Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I collect snowmen. They pose so nicely, too, don't they? Every year the collection grows, and now their box can hardly hold them. You can see how pleased they all are to be out and about, even if they do have to contend with (shhhh) the C-A-T-S .
And look who spent the day helping me decorate the house for Christmas. This is my baby, Molly. Isn't she spectacular? She is as pretty on the inside as the outside, as well!
This Christmas I feel especially festive. I don't know if I've just gotten used to poverty, or whether I've just realized that life is happening around me and to me whether we're poor or not. It's just not going to do any good to fret over our retirement money disappearing, or whether Richard has a permanent job or not. These things are out of my hands, for the most part. My children are healthy and happy. What more could a person ask for?
Plus, the snowboys make me laugh. And the cats. . . this is Gabriel Mozart. He is a sun hog. The cats are feeling festive as well, since Molly added vintage jingle bells to their collars. They sound like Santa's reindeer when they go on the move!
Friday, December 12, 2008
This morning at 4:30, I gasped myself awake, hooked up to a sleep apnea machine that was no longer delivering the promised Positive Airway Pressure, but instead delivering a sound that sounded waaayyyy too much like Darth Vader on the treadmill. No power, no light, just a Stygian blackness that tends to make one believe that blindness has struck.
I have barely gotten used to this apnea contraption, which has offered blessed relief and improved sleep. Richard has one, too, and the two of us, if observed in the wee hours, must closely resemble a mini-hive of Star Trek's Borg species. Richard, in his briefs and undershirt (a vision of loveliness), put on his Nikes and headed down to the basement, where the sump pumps normally keep things crisply dry. Uh-oh, four inches of water!
The first half of the day is a blur of misery, rain, sleet, hail, no charged-up items in the house. Three flashlights that dimmed infuriatingly quickly. No telephone, no cell phones, no oven, even our Nintendo DS(es) were dead. Plus, I am apparently pathologically unable to resist trying to turn on everything in reach that runs on electricity, repeatedly.
A horrendous crash against the house--our pine tree had shed a huge branch. More followed all over the yard, and we can only imagine what the rest of the town looks like if our yard is a barometer. My little battery TV gave the news that there was a state of emergency, with a million people electricity-free, probably for several days.
Pretty soon we got our heads around the situation and began to adapt. Molly and I lit some candles and wrapped Christmas presents. We made a big pot of chili, because the stovetop is gas! We even were able to keep warm from one room where the heating is gas. Rich was in his element experimenting with ways to use the generator to keep our fridge going---"For God's sake, don't try to turn on the bathroom light again, Alyson, you'll overload the balance!" Thanks to his shenanigans we don't have to cook and eat 5 lbs. of shrimp.
The sun began to break out, the room lit up, then dimmed with the late afternoon. Candles again. The warm, rich scent of the chili enveloped us. We found some vintage Christmas tags and had fun using them on our gifts. The cats posed pleasingly for photos, hypnotized by the warmth of the wall heater. We laughed ourselves senseless remembering lines from Saturday Night Live skits we have seen and loved.
And then the lights came on. The perfect end to this day. Here is the chili recipe.
adapted from Lisa's Chili
adapted from Williams-Sonoma Chili
some ground beef (anywhere from 1 to 3 lbs.)
1T cooking oil
some onions (I only had 1.5 today, anywhere up to 3 big ones is fine)
fresh garlic (I use 4 cloves), chopped fine
a bottle of beer
a cup of beef broth (or 1 beef boullion cube in 1 cup water)
a couple of cans of beans, drained and rinsed (I use pinto and red kidney)
a large can of crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup or so of bottled ketchup
1t jalapeno powder (Bobby Flay's), or a chopped, fresh jalapeno
1/3 cup chili powder (Chimayo is the best, if you can get it)
2T powdered cumin
1t dried coriander
1T dried oregano
salt to taste, and black pepper
1/2 cup masa harina
1 box frozen corn kernels
Brown meat, drain of fat and reserve. Saute onions in oil until translucent. Add chili powder, salt, cumin, coriander, oregano, jalapeno powder or jalepeno, garlic. Cook until spices are fragrant. Add beer, beef broth, tomatoes, beans, cooked meat, and catsup. Bring to simmer and cook one hour. Add corn. Stir masa harina into mixture slowly to avoid lumps. Adjust amount of masa depending on how thick your chili has become, and how thick you like it to end up. The masa will continue to thicken over time, so be careful or you'll end up with concrete. Turn it off and let it sit for an hour or so if you can. It improves with age. I like to eat my chili with Saltine crackers spread with grape jelly. Try it, it's good!
Stay warm; stay safe; stay patient with life's little surprises.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
This morning I got an email from Janet. I first met Janet when purchasing a kit from her for something called a “Dottie Bag.” She is the queen of this bag, even down to finding the most beautifully colored felt. She finds colors heaven forgot, let me tell you.
I had told Janet that I was looking at tutorials on the blanket stitch, and had been surprised that there are so many ways to do it. It was almost a philosophical dialogue to see what each teacher said about the stitch. Here is what Janet wrote back:
“Have you ever heard of the zen of stitching? When I get into my zen zone my stitches just flow! It’s such a great feeling. I have perfected my own blanket stitch. I know there are simpler ways to do it, but they don’t feel right to me. My style feels right and balanced. It’s a rhythm, like a heartbeat. To me, stitching is a prayer, a spiritual offering, a moment to treasure the miracle of our hands. It’s not work, it’s an expression of joy and it’s very personal. Not to mention comforting!”
Isn’t that an amazing paragraph, it absolutely exalts the idea of simple sewing to a new level, doesn’t it?
