February Make-A-Thing-A-Day, COVID lockdown version.

I don’t know if I have ever looked forward to FMATAD they way I am this year.

It’s been a long haul, and a lot of us are weary with midwinter, sick of political worries, missing the outdoor weather that allowed us to at least sit six feet from friends in a lawn chair and feel human.

I didn’t invent February Make-A-Thing-A-Day but I fired up my own chapter of it when the original site called it quits. The rules are simple: Every day in February, make something. A craft, a poem, a new dish nicely plated. A song, a doodle, a yo-yo trick. Teach your brain and use your hands and show us.

Join us on our facebook page, HERE

The perennial sending-kids-to-college advice.

I wrote this in 2018 on a college parents’ page, and while 2020 has its own challenges, it still might ring true for parents navigating this path. Hopefully it will privide a trail of breadcrumbs:

Thoughts from a mom of 2 upperclassmen Falcons, and a longtime teacher of college students: (for what it’s worth). One of the things I wish I’d figured out earlier was how to step back, without worrying, and let my kid make messes and clean them up, get stuck and learn how to fix it.

Because this safe middle-ground between school and job, between having parents and being parents, is practice for the adult world.

If you have an annoying roommate, you learn skills to deal with an annoying coworker. If your teacher is demanding, so might be your boss one day. If your advanced math teacher speaks English with a strong “foreign” accent, you can practice a job skill for an Engineering career full of people from different nations.

I know now that on a bad day or in a weak moment, a kid will call home and lament – be comforted – and then hang up, cheer up, and have a great week, while I worried and wondered and didn’t hear a peep. So I learned to listen and then let it go.

I learned to answer their drama-du-jour with some version of: “What’s the resource there? Who can help you figure this out? Talk to your people. You’ve got this.” If you believe they can handle things, so will they. Fake it ’til you make it.

I learned that a lot of kids still think they are earning grades for their parents, so if the wheels start coming off the wagon, some will preemptively call home to blame the teacher, the advisor, the college, the technology. None of these are perfect, of course, but sometimes we aren’t getting the whole story.

The old parental urge to put on a cape and come to the rescue doesn’t fit here anymore, no matter how many times we Insist that We Are Paying For This and demand satisfaction. If you would not march into your adult child’s future workplace and confront the boss, you shouldn’t get involved here, either.

They will have to handle all kinds of bureaucracy, administrivia and complications in life, from doing taxes to waiting at motor vehicles to balancing their budgets. This is a practice ground for adulting. And since students are adults, the college (and its teachers and staff) are not even legally allowed to talk to parents about a kid’s grades, behavior or finances unless they have written advance permission. Trust your kid to work it out.

When my toddlers – and later, students – used to come to tattle or report some problem, I used the line a wise mom taught me: I listened sympathetically and asked, “How did you handle that?” (It still works for college kids.)

Remember that it’s just college. We have not sent them off to sea or off to war. Our fortunate kids are in a safe place, surrounded by other young people also working toward the future. They have shelter, food and amenities, a place to gather and make friends, teachers and tutors and counselors, a health center when they are sick, security guards on campus, RAs in the dorms. They will learn (or not) to do school without reminders and hand holding, to make choices without fear of parental consequences, and they will find their way.

About half won’t finish college – that can be ok too. But while they are at school, they have both freedom and a safety net. It’s a good place to try your wings. So we all need to lean back, relax, trust the system. We can’t manage their lives from home any more than we could drive the car from the passenger seat (or hit that imaginary brake) when they were just learning to drive. Trust that our kids will reinvent themselves, go through phases and try on attitudes, test their own beliefs, lose friends and make new ones.

(I’ve learned to keep my thoughts to myself when they come home with wild looks or wild friends… “This, too, will pass.”)

Lean back, relax, trust your kid. It’s not about us, anymore – and if it is, it shouldn’t be.

One more: It was weird when my kids went off to school. My house felt empty, I wasn’t sure who I was if you took “mom” out of my job description. Two things happened: 1.) Parents who had BTDT predicted (correctly) that those kids would be back to the nest – summers, life changes, job hunting, in betweens. And 2) “New Normal” slowly but surely took over my house, life and marriage. After all, there was life *before* kids and would be a long life *after* – and before long our energy went in a lot of fun and freeing directions. (Even to the point where bird coming back to the nest took a little… accommodating. lol. )

Sorry so long winded. I’m just smiling over the annual flow of this list and the regularity of what comes next and next. High five to all the Falcon parents – we did the best we could to parent them with all our flaws and good intentions – and now they are grown and we can call it a job well done. The journey from here – for better or worse – belongs to them.

Toledo Area Summer Scarecrow Challenge 2020

It’s been a weird summer, right?
But people in pandemic mode are staying home, planting gardens, tending flowerbeds and otherwise spending more time appreciating their own back yards, balconies and community planting spots.

So: here’s a fun and creative project, sweetened by some random prizes. Before your corn, peas, tomatoes and strawberries start tempting the birds, woodchucks and rabbits, it’s time to make a scarecrow! Here are the rules:


  • Make a scarecrow! Deadline is the 4th of July, 2020.
  • Post a picture of your entry “at work” on the Scarecrow Challenge facebook page. (If you’re not a facebooker, email it to me at Contact@kellysavino.blog and I will add it for you! I will also post images here on the public blog.
  • PRIZES include:

A $70 mani-pedi at Lisa’s Nails

A $30 gift card for Black Frog Brewery

A $30 gift card at Big C’s BBQ

And lots of great second hand gardening books!

Scarecrow in garden

Kelly’s Advice for Young Artists

Here’s what I’ve learned by this point in midlife, for what it’s worth:

1.) Surround yourself with creative people who say yes first and work out the details later. Learn to do the same.

2.) Seek critique from people whose work you respect — and know the difference between your ego and your art.

3.) Try anything, even if it’s doomed to failure, then learn from your results.

4.) Experiment in areas in which you have no skill. Try unfamiliar media, challenge your comfort zone.

5.) Resist the temptation to “plead artist” and surrender when it comes to the business, math, marketing and accounting aspects of your studio. It’s never too late to challenge self imposed limits.

6.) Process matters more than product. Evolve. Give it hours, days, months, years of practice: there are no shortcuts.

7.) Nothing is a waste of time for an artist. Everything you love will feed your work: the shape of an eggplant in your garden, a bit of history trivia, the art of others, your own struggles, are all fuel for your work and will feed it in ways you never planned. Don’t force or overthink it — it just happens.

8.) Make what people will buy if you have to pay the bills, but also make what you love with no thought for the market. Having one deeply personal line of inquiry keeps us centered, sane, and moving forward, even if nobody “gets it”.

9.) Poet Nikki Giovanni once told me that learning to write well is only one small piece of the process: good writing comes from life experience, not from workshops. I find this to be true in any creative pursuit. Have adventures. Create a rich and interesting life for yourself and your work will reflect it.

10.) There is no substitute for time spent making. No tutorial, teacher, technique or tool will move you forward more than time spent at work. Not planning, discussing, list making, or waiting for inspiration: actual work. Learn while doing. Go.

Handle demo: Make 20

Handle demo: Make 20

College class is making cups, so I demoed three handles — a pulled one, a coiled one and a hybrid.

Thing-a-Day Forever

Make 17: Seed germination tests.

I am kind of a seed hoarder, and before I go to the local seed swap next weekend I have to make sure which of my stockpile of seed packets is still viable. I used 15 gallon sized ziplocs with a paper towel in each — coded the packets and wrote the codes on the bags. I put the heat loving ones on top of the chick cage and the cold loving ones in the front room. Now we wait…

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Thing-a-Day Forever

Tested out a die cutter: Make 15

It’s nothing unique — just a die cutter from Michaels that I got for a friend’s art journalling class. But since I didn’t have the right machine for it, I jerry rigged a slab roller made for clay — and it worked!

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Thing-a-Day Forever

Stoneware Ocarinas: make 14

The guy on the left has a hole in his whistling mouth that changes the tone when you cover his lips. The one on the right is a more standard simple ocarina. Demos for my Ceramics 1 class who are making small handbuilt things for a raku firing later in the semester.

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Thing-a-Day Forever

Chickie image, Make 12

I cannot lie. My mail order chicks came in the mail and I did nothing but sit and watch them all afternoon. I took this pic for my facebook page and so this pic is my sole creative pursuit today.

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Thing-a-Day Forever

Wheat Grass Sprouter

I bought a stack of these at Dollar Tree — three for a buck. I pour wheat grains in the bottom, fill them with water up to the holes, and set them on a series of racks under plant lights against the mirror (that used to be a window) over my kitchen sink (we built a room on the other side of that wall.) I have fresh wheat grass for juice, and start a new tray as soon as the first one sprouts so I will have some on the way when this one gets “clipped” and stuffed into my juicer. Succession planting, sprouter style! These shelves also hold jars for salad sprouts (lentils, fenugreek, alfalfa.)

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A question my farm aunt never would have asked.

I have a sick hen. I thought she was egg bound, and brought her in yesterday, soaked her for half an hour in a sink full of soapy water to get the goop and poop off the belly she had been dragging. There is no egg in there. Her bell is soft and distended like a water balloon. I googled around on various chicken boards and apparently it’s a form of peritonitis that can happen to good layers — caused when a yolk takes a wrong turn in the laying process.

This bird is elderly, but she’s eating and drinking and has produced at least one poop. According to Dr. Google, it is possible to use a hollow hypodermic needle to drain the fluid from her abdomen. (The guy who does this shared a photo of a quart jar of evil greenish yellow clear fluid from his hen, which — along with the smell of wet feathers in my kitchen — didn’t enhance the enjoyment of my coffee.)

Apparently she will be instantly happier and more comfortable, and wander off to enjoy her day. But it will refill, and refill, and eventually kill her. She will never lay again and will never get well.

So. I have the needle and the nerve… but don’t know if this is a good idea. I could miss the right spot and poke an internal organ or intestine… I have no idea how long this will relieve her discomfort.. and I suspect a quick and painless death would be the kinder choice.

Whaddya think?Image

Toledo School for the Arts “Snow Ball” 2013: Connor and Molly.

DSCF1300

Molly wore Grandma Averill’s black velvet jacket.. Connor wore his grandfather’s black tail coat. They stopped at my mom and dad’s before the dance to show them the final results and take some pictures. Connor is junior this year, a percussion major playing in the Glass City Steel drum band. Molly is a visual arts major and enjoying photography.

My kid moved into a dorm…

tydormview tydorm3 tydorm2 tydormMy kid moved into a dorm...

He’s already a BGSU veteran and knows his way around campus… the dorm is older but has some charm and friendliness… he’s got a coffee pot and an alarm clock, his mom made his bed and put his clothes away, and he’s a full time, on campus, non-commuter college kid now. I’m not freaked out. Much.

Hen house from a shipping crate

Hen house from a shipping crate

15 bucks for plastic roof, scrounged everything else… a two chicken hen house for a friend who wants a couple of layers. Click the photo for pix of the inside…

What I did today.

G

Every night I go to bed focused on what didn’t get done. So yesterday I wrote down every accomplishment, however trivial. FTR my house was still a mess at bedtime.

