Getting ready for Grandma camp!

The grandkids are coming! The grandkids are coming! I have three grandchildren, but unfortunately they live two states over (and one of those states is Kansas, so you know that’s a long ways away), so I don’t get to see them often enough. The oldest is 14, the middle one is almost 12, and the youngest is 8. Last summer we took the two oldest ones to Cumberland Dance Week, which was a whole lot of fun, but their mom didn’t think the youngest one would want to be so far away from her for that long. Personally, I think he would have had a great time, but we didn’t try to fight it. It was just too complicated trying to figure out how to get them from Colorado to Missouri and then on to Kentucky for the camp and back. The younger one has never flown before, so that wasn’t a good option, and it didn’t seem right to have them ride in a car all those miles on their vacation. So this year we settled on “Grandma Camp” at my house.

Now I just need to come up with a list of fun things to do. The good thing about dance camp was that someone else planned all the activities and prepared all the meals. And even then, after extremely full days of activities that went from 6:00 a.m. when we got up for breakfast to 11:00 p.m. when we returned to our room after the last dance, it took until Wednesday before the middle one admitted that he might be a little tired and didn’t fight going to bed. I don’t know that I can do as well keeping them entertained, but I’m going to give it a good try. The only requests they have made so far are bowling and movies, and the 14-year-old wants me to teach her to sew.

Fortunately, I’ll have help, because my son will also be here during these two weeks. He is driving up from Fort Benning, where he is now stationed, and will meet the kids’ mother in Kansas to bring them to my house. But I’m accepting suggestions of things to do with 8, 12, and 14-year-olds!

Stephan, Jearid, and Bethany at the zoo


I’m pretty excited about my grapes.

This is the first year I have gotten any grapes on my vines, and although I don’t expect to actually get to eat any of them, between the Japanese beetles and the birds, not to mention the various diseases that grapes are prone to, I am still excited to see actual fruit forming on the vines that are growing over the arbor across my front walk.

My friend Frank Miranti, who was a gifted gardener and a generous person, gave me the cuttings early one spring after he had pruned his own well-established vines, and he wrote me a detailed email explaining how to care for them. He told me I should start by planting the whole bundle of cuttings together and let them send down their roots. He likely gave me a complicated formula of minerals and fertilizers to give them a good start. The next year I was to choose the 3-4 strongest and transplant them to where I wanted them to grow. That year he said  I should just let the vines grow straight up, tying them to a string or some sort of support as they grew higher. The third year I was to determine what training system I wanted to follow and begin pruning the grapes, but his email said at that point he would just come over to my house and show me what to do. Unfortunately, by the time the vines were ready to be trained to a trellis or a fence, my dear friend Frank had died unexpectedly in his sleep.

Since Frank was no longer here to give advice, last year I went to a workshop and tour at Les Bourgeois Winery and learned just enough about viticulture to be even more impressed with Frank’s ability to grow grapes without resorting to a bunch of chemical sprays and fertilizers. I still haven’t actually pruned my vines (maybe next year), and I am this week fighting off an infestation of Japanese beetles and fretting over what appears to be some kind of fungus, but I consider the small green fruits a form of success. I hope Frank would have agreed.

On Tuesdays when the weather is fine…

On most Tuesday evenings, Spring through Fall, you will find me on the patio at Ragtag CinemaCafé playing old-time music with several of my friends, just for the fun of it. We usually arrive about 7:30 and play until about 9:30. Usually the group includes Pippa on fiddle, Cliff on guitar, Molly on mandolin, Jim on banjo, Rhett on banjo, and me on keyboard. Sometimes others will also join in. Every now and then spontaneous dancing will break out on the patio.

Although we occasionally play together as the Two Cent String Band for dances or other events, where we might actually earn a few dollars (we’ll travel hundreds of miles for tens of dollars), on Tuesdays we just enjoy getting together and playing tunes. It reminds me of when we were kids and you would go around the neighborhood with your ball or your bike or your skates and try to find someone else who wanted to play with you. Now it’s like, “Hey, I have a banjo. Want to come out and play?”

I took piano lessons for years and years, starting when I was 5 years old, and I always enjoyed learning to play and performing at piano play parties for Christmas and at the spring recitals (well, except for that time I forgot the entire Moonlight Sonata, but we won’t talk about that). I even considered majoring in music in college, but I thought that would be too impractical. But it’s only been in the last 15 years that I have met people who decided to pick up difficult instruments like the fiddle and learn to play–just because. Not because they wanted to be professional musicians. Not because someone told them it was good for them. They just wanted to play.

