Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Charlie Brown Ficus

There is a Charlie Brown tree at work.

You know the kind.

It's in a room neither my coworkers nor I spend much time in, but we do go in there to get coffee or tea, or use the microflave. The tree is close enough to that corner of the room that every time I pour myself hot water, I bump the tree.

Unfortunately, despite everyone's fairly close proximity to it, we often forget to water the poor thing; it's been looking a bit crispy.

One coworker stepped into the editing office this week, leaned against the door frame, and muttered, "I think I killed the ficus."

I must confess: Charlie Brown's utterance of "I killed it" was the first thing that came to mind when she uttered that phrase.

We assured her that if it was dead, we were all responsible for not watering it; it was not solely her responsibility to care for it. But it was only in relaying this story to Spousal Unit that I realized how poorly off the poor tree was.

Because every time I pour myself water for tea, I bump into it. And every time I bump into it, a few leaves fall off. And in my mind, I hear the clink of ivory keys (at 1:06).

It's not dead yet, so I've been watering it since then, trying to coax it back. 

Poor tree. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Yarn Has Failed Me

For all the knitting and crochet projects that I finish with flying colors and immense pride, there are 20 others that see light for a moment on the drawing board and are hopelessly crushed. I often have trouble figuring out what I want to make, what to make it with, which craft to use, and what pattern to follow (or whether to use one at all).

Most of these attempts are unraveled (frogged) before long. I use the same yarn to create something worth working on, something that will satisfy my momentary desires.

Unfortunately, some of those end up getting nowhere, too. You know a couple of them by name: the Neverending Quilt and the Sweater That the Universe Denied. It's been ages since I worked on the quilt; it's been longer for the sweater.

Here are a few others. They may not have been sitting around for four years, but they certainly have been collecting dust.

I started this topsy-turvy watermelon scarf last summer, when it was warm and gorgeous and this yarn was yelling in my face. At a certain point, I realized I didn't have enough for a full scarf, and I can't remember where I got the yarn. Sure, it's available online, but with shipping included, one skein gets terribly expensive. So it's not worth it to me yet. Perhaps I'll find a skein of something different to finish it one day.

One partially finished leg warmer. I'm pretty bad about knitting pairs of things, unless they're really quick and easy. (This is part of why I haven't started my sock project yet.) I started this project last fall and finally started working on it again a few days ago. It stretches quite a bit as a leg warmer, but might be able to double as an arm warmer.

A single thumbless mitten (yes, that is my very alien-looking thumb sticking out of it). I think I made this last winter. Or maybe in the summer, when I was considering the benefits of making winter stuff in the summer.

Possibly the creepiest unfinished project in the world, this headless teddy bear was supposed to be a baby gift for a friend's first grandchild. I crafted it all from scratch... till I got to the head and realized I had no clue how to design a teddy bear head. Limbs are easy, but a poorly made head can make a child scream in terror. So I gave up on this and made a hat instead.

This is edging for my wedding gauntlets. I'm pretty sure I started this shortly before the wedding and gave up on it shortly after. I mean to finish them at some point, as a kind of heirloom thing, but right now, I'm not feeling much of a rush on that.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Last Night Sucked.

Some nights are like that. The cats won't stop begging for release from their evening sleep spot. They meow and fight and scratch pitifully at the door. Just as they're starting to quiet down and you're starting to fall asleep, sirens drive by, remarkably close, and loud through the poorly designed windows. Then the cats start freaking out again, as if black riders are on their trail and they have to escape in order to throw their collars into the factories from whence they came.

Some nights are like that. It's too warm in the bedroom, but you don't have the energy to go digging for that lighter spring blanket that you know is probably in one of the closets, but you're not sure where. So you sweat and wake up and half-sleep restlessly, waking once every hour or two with a neck ache because your memory foam pillow has developed Alzheimer's. In the wee hours of the morning, you just want ten more minutes of sleep after the alarm goes off; but between the sun - having risen like it never experienced the big bang in its life - and the cats, those mother-loving cats, you just give up on it.

Some nights are like that.

And after you get up and feed the cats and make one stop eating the other's food, you realize something: it wasn't really that bad of a night.