Make for 2/10: Jam and syrup

I had to make room in the chest freezer for the drawn comb and stored honey from my hive that didn’t survive winter… so I took out all the fruit I froze last summer: gooseberry, ground cherry, elderberry, concorde grape, red currant, pie cherry, raspberry, blueberry… even threw in a bag of frozen cranberries. I juiced a huge kettle full and made pancake syrup, honey sweetened jam, juice sweetened jam, low sugar jam…  this pic is just the first two batches. I poured some into a blender of applesauce to make fruit leather and made a big pan of gelatin bars for a valentines project you’ll see later ;0) Imageawn

Summer’s end

It’s that season when instinct sharpens our focus, when memories braided in DNA remind us that this is for real, that nature doesn’t mess around.

The mouse who stole from my kitchen was dead in the trap this morning, because this is my kitchen and not hers.

Wide-eyed owls row silently through the dark, and in sunlight hungry hawks eye my chickens. I watched from my garden as the red-tail swooped into the cluster of ginger colored chicks in the grass. The hen who fosters them flung herself full-on into the diving raptor, screeching with rage. It rose and flapped off on expansive wings, talons empty. Until dusk the hen scolded chicks out of the open lawn, kept to the hedges, tipping her head with one eye to the sky. Once roosted safely for the night with her numbered chicks intact, she kept her look of vigilance; pulled herself to full height and looked down her beak at me, reptilian-fierce for her size. Good girl, I said. Brave mama.

The bees hurry hard to replace what I’ve stolen, storing the last of summer’s gold sun into little wax pots, like grandma’s peaches in canning jars lined on pantry shelves for the long winter’s dearth. They know in their microscopic hearts that one night soon will come a killing frost, and what’s done will be done for their lifetime– the flowers burned black by cold, the next flight for nectar a winter away. As the cold closes in, the hive evicts its drones. The big-eyed males bees eat but do not work, don’t gather or guard, raise babies or make wax — so they are barred from the door in these shorter days, left outside to freeze or starve to protect the winter’s store. Nature bears no sentimentality; winter is serious business.

My hens who gave me seven eggs a day offer three, or two. They won’t go broody as the days grow short and the cold closes in. Nobody pecks my hand when I gather. They offer up eggs without protest. Their ovaries don’t know there are fifty pound bags of grain in the barn. Nature says “scarcity coming, and spring is a long way off.” In another month, the bright orange grass fed yolks will grow pale as the cold-parched lawns. In two, we’ll buy anemic eggs at the store.

My garden has slowly surrendered, vines curling back to reveal the acorn and butternut squash, the last of the paper husked ground cherries fallen on mulch. I know in my modern and civilized mind that the produce department will be there all winter, bananas from islands and decadent ruffled of kale being misted under flourescent lights. I know that my first world “white whine” problem will be rock hard winter tomatoes among the more-food-than-we-ever-could need, as we waddle the aisles with our shopping cart. Still, some part of me formed over tens of thousands of years, so I take satisfaction in well stacked woodpiles, fifty pound bags of rolled oats and rice, rows of pickled beets and tomatoes shining in canning jars. Like the bees: enough, enough for winter, enough until gardens grow again.

Summer food falls in our laps, in our lawns, blueberries tumble into our fingers and all the world is a feast. Summer is melons and babies, hammocks and gardens, fishing and naps.

Cold means the hungry hunting the hungry. In falls growing up I learned to cook for the deer camp, scald and pluck mallards, skin a hanging buck. The mouse who robs my pantry will be swept from its snowy track by the hunting owl. The fat mourning dove at my feeder is food for the kestrel, a flash of impact and a drift of grey feathers.

It’s not that fall makes me uneasy. It always reminds me of life-since-forever, tens of thousands of years that formed our likes and dislikes, skills and fears, worries and satisfactions in ways we no longer directly understand. The world plays for keeps. I’m on full alert, busy as a bee who feels impending frost. Though some of my “chicks” are twice my size, I still hover like the hen, watching with one eye for all that might threaten their safety. When hard frost comes I will greive in my garden, pulling blackened freeze-scorched plants for the compost, regretting tomatoes that never got ripe and the crops that never got planted.

Then I will reach for my comforts: the woodstove fire, the fat sweater, the pot of pea soup and fresh baked pumpernickel bread. I will talk to myself, counting my blessings, hugging my children, glad that unlike my ancestors, my “wolf at the door” is only a figure of speech. It takes all my civilized logic to convince me that even in seasons of theiving mouse and frozen garden, hungry hawk and evicted bee, no predator lies in wait on my path — no eyes glow bright in the brush — no puma, no wolf, no grizzly with cubs — nothing is hunting ME.

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Battle of the Kitchenaid

So I’ve had a kitchenaid forever. I have worked two to death, canning applesauce, grinding flour, grinding venison and making sausage, kneading artisan bread, shredding kraut and making tomato sauce.  I called kitchenaid and they shipped me a new one in a day’s time — sometimes an upgrade. But this last one was long past warranty when it coughed and started skipping, ker-chunk-chunk, oozing oil in a sinister fashion.

So I decided to take it apart. If I could see what was wrong, I could maybe fix it.  If not, it would at least be fodder for fobot projects. Picture one is the Iron Horse itself, awaiting surgery.

I poked around the internet and printed an exploded diagram and parts list. I needed a phillips head screwdriver, so of course I found five flatheads.  The second picture is step one: remove the aluminum band. Note: eew. There was old food and oozed oil under there.

Step two was to unscrew the whole top of the machine. Picture 3 shows what that looked like.  Auxiliarry dad Mel Jacobsen taught me to always take pictures when rewiring kilns, in case I need to remember where stuff went to put it back together.

Step three was to take the top off the gear housing in the front there. I put a plastic baggie over the circuit board first to protect it from grease. There was a LOT of grease. I have spared you a picture of my black crusted fingernails. I removed grease with a screwdriver blade and then with q tips. Eeesh.

See the horizontal worm gear on the right? The one with the coppery looking end? That lifts right out. The dome shaped one to its left, though, is held in place by a little clamp ring. Not sure what it’s called but I made up several unkind names for it as I tap-tap-tapped it upward one skillimeter at a time.

You can see the ring in place in the 5th pic.

When you remove all those upright gears, you can make the whole bottom piece drop out (it’s called the planetary, which I consider kind of cool.) As I removed parts, I put them on a sheet of paper and wrote next to them where they came from. That’s picture six. I have a short attention span and have become really good at adapting to my non-linear way of thinking.

After I got all the parts out and cleaned them up, finding no toothless gears or shattered bits, I wiped more grease and looked carefully at that horizontal worm gear. The long shaft looked like a rotini noodle, but the center part of the swirl had been worn thin and narrow and quite sharp — cleary worn enough to cause the double-skip!

I called around until I found a place called Mr. Appliance in South Toledo. I picked up the boys after final exams and then headed down there, with my parts list, model number and the greasy worm gear in a bag. I decided to spring for a new gasket for the gear box as well, as the existing one had obviously allowed grease to ooze out around the edges. And for ten bucks I got a styro cup full of the special food grade grease used in kitchenaids. The shop was a fobot maker’s dream — parts for everything you could imagine. The whole bill was fifty bucks — a fraction of the three hundred plus it would cost to buy a new one.

I got home and dropped the new part into place… put all the screws in — and then found a leftover piece.  As usual. But once assembled, it ran like a top, and I am back in the bread business! Jeff got home from driving my grandma to the lake and was very impressed by my willingness to forge ahead without a clue, lol.

Now I shall return to degreasing the kitchen.. my tools.. my hands.. my hair…

I hate when stuff ends.

Don’t get me wrong — I have been making long lists of projects and outings I plan to embark on “Once Finals Are Over” — everything from cleaning the basement to having friends on the deck. Still, while I count days to the end of a crazy teaching schedule at two colleges, I always feel a little sad about the last of anything.

Last day of wet clay was Friday. Last art appreciation presentations will be Wednesday. Last day of class with my writing students looms as well. The last glaze load will be cooling in two days time.

Meanwhile, I’ve known these students for fourteen weeks — Ceramics 2 students even longer. I’ve dragged them over new terrain, cajoled and scolded, told stories and jokes, listened to their struggles with life and academics, finance and romance.  I CARE about these folks.  And somewhere in the second week of May, they will all be assigned a percentage, summed and totalled, and then they’ll disappear into their own lives. The ceramics studio at Owens will stand empty all summer.

Familiar routines, washing that coffee cup, packing a bag lunch, taking the elevator or the stairs, driving to and from work with BBC and an eye on the clock… no part of it is all that remarkable, but having it end abruptly is unsettling.

I will spend absolutely no time sighing when my break begins… I’ll be digging in the garden, balancing the budget, planning meals, renting a dumpster, cleaning the garage, sorting outgrown kids clothes for goodwill — but until that point, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. The endless rain doesn’t help matters, even though the green leaves are pushing through and the world around me is greening up.

Besides, I am filling my summer schedule with classes at the new Hands On studio at the Toledo Botanical Garden — clay whistles, flasks and rattles, felting and batik, papermaking and tiles, taught by me and by others. New students, new focus, all very exciting.

I’m maybe too sentimental. I want to hug all my students goodbye and friend them on facebook, have them over for bbqs and know how their lives go from here… and they’re probably thinking, “Whew, that’s over! No more being blathered at by whatshername!”  Plus, grades add to the weirdness of a teacher-class bond… the fact that no matter how funny you are and no matter how much I like you, the math will add up the way it will and I cannot tell a lie to the great computerized  grade book that rules us all…

Anyway I’m in a funk about the whole windup here. Off to grade papers…

Making nonstop, daily…

It’s not a thing-a-day fail, really… though it’s a post-a-day fail.  I’m making a big, complicated, multifaceted thing, a thing that involves the making of more things, by more hands, in a way that has me loving the dance of work, and rest, and plan, and work some more.

I can’t officially “go public” with my big big big project — the one I go to bed scheming about, wake up excited about, and race home from work to go work on… I can’t crow until it’s official, and appears in print, and that’s a few weeks away. never scoop your own story.

But meanwhile, I am deeply and truly happy.  Here’s a pic of me doing some late night window trim painting in what promises to be a space full of good energy and joyful pursuit.. Jeff took it from outside the window.

Make 50: Hand made hand decals

The project I am working on involves the phrase “Hands On” — and these are for that.  I’ve made six or seven more since I took this pix. It’s hard to photograph suncatchers on a cloudy day, but these are really fun to make. Klutz squirty bottles full of stuff that looks like bright colored elmer’s glue. You draw a design in black goop on a ziploc bag, let it dry, and then go back and fill in the colors with the other tubes.  My kids are making stuff, too. It’s been a monochromatic march so far and I am ready for some COLOR!

Makes lately: Not telling.

Really, I’m not.  Makes 47, 48 and 49 are on a really big project that will consume a lot of my spring and summer, but I can’t really go public with it yet. Hint: It has to do with restoring a grubby place with amazing potential and lovely surroundings, for use in a joyful and artistic community-focused pursuit.  Trust me.  I’ll post a whole bundle of these when the moment is right.. for now a few cryptic glimpses and no details.  If you’re guessing… shhhh.

Remembering Carnation Day

Having teenagers is kind of a trip down memory lane. I think my teens are much more level headed than I was about the whole social environment at school. Maybe homeschooling gave them a better sense of who they are, so they are less vulnerable to peer weirdness.  Or maybe teen angst doesn’t show on the surface, and my kids are secretly just as neurotic as I was.