It turns out there are people all over town who get together regular as clockwork to do just that. In addition to our little group that plays on Tuesdays, there is an Irish session that meets at someone’s house on Wednesdays and a bluegrass/old-time jam that meets on the same night at a different house. There is an old-time jam at the Historical Society. A few miles north of town, in Hallsville, master fiddler John White hosts an old-time jam the second Saturday of every month, followed by a pot luck and square dance.  I’ve heard tell of a blues jam and song circles around the area. Who knew?

WTF–The Year is Half Over

We’re not even going to talk about the last blog post, where I went on and on about my New Year’s Resolutions and how I was going to get organized and accomplish amazing things. But the good thing about resolutions is that you can make them any time. You can always start over. The first of every year, every season, every month, every week, every day, even every hour you can decide once again to pay attention and do those things you meant to do. Today is as good as any day.

For the longest time I couldn’t understand why my dad, after being away at sea for 18 months at a time, would never ask upon his return what my brother and I had been doing while he was gone and never told us what he had seen and done. Instead he would act as though he had just stepped out of the room for a minute and would talk about Right Now, and How About Them Tigers, and Did You Get a Look at That Car and Looks Like It’s Going to Be Another Scorcher. Eventually I figured out that if you spend all your time trying to recover a past you never shared, you miss out on what’s happening now.

I don’t know what it’s been like where you live, but here in the Midwest, every growing thing has been about a month early this year, which only adds to the sense that time is slipping by in a frightening way. The daffodils were fading by mid-March. The strawberries had a brief moment of glory not too long after. The corn is by now way past knee high and we still have another two weeks before the Fourth of July. Peaches are already ripe. We picked blueberries two weeks ago and put them in bags in the freezer. And all this with no rain to speak of. We did have a good rain the last weekend of April and then nothing for six weeks, until last week when it rained almost an inch, and all the gardeners were ecstatic.

With everything coming on so early, by the time we were able to pick up new queen bees in late April, the main honey flow was already over, and we’re beginning to wonder if we will be able to harvest any honey this year. But we’re taking one day at a time, and we have established a most satisfactory routine.

On Sunday afternoons about 4:00 or 5:00, we head out of town to the apiaries to check on our bees.  This year we have five hives in two different locations: two hives that wintered over and three brand new hives that we made from splits from the established hives. Both bee yards are on land belonging to friends. The established hives near the well-manicured University farms are having some trouble finding enough nectar this year, but the new hives, which are down by the river, where things are a bit wilder, are next to a large field of clover and are drawing out beautiful white comb and filling the cells with light honey.

After checking each hive and marveling at the amazing bees, we head down to Coopers Landing, where we listen to live music, eat Thai food, visit with friends, and watch the sun set over the river.

Pippa and friends playing some old-time music at Coopers Landing.

Here we go again–A new year, same old resolutions

Every year I make the same list of resolutions, and this year is no different. Once again, I have resolved to do the following:

  1. Write more.
  2. Exercise more.
  3. Play more music.
  4. Set my house in order.

My son has an interesting approach to his budget, which I am also going to try to put in place. He basically only tracks money in four categories: household, child care, car and motorcycle, and discretionary. He keeps a cushion at all times in his checking account (i.e., the amount he needs to feel safe), but whatever is left at the end of the month, he drops onto one of his credit-card accounts or adds it to savings. I kind of like that. It’s simple and straightforward, unlike most budgeting systems I have tried in the past. He doesn’t try to track every single expenditure or split bills. For example, if he goes to Walmart and buys a windshield wiper blade in addition to his usual household items, he enters the entire amount into his budgeted “household” account. If he buys a soda at the convenience store when he fills up his tank with gas, that comes out of the car/motorcycle budget, but if he buys a case of soda at the grocery store, that comes out of the household budget. It’s the total amounts he is interested in and the proportions, which makes a lot of sense to me. He also has some complicated system for projecting out and modifying his budgeted amounts based on spending trends over the past three months, but I’m not going to worry about that part.

His overall system for budgeting money also seems like it would help me keep track of how I spend my time. I like the idea of only four categories, even if the “discretionary” category is huge. It helps put things into perspective somehow. Whatever you do (or spend) has to be allotted to one of four categories.

