Thursday, June 09, 2011
When I was nine, a fashion for scary stories went round the school. They were what I'd probably call 'campfire stories' now - and indeed, they whispered around the coach and the dorms on school trips - but we told them everywhere. We passed them on and listened with fascination, and anyone who had a new one was guaranteed attention.
The Blue Nun. The Blue Doll. The Golden Leg. These haunting little sketches were, literally, colourful. But here's one I remember particularly clearly, for reasons that will become the burden of my song: The Green Room.
I loved those spooky stories. My friend told this one over lunch, and we all listened, rapt ... and in the chilled silence that followed, I said:
'Why did the landlord keep renting the room out?'
Not unnaturally, this irritated the teller no end: 'You're so logical!' she cried in annoyance. It was something of an insult: you can't call your friends boring or pedantic when you're a nine-year-old girl, but that was clearly the message. How unimaginative, to bring the story down to earth like that!
Except I grew up to be a writer of imaginative literature. And I still love ghost stories. Looking back, I think it was one of my first encounters with the shape in the body.
I still love The Green Room, actually. I can see it in my mind: the damp, countrified room with cold blankets on the bed, unwarmed by central heating; the slightly dusty stag; that odd detail about the block (a concrete one? Bleak urban concrete tethered to a stuffed woodland deer? It's a decor choice as jarringly inappropriate as the mixture of human bones and chicken feathers in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre); the numinous symbolism of it being the antlers that disappear last. I can still hear the drone of the old woman, see her faded crochet shawl fluttering in the breeze. And actually it's an easy fix: all one has to do is make the landlord a bit suspicious - or if one wants to move from the realm of fairy tale to ghost story, call the man a rich American traveller and comment that the guest house seems dilapidated but the landlord's expensively dressed. That's the kind of thing one does with campfire stories anyway: one adapts them as one passes them on. I already adapted The Green Room in that presentation: the old woman disappearing at the end was my invention. (As my friend told it, I think, she just explained that the old woman had also died there, and I thought I'd sharpen it up a bit.)
I love campfire stories. (If anyone's got some, I'd love to hear them.) But holes in them bothered me from an early age. It was the same itch that bothered me when we sang, 'But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes' in 'Away in a Manger': the itch of an imagination that sensed that sentences and stories had natural shapes, and felt out of kilter when the shape was wrong. It could have legs and tail and back and head, but if the antlers were missing - if something was askew in it - it'd fall.
The fantasy writer Samuel R. Delany, according to my husband, once argued that one couldn't really teach writing, because it depended on having a template, a blueprint, a shape in one's body that one either had or didn't. Whether or not that shape is something some people have and some lack, or whether everyone has them and some people have better access to them than others, I couldn't say. But the shape in your body seems exactly right.
A friend of mine once told me about neurolinguistic programming, saying that people tend to think in, and hence respond better to, visual, auditory or kinesthetic terms. I don't know quite what I think about that in general, but I tried applying it to myself and ran into a thicket. I have a verbal brain, very much so. My visual memory is very poor, my sense of pitch only adequate, but words are smooth and easy for me and always have been. But while you can say 'I see' to someone visual or 'I hear where you're coming from' to someone auditory or 'I think I can grasp that' to someone kinesthetic, what do you say to a verbal person? And how do I describe verbal issues in words?
The answer seems to be kinesthetic: the shape in the body. When I describe how a story works to myself, it tends to be in physical terms: a net that needs more strings in its underpinning, a sculpture with a smooth curve to it, a sentence that goes either ding or clunk when tapped, a sentence I weigh in my hand for balance like a knifethrower before the throw. To grasp how the words are working, I can't describe it in words. I can't, to use a term from primary-school mathematics, show my working out: I can only show the result. The best I can do is to ask questions: why did the landlord keep renting the room?
I love stories where not everything needs to be explained. The fact that the antlers disappear last and hold up the whole weight is good: that piece of inexplicability hums, like the resonance within the hollow body of a violin. Stories need gaps; you can't drum on a piece of concrete. There are resonant gaps and weakening gaps, though; you don't pour concrete in, but you add another wire to lash this point to that.