Here are pictures of a few other smaller bags that I was compelled to create. Oh, joy.
(See more of Janet’s work at http://www.feltonthefly.etsy.com/)
Dottie Bag by Alyson
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
I would like to tell you about three of them.
Janet is from Michigan. Her sellername on Etsy is feltonthefly. She makes the most beautiful colors of wool felt in the world. She sells goodies made out of felt, including an incredible Christmas “boot” for those who don’t have a place to hang stockings. I just completed one of her unique and adorable kits for a “Dottie Bag,” which transforms a few bits and pieces of ribbon, a felt triangle, and embellishments of your choice into a work of art. Janet told me they would be addictive, and they proved to be so. I have already made three more, and have ideas for more. Check out her website, http://www.feltonthefly.com/.
And then there is Elke. She lives in Belgium, speaks five or six languages, and is a gifted jewelry maker. Her work is young but elegant, bright and bold without being garish, and very much a bargain. This necklace is only $26.00. Elke sells on Etsy as dellejuwelen.
The fact is that I have met these three spectacular artists because of my love of handmade things. I have to say that I have always felt a bit guilty about my “craftiness” gene. Maybe it wasn’t “real” art to me, or I felt that I should be doing something more useful with my time. I don’t know why I felt that way; it seems crazy now. The desire to create takes many paths. Why should anybody question that? I have been freed up at this stage of my life to explore hither and yon and I plan to follow where that leads me. Like Janet, Fiona, and Elke, creating pretty things, useful things, or even totally useless things is my journey.
I hope you will take a look at the work of these three amazing artists. They lit up my November!
Sunday, November 30, 2008
So, there was a slight problem with the turkey. We forgot it in the laundry room and found it the day after Thanksgiving. Thankfully (no pun intended) it is very cold in there, so my husband went ahead and cut it off the carcass to get ready for The Great Soup Day, Charlie Brown.
This is an annual tradition that always makes me feel very righteous and pioneer-y. We use up just about everything that is in the crisper to make this absolutely fabulous soup. Every year we do the same lame things: we claim that the turkey was the best ever. Then we tell the story about my first Thanksgiving as a new bride, when I suited up with rubber gloves to remove the turkey innards from the bird, causing my uncle to laugh so long we got worried. Then, when we have the soup, we say it was the best part of the holiday.
So here it is, my own invention, which I call
WONDERFUL TURKEY SOUP
1/4 stick butter
2 T. flour
2 T. curry powder (I use Madras mild)
1 t. sage or Bell’s seasoning
1 big white onion, chopped
2 Yukon potatoes, cubed
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, sliced thin
8 cups turkey broth or chicken stock
2 cups leftover turkey meat
1 cup cream
1 package frozen chopped spinach
Optional: leftover gravy, leftover stuffing, leftover green beans
Melt butter, drop in onion, celery, carrots, and potatoes. Saute for a few minutes; don’t worry that stuff is sticking to the pan, that’s normal. When the veggies have a bit of translucency and maybe even a bit of color, stir in the flour, curry power, sage, salt, and pepper. Cook for a minute to take the raw taste out of the flour, then slowly pour in the broth. This is the base for the soup, and you need to simmer it with the lid on once it has come to a boil. Let it simmer about 30-40 minutes.
Turn off the heat, immediately put in the turkey, frozen block of spinach, and cream. Put the lid back on and let it sit still until the spinach has completely melted into the soup.
If you have some leftovers that you are trying to use up, you can put in a bit more broth and add whatever strikes your fancy. My family is particularly fond of a bit of gravy in this soup.
What I like is that the turkey doesn’t get overcooked, because you are basically just heating it up, not simmering it for a long time. Also, this is the best use for dark meat ever! It is just delicious.
I hope you will try the soup, and let me know how your family felt about it.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Not least of what matters to me about Thanksgiving is the food. Not even so much the eating of the food (although trust me, I’m no slouch in that department), but for the planning—the military campaign mentality that connects me to my mother, twenty years gone.
I guess it was a generational thing. Certain things had to be done, no exceptions. There was cranberry/orange relish, and out would come Grandma Feazel’s grinder. Clamped to the counter, this hulking holdout from The Great Depression seemed totally bewildered in our 1970’s avocado green kitchen. Even after we got the ubiquitous Cuisinart, that grinder made its annual appearance. It was undoubtedly a laboratory experiment of germ possibilities, so had to be assembled and disassembled with operating room scrub-up procedures.
And the oyster stuffing. Every year my grandmother made it using the instructions written in the spidery hand of my great grandmother. I wouldn’t trade that piece of paper for a million dollars, even though my grandmother was the only one who ever ate any of it at the Thanksgiving feast.
The secret weapon of the holiday was the dessert. We acquired this little beauty in 1960, when we lived near Boston for a year while my father attended MIT on assignment for his company. A very close group formed of those young couples, all on a yearlong adventure, and I recall how sophisticated they all seemed. It was that Camelot era, and everyone was young and beautiful. A cookbook was produced (again you can’t have it for a million), and the pecan pie recipe was introduced into the lore of my family. Unlike other pecan pie recipes, there is no corn syrup in it. It is dense, rich, and memorable. It wasn’t until I came into my own as a pretty good cook that I realized that it was basically a pecan tart baked off in a pie shell. It is like eating pecan fudge with a crust. Heaven. Dibs on the leftovers.