But I was thinking recently about the tradition of Carnation Day at my high school.  It was like Valentines day, only different.  In grade school, we were REQUIRED to give a valentine to every  student, even the kid who wet his pants and the girl who blew her nose on the hem of her dress.  But Carnation day was not like that.  I remember that it was a fundraiser of some sort, and happened during  the bleak, short days around Valentines. Carnations were purchased in advance, to be delivered during class on the appointed day.

Remember that song — “I learned the truth at 17, that love was meant for beauty queens…”  Well, carnation day was that truth writ large. All day we’d sit in class awaiting the knock at the door, and student helpers would sweep in with an armload of flowers, and start calling out the names of the popular, the anointed, the beauties and cheerleaders, the girls whose boyfriends paid for expensive armloads of blood red carnations.  It was like that moment when they crown Miss America, and the also-rans smile hollowly and pretend to be glad… popular girls went from class to class hauling bouquets on their arms, tangible evidence of popularity, boyfriends, admirers.

My friends and I determinedly bought each other a sympathy flower or two in self defense, but most classroom deliveries left us empty handed.  Besides, there was a color coding system that make it clear Who Was Most Loved. Red was for love, pink was friendship, white was a secret admirer.  I think there was some “respect” related category for yellow — bestowed upon teachers and such.

So there we were, the ordinary citizens, walking the halls with our three bent stems like Gertrude McFuzz and her pathetic tail… some kids had none at all. 

I look back and feel sad that I even cared.  If I had a time machine I would send my teen self some exotic bloom, an orchid or bird of paradise or fragrant gardenia, to be delivered in class.  From me, with love, and the wisdom of my 40s.  The tag would say, “Worth is not measured in public acclaim… Friends are not counted in numbers… The common currency of beauty and popularity are a poor measure of souls.”

Sorting stuff in my attic, I found a box of 30 year old dead flowers; a carnation from Kay, my homecoming mum, corsages from semi-disastrous proms. I rubbed them between my hands until they powdered to dust, and poured the dust into a little jar in the box of memorabilia. I’m not sure why. The folklorist in me wants to make some kind of charm to ward off insecurity, defense against excessive levels of giveaashit about the overrated rites of high school passage… sprinkle it on my sleeping teens so they never forget who they are, and what they are worth, and how much they are loved.

Ann Arbor Art Fair

I really liked this print by Roger Disney at the art fair in Ann Arbor today. It reminded me of something… can’t put my finger on it…

Knemu Studio workshop: one of those forks in the road.

Workshop group making casseroles

My name is Kelly, and I am a recovering workshopaholic.

When my house was full of little kids and I was stealing naptimes to throw pots in a tarp-lined linen closet, my annual workshop was like a pilgrimage to Mecca: a weekend at Functional Ceramics in Wooster, at Charlie Cummings’ studio in Fort Wayne,  or even (dare to dream) a whole week in the steamy green forest of Tennessee, at Appalachian Center for Craft was a milestone in my year.  It meant I had to sell enough pots to pay the tuition, get Jeff to take time of work, and sometimes I had to pump breastmilk for weeks to fill the freezer for my absence.

But once I stepped out of the tug-of-war betweeen potter and mommy, studio and kitchen, I could make more progress in a single weekend than I had in a year of stolen moments to work by myself at the wheel.  To be surrounded by potters, guided by an expert, and freed of the time restraints that come with schedules and meals, calendars and ringing phones — was an spiritual experience that recharged my creative batteries for the year to come.  It was like climbing out of the rushing river of daily routine, standing on the bank, and taking stock of where I was… the lay of the land, where I had come from and where I was headed.

Over time, as my kids grew independent and clay became less of a hobby and more of a livelihood, I became kind of a workshop snob. Not only did a workshop mean I had to come up with the fees and travel expenses, but it also meant losing a weekend or more of income: my  teaching, making, firing and selling ground to a halt so I could go watch someone else make pots.

Much of the time, it was worth it. I took pots with me and begged critiques, looked for new techniques to incorporate into my work, and relished a chance to socialize with other potters.  We often learn as much from our fellow workshop participants as we do from presenters.

I came to favor hands-on workshops over the sit-and-watch kind.  The more exciting the demo, the more I wanted to try it, NOW.   By the time I got home to a backlog of chores and demands, the notes in my sketchbook rarely held the excitement and specific detail that was fresh in my mind at that moment.

And as a notorious penny pincher, I found myself looking for those workshop moments that made me think, “Ahhhh… now there I got my money’s worth.”  Shortcuts, studio management tips, a way to use a tool for a specific effect, a solution to a problem that has plagued me… all those things changed how efficiently I worked once I got home, and justified, in my mind, the sheer indulgence of restaurants and lodging, potter peers to laugh with and vacation from daily duties.

I am told there is a website called myprofessor.com where students post candid and unmoderated reviews of their teachers, to help other students make informed choices about where to spend their tuition dollars. It strikes me as a ripe territory for revenge-of-the-flunked-malcontent, and it’s kind of annoying that there is a “hotness scale” ranking the prof’s attractiveness, but the concept is an appealing one. I have posted, in the past, to lists like Clayart to mention a workshop I was considering, and had off list warnings: “Yeah, he’s good when he’s sober, which is before lunch”… or,” he’s a notorious skirt chaser and will ignore all but the young, well build women”… or, “she makes beautiful work but has the stage presence of a footstool”…

Like with profs, I have found that there are brilliant artists who can’t really explain the process.   Maybe they are shy, or not especially verbal, or just not extroverts.  There are important kinds of information that are painstakingly slow processes and not very demo-friendly.  Then there are a few presenters who are all hat and no cattle — big personalities, great jokes, but not much to demonstrate beyond the very basic. There are the workshop equivalents of the Sham Wow guy, holding two day infomercials for their own line of gadgetry, and others who are used to a room full of college students and “talk down” to the group as if they have never made a pot before, giving them a hairy eyeball if they talk out of turn.

So when it was my turn to give a weekend workshop, I had to somehow live up to my own impossible workshop-snob standard.  I had a small group of ten people for a two-day, hands-on experience at Khnemu Farm’s studio, and was determined to give them their money’s worth.

Using wire cutters, a box of pencils and a paper of bobby pins, I made everybody a carving tool to make their own slab texture roller — Diana P’s extruded inch-wide coils are perfect for the job, extruded the night before and left to get leather hard.  I bought  a package of cheerful red and white fishing bobbers and cut a chamois into strips to make rim-finishing tools for all, and made clay handles for twisty-wire tools to make on the potter’s wheel, for cut off bottoms with a nice seashell texture.  I had maybe thirty seven cents each in my giveaway tools! (lol)  Such generosity…

Partly because of my attention span (look, a bunny!) and partly because it makes for a better classroom dynamic, we “switched it up” throughout the day on Saturday. Demos and then hands on, throwing and slide show, and then hands on some more.  The Steve Tobin studio slide in my powerpoint led to conversation, explanations, and then — even though it wasn’t on the agenda — I found some microdynamite in the bottom of my tool bag,  so we tried their new texture rollers on cubes of clay after lunch and then exploded them on the picnic table.  It turned out to be a great way to deal with that post-lunch energy slump!  There weren’t neighbors for acres in any direction, but if there were, they would have wondered about the bangs and pops, squeals and howls of laughter.  The end results were carried inside for firing — except for what ended up stuck to the side of the barn or on the roof of a nearby car.

A potter friend warned me how exhausting a weekend workshop could be, but honestly, I’m a lifelong show-off and get energized by the attention of a group. (Especially when they laugh at my stories.)  Besides, at 4:00 they all went home, and I was led to a lovely, breezy farmhouse veranda and handed an ice cold, homemade “whit” beer — (something about orange zest and chamomile and a certain kind of hops… all I know is that I have sighed over any lesser beer ever since.)  Dinner was a roast chicken raised on the farm, along with vegetables that had traveled maybe a hundred steps from the garden to the kitchen, artfully prepared and enjoyed on the porch, in a long, slow evening full of conversation and a stellar countryside view.  An Old English sheepdog slept at our feet, heirloom chickens poked around the flowerbeds, bats left the lofts and flitted around the pines and the full moon rose over the cows in the pasture.  I slept as soundly as I did as a kid in my grandma’s farmhouse bedroom, with breezes billowing the curtains and nighttime frogs and crickets giving way to morning roosters and bird song.

Sunday we got right to work. Chris Trabka, a tall, talented potter with hands the size of catchers mitts, appointed himself my “roadie” and wedged clay, found missing tools, and otherwise made things go smoothly. Chris was the guy who made the connection between me and Khnemu to begin with, and his pots (some as big as I am) grace the studio’s gallery space.  I pulled out my casserole-wall extruder die, with the rim, gallery and bottom-bead spaced to fit perfectly on a 2X4 marked to length, and the photocopies I made everyone of templates for the floor and lid sizes. Between my wheel demos of a two part pitcher and faceted teapot, they used their new rollers to texture their own casserole walls, and to make flasks. It was a marvelous group, mostly women, with a variety of skill levels but a shared sense of fun. When it was over, it was like the end of summer camp… I didn’t want to go home, and was sighing over the cars disappearing off into their own lives again. I hate endings, lol.

I can’t say enough about Khnemu, though. I will admit to a bit of envy.  My own yard seems so narrow, now, my flock so small, my house so cramped and my canned cheap beer so… canned.  Dawn Solzniak has built herself a dream, there, and it’s working (with a lot of work and energy on her part!)  A barn from the 1800s has been converted to a charming gallery, roomy classroom space,  and a sales floor loft above. She has just built a car kiln in a metal silo, and it has hilariously inconcruous glass paned french doors on the front. Like me, she has one hen who comes into the studio and lays her daily egg… hers in a bucket, mine in a towel hamper.  They are on a tourist-stream, in a cluster of wineries and artisan farms between the arty-gay-touristy Saugatuck, and the moneyed summer estates of Grand Haven.  There are slow food friendly gourmet stores, (there is even an “eaters guild”  in her area) — bakeries, locavores and pick-your-own farms and orchards, mixed with traditional Michigan farmers, religious communities and small town culture.

I brought home an armload of my brochures for my Toledo friends and guild students.   It’s a lovely three hour drive into a land of bed-and-breakfasts, and her workshops are affordable and small and friendly. Too many in my town’s economy can no longer afford Arrowmont and Haystack… maybe it’s time for “think local” to extend to workshops like Khnemu.

My family hopes to head north to canoe camp this summer, and we plan to pull into the Khnemu driveway with the pop-up and spend the night. I would love for Jeff to meet Rob Solzniak, as they are both patient men with a great sense of humor married to crazy potter ladies with big ideas. And my kids have to see the new calf, and the llama, and the peacocks, and the cat who sits his butt right on the wheelhead in the middle of a demo if he is getting insufficient attention.

I am grateful to have had a chance to do the weekend workshop. I made friends, got inspired, and got a little ego boost from participants who really seemed to think they got their money’s worth.

First night at Knemu Studio

Khnemu Studio, gallery and farm, near Saugatuck, Michigan

I drove North for three hours this afternoon, passing through the tornado damaged areas near Toledo, and then on to rolling landscapes of impossibly lush green… wheat and soybeans starting to go gold already, and fields with standing water from the week’s storms mirroring brilliant blue skies, framed in fringes of emerald corn. I love Michigan’s red barns, orchards, wineries and woods, creeks and lakes. This was where I grew up, in the land of fertile dirt.

