Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Book Stack ~ May 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack* by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarch, April.



It's almost time to share this month's book stack and I'm just getting around to last month's. Where has the time gone? I don't know…I guess I've been in more of a contemplative, burrowing kind of place than a sharing kind of place, what with one thing and another. I should probably share C's book stack instead of mine—he spent the spring reading books about the civil rights movement (even before it was the it thing to do), while I've been pretty much in full-on escapism mode. I did order a few books of nature writing by Black authors because I realized that was a big gap in my huge pile of nature writing to read (and a big gap in the genre in general). So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here's what I read in May:

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters. When everyone got sent home for the pandemic, I started reading a P.G. Wodehouse book to the boys, but E quickly lost interest and then M went to work and wasn't around most of the read-aloud time (afternoons for me), so Z got me to read him the first in the Amelia Peabody series to him (we'd skipped this one when we started the series, because I thought they'd prefer to hear about young Ramses's adventures). We've since started the second book (which we listened to on audio during our long road trip three years ago), but once school ended and he didn't need me reading to him as a way of getting out of doing school work, our progress slowed down quite a bit.

Speaking from Among the Bones and I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley. These are the last two on the Flavia de Luce books that we own. I thought I might have had my fill after I finished these, but a big bombshell was dropped at the end of the last one, so I'm sure I'll pick up the next couple soon.

A Moment on the Edge, edited by Elizabeth George. I picked up a couple of writing craft books by Elizabeth George, whose mysteries I have enjoyed in the past (and whose book What Came before He Shot Her is one of the best books I've ever read), and I saw that she'd edited this book of short crime stories by women writers. Most of these were great, with a huge range of styles.

Upstream by Mary Oliver. Uncharacteristically this was my only nonfiction read for the month (told you I was all about escapism). I have a weird habit of starting to read a book when I first get it, then setting it aside (because I'm usually already in the middle of three other books) and not picking it up again for a long, long while. That happened with this one, but it turned out to be just the right book at the right time—Mary Oliver's quiet contemplations about writing, nature, and life, just when I needed them.

* The Mary Oliver is the only one of these that counts as a book stack book—the Elizabeth Peters I've already read before (many times), the Aland Bradleys belong to M, and the Elizabeth George I ordered to read.

What have you been reading?

Friday, May 8, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ Very Belated Christmas Vest

Last fall I got it in my head to make a Fair Isle vest for C for Christmas. I bought the yarn for the vest I had in mind—a self-striping green—and went in search of a pattern. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a pattern that met my mental image—knit in the round, with worsted weight yarn, with an abstract repeating pattern. So I took a pattern for a striped vest, added a fair isle pattern from a cowl (plus one stitch for the vest) and voila!




Or maybe not quite voila, but a lot of labor later…

This pattern required a lot of knitting techniques that were new to me, including kirchener stitching, tubular bind-offs, and a few short rows of working on the back of the patterned knitting, carrying the yarn across the front. I did not like that at all (which kind of made the next and most scary new tecnique a little easier to swallow, since it allowed me to knit most of the vest in the round. The scariest new thing I learned was a steek (actually three steeks), which, for the uninitiated, is a part of your knitting that you make with the intention of cutting it later. With scissors. The idea is you knit your whole project in a tube, then cut, in this case, the arm holes and neck V. It is a little magical, but also terrifying. When I first heard about steeks a long, long time ago when my local yarn store was offering a class in it, I thought it was barbaric. Now that I've done one myself, I still think it's barbaric. 

I chose to machine-sew the reinforcement stitches for my steeks. I didn't know enough when I knitted them to alternate colors, and just knitted right through with green, carrying the orange across the back. I figured machine stitching would be my best bet for anchoring those floating little bits of yarn. It worked pretty alright, though I did end up with a few loose threads I had to weave in afterward.

Then I did the cutting. Oh, my heart. I had a moment when I thought I'd cut through the shoulder stitches and almost had a stroke. I don't think I can handle this level of stress from my leisure activities.

But then, ta-da! your weird scrunched tube opens up like a flower into an actual knitted garment.



Needless to say, I didn't get it done in time for Christmas, just finishing it up this week. Every time I approached a new and challenging aspect of the pattern, I had to set the whole thing aside and let it marinate for a while before I could tackle it. Somehow C managed to stay in the dark—even when I was clearly adding ribbing to a vest and weaving in ends on the vest—until I layed it out to block it. He was pretty psyched by the whole thing, even if it was four and a half months late.

Notes about the yarn and pattern(s) on Ravelry.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Book Stack ~ April 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruary, March.



One good thing about a stay-at-home order: it makes for lots of time to read. Still, I only checked two books off the stack (1 and 2), because I ordered books online (3 and 8), borrowed books from other members of the household (4-6), and reread a book I've read before (7).

1. Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl. This is one I picked up off a book swap table last year, about a barn owl raised by a young woman. It's a fascinating look into the psychology of this intelligent and charming bird.

2. My favorite guilty pleasure is 1960s romantic suspense novels, and Mary Stewart is the master. I acquired this tattered old copy of This Rough Magic some time ago at a library book sale, and it was the perfect diversion from reality—a spine-tingling romp through murder, smuggling, and romance in Corfu. There's also a heroic dolphin.

3. I'd been wanting to read Amy Stewart's Kopp Sisters novels for a while and finally ordered what I thought were the first three from an online used book purveyor. Unfortunately I missed the second volume and had to take a break after the first, Girl Waits with Gun, about three sisters living on their own on a farm in rural New Jersey who have a run-in with a local miscreant. It's full of interesting historical details, and the fascinating thing is that it's based on true events.

4, 5, and 6. When M was younger, my mom used to send him the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Allen Bradley. I'd been meaning to give them a try for a while, but only just last month got around to it and plowed through them, reading one every couple of days. Before reading these books, I would have told you I'm not a big fan of child narrators of adult novels, but I stand corrected. Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is a delight—smart, spunky, saucy. Her fascination with poisons and poisoning is endearing, although when she mixes up persistent toxic chemicals (like trichloroethylene to dry-clean a coat she got covered in graveyard dirt) in the chemistry lab next door to her bedroom, I get anxious for her health. I finished the last two we own (fourth and fifth volumes) in the first couple of days of May, and I thought I'd be saturated with the goings-on in Bishops-Lacey at that point, but a big bombshell drops at the end of the fifth book, so I might need to order the next five ASAP.

7. Over 2017, 2018, and into 2019, I read almost all of the Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters oeuvre (70-odd books in all; oh to be one-tenth that prolific!), but there was one book I hadn't gotten to yet, Other Worlds, an unusual volume, in which some famous spritualists and skeptics from different times and places (including Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, as well as, one suspects, the author herself) gather together to solve—or at least swap theories about—two famous historic ghost stories. A great reminder that the truth of a story often depends on the teller or listener's point of view.

8. Finally, I read an actually recent book, Desert Cabal, by Amy Irvine, in which she carries on a one-sided converstaion with the late Edward Abbey about the desert, wilderness protection, and some of Abbey's less savory qualities like sexism and xenephobia. Having been a big Abbey reader in my younger years, I found it engaging, refreshing, and a little depressing, considering the current state of public lands protection (or lack thereof) under the political craziness of our current time.

What books are you escaping into these days?

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Thinking of You



Despite the fact that I got snowed on while bird watching earlier this week and it's an as-warm-as-it-gets-in-April high 50s, it feels like summer here. The kind of summer no one has experienced since circa 1982, where days unspool one after the other with no real demarcation between one and the next. I can almost hear a housefly buzzing halfheartedly against the screen and taste Country Time Lemonade mixed with tapwater in a tall glass of translucent red plastic.

My job has ended for the season, as it would have without the pandemic, and my life's not that much different than it would have otherwise been, except my kids are home and I don't ever go anywhere. M works afternoons at the farm store, boxing up curbside pickup orders. In the morning he challenges his brothers to endless two-square tournaments. E has been pulling up the roots of weeds and small trees in the yard, expanding the lawn and making a duck-friendly copse of carefully thinned sumcac trees. Z is building a sailboat out of an old canoe. Both are energetically avoiding any acknowledgement that school is, indeed, still in session. They may have reached that "useful boredom" stage, the absense of which has been lamented by so many child phsychologists and educators. 

I, meanwhile, cycle between extreme anxiety and relaxed acceptance, while my two volunteer "jobs" help me keep a toehold in civilization via zoom meetings and reams of emails. It is, I know, outrageously unfair how unevenly the burden of this disease has been distributed, not only between those who are getting sick and dying and those who are merely bored at home, but also between those whose work load has been catapulted into the stratosphere—health care workers and teachers especially—and those toward whom endless articles about how to keep busy and stay sane while home with nothing to do are geared. Which adds another stage to my cycle—guilt, because I'm one of those, not bored, not in need of someone to tell me what to do, but not on the terrible front lines or trying to wranle 30 students from afar (having mostly failed to wrangle the two students who live with me, I know how hard their job is). 

So I seek a balance—don't lose sight of those who are facing extrememe hardships, but don't dwell on things outside your control. Stay home, wear a mask, try to make the best of it, and hold dear ones tight, even if it's from six feet, or six hundred miles, away.


This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ Face Masks

I made up a bunch of masks for a friend's medical practice a few weeks ago, and though by now everyone has probably made all the face masks, I thought I'd share my process, just in case you feel inclined to produce a few more.

I started with this tutorial, using fabric and narrow elastic from my stash. I used anywhere from two to four pleats, and it didn't seem to make much difference in terms of how much they gathered up on the sides, because the more pleast I used, the smaller they were. I also just eyeballed the pleat width and did freehanded them (that is, I didn't use a ruler or pins) as I sewed. I don't think they'd win a 4-H sewing contest or anything, but they do the job.



