1973: Here, kitty kitty

When I was little, I desperately wanted a dog. My near-neighbor and default best friend, Joe A., had a succession of dogs: an elegant Collie named Princess and her unworthy and hyperactive successor, a Shetland Sheepdog named Kipper. Though Kipper was probably the right size for a small city house, there was unfortunately no flock of sheep for him to herd. Each time the doorbell rang he flung himself into action, barking furiously as he turned quicker and quicker laps on a short track comprising the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen.

I still wanted a dog. I watched Lassie and Rin Tin Tin on TV — so intelligent! such faithful companions! — and continually lobbied for a dog of my own. Of course I was far too young to think about the more practical concerns of where a dog would stay and who would take care of it. I petted Kipper — when I could catch him — and played with my Ohio grandparents’ dog Simon whenever I visited. Simon liked to fetch but he didn’t like to return whatever it was he had been fetching, so I had to go out into the back yard with two tennis balls at a time: one to throw initially, and a second one to throw to trick him into dropping the first one. Fetching sessions continued until the tennis balls were too wet from dog slobber to try to pick them up.

My West Virginia grandparents had a pair of dogs at this time, but since I only visited a few times a year there was not much satisfaction to be gained. Mickey was a scruffy black terrier mix of some sort, and Annie was a Dachshund. Both of them were getting along in years and not terribly fond of playing with a girl whose other source of fun on vacation was skating on the concrete sidewalk on metal strap-on roller skates.

The memories of my childhood are highlighted by encounters with unexpected dogs — the English Bulldog that Joe D. brought to school for show and tell, the Boxer we found in the park and who waited stoically in our back yard until his owner came to pick him up, when he sprang ecstatically to life. Real dogs, cartoon dogs, storybook dogs, movie dogs — they were all fine with me. I read a book called Follow my Leader that not only offered me practical tips for coping with unexpected childhood blindness but also made me wish, for decades, to raise a seeing eye dog for the blind.

But the dog above all dogs, the dog of my heart, was a Collie. I don’t think Joe A.’s dog was as responsible for this desire as much as the ubiquitous Lassie was. If there was a smarter, friendlier, more beautiful companion on earth I couldn’t think of it, and it seemed a great travesty of justice that I could not have a dog when others could. (Come to think of it, this attitude probably led to my great empathy with Fern Arable in Charlotte’s Web, at just the age it should have.)

Somewhere in the midst of this canine adoration, my father came home one day with a pair of kittens in a cardboard box. They had been left outside the hardware store where he used to work. (Did he still work there every once in a while? Dad always had several jobs as a time, and I’m not sure when some left off and others began. However, when he took me with him to Hilltop Hardware, he was clearly familiar to the current owners.) The other abandoned kittens had found homes, and these last two littermates would be ours: Boots, a grey female with four white paws and a white bib, and Bounce, a male orange tabby. Bounce wasn’t ours for long, as he spent too many of his waking hours climbing up the draperies and being generally incorrigible. But Boots was ours for keeps.

One problem with your first pet is that you tend to assume that its qualities are the qualities of all pets. It turns out that Boots was an unusually jealous animal, exacting a calculated revenge for each infraction you committed, such as petting another animal. Revenge usually consisted of her peeing in an inappropriate location, such as under my bed on the hardwood floor. If you followed her rules, she settled into a kind of benevolent queenship. (Hmm. Now that I think about it, perhaps Bounce was framed!)

Oddly enough, Boots and my father didn’t get along well. She slept on my parents’ bed until one morning when she didn’t get up as usual and my father suspected the worst. “Vickie,” he said, “the cat’s dead. Get a bag and I’ll put her in it.” When the bag was brought over she leapt up with a scream and ran out of the room. They didn’t seem to trust each other after that, and for years the only thing I heard my father say about Boots was, “When that cat dies, we’re never getting another.”

Bootses

Boots and a boot. Get it?

Boots occasionally went outside in the back yard, and though she had all her claws she really couldn’t climb trees. If something spooked her she would race up the nearest tree trunk, then look around as if puzzled at how she came to be there. I’d have to go out and unhook her from the tree to bring her down.

She had an epic confrontation in that same back yard. Both sets of next-door neighbors were retired couples, but while the Meginnesses let me come next door to practice on their piano and sit with them to watch the “Lawrence Welk Show,” the Millers were on the grouchy side. Doc Miller surprised us with his acquisition of an English Springer Spaniel, a young purebred whose name was Sonny. I’m sure that as an active child with neighborhood friends I was an annoying neighbor to Doc Miller, but Sonny was insufferable. Every time he was let outside he would race up and down the Millers’ short sidewalk, barking at everything in existence until he was let in again. Usually I would give up first and go inside to get away from him. One afternoon, however, I was in the backyard with Boots while Sonny was out. Boots sat on the sidewalk that ran up the center of the yard, facing the white picket fence that separated her and Sonny as they fell into a staring match. With the tension at its peak, Boots spat at the spaniel, something I never saw her do before or since. Sonny erupted into a fury of barking, lunging ineffectively at the fence while Boots got up and walked to the house with the calm demeanor of a matador.

Boots went on to tolerate a pet goldfish and a pet hermit crab and, after we moved to the country, our own succession of dogs (none of them Collies, alas). But they were outside dogs, and she ruled the interior. She settled into being jealous only of other cats to which we paid attention, and enjoyed the rare indulgence of a sudden romp down the hallway that recalled her more active kittenhood. When she wasn’t dozing in a sunbeam, or surviving the winter’s cold by seating herself directly over the furnace vent, she accompanied me as I wrote my way through high school and college. I have had other cats and now enjoy the company of a dog, but there will be no cat like Boots.