I have my bags of tricks all packed: tool making supplies, templates for the casserole project, texture rollers for flasks, and glaze recipes… enough ideas to fill a semester, and a little anxiety to keep me on my toes. Ten people have paid for a weekend of hands-on worshop with yours truly… no pressure!

Khnemu farm is a marvelous place, and I have farm envy: Dawn has 30-some acres to myalmost- half acre yard, a whole yard full of chickens to my dozen, a horse and a llama, turkeys and  peacocks. The gallery, studio and classroom space are in a restored red barn with hubcaps gleaming on an outside wall. The 1800s farmhouse is solid and charming, original woodwork and “period” decor, with pottery and oriental rugs, and humorous touches everywhere.  On my way to bed tonight I spotted the wicked witch of the west’s stripey legs sticking out from under a piece of furniture…

We had dinner and a lovely stout homemade beer on the porch in the late summer light, Dawn and her husband Rob and I. They feel like people I have known for a long time, generous and smart with an easy laugh. A big Old English Sheepdog named Samson followed us around as I prepared the studio for tomorrow’s group, extruding pieces, and throwing  some just to try out Dawn’s clay.  We put the poultry to bed, and checked on a cow who may be in labor; she stood by herself in the field, ears back. The moon came up full and orange over the barn.

I am snuggled down in a bed with an old utilitarian quilt, in a snug upstairs room built 200 years ago; lace curtains, hardwood floors, and the moon peering in. I can hardly imagine sleeping: there could be a calf being born out there in the pasture, right this minute!  And new people to meet tomorrow, and two solid days to give them their money’s worth… I’ll post again when I can.

A warm day in March: opening the hives

I circled the first  hive, looking for signs of life.  Pressed my ear to the lid: nothing.  Though it’s really too early to open a hive and risk chilling fragile spring brood, I had worried my way through bone chilling weeks all winter.  I hoped for some sign of survival, now that the snow was gone and the sun was warming my soggy, monochromatic back yard.

I opened the lid, just slightly, to smell the hive.  A beehive has a glorious perfume,  a scent of beeswax and honey and frankincense, sweet and floral,  savory and feral.

It smelled promising.  I lifted the lid and pulled up wooden frames one by one, but nothing stirred.

The brood chamber was a tomb. Bees climbed head first into empty comb cells and froze, starved, failed.  It felt like a Greek ruin, like a miniature Pompeii.  Here were the chambers where babies were raised, here the pantry, there the queen lying in state.  Dead bees hung from the comb in a cluster, by the hook-ends of their feet, so natural that I held a few in my warm palm, raised them to the sunlight, bathed them in warm breath to make sure they were not just too cold to move.

The second hive’s lid, when raised, decanted the unmistakable, troubling aroma of  fermentation. 

 Bees forage and return in gathering season, filling comb with nectars from a thousand blossoms; it’s wet, unripe, until the fanning of wings and the heat of the hive evaporate the liquid and it reaches just the right level of “sticky” to be honey.  They cap each finished cell with wax, and that’s their savings account, their pantry store for the long months after hard frost kills whatever blooms. 

But unfinished honey stores, not capped or tended when a hive is lost, will ferment into some aboriginal mead. It gives the hive a yeasty aroma, sweet but ale-ish, like kombucha, or the working fruity must for wine.

Another tomb, a damp one.  Not the empty hive of colony collapse, no bee-pocalypse or bee rapture: just a pile of dead bees on the bottom board, where they dropped one by one, unable to turn enough calories of honey into calories of heat. When the cold goes on too long, no bee can leave the cluster’s protection to retrieve  honey stored along the farthest edge of the frames. They warm the cluster by shivering their flight muscles, but none dare leave the queen.

I pulled out and sorted the wooden frames of comb, they way we pillage shipwrecks for valuables still of use. Combs of built up frame, deep beeswax combs, will save future colonies the trouble of building a place to store goods and raise babies. Young bees make beeswax from a gland on their bodies but it takes a lot of energy and time.

Combs full of bright orange pollen (protein rich for feeding baby bees) and darker combs of honey from the brood super went into my freezer, bagged, to await new occupants: move in condition! furnished quarters, meals provided! They will have a good start.

 Fresh, white combs of capped honey from the first hive went into a box, which I will carry to my kitchen and cap into jars for my own narrow pantry shelves. I sprinkled bees by the thousands into the compost.  Even the bug-munching chickens didn’t want them. Maybe they remember that the striped tidbits come with a sting, or maybe the bodies were mostly dried exo-husk with no protein inside worth the bother.  I don’t know. I didn’t taste one. (don’t laugh, my bee inspector gobbles the larvae and finds them nutty and sweet)  Still, the bodies felt empty and light in my hands, like chaff.

I had big hopes for the last hive. Over the winter I had seen a peppering of dead bees dumped into a snowdrift behind the hive, sure evidence that somebody in there was cleaning house and carrying out the dead.  Maybe this last one would be Noah’s Ark, Battlestar Galactica, with enough survivors for a new beginning, and a fertile queen whose daughters could fill three hives.

Lifting the lid brought a scent that was all wrong:  mouse?  

Mouse.  The smell of  a childhood hamster cage in need of cleaning, or the surprise find of shredded work gloves in a garage drawer, stuffed with insulation and smelling of something wild, rodenty, funky and fertile.  Mouse pee and birth nest.

The top box had honey but was empty of bees, and as I worked my way down, I found the careful hexagonal rows of beeswax cell that had been destroyed; chewed through in tunnels, emptied of content. Wax bits and mouse poop everywhere. Deeper exploration offered grass, and fluff, and finally the bright challenging stare of a doe-eyed field mouse, sleek and fat on a winter of honey and fat bee-grubs.  I pulled out the whole section of comb that contained her nest and put it on the ground but she stood her ground, hanging on for the ride; another fat mouse ran for the cover of the bleached fall leaves mulching raspberry vines, but this one would not budge.

Crap, I thought. Babies.

I went to the house for an aquarium, thinking to transfer the whole crew to a safe place, and when they were raised, to drive them far away to for release.  When I returned, she was still there, but leapt from the nest at last when I hefted the whole works over the glass tank.  After a split second of imagining what it would be like to bottle feed baby mice, I pulled the nest apart in my hands: no babies. Thank heavens for small favors.

The nest was made of the thinnest dry grass, and long strands of shredder-paper. It had once been my junk mail and wastepaper, was shredded to make bedding for my kids’ cage pets, then dumped into the compost bin where the mousewife apparently recycled it yet again. There were long white strands of guinea pig hair in the nest, as well.

I am sorry to have lost my bees, but the winter was hard and the bee inspector says losses are high all over.  On the 14th of April, a man named George in Waldo, Ohio will package up six pounds of Italian bees and a queen, and ship them to me. Between the boxes of chicks and boxes of bees, employees at my suburban post office always remember my name.

Last year, I put myself on an exterminator’s list to capture honeybee swarms, and befriended with a man whose enormous, ancient maple bee-tree produced swarm after swarm last year.  So maybe he will call me again in spring; last year’s bees have done the hard work of building and storing, so I could have a surplus by fall.  Meanwhile, I have empty supers (the box parts) leaning on the garden fence for sun. I will scorch the insides with a weed burner, just for the sake of a fresh start, give them a coat of paint, and reassemble the hives when shipping dates come closer.  Before I hive the new-bees, I’ll go to the freezer and fill their bottom box with drawn comb, stores of pollen, and several frames of capped honey that have just the slightest aroma of mouse.

End of an era

On Monday, my last homeschooler will load up a backpack and lunchbox and head for school.

She’s thrilled.  She went to shadow for three days as a preparation for next fall, and had a marvelous time.  She came home saying, “I want to join!”  I wasn’t at all surprised, and actually had expected and encouraged her to consider it before this year, but she didn’t feel ready.  Now she does. 

 Looking back at the baby years, child led weaning, and the principles of attachment parenting, I’m grateful that I have learned to trust each child’s unique schedule in moving toward independence. A bird pushed from the nest will certainly fly, but one who gets to decide when it’s time to go has the feeling of self determination that can’t come from being pushed.  Curiosity and readiness determined our learning choices in homeschooling, and the choice to go to school works the same way.

She’ll attend the small Montessori school where Connor is thriving this year.  There are less than twenty kids in the entire sixth grade, and more than half of them are Molly’s tribe of girl scouts (the group I co-lead.)  One of her two teachers is a scout mom we’ve known for years.  The art teacher is a student of mine at the guild, the music teacher Molly has known through community band.  There are kids there she has known from the UU church since preschool.  So there’s nothing big and scary; she says she is surprised that she’s not nervous about starting, since she often hesitates before big changes.

A combination of financial aid and the money we’ve squirrelled away for Molly’s education have made this an option.  The timing couldn’t be better, work wise: I am at the college/guild/studio during much of the day now, and Jeff oversees her on line schooling, but beginning in March he’ll be teaching part time in three places: two on-line biology classes for out of town universities,  and an environmental science for a local business college. The grandparents are in Florida, and Molly doesn’t love being home alone. So this works. Her teachers have no qualms about her starting mid year, and see it as a nice way to learn the ropes before the much more self guided junior high experience.

Anyway, the time is right.  Every year, since grade school, when we did our year end homeschool portfolio assessments with the obligatory certified teacher, we’d go out to dinner to celebrate “graduation” and ask the kids how they wanted to school next year.   They had friends and teams and sports and scout troops with schooled kids, and had some idea of the options, but they continued to choose homeschooling.  

We had a wide tribe of homeschool friends, a huge grassroots organization of families who did museum art classes and docent guided tours, lego robotics teams, weekly gym classes at the rep, weekly park days, HELP meetings and social gatherings.   There was a group of kids they had grown up with who came to do clay at the studio, or plant a tree for earth day, came to birthday parties and invited them for sleepovers.  They resisted school because of what they would miss.

As they reached their teens, though, there were fewer big kids at the gatherings.  I joke that Tyler chose to start school in 9th grade at Toledo School for the Arts for that fine academic reason, “to meet girls”.  Connor started a year later in 8th grade at the Montessori, which badly needed some boys in a girl-heavy class.  Molly has watched them both make a fairly seamless transition.  They may grouse about homework but they come home full of stories, and look forward to heading back to their friends at school on Mondays.

The teen years are a perfect time to head out on your own for parts unknown, take on new adventures, feel more independent. School — a concept which is old hat for a lot of their peers — is a whole new experience for my kids right now, and the freshness of it has kept them from being bored or jaded.  At this age they know who they are, are not particularly blown off course by peers, and have a value system firmly intact.

It was a little nerve wracking for me, as their sole teacher for the first decade, to turn them over to school, wondering what we had missed at home and where the gaps would be.  I felt like their grade cards would be grading me, and how well (or badly) I had done in guiding their learning.  It was especially disconcerting because we had used a very child led, interest based “unschooly” approach through grade school, letting them run with their favorite subjects and blurring the lines between living and learning.

Our house was full of animal cages and tank critters, telescopes and microscopes, maps and posters.  A time line down the hallway with thumbtacked kid art traced civilization from the fertile crescent to the fall of Rome. Another tracked Ohio history, and a winding bit of yarn traced the timeline of the planet (in which scale all of human civilization was concealed under the thumbtack holding the end to the wall.)  The bathroom was wallpapered with old national geographic maps, and shadowbox kitchen counters held their collection of fossils, geodes, arrowheads and coins.