Ach, I can't explain it. I never could. I just want to know: when the landlord said there was only one room left, what was the look on his face when he said it?
I think my mind always filled in the bit that was missing. So if we already know there's a problem with the green room, but the landlord offers the green room, then we know there's something wrong with the landlord and don't need to be told. I think in this case the landlord has a vague, slightly confused look on his face, of someone who, for mystical reasons, is incapable of noticing or remembering anything not in his script. He can rent you a room, but anything beyond that is beyond him.
Hi, I'm a lurker on Slacktivist...
I just finished reading The Time Traveler's Wife. I mostly loved it, it was an intriguing premise. But I also had mixed feelings about it, I think for the reasons you've hit on here, that at times Niffenegger tried to explain too much and it sometimes ended up going clunk, or she didn't quite hit the right balance between too much and too little.
But one thing I think she got right - the specific example that came to mind when I read your piece was how she explained causality and the "you shouldn't/can't change the past" question. I don't know if you've read the book, but basically the main character, Henry, travels back and forth in time, randomly. His primary existence is linear, he has a continuity of existence, so he can go back and meet himself.
But bad things still happen and he can't prevent them, can't warn anyone "don't go down to the basement"*. Henry at first explains that he's made a conscious decision not to tell himself what's coming because he wants to live a normal life. But it's potentially confusing because...how can he decide not to tell his past self when he already knows from memory that he *didn't*. Where's the free will in that? So... it later comes out (in one particularly painful scene) that whenever he tries, he just...can't, the words won't come out. It gives a rather poignant twist to his affliction, which I'm thinking was actually the author's intent.
But IIRC she doesn't over-explain it, just presents it as a given. Them's the rules...
*not an actual scene in the book. :-)
When I was about 8 I had this little paperback novel called "The Ghost in the Mirror" which was only a bit scary, but affected me by sensory overload. It was set in an old house in summer, and featured a somnolent rose garden and the overpowering scent of roses. I forget the main plot but just thinking about it I can smell/taste roses, feel drowsy humid summer heat, and feel a thrill of terror.
I think I know what you mean about feeling stories, too. Often when I think about science (my profession) I use my whole body, too. Things that are *right* make my nerves and sinews thrum like a well-tuned chord on a guitar. Sometimes I have put a word in a piece of writing, then realise I'm not entirely sure what the word means, worry that it's a malapropism, then look it up and discover that it's exactly the right word after all! An example of this is the word "fulgent". It happens with names, too. I guess most thinking takes place out of sight, as it were. The unconscious mind is a pretty awesome crazy place.
As for stories, I find I make them by inhabiting characters - method acting style. But frequently plot points will reveal themselves and that feels like Tetris blocks slotting into place, or just the right notes making a chord.
I'm more of a visual learner, and my memory is overwhelmingly visual (to the point where I only recall names at meetings by imagining the person's nametag), except where music is concerned. I'm one of those awful pedants about lyrics. I can't help knowing lyrics. But i habe read that music and poetry are processed differently than normal spoken language. I'm also a graphemes synesthete, and often wonder if these things are related.
Sorry for the me me me essay; but I really like hearing (reading) how other people's minds operate so I thought i'd share.
Sadly, I have been having some trouble with words the last couple of years. Psychological block. To bridge the gap of wordlessness I started a photo blog, to document, archive, and process. I think slowly it's helping the words come back. Fingers crossed.
Oh yes, story-shape-- I think I do it kinesthetically too. My writing buddy and I have a term for a gap where a word or fragment should be that one just can't come up with: "it-shape". When one of us has a problem, the other asks "is it [historical fact, character development, or whatever] or it-shape?"
I think it may be related to my (and her) mild synaesthesia. I think of music in terms of shape too, especially music in parts, which I perceive as a sort of architecture. I wish it worked the other way and I could use architecture as a memory trick, but unfortunately it doesn't.
(another slacktiverse lurker, btw)
Boy, does that ever take me back. I remember growing up when Ghost Stories were popular - the Goosebump books were extremely popular back when I was in elementary school, and you were down with the group if you had them. I loved reading scary books, but not so much watching horror movies, for some reason. Anymore, the horror that I mostly align myself with is the horror as presented by Lovecraft. Taking his work for what it is and accepting the blatant racism present therein only makes them that much more horrifying. Lovecraft lived in a dark place where the sun didn't shine a lot, and it checkers his work.