Boots in drawer

Circa 1987.

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Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 10:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

1971: Before I could read

A few decades ago, my father asked me if I thought it was possible that someone who knew how to read could view text in their native language and not be able to read it. I never asked him why he had asked the question, but I believe that my answer at the time was No – I didn’t think that a literate person could not be able to read something.

I still think that answer is basically true. A stroke or a bout of aphasia could impair your ability to read for a certain amount of time, and acute trauma could impair your perceptions to a degree that might include reading or speech, but I don’t know that personal literacy is something you can voluntarily disable. (Officer: “Didn’t you see that stop sign back there?” Driver: “The red sign? I saw it, but I decided not to read it. Did it say something important?”)

How_to_Read

When I went off to kindergarten at age five, I could not yet read. I remember the thick workbook that we used that year, full of colorful pictures and words and phrases in simple black type. I remember the meaningless, the flatness of it before I was able to crack the code. I also remember the thrill that came over me when I realized that I could do it — I could read the words! I could read all the words, including the ones on the previous pages. Yesterday I was going through the motions, but today I could really read!

Epiphany

Because my birthday is in the middle of summer, I can guess that I learned to read when I was about five and a half. But I had been surrounded by words much longer — probably all my life — and my parents thought I already knew how to read. I was outed during a visit to West Virginia, when I sat with my great-grandfather and we read my favorite book, “Hop on Pop.” Everyone was impressed with my precocious abilities until Grandpap turned two pages at once and I proceeded to recite the text printed on the skipped page. (You would think that my family members would have been even more impressed by my ability to memorize an entire book, but that was apparently not the case.)

After I did learn to read I was rarely without a book, or any other collection of words. I strayed from the shelves of books at my reading level so that I could try something more advanced. At the public library this meant moving from the children’s books room to the shelf just outside that held the Encyclopedia Brown series, and later to a book on how to write Chinese characters. At the school library this meant leaving the Matt Christopher sports series (and exciting titles like Catcher with a Glass Arm and Slam Dunk!) for the thickest book on the nonfiction shelf (which turned out to be a stultifyingly dull book about wildflowers or botany or something; ugh). I read voraciously in the two newspapers that came to our house every day, the Columbus Citizen-Journal in the morning and the weightier and more conservative Columbus Dispatch in the evening. I typed up my own attempt at a neighborhood newspaper on my manual typewriter in the fourth grade (there was only one edition; it’s quite the rarity) and eventually I began writing my own short stories and longer pieces.

Kids these days are a bit quicker on the draw than I was, and all of mine learned to read before I did. My third child, probably out of sheer boredom, taught himself to read at age three by playing Pixar movies with the captions on. His younger brother thought this was normal, and duly copied him. But all four of them have discovered, enjoyed, written, and illustrated stories much more complicated than “Hop on Pop,” to which dozens of homemade chapbooks detailing the adventures of Toilet Man, Captain Chale, and the TIME HOLE attest; the elder two are writing fan fiction and moving on to create their own complex and realistic fictional worlds, for which I occasionally serve as a sounding board and consultant.

No_Pat_No

Can they look at something and not read it? I’ll ask them without telling them why I want to know.

 


 

Knitwise, I have finished the two pairs of slippers for my grandmother; I only have to seam them up. That’s close enough to actually being done to let me think about the next project I should finish: Oliver’s blanket. I will have some crocheting to do for that blanket to realize my original vision. (Actually, my original vision called for someone else to crochet the squares.) Alternatively, I could frog the squares I’ve knitted and just knit a regular freakin’ blanket, which might take less time but would have more joins. Where’s the fun in that? (To hasten my work I’ll try to think about how cold that poor newborn child must be during our round after round subzero temperatures, and I’ll ignore all the cuddly, snuggly Facebook pictures already posted by my friend, his doting grandmother.) When I’m done with the baby blanket it will finally be time to finish the Swedish Surprise.

Published in: on February 5, 2018 at 10:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

1970: The very creaky chair

NOTE: As I find, or take, pictures of this chair I will use them to illustrate this post.

In my home library there is a rocking chair in which no one ever sits. Its spindled back, these days, is draped with a blanket I knitted a year ago; on the seat rests a round gold cushion that I use on the extremely rare occasions I decide to sit zazen. A tote bag with my current knitting projects hangs from one of the back posts. At night, my discarded daytime clothes lay atop the gold cushion; during the day, my pillows sit on the seat after I convert my futon from bed to couch.

The chair is positioned in the corner of the room, in front of a bookcase that houses sheet music for piano, guitar, and saxophone; books about musicians ranging from John Denver to Leonard Cohen; books about guitar building, playing, and repair; and at least a hundred compact discs, a few cassette tapes, and dozens of record albums. The cherry-laminate bookcase is topped with stereo components and flanked by speakers. If I want to find a disc or an album, I must first drag the rocking chair out of the way; that’s when I see the grooves that the rockers have pressed into my carpet.

Why do I keep this chair in such an awkward spot? The short answer is that it literally won’t fit anywhere else. It’s too wide to fit through the doorways of the upstairs bedrooms (I’ve tried), and none of my sons has expressed a desire to have it in his room. There’s not enough space for it in any other room in this house, and moving it to the basement would probably destroy it through heat and cold cycles, floods, and vermin.

