs sesame seeds
1/4 c. sunflower seeds
1/4c. chopped walnuts

Wet ingredients
1/4c. sunflower oil
2 Tbs. maple syrup
1/2 c. honey
2/3c. chocolate chips

Later addition
1/4c. baby food prunes

In one bowl mix wet ingredients thoroughly, in another mix the wet ingredients. Combine wet and dry mixtures, and the baby food prunes. Spread into a greased 8 by 8 inch pan and bake for 20 minutes at 375 F.
Cut into bars while warm.

Brownie-like variation
Heat wet ingredients together in a saucepan until the chocolate chips are melted. Cool slightly, add to dry mixture and stir in baby food prunes. Spread into a greased 8 by 8 inch pan and bake for 20 minutes at 375 F. Cut into bars while warm.

Alternate ingredients
old fashioned oats instead of quick
the addition of any puffed or rolled grains instead of portions of the oats
whole wheat flour instead of all purpose, or gluten free flours because rising is not important here
flax meal instead of wheat germ (or just skip the wheat germ)
your choice of nuts instead of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and walnuts
canola oil instead of sunflower
additional honey instead of maple syrup
chocolate chunks instead of chips
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