Winnowing time

A visit to a virtual middle-school classroom is the perfect antidote to latent depression.

Hiking boots and toilet paper, by Carol L. Douglas. This still life could be my current self-portrait.
After a Zoom conversation that mentioned birding, my Facebook feed was filled with birding suggestions. Several people insisted that I was experiencing confirmation bias, the tendency we all have to interpret situations in a way that confirms our own beliefs, experiences, and ideas. In other words, I was just noticing ads that had been there all the time.
One area in which we all suffer confirmation bias is the area of stress and grief. A recently-bereaved person feels other, smaller shocks acutely. A depressed person is hypersensitive to the ‘heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.
Tin foil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. Or perhaps this is my current self-portrait.
Right now, western culture is in a state of heightened stress and grief. Much has been lost, even by those who have not directly experienced illness or death in the current pandemic. Our jobs, our activities, and our economic and social freedom are curtailed. We’re all keenly feeling the ‘slings and arrow of outrageous fortune.’ Is this just confirmation bias, or are there in fact a lot of things going wrong right now?
As a natural introvert, I’m not finding the isolation difficult. Instead, I’m cycling through my own problem: the as-yet-undiagnosed gastric ailment I brought home from Argentina. It incapacitates me for periods of about 48 hours and then disappears for several days. When I’m in its grip, I’m reminded of the black dog that lurks just outside my tent. My father and his mother both died of depression, and my mother attempted suicide at the end of her life. I escape depression, in part, by keeping myself frenetically busy.
This is a real self-portrait, drawn twenty years ago when I was in the midst of my cancer treatment.
That’s learned behavior. Hard work was how my parents kept depression at bay until they were too old to outrun it. However, we all get tired eventually, and I’ll be no exception. Addressing this question has been on my to-do list for a number of years, but it’s only when illness knocks me down that I remember it. The problem is, of course, that there’s no easy answer. Nor does faith provide insulation against pain and decline. As Hebrews 9:27 cheerfully notes, we’re all appointed once to die.
Meanwhile and more immediately, there’s the question of how to revitalize my current business practice. Yesterday I taught my first Zoom class. My usual practice is to move from student to student, contemplate each painting, talk with the artist about what he’s doing, and then make suggestions. This is difficult on video, because people can either look at their phones or have them pointed at their canvases, but not both.
Buffalo Grain Mills, by Carol L. Douglas. Like my home town, I’m worn.
On the other hand, in the classroom, the dialogue is mainly between me and each individual student. Because my Zoom students had to turn their work to the screen to show it to me, it made class more of a streaming critique session. That was surprisingly more helpful than a ten-minute critique at the end of each class. It gives me something to build on for next week.
I made a guest appearance in Chrissy Pahucki’s virtual middle school art class at Goshen Central School in New York. Initially, I had trouble finding my way around Google Meet, but kids are not only naturally adept at technology, they’re courteous in guiding adults.
But kids can always make me smile. Photo courtesy of Chrissy Spoor Pahucki.
Chrissy expected they would ask questions for twenty minutes. It went on for twice that long, and I’m not sure they were finished when we finally pulled the plug. Pre-teens and teenagers are among my favorite people on the planet: they’re cheerful, innocent, inquisitive—the perfect antidote to creeping nihilism.

Too much time on Social Media is depressing

How can you turn off the comparisons with others?

Untitled, oil on paper, by Carol L. Douglas

My husband was in Rochester for work this week. Bad weather meant it took a very long time for him to get back to Maine. The easiest way to track his progress was to check his location on Google Maps. I found myself looking at my phone every few minutes. After each glance at his progress, I’d turn to Facebook and Instagram to see what my friends were doing.

By the time he got home, I was thoroughly depressed. Kathleen, Julie, and John all painted gorgeous work yesterday. Meanwhile, I spent the whole day on marketing stuff. “You didn’t do the Strada 31-day challenge and now they’re all driving past you in their Lamborghinis,” I scolded myself.
By the time Doug finally made it home, I would have gone into the backyard to eat worms, except that it’s 0° F. and the worms are all encased in ice. Did I mention that Mark is teaching in Georgia and Charles is in California?
Untitled, by Carol L. Douglas

Comparing oneself to others has long been known to cause depression. It’s only been since the advent of social media that we have found a way to beat ourselves up with it nonstop. Dr. Mai-Ly Steers, who has studied the link between social media and depression, called this phenomenon, “seeing everyone else’s highlight reels.”


“One danger is that Facebook often gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare,” Steers said. “You can’t really control the impulse to compare because you never know what your friends are going to post.
“In addition, most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad… this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives.
Scrotum man (detail), by Carol L. Douglas
For the artist, it means we can constantly compare our own struggles at the easel with our friends’ carefully-lighted, perfectly-photographed finished work. We can come away wondering why we ever thought we could paint in the first place.
Social media is a two-edged sword for artists. It is the conduit through which we (increasingly) pour our work out into the world, but it’s also a way to burn a lot of time and psychic energy. There’s no turning back, so we have to develop strategies to protect ourselves from the anxiety it produces.
The Joker, by Carol L. Douglas
No thought—including envy—can have power over you without your permission, although you do need to be aware that you’re doing it. One of the best ways to get out of the envy loop is to distract yourself. Thinking about something else is a proven coping mechanism for stressful situations. And, luckily, the work we should be doing—making art—is the best possible distraction from the competitive envy we find so difficult to process.