As a teacher, I'm familiar with individual learning styles. Those who are kinesthetic learners raise your hand: you're not alone. The vast majority of people are kinesthetic learners. It's only a very small percentage of the population that are verbal learners, but for some reason, this is the population in schools that we teach towards. I don't want to get OT, but I never could make sense of that (I tried hard during my student teaching to undermine that; a particular kinesthetic-oriented lesson I ran in my history class was a quilting lesson during the lead up to the American "Civil War", in which the kids would plot out a quilt and make a quilt with the various symbols and pictures that the African slaves would put in it... it was a really cool lesson, and helped a lot of them get... *ahem*, get the picture). I'm very much a verbal and visual learner; plays on words and puns are hobbies of mine, I'm an amateur fiction writer, and I work equally as well with a picture diagram or verbal diagram (PowerPoint or Prezi being my weapons of choice when it comes to presentations of any kind).
A good way to tell what kind of a learner a person is is to see what type of an outline they do when they start working on a paper of some kind. Is it scrambled, jumbled, and organized in a way only they can make sense of? Probably kinesthetic, because they'd be happier just not doing it at all, and they probably jotted down a few ideas as they came into work, if they did it at all. Is it very graphic, and organized along the lines of shapes and forms, like a Venn diagram or a brain map? They're visual. Shapes and pictures are good for them. If it's laddered or stepped, with detailed structure and a lot of words (to the point where it's practically the paper itself), it's pretty obvious that they're a verbal learner.
btw - on and off slactiverse lurker. I've posted a few times in the past over there. I just felt compelled to comment on this because. Sorry for the essay :)
Hello new people! Long and divergent comments are most welcome. :-)
@Josh - what do you call it if the person really doesn't work well with plans? I can sit down and write an essay from scratch and have it come out with a good, organised-looking structure, but if I planned it, the finished work wouldn't look like the plan: one sentence suggests another to me and you can't anticipate that kind of nuance.
I remember one time I was writing a non-fiction book (under a pen name, so no point looking for it) and was given a schedule: deliver the page plan by Date X, deliver the completed book by Date Y. This seemed so impossible to me that I just floored the gas and wrote the whole thing by Date X: the finished piece was the plan. I was perfectly prepared to do extensive rewrites if need be (though in fact they were fine with it); lots of rewrites would still have been more comfortable for me than a plan, because how could I know how much I had to say on a given topic until I'd tried writing it?
Does that make me verbal or kineasethetic? What I seem to be is concrete: I can't understand principles when they're explained in the abstract but I can grasp them immediately from a single example; I can't write fiction from a theme, it has to be from specifics, and I can only work out the theme once I've finished; I have no patience with philosophy but am very interested in ethics; I'm not the least bit interested in metafiction or intertextuality and regard works as useless if they don't stand alone... I'd have thought I was verbal, considering the whole writing books thing, but I can't be doing with intangibles. What does that mean?
(If you don't mind me picking your brains, that is.)
Maybe there's a difference between how we learn -assimilate new skills or information - and how we think and act creatively. So you could be a verbal learner and a kinaesthetic doer. And a subconscious planner! It could NE different for different tasks, though, too.
I have found if I try to write anything based on a theme it comes out trite and stilted; but if I don't have a theme in my conscious mind and write what "feels true", where my unconscious mind takes me, I find coherent threads of theme and symbolism I never even expected.
On the other hand, when I am planning experiments in lab, I tend to do mental dress rehearsals where I literally imagine myself doing all the steps (add the agarose, heat it up, take the PCR out of the freezer, put in the combs, pour the gel, etc). I "see" myself doing each thing, and run through a few times to get the timings right. Thus is why I now plan ahead to write off the first couple attempts at a new technique. Before I have actually done it, the most detailed instructions are just word salad; I feel blind, dyslexic, oxygen-starved. I've read that professional musicians will mentally rehearse pieces of music, and that this enhances their performance, which I think is similar.