Following my son’s lead, here are my four budgeted money categories:

  1. Household
  2. Gifts and Charities
  3. Transportation
  4. Discretionary (i.e., everything else)

Here are my four budgeted time categories:

  1. Cooking, cleaning, maintaining home and gardens
  2. Writing
  3. Music and Dance
  4. Discretionary

I did the math and was shocked to find that if I divide my time equally (after subtracting out time at the office and time spent sleeping), I should have 18 hours a week to devote to each of the other categories. If I really did spend 18 hours a week writing or playing music, I’d have quite a few pages at the end of the month and would be able to learn quite a few new tunes. Of course, the discretionary time will be the one I have to watch, and much of the music & dance time will be taken up with traveling to dances (following my son’s rule of not splitting tickets). And right now, while I have a big freelance copyediting project to do, most of the discretionary time will be taken up with that. I probably should make a chart to keep track of my hours. Is that being too, too compulsive?

Okay, forget the chart. But here’s how it might look for just one of my four categories–writing.

Mom and I figured out that if we write even 500 words a day, we will produce enough for three novels (average 60,000 words) by the end of the year, which seems like crazy talk. I’ve heard that people generally overestimate what they can accomplish in a day and underestimate what they can accomplish in a year, which I guess must be right, because who would ever think you could write three novels a year by only writing 500 words a day.

At any rate, we decided that writing three new works really was crazy, but we would each try to revise two existing works and write one new one. When she was doing the math, I kept thinking to myself, “Uh huh. Sure. Whatever, mom.” But  now I’m thinking that if I really do write for 18 hours a week, that’s more than enough time to keep up with journals, letter writing, blogs, and our long-term goal of writing/revising books. I can easily write 500 words in about an hour, if I’m writing about something I know about (as opposed to something I need to research).

In the meantime, I am starting a new blog called A Mother’s War, where I plan to record my thoughts and feelings from my son’s deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past ten years, but I have not quite decided whether that will count as revising my book that I wrote during the first year of the Iraq war or if I am wanting to use the blog to see what kind of audience there might be for such a book. I’m thinking the book and the blog should be separate projects, with the blog more like a warm-up for the actual work of revising the book. I already know how to write short 500-word pieces, but I’m not so sure how to write a sustained work of 300 pages.

In addition, mom has started sending writing prompts every day or so, from a book she got for Christmas called My Book of Self. Mom is counting this as her new work, because she was already thinking of writing an autobiography. I had not thought about what new work I might like to write, so again, I’m not sure if this daily writing “counts.” It could be interesting, though, since we’re both writing the prompts together, if we put them together into a mother-daughter compilation. Not sure how that would work, but since we’ll be writing about some of the same topics, the same characters and settings, and using the same prompts, it could be quite provocative. So that may or may not be my new book.

I also want to go through my old poems and journals and prose pieces that are shoved in boxes in the basement, so that will be my second revision project. People used to say I was a good writer, and I won awards for both fiction and poetry while in graduate school, so there is probably something worth salvaging down there, something I could submit for publication. Okay, so here’s my writing plan for the year.

Three main projects

  1. January-April—Revise books of poems (submit individual poems for publication and enter contests)
  2. May-August—Revise war journal (post short pieces on blog)
  3. September-December—Write novel about 13-year-old girl (watch for ideas while writing autobiographical prompts)

The Quest for the Perfect Hive (and Other Books I Read in 2011)

illustration of Neighbour's Improved Cottage Hive from  1878

Neighbour's Improved Cottage Hive (1878) is one of the hives discussed in The Quest for the Perfect Hive by Gene Kritsky

I just spent a wonderful weekend with my aunt, during which we spent much of our time talking about books we have read and books we want to read. We are both avid readers of “real books” and don’t believe the dire predictions that e-books will take over the market so that no more paper books will be published. I mean seriously, you can’t read your iPad in the bath tub. My aunt prefers extremely long, well-researched biographies and current history and politics with hundreds of footnotes, but she also read a couple novels in 2011, including several science fiction books written by Philip K Dick in the 1960s and 1970s that have been reissued by the Library of America.