When they cleaned fish, mom printed out fish anatomy so we could locate the parts.  When we camped in Hocking we learned geology and studied rock strata, went caving, read aloud about what surrounded us.  On long drives we read the history of each state when we crossed a state line, and the kids had their own maps to chart our course and color the flags and state birds.

I started Singapore math with them fairly early, my one concession to a traditional  curriculum timeline, based on the “if I get hit by a bus and they end up in school” factor.   They did Rosetta Stone Spanish, hitting it with renewed interest when Uncle Cap married much loved Jenny from Columbia.   We planted our garden every year, which meant bar charts for seedlings as they popped up under lights, testing soil for Ph and nutrients, and an earthworm composter in the basement.   The kids brought in every odd seed pod, bug, turtle, egg shell or stone, often to be googled and identified.   We looked at rain barrel water under a microscope and sprouted seeds to dissect the root systems with charts.   We took a shopping cart to the library and had almost 100 books checked out at all times.

Still, it was nervy of me to ignore the standard “food pyramid” of what kids were “supposed” to be learning in this grade and that.   I was following a theory that learning is best connected to living, but the guinea pigs were the people I loved most in the world, and the stakes were their futures.  No pressure, lol.

I was reassured by their standardized testing; they all tested at twice their current grade level, a fact that I attribute more to their love of reading than our educational choices.  Those tests seem slanted toward good readers and writers, in all subjects.   But I still wondered how they would do in school: were they sheltered, naiive, vulnerable?   Poorly socialized, ripe for mockery, poorly tuned to the unspoken rules of school and the pitfalls of nerdiness?

So far, so good.  They are decent human beings.  The boys have good grades and good friends in their small, personable schools.  Unless Molly experiences some unforeseen “failure to launch”, I can soon breathe a sigh of relief: I wasn’t hit by a bus when they were little, and I apparently didn’t screw them up too badly.  They are confident, close to family, with good values and inquisitive minds.   Love of learning appears to be the key, and I needn’t have worried about whether they had enough Ohio History in second grade or whether we should have done pilgrims in October and fractions on schedule. 

Meanwhile, my house continues to morph.  High chairs and board books made way to bean bag chairs and novels.  Cloth diapers in the laundry were replaced by Tae Kwon Do gear, and now the ubiquitous giant sweat socks and school clothes.  Little blue cub scout uniforms made way for huge boy scout shirts and badge-heavy sashes.   Toys have been replaced by Connor’s fishing poles, slingshots and bb guns, and Tyler’s ipod, wii games and fencing gear.

We still value hands-on learning.  Molly will begin horseback riding lessons in spring, and is competent on the potter’s wheel.  Connor plays percussion  in a community band. He and Jeff took a wood turning class last week, and are looking for more cooking classes in spring.  Tyler’s packing for a thespians conference and attends a fencing club weekly. 

And scouting is a passion as well.  We’re both troop leaders. This weekend, Jeff and the boys are at Klondike weekend at Camp Miakonda, racing a dogsled they built (pulled by scouts in harness) against other troops, and staying up late in the cabin playing cards and board games.  My girl scouts did their winter camping last month, and are getting started on cadette silver award projects.

And now, I’m off with Molly to shop for school supplies. I’m glad she stayed home this long; it’s the tear-the-bandaid-off-slowly approach to mom letting go of homeschooling.  Jeff’s job loss kind of threw us into a schedule where more independence was inevitable, and Molly had chosen an on-line charter school this year for transition to traditional schooling, but the social pull of her girl scout friends is strong.

Logic and acceptance aside, I’m going to feel really weird on Monday morning when all my kids are, for the first time in all of life, at school.

Vultus a Hunnam!

If my family had a crest, it would have to contain the latin words for “Look, a bunny!”  It’s a standing joke, at our house, how often we fail at linear thinking (or speaking, or action…) In other words, we’re “highly distractable”.

For instance: this morning, with no students on my calendar and nothing scheduled until after Thanksgiving, I got a big cup of coffee and set about the long-avoided task of sorting paperwork.  There were days of mail stacked on the counter, boxes and stacks and files of paper on and under my computer desk, kids’ school papers, glaze recipes, grade books, unpaid bills, coupons, artwork, syllabi, glaze recipes, scout papers, and general mess.

I began in a pretty organized fashion and spent a couple of hours — piling by category, filing  (one file says, no joke, “tax bewilderment”),  filling clipboards with priorities, sending some paper through the shredder to become pet bedding, and setting aside one-side-still-good paper for scrap. I kept at it until lunchtime…

 …then it occurred to me (look, a bunny!) that my computer should go in a corner of my kitchen that had been a homeschool area in the past, and could be reclaimed if I just cleaned out the cupboards and shelves.  So I wandered away from a our dining table (covered with piles and files and sticky notes), and started the cupboard project.  Books, tools, kitchen gadgets, canning supplies… I worked on it until I had made some headway, moved in the computer, set up the printer, tucked in cables, sorted cupboard contents… and then I found (look, a bunny!) …

…an old plastic cutting board that I didn’t need anymore. Perfect for cutting an extruder die!  So I wandered out to the garage, and found a drill; drilled a hole in the board, and then with a jig saw, cut out a long slot like the cross section of a tile, complete with zigzags on the bottom to make grout grooves. I found some C-clamps, clamped the cutting board (now with a mouth and teeth) onto the end of my pugmill. ( A note to non-potters: a pugmill is a giant meat grinder like machine with an auger, that eats clay scrap and squirts out a thigh-sized tube of clay ready to use.)  I stuffed soem clay in the hopper and turned on the machine. Sure enough, it started to spit out foot after foot of tile through my little slot, like an oversized pasta machine.

I couldn’t be at one end stuffing in clay and at the other end easing the long strips out onto a board, though, so they were shortish strips and I was running back and forth. This is the kind of problem I love in the studio; it reminds me of the cat batting a gum wrapper under the couch so she can enjoy trying to reach it. Creative problem solving is rewarding, even when I keep making up my own new problems.

I leaned a long, wide board under the little tile-squirting mouth, sloping away toward the floor, and then cut a long strip of dry cleaning plastic; the idea was that as the wet clay tile strip emerged, it would rest its front end on the front of the plastic, stick, and thus drag the strip underneath it on its way down the board-runway. It worked — I got a nice long strip with a plastic backing that I could lift toa drying board without deforming. But it still took too much fussing on my part to feed and straighten the plastic strip as the tile got longer.

So the next idea was to roll the long plastic strips around a rolling pin — (picture toilet paper) — and then put the whole works under the extruder’s mouth, with the roller’s handles held in place by two big nails, and the middle free to turn. It was beautiful. The clay strip emerged, touched the plastic, and it unrollled itself like a red carpet at just the right speed, so the clay slithered down the board on a smooth snake-belly of plastic and I never had to touch it until it was done.

I intend to cut them in the morning, and have everyone in the family design a little inch-square bisque stamp to press in the middle of each tile. Over the holiday break I hope to tile the stair risers and the back landing.

Now, though, I have a paper-stacked table, a not-quite-finished cupboard sorting project, a quarter mile of uncut tiles, and I’m going to bed. Unless I see another bunny.

Tomorrow’s coffee will start the process all over again…

 

Zombie flash mob: the youtube

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqteDWzcZGs

Here’s the link to the zombies at the mall, from my last post. It really doesn’t do justice to the event… it’s shot from the balcony, it’s hard to see the costumes, and the real dancing doesn’t happen until about 3.00 on the counter… the kids did the best they could under the circumstances, but the crowd (who had no idea what was happening) pushed in from all sides with security pushing back, and the kids could hardly move.. still, they rocked out and will never forget that night!  Way to go, TSA!

 

So we’re in the food court at the mall tonight…

… and a couple of teenaged zombies walk in. I mean, ragged clothes, one missing an eye, blood dripping down the chins. They’re kind of doing the stagger, vacant eyed and one leg dragging, or walking with a hitch like something’s broken.

They stumbled around the food court, between shoppers and people waiting in line for food. Before long, another group showed up. Blackened eye sockets, cadaverous faces. One little kid ran to hide behind his mama, crying, but mostly people went about their business after stopping to stare.

In the next half hour more and more zombies arrived, in pairs or clusters. They didn’t seem to notice each other or acknowledge the humans, who they began to outnumber. I later learned there were 250 teenaged zombies there, all together.

They wandered at random but seemed to congregate after a while in a central location, shuffling and reaching out with vacant stares, bumping into each other and displaying an array of horribly gory gashes, rotting flesh and bullet holes. Mall customers by now had increased in number and gathered to stare, forming a dense crowd around the zombie mass, stretching on tiptoe to see. The sight of a woman in a crowd on the balcony above drew their attention, and the zombies began to roar and moan, clawing their hands in her direction, making an incredible din of gutteral, undead voices.

Suddenly, the tinny muzak on the mall speakers was replaced by the first booming notes of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — and in unison, with perfect timing and perfect zombified expressionless faces, the mass of zombies began to dance.

They rocked it… perfect, Jackson-inspired moves, up, down, two hundred and fifty ragged, bloodied, rotting teenagers dancing to Thriller.

The zombies? Students from Toledo School for the Arts.

The woman on the balcony? Their beloved theater teacher, Rosie Best.

And that tall, red-haired, one-eyed zombie in the middle of the mass?

That would be my kid 🙂

Pix to follow…

Pondering my side of the tracks

Jeff and I are pretty smart. We have graduate degrees, a good work ethic, and a reasonable degree of savvy about how the world works.

So it’s not that we’re too stupid or too lazy to be “successful”.  I needed to say that aloud to myself today, and am still working it over in my head.

We made choices. (Not counting ignoring my dad’s advice to marry a doctor or lawyer, lol.)  When babies arrived, I had a good university job and Jeff was on the brink of one, but we opted against day care and chose to be a one-income family so I could stay home, breastfeed, and be with the little ones.  The plan was that when baby  (then  two, then three — more choices)  got on the big yellow bus, I would go back to the English department and we’d be a two income family again.  Somewhere in there was the assumption that we’d eventually move out of our newlywed starter home, to a place where each kid would have a bedroom, and we’d settle into more of the luxuries of life.

Only the bus never came.   Hands-on, 24/7 “attachment parenting” of little ones led me to books about homeschooling, unschooling, and other modes of do-it-yourselfing. We decided to homeschool my eldest just for kindergarten, but it opened a door to so much wonder and enjoyment, learning and laughter for all of us that we never looked back.  Jeff worked hours that kept him in his children’s lives, and I canned peaches and tomatoes, made pots, and hung cloth diapers on the line.

We built a few additions on our smallish house to make room for family: a den full of books, and later a second bedroom for Jeff and I.  We forgave our crooked drywall seams because it was the best we could do, and involved the kids in everything from learning to lay foundation block (library book) to using putty to disguise our many carpentry mistakes.  We made our littlest one a bedroom out of a former closet, and my teen boys still share a bedroom.

The yard is long and skinny, the way neighborhoods were plotted in the 20s when houses were expensive and land was cheap. It was wonderland enough for our toddlers and little kids: pet rabbits, chickens, swingset, climbing tree, trampoline, wading pool, cherry and plum trees, raspberries and mulberries, gooseberries and a veggie garden.