A longer answer is that this chair isn’t something I want to use every day. It’s a family heirloom, and I’m afraid that if it were used more often it would break. When my children where little, just big enough to climb into it and really get it going, I was terrified that they would over-rock it and topple over backwards (they came close). I don’t even remember how it came to be my chair; perhaps when I started living on my own in my twenties, I had room for it when others did not and never subsequently gave it up.

There’s nothing particularly special about this chair’s construction. In fact, if you sat in it you might be convinced that its construction was about to fail at any second. It creaks when you sit in it, creaks when you rise from it, and practically screams if you rock in it. Yet it has surely been in my family for at least a century.

At some point several years ago I did a bit of research and found that this type of chair is called a grandfather chair because of the breadth of its seat; narrower chairs are called, predictably, grandmother chairs. In my family’s case this is a bit ironic, as the story goes that my father, now within one moon of turning 84, was rocked to sleep in this chair as an infant in his grandmother’s lap. I’m not sure which of my father’s grandmothers it was who did the rocking. Grandma Grace had four sons, including my grandpa; Grandma Naomi had two sons and three daughters, including my grandma. Either way, the chair had probably been used to rock many babies before my father came along – perhaps even the entire previous generation.

My great-grandmothers passed on in the 50s and 60s, and then Grandma passed on in the 70s. Her youngest son – of eight boys! – was just twenty years old when she died. Many years later I told him that I had the rocking chair. A smile spread across his face and he asked, “Was it really creaky?” He couldn’t have heard his brothers being rocked in the chair; perhaps he watched and listened as my cousins, his nieces and nephews and maybe even myself, were rocked in it. (If it were that creaky by the 1960s, it must have given us Lamb babies a tolerance for high levels of ambient noise, which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

It’s not a Windsor chair, an Adirondack chair, a Bentwood rocker, a Mission rocker, or anything you can call up on the first (or second) page of a Google Image search. It could be oak, might be maple, might be store-bought, might be homemade (generations of woodworkers and cabinetmakers run through all my family trees). But it’s irreplaceable to me and I will continue to take care of it.

This chair is the source of my first memory. My mother sat in this chair in the summer of 1970, rocking something in her lap that I thought at the time was a kitten. It turned out to be my little brother, and life would never be the same.


In my knitting life, I did in fact miss a day of knitting at least one stitch – last Friday, when all was chaos. That’s not so bad over the course of a month. There’s been more than enough going on to keep me busy and cause plenty of stress, which has driven me to do more with my meditation. It can’t hurt, and neither should the knitting.

I have finished knitting three of four slippers for my grandmother; after I finish the fourth slipper I will seam them all and then work on squares for a baby blanket for a friend who recently became a grandmother. Why is it that I am constantly knitting for grandmothers? I suppose that the blanket is really for Oliver, not Jenny. When Oliver’s blanket is done I will have some project choices to make: cast on for a local knitalong, or finish a project that was promised three years ago? Cast your vote in the comments.

Published in: on January 29, 2018 at 9:50 pm  Comments (1)  

Week Fifty-Two: All Good Things

This week WordPress sent me a little “happy anniversary” notice. It was seven years ago when I registered my first blog with them — the one you’re reading now. I’ve started several other blogs since then, to focus on different fringe interests, but this is the blog that keeps going and growing, and gradually absorbing the other topics back into itself. I wonder why December 23 was the special day, when I had a six-month-old baby Tommy and three older children to take care of. It was probably time to switch to a blog from my e-mail newsletter, Wisconsin Crafter, because it was the end of a year.  I like starting new things on January 1, on Sundays or Mondays, or on the first day of a month. Launching a new initiative on, say, May 17 just wouldn’t make sense to me. How would I ever keep track of it?

But since WordPress is keeping track of it for me, well, happy anniversary to me! Hallmark’s website tells me that the traditional gifts for a seventh anniversary are wool or copper. (The modern gift is a desk set. I do have an antique desk at which I sit in front of my modern computer and write, and I do have a desk set somewhere; maybe I’ll tidy it up and use it.) I think I have bought enough wool for myself that I could knit up a little something special just for me. Copper is a bit trickier. Jewelry seems like an obvious path to take, but I don’t have pierced ears and I don’t wear rings, watches, or necklaces. I do have a few friends who make custom jewelry, and maybe they can give me some suggestions for some sort of commemorative item. A copper pen? A little hand-hammered copper bowl? I’m not sure.

Scratch that; I just found and ordered a hank of wool/silk laceweight yarn in a gorgeous tonal copper colorway. As my son James would say, “Achievement get!”

Well, now, since I’m closing out the year, I’d better be honest and take one last look at those resolutions I published 52 weeks ago.

Thusly, I resolve that, in 2013 (!!!) I shall:

  1. Blog on Chocolate Sheep again, and regularly. Dare I say, weekly?
  2. Finish the Doctor Who scarf I’m knitting for my friend Ginnie.
  3. Complete my calculus class.
  4. Learn one new cast-on.
  5. Find a Most Excellent Job in my chosen field of technical and scientific editing.
  6. Learn one new cast-off.
  7. Help my kids be awesome.

Seven looks like a good number, don’t you think?