After hearing about the books she has read, I decided to go back and see if I could remember what I read during 2011. My list is less focused than hers. Many of the books I read are ones that people gave me or that I ran across on the new book shelf at the library or picked up in the break room at work. Here are the books I was clever enough to have written down (otherwise, I’m not sure I would have remembered all these):


  1. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. (I listed to this one in the car on our trip to Kentucky to attend the Christmas Country Dance School in Berea.)
  2. Deception Point by Dan Brown (I picked this one up in the break room at work; a very enjoyable fast read, with lots of twists in the plot)
  3. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (This one I borrowed from a friend, who thought it was extremely funny. She had gotten it from her 94-year-old father. The story was about an old man who married a young woman and upset his children. Some of the story was quite funny but the overall situation perhaps reminded me a little too much of gold diggers we have known.)
  4. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding by Alexander McCall (One of the charming books about the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency. How can you go wrong?)
  5. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (I borrowed this one from my mom and really should return to her, but I loved it so much, I am tempted to hang on to it. Reading this book brought me close to the old feelings I used to get when I had the luxury of reading all day during the summers, up in a tree or on a blanket in the yard. I read Prodigal Summer basically in one setting. The novel “weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives inhabiting the forested mountains and struggling small farms of southern Appalachia.” I loved the characters, the setting, and the stories.)
  6. Hour Game by David Baldacci (I don’t usually read murder mysteries, but I picked this up in the break room at work and found myself hooked.)


  1. Ghosts of the Bluegrass by James McCormick and Macy Wyatt. (This was a birthday gift from mom, written by two of my professors from college.)
  2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. (I re-read this while at my mom’s.)
  3. I am America, and So Can You by Stephen Colbert. (We checked this CD out from the library and listened to it in short segments on the way to and from work each day. What a great way to take the stress out of a commute.)
  4. Dave Barry’s Book of Money Secrets: Like, Why is There a Giant Eyeball on the Dollar. (Another CD from the library that kept us laughing on our daily commutes to work.)
  5. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (I had read this one before but decided to read it again when my daughter-in-law brought it back after having borrowed it. Still seems odd to list it with the nonfiction.)
  6. Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (I bought this one as a possible gift for my brother last Christmas, but didn’t get it in time, so I kept it and read it myself. Hey Skip, if you want your Christmas present now, just let me know. It was a good read.)
  7. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (This was a birthday gift from mom, which I had put off reading for a while, because I thought it would be depressing. When I finally got around to reading it, though, I found the book very inspiring, even though the author writes about difficult subjects; I’d like to read more about her and about the topics she addresses; much to think about and try to figure out.)
  8. Four Seasons in Rome (This was a Christmas gift from mom, who thought I would enjoy the memoir about raising twin boys while trying to write a novel in a foreign country, and she was right about that; I’ve especially enjoyed the beautiful in-depth reflections on a city that I just barely met on a four-day trip with my son one Thanksgiving.)
  9. Hard Times Guide to Retirement by Mark Miller (Basically, the advice here was if you are lucky enough to still have a job during hard times, hold on to it and wait as long as possible to retire. Not was I was looking for.)
  10. Why Do Bees Buzz? By Elizabeth Capaldi Evans and Carol A. Butler (This book provided straightforward answers to lots of questions about bees, including: Do bees bleed? How do bees’ wings work? Do bees ever get fooled by predators? Do bees sleep? What is piping behavior? Not much of a plot, but interesting nevertheless.)
  11. The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture by Gene Kritsky (This book traces the evolution of hive design from ancient Egypt to the present and includes illustrations of some fascinating designs used by beekeepers before the invention of the Langstroth hive, which has been in use for the last century.)
  12. One Year to an Organized Life by Regina Leeds (It’s been almost a year since I read the next four books, and my life is still not organized, but I haven’t given up hope.)
  13. The Fast and Furious Five Step Organizing Solution by Susan C. Pinsky
  14. House Works: How to Live Clean, Green, and Organized at Home by Cynthia Townley Ewer
  15. The Office Clutter Cure: Get Organized, Get Results! By Don Aslett
  16. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (I love Bryson’s books. In this one, he sets out to “write a history of the world without leaving home.”
  17. Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce by Cathy Thomas
  18. Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain by Pete Egoscue with Roger Gittiner
  19. Wrong: Why Experts* Keep Failing Us–And How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman. (This one was more than a little depressing.)
  20. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D Seeley (This fascinating book discussed the ways honeybees communicate and make group decisions, as when they are searching for a new hive.)
  21. Get Up Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite by Bruce E. Levine (This one left me feeling a bit unenergized and defeated.)
  22. How Did the Government Get in Your Backyard by Jeff Gillman and Eric Hererlig (I really enjoyed all the background information the authors provided on the science and the politics of many environmental issues I care about.)
  23. Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson (a fascinating book about contemporary life at McMurdo and South Pole, which my son let me borrow just before his most recent trip to Antarctica; apparently this is slated to be a TV series soon; too bad I don’t have a TV. I would totally watch this one.)
  24. The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (to be truthful, I did not read all of this classic book on liberal philosophy.)
An illustration of a bee hive in a hollow log.