Wasting time, and other lies about art

The artist’s first responsibility is to tell the truth. But what does that mean?

Child prodigy Alma Elizabeth Deutscher, courtesy Askonas Holt.
“Some people have told me that I compose in a musical language of the past and that this is not allowed in the 21st century. In the past, it was possible to compose beautiful melodies and beautiful music, but today, they say, I’m not allowed to compose like this because I need to discover the complexity of the modern world, and the point of music is to show the complexity of the world.
“Well, let me tell you a huge secret: I already know that the world is complex and can be very ugly. But I think that these people have just got a little bit confused! If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?”

That was said by 12-year-old British child prodigy Alma Elizabeth Deutscher. I didn’t understand that at 12; I don’t think I understood it at age 40.
The artist’s first responsibility is to tell the truth. But the truth is enormous, and an artist can only bite off so much. For me that has included times of serious self-questioning and times of feminist rage. Right now, the greatest truth I want to share is a command: look around and notice our blessings.
So much of modern culture is bleak, negative, and destructive. Meanwhile, we’re healthier and less stressed than any time in history. Our kids don’t die of tuberculosis and our men are not being conscripted to march off to war. So why do one in six Americans need prescription drugs to get through their days, and so many others dull their reality with opioids or booze?
I know they’re not faking their distress. But the gap between our actual condition and our perception of it is enormous. As an artist, I can’t bring myself to contribute to it by pointing out any more problems. Who needs that on their walls?
Wall hanging in Planet Coffee in Ottawa, Canada, part of series hommage Barack Obama, by Dominik Sokolowski.

A friend was recently in Ottawa and saw the picture above. “This is a large wall hanging in Planet Coffee in Ottawa, Canada. Why is President #44 on display in Canada and not the US?” she asked.
Sometimes art is propaganda. But in general, art is a personal statement that conveys the ideas and feelings of the artist. This, by the way, is not a flattering portrait of President Obama. It seems, instead, that the artist is very conflicted.
The other answer to her question is that Americans may need an escape from the relentless bad news of politics right now. More relentlessly bad news about sex crimes is not the answer. Some conversation about our blessings would be more helpful.
Here’s an idea that never went anywhere, a maquette of a painting-sculpture, by me.
Last night, a friend said that he never understood how ‘you have too much time on your hands’ came to be an insult. “It’s the rallying cry of jealous, small minded people who think that uncomfortable employment is the mark of a moral character.”
It’s a slam I’ve heard many times. In fact, I’ve had to consciously let go of my Puritan work ethic to make headway as an artist. Sometimes my visions are not brilliantly developed, and often they look suspiciously like play. But it’s in that fizzing that the artistic mind does its work, and it often happens when we’re engaged in the most boring of tasks.
Part of that work ethic is the idea that art has to make us uncomfortable, or it’s not ‘real art’. Rubbish. It’s the ability to see the world in a new, happier way that makes a child such as Alma Elizabeth Deutscher such an asset.

New drug boosts creativity, cures hypertension, depression, and diabetes… and it’s free!

A young walker in the Duchy.
A Stanford studyearlier this year found that walking boosts creativity. This is a real-time effect, and it lasts during the time you’re walking and for a short while thereafter. It gives legs to the idea that we get our best ideas while walking.
This will come as no surprise to people who walk regularly. I have no idea how it motivates the circuitry of one’s brain (any more than I understand how it massages the gut or how it strengthens back muscles) but as a lifelong walker, I’m convinced it works. It certainly reduces anxiety. I’m finding myself walking upwards of six miles a day this month, and it’s done much to assuage my grief and worry over the upheavals in my personal life.
Walking every day has the perverse effect of making me like winter more, although I’m not always keen on the way sidewalks are maintained here in Rochester.
Although I’ve been a dedicated walker/runner/hiker my whole adult life, about five years ago my doctor started making noises at me about cholesterol and high blood pressure. I realized that I needed to ramp up the pace. Now it’s the first thing I do every day, and I’m willing to spend at least two hours a day exercising.
The biggest objection people make to walking is, “I don’t have the time.” On the other hand, the average American watches five hours of television a day.
I’m self-employed, so I can set my own schedule. I walk my husband to work every morning. Most married couples have very little time to talk to each other; we are guaranteed the better part of an hour together. (Since the average car in the US costs more than $9000 a year to own and operate, we save a lot of money, too.)
Later in the morning, I walk with a small posse. Who shows up varies by the day, but we’re all self-employed or telecommuters.
Walking is gentle on the environment. This is the annual salt collection at the side of our street after the snow melts. It’s a miracle anything grows here.
It’s paid off: I’m apparently the only middle-aged American who isn’t takingsome kind of prescription drug. Nearly 70 percent of Americans of all ages are on at least one medication, and more than half take two or more. Among women in my age cohort, a stunning one in four are taking antidepressants.
Walking is cheap. It makes you creative, it makes you happy, it gives you great gams, and it mitigates many diseases of aging like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.