I don’t cook like my mother. I am not of her generation, and I have found that if I slap some butter on the outside of the turkey, put it in a very hot oven, and cook it to the right internal temp, it all works out. Probably no little credit is due to the freshest bird in the world, which we buy every year at the “farm” nearby, nicknamed the Yuppie Palace. The birds are moist no matter what you do to them, but I follow the Gourmet Magazine recipe with confidence and it’s always great, no turkey dust the next morning.
So, bird is easy, sides are painless, pies can be the day ahead. And yet, it is wonderfully crowded in the kitchen. I have my own two girls helping, and the voices of the women who shaped me. They guide my hands, my tongue, and my heart all day. I take out the biscuit cutter with the worn, green knob. I remember my mother’s warning not to let the stuffing get dry. My grandmother takes a rolling pin to that stack of Saltines. We don’t serve oyster stuffing, but I can almost smell it anyway. I am closer to my beloved women than any other day of the year.
Oh, yes, and we can’t ever forget to buy the Durkee’s spread for sandwiches. Never, never forget the Durkee’s, even if you have to drive two hours to find a grocery store that carries it. I’m not saying I ever did that, mind you. . . .
Have a blessed holiday.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
So far the outlay is about $125, and we have sold only one item for $7.50.
Everybody loved the stuff, thought it was fairly priced, oohed and ahhed over how cute, etc. Then they all went somewhere else to spend their money. One woman wanted to buy things with a Visa card. At a craft fair at a church. I ask you . . . .
Food sold well at all the fairs. Cupcakes for $.25. Can you make money selling a cupcake for $.25? My daughters are convinced that most of the vendors do fairs as a hobby rather than a money-making enterprise.
So, I am giving up the Craft Fair
Monday, November 17, 2008
Decorate away to your heart’s content with interesting embellishments, photos, original art, or even use recycled plastic. I did line the inside of the top with a pretty contrasting paper, just glued it on and cut around to neaten it up. There’s no reason you couldn’t do this with felt, and embroider it. That magnet is such a satisfying little item, makes it seem so professional.
I realized as I was writing this that I can do a couple of masculine ones for my brothers and nephews! Okay, I am going to say the cliche that we all love so much —- “you are only limited by your imaginations.”
Enjoy, and please let me know how you like this.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Friday, November 7, 2008
It looked simple enough—a yard-long white fabric streamer with red checked ribbons attached, the whole thing gathered and scrunched to swag across a mantle. Simple and elegant cherry clusters clung every few inches. This looked easy. A mother/daughter Christmas project for Molly and me.
As with all such visions, the execution turned out to be much more involved than the initial assessment indicated. From one craft store to another we went, wheezing our way through the walls of scent from the holiday potpourri displays. Then to the fabric store for the snowy felt. Along the way we accumulated an assortment of irresistible ornaments, buttons, tiny porcelain roses, and snowmen for the decorations–, each discovery punctuated with Molly’s exclamations of delight. One ribbon down the center looked lonely, so we picked two to layer, one deep red satin, followed by a narrower red checked. It was already beginning to seem a lot more crowded on this garland than the picture.
First we cut the felt with pinking shears. Then, an ironing lesson with fusible web to get the ribbon to stick on down the middle. Another day to make the sturdy gathering stitches, and we were ready to add the goodies. But here we ran into a challenge. Somehow along the way our garland had lengthened to three yards. With this extended goal, our few red, black, and white trinkets began to look sparse and lonely.
I remembered a vintage pin I never wore, and Molly found some Scottie-dog buttons. Suddenly a lot of other jewelry box items were in the mix. There were shoe clips made of cherry-red Bakelite, orphaned glittery earrings, and keepsake red cloth buttons from Molly’s favorite coat, now outgrown. Things kept stored in drawers and boxes came out into the light. Here were the flashy buttons from a dress I gussied up to wear to the company Christmas party. There we found childhood charms, my old girl scout pins, a playing piece from my first Monopoly. We sewed them on in a joyous parade. My mother’s favorite angel pin took its place alongside a scrimshaw charm and a souvenir Alpine bell from my girlhood vacations. My father’s Navy identification disk and a dollhouse basket of eggs marched toward a gaudy red plastic summer earring.
When we finally came up for air and agreed that we had no more to add, the garland shone and jingled. Rich and heavy with memories, it has taken its rightful place with greenery on the stairway, where it will play the holiday lead for many years to come. After a time it will be Molly’s, to give to her daughter.
Molly and I like to sit and admire what we made. Our garland doesn’t look a thing like the magazine picture. It isn’t tasteful at all–it’s excessive and exuberant. We are content.
Monday, October 27, 2008
The night is dark,
the night is cold,
my little spark of courage dies.
The night is long.
Be with me, God,
and make me strong.
This is the last month we can pay bills. After this, we exist at the whim of the universe.
Rich went on an interview last week that was particularly painful. He had been called by this company, they liked his resume. Then they had a 1.5 hour phone interview with him, and at the end asked him to come in. He was home in one hour. Rich said when he met the young man who had interviewed him on the phone, he could see that his age had not been evident from the resume. The guy just dismissed him out of hand. Rich said he could practically see the thought process. He couldn’t get him out of the place fast enough. Just dismissed him, even though he is completely qualified for the job.
I have traded horror stories about interviews with other wives. My favorite one that Richard had was a company in Boston. The job advertised fit Rich exactly. When he got there they brought guys into the conference room in groups of six, and they gave him a “problem” to resolve. He used a whiteboard to show how he would approach the storage issue, what products he would use, etc. This happened for two groups of employees before Richard realized that he was giving a free seminar. They had no intention of filling any position, they were using the interviewees to resolve their issues so that their own people could effect a solution. No concern for the fact that they wasted a day of his life and didn’t pay him for it.