I think I can honestly say I accomplished numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7. Number 6 just didn’t get much attention, and Number 3, as mentioned in greater detail a few weeks ago, was a spectacular failure. Overall, though, I think I did pretty well. The weekly blogging was sometimes a challenge, but I did learn how to use the Schedule function for posts so that I could publish pre-written ones when I was traveling. After a while I got used to the rhythm of writing what was essentially a weekly column, and I found I could usually produce something mildly entertaining by Thursday (sometimes Friday).

So, do I have any new and impressive resolutions ready for 2014?

No… not really. I still have a lot of unfinished business around here. I would like to become more monogamous with my knitting, and finish the really large projects I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. I’d like to start quilting again and make some more durable and functional quilts that the kids and I can use. I’d like to deepen my friendships. I’d like to be braver. I’d like to be a better cook. I’d like to study more math and physics. And most of all, I’d like to keep writing. I can’t (and won’t) promise that I will keep to a regular weekly schedule for my posts here, but it’s quite possible that I’ve picked up a very good habit and that’s when the writing will appear.

All in all, it’s been a pretty good year for me. See you on the other side!

Week Fifty-One: Chocolate Versus Cancer

NoCancer

Are you sick of cancer? Are you afraid of cancer? Are you angry at it? Do you feel helpless in the face of it? Decades ago the mere word “cancer” was a death sentence. What power the word gained over us! These days we have screenings, treatment options, special diets, alternative care, and support groups. But hearing the words “you have cancer” still means that your life has significantly changed and you need to prepare for battle. This week I’m going to give you some suggestions to help wipe out cancer, or make it easier to deal with. And I got a lot of help from my friends, whose contributions are shown indented as quotes. They have been there, and they know from very hard experience what they’re talking about. I cannot thank them enough for sharing their stories with me during the preparation of this week’s post.

1. GET TESTED. This is the Number One thing you can do for yourself. Many, many cancers are treatable if detected in their early stages, so that’s when you should try to find them. Make that call, set that appointment, and get checked. If you don’t have health insurance, look into programs like the Well Woman Program in Wisconsin that covers uninsured and under-insured women. Set money aside. Ask for help to cover the cost. But get checked on a regular basis for everything that you should, and make sure you are performing self exams as well.

2. REDUCE YOUR RISK. Stop unhealthy habits as soon as you can, and replace them with healthy ones. I shouldn’t have to give examples here — you know what changes you need to make. If you don’t know, ask your doctor or an honest friend. Losing weight and stopping smoking won’t guarantee you will be cancer-free, but it certainly improves your odds for avoiding cancer or for surviving rugged courses of chemotherapy or radiation.

3. TALK ABOUT IT. Many cancers take root in “private” places. We may not want to talk about breasts, testicles, or cervixes (cervices?), but we need to be talking to each other about breast cancer, testicular cancer, and cervical cancer to make sure we know the latest information, know what we should be tested for, know what treatments are available, and know how we can support friends who are fighting for their lives. Our shyness and ignorance help cancer win when we can’t afford to lose. In October and November this year I got back some “bad” test results, and was waiting for weeks for a follow-up procedure and then for the results that would tell me whether or not I had cervical cancer. I shared this information with only a very few friends, only to find out that a cousin was undergoing a similar cancer scare at the same time. How many women would have benefited from my sharing my experience sooner rather than later? I’m sorry I was shy… I just didn’t want to make extra worry for my friends. Anyway, as of right now, I’m cancer-free. Now go get yourself tested!

4. BE THERE. Talk to your friends with cancer. Talk with them about the cancer, or about whatever they want to talk about. It might be cancer, or it might not. Keep being their friend, and keep being there. Be reliable. Be helpful. Fighting cancer is hard work, and it’s harder if you feel alone, abandoned, or ostracized because of an illness you didn’t ask for. So call them. Email them. Visit. Be there. Show up.

Talk to them. So many of Mark’s friends did not know what to say to him — so they said nothing at all. He felt so isolated and alone, especially when he was really, really sick. Even if it is just a card or phone call — it is really important. — Sarah, caretaker

Keep visiting! Call, write, visit as much as you use to if not more. Of course, be guided by the person’s cues. Your visits may need to be very brief. — Anita, caretaker

Be a true friend by asking the person with cancer to do things to keep their mind off the situation. Don’t treat them like they are sick and exclude them from activities. The person will decline the offer if they aren’t up to it, so don’t decide for them what you think they may want. Exclusion sucks, we’re still the same people we always were! — Michele, 2X cancer survivor

My experience is that cancer can be very isolating and consuming. I would suggest making a sincere effort to connect with the person fighting cancer. Don’t just ask, “how are you.” Really make an effort to ask about the kind of things they are dealing with since being diagnosed. If they have no one to go with them on appointments, offer to go along. Ask if you could come sit with them during chemo treatments. Ask the person out to do something fun. It could be something simple like coffee or ice cream but it might give the cancer patient an hour of his/her day to NOT think about cancer. — Deb, caretaker

5. PUT YOUR MONEY IN THE RIGHT PLACE. Buying a pink object to “raise awareness” of breast cancer mostly raises the profits of the company who manufactures the pink object. You know who needs the money? People fighting cancer, that’s who. Have you ever heard a cancer patient say, “Thank goodness my health insurance covered everything! I’m completely cured and don’t owe a penny!” Me neither. Look around your neighborhood and talk to your friends. Ask around. You do know someone who needs financial help, even if you don’t know them yet. You can give them money to help with their bills, which are likely to be huge. Every bit helps. Ask at your bank to see if they are accepting donations to help out a local family who is struggling. You can give anonymously, but give. They need you, and the time is now. Besides, do we really need to spend waste another dime on “awareness”? We’re aware already. Let’s move on to treatments and cures, please.