The sirens didn't come to your building. You are healthy and not the victim of crime. You can afford two cats to love and shelter, and a nice enough apartment that stays warm in the winter and (presumably, hopefully) cool in the summer. The black riders are just in the book you're reading, which is not real no matter how much you might like some parts of it to be. The bedroom is warm because a certain spousal unit is making beer and the thermostat can't be turned down or it won't ferment properly. He's making beer. You have blankets. You have a bed.

You are awake. You are alive.

And you realize last night wasn't that bad after all.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The "Real" World

One of my pet peeves is the phrase "the real world." People use it all the time in casual conversation, as though some people live in a strange alternate dimension where things are fluffy and happy 24-7. As if just by not having a measured amount of responsibility, bills, or grim outlook on life, we are separate from the world, rather than part of it.

I've hated this phrase for a long time - in part because someone once told me I wouldn't make it once I entered the "real" world. (Look at me now, beeyotch.) I guess the thing that bothers me most about it, though, is how the phrase typically is used toward kids.

Now that I'm in this strange realm called "adulthood," I really and truly don't get how people could possibly forget what it was like to be a kid, because I still know it as clear as anything. Children are just like adults, but they are clean slates. They are learning about the world around them. They are not separate from it; they are immersed in it.

The only thing that might separate them is the importance of play in their lives. I would wager that play is just as important to adults - but in different forms. Rather than using our imaginations to act out our make-believe, we use them to conjure up images in books. We use them to believe for a brief time in the fantasy world on a TV screen. We use them to consider what the future might hold if we make certain decisions.

Just because a person is optimistic doesn't mean a lack of awareness about obstacles and reality. It means that person has something many people have forgotten. It means an inherent belief that human nature is about goodness and love rather than war and backstabbing. Who are we to determine what a person's outlook on life should be?

Sure, teenagers don't pay bills. They don't have full-time jobs in high school (for the most part). They may not have a household to run. But the world is all around us - no one is free from its influence. Kids still feel pain when friends suddenly ignore them. They have hearts that can be broken. They feel empathy for others who feel these things. Those younger than us are not separate from the world merely because they are in school and have not yet inherited all of their parents' worries. What a ridiculous notion.

There is only one world, and we are all in it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Things I Have Done Lately: A Journal in Pictures

I made bread from my new Pillsbury Healthy Baking Book. This particular recipe was for refrigerated yeast dough that can be used in four different recipes. I made herb biscuits. One set, I shaped with my own personal method: roll till they're round.

 The other, I shaped using Julia Child's method: pull extra dough to the bottom, so that the bottom looks a little weird and lumpy, but the top has extra tension. (She explains it better, of course.)

Skip to 51:50 for the segment on creating surface tension for dough.

Among other things, I recently discovered awesome tree roots.

I started a crochet project.

I photographed some flowers.

I photographed some sister.

And I made a card for my niece's birthday.

The swan decal comes from an old book poster that I cut up and saved, knowing Sophia would love a pink swan card when she got older. The "love" bit at the bottom is from a set of stamps. She is now five, which makes me feel way old, but also lucky.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pitman's Shorthand

I found the strangest book yesterday, at Paul's Bookstore on State Street. It's an illustrated copy of The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. That's not the strange part - the strange part is that it's in "the style of phonography" and is completely illegible to me.

Page after page just has these little squiggles instead of nice Roman letters. The cover says the book is in Pitman's shorthand (Pitman is the publisher); it's the title page that says phonography. If I remember right, the publishing date was abbreviated to the '60s, which must be the 1860s, based on the apparent age of the book and the fact that Pitman was alive then.

Phonography, or Pitman's shorthand, is a phonetic version of English, written in those little squiggles, which emphasize particular sounds. Gregg shorthand is now more common (at least in the U.S.).

Monday, February 18, 2013

Road Trip: To Narnia and Sleepy Hollow

This weekend, Spousal Unit and I went adventuring. We drove out on Highway 18, with the overall goal of somewhere on the Mississippi, but moving at a snail's pace compared to our usual holy-crap-why-aren't-we-there-yet speed.