I have a friend whose husband was flown out to Chicago on a private jet, given an interview with top management, offered the position, and spent the return flight mapping out the formation of the new division with top managers. His advice was undoubtedly implemented, but not with him, because he never heard from them again. They did not return his bewildered calls. Did I mention that the person who recommended him at the company was an old college buddy? Never heard from him again, either.
This happened to Richard, as well, on a smaller scale. A company in Framingham “hired” him, and we had a great weekend celebrating the end of our misery. On Monday we didn’t hear anything, and by Thursday it was obvious that something was wrong. The man who interviewed him introduced himself as a “Christian,” and said how important high morals were at the company. We never heard from them again. Yeah, great Christian behavior. It would make us paranoid that there was some black mark against Rich somewhere, but he has nothing worse than one speeding ticket long ago on his record. We have never been in trouble at all. Just regular people, work ethic, non-smoking, cheap champagne at Thanksgiving and beer in their chili kind of people. Apparently expendable.
Friday, October 24, 2008
Not one single piece of equipment operates according to its instructions. There are ancillary little boxes and switches on shelves nearby the equipment, lights flashing and beeps beeping, and the DVD player in our bedroom doesn’t work for more than half an hour without a portable fan trained on it. (I discovered this by accident, but you don’t even want to hear that story.)
In short, I am married to an engineer. Wherever he is, there is a dusting of wire bits and the faint sulfuric whiff of metal solder in the air, prompting visitors to query, “Been boiling eggs?” No, just waiting for that ferry to Hell.
Along with the fact that I am married to an engineer comes the additional fact that I am married to an engineer who appears to be incapable of accurately taping the correct episode of anything. We begin to watch the tape of The Mentalist, only to find that we are watching a grainy Hudson Selectmen meeting from 2006, or even better, the belly dancing class on local cable. This class isn’t even campy, let me tell you, somebody paid somebody off to get this on the air.
So today, after (literally) 30 years of this, I asked him, “Do you think this is acceptable?”
“What? I wrote out the instructions and stuck them to the bookcase.”
“Rich, YOU YOURSELF can’t manage this equipment without your calculator and your Boy Scout compass!”
“You just have to read my instructions! I spent a lot of time making those instructions for you.”
[Here is a sampling from the instructions: "Video selector IS on unless Sony TV says Video 1, otherwise will say 'not connected'. VCR = 3, Video 2/LD also may say 'not connected'.]
I feel like that man named Charlie who is still riding the subway through Boston. You can just hand me a sandwich once in awhile. I’ll be trying to find the input for the red jack, or is it the black one that needs the yellow hole? Oh, well . . . . see you sometime . . . .
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
When I was a child, the playground do-it-yourself merry-go-round was my favorite event. You held on, ran around and around to get up a good head of steam, and then jumped on for a long, giddy ride. My biggest choice in those days was whether to lie flat and watch the clouds spin by, or sit up and watch my friends’ faces appear periodically, like jerky frames in an old movie.
These days, I just wish I could stick out my foot and slow the ride down. Here are a few of my ideas.
Let’s slow the world down.
Recently I was roundly chastised by a fellow volunteer board member because I forgot to leave my home messaging unit on when I went out on errands. Three years ago I had a phone, with two extensions—whoopee. Now our family has access to Internet, IM, texting, Skype VOIP, voice mail, e-mail, fax machine, flickr.com, cell phone, file attachments, and so on. All these things are wonderful. But they are tools. We control them. We can choose when and how to use them. It is up to us to control the expectations that result from a speedy, technologically advanced society. We may not want to be always accessible. We can choose to make time together, to make that time sacrosanct, safe from intrusion by the tools we have embraced.
Let’s keep the holidays as events, not as a 6-month ramp-up period for merchandising.
For instance, I heard the first television ad for holiday merchandise just after Labor Day this year. November and December used to be anticipated with pleasure; now many of us dread the term “holiday season.” We don’t have to acquiesce to this pushing. We can decide not to fight our way through two months of the year with heavy hearts, rushing from one mall, one event, one cookie batch to another. There are many great ideas for avoiding this. Here are a few: shop by Internet; spread out shopping for holidays over the whole year (this is less painful than it sounds); make mustard instead of cookies to give as gifts (it’s much easier); buy good, store-bought food as gifts, wrap it creatively, and keep your mouth shut. Turn down invitations you don’t enjoy. Believe me, it won’t be tragic if you are not there, and it’s absolutely liberating. Simplify and downscale your own entertaining. If you want it badly enough, you can have a wonderful, stress-free season.
Do away with “I should” thinking.
I like and admire Martha Stewart, but I don’t intend to go into beekeeping or topiary design as hobbies. I like to watch This Old House, too, but I don’t plan to tackle that home theater/workshop renovation on my own house. Let’s look at media mavens as teachers and not as guilt inducers. Don’t buy the women’s magazines in December. Clean out a drawer if you have a burning need to drive yourself crazy. Don’t agree to run the craft fair at the school (offer to “bake” something). Don’t acknowledge the power of this year’s Tickle Me Elmo toy search. Don’t support that madness. Don’t start a diet, for God’s sake. Don’t worry; be happy.
Let’s be nicer to each other.
Road rage. Mother-in-law and sibling rage. The thoughtless boss or co-worker. The rude clerk. The bank teller with an attitude. The teenager who makes your teenager cry with embarrassment. Let’s kill ‘em all, right? I tried this kind of thinking, and it just didn’t work well. I have found that maintaining my own standards of behavior works better. This doesn’t mean being meek and witless; you can still take action on that bank teller deal. What does it mean? Teaching my children well, for one thing. They need to be streetsmart—yes—but they need to learn kindness skills, too. Set an example. Open doors for people; help when help is obviously needed. Stand up when someone significantly older joins the group. Don’t stereotype generation X’ers or any other group. These tolerances don’t hurt us; they make us a community. I wish they’d teach etiquette in school. It greases a lot of gears. Throw bread on the water with your behavior geared to conciliation and non-violence. It will pay off for everyone. Okay, sermon’s over.