6. MAKE YOUR COMPUTER GO BOINC. My friend Cory told me about BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, which lets you add your computer’s untapped resources to a worldwide network so that scientific projects can get access to the extra computing power they need for their research. He set it up on my computer in a couple of minutes, and now my computer is running calculations to help combat AIDS and childhood cancer while I sleep. Check out the website. If you’re interested in participating with me, leave a comment. If there’s enough interest, I will start a team you can join. Personally, I can’t think of a better use for my plethora of vintage Macintoshes.

7. LET THEM DRIVE. Each person is an individual; people fighting cancer, more so. Each body reacts to disease differently and responds to treatment differently. When you’re being attacked by cancer, you need to understand what’s working and not working for yourself, and what your limits are for each different activity. If it’s your friend or family member who’s fighting accept that they are driving the car on this trip, and you are their crew. You may not like how fast or slow their car goes — you may have wanted to map out a different route — but you need to respect that they are in charge now, and you are there to assist in the way that they need your assistance. Check your ego and assist.

Dean and I talked about this and decided that the one thing would be UNDERSTANDING. This would be to understand the kind of FEAR the family is facing with the prospect of no longer having this person around. An understanding of what multiple doctor’s APPOINTMENTS mean to the family planning and how to handle them. An understanding of how ONE’S HEALTH CHANGES affect the whole family. An understanding of the LIFE CHANGING process that happens to an entire family with the diagnosis of cancer to one of its members. Basically to be UNDERSTANDING of the fact that this diagnosis doesn’t just impact the person, but the whole family. If someone is distracted it isn’t because they don’t want to talk about it, but they are dealing with the cancer on so very many levels it is hard to see past all the things it impacts. — Bonnie, 2X cancer survivor

The most important thing you can do for someone with cancer is let it be their journey. We discover that a loved one has cancer and that affects us tremendously. Sometimes, and it’s human nature, it can be difficult to stop thinking about ourselves and really allow the patient to absorb, come to terms with, and dictate their own cancer journey. We just want to help. We want to swoop in and save the day. But, we are not superman. Being angry at our own lack of ability to DO anything can take away for the true matter at hand. The one best thing to do? Let go. Let it be about the person with cancer every minute you are with that person. Let him or her tell you what that journey looks like and accept it as it is. — Paula M., caretaker

The one best thing that I feel you can do for someone fighting cancer is to make sure that they understand that this is their battle and that they have to make their own decisions regarding their own treatment. — Paula R., caretaker

8. BE POSITIVE. Telling your cancer-fighting friend about your other friends who have died from cancer IS NOT HELPFUL. Neither is it supportive, kind, or necessary. Take your friend seriously and give them credit for their perspective. Don’t undermine them by comparing their cancer to your inconvenient hangnail, or whatever. Don’t pester them with “facts” you picked up from WebMD, recommend quack cures, or suggest they need an attitude adjustment to make everything all better. They have a whole medical team thinking of appropriate treatments to try: YOUR job is to provide emotional support. Stay their friend, hug them and touch them if it’s safe and welcome, and keep smiling.

Moral support. — Ken, 4X cancer survivor

9. DO SOMETHING. If you want to help, ask what you can do. This is not the time to treat someone as you think you would want to be treated; take the time to find out how they want to be treated. You can’t make their cancer go away, but maybe you can pick up that gallon of milk for them so they don’t have to make an extra trip. Maybe what they really need is for someone to just tackle that mountain of laundry so it doesn’t upset them any more. Ask, then do.

Be as supportive as the person in need WANTS and ALLOWS you to be. This may mean dropping everything else to be by someone’s side. Or graciously backing off and giving them the space they need. Or taking care of their loved ones by grocery shopping, picking their kids up at school. — Rona, caretaker

10. REMEMBER THE REST. Cancer may reside in one person, but it attacks a whole family structure. It saps strength, strains relationships, and adds extra tasks and expenses. Often the primary caregiver at home is rapidly becoming as worn out as the cancer patient. Giving them attention or respite care can ease their burden for a bit.

I thought it was really great when people came and did things with the other kids too! Sometimes they felt a little forgotten… and really loved a little bit of attention. The meals were also fantastic!!! We were spoiled. — Liz, caretaker

and, of course….

11. NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER! Life on earth is rare, precious, and all too short. You do not get a do-over, so don’t give up. Live the best life possible. Ask for help if you need it. Offer to help when you can. Love the people you love.

Published in: on December 19, 2013 at 1:54 pm  Comments (4)  
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Week Fifty: Bake ALL the things!

Twenty years ago (and how it pains me to type those words — how can it be that far back in time?), I was so deep into baking special things for the holiday season that it became normal to line a five-gallon popcorn tin with a trash bag, fill it with unbleached white flour, and almost run out of it by the time Christmas was over. (I learned the popcorn-tin trick from my very Italian then-mother-in-law.) Oh, the cookies I made…. triple ginger cookies, chocolate chip cookies with cashew pieces, snickerdoodles, peanut butter cookies, mint chip cookies, pizzelles in four or five flavors….

Not my cookies.

Not my cookies.