With creative writing, or even photography, though, it's more like discovering the sculpture hidden in the stone. The stone being, perhaps, the barrier darkness between the thin veneer of conscious thought and the deep, creature-filled ocean of the unconscious. If I force it, if I try to impose my conscious ideas on it, it won't come through ... or something. I think it's more like how athletes describe being "in the zone".
(But, of course, this is not to dismiss the importance of editing.)
One other thing I just thought of. A big difference between my partner and I is that he is interested in all the metatextual whatnots, while I, despite being interested in many things, am more how you describe yourself. He (with training in history and English lit) is a Critic; he doesn't feel compelled to Make Art. Whereas I go to a concert and start writing songs, go to a gallery and think of ideas for installations; I'm interested in stuff more as an experience, as inspiration and research. Ah! That is what some humans are like - hang on, let me jot that down, I could use that ...
I pictured the landlord (shabby, old coat, shiny new brown shoes) frowning and reluctant. He knows that bad stuff happens in the Green Room, and always fills it last. He probably hasn't had such a full house for months, maybe years, and he wasn't expecting this last guest so the situation has been sprung on him unexpectedly. He's not sure that it's a good idea, but he needs the money and he can see that the guest has nowhere else to go. He's giving in to social and financial pressure despite twinges of conscience.
The whole idea of shape rings a bell for me, though it's connected to physical rather than literary art. Since taking up a martial art (about two and a half years ago) I've noticed that I can't learn any move until I've understood the shape of it. I can get the basic physical principles - balance, pivot, efficient use of available energy - quite quickly, and can see what the purpose of a move is, and even follow in my head 'the arm goes here, the fingers are here, this is the footwork', but I won't be able to remember it until I get the shape. I don't know if I can express what the shape is, because it's not made up of any of the contituent parts of the technique - it's just a feel for the flow of the thing.
And in the same way, if I'm writing something and working at it, I know it's not right until there's a solidity about it.
Weirdly, I don't think the two carry across to one another particularly well. I find it hard to put into words what any specific technique involves, and on reflection I don't think I'm remembering it verbally at all. Mostly I do have a verbal memory... I definitely do the dense, structured, list-like plan thingummy. But the idea of getting the shape just right seems to apply to both.
oh no, no problem at all, Kit.
I'd say that makes like you me, because I used to be the same exact way LOL :)
I'm tempted to say that has nothing to do with your learning style, Kit. Are you familiar with Gardener's MI theory? As a teacher, I cling to to that with my life: I'm a strong proponent of Multiple-Intelligences, because what it does is it gives everyone a strength that they can play too, and a weakness that they can improve. You may be weak in the Logic/Math, but strong in the Verbal. That explains why you don't cling so closely to an outline or plan (which follow logic) and write on the fly and still produce quality work(your talent with words makes your verbal). Alternatively, you may be moderately strong in the Logic/Math area (after all, stories require an internal sense of consistency that's usually based on logic), but it seems to me that it's less a learning style thing and more related to your intelligences and your strengths/weaknesses.
Please note: your learning style and your intelligences are not mutually exclusive/inclusive. Just because someone is a visual learner does not mean they won't have a high verbal or logical/mathematical intelligence. Likewise, because someone is a auditory or verbal learner doesn't mean they're guaranteed to have a high verbal intelligence, which relies on words, understanding of syntax, and a general joy of playing with language. For instance, I'm an auditory/verbal and visual learner, but my strongest intelligence is visual and very strong intrapersonal, with my weakest intelligence being logic/math. Interpersonal comes in third, with Music, Natural, and Kinesthetic tying for forth. Linguistic comes in fifth, and logic/math being dead last. Usually, it makes sense when you align it with your strengths - as a visually intelligent individual, I've been drawing and painting a lot longer than I have been writing (I was born drawing and coloring; I can spot the differences in colors by degrees of blue, yellow, or red present or missing and can almost tell you what percentage of each that color has). When I write, I visualize - it's like a movie playing out in my mind, and I'm trying to paint what I see on the paper in words. Because of it, I'm a very visual and descriptive writer. My weakness in logic and math is a mix of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (for logic) and good ol' fashioned learning disabilities with a dash of math phobia (for math).
