Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Reads

Having a single post to cover all I read in 2016 was a bit overwhelming—both to write and, I'm sure, to read. So I've decided instead to do a monthly recap of books I've read, and share a little about each book.

This month I went on a week-long reading deprivation (as part of The Artist's Way) and I read one really long, book, so my overall book count was down over January (missing from that January post, Sense and Sensibility and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for a total of six, not counting TAW which I'm not done with yet), but that one book was so long, the page count should be fairly equal. 

First up, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which should have gone on January's list, but I forgot to include it. This one I read out loud to E and Z (and sometimes M). After reading to them on our hiking trip over the summer, I realized how much I missed doing that (and I think they did too), so I've been trying to keep up the tradition. This is also I know the only way to get them to experience certain books they're not inclined to read on their own. As you probably know, The Cursed Child (you have to pronounce it—curse-ed child, so it sounds like a swear word. More fun that way.) is a play, so it's a little awkward to read without dialogue tags, but we figured it out, either with different voices for each character, or I'd throw in a "Ron said" here and there to make it clear. Overall, it was a fun read, but not nearly as interesting as the seven original HP books. If Harry Potter had an after-school special, this is what it would be like. Harry's son Severus, Malfoy's son Scorpius, and a certain other person's daughter (don't want to give away too much) all have daddy issues, which all get resolved in the end. Very Hallmark channel. But with magic. So I would say, not my favorite, but still entertaining.

My poetry read for the month (at around one to five poems per day, first thing in the morning; a very nice habit to have), was Sandra Cisneros's Loose Woman. This was a gift from my blog friend Lone Star Ma a few years ago, and I only finally got around to reading it now. I love Cisneros's playful language, sly humor, and sexy stanzas. A really fun read.

Next, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I know everyone was reading like two years ago so I'm a little behind the 8-ball. One of my writing group buddies suggested we read it together, only that was months ago and she was long done by the time I got around to it. Once I did start reading, though, I flew through the first half, then got bogged down for the third quarter, then really got into the last quarter again. It was an engaging book, a little on the long side (I think 100 or 200 pages could have been cut without losing anything), with a very mystery-like story and a surprising but satisfying ending. But. But, definitely required a suspension of disbelief for all of the terrible things that happen to the main character (no on can have that much tragedy, right), which I found more unrealistic than the actually unrealistic elements. Also, it was not a relaxing read. I was pretty stressed out and on edge the whole time reading—not a good choice when the world is already putting one into existential distress. But the ending is redeeming, and the (very, very long) denouement leaves on a hopeful note. So there's that. I'm glad I read it and I'm glad it's done.

Finally, while the shitshow that is America today has sent many I know scurrying for classic dystopian reads like The Handmaid's Tale and 1984, I've headed in the opposite direction, picking up Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, a utopian tale of an all-woman society. Gilman is best known for her autobiographical short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" which depicts a woman going mad from the ravages of postpartum depression and "the rest cure." In Herland, she tells the tale of three male explorers who come upon a remote and isolated country of all women. If the reader can overlook the dubious science behind the parthenogenetic reproduction that takes place in the land, and that the race of this 2000-year-old culture in South America is white, it is an engaging and entertaining read that turns every assumption the male explorer-narrator has about gender and western civilization on its head. The women of Herland are utterly and completely devoted to motherhood—recognizing the great miracle of their being able to reproduce at all—and every endeavor they undertake—from cultivating land to building cities to designing clothing—is for the betterment of their small world for the children's future, including refraining from reproducing more than the land can sustain. Theirs is not a sappy, sentimental motherhood, but rather a practical and universal one; every woman is a mother to every child. The narrator describes it thus, "You see, they were Mothers, not in our sense of helpless involuntary fecundity, forced to fill and overfill the land, every land, and then see their children suffer, sin, and die, fighting horribly with one another; but in the sense of Conscious Makers of People. Mother-love with them was not a brute passion, a mere 'instinct,' a wholly personal feeling; it was a religion." Though written in 1915, the women of Herland are subjected to attitudes from their male visitors that we still experience today, including mansplaining and rape culture. Herland continues to be relevant today and is worth a read not only for the clever, amusing story but also because it can remind the reader that there are better ways to do things than "the way it's always been done." It also teaches a very useful mode of argument—continue to ask innocent questions until your opponent is forced to concede the error of his thinking.