Since then, my holiday baking schedule slowly tapered off over the years. Without a big family to bake for, or invitations to contribute to the family festivities, I fell into baking only what I wanted to eat. One of the results is that I didn’t stretch myself as a baker, and I came to rely on about three recipes for all my baked goods. I wonder if the kids think that I just don’t know how to make anything else.

Lately I’ve been trying to try new things. And one of those new things has been to make again the things I used to make, and hoist myself by my own bootstraps out of my culinary rut.

But I justnow realized that everything I’m planning to bake this year has ginger in it. I spent yesterday evening baking five dozen gingersnaps; I have a box of gluten-free store-bought gingersnaps on my kitchen table awaiting their conversion to crumb crust for a New York cheesecake for one of next week’s potlucks; I’m blowing the dust off the ol’ three-ginger cookie recipe and I’ve already bought my crystallized ginger from Penzeys. What IS it with the ginger, already? And while I was wondering what it WAS with the ginger already, my mind leaped ahead and imagined stir-fry beef marinating with soy sauce and slices of fresh ginger, eventually combined with onions and broccoli and topped with a ginger-sesame glaze. What IS it with the ginger, indeed!

I forgot the Laurel’s Kitchen recipe for real gingerbread, maybe with a lemon glaze…. I simply HAVE to make that this year….

ANYway, the whole house is going to smell like ginger before I’m finished. Curiously (perhaps), I have no desire to bake and construct gingerbread houses. I’m not sure whether it’s because I don’t want to take apart and eat something I spent so much time on, or that I don’t want to spend all that time on doing only one thing rather than doing a whole bunch of things. (If you’re planning to do a gingerbread house this year, carry on! I’m neither disdainful nor jealous. I wish you well. Show me the progress shots, please.)

lifesize_gingerbreadhouse

Step 205….

Two years ago, for various emotional reasons, I cooked a Christmas goose. At first I thought that was an entirely different kitchen story, but perhaps it isn’t. Baking and cooking at the holidays (whatever holidays you have) are so much about sharing, comfort, memories, togetherness, and emotion. Two years ago at Christmas I was in shock from an incomparable loss. One year ago I was in a dynamic transition. This year I feel as if I’m peering outside, feeling safer, and wanting to bake the things that remind me of when I was loved and happy, so those feelings can continue.

Published in: on December 12, 2013 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Week Forty-Nine: O Christmas Tree

CBXmasTree

With Thanksgiving behind us now, it’s time to prepare for the Christmas season. A lot has changed in my life over the past few years, and my idea of Christmas is changing, too.

Our house has a living room with a big picture window that faces our country road, and for several years we set up an artificial tree right there so people could see the pretty colored lights from the road as they drove by. We piled the kids’ gifts under the tree, which was covered with the kinds of ornaments that only schoolkids can make: Photo Day portraits framed in canning-jar lids or wreaths made from puzzle pieces painted green; craft-stick reindeer; pompom snowmen.

Last year, when it was only up to me and how I wanted it to be, I bought a real tree and let my daughter decorate it with all the trimmings she liked, even the ones that brought me particular pain and heartache. I wasn’t feeling much of the “Christmas spirit” then, so it was a relief to see that she had it in abundance.

Since last year, however, I’ve repurposed the living room, and there isn’t room for a tree in the most obvious place in the house. None of the other rooms made sense to host a tree. The kids and I talked about it, and we (probably mostly me, but they were game) decided to get a real tree again, but put it up outside, on the deck. We don’t have a way to safely run electricity to it to light it up, so we’ll be making bird-edible garlands from Cheerios, popcorn, cranberries, and raisins, and hanging new feeders and birdseed ornaments.

Said my dear daughter: “So, Mom…. basically, we’re making a giant bird feeder?”

Sort of, although I hope it will also be a big playground for the birds that already hang around to see what kind of suet cake I might put out next. We have Hairy Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, Purple Finches, House Sparrows, Goldfinches, and (sigh) starlings and crows. The birds should enjoy the tree, and I also bought some pine garland to help dress up the porch and meet our own human aesthetic needs.

There ought to be something in this setup for everybody. We’ll find out soon. But we’ll have a real tree, a pretty thing, a mixture of holiday tradition and gentle change, and the chance to cut down our own tree (Middle Son is all for any enterprise that might let him wield an axe). Most of the kids won’t be here at Christmas to open gifts — we did some early exchanges right after Thanksgiving — so there’s really no need to take up half a room with a big pile of gift-wrapped temptation. But maybe we’ll start to develop other ways to celebrate the holiday, ways that over the years will turn into our own traditions.

———

As I wrote this post, I recalled my favorite Christmas-tree pictures taken over the years, and realized that right now I have access to almost none of them. But as I do find them, I’ll come back to this post and insert my own family photos from over the years. And I’ll take some pictures this year, too.

Published in: on December 5, 2013 at 9:00 am  Comments (1)  

Week Forty-Eight: Thank you

Thank you.

Thank you for reading.

The_Young_Cicero_Reading

Thank you for commenting.

Comment

Thank you for visiting my blog before I have something new published, because you know it’s almost time.

thursday

Thank you for sharing the link to my blog.

sharing-guinea-pigs

Thank you for clicking “Like” after a post that you liked.

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Thank you for responding to my surveys and questions.

survey

Thank you for following my news feed.

extra-extra

Thank you for hanging out in this space, my little corner of the Internet.

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Thank you for believing that I could accomplish all my crazy resolutions.

new-years-resolutions

Thank you for trusting that every week really would bring a new blog post.