They got bigger and rode their bikes on neighborhood sidewalks, hunted crawdads and frogs at a drainage ditch “creek”, and their world was just big enough.  They had a clay studio at their command, a workshop, and art supplies. They painted big rolls of paper, and their bodies, and each other with poster paint, peered at the moon through a telescope, and rain barrel scum with a microscope.

Even for big kids it’s a decent place, for a long skinny strip of suburban yard: the front yard is often littered with bikes and scooters of neighbor kids, and Connor’s white pigeons circle the dovecote he built on the play yard platform. They can ride bikes to Walmart, or to get haircuts, or visit the glass blowers at the botanical garden. We bake pizza in a wood fired oven built form scrap clay. Friends who sleep over tent camp in the back yard.  Scout troops come to my studio to do pottery and peer at my beehives. We shake mulberries off the trees to make pie, eat dinner on the deck under a big maple, read in the hammock.  I love my house, I do.

We’re not wealthy, in fact we’re now struggling a bit, but we wouldn’t change the choices we made.  Even now, with job loss, we’ve got frugal living down to a science, and the homeschool experiment seems to have been a success.

So why am I chanting this aloud to myself, writing it out like a mantra?

Well, Connor is going to school for the first time. It’s a private school, and it’s just for 8th grade as there is no Montessori high school. A combination of luck, financial aid and a little grandparent generosity have allowed  this to happen, and he’s happy as a clam. School starts next week.

Last night, he was invited by one of the three boys in his grade to come over and swim. He came home wide eyed over the big house, swimming pool, cool toys.

Tonight we took him to a party at a truly palatial estate, the kind that looks as if it should have its own fiefdom.

And I sat in the car thinking, wow.  We’re now those kids from the other side of the tracks.

Yeah, I know that we have chosen voluntary simplicity, a less materialistic set of goals, and family over career, for a variety of fine political and philosophical reasons.

It never occurred to me until recently that all of those fine notions might not translate to my kid and his peers.

Maybe he’ll still be proud of his funky little home, invite friends over, show off his pigeons, his hilarious dad and his weird arty mom. Maybe he won’t mind when friends have red convertibles and state of the art electronics, swimming pools and vacations abroad. He’ll appreciate the value of fishing at the lake, the eco-friendliness of second hand possessions, and the choices we made to be home with them instead of accumulating a fat nest egg or moving to a finer neighborhood.

Maybe.

Right?

Family House Clean Bingo

There’s a daily chore chart to keep the kids on task without nagging, but once a week we all work together to get the house clean.

On Sundays we gather around the bingo cage, each with a little scrap of paper to list our jobs, and a bowl to hold the number ball until the chore is done and OK’ed. The randomness factor has made this much more fun, and there’s one red “wild card” ball that you can use to swap any of your chores for one of anyone else’s. There’s always wheeling and dealing after the balls are selected, as we all have preferred jobs and most hated jobs.

BINGO DAY FAMILY CHORE LIST

 

1.)    Clean front room. Box any seasonal items for the attic.

2.)    Organize and vacuum living room

3.)    Bag recycling and put in van

4.)    Vacuum hallway  (take any waiting items up to attic)

5.)    Sweep and mop kitchen floor

6.)    Clean and vacuum kids closet

7.)    Sweep and swiffer bathroom floors

8.)    Clean and vacuum den

9.)    Clean toilets, inside and out

10.) Clean bathroom sinks and countertops

11.) Straighten and sweep sunroom and steps

12.) Empty wastebaskets to driveway trash, put in clean bags

13.) Sweep porches

14.) Feed and water windowboxes, pull weeds

15.) Organize kitchen computer area and floor

16.) Wash pans, clean and shine sink

17.) Feed and water houseplants

18.) Sweep basement steps and clean cat waterer

19.) Windex stove and dishwasher

20.) Yankee chore exchange

21.) Windex mirrors

 

Personal chores: Every Sunday

Put away any clean clothes in appropriate spaces

All dirty clothes down chute (check closet, under beds, etc) and change your sheets

Donate one item (front room) —  clothes that don’t fit or toys you don’t use

Finished library books to library box (front room)

Clean animal cages (plus mom- hen house, dad- litter box)

Harvest garden (ask mom what to pick) or pull weeds, 20 minutes

Clean and vacuum your own bedroom (use hose along mopboards)

Half hour of exercise or family bike ride (20 m)

Present tense

I had the jitters today… nerves a bit jangled, frustrations circling my head like angry guard bees. A neighbor’s disaster, a snarky email, reality-lag from vacation, anger over my stolen ipod (they caught the guy) and ever present economic worries have likely combined with a hormonal low tide to produce kind of an irritating background whine — the emotional equivalent of a bad flourescent light. 

So I prescribed myself my favorite therapy: finding something to do with my hands that reconnects me to my primal brain.

Jeff and I picked raspberries.  It’s a remarkably calming experience, one in which it’s easy to “be present” — cool, green, leafy, with bright red treasures rolling into your palms like unwarranted blessings.

I worked with the bees. I moved my smallest, wimpiest swarm into the stoneware hive I made, so that we can teach each other how bee design works.  I think it has unpredictable flaws — traffic flow? Ventilation? Condensation? — but I remind myself that bees will live in a hollow tree just fine without my engineering, and might well be OK. These were “freebees” — the last, smallest swarm I captured — and I have three more productive hives.

I gave each hive a new super today — (the box stacked on top of the other boxes as an attic to store extra honey). I intend to exact a honey tax from each hive, once honey flow is done for the year.  I am fascinated with the different personality (bee-ality?) of each, wild and domestic, calm and pissy.  I cultivate a frame of mind, at an open hive, that’s almost a meditation, talking calmly to the guard bees who hover and watch me (or at the wild hive, bounce off my face netting.)

Jeff worked in the garage/shop building a base for my clay hive, and the little bantam hen (Jennecita) came in as always, chattign with him as she tried out each of the cubbyholes in his workbench, looking for a place to lay an egg. This is a familiar routine. He picks her up, explaining to her kindly that the cubbies are for tools and not chickens, and he carries her back to  the yard.  She pops through the fence pickets and comes back to his workbench, resuming her search and talkign the whole time. If the studio door is open she’ll go in and lay an egg on a shelf between pots, in a giant bisque bowl, or in a basket by the woodstove. She’s quite selective, and will try several spots before selecting one, chatting the whole time.

Jeff and I got the kids and an old bedsheet, and we stood under the mulberry tree with it spread wide, shaking the branches. It rains big purple juicy berries into the sheet, and onto our heads and shoulders, leaving red juicy spots. Lightning bugs and earwigs always tumble into the sheet and down our necks — it’s part of the adventure, and my compatriots will be rewarded with pie before bedtime.

This is the kind of activity that wakes up some part of my brain evolved over tens of thousands of years. Kneading a loaf, watching a campfire, working my fingers around dirt or wood or clay.  Rocking a baby. Weaving on a loom, making a basket — all calming and right, remembered, somehow, as worthwhile work in a world of cell phone, keyboard, alarm clock and paperwork.

I opened the pop-up camper to clean and air, and set everything right. Unlike my house, it’s small enough to actually be done at some point: bandaids replenished in the first aid kit, food stores tucked away, cords coiled, kitchen wiped down, camping gear stowed — and then the whole thing cranks down into a little box on wheels, home in a rolling suitcase that hooks to a bumper hitch and pulls like a dream.  If it was mine alone — (maybe when the kids are grown) — it would be curtained in batiks and India prints, fat cushions, oriental rug, tassels and bright paint instead of fake wood grain and linoleum… but it’s a vehicle, not a destination, and other projects beckon first.

Now I want to plant spinach in the cool before dark, in the place where my hoop house will be come the frost. And I need to make a big lid, for a soup tureen so big you could bathe a baby in. Jeff wants handmade plates for our table… by best stuff has always gone to market, to market… but this seems important, money be damned.

This summer has been a delicious reassurance that I was not meant for Texas: cool, rainy, green, breezy, blue, cloudy, verdant, fertile, damp and generous.

Connor is waiting the weeks it requires before he can release his white roller pigeons and have them return home.  Hopefully my broken camera will be shipped to me by then.  Watching pigeons circle and land every night at dinnertime is a joy. Last night he went into the dovecote and put a bright band on each of their legs.  They have been named Jupiter and Opal, Pilot and Blanca.  May they be fruitful and multiply, and dodge the winter hawks.

OK… back to work — deliberately, calmly, and trying my best to be here now.

Fallow ground: the garden of second chances

We spent a week traveling with the little pop-up camper, visiting relatives near DC and in Wilmington, NC — museums and monuments, beaches and fun. It made good memories for the kids, and vacation from an endless list of projects for Jeff and I.

Now we are home, and it’s like picking up a book when you’ve lost your page. I am out of synch with my cycle of beginnings and endings: which projects half started, done, ready to start again?  Pots made to bisque, bisqued to glaze?   Last column submitted, next one due?  Bills to mail, bees to tend, raspberries to pick, jam to make.  All those repetitive tasks that are completed and restarted: sourdough starter, family house clean, garbage out, what day is it? Scout meetings, guild classes, kefir and kombucha batches fermented and recultured. I hardly know where to begin or where I left off.

Usually I make optimistic, coffee-inspired morning TTD lists, but it felt really good to vacation away from the constant drive to Get Something Done… so while I  jotted a few reminders on my chalkboard-painted kitchen cupboards today about bills and pressing issues, I let myself wander an erratic path, easing back up to speed and letting my inner ADD kid out to play.

I slept late, and drank my coffee slowly with a cat in my lap. I picked sweet pea blooms, and the last of the gooseberries. I caught up on facebook scrabble games. I rode my bike with Jeff to the produce market to buy asparagus, redskin potatoes and those marvelously cheap bing cherries. I halfheartedly loaded a kiln, wandered off and did a little unpacking, worked on making top bars for my stoneware hive.

After dinner, when it was cool, I went out to stand in my veggie garden. It’s a lovely garden, really… despite a certain, er, freeform approach.  My mid-March seed catalog optimism means plastic keg cups still stand in random corners of the garden, holding withered stems of seedling I simply had no room to plant.  Names markered on the cups identify the corpses: Ruby chard. Georgia collard. Bloody butcher tomato.

A lot got planted, though.  Snow peas and green beans are climbing the sides of the garden gate, and four kinds of melon are scaling the weathered pickets of the fence, offering up blossoms to the bees.  The tomatoes are ripening in organized rows; much of the garden  looks like it should, tidy with rolled fabric mulch under shredded cypress.

Then there’s the rest of the garden. An arched metal framework stands in one corner. My hoop-house offered the first greens of the season by March, but is now lost to a green, growing chaos: lettuce bolted and flowering, weedy wild cucumber climbing arched rib poles, pig weed, lambsquarters and blue eyed grass sprouting out of cold frames, and a few tomatoes fighting last year’s six foot, blooming leek plants for sunlight.  In a bed nearby, the basil and garlic had to make room for all the surprise potato plants — I apparently missed quite a few spuds when I dug the bed’s crop last fall.  And the red raspberries sent runners under the fence along the back.

I once chastized myself for such vegetable anarchies.  I used to chart my garden to scale on graph paper, and carried a notebook of which crop should be rotated where, soil tests, succession planting dates, interplanting compatibilites and plants-per-square-foot gardening rules. Every year I meant to have the perfect, organized garden, and then every September I looked out over the snarl of sprawling pumpkin vines, weedy patches and forgotten dates, and felt like I had failed.