On the way, we stopped at the Rural Route 1 popcorn emporium, where you can get a bag of the delicious stuff for 75 cents. We also brought a couple of pounds home with us - there's nothing like a bowl of popcorn to satisfy a mild hunger or make it feel like the weekend on a Tuesday.

We saw this rather magical tree, all by its lonesome.

Once we reached Prairie du Chien, we found Narnia.

Narnia turned out to be a place called Villa Louis. We didn't get to visit, because it was closed for the winter. Visiting places that are closed seems to be our thing.

We also saw this lovely old building. There's something about the way things fall apart that is very poetic sometimes - especially with such a different facade beneath.

We also saw a few very strange things - mostly in Fennimore.

The Silent Woman restaurant. Note that she has no head. NO. HEAD. We must have been in Sleepy Hollow.

The butcher shop advises you to get your Valentine's steak from them. Because that's what the holiday is all about - handing out meat to the people you care about. (That was so not a double entendre.)

Adding to the Valentine's festivities, moonshine is available at one liquor store...

...and guns are for sale at another. Along with cheese, and cases of boxed wine. I honestly did not know you could get a case of the stuff.

All told, we know of a couple more strange places in the world. It's been a good weekend when I can say that.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cakes of Valentine's Past

Yesterday morning, my mom texted, "Do you remember what happened 24 years ago today?"

"No, you don't," Spousal Unit insisted. "You were four."

But I do.

It was the day of my preschool Valentine's party. I was probably bursting out of my skin with excitement, as Mom had made a cake for the party. She's an amazing decorator of all things, cakes included. She made them for everyone's birthdays, for anniversaries, for weddings, and they looked like a professional (who actually gave a damn) had made them. This wee round Valentine's cake was the same. If I remember right, it was two tiers, placed on a silver cake board with scalloped edges. The cake itself was on the small side (because preschoolers don't need much sugar to be rendered gibbering masses of energy), but the decorations were stunning: handmade roses and lots of those silver leaf decorations so popular in the '80s.

In short, it was gorgeous, and four-year-old me was way impressed.

This February morning was cold, as winter should be (none of this oh-hey-let's-see-some-rain-just-for-funsies crap). The two of us bundled up. Mom held the cake in one hand and grasped me with the other, and we ventured out.

We lived in an apartment at the time, and we stomped across the snowy complex to the garages. I imagined that my mittens were endowed with magic powers, and that simply by donning them, I had enormous strength (later, someone wrote a book about that, but they got my name wrong). At some point on our trek to the garage, I let go of Mom's hand - probably to investigate something an adult would consider very boring.

When I had sated my curiosity, I went back to her, She had gone around one of the apartment buildings, and as I turned the corner, I saw her sitting on the icy pavement, not terribly disheveled, but clearly upset at having fallen.

The cake was upside down on the ground.

I don't recall being sad about that, at least not right away. When I saw her, the first thing I said was, "Mom! You should have been holding on to my strong mittens."

She was, is, and always will be pretty amazing, that lady. She picked me up, put me in my car seat, and drove me to preschool for the party. Then she drove herself to the hospital.

She did all of this with a broken sacrum.

She told me later she almost passed out when she put me in the car. Moms do pretty amazing things for their kids. Love you, Mom.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Book I Want: The Happiness Project

I know I did one of these posts recently, but this one has multiple layers to it. And it cannot wait, because I am excited, and I really hope someone out there can enjoy the hell out of this, too.

I borrowed The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin from a friend, and it's taken me an astoundingly long time to get halfway through. That's not a comment on its readability, but rather the fact that with every five pages I read, I'm inspired to go do something that will make my day-to-day life a tiny bit happier. That, to me, is the mark of a good book.

Rubin's book began as a decision to become a happier person over the course of a year. The book is divided by months of the year, and each month features a special focus, like vitality and organization, friendship, or romance. Reading someone else's indefatigable drive to improve, revitalize, and expand is very contagious, and her ideas are well researched and succinctly described. Her simple statements make you realize as you read that it really is easy to put away those papers, call a friend, sing a little song, and be a tiny bit happier for it.

Many of her points are the kind of things that need long-term maintenance (keeping the house organized and sending an email for every birthday), and I can envision all of those things getting exhausting to do every month, year after year. But in the end, it's just a matter of prioritizing: which of these are the most important to me? We all at least try to maintain cleanliness, stay in touch, and have fun on a regular basis; life does not fit into tidy compartments.