What are you reading this month?

Monday, February 27, 2017

Weekend Things ~ A Trip to Boston

We spent the last couple days of school vacation week in Boston, where we went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the New England Aquarium, visited with relatives, rode the T, and walked around the city. I left my big camera at home, but here's a few shots I captured with my phone.

It was bizarrely warm there for February—so much so we went out for ice cream. Disturbing in a the-world-is-coming-to-an-end kind of way, but pretty nice for walking around in, compared to the dreary gray, cold, slushy weather I was expec

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Documentation ~ Still So Far Behind

It's been my New Year's resolution for the last four years (at least!) to get caught up on putting all my digital photos into albums, and it's a resolution that I've failed to keep, year after year. In fact, it's been two years since I last finished an album, and I've been taking photos all that time, falling even further behind.

For several months now, I've been copying photos from past years onto a backup drive and deleting them off my computer to make space. When I hit 2012—the next year in line for album-making—I also had to upload them to Snapfish, my photo processing site of choice. This all took forever—partly because we were having problems with our internet (which the phone company eventually traced to a bad wire 3 miles from here), and partly because I had SO MANY pictures from 2012.

I could not figure it out—that was the first year I was in graduate school, while still working full time. When did I have time to take all those pictures? It then occurred to me that what I didn't have time to do was delete any pictures—there were lots of duplicates, blurry shots, and otherwise not that great photos in the mix. (I also didn't have time to edit the photos—as can be seen from those shadowy faces on the front cover).

I also got my big camera that year, which has got to account for at least some of the excess of photos. Going through these images multiple times (once to upload, once to copy onto hard drive, once to delete, once to import into the album-making thingy, twice more to import them after errors and when  I realized I'd need to be more selective or the images would be the size of postage stamps in order for them to all fit) I was astonished by how much we did that year—out-of-town guests (my parents, my sister, my niece twice), two camping trips, a weekend at camp, a trip to Boston as a family, a trip to Boston with M's class, a boat trip with E and Z's class, a gazillion trips to the beach and to various nature centers and museums and hiking trails. Crafts and art projects and holiday celebrations. It was also the year I kept a nature journal daily When did I have time to read and write all the stuff I needed to for grad school, let alone go to work and sleep? I was exhausted just looking at the pictures!

I have probably overly ambitious plans of uploading and albuming one year every two months for the  rest of 2017. I have a vague hope that there aren't quite as many photos for subsequent years as there were in 2012—maybe I got into the deleting habit. Maybe once M had his own computer (in 2015), mine would host fewer photos of Lego guys and silly videos. But I'm not entirely confident that will be the case—one thing we didn't do in 2012 was go on any big trips, which is when I really go crazy with the camera (at least I've already put my 2013 Ireland trip into an album). Stay tuned for the next installment of Andrea's Quest for Photo Stasis.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wild Wednesday ~ Sea Bird Cruise

On Sunday I joined some fellow Maine Master Naturalists and other bird watchers on a cruise around Casco Bay in search of ducks, gulls, and other birds. Our trip organizer predicted it to be "a real corker of a day," and it was, with mostly sunny skies, calm seas, and balmy air (temps hit 55 degrees on the mainland!)—perfect winter bird-watching weather.

The first and last bird we saw was a house sparrow (Paser domesticus), who made itself at home inside the ferry terminal, living off dropped crumbs from Standard Co. baked goods, and, when it wanted a bit of fresh air, skimming over the tops of passengers' heads on their way in or out of the terminal. Once out on the water, our sightings became a little bit more exotic. The bird we saw in greatest abundance was the long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). The males of this smallish species (around 16.5 inches long) have a distinctive white head and, as the name suggests, long tail, and a black-and-white striped appearance when flying. We observed several rafts of 10-20 of these birds.

