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Setting Themes

Where Health, Environment and the Arts Meet is the slogan of Sebold Communications. It’s also the theme of my website and blog, the Bamboo Pen. The pen–chicory flower trademark graphically embodies my current work and writing, the way I see the world.

Like you perhaps, I enjoy putting together different fields and arts and breaking down barriers between peoples, even species. Interdisciplinary, intercultural programs and publications, when well designed and managed, make lasting impressions on audiences and can ease relations between political opposites. Behind every success lies a unifying idea, or theme.

Here are four steps you can take to develop themes for programs, publications, and businesses:

Imagine

Start with the message you want to impart or the subject you want to showcase—in other words, what you want to learn or accomplish and what you think might excite others. Don’t be wowed by the reputation of a speaker, artist, or writer just yet. Later you can choose a celebrity to present your program or compose a book chapter. For now, turn on music that evokes your topic. Get enthused about your idea. Do some research online or in specialized libraries.  Record all your thoughts. How can you weave together a series of programs or blog posts? A performance and a publication? A health presentation and a holiday celebration?

Before settling on a theme and tagline for Sebold Communications, I did a lot of thinking. In previous work, I had seen arts and cultural programs foster peace, environment, and health. I decided to write blog posts about not only environmental health, but also arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development.

I got out crayons, colored pencils, a sketchpad. I found my old bamboo pen from Islamic calligraphy classes with Mohamed Zakariya. I paged through wildflower books. My mind wandered. Which colors would best suggest health and the environment; which flower, the world? After some bizarre drawings, I came up with a trademark and representative colors. To read up on Asclepius, I went to the Library of Congress with my reader’s card. And for a season, I took mock blog notes at art exhibits, science fairs, and international development conferences.

Visualize

How can you bring alive your ideas? Can you find a funder whose values reinforce your theme? Choose your speakers or authors now. Picture the room or the finished publication. How will people move through the conference room, negotiate the layout of your online or print report? Will there be a bottleneck at the pastry table? Will a well-placed graph enhance readers’ understanding of your project results? Place the tables and chairs or chapters and pictures with the takeaway in mind. You want to make sure your in-person and home audiences enjoy themselves enough to stay for the whole program or read the entire book. You want them to absorb your message.

For Sebold Communications, I had to design an attractive website in concert with a graphic artist and a website developer. I visited sites of Webby Award winners in the arts and sciences to see how they laid out their homes on the internet. I wanted to unpack the trademark on the inner pages, create mini-themes by using different chicory drawings on the services panels and the bamboo pen on the blog, or writing, page. Then I had to learn WordPress to compose pages and posts. At that point, I decided to alternate topical pieces with somehow-related articles on writing, editing, programs, or languages. For eight posts introducing the elements of my trademark and the format of my blog, I wanted photographs in blues, greens, and yellows.

[Update: In January 2016, Gallop Web Services helped me redesign the site to make it mobile and more useful to visitors. I also decided to concentrate on writing reviews of events and features on practitioners and scholars in the four interdisciplinary fields mentioned above. Tell me what you think!]

Publicize

Who is your audience? Where do they get their information? Do they read only professional publications and blogs? Or does your program or publication have broad appeal? Should you advertise on radio and TV? Which languages should you use? Should you bother with hard-copy brochures and press releases? Where can you mingle with your potential audience? At conventions or shared workplaces? Package your theme accordingly.

Which social media do your readers use? I signed up for LinkedIn early on, then Twitter and Google+.  LinkedIn reinforces my business, and Twitter reflects my blog. Most of the people I work with are at least on LinkedIn. Those who work in relief use Twitter, and those who manage programs gather in Google Hangouts. Communications and marketing experts know know that social media drive curious visitors to their organizations’ websites, where they can find publications and calendars.

Give

Think of something you can give free to your audience or readers, something that will match your program, publication, or business. With a souvenir, they’ll remember the experience longer and more fondly. Your report won’t get lost in a pile.

If you plan a program on the history of the camel as I once did, offer attendees camel burgers on toothpicks! In your next performance program, include a seek-and-find word puzzle whose solution underscores your theme. Watch early birds find the answers and stay in their seats at intermission. Are you doing a program on hand washing? Give out tiny soaps as health educators do.

At Sebold Communications, I haven’t quite gotten to this step. I’m not too sure about the white papers marketers advocate. Maybe I’ll write a blue or green one! Offering people free help with a tough sentence or two didn’t fly through Twitter. For now, I’ll stick with providing writing samples through my blog or editing a page or two from the middle of a prospect’s report. I might volunteer to organize a lecture.

Now that you’ve suffered my advice on setting themes and had the behind-the-scenes tour of my business and blog, let’s explore where health, environment, and the arts meet. The next post will in some ways be my first. I’ll write about the project that inspired me to blog: Environmentally concerned artists have crocheted coral reefs to call attention to the beauty and plight of real ones in oceans around the world.