When I ran out of narrow elastic, I made ties using 1" strips cut from old t-shirts. At first I sewed these strips in half lenthwise in 40" lenghts and made sleeves along the outside of the (slightly wider) masks to thread them through.


There were several things I didn't like about this design, not the least of which was the hassle of threading the strips through the sleeves, so instead I took strips about 27" (or half the circumfrence of an XL t-shirt), folded them over each side of the mask at the center and sewed it in half along the whole length.


I got smart after the first whole bunch and used a narrow zig-zag so that the strips can stretch without snapping the threads of the seam. After washing, the eges of the t-shirt fabric curl over nicely and you don't have to worry about them unraveling, which makes them so much handier than trying to make your own bias tape.




I ended up making about 30 masks, and I'm not gonna pretend it was a fun project. There were jammed bobbins and broken needles and lots of swearing involved. at one point I thought my machine went kaput until through a vigorous internet search I figured out the right place to oil it (under the bobbin casing). If it hadn't been for a good cause, I'd have thrown in the towel.

Most of them went to the medical residents at the local hospital. I kept one each for C and me for when we go grocery shopping and made several for M, who has to wear them at work at the farm store where he's boxing up curbside pickup grocery orders.

 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Faith in a Seed

"Deep within the arboretum across the street from my office, along the edge of a field of raggedy wildflowers, sixty American chestnut trees grow in four neat rows. The trees were planted fourteen years ago, on a sunny but cool morning in June. My husband worked at the arboretum at the time and invited teams of draft horses to plow the furrows into which he planted the knee-high whippets just dug from their nursery beds. I took our infant son, Milo, to the arboretum that day, to watch the enormous horses draw plows that peeled back wide strips of sod, to see his father lower tiny trees into the ground. Milo, two weeks old at the time, snuggled deep in a front pack, his still-wobbly head asleep against my chest. Neither horse nor tree made an impression on his newborn mind. I might have forgotten the day myself, if not for the momentousness of it being our first big outing after his birth, the connection of his father to the event, and the proximity of the arboretum to my workplace, allowing me to return and visit the chestnuts years later."


So begins my essay, "Faith in a Seed," which took me years to write and even longer to get published (this is, unfortunately, my processslow writing). Still, I'm thrilled that it's found a home in a very local publication, the 2020 issue of Sprire: The Maine Journal of Conservation and Sustainability. You can read it now, here, if you're so inclined, and while you're there, check out the other offerings in the issue. And please do come back and let me know what you think in the comments.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Enjoy the Little Things



A few weeks ago, in the Before Times, an old guy had set up a table down the hallway from my office and was giving out small dishes of Ben & Jerry's ice cream—free. I waited for my turn, watching him as he reached elbow-deep in a big cardboard carton of American Dream, dipping an ice cream scoop held in his bare hand, thinking that this was maybe not regulation food-service hygeine, but it was Ben & Jerry's and it was free. Another old guy joined the first at the table, wearing a denim ball cap emblazoned with "Ben," and began dipping ice cream out of a second carton.

"Here's Ben!" the first guy cheered. And then it hit me. These weren't any old guys serving free Ben & Jerry's ice cream; these were the actual Ben and Jerry. Any qualms I had (slight as they were) about the bare hand in the carton evaporated. After all they probably stirred every batch in the factory themselves, right? And besides, it was Ben & Jerry's served by Ben and Jerry.

I think now how strange that moment was, standing in queue in a crowded hallway waiting for ice cream served by bare-handed old men. How strange it was to be jostled by strangers, to open doorknobs without resorting immediately to hand sanitizer, to shake hands, to sit cheek by jowl on a bus or airplane. How strange that all of the things that were perfectly normal parts of everyday life until a couple of weeks ago are the stuff of nightmares (I've moved on from zombie nightmares to ones about people standing too close together in workplaces).

I wonder too what it will be like in the After Times. Will we continue to maintain six feet of distance between ourselves and the next person? Will we always be just a little bit afraid of each other?

I've been trying to reign in these and other terrifying thoughts this week. I've cut back on my news consumption. I go on long walks around my property or up and down my driveway (even when it's raining, which it always seems to be doing these days). I make things by hand. I order things online, like used books, yarn, and vingate dishes. Everyone needs to define for themselves what is essential, and I guess that about sums up my list. I was made unreasonably happy this week when I found something online I've wanted for a long while—a two-cup Pristine England teapot in chartreuse. I was made even happier when it arrived three days later, in time for my afternoon tea.

Is it frivilous? Yes. Is it materialistic? Yes. Is that so wrong? I hope not. Because if we can't have little things that make us happy in the face of calamity, well then what's the point?

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.
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