Let’s work to banish fear.
This is a tough one because the fears are based on real issues. We have a number of sex offenders residing in our town—-human beings who have hurt children. I am afraid of these people living near children—possibly near my very home. What kind of world have we become? I am homesick for my childhood, when we had no locks on the door; when neighborhood houses were drop-by places for juice or snacks; when we rode our bikes all day Saturday and never checked in. I would never dream of such behavior now.
However, some of the fears are overblown. Apparently, for example, we are curtailed by the food police from enjoying Chinese food, popcorn, Mexican food, Italian food, water from our faucets, any imported fruit, cider, fast-food burgers, produce touched by humans, anything cooked rare, chicken or their eggs, anything with caffeine or fat, and to top it all off—I recently read that enjoying Jell-O was a crapshoot because some cow disease could be in the gelatin. I should be thin from these fears.
I don’t really know what can be done about fear, except to take prudent precautions and try not to let our kids see us with a bunker mentality. We can’t let the horrible few poison our world; we can’t let our children live in a world with joy stifled. This is a bit of a tightrope, so let’s try our best to keep a perspective.
Let’s read more things that make us laugh or inspire us.
Let me give you a few pointers here—from experience. For funny: Bailey White’s books of essays about living with her aging, loopy mother in the Florida wetlands. Gerald Durrell’s stories about his family, in particular My Family and Other Animals. Paul Rudnick’s hilarious (and instructive—you’ll learn some Yiddish) recounting of a car trip through the Northeast with his mother and aunts, entitled I’ll Take It. Two family members took this book to baby labor and laughed through the hard parts. Patrick McManus’s tales of life in the outdoors with his friend Rancid Crabtree and others. Anything by David Sedaris (I particularly enjoyed his essay on the stadium buddy appliance for avoiding going to the men’s room. I also loved his tales of being an elf at Macys.) And, of course, Jean Shepherd’s classic In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. You may remember him and his Red Ryder BB gun from a movie called A Christmas Story. Read, laugh, read with the kids, read to the kids. For inspiration, read A Christmas Carol; read A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Read together and to each other. Just read.
And love each other; stay healthy. Everything else is small stuff. Everything.
Monday, October 20, 2008
One day close to Christmas break, I noticed that an empty storefront along the town’s tidy Main Street had been spruced up and sported a “Christmas Exhibition” sign. With the arrogance that only 18-year-olds (who fancy themselves terribly cosmopolitan) possess, I posed a slightly sardonic question to my friends—-What could pass for art in such an unlikely setting? We crowded through the door and stumbled into a magical world.
Strung on invisible lines at varying heights—-from almost ceiling height to inches above the floor—-were hundreds of fabric-covered, decorated spheres. Large or small, they were each as unique as a snowflake, some lavish and regal, others simple and adorned with only calico ribbons. Some were trimmed in pearl designs with satiny ribbon shimmer. A few were as big as basketballs, others were intricate, small wonders the size of Faberge eggs.
Speechless, we began moving along a marked path through the globes. Some invisible moving lighting made it seem as though we were observing an underwater, otherworldly place—-a solar system unlike anything imagined. There was so much to look at that my brain resented my eyes as they moved to each new creation.
I went back every day until it was time to fly out for the holidays. But all through the break, I thought about those beautiful ornaments. When I returned to school, I dialled, with some trepidation, the phone number of the exhibit’s sponsor. I asked if I could meet with her to see her studio and observe how she made the wonderful works.
“Well, shuah, dahlin’,” she responded. “You just come ovah any time. I’d be delighted to show you my studio.” She chuckled and gave me directions.
I was startled to be greeted by a sixtyish, bosomy matron with a freshly lavender-rinsed hairdo. She was wearing a well-worn housedress and an apron. She looked like an illustration out of one of my childhood Dick and Jane books. With a sly glance, she said to come along for a tour of her “studio,” then threw open the door of what was obviously her bedroom. From behind the door, she pulled out a brown shopping bag, overflowing with colorful fabrics and ribbons. Further down, I glimpsed styrofoam balls of varying sizes, and other paraphernalia.
Mrs. Brennan and I became great friends, and, in time, she generously forgave me for being a northerner and shared many of her secrets with me. I learned so many lessons from her, not least of which was the lesson that artists’ spirits do not depend on trappings, or on youth. I miss her. And while I have often wished I could share just one more Christmas with her, her lessons did take root. My lovely friend, wherever you and your shopping bag are now, God bless.
the clean smell of hot muslin,
have felt it between our fingers,
rich and velvety.
laughing, talking of nothings,
ripe with our unborn,
in the sharp tang of August geraniums.
Some of us fashion quilts not of cloth,
but of memories, or of words,
or of families.
We are thus inherited by our daughters,
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Saturday, October 18, 2008
I am wracking my brain to come up with ways that I can make money at handcrafts. I suppose more research is in order. I need publicity, so maybe I can make a comment at a political rally, and become instantly famous and trendy like Joe the Plumber. Yeah, that’s the ticket! In fact, I probably have as many bona fide plumbing credentials as Joe does — ZERO. We surely can chew them up and spit them out here in the USA . . . .