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Thank you for tolerating such a wide range of writing: knitting play-by-plays, philosophical musings, weather reports, “Hamlet” commentary, nerdy math posts, room makeovers, photo essays, and even a sonnet.

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Thank you for scrolling down.

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Thank you for laughing at the silly pictures I find and embed.

End of Internet

Thank you for coming back.

Come-Back-Soon

Thank you for sharing your feedback.

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Thank you for encouraging me.

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Thank you, on Thanksgiving Day and every day.

Published in: on November 28, 2013 at 9:00 am  Comments (2)  

Week Forty-Seven: Creative Mode

aesops-fables

This week we had a little incident at home in which my middle son delivered a burn worthy of an arsonist.

It was bedtime, and it’s been years since I’ve read my kids bedtime stories, or sang them bedtime songs, or performed more of a bedtime ritual than giving each one of them a backrub and well-wishes for peaceful slumber. But on this bedtime, Jack demanded a fable.

“Mom?”

“What?”

“Can you tell me a fable about why I should go to sleep?”

“Um…right now?”

“Yes. A fable like this one: ‘Once upon a time…’ ” And he launched into a Proper Fable about that very thing. (By the way, props to whoever is doing the Fables unit at school.) Then he wrapped it all up and challenged me again. “Can you tell a fable better than the one I just told?”

“Well, probably not.”

I was too concerned with being honest to notice that he’d been verbally stacking dry tinder around me for the previous three minutes… until he tossed the lit match.

“Well, Mom,” he said, “it’s a shame your creativity burned out thirty years ago.”

———

I told myself that my degree wasn’t in Drama, or Theater Performance, or Improvisation. But, as a matter of fact, I have a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and in English Literature. I’ve been telling people for years, with a wink and a smile, that I have a degree in Making Things Up.

So why can’t I just make up a bedtime story?

One answer is that I don’t practice storytelling. I’m not a verbal person; my voice doesn’t command attention, and my spoken word goes unheard in large groups. If I am drafted to stand behind the microphone and say a piece I will do my duty, but I don’t enjoy it or feel comfortable doing it. Even reading a storybook to a classroom of kids of any age typically ends in disaster: I’m not interesting enough, the kids’ attention wanders, and the teacher gets hoarse from reminding them to LISTEN TO OUR GUEST and USE OUR MANNERS. This amount of negative feedback is sufficient for me to avoid storytelling gigs with as much grace as I can muster. And that’s a gig that calls for me to read someone else’s published text, not spin a yarn of my own.

I’m fascinated by improv, I really am. I admire tremendously the comics and writers who thrive on it. I attended a performance of the Second City Touring Company when I was in college, and I couldn’t believe that people could just go up on stage, ask for a few prompts, and create a unique, evolving show from it. Granted, they were different people — extroverted in inverse proportion to my introverted nature, and mugging to the camera instead of hiding from it at every opportunity. They wanted people to look at them, to react to them, to interact with them. And in more recent years I watched several seasons of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and Last Comic Standing, and Kids in the Hall, and SCTV, and Big Train. Some people are born to perform. I am not one of them. I can watch them on The Green Room or Inside the Actors Studio, talking passionately to each other about baring their souls in front of cameras and live audiences. My own soul is safe in the bottom drawer of a locked filing cabinet in a dark room behind a basement door marked ‘Beware of the leopard,’ so their public trials are my escapist literature. I could listen to them for hours.

Personally, I need structure for a story. I need to know who’s in it, and why they’re there, and where they’re going, and what the crisis is, before I can start writing. I need to see it before I can write it down.

But I also know, from having studied Story and Literature, that everything has been done. It was thousands of years ago that someone wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.” Intellectually I know that there are only novel combinations of tropes and themes. You learn the rules so that you can break them when it’s appropriate, but you do learn the rules.

So, what do we mean when we call something “creative”? If we take it literally, it is the act of creating something, making something that is completely new. But if there is nothing new, what can “creative” mean?

To Jack, it might mean “say something I haven’t heard before.”

To Neil Gaiman, it might mean “say something in a way that no one else dares to.”

To Frank Herbert, it might mean “create a world nobody else has imagined.”

To Ursula LeGuin, it might mean “change the rules and keep going.”

To me, it means “be different; be eccentric; be surprising.” But if you’re writing, you must plan ahead to be able to surprise others… which makes for a rather tedious bedtime story. Sorry, kids.

———

All my kids are adept at the “game” of Minecraft, which is really an interactive virtual world. You mine for elements, you craft items, you build structures, you battle evil creatures. It sounds simple, but I’ve seen Minecrafters create amazing things: player pianos, quiz boards, electronic sorting devices, elaborate prank wars, collaborative games, and challenging adventure maps. There are so many ways to use the toolbox that Minecraft gives you. One of them is the mode you choose: Creative, or Survival. In Survival Mode there are creepers, zombies, witches, silverfish, and all manner of possible deadly attackers; you play in this mode with your head turned, certain that something bad is sneaking up behind you. Because it is. Given enough time, your screen will tint red and you’ll see a button that reads “You died!” (Even worse is Hardcore Mode, in which your entire world is destroyed upon your death. That’s hardcore, all right.)

DinnerboneDied

In Creative Mode, however, the rules are dramatically different. You have unlimited resources, no enemies if you don’t want them, and you pretty much have superpowers. You can fly. And the only way that you can die in Creative Mode is by tunneling so deep in this Flat-Earth construct that you fall through the last level of bedrock and go out into the Void.