After I spin that much shorter yarn, I’ll examine the structure of sentences and paragraphs. After all, words live closely together like corals, either happily or unhappily.

So stay tuned. Tell us about your creative process. Share news of health, environment, and the arts!

Asclepius, His Staff and Snake

Spare the rod, or staff, and spoil the child? Not exactly. But Asclepius, who grew up to be the Greek god of medicine, was born into an all-too-human story of domestic violence and could have used his staff before birth to protect his mortal mother, Coronis, from his divine father, Apollo, the sun god. Even after Asclepius acquired his staff and single serpentine assistant, mayhem followed him most of his life. And through eternity, the general confusion between his staff and Hermes’ double-snaked caduceus has dogged Asclepius and his medical progeny—including Hippocrates, the father of medicine.

The birth story goes like this: Apollo went on a trip. Coronis, already pregnant, fell in love with another man. (Never mind, that Apollo and Coronis hadn’t legally married. Gods don’t have to bother with all that decorum.) A white raven Apollo left to watch Coronis told him of his lover’s disloyalty, and—after he singed all members of the Corvus genus black forevermore because the bird hadn’t pecked out the guy’s eyes—he asked his sister Artemis, the goddess of hunting and childbirth (uh-huh), to kill Coronis. As Coronis lay on the funeral pyre, Apollo, full of remorse (what’s new?), asked Hermes, the god of commerce, thieves, and literature (among other things), to cut Asclepius out of her womb. Lest you wonder why Apollo didn’t handle the gore himself (at least in some versions), be aware that he was the original god of healing (indeed!). Apollo couldn’t cope with child rearing anymore than cesarean sections, so he gave the baby to the centaur Chiron, who taught Asclepius the medical arts.

Asclepius’s staff may have been passed down among ancient Middle Eastern gods (and doctors) from “Grandma” Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of nature (who got a little warlike in her later years). She walked around with a rod encircled by one snake (never two) to represent Earth’s fertility. (By the way, the words “life” and “snake” share the same stem in Semitic languages.) On a particularly difficult medical call, a snake twined itself around Asclepius’s staff to give him some useful herbs. The two became a duo so dynamic that not enough people were dying to satisfy Pluto, the god of the underworld. Eventually, he complained to Zeus, who threw a thunderbolt at Asclepius to kill him. Apollo, again enraged, slew the Cyclopes who made the thunderbolt. But Asclepius wasn’t divine enough to warrant resurrection, so Zeus made him into the constellation Scorpius.

Though officially dead and hanging in the sky as star art, Asclepius visited his temples all over Greece. Sick people lolled about the floors (along with lots of snakes, I’m told), and Asclepius appeared to them in helpful dreams. In 293 BCE during a frightful epidemic  (according to the poet Ovid), the Roman senate decided to summon Asclepius to Rome from his favorite sanctuary in Epidaurus. Some senators didn’t like bypassing Apollo (who could blame them?), so they went to Delphi to consult the sun god. In a kind moment, Apollo urged them to accept help from his son. The senate took two years to call Asclepius (sound familiar?).

As for the staff …

It has been the symbol of healthcare providers for 2,500 years. In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans got a little confused between medicine and trade (somewhat characteristic of us, huh?) and started to use Hermes’ caduceus to represent public health and medicine. The confusion actually started in the fifteenth century when the German publisher Johann Froben, not erroneously (read on Hermes above), used the caduceus on his books, only some of which were on medicine.

And the snake, living or dead?

It went to China to become part of the Chinese horoscope and rule over the year 2013 (actually 4710 or 4711, depending). I’m kidding, of course, but the connection between Asclepius and the Year of the Snake just struck me and brings us, smoothly or clumsily, to the subject of my next post—setting themes.

Scientific Names

While rifling through my cookbooks and botanical tomes to find information for the previous post (From Chicory to Coffee), I began to panic. What was the difference between Cichorium intybus and Cichorium endivia? Which did people drink and which did they eat? Was I dealing with a bunch of bitter balls of lettuce or a beautiful blue bloom?  Should the trademark of Sebold Communications have featured a flower around a pen or a pen in a salad spinner? I thought scientific names were supposed to relieve confusion, not worsen it.

Part of the answer lay in two books I inherited from my grandmother a dozen years ago—Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden and Waverley Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. In short, all endives are chicories, but not all chicories are endives. Both species are members of the genus Cichorium, and both land on our plates. It seems that, over time, Americans and Europeans have disagreed about which edibles belong to which species. Hence, my distress.