Friday, October 17, 2008
So, as I was kvetching about our troubles, I got a reality check. My sister-in-law has a mentor and friend whose son’s wife just went into the hospital to deliver their first child. During the delivery her heart failed, and when she woke up her heart had been removed and she was hooked up to a mechanical heart. Can you imagine how devastating? Now they are awaiting a heart for transplant. The baby is fine, and I know that is a blessing, but how can I complain about my minor problems in the face of such actual suffering?
Life keeps on keeping on anyway, and this weekend I am putting my work in a local craft fair at our Town’s annual “Pumpkinfest.” My daughters are going to “man” the booth. I have gotten a folding bridge table, vintage linens to drape over it, and many, many pincushions to sell. I decided to make the sock monkeys into toddler toys, and now each one has a little booklet from the pictured monkey directly to the recipient child. They are just adorable, if I do say so. I can’t imagine that some of them won’t find new homes. I am told that their is quite a subculture of monkey-loving children. I hope it is true, because I surely have a lot of tiny monkey pillows. I also have now made over 60 more pincushions that I haven’t placed in my shop. I will wait until the craft fair is over to list those. I tried to explain today why I can’t stop making these things, and I think it’s because it’s a project totally within my control. Nothing else in my life is. Unemployment is not something I can influence or change. But a pincushion. A bit of fabric, a bit of fluff, an old button, and VOILA! A small piece of control.
If anyone is reading this, please post and tell us why you create, and what you create. I am so interested in what women do to express joy in their lives, and to cope with negativity. Be of good cheer, all of you.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
It feels as if we have been painting a floor, and now we are painted into a corner and the paint won’t dry. What action can we take? Are people supposed to sell their homes, cash in their retirement funds, and get on an ice floe and float away? What are the options when you simply cannot pay your bills?
I never thought, back in 2004, that it would not be possible for my husband to find work. It almost seems as if there is a hidden black list or something that prevents him from getting a job. He goes to the interviews, answers the questions, is personable and enthusiastic, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and is a person who feels as if he represents a company even when he is on his own time. I have listened to him in telephone interviews, written and rewritten his resume, dumbed it down, made it into different styles, added keywords, had it looked at by professional human resource people. The only thing we can point at is his age.
To make it worse, Rich is a person who can ramp up on new technology in a heartbeat. But at some point keeping current seems futile. And we have begun to ask ourselves: Is his working life over? Should we be planning for continuing unemployment? How do you plan for that? We can’t live on our retirement at this point and certainly the crash has taken its toll on our assets. Companies with jobs outside his field won’t take a chance on him. He’s tried applying for lower level jobs with a synergy to his skillset, but they think he’ll leave when something better comes along. He tried applying for jobs driving shuttles and vans, but no one will call him back. He tried ambulance transport. What do people do?
There must be many of you out there with similar stories. Please write and give me some ideas and some hope.
Monday, October 13, 2008
We really need new sheets, you said,
but then I found these, forgotten
behind the heating pads
and the old crib linens.
Translucent with age,
silky from a thousand washings—
one breath and I am young again,
We made love on these faded blues when
there was endless love to make.
We made babies
on these trailing, sage-green leaves—
babies now into women grown.
We need new sheets, you said.
And you shall have them,
—Alyson Button Stone
Friday, October 10, 2008
Pickling wasn’t always so casual and peaceful around here, though. When I was younger and crazier, I used to make processed pickles. A whole day, the boiling water, the jars timed and processed, left to cool and make that satisfying popping sound, then stored for the winter. (I used to make my own mustard, as well, and it is delicious. Try it sometime.)
The last time I pickled this way was one August before my kids were born. Rich and I had moved to our first house, and he was making a bathroom out of an unfinished room on the second floor. I made like 6 dozen pints of pickles, a long day’s work. I stored them in a closet upstairs, and looked forward to a winter of plenty. No Claussen’s for me, no sir. I even had an “arrangement” with the produce guy, who put aside the best cukes for me.
One day I went up to get a couple of jars for consumption, opened the closet door, and found 6 dozen pint jars of brine and floaty bits. Richard, during the weeks of construction in the bathroom, had EATEN EVERY PICKLE. When confronted (and confronted is a civilized word for what occurred) he admitted to the crime, but said he hadn’t known how to tell me. “I just kept eating them, and shuffling the jars around to hide the gaps,” he said. “And then it got so there was no hope of hiding it.”
So he has sworn to consume only his jars of pickles, labeled in the fridge. But I’m considering an alarm, just in case.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
I have an issue to discuss. Bear with me, it will make sense by the end.
I can do many things, but mostly I don’t feel that I stand out at many of them. I am a sponge when it comes to learning new things, but until lately, I haven’t had the feeling that I had anything new to offer.
For instance, I am a good writer–on a project basis. I recognize superior writing. (I was the children’s book reviewer for the newspaper for years.) But if you asked me to write a novel, or even a good short story, I would be lost. I recognize good fiction, but I can’t write it. I can write persuasive and moving speeches, but not fiction.
I look back at things I have created in a flurry of passionate artistic frenzy, and I marvel at them. At the same time, I get angry with myself because those creative periods peter out.
This time, I have done all the research, and I think I have got something unique and superior to offer. Some of the things I am creating are unique; I can’t find other similar things on ebay or etsy. The flurry of creative activity is not petering out, and I believe that I could continue to create my “art things” forever. But I don’t even know what to call this stuff. It doesn’t have a name, and some of it doesn’t have any use (like most art).