Failed? How could I have overlooked fat pumpkins, red tomatoes, burgeoning eggplant hiding between the weeds?  That’s not failure, it’s nature. It’s a treasure hunt, with the last squash often being outed by the first hard frost.

Little by little it sinks in that my life will never march in lock step with a clock or a list, and that’s OK. 

I planned our homeschool year every fall, and we’d start out great with art museum day, history day and the timeline down our hall, microscope thursdays and math-games on fridays… but then something would happen, something golden, and we’d let it be.  Tadpoles would hatch, or Connor would decide to train his pigeons to come to a whistle; we’d get lost in a library for all day, or drive to the country after an unexpected call to watch lambs being born. Tyler would decide he needed to learn the hobbit shire song on the sax,  or we’d go to the farmers market and then make pickles together. Somehow it all got done, and they aced their exams and lived happily ever after-so-far… but I learned to let things go, when they went. They always went somewhere interesting.

So when I stood in my garden today and looked at the ten by ten patch of dirt I had turned but never planted, I didn’t get discouraged. In fact, looking closely at the well watered weeds, I found four small volunteer tomato plants, three little eggplants, a dill and two chamomiles.  I transplanted them to the margins, because I like surprises, and I like to encourage natural selection in favor of a little hardy spunk. (My wild captured bees may not be as organized or productive as my purchased ones with the hand selected queen, but they are mean as hell and build comb with speed and flair — ya gotta respect that.)

So the “volunteers” have been replanted, the weeds turned under to enrich the soil one shovelful at a time, and tomorrow I will dig into my seed stash and find spinach for cool fall days, salad crops, carrots to winter over. I am finding my place again in the cycle of projects begun and ended and begun again.  July in Ohio is the  rich season where the smallest work brings harvest. Mulberries shaken into an old bedsheet make rich purple pies. Pots lifted warm from the  kiln and line shelves, round and shiny as fat berries. Lettuce gathered into a bowl is lunch, with yellow squash, cherry tomatoes and chives. Bees distill the clover blossoms in my lawn into jars of amber honey, and the chickens graze the same clover to give me four eggs a day: two big brown ones, two tiny white ones.

With such open-handed generosity, and treasures at every turn, even my winding, circuitous path takes me where I need to go. I can move from one thing to the next, clay to garden to computer to child, kitchen to guild, bed to studio — like my bees, sampling this and then that, and still getting the job done by day’s end. 

So my day is like my garden, organized in spots, gone to weed in others. Those fertile margins where nothing has been decided, the free space where I can wait and see what happens, are the comfort, inspiration and unpredictability I need –as an artist, a mom, a highly distractable human, a woman, a worker.

So if I can look at a half-planned garden without sighing over how it was supposed to be, maybe I can learn to look back on a day without being disappointed about stuff I didn’t get done. I come from a long line of “good workers”, but maybe in days spent racing the things-to-do list, trying to meet to some improbable goal, I am missing the small gifts: the volunteer chamomile to nurture for autumn tea, the puddle full of tadpoles that will fill a mason jar and an afternoon.

My friend once sent me a proverb:

“Hop fast”, said the rabbit.

“Walk slow”, said the tortoise.

“Pace yourself”, said the cheetah. “It’s a long run.”

I want to paint that on my studio wall. Tomorrow. Or maybe the next day…

Bees

I'm in the business of bees...
I'm in the business of bees...

I guess if there’s news this early summer, it’s that I have learned to capture swarms of bees. The packages above — one mine, and one a friend’s — represent over $200 worth of packaged bees ordered throug the mail, shipped with a queen at the center in a small box. I couldn’t afford more than one, but called my local critter control folks and they started giving out my number to people with honeybee problems.

FOUR SWARMS I caught in two weeks time. The first one was almost eight pounds of bees with a healthy, somewhat pissy wild Italian queen. I brought them home in a big duct-taped box. Three swarms live in hives at my house, one was a gift to a friend.

Meanwhile I am remodeling my studio to make space for teaching. That meant making a doorway through a cinderblock wall, sorting through boxes and shelves of stuff that needed to be given away or discarded, and painting a nice fresh coat of white paint over a decade of handprints, scribbled notes, postcards and doodads on the walls. I now have three very nice electric kilns and four good electric wheels. It pays to scrounge, and know how to fix things!

I am remodeling my website, too, just because the old one I knew how to build with became so outdated that it barely functioned. I am determined to keep up with the learning curve, and my determination renews itself every time my parents call to ask my children how to operate the TV, VCR, DVD, cell phone or computer. It would be easy to be left behind with updates in technology. I just turned 48 this week, and I simply refuse to be too old to know what’s next. So I’m up after midnight, figuring out FTP and how to move big blocks of information from one service to another without losing everything. I lost a good amount of info and images already, but I am trying to be zen about it… open my fist, let it go, make room for the new. This is a new blog site, too, but I carried along an attic full of my old baggage from my previous blog. Who has time to read that stuff? Not me… but I have boxes of college diaries in the attic of my house, as well. Maybe when I’m an old lady I’ll write my memoirs, lol.

I’ll post pictures soon of the stoneware beehive I am wheel-throwing in sections — it’s in the kiln right now. Making work seems to proceed despite the remodeling, teaching at the guild, and my other part time job painting offices. I am easily distracted, and find a pressing deadline ot be great incentive to go get caught up in some unrelated project. So I am playing around with screenprinting on clay, image transfer and resist techniques.

We’re still severely underemployed, but I am so glad to live in a green, wet, relatively cool place that I hardly care. My garden is booming, flowers are blooming, I’m making strawberry jam. Tomorrow it’s cherries and mulberries from the back yard, and I’ll make a pie for my little pickers.

My boys got home today from a week at boy scout camp (we carry their dirty clothes to the washer wearing full hazmat suits, using asbestos gloves and tongs.) I took great pleasure in remaking their beds while they were gone, with clean sheets, and bedding sunned out in the breeze. A week of sleeping on the ground in a pile of dirty clothes may have given them some appreciation of life back in civilization. It’s good to have them home, as the house was oddly quiet this last week. Their troop won the camp olympics, got the Baden Powell award for general troop efficiency and innovation, and Tyler was the emcee at the closing ceremony last night. They look freckled and bugbitten, handsome and happy. Both are well on their way to being taller than I am. They are already smarter, but I can still work circles around them both.

Molly and I rode our bikes to the Crosby Festival of the Arts this morning. The weather is perfect, and the crowds were good. It was nice to see Ann Tubbs, Tom Marino and Deb Malinowski selling pots. I used to look at potters’ booths at the art fairs and think, “One day maybe I will be good enough to do that!” Now, I consider the heat and the long days, the hassle of setting up my EZ-up and tables, the pricing and sales tax, and the possibility of bad weather, and think, “Maybe a nice Etsy store this summer… ”

An afternoon at girl scout leader training “boot camp” topped off my day with a big yawn.  I understand the need for the paperwork and schoolishness of any organization, but the real world is so much more fun. Our girls have their own bee hive, and are making big plans for the Ohio State Fair. I’ll post pix in the days to come.

Off to sleep. Lots to do tomorrow!

I must confess. I’ve been seeing Facebook behind your back.

When we first got involved, blog, dear, you filled all my needs. I could indulge the lifelong illusion that every thought and half formed notion that popped into my head should be recorded for posterity.

Even as a kid, I wrote in my childhood diary about my somewhat ordinary childhood and my uneventful suburban life, certain that I would be the next Anne Frank or Helen Keller.. that someday school children worldwide would read my diaries and journals and be spellbound.

“Today I rode my bike to the 7-11 and bought twizzlers and a pack of cabbage patch kids. Bret L. said I have a big nose. We had pork chops for supper.” Wow, they’d say. Pork chops. Imagine.

I journalled all my days until I was 29. Marriage meant I had somebody to prattle all my stream-of-conscious brilliance to, and babies weren’t far behind.

Then I found you, dear blog. As a lifelong show off who, in childhood, had put on long involved performances for an imaginary audience, (including monologues) — I was in love with your features — photo downloads? Daily updates? Remarkable! For years, you were all I needed.

I don’t know what happened, really. It’s not you, it’s me. OK, maybe it’s you. Your unwieldy outdatedness just didn’t keep up with the times. You became unreliable, and somehow got stuck in a post from last spring, sending my imaginary audience back to the same picture of sprouts under a shop light while I went on with my life, blogging away unseen.

I tried to get some counseling… I called yahoo’s support, and asked how I could make this work. The answer was always the same… “We no longer support that outdated function… we’ve changed over to a new system…

Before long, even uploading a photo became a chore. You froze up on me, signed me out without warning. I learned I couldn’t depend on you to remember what I said once I pushed the “save” button.

Somewhere along the way — and I didn’t plan this, it just happened — a friend invited me to join Facebook. It was just a lark, I tried it just out of curiosity. I never meant to get involved.

But that’s where I have been spending all my time, dear blog, and I am sorry but this relationship just isn’t working for me anymore. Maybe I will stop back once in a while for old time’s sake, but Facebook offers so many things that you can’t. It’s not just a monologue… I am beating my high school boyfriend at scrabble, sending my mother-in-law pictures of Molly’s double-yolked egg, and my passion for Word Challenge keeps me up late into the night. There are faces of my friends there, fellow potters, childhood pals, homeschool moms, family and area organizations like Toledo Grows. It’s where the party is. And deep down, I am still a party girl.

So, blog, thanks for the memories. There are a lot of good posts, here… motherhood and my MFA, canning peaches and adventures with the kids… so I can’t delete you. But if you want me, I’ll be with my new friends at facebook, where I can overshare what I had for dinner, and what bird is at my feeder, and other essential details — several times a day! Imagine.

Creativity and fear of failure (from a conversation on clayart)

Before I had kids, I did a poet-in-the-schools thing with elementary aged children. I took a hidden tape recorder, and asked the kids absurd questions. What sound does the color blue make? How does green taste? Where would you explore if you were an ant? a pirate? a bird?

The littlest ones flailed their arms in the air, waiting to be called upon. They KNEW, each of them, the answers to these questions. They didn’t argue with others who had a different answer, they just waited their turn. If pink smells like grandma’s hugs to you, and wet earthworm to me, so be it. They enjoyed each other’s answers, and fearlessly trotted out their own, unselfconscious and imaginative.

Later, I typed their thoughts into poems, and came back to read them aloud to the “authors”. When they recognized their own ideas, they sat an inch taller — it was like playing a chime, with one kid after another breaking into a grin. They wanted to see where their own words were, on the page, put a finger on that line even if they couldn’t read it yet.

With second and third graders, though, something had already changed. They crossed their arms, defensively, when I asked them questions with no clear answer. They looked at each other, uncertainly, hesitant to risk saying something in case it was stupid or wrong. They smirked at other people’s attempts to play along, and tried to cover nervousness with “too cool” boredom. The eager to please ones, and the creative ones, would go along, but still stayed in safe territory, giving logical answers that sounded more like “guessing what the grown up expects me to say” than any real flight of imagination.

It was subtle, but saddening nonetheless. When I brought my (litter trained) rabbit in a basket, the little ones wanted to know what he was thinking about. When he closed his eyes, they wondered if rabbits dream. I have a poem called “the rabbit’s dream” that is marvelous — including rabbit cousins in Kentucky, house sized carrots with chewed-out rooms, and some truly absurd scenarios beyond that.