A horizontal hollow log hive (Butterworth 1892) from The Quest for the Perfect Hive

Children’s Books

  1. The Invisible String by Patricia Harst (a picture book that I bought for my grandchildren during my son’s most recent deployment, this time to Afghanistan)
  2. A Paper Hug by Stephanie Skolmoski (another picture book on deployment that I bought for my grandchildren before my son had to leave again to attend captain school)
  3. 39 Clues (I read this and several other books whose titles now escape me, while trying to decide which ones to bring along when we took the grandchildren to dance camp this past summer. I had forgotten how much I love to read children’s books. Those authors can’t afford to waste any time getting to the heart of a story, or the audience gets bored.)
  4. Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (This is the one we finally settled on, a book about grandparents who ran a sanctuary for mystical animals. While at dance camp with our grandchildren in July, we read a chapter or two aloud each night before bed.)
  5. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (we listened to this on CD while driving home from dance camp)
  6. The White Fox Chronicles by Gary Paulsen (a sci-fi book that my 11-year-old grandson wanted me to read, and I was very happy I did, not just for the insight into how he thinks, but it also happened to be a gripping story.)

At the moment I am about halfway through reading The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson and The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus. (I often have more than one book going at a time.)  I came home from my aunt’s with a 983-page novel called The Kindly Ones, originally written in French by Johnathan Littell and winner of two prestigious French literary awards. It is “the chilling fictional memoir of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer who has reinvented himself, many years after the war, as a middle-class family man and factory owner in France.” My aunt  warned me that it is morally difficult reading but said it explained a lot of things that she often thinks about.

Could I live with just 100 things?

I’m intrigued by the 100-Thing Challenge. Apparently, it’s been around for a while, but I first heard about it in an article in my alumni magazine about a first-year resident who has decreased the items he owns from more than 700 to 86. The article was accompanied by a photograph of him with 39 of his possessions that fit into his backpack. Although I find the minimalist urge admirable, I do question the way he counts. For example, since he is living with his mother-in-law during his residency, he doesn’t count any of her furniture or possessions, including dishes and pots and pans. He also doesn’t count his wife’s belongings or any of the things he left in his permanent home when he came up here for his residency. However, from what I can tell, this bargaining appears to be a common theme, once people realize how very few items it takes to reach 100.

I have been trying to simplify my life for years and have made quite a bit of progress. By some standards, I don’t have a lot of clutter, but I sure own a whole lot more than 100 things. So when I start thinking this would be a fun challenge to take on, I immediately slip into the same sort of bargaining: Do I count all my books as 1? What about the china cabinet filled with dishes? Can I count them all as 2 (1 for the set of dishes that belonged to my grandmother + 1 for the set of dishes that belonged to my husband’s grandmother)? By that logic, the table and four chairs would be another 1. And the stereo and CDs—only 1! Hey, this is easier than I thought! At this rate I’ll be down to 100 items in no time!

1 set of dishes + 1 set of dishes = 2 things, right?

Games We Used to Play

This journal entry from 1996 sure brought back memories. My older son is now a captain in the Army, and my younger son is a scientist on a research trip to Antarctica, and I am very glad I took the time to play games with my kids when they were young. If I had only known then how fast those years would go, I would have played even more!

From December 1996

This Christmas, my younger son, who is ten, asked for several board games, which we have been playing on our days off. When I take the time to sit with him at the table for a few minutes and play a game of Yahtzee or Mancala or Catch Phrase and stop worrying about the endless piles of clutter;

When I stop for a moment;

When I decide the dishes in the sink can wait;

When our older son, exasperrated, finally gives in to his insistent younger brother and sits at the table with the family to play guessing games;

When my husband and I give up trying for the time being to find some time for ourselves, to stop looking at the house and these children as just a phase to get through so we can finally be what we think we’d like to be: artists with no responsibility but to our muses;

When we can stop the endless chatter in our heads for a moment, the droning list of have-to’s, ought-to’s, and shoulds playing day and night like elevator music;

When I can choose to be there for my son and stop saying, “just a minute,” “after I do this one thing,” “I’m almost there”;

When I can shut my eyes to the piles of clutter on the counter;

When I can just stop and look at this child, who seems so small in many ways and yet will outgrow me over the next year;

And take the pair of dice in my hands;

Feel their cool sides, their solid weight, the way they knock together in my cupped hands;

When I can focus all my attention on wishing for a certain toss of the die, share my son’s excitement when he rolls to an inside straight, know how important it is to roll the right combination;

Important enough to call certain rolls fair or unfair.