Sometimes I get inspired by someone else’s work. For instance, for my birthday my husband gave me a “pincushion” made of chenille with a little figurine of a deer on it. I took that idea and ran with it, and now have created many cloth and china “sculptures,” little vignettes of vintage animal figurines, old millinery bits, vintage buttons, bits and pieces of ribbon and trim. They are adorable. They are charming. They would sell — if only I knew how to categorize them in order to get them before the buyers on Etsy.com, or even ebay. They are technically pincushions, in the sense that you could use them as pincushions, but I don’t think most people would use these “story pincushions” for sewing, but just to look at. I have sold three of them, I think almost by accident, because the buyers happened upon them when they were looking for something else.
Then there are the “art collage tags.” I mean, these are just useless entirely. They are the size of manila hanging tags, with a hole at the top through which I thread ribbons. Most of them are on a wooden tag, too substantial to use as a bookmark, but with no real other purpose. But they are just great, with beautiful Italian papers, charms, old ribbons, photos, and gilding. Some of the papers and tags are made with a 50s retro feel, some with Art Deco flair, some tell a kind of story, or encourage the viewer to create a story. They are sort of altered art, sort of collage, sort of girlie vanity things. Who knows how to categorize these? There is nothing like them available for me to match up against.
Then there’s the knitting. God help me, I spent a lot of time and money on exotic fiber, beautiful embellishments, and vintage buttons so that I could make these adorable little handbags that you could use as an evening bag, or for your ipod, or your cell phone, or just to hang over a mirror and admire. Other people do make these, so I at least know how to classify them on Etsy.com. But how to price them? Well, I think I will probably break even if they all sell . . . folks this is not the way to wealth!
But I am very proud of my sock monkey portrait series. This is a series of little 4″ square pillows or pincushions, each with the face of an individual, unique sock monkey character. I imagined that these monkeys enjoyed getting their picture taken, gave each of them a name, and made tons of them. They could be used as pincushions, or just as easily as toys for toddlers. I even contemplated making up a little card for each character, telling a little story about where they are from and what they like to do or to eat. I would have loved for my kids to have such a charming toy to spark their imagination.
So imagine, if you will, the irony of having finally gotten to the point in my life where I actually think something I’m making is not mediocre, but superior. But — wait for it — I have no idea how to move it into public view in an effective way! Aaaaah!! I am afraid I will get discouraged before I have given this endeavor enough time. I know that Etsy.com is the best forum for these creations, because the cost of making a shop and getting started on selling is really low and very fair. I know that the people I have met through the site thus far are spectacular women (I haven’t met any men yet).
Since this is a blog, you’d think I could write about my trials and successes without guilt. But no, I am not used to writing about myself, and so I feel like discussing these things makes me self-involved–a whining princess who needs to get over herself. But menopause has made me bold, and I am going to overcome the rude comments by the “committee” in my own head. I am shushing them for the first time. (They all seem to speak in the irritating voice of a very unpleasant relative, now deceased.)
I would value any advice and counsel by other travelers, other pilgrims. Creativity should lead to grace, not to angst, don’t you think? Share your stories with me. There’s power in numbers.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Woke up this morning to sunshine, but it couldn’t deflect my dire thoughts about the economy and how it’s affecting our family and so many others. When I opened the computer, I was checking my Etsy shop and browsed the Showcase. Saw a really wonderful old British repro poster from World War II. It is a simple message: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. I took a deep breath and thought that I should take the advice.
As unfair as the Wall Street shenanigans have been, as awful as the current administration has been, as outrageous as it is that our retirement money is disappearing, as unfortunate as it is that my husband can’t find a job — all this pales in comparison to what the good folks of England suffered through in WWII.
I just finished a book about the island of Guernsey during WWII. It’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. What a remarkable tale. I am always astonished at all the history of which I am ignorant. I had no idea any part of England had been occupied by the Germans during WWII. This is such an uplifting novel, full of rich characters. It is funny, poignant, and ultimately I felt as if I wanted to go to the Channel Islands.
So, I will try to remember today: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Next week I am going to take a hard look at the Etsy advice on marketing your shop. I have (finally) gotten all my handmade pieces posted, and that took two weekends. It is a wonderfully easy site to understand; nonetheless, there are many decisions for each of the items posted for sale, not least among which is the amount you are going to charge. That takes research and judgment.
I once owned a regional parenting newspaper, and as much fun as the editorial side was, the sales side was just unbearable for me. I just don’t have that ability. I am confident of the quality of the work, but convincing someone else to spend their money on something I made is just beyond my capabilities. I want to find a way to do marketing “one step removed” from personally selling.
The way I look at it, it costs only $.20 to list an item for sale on Etsy. So my investment so far is my time, plus about $30.00. Not too shabby! And I am learning about how to take the photographs of my items. Etsy sellers have been so wonderful to share their tips with me. That is another fine thing about Etsy–women helping women. I have met so many people through Etsy conversations who feel, as I do, that sharing your knowledge and experiences is a privilege. I love to see this level of support and encouragement.
So — this weekend I will take a deep breath and see what I need to do to put my work before the masses.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
As I learned more about that era from both of my parents, I could understand the fear. Both my parents were young children when their families went through hard times. My father, a Texan, lived on a tiny farm (called a “dirt farm”), where his father (Papaw) eked out a meager living from the land, and odd jobs. My grandmother (Meemaw) took a job pumping gas at the town station. Every day after school, my dad would leave elementary school and walk to the gas station. Across the street was a diner, where for a nickel he would purchase a big hamburger. Then he would go across to his mother, and they would share it as their dinner. He told me that once, when a family friend came to visit from the city, he gave my father a dime to go buy candy.