In Creative Mode, you’re the sixth son of landed gentry. You don’t have to be a doctor or a minister or a lawyer or a soldier — you can follow your heart and your whims. You can build a castle on shifting sand and nobody will raise a hand to stop you. You don’t have to watch your budget or your back. You have the luxury of godlike powers to assemble, build, create, and design. You have what every director in Hollywood wants: creative control.

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How would your real life change if you could live it in Creative Mode? If you didn’t have to worry about not getting your paycheck or your support check? If you knew you couldn’t get hurt and wouldn’t get sick? If you could arrange things your way? If you always had reward without risk? Would complete safety and freedom lead to innovation, or to sloth? Would you write your own story, or read someone else’s?

Published in: on November 21, 2013 at 8:01 am  Comments (1)  

Week Forty: Progress Report

It’s time to check on my resolutions as I wrote them out and published them at the end of December.

Thusly, I resolve that, in 2013 (!!!) I shall:

  1. Blog on Chocolate Sheep again, and regularly. Dare I say, weekly?
  2. Finish the Doctor Who scarf I’m knitting for my friend Ginnie.
  3. Complete my calculus class.
  4. Learn one new cast-on.
  5. Find a Most Excellent Job in my chosen field of technical and scientific editing.
  6. Learn one new cast-off.
  7. Help my kids be awesome.

Seven looks like a good number, don’t you think?

Number One. I have published at least one blog post per week, every week this year. I also threw in a few bonus posts here and there, and discovered a new (for me) feature of WordPress that enabled me to write posts in advance and publish them on my own schedule when I was traveling for an extended period over the summer. I also learned how to Publicize my posts via Facebook, and I automated that feature as well when I wasn’t at home to do it manually.

It would take me 49 more years to be as consistent as Cal Ripken, Jr.

At my current rate, it would take me 49 more years to be as consistent as Cal Ripken, Jr.

Number Two. I finished that scarf long ago. It’s starting to get coolish here in Southern Wisconsin, and I’m looking forward to seeing Ginnie wearing it again.

We're trending up, as they say.

We’re trending up, as they say.

Number Three. Here’s the thing, and I’ll be perfectly honest about it. I sat in on a spring-semester calculus class, but wasn’t really getting the mastery on the right schedule. And over summer I was watching kids virtually full-time when I wasn’t traveling with them. I did not study, and I forgot much of what I thought I had learned. I learned a lot about how my brain works (and doesn’t work), but that didn’t get me a grade. Which converted from an “I” for Incomplete to an F. However, all is not yet lost. I do have a certain amount of time in which I can do the work and petition to have the grade changed. That’s the current plan. Now, I do have an overall 3.0 grade point average even with the F on my transcript, but that doesn’t sit right with me because (a) I had a 4.0 grade point average before I started calculus, and (b) I had a decent B with the possibility of an A just before I couldn’t attend class any more last Thanksgiving. So I know what I’m capable of under good circumstances, and I’d like to get as close to that as I can.

What is infinity in dog years?

What is infinity in dog years?

Number Four. I think I’ve already recounted this, but after being taught NUMEROUS TIMES how to do the long-tail cast-on (thank you for your patience, Bonnie!), after some decent time interval I started a project that called for it. Lo and behold, my hands now knew how! It wasn’t a fluke — two weeks ago I cast on for another project and executed the long-tail flawlessly. I now have another reliable tool in my knitting toolbox.

Number Five. There may be breaking news in this category very soon. But for now I’ll have to ask you to respect my embargo.

If telling you about a job means I don't get the job I told you about, it could create a paradox that could destroy the universe.

If telling you about a job means I don’t get the job I told you about, it might create a paradox that could rip apart space-time and destroy the universe.

Number Six. I completely forgot this was something I resolved to do. It’s a good thing I decided to check up on myself, isn’t it? Well, I’m going to need some help with this one. I know how to do the “standard” cast-off and the “loose Russian cast-off” (k2tog, sl st back to left needle, repeat) and I don’t know what others might be good to learn. Knitters, please comment with useful bind-off techniques I should look into and learn by the end of the year. After all, I only have eleven more weeks!

Perhaps I need this book.

Perhaps I need this book.

Number Seven. So far this year my kids have been pretty awesome. The Teen started high school, concentrating on engineering (and also taking German, geometry, and Honors English). He’s involved with a bunch of students who plan to revive a defunct gaming club. Daughter is in the band (playing my old saxophone from high school), just joined the pom squad, will be playing basketball this year, and volunteers at the local library. She was recently elected as the student council representative for the fifth grade. Middle Son won first place for his grade in a spelling bee in the spring, is almost done with a season of youth tackle football, and is the fourth grade’s student council representative. Youngest won second place for his grade in the same spelling bee and also ran for student council representative for second grade. (He didn’t win, but he wrote a terrific speech.) Truly, I don’t think they can get much more awesome. (But I’ll find out within a month’s time after I’ve had conferences with all their teachers.)

Perhaps we need this shirt, too.

Perhaps we need this shirt, too.

Of course, I issued myself the Sheep and Wool Challenge on top of all this. Right now I’m on Row 4 of the only project I’ve cast on to fulfill it, and haven’t done diddly squat on anything else. Huzzah!

Published in: on October 2, 2013 at 8:53 am  Comments (1)