Then I feel a deep satisfaction and a quiet joy, and I am grateful for my son, who does not need to be reminded to play.

While we play, I think about a lot of things. I realize with some surprise that I think real families are supposed to play games together, although I don’t have any memories of that ever happening in my childhood, so I’m not sure where that thought comes from. Certainly, my husband and I have not done much in the way of playing games with our own children, although we try from time to time, like this Christmas.

Games I remember from childhood include Chinese checkers, checkers, parcheesi, dominos, a box of 64 games like Fox and Hens, but I associate those with my brother, not with my parents. I remember playing card games when I got older, including a complicated game called something like Shanghai Rummy, which you played with two decks and a sequence of hands you had to play. (Was that a game someone made up during some war? Where did that name come from?) My mom and dad used to play chess from time to time. Then after my brother learned to play chess, he would challenge dad, and it became a kind of show-down for them. I vaguely remember Monopoly and Life. I can’t imagine my grandparents playing any kind of board or card games, but grandaddy played basketball and football growing up. My older son enjoys live-action role play and computer games but has never cared much for board or card games, except for Magic the Gathering, which he played for several years.

What is it about different kinds of games that makes one kind fun and another not so fun? What purpose do games play? Why do they seem so important?

Games I Used to Play

  • jacks
  • jump rope
  • Strut Miss Lucy
  • Drop the Handkerchief
  • Red Rover
  • Red Light Green Light
  • Chinese jump rope
  • double dutch
  • tiddly winks
  • bingo
  • checkers
  • Chinese checkers
  • parcheesi
  • tic tac toe
  • scrabble
  • Monopoly
  • Old Maid
  • Go Fish
  • Memory
  • Pay Day
  • Life
  • Mouse Trap
  • caroms
  • dominos
  • poker
  • Crazy 8s
  • Uno
  • Wink
  • mancala
  • Yahtzee
  • freeze tag
  • The Price is Right
  • Hi Ho Cherry Oh
  • hide and seek
  • 20 questions
  • alphabet game
  • kick ball
  • duck duck goose
  • marbles

Digging myself out of my hole again!

This may not be worthy of posting on a blog (what is worthy of posting on blogs, anyway), but my hope is that writing something—anything—will help me clear the system and find my motivation again. I have been in quite a slump lately and don’t feel like working or playing very hard. I know my energy and enthusiasm tend to go in cycles, but lately it seems that the cycles are coming closer together, and the highs are not quite as high as I remember them in the past. I get discouraged more easily. I break promises to myself. I ask myself what it’s all worth. I waste entire days going through junk mail or deleting emails.

I think a lot about retiring, and sometimes I even manage to convince myself that if I didn’t have to spend 40 hours a week at a paid job, then I would have more time and energy to do something important. Though what that might be, I’m not sure. I used to think education was important, so my job in online course development was satisfying enough, but lately everything seems like a big money-making scheme, higher education included, so I find myself disgruntled and wanting to get out and do something more satisfying and worthwhile. Of course, if I were to seriously consider retiring, there’s that issue of how to pay for health insurance and the very real fear that my modest retirement savings could vanish in the blink of an eye.

To try to counteract my downward slide, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time researching organizations that work on issues I care about—the environment, child protection, health, human rights, hunger, international relief and development, public policy—and I’ve been reading reports on various charities by Charity Watch, Charity Navigator, and Better Business Bureau. My thinking is that since I have limited amounts of time and money to donate to worthy causes, I should try to give to organizations that use their resources wisely to do good deeds, so I have been focusing on those organizations that spend at least 75% on direct program expenses and don’t spend excessive amounts on fundraising and administrative costs. But I don’t know how to think about chief executives and presidents who make over $350,000 a year directing charitable organizations. Of course, even that amount, which sounds outrageous to me, is a drop in the bucket compared to the $13.2 million compensation package that went to the president of Goldman Sachs in 2010. Such discrepancies make me physically ill.