When he came back from the store, Meemaw saw that he had bought bread for the family instead. I cringed to imagine how I would have felt if my children were in a situation where they needed to be so concerned about the family’s welfare that they wouldn’t even use a dime to buy candy.
Now that this downturn is so dramatic, I not only understand intellectually how my relatives felt, I feel it emotionally. I remember a similar unpleasant epiphany when we had the September 11 tragedy. I had never understood how Americans could hate Japanese/Americans in the days after Pearl Harbor. After all, they hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor; they were Americans. Why couldn’t they see the difference? Were they ignorant, uninformed, or just stupid? But after September 11, I had experienced those pangs of hate and rage toward an ethnic group, and no matter how unreasonable it was to feel those feelings, I could now empathize with the way the Japanese citizens of the US were treated. Of course, it’s horribly wrong thinking. I am a better person for seeing that I could be filled with unreasoning prejudice. Now I can guard against it. It scared me to see the veneer of my intellect brushed away like smoke, to be replaced with some primal emotional response.
Now I feel those same feelings of rage against the faceless, greedy corporations. These entities (of course they are people) made a pyramid scheme out of the whole US population, unfettered by any common sense regulation and unchecked by any agency. Even after the savings and loan regulatory crisis, no action was taken to stop the train wreck. They got rich, went back into the woodwork like the roaches they are, and left all of us holding the IOU’s for their behavior. And now we are all in danger.
Looking at the world through the lens of my husband’s unemployment, the tribulations of our friends and family who have lost so much in the past few days, I feel betrayed. When we refinanced our home a couple of years ago, a young broker tried to push us to take an interest only package, one that we turned down because we could see it was crazy, not prudent. He was like a used-car salesman, calling every five minutes, pressuring us relentlessly. When we declined, he charged our credit card a $500 fee anyway, just to see if he could. We had to go through the process of protesting to get it removed. He is just one of many, many backroom brokers who sat in motel rooms with their laptops, cranking out the endless, crazy mortgages for their fee. They had to know it was wrong, that it would come around to disaster. The people who encouraged them, their evil minions, to do these things, certainly knew it was wrong.
Now we seem to have an America that is divided into three strata: rich, struggling to tread water, and dirt poor. There doesn’t seem to have been any payoff for being good citizens, paying on time, trying to get ahead, saving where we could, planning for retirement, honoring our employers by behaving honorably in our private lives. My husband is still out of work, still feeling his age as a horrible stigma. My children (who are grown, thank God) still worry endlessly about whether we will lose our home. That saying about following your bliss is inspiring, but unrealistic. We will do what we have to do, what we can do, to stay afloat. Our healthy retirement nest egg is decimated. We planned to take care of ourselves; who will take care of us now? I no longer have confidence that the government is running this country, or can control runaway business practices. Businesses, and the rarified strata of the richest of the rich are in charge.
We can only hope for some more reasonable future where things aren’t quite this difficult. That’s all anybody wants. Not to be rich, no, just to have enough so every waking moment doesn’t seem like a ticking time bomb leading to disaster.
So, Mimi, wherever you are, I understand the canned goods. It’s no mystery to me why Campbell’s Soup was the only stock to go up on the day of the worst drop in the market. Your pantry, full of dented, dusty soup cans, was a harbinger and your great grandchildren recognize the signs .
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
How can this be viewed as an opportunity? Well, for one thing, it made me count my blessings in a new way. Our two daughters are happy and healthy (25 and 19), and successful. My brothers and their wives are doing fine overall and are hugely supportive and loving. We both have good brains and can find ways to use them. We have generally good health.
The ironic thing about this stressful situation is how it affected my creative, artistic side. With all the time I spent doing stuff I didn’t want to do (either to earn money or help Richard with the job hunt) I found it necessary to balance it out by allowing myself to make pretty things for part of the day. I roam from thing to thing, trying altered art creations, handknit purses, pincushions with little scenes on top. I needed to see something come out of my time and effort, something that I could see and admire in a relatively short time. I can control this, if nothing else in my life.
I also find that I meet new and interesting people at a clip through the Etsy site where I sell my finished pieces (http://www.alyson2.etsy.com/). There are so many super-talented people; I can’t help but wish to have a conversation with all of them. It was lucky I discovered Etsy through a friend, or I would be hardpressed to come up with a way to use all the things I make.
I have come to admire myself a bit for my optimistic nature and ability not to get too wrapped up in my own troubles. I know some people who wallow — I hate wallowing. I have a time limit, and I am very strict with myself about the wallowing. I have a time limit for ranting, too. Except for discussions about Sarah Palin. Not a fan. . . .
My sense of humor has also come in handy. I believe that laughing is really healing. I love old-time humor and the newer, ironic kind. I love Jean Shepherd, but also find David Sedaris hilarious. Erma Bombeck is great, and so is Maureen Dowd. The oldies are goodies. The new stuff keeps you sharp.
I love to cook, and cooking on a shoestring is interesting. Sometimes take-out is cheaper, but I have become a soup chef. Soup is heroic. Soup makes me feel like a pioneer. Soup is like creating life. Also cheap to make. Yay, soup!
Hobbies: reading, handiwork, games
Favorite genres: mysteries, weird (Koontz, King), anything British, those Norwegian/Swedish police procedurals, Anne Tyler, Frank Parrish British mysteries
Weaknesses: chocolate, Martha Stewart reruns from the old days, onion rings
Joys: Reading the perfect poem, seeing the perfect photo, thinking about things in a new way (my brother calls this “seeing around corners.”
I love to hear from women who are of a certain age and moving into a new chapter of their life. I like to share stories with these women. My daughter says this blog will lead to that. “Trust me,” she said. “You are not alone.”