Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Patterns and Self-Protection


Sharon Wildwind

Crystallography is the study of how atoms are arranged in solid materials. Scientists identified seventeen possible two-dimensional arrangement patterns, eleven of them in lines and six in circles. Ruth B. McDowell, an American quilter realized these patterns were the same ones quilters used, but most quilters had limited themselves to only a few of their possible choices.

This past week I worked through a couple of her books, drawing a lot of patterns and coloring them in muted colors. As long as the patterns were pretty unidirectional I was okay, but when elements had to be reversed or placed upside down, I had a terrible time. I know I’m a little dyslexic with numbers, but patterns? I’m the pattern-recognition queen, so I was at a loss as to what was going on.

Here’s Pattern #1 (P1). Because it’s only one placement repeated over and over, I didn’t have a problem with it, though where most people would draw the first design from the instructions, I would be equally likely to draw the second.

The scientist's version on the left; my left-handed version on the right.

Pattern #2 (P2) was a little harder, but after several false starts, I managed.
Ditto to the previous drawings.
Pattern #4 (P4) was a complete disaster. (For those of you who like consistency and order, P3 is a circular pattern and I’m no where ready to tackle the circle ones yet.) 

You’re probably already ahead of me on where the problem lay. I’m left handed!

Ms. McDowell starts with a sample block pattern with a hand imposed over it. Tell most people to imagine a  hand over a pattern and they’ll visualize the first figure in the line. I tend to visualize the second one. Because I can do simultaneous translation of right-handed instructions into left-hand, I was also tending to mentally reverse the pattern, so it looked like the third figure in the line.

1) What most people see in their mind. 2) What I see. 3) A reversed left-handed pattern.

What I was supposed to draw on top.
What I kept drawing on the bottom.
When those patterns included elements that had to be flipped or reversed, my brain couldn't keep up with the changes. It took me a full day to work out the difference between the right-hand orientation for P4 (top) and the left-hand orientation (bottom) my brain kept handing me.

No doubt the scientists who came up with the seventeen patterns would tell me that the world isn’t put together with left-handed arrangements of atoms. Maybe their’s isn’t. Mine is. If you’re a mystery writer, so is yours.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever voluntarily, not because it was for work or school
  • Fired a handgun just to see what it feels like?
  • Done a ride-along with police officers or other first responders?
  • Toured a new building and been more interested in places to hide bodies than in the nifty pro-ecology features?
  • Read an autopsy report?
  • Taken a field trip to the medical examiners office or a forensics lab?


Ordinary—I’ll refraining from saying normal—people don’t seek out these things as a matter of course. Because as mystery writers we have a far greater familiarity with what human beings do to one another, we have a greater need to pay attention to healthy, life-affirming activities. Art is one of my anodynes. It finally dawned on me that my need for pattern and low-key colors in the past few days is my reaction to what’s been happening out there in the world.

The point is we have to be as diligent in protecting ourselves as we do in researching our books.

Physical activity and sports are good ideas. So are meditation, dance, music, and good friends. I’ve learned some things recently about singing bowls and walking labyrinths, and I’m interested in trying both, though maybe not at the same time.

One further comment about pattern-recognition queens. I hope you saw the first episode of The Bletchley Circle on PBS last night. Four women who worked as code breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II reunite in 1952 London to track down a serial killer. There are two more episodes, one on April 28 and the last on May 5. Well done, well worth watching.
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Quote for the week
Let’s be careful out there.
~ Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, Hill Street Precinct, played by the late Michael Conrad (1925 - 1983)

4 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

My mother was born a lefty, in a time when everyone was forced to be right-handed. She had zero aptitude for crafts. My daughter is too, and is not into making anything, although she's good with words.

I like to make tangible things (and did long before I started that writing thing)--knitting and sewing, and later upholstery, furniture refinishing, wallpapering. All things with a physical product I can admire (or regret) over time. I find it helps to clear my mind.

I did watch the first episode of The Bletchley Circle. In a way it's hard to take, since it was a time when capable intelligent women were expected to be docile and dumb. But by the end I was caught up in it, and I think the writers have a deft hand and a good eye for details, not just of period decor and clothing and such, but for the subtleties of the characters' interactions.

Susan said...

I, too, watched "The Bletchley Circle" and felt exactly like you, Sheila. I was intrigued by the idea of code breakers looking for patterns. I was also not surprised by the expectations for women: a good topic to discuss with my granddaughters.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, I'm a lefty, and I looked at your first pair of patterns and thought, "The second is the one I would draw," BEFORE scrolling down to the caption and seeing that handedness was indeed the determining factor. I had a hard time learning to write cursive because we were supposed to hold our non-writing hand flat, thumb outstretched, to anchor the paper, and the teacher would say, "The little ship is sailing out of the harbor." It baffled me, until as an adult I realized that MY little ship had been sailing INTO the harbor.

Sharon Wildwind said...

I was very fortunate. My first-grade teacher walked by my desk, said, "Oh, you're left-handed." and turned my paper the opposite way. This was back in the dark ages a long time ago.

I agree with you about the values in BC being hard to watch and I think the producer made a good choice to represent them honestly instead of pasting current values on the women.