Tea, on the other hand, does.

Among other bursts of energy, The Happiness Project inspired me to beautify the tea cabinet. Before I got to it, there were random paper and plastic bags of tea on each of three shelves, interspersed with coasters, reusable tea bags, and five kinds of hot chocolate. Behold the reformation!

Some of my tea was labeled and in jars before this project, but what really got it rolling were the four matching Ikea jars I found second-hand for $5. It was so exciting to see them lined up, stuffed with aromatic leaves and decorated in simple calligraphy. (Stop judging me.)

I think it was that project that made me decide I need my own copy of this book. This is one of those that can take a long time to get through, and one you want to pick up again and again. This will be my want-to-do-something-but-can't-settle book.

And after I read five pages, I'll be ready to go and do again.

Monday, February 11, 2013

American Ideals Suck (or, Youth Where it Matters)

On Saturday, in a fit of restlessness, I headed out to the nearest department store.

It wasn't that I'd been inside all day; on the contrary, I'd been to the Madison physics museum and the grocery store earlier. It was more of a desire to get out on my own for a bit while Spousal Unit engaged with video games and action movies I wasn't thrilled with at the moment. And so I went on a meager adventure.

I'd not planned to buy much; after all, that was not the point of the trip. As long as I was there, however, we did need a tablecloth to conceal the unsightly mess below the living room table. We also needed a second set of sheets (yes, we only have one). And then, I somehow ended up in the makeup aisle.

I've been noticing my age, lately. Not to say I'm getting old; I don't believe that at all. But the cells in my body are slowing their rejuvenation, and along with that come aches I never used to have, a desire to stay in when it's snowy out, and the gradual succumbing of my body to gravity.

Perhaps it's just laugh lines making their bid for permanent real estate on my face. Perhaps it's just the extra sag of the skin below my eyes, and the way it makes me look exhausted in the morning despite eight hours of sleep. Whatever it is, when I look at my face now, I see a change. Likely, no one else does, but as I spend a good deal of time with myself, I've noticed it easily.

The scariest part of that is, of course, the change. I've never been one to fear age. Certainly, I've wanted to stave it off longer than most - since I learned what aging was, and the terror of change, I think.

So when I found myself standing before the age-defying creams and rejuvenating face masks, seriously weighing their merits in my mind, I freaked out a little. And then I thought about modern society. Eternal youth is one of the other unreachable American dreams, attainable only by those who die young and Tina Turner.

Tina Turner, at 73!

Even if I were to spend a fortune on creams, collagen, and plastic surgery, these things would not change the fact that with every day, I get a little older. Which is scary sometimes, but not necessarily bad. It means another day with Spousal Unit. It means more chances to do things, go places, learn. And besides which, as Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine says: fuck beauty contests.

So instead, I bought these.

Kids' bubble bath (because they don't have adult bubble bath where I went), season 3 of Archer, chocolate, and a plastic Batman tablecloth (with 7 villains hidden on it).

Even if I end up looking like Christopher Walken when I'm 50, I don't think I'll have a problem with staying young at heart.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Jaws of Doom

My favorite picture of Titania so far:

It's not one of Oberon's more flattering shots. Or Titania's, I guess. But look at that wide-open cat mouth full of teeth! She's a kitty!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Books I Want: The Golem and the Jinni, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

It's been far too long since I discussed books here. Not working in a bookstore anymore, I don't have ready access to advance copies, and I don't get to be the first to trace jagged pages, hear the creak as I fold back the cover, smell the fresh ink buried within. I miss that part of my retail work.

Luckily, Publishers Weekly posts the Most Anticipated Books of the season, so I at least get to see a limited selection of the wonder to come. It's better than being entirely removed from books most of the time.

I saw two on that list from PW that really caught my eye. One is The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

This is the story of immigrants to the U.S. - supernatural immigrants. The golem comes from Yiddish folktales, and the jinni from Arabic. They wind up in New York at the turn of the century - sorry, the 20th century. (It feels weird to have to specify that.) Both are trying to avoid being discovered for what they truly are, taking commonplace work to better blend in. The golem's master has died, and the jinni is, of course, a prisoner. The two form a strange friendship when they meet.