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) also appeared in large numbers (35 at official count). The bufflehead is a petit duck (13.5 inches), and the breeding male of this species displays a very white breast and underside with a large white patch on its head.

The most interesting, and new to me bird we saw was the surf scoter (Melanitta perspicallata), of which we saw several. The male surf scoter is black with a bright white spot on the back of its head and a bulging, orange-white-and-black bill. It looks like it borrowed a puffin's make-up kit, and I've decided to nickname it the puffin duck. We also spied a few black scoters (Melamitta nigra), which are much less distinctive than their surf cousins, with a mere bump on the plain yellow bill and no white spot on the back of the head.

Several solo loons, of both the common (Gavia immer) and red-throated (Gavia stellata) varieties, popped up alongside the boat as we puttered among Casco Bay's islands. Both species still wore their muted winter plumage, although some of the common loons appeared to be working on their breeding season checker-board backs. The red-throated loon is smaller than the common, but that is not always easy to detect when they're not next to each other. The best way we found to tell them apart was that the red-throated has a more slender bill, which it holds up above horizontal. The red-throated loon's neck also appeared longer and more slender than the common loon's, and some passengers remarked that it had an almost cormorant-like appearance.

Other waterfowl we saw included: Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Common Eider (Somateria mollissima), Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), and Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator).

We also saw several members of three species of gull—Ring-billed (Larus delawarensis), Herring (Larua argentatus), and Great Black-backed (Larus marinus)— and a couple Black Guillemots (Cepphus grylle).

For raptors, the group got a great view of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) sailing over one of the islands, and passengers also reported sightings of a Bald Eagle (Haliacetus leucocephalus) and a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).

Finally, while nearing the various islands, birders caught sight or sound of a handful of passerines, in addition to the above-mentioned house sparrow: Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon (Columba livia), Mourning Dove (Zinaida macroura), Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), American Robin (Turdus migratorius), and Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

I was, I admit, reluctant at first to spend three hours on the ocean in February looking at birds, but I've made it my mission this month to try new things and say "yes" to opportunities, and this one turned out great (though I might be singing—or quacking—a different tune if it had been 15 degrees, not 55)!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Z's Quilt Top ~ The Naturalist

And just like that, we have a quilt top. Well, not really JUST like that. It did take a couple of years, but not NEARLY as long as M's quilt took, so it felt really fast. And the actual hands-on time was quite small…there just happened to be a lot of in-between time in between the hands-on time.

I'm calling this quilt "The Naturalist," because Z's very interested in wildlife and plants and things of that nature (well, when he's not interested in his iPad, which sucks of more and more of his time every day, I'm afraid). I already had some wildlife and nature-type prints and decided to pair them (plus a few additional purchases) with mini plaids, of which I had a ton leftover from M's baby quilt:

(Can you believe I made that thing when I was pregnant…so many fussy little pieces, all paper-pieced together. I don't even want to think about how much I spent on fabric, to make it look like a scrap quilt!! And I didn't even finish it until he was two and pretty much too big for it.)

My dilemma with Z's quilt: how to make a quilt using wildlife and nature prints and plaid and have it not end up looking like a huntin' camp quilt? My solution: use prints of non-edible wildlife (owls and eagles and frogs and bugs) and other natural objects (rocks and leaves and clouds and blueberries and feathers) plus some very non-huntin' camp colors (sky blue, purple, salmon, gold, bright green).

I think I succeeded; it doesn't look very huntin' camp to me. It is a little busy, though. Okay, it's extremely busy, but I think I like it that way. It may not be conducive to quiet dreams, but it provides a lot of fodder for daydreams and imagination.

