Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The two sisters who straddle me in age, Ann Marie (18 months older) and Libby (15 months younger) used to play this game with me. On hot summer days down at the Jefferson Swim Club, we jumped feet first into the corner of the pool between the deep end and the shallow end; sank to the bottom and bent our knees as the ends of our long hair floated to the surface. Kneeling there on the floor of the pool, our arms flapping to keep us down at the bottom, we faced each other, eyes wide open, and played Guess What I’m Saying. We took turns talking, staring intently at each other, the backs of our tongues blocking the inside of our noses, holding air in our lungs until it was our turn to say something. The music of our voices rose from our throats, danced toward the light above us in families of bubbles, echoing in dolphin-like mysterious melodies. We tried to piece the muffled sounds to the movement of each other’s lips, guessing the words, taking a stab at full sentences. We took turns speaking underwater, then pushed off from the cement floor, our noses pointed heavenward, shooting through the surface like human rockets, our nostrils sucking in the scent of sunshine and chlorine.

"Was it Mary had a little lamb or my wee hat with a lamp?" We giggled and nodded then went back down. In my aging body, when I have a particularly bad head cold, or when I've washed my hair and the water makes its way into my ears, I am taken back to those aquatic conversations. I used to make up lots of games like that. I still can.

Every family has its invisible label maker, slapping titles on our foreheads. Most families have a social director -- that person who tends to arrange family gatherings and facilitate travel plans (that would be you, Libby). They have cookers, and cleaners, and the smart ones and the athletic ones, the mathematicians and the poets and musicians. If you asked each member of my own family what roles we all played you’d probably get a similar collection of labels from each of us.

Early on I took it upon myself to be the idea person. Not just in my family, but pretty much in any setting. I'm not talking about the really life changing, monumental scientific ideas people like my genius brother come up with. I'm talking something more like a gift for making the unnecessary look enticingly colorful if not fun. Truth is, my sisters have the same gift. I'm just not so good at anything else so I kept that label on the top of my forehead.

Ideas are not hard for me. They sort of bubble out like our underwater conversations. I don't know why. I think I have one of those magnets inside my head; the sort they glue on the end of that red pen hooked to a black string attached to that odd fellow's face with metal shavings you could move around, changing hair styles or making beards and mustaches.  My mental magnet grabs onto miscellaneous fragments of general inconsequence, calling unruly orphaned children of possibility to gather and hold hands in my head. They do their little leprechaun-like jig in my brain and out pops an idea. Or two. Or five.

Executing the idea is as fun as the coming up with it, depending on your access to the correct raw materials. Sadly, however, the end result is not always so dandy. But the process sure is fun, if not slightly (or abundantly) exhausting.

I have pondered for many years how this gift for ideas could be marketed. Don't you think it aught to be worth something? I thought once that I should contact Utah Dept of Transportation and offer my services. They have real signage problems. Signs placed in the wrong places. Locations ambiguously labeled. "You know", I think, "if they would just paint a little arrow on that piece of cement right there people would actually get what you want them to do." I think like an ordinary person, with average intelligence. That, coupled with an excess of creative Pop Rocks in the brain, makes me the consultant they should hire, don't you think? I mean who is the voice for common sense these days? I am surprised at how little creative use of plain old common sense one can find these days.

Our mom taught us that there was usually a way to solve a problem if you used your brain right. Most people forget to move outside the box, so to speak. When Lib and I took art lessons at Carnegie Museum on Saturday mornings I always started too big and my paintings went off the page. They were not very tidy. Not very well executed paintings. But I made it on the honor roll enough times to earn a recommendation the Carnegie Mellon University School of Art. The whole reason why, and I know this with certainty, is that Mr. Fitzpatrick was intrigued by the unique choices I made in the depiction of my subject matter. I knew what I couldn’t do and I stayed away from that. But I could creatively use what I could do in all sorts of unique ways. If the whole class was painting a meal at the dinner table, mine was painted with the focal point being the convoluted reflection of my face in the back of a soup spoon. It wasn’t the best art. But it was a pretty good idea. I thought to myself, when they had me stand at the recognition ceremonies, “Gee, I’d like to see what a real artist could do with my ideas.”

The way Mom taught us to think outside the box, or off the page, was not with any sit down lessons. She taught us with the medium sized brown leather purse she kept in the trunk of the car. She called it the Fishin’ Pack. Whenever a problem presented itself, and we were away from home, the solution always seemed to lie in the Fishin’ Pack. To the little girl in me the words “Go get the Fishin’ Pack” were as comforting as “Go get the consecrated oil” in a time of crisis. We had confidence that somewhere in there was something that would make a trouble less troublesome. The purse was crammed to the gills with an amazing assortment of items, all tidily contained in little packages or pill bottles or zipped into miniature purses. A pair of needle nose pliers along with a pair of half jaw toe clippers. Strike Anywhere matches in a pill bottle. Band Aids, and aspirin, and Chooz antacid gum. Scissors. Money. Knives. Tape. A comb. Nail file. Paper. Salt and Pepper. A magnet. Safety pins. Dental floss. A candle. A paintbrush. I can go on and on. Whenever something happened for which we needed a physical solution, we knew the answer lay somewhere in the trunk in Mom’s trusty Fishin’ Pack. It was more than what they now sell as First Aid kits. It had all that…but it had more. And it all didn’t exactly belong together; like there was no real logic in the selection of items stored in the bag. And it was exactly the “unknowness” of what was in there that gave me the hope of a solution to any problem we might encounter on a fishing stream or anywhere else. We all watched our mom as she set the bag in her lap, her eyes looking up and to the right, her hands holding the zipper pull at the top of the purse. She sat there frozen for a few seconds while she thought, then she would slowly pull the zipper across the top of the bulging purse and reach in, coming up with the magic solution that would save the day. I learned to imitate the way she thought. She too, had ideas.

I was telling my class of songwriting students last month that I sort of think we songwriters have a little satchel we wear on our hips: A little invisible leather bag with a drawstring at the top. In the bag are all the songs we will ever write. We pull them out one by one, like nuggets. Some end up being pretty little pebbles, some end up being chunks of cinder. And every once in a while we get to pull out a shiny little nugget of gold, if we keep working at it. I think maybe it’s the same with our ideas; like Heaven gave us so many of them before we came down, and its up to us to find them when we need them.

What happens when you get old and weighed down with …well, with life…is that we tend to forget how to look in that little personal idea satchel on our hips. We forget that there’s a Fishin Pack in the trunk. We just go to the same-old same-old when trying to solve a problem. I feel it happening to me. Not that problems are the only reason to come up with ideas. We just get so hammered that we learn to save our energy to use in reaction. Something happens -- We react. So few proactive ideas are let loose these days.

Gotta do something about that.


  1. "cori, what should i paint?" that was how i spent my saturday mornings while you were busy already running off the paper with ideas! you kindly gave a number of suggestions and told me to just get started, put some paint on my brush and apply it to the paper. then there was that creative writing class i took!? "cori, what should i write?" "cori, what should we play" , etc, etc, etc. i had the best of childhoods because of you. your imagination was and still is magical.

    and "no one packs like my mom could pack". especially a fishin' pack. i have my own fishng pack, of sorts, tucked away in the belly of our van. it is not as complete as it should be, nor used like our old fishin' pack, but nonetheless it is there. just in case!

  2. "We just get so hammered that we learn to save our energy to use in reaction"


    I am not lost. I am just overwhelmed at the moment. I will read and comment on each one of these, including this one, as intelligently as I ever do. I promise. I SO promise.