Reviews have compared this book to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (another book I want), and it strikes me as very similar to American Gods by Neil Gaiman. And speaking of him...

His new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is his first for adults in quite a while. I'm a bit apprehensive about this one; yes, I love his style dearly, but last time I read him, it felt almost like deja vu. I've read so much of his work that his stories feel almost predictable, as if I've learned the secrets of his style. (Which is not to say I could imitate it - those are entirely different animals.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane features a car, a man, and three women who live near him, who much resemble the Fates. I really know little else about the book - dark forces gathering, an ocean of course, and probably some self-discovery. It's difficult to find any actual reviews or synopses of the book, aside from the dust jacket summary. But there is a tidbit from the author himself here, along with illustrations by Dave McKean (shocker) for a special edition of the book.

Lastly, can I just say I'm tired of covers that feature dead or dying girls on the cover?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Captain's Blog: The Cruel Gardener

We've entered the home of what we can only assume to be a person of strange moods and tastes. Our reception was warm and welcoming, but the Lieutenant and I were a bit disconcerted at the state of the local fauna. Many of them, as with this African violet, appear to be thriving in this hostile environment.

I would be inclined to choose different language to describe the territory, if not for the presence of this ... former plant.

Clearly, the latter has been deceased for many days, if not weeks, yet it remains as is, in a pot in a corner. The room is scattered with various other greenery as well; I can only be led to believe some tyrant believes herself the Angel of Death and has left the deceased as a warning to other plants. She must have a heart drier than Earth's Nairobi desert.

That, or we've encountered our first chlorophyll vampire.

Monday, February 4, 2013

How Are They Connected? A Musical Investigation

In the last couple of days, I've been connecting two songs in my mind, for no apparent reason. (Full disclosure: I've also had Kiss by a Rose stuck in my head, thanks to Spousal Unit's evil ways.) The songs are Wisconsin by Whitehorse and Change by Churchill. 

Wisconsin is rather folksy, with a hint of country twang in the guitar and almost lackadaisical singing in the lyrics at the beginning, despite talking about union busting. The lead singers intertwine their harmonies throughout the song, and the drum set plods along methodically, setting a kind of "marching to our death" tone. My favorite line is tied between "All our pirates are Johnny, not Somali" and "They're keeping Science in the basement/Speaking tongues and making fools."

Change only seems folksy due to the use of a mandolin instead of a guitar - the song is much more pop-driven than anything else. The lead singer goes solo for the first few verses, not enlisting her backup until 1:20. The song as a whole is much more upbeat than Wisconsin, and the lyrics are not nearly as exciting or innovative. Mostly, the song is catchy and she has a great voice.

So why do I feel some kind of connection between these two? The answer hit me yesterday: they're in the same key. Not only that, but they start on the same couple of notes and are even close to (if not exactly) the same tempo. Try playing the Churchill song, and add in the Whitehorse song at 0:48, where the guitar solo starts.

I'm sure there are greater similarities too, but that's about all the language and musical background I have in my arsenal to describe them. But my friend Joe has started a blog called The Taste Tester, where he's establishing a better language for musical description, such as The Saturation Principle (having listened to a type of song so often that a new one of the same kind, even if it's a good song, is uninteresting). He listens to lots of music, and he knows what he's talking about. His descriptions will help you talk about the music you like with greater authority.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Things I Know About My Downstairs Neighbor...

...without having properly met him.

1. Based on the number of shoes in front of his door at any given time, he either has two or six children.

2. Based on the number of coats in front of his door last night, his apartment has recently developed a selective black hole, which sucked away his hall closet.

3. He can't hear very well, to the point that his music must be loud enough to rattle my floors for him to hear it properly.

4. He only likes very loud, very bad heavy metal and Gagnam Style. All other music is sub-par.

5. His reaction to my presence suggests that he's often been asked to "turn it down a little."

6. He only plays his drum kit immediately after showering. This leads me to believe he has a sterilized drum kit in a clean room.

7. Today, I learned that yelling at 5 a.m. is his favorite. His kids' too.
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