I am so glad to see the Occupy movement growing as it has in a little more than two months and hope they are successful in “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process” and shining a bright light on “the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.” In recent years I had wondered why people weren’t out in the streets protesting, so I’m glad to see some change in the public discourse. I am fascinated by their process of decision making through the “people’s assemblies” and the presence of so many creative individuals working together to change the current paradigm. I wish them well. I hope we all have the courage and the stamina to resist “the factual ignorance, misinterpretations, bad advice, lies, and outright villainy of the uprising’s various critics,” as described in the Hightower Lowdown. Not to mention the police brutality and other crackdowns that have occurred in too many places. I don’t know what to think now that so many cities, including my own, have cleared their parks and public spaces of the Occupiers, but I hope the people’s assemblies are meeting to plan how best to keep their message in plain view for all to see.

I have also been trying to inspire myself by reading stories about people who are finding ways to live better on less money, as they downsize; reduce their carbon footprints; start their own businesses; engage in DIY projects; support each other in challenging times; rebuild relationships with friends, family, and community; learn to live sustainably; reclaim time; do things that matter. I subscribe to several progressive magazines, most of which tend to depress me with the facts and make me think we are all going to hell in a handbasket, but when I want to remind myself of the power of people to bring about important change and to work toward practical solutions to important problems, I turn to Yes Magazine.

My last strategy is to challenge myself to get out and take a walk. I have the whole day off, and it’s above 50 degrees out, so I really have no excuse whatsoever. Being outside almost always makes me feel better, although I continually forget that fact.

Kisses and Hugs, Spiders and Bugs

Okay, so I haven’t written every day, as I had hoped, but I did finish another square for the afghan I’ve been knitting, so maybe that counts for something. This square—called Kisses and Hugs, Spiders and Bugs—was almost as much fun to work on as the tree I made last month. It was designed by a woman named Judy Sumner, who says she often gets inspiration for her patterns (or the names of them) from her twin granddaughters, whom she is also teaching to knit.

This Aran square was designed by Judy Sumner, who says she got her inspiration from a birthday card she received from her twin granddaughters. The card had little cartoon bugs and spiders, and Xs and Os.

I finished this square in the car on the way to Lawrence, Kansas, for a contra dance and then immediately began to work on another square. I’m not sure this next one is going to be quite as much fun to work on, but it should at least keep my brain active. Each of the patterns in the book The Great American Aran Afghan shows a photograph of the completed square and presents the instructions in both words and charts, along with complicated keys and descriptions of the various cable stitches. There is also a glossary at the back of the book that explains common abbreviations and a “knitter’s school” that provides steps and diagrams for the basics (cast on, knit, purl, bind off, graft). Most of the patterns have at least three or four charts, each with a different number of rows in the repeat, so the challenge is to keep track of which row you are on for each different chart.

I look at the photograph a lot as I work, but since I am basically a “linear person,” I generally find it easiest to follow the written instructions, not the visual charts. Part of the challenge with following the visual charts is to remember to read the chart from right to left for the odd-numbered rows and from left to right for the even-numbered rows. I use four different colored counters to keep track of the rows, plus markers to identify where each pattern begins and ends.

On the surface, the Tipsy Cable square that I just started seems easier to work on than some of the other squares I have done, because it has two small cables on the outside of the square and two larger cables on the inside, separated by sections of twisted knit and reverse stockinette stitch. However, the tricky bit is that the pairs of matched cables are mirror images of each other, so in essence there are four charts to keep track of, not two, as I had originally thought. For example, the outside cables are represented by Chart A, so I happily started Chart A on row 1, as expected, but when I got to the outside cable on the other side of the square, the instructions told me to start at row 21 of the same Chart A.

The larger inside cables were even more confusing. Again, it started out clearly enough, even if a little complicated, with the first of the larger cables represented by Chart B and the second by Chart C. And I could look at the photograph and the visual representations of the charts and see that they were mirror images of each other, so that made sense. However, I nearly threw the whole thing out the car window when I got to row 2 of Chart C, which told me to follow row 24 of Chart B—which told me to “Repeat row 14.” I felt like I was on some sort of insane scavenger hunt. I just keep telling myself to concentrate on one row at a time and to pay attention, and it should all work out. The curious thing is that this pattern is not considered to be one of the more difficult in the book. At least, the editors of the book don’t consider it difficult. I’m still not convinced. But they thought the square with the Spiders was difficult, and I just thought that was just plain fun.