For fun, you can go here: http://www.bgfl.org/bgfl/custom/resources_ftp/client_ftp/ks3/ict/multiple_int/index.htm. This test will help you determine what your MI is. They don't just give you your highest MI - they'll graph it all out on a chart and show you which ones are your high points, and which ones are your low points.
Also note that certain mental illnesses can give the illusion of being one type of learner when really, you're another. Because I've had ADHD-mixed type since I was a child, people have always thought that I was a primarily a kinesthetic learner, but I'm not. Auditory learning is not something you usually associate with a child - especially a young boy - diagnosed with the most over-diagnosed mental difficulty in the States, and a lot of people jump to those conclusions.
That was interesting, thanks for the tip! I came out highest in linguistic (22), nearly as high in intrapersonal and interpersonal (about 19, I think), highish in music and naturalistic, pretty low in kinaesthetic and logic, and very low indeed in visual/spatial.
Of course, I was self-reporting, so it may say more about my self-image than my actual brain... :-)
No problem :)
I have a story tangentially related to MI theory and how it relates to your learning style that I like to tell. I'm a substitute teacher/certified teacher (unemployment sucks), which means I get called in to sub for a wide variety of subjects. One day, I got called in to sub for a elementary school music class. I'm and English and History secondary teacher (ages 9-12 are what my certification will let me teach in English and History. Fortunately, ages K-12 are what my certification will let me sub for, regardless of subject matter), who was far outside of his element (although, to be fair, I wasn't nearly as far outside of my element as I was that time I somehow found myself at the head of an AP Calculus/Trig class for the day).
I came in with mixed expectations. 3rd grade is the lowest level that my classroom management skills will work at, so I wasn't worried about that. I just knew jack about music, despite listening to music as often as I do. Well, there was some book work for them, and some some worksheets, and honestly, it wasn't enough. Being a teacher, I decided to, on the fly, cook up a lesson plan that was little more than three lines on the back of an index card I'd found on the floor.
I'd always wanted to learn how to play an instrument. So today, I wouldn't be doing any teaching. Today, I'd be doing the learning. I stepped up in front of the class and announced that Mr. K was going to be learning how to play an instrument, and those who wanted to help him could, and those who didn't could practice with their instruments. Most of the class was interested in trying to help me get the handle on the two instruments that I picked out. Now, I'm a 26 year old fella, and these were a group of 11 and 12 year olds, so I'm easily double their age. I could only imagine what someone walking into that class would've seen that day - at least a half dozen students in each hour trying to help me get a handle on how to play either the trumpet or the clarinet.
I had a low bar set for any type of success: getting them to make a noise was a victory. The clarinet was a pain; no matter how hard they tried, I just couldn't get that thing to work. However, we were more successful with the trumpet - not only did I get it to make noise, but I actually learned a few notes and played a short song. I met with the teacher at the end of the day and explained what had happened, and what my reasoning behind it was, and why they the bookwork and worksheets she left for them to do didn't get done: to learn is to hear, but to teach is to know.
Besides, a lot of those kids were really happy that they'd gotten a chance to help someone learn how to play an instrument. Hands down, that was probably my high point subbing this year (2010-2011).
I'm decent in musical intelligence. I rate higher in music than I do in linguistic, which is not something my friends know or would expect of me. However, I am not a kinesthetic learner. Learning an instrument requires you to be a much better kinesthetic learner than I am, and that experience helped solidify, in my mind, that your MI can be independent from your learning style. I couldn't even get the clarinet to make a noise. But I did manage to play a short song on the trumpet, and those kids walked out of the room with an even greater knowledge of how to play their instruments, because they'd tried to (and successfully did!) the sub. It was a win/win :)
This story reminds me of "The Landlady" by Roald Dahl. I read that one as a kid and still remember how chilling it was.
If you hike some distance off the trail at a campground near my house, you'll find a dilapidated cottage far away from the other cabins that get rented out to Boy Scouts or other groups. Before the woods were a public campground, the little house belonged to an old lady who lived alone with her cats. She died a long time ago, but a colony of feral cats still lives in the woods.