I still need to get batting and backing and take it in to be quilted, which is outside my skill set for anything bigger than a baby quilt. Not sure when I'll get to that. That's one thing I do miss about my old 9-5 life, not having to think twice about spending money on something like finishing off a quilt. And now it's time to start on a quilt for E—I already have the pieces cut out (frogs and lizards and turtles and jungle birds), which is a bummer, because last night, when he saw Z's finished quilt, he said, "can you make me one with kitties and bunnies?" Hate to say "no" to a request like that from an 11-year-old boy, but I'm not starting again from scratch!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Belated Valentines

C is somewhat…uneven…in his gift-giving. Sometimes he completely knocks it out of the park, getting me something that is a total surprise, but exactly what I want and need at that given time (The Birthday of the Laptop comes time mind), and then there are…the other times (The Christmas of the Mop will forever live in infamy). Valentine's Day is not one of his strong points, and to be honest, I don't really care about it, that much.

So this year, I wasn't very surprised, and really not all that put out when he came home of Valentine's Day and, seeing the heart-shaped chocolate cake I had just pulled out of the oven, started squirming and mumbling in this certain way he has.

"Why are you whining?" I said.

"Because I forgot Valentine's Day," he said.

Which wasn't entirely true, since we'd gone out on a Valentine's date Saturday night—to a murder mystery dinner theater—and even though it had been my idea, and I'd had to prod him to get the tickets, he did pay for the tickets, and he did drive there and back, an hour each way, in a snowstorm. And I hadn't really done much for Valentine's Day—a nice, romantic dinner for five, a heart-shaped cake, a bit of chocolate for everyone, and a card, about which there's much disagreement as to whether it looks like a heart or not.

So I wasn't even all that mad. Mildly miffed you might say. And the next day, C came home with a card, a bit of chocolate, and actual flowers from the store (which I'm pretty sure he's never done before).

As I was tucking him in bed, E also gave me a belated valentine: this drawing he made of a cat couple.

And, as it turns out, the Valentine cards I sent out were all belated as well—even though I'd ordered them very early, I didn't get them in the mail before the blizzard (I'd had a vague thought that I might pick up some pretty stamps), and they didn't even get picked up from our mailbox until Valentine's Day. So we'll chalk this year up as the Year of the Belated Valentine, because really, isn't any day a good day to show someone you care?

Friday, February 17, 2017

On My Desk

My Artist's Way week starts on Wednesday, and so I've made it a little ritual to, in addition to reading that week's essays and schedule all of the exercises and tasks for the week, clear the decks—or at least my desk—in anticipation of the week's creative recovery. The clearing doesn't last long (a clean surface is like a blank canvas around here, just waiting to be ornamented in hats, napkins, water glasses, tea mugs, homework, candy wrappers, piano music, trumpets, and all manner of flotsam and jetsam), but this is a little glimpse of  my desk after I cleared it this week.

John Muir Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, which I pulled off the shelf Wednesday afternoon and started reading. Because just one self-improvement activity is not enough, I've decided to draw one bird a day for the next year, as recommended by Laws. The only trouble: we ran out of bird seed in the last few days and I haven't wanted to go out in the snow to get more, so the birds don't stick around very long (thus the blank journal page).

And yet another daily, or nearly daily, activity: Cassie Premo Steele's book, Earth Joy Writing. I've had it for a couple years now, but have only just started doing the exercises regularly.

Natural Abundance. This is one of The Artist's Way tasks for this week: find five rocks and five leaves. Reminders that the world is abundant. The rocks were easy—our house is full of them and all of these were on the windowsill above my desk (I gave them a good dusting). The one on left is a green-and-red heart(ish) shaped one I found on the Colorado Trail. The leaves had blown off the beech and oak trees after the snow stopped falling and were littering the driveway when I went out for a walk yesterday—true natural abundance!

An invitation to a reunion at my MFA program this summer and nice things that three of my mentors wrote in my final evaluations (I had four mentors; one did not say anything nice, but the other three make up for that). This was also an exercise from The Artist's Way, and it was well-timed.