What’s clear (kind of like the mud plants grow in) is that C. endivia var. crispa is curly endive, the frisée or “chicory” Americans see in grocery stores, sometimes next to C. endivia var. latifolium, the flatter-leaved escarole. C. intybus, whose roasted root flavors coffee, is Belgian endive in the States. It’s the tightly wound wad of white and pale green leaves that people often sauté in butter. After chicory blooms, enthusiasts dig up the roots and bury them in damp sand in warm, dark cellars until new leaves bud. Less rugged folks just putter over to a purveyor of fancy green goods.

Or fancy red goods. After all, what about red Belgian endive? Well, it’s radicchio, the unforced heart of a C. intybus variety with red leaves. Then there’s speckled radicchio, or chickendive, which came about when C. intybus and C. endivia found—ahem—common ground.

All members of the Cichorium genus belong to the Asteraceae family, which is part of the Asterales order, which falls under the Asteranae superorder, which—yada yada. Never mind that some people call the Asteraceae “Compositae.” We don’t want to get into the weeds, do we?

If you remain confused, consult the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Worried about how to italicize the scientific names of plants? Follow the examples in this post, or better yet, consult the Chicago Manual of Style.

As for me, I feel a little better. I think.

From Chicory to Coffee

There it was in the field: blue enchantment.

My grandmother was somewhere behind me, hidden by grasses body-tall. Her quick work was muffled by meadowlarks ground-nesting and spring-summer heat ululating, low. We were collecting teasles and milkweed pods, the natural bits she crafted into porcupines, rabbits, and little kings set before blackbird pies. Characters from nursery rhymes and her private imagination.

I turned to face the chicory flower again. A cricket chirped. I went in for the pick.

Cichorium intybus—chicory flower, blue sailors, succory, coffeeweed—is an aster native to central Europe. It spread to North Africa and the Middle East and, centuries later, to North America and Australia. It has dandelion-like leaves in rosettes close to the ground and hairy, grooved stalks up to four feet high. Sometimes the ruffled petals come in pink and white, rather than lavender and blue. They make up flowers that open and close at the same time every day and lie close to their stems.

Afraid of bees.

The flowers can be pickled, crystallized in sugar, made into wine, and frozen in ice cubes. Italians, Spanish, Greeks, and Turks cook young chicory leaves. Food foragers favor C. intybus greens. So do livestock. The ancients discovered chicory’s powers to combat diabetes, worms, depression, indigestion, and headaches. Some swear that chicory essence rids cats and dogs of codependence. Chicory even ranks among the Glass Flowers of Harvard.

Since the Middle Ages, baristas have roasted chicory’s long taproot and added the grounds to coffee, especially during wars and economic downturns. In the mid-nineteenth century, Arthur Hill Hassal, using the long-neglected microscope, proved his suspicion that the coffee in London shops was almost universally extended with chicory (and, far worse, liver). In France, the Netherlands, Germany, India, Vietnam, and Louisiana, people fell in love with chicory’s peppery taste. During a coffee shortage in Syria, I turned to tea.

That was years after I gathered my blue bouquet. I presented it proudly to Grandma. Right away, it wilted, as—I later learned—anything preciously magic would.

From Bamboo to Pen

Somewhere near you, a stand of pens is growing. Quietly and quickly. All you have to do is look closely at your neighbor’s bamboo hedge, and you’ll see the pens, stacked end to end, greenish tan, like images in a seek-and-find picture puzzle.

You might even see them grow. Bamboo stems, stretching, node to node.

That’s because bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on Earth. In some places, it’s even invasive. Its 1,450 species can attain their full height (fifteen to forty feet) in one growing season. Bamboo’s secret agents? Rhizomes. The underground stems send forth shoots that press their way through the soil into blue light. The new culms stand stem to stem, darkening the ground, green.

Long about their third year, the culms harden. Turn brown. Ripen into pens.

Bamboo is a true grass, a member of the Poaceae family, like crab grass, the bane of gardeners. But bamboo is useful. It can be made into lumber, medicines, textiles, paper—and pens. Pandas and lemurs find bamboo shoots delicious. African mountain gorillas love them. Humans like them, too. The Buddhist monk Zan Ning wrote a book full of bamboo-shoot recipes.

Japanese make fishing poles out of one bamboo species. They’re flat on one side and have knobby ends, great for holding string in place. Mohamed Zakariya, one of the best Islamic calligraphers in the world, stocks up on the poles when he visits Hawaii. He cuts them and carves the ends into nibs to write big Arabic letters, 7/16 inches wide. He made my bamboo pen, my one and only, the one I used when I studied with him. It became part of the trademark of Sebold Communications and the namesake of this blog. At some point, I’ll interview Mohamed about pens of all sorts and Islamic calligraphy. Meanwhile, visit his website to learn more about his art.

And welcome! Please watch the Bamboo Pen grow. Post to post.