About ten years ago, a troop of Boy Scouts was in those woods for a week-long camp out. On the second day there, one boy, bored with the chores and structured activities, went off in the woods by himself. In the woods he spotted a black-and-white cat sunning itself in a clearing. The boy, disliking cats, threw a rock at the cat to scare it off. Unfortunately, the rock hit the cat right between the ears and the creature went limp. Scared and ashamed of what he had done, the boy ran back to his campsite.
That night during dinner, the boy felt a sharp pain in his stomach, but it was nothing that couldn't be dismissed as indigestion from his troop's infamously bad cooking, or a cramp from too much exercise.
The rest of the boy's week continued without incident, except during every meal the pain in his gut would worsen and become sharper. Although the boy felt drawn to revisit the spot where he had seen the cat, to confirm if that incident had really happened, he never worked up the courage.
The last night of camp, the pain became unbearable. As the boy tried to tell his scout leader, he began to cough thick mouthfuls of dark blood. He was rushed to the ER, where it was determined he needed emergency surgery. When the doctors opened him up, they found his stomach and intestines were full of cat claws tearing him apart from the inside.
I have exactly the same problem with learning style classification as you do. I'm also verbal, not really visual or auditory or kinesthetic. I sometimes even think in written text. I think part of it, in my case, is that I read REALLY REALLY early in life, to the point where I have no memory of not being able to read fluently.
On the multiple intelligences tests, I scored high on logical, fairly high on naturalistic, intrapersonal, linguistic, and musical, and low on kinaesthetic, visual/spacial, and interpersonal. I mostly agree with those except that I think my linguistic score should have been higher.
TV Tropes has an entry for the type of question that you asked after hearing that story: Fridge Logic.
Naw--one of my friends had been a boy scout, and he would accumulate stories for me when we were younger. He was excellent at embellishing stories to fit the specific campsite he was staying at.
Feral cat infestation?
Of course they were cursed cats, and woe to anyone who hurt one.
Large mysterious boulder in the woods?
Of course gypsies were rounded up and massacred there years ago, and their ghosts would descend on you with all the wrath of a vengeful racist stereotype if you defiled the rock by climbing on it.
That bearskin hanging on the wall in the lodge?
Of course, many years ago it belonged to a woman named Wild Rose. Wild Rose was jealous of how her husband got to go camping every weekend while she had to stay home.
During one of the husband's hunting trips, a giant bear was spotted in the woods. Over the next few months, many people glimpsed the bear, and one day, a camper was found in the dead woods, torn apart by long, sharp claws.
Hunters and sharp-shooters combed the woods, but couldn't find the bear. The killings continued until it was decided that no one would be allowed to hunt or camp in those woods anymore.
After many years, Wild Rose died of old age, and that bearskin was found in a box under her bed, old dry blood crusting its razor-sharp claws.
I was really disappointed to learn years later that the one about the serial killer with the hook for a hand wasn't of my friend's own invention.
Coming in a leeetle late on this one, but I immediately thought of a set of books called "Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark" - some of the stories were silly-scary, some were truly creepy, but all of them had the most horrific black-and-white illustrations. I still remember the picture from the story about the girl who had a spider walk across her face while she was sleeping, and a week later baby spiders came bursting out of her cheek...Post a Comment
Also, a few miles from camp there is a cabin that the kids were always told not to go to - but one night some of them snuck out anyway. They went in and the door *creeeaked* open, and the saw a light at the top of the stairs. They went up and the door *creeeaked* open, and they went inside and there in the middle of the room was a coffin! Suddenly the coffin lifted off the ground and started *floooating* toward them! The kids ran out of the room and down the stairs, and looked back and it was still *floooating* toward them... They ran outside and just kept running, not paying attention to where they were going, until suddenly they were trapped on the edge of a cliff and when they looked back the coffin was still *floooating* towards them, coming closer and closer... Suddenly one of the kids thought of something and reached in his pocket and pulled out some cough drops and handed them out, and they all put them in their mouths - and the coffin dropped to the ground.
Because cough drops will always stop any coughin'.
(Obviously this is a verbal punchline.)
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