Finally, I had a little money in my PayPal account from some editing work I did, but it didn't last long. Part of it I spent on these cards. The one on the left is "Persist" by Nikki McClure. I used to have the same image, torn from a calendar, in a frame at my desk at work. I passed it on to a co-worker when I left, thinking I wouldn't need to persist in my new life, but last week was a reminder that women face many obstacles and we must always persist. The one(s) on the right are Stand Up Postcards by Maine artist (and fellow COA-grad) Jennifer Judd-McGee. I sent one to my Senator earlier this week and I plan on sending the rest to friends over the next few weeks. I'll also send one to the first person to leave a comment on this blog (with your email so I can get in touch to get your address).

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Snow Days

Out of the last nine weekdays, all three kids have only gone to school two.

Three days all three of them had snow days; two days either one or two of them did; and the other two days, they had early release.

Needless to say, I haven't been getting much done these last couple of weeks.

(And next week is school vacation!!)

I should, in theory, I suppose, be able to work when they're around, but I can't. Or not much anyway.

It's "Hey, mom…" every few minutes.

And even when they're not bothering me, I feel obligated to engage them in other activities so they don't turn into total screen zombies (which, I admit, is a serious danger right about now).

And then there is the bickering, and the need to feed them occasionally.

So I heave them outside on a regular basis (and myself, too, because a daily dose of light—no matter how dim—and fresh air and body movement is essential to surviving February).

Last week's Artist's Way question was: what is your favorite creative block? That was an easy one: my kids. What to do about it (which the book doesn't ask, not yet anyway) is another question.

This is the best I could do for a Valentine heart this year. Can you see two of them?
In addition to outside time and puzzles and games and movies we all watch together (which feel a little healthier than each to his own screen), I've tried to engage them in a little creativity, both to keep them busy and to help me in my creative recovery.

One of The Artist's Way activities is to create an image file where you store pictures of things you want or that represent who you want to be or what you want to do. I figured, why create a file when you can make a collage? And E and I spent a happy evening cutting up old magazines and gluing the pictures onto big paper. My collage, necessarily tending toward nature and birds and travel, because that's what kind of magazines we had available to us, tells a little story about what kind of life I'd like to lead.

"Make art" is a phrase that keeps popping up in my mind—and in my Morning Pages—when I think about how I want to spend my time, and I was able to get all three boys engaged in a little painting project with me (when paint and canvas are involved, I can usually even get M to play along). I'd had an idea for monochromatic landscape paintings, based on a project E and Z had brought home from art class a while ago, and gave each of them a cool paint color, plus white, and had them draw a series of mountain lines.

We started with white with just a little color mixed in for the sky, and then added more color as we moved toward the bottom of the painting (foreground). I suppose I should have talked about value a little more, and maybe it would have made sense to pre-mix the different values to ensure there was enough of a range, but, well, I'm not an artist or art teacher, so we bungle along as best we can. I was left with black (though I thought sure M or Z would pick it) and it was surprisingly a lot more interesting to paint with than I expected.

Z had the idea of adding snow to his—using a mostly-empty squeeze bottle of acrylic paint, and I thought it was a pretty good idea (especially considering the blizzard swirling around outside at the time). E suggested I use an old toothbrush to flick paint on my canvas to make the snow (a trick he learned from a former art teacher), so it was a fun, collaborative project and we all learned from each other.

Another aspect of The Artist's Way is to take a weekly "Artist's Date" all by yourself. I had planned  an extended Artist Date for last Friday, thinking I'd head down to the coast, but I wanted to get some work done at home while the kids were actually at school, and it was brutally cold and windy (not a nice beach day, in other words), so instead I took a shortened date to a nearby not-quite-coastal (but on a tidal river so it feels like it is) town, where I sat in my warm car with hot tea and ate  sticky bun while watching ducks on the river and writing in my journal. I also went to a book store, which I seem to do every Artist Date, but was very good and didn't buy anything.

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