The big kids were tickled by the bunny, too, but asked the logical questions. What’s his name? How old is he? What does he eat? and then they were done, feeling like they had covered it. Sigh.

Somewhere along the way, at home, in school, or in the wide world, they had learned the lesson of childhood: “There’s one right answer, and the grown up knows it.’ Too often they learn that adults ask them questions — not because they want to hear answers — but because they are testing you, catching you daydreaming, or looking for an opening to tell you what THEY consider important.

Carrot-and-stick methods are de rigeur in settings where teachers are asked to control, instruct and measure too-large groups of kids. What gets measured is the subjective. Grades, quizzes, true, false and multiple choice. We rarely were asked for our own answers.

I don’t think it’s an accident that most people’s ability to draw is arrested at about third grade level.

We schooled our kids at home, and perhaps delayed that kind of pressure, but they are in the world like the rest of us, and are not immune to the “socialization” of self doubt and “safe answers”. We spend a lot of time reminding a nervous kid, before sports competitions, spelling bees and theater performances.. “What happens if you do screw up?” – NOTHING. “What happens if you do well?” – NOTHING. Yes, we’re proud when we do well, but we should be proud to have the courage to try at all, to risk failure.

The biggest gain, in my mind, of schooling outside of the large group setting, is that we have been able to maintain and encourage a spirit of inquiry. That age at which kids ask questions about everything around them is a precious thing, and needs to be nurtured — mostly by not ANSWERING the questions, but rather helping kids find their own answers, by experiment and research, by asking in several places. They may never get an easy, sure answer, but they learn to learn.

I don’t know the answer to breaking through the fear that keeps us from being free, creatively — free to try and fail — free to be artists. With my kids, and now with my students at the guild and the community college, I try to applaud effort and focus on process. I don’t recommend listening to your kids as if they have something important to say, though… my parents did it to me, and now I am the most long-winded, self-important blowhard I know.

Yours
Kelly in Ohio .. getting ready to clear the laptop off the kitchen table and set for dinner, at which all five Savinos will talk at once, being witty and insightful, bright and fabulous, and excessively long winded.

Cat show: sphynx

Totally naked cat. Yikes. The males look particularly silly from behind.

Cat show

Last weekend we braved the snow to attend a cat show at the rec center. I don’t know what was more interesting: the homeschool lesson in breeding/genetics/diversity, or the peoplewatching. Cat show people are an interesting breed all by themselves.

Some creatures seem a bit overbred, to me.  I wonder, once natural selection is out of the picture and  people inbreed for odd physical attributes, what happens to intangibles like personality, emotional health, or intelligence. I am always a little disturbed by some pet shop varieties of rabbit, guinea pig, etc. that seem to have been bred to resemble stuffed toys and seem to be every bit as intelligent.

My favorite breeds of chicken are invariably the heirloom varieties: the ones that somehow missed the boat of mass production and factory farming. Unlike the inbred white egg chickens, brainless incubator-raised meat-with-feet, some rare varieties actually know how to sit on eggs and hatch them, teach babies to scratch for bugs and seeds and shoots, defend against predators, and retain some level of instinct.

My favorites at the cat show are the ones that look like they could hold their own in the forest.  Ocicats, abbysinians, maine coon cats. It’s hard to judge by the blow-dried divas at the show, being fed pureed turkey baby food with a spoon — but I suspect instinct survives in some breeds. Ya gotta respect that.

Entry for January 03, 2009

A couple days ago I woke before dawn and heard a strange sound.. kind of like a cross between a squeak and a bark. I laid awake and listened for more.. sure enough, the chicks we hatched from purloined eggs had just hit puberty, and the two roosters were trying out their crows like a couple of adolescent boys with their voices changing.

Squeeeek-a-deedle-deeee! croooooo-er–ahem—squeeee!

I got up in the cold and dark, put on some boots and trudged out to the coop. I opened the little she dand found two cat carriers, stuffed them with straw, poked a rooster into each (a handsome black japanese bantam and a nice little white one) and carried them through the snow to the house. I took them down to the basement, kicked off my boots, and crawled back in bed beside my sleeping husband.

So when Jeff got up hours later and went to make coffee, he must have thought he had lost his mind when strange sounds drifted up through the laundry chute and the kitchen air ducts… “cock-a-deedle- squawk!” Who would suspect chickens in the basment?

But I am technically not supposed to have chickens, in town, and though my neighbors are nice people (with big barky dogs) and don’t seem to mind, a rooster would test the patience of even the most friendly neighborhood. So for the next few days I brought them in every night to sleep in the basement.

This morning, we drove to Dundee for the saturday auction. Estate stuff, farm implements, a horse trailer full of goats with yellow number stickers on their sides, the auction version of “hello, my name is…” — and a poultry auction house, with battery cages full of hens, rabbits, guinea hens, quail, and lots and lots of roosters.

It was wall to wall carharts and knit caps, mostly men, mostly farmers of standard midwest germanic descent. At a few auctions in the past I have noticed Asian or Arabic men who bought the animals nobody else seemed interested in bidding on — ugly or aging hens, goats, and rabbits, apparently destined for a butcher shop, restaurant or dinner table. While most folks bring or hunt for boxes or cages to take their purchases home, I once saw an Asian man carry a dozen hens by their feet, heading for the trunk of his car, necks quickly twisted on the way.

I know that in countries with butchers and street markets, (instead of grocery store rows of pink rectangles wrapped in plastic), that there is a better mental connection between chickens in a basket, and dinner on the table. My great grandma went out to the coop every sunday to swing dinner by the head, and I’ve done it a few times myself — (though I need a day to recover from the gore and smell of it before I want to eat the resulting meat. )

I have no idea whether the man who bought my roosters wrung their necks for supper (which I highly doubt, as they were quite fancy and VERY small). I prefer to think he took them to his farm and tossed them into the coop with a harem of hens, and that they will live happily ever after “at stud”, scratching up grubs in the flowerbeds, eating farmyard grass and roadside clover, and warning the flock about cats, hawks and other chicken emergencies.

I was doing a lot of people-watching, and was intrigued by two swarthy men who seemed interested only in the biggest, spunkiest roosters. One wore a thick glove and put a hand up to the cage bars to see who would peck. The two of them stood in front of a cage containing a huge white rooster with a comb that was bloodied from a fight with his neighbor. I whispered to Jeff — do you suppose people really still cockfight? He shrugged and reminded me that the Toledo Police keep breaking up dog fighting rings in the inner city. I don’t like to think about it, but it’s a weird world.

Anyway, I took a parting picture of our rooster, Oscar, while he was waiting for the auctioneer to call up number fifteen. They went for two bucks each. I guess I’ll get a check in the mail.

I bid on some old photos from an estate — (a nurse, who graduated in 1908) — and a crumbling bundle of personal correspondence of the same vintage from a Kansas woman. In the one letter I opened so far, she wrote her sister about plowing the field with a team of six horses, after the sun rose high enough to melt the frost. I am a sucker for other people’s forgotten histories, and often adopt estate sale tintype ancestors whose own people are lost or indifferent. It doesn’t seem fair for diaries and family bibles, old sepia photos and letters carefully bundled, to end up on a table in a warehouse, piled with rusty tools and tacky christmas ornaments, for sale to any stranger with two bucks.

Those written and printed things feel sacred, like ancient shards of pots and skulls in the desert, the detritus that remains of a human life and an earlier century. From the baby’s name scrawled in pokeberry ink in a now-rotting family Bible, to the yellowing bundles of bank documents, marriage licenses, insurance papers and dimplomas that crumble like yellowing fall leaves — this is what remains of somebody’s entire story. Cultural fossils. I’ll read those letters one last time, before they flake to dust, and wonder if some spark of the long-dead women who wrote them is fanned by the attention.

What fossils will blogs leave? My facebook page, emails, cell phone calls? I wonder what cyber-archaeology might look like one day.

I am going to try to take a photo a day to document my year. So far I have one in a row.

Happy Solstice

We walked in the park today after an ice storm. Everything was perfectly glazed with a coating of ice.  This bud caught my eye… it seems a good metaphor for the darkest, shortest, coldest day of the year.  There’s a promise, there, somewhere.  If you can be patient.

Entry for December 11, 2008

Just a minute for an update before spaghetti and meatballs, and headin goff to teach at the guild.

Holiday time at the Savinos is amazingly not too hectic, with two of us here to work out the homeschooling, cooking, budgeting and job hunting.

Jeff will be teaching a field ecology class at Lourdes college one evening a week next semester, and I have a ceramics class at Owens College two days a week — and the two classes I teach at the guild. So that’s all good news.

The bad news is that the total paycheck for each of those classes will about pay for one month of COBRA health insurance coverage. Needless to say, we’re looking into all the option, but the system is seriously in need of some revision.  The 533,000 Americans who lost jobs in November alone will soon be coming ot the same conclusions.

Jeff is taking advantage of his last shot at UT tuition waivers (severance extends his benefits until February) and signing up for some classes that will help him toward teaching certification in the future.  He’s a natural, in the classroom. Now if there’s just a job out there…

I had a pottery sale at the guild last weekend, and will participate in the Toledo Craftsman’s Guild sale this Sunday, but people are pretty much keeping their money in their pockets these days.  I can’t say as I blame them.  If my option is to mass produce cheap holiday doodads to make a buck, I think I would rather work a 9-to-5 for the money and make what appeals to me, whether it will sell or not.  I can’t compete with China/Walmart for cheap decorative stuff.

The general wisdom used to be that when gas was expensive or money was tight,  rich people would still buy art.  This time, though, with 401Ks and market investments looking dicey, I think everybody is being careful. 

The kids are in a holiday mood, making gifts,  knitting hats on ring-looms, makingnsnowflakes to tape on the windows (and paper shreds for the carpet, lol.) Tyler is at school late most days for rehearsals for “Much Ado About Nothing” — he leaves in the dark when the bus picks him up at 7, and comes home after dark when Jeff picks him up at school. He has a world of his own, now, and we’re just a part of it. 

He’s still our Tyler, though… offering up stories and hugs, tormenting his siblings, and running his own show, for the most part.  He does homework, packs his lunch, and gets his clothes ready for the next day without so much as a reminder. It’s amazing, for a mom who once has three little ones who couldn’t feed or wipe themselves, to see the day when kids come into their own.

We’re still busy… the kids enjoying classes, still, as they’re paid for in advance. Tae Kwon Do, Swim lessons, Clarinet and Guitar, Boy scouts and Girl scouts mean there are places to be every day.

At night, Jeff and I have started having little tournaments of “Dr. Mario” on the old Nintendo.   In bed at night, I am reading some McCalls and Woman’s Day magazines from the 1930s that I found in a box in the attic.  It’s kind of a history lesson with some sociology thrown in.  At the same time as financial worries (last night I read the Christmas issue from 1931) there was a fascination with what the “high society” folks were wearing, eating, or dabbing on themselves… lots of “scientific” ads about products like Listerine (for breath, shampoo and even douche), canned milk for newborns, Battle Creek’s new cereal products, “modern” 1930s automobiles, and laxatives like “calomel”. There was a lot of interest in fattening up “thin, nervous” children.  My, how times have changed.

A lot sounds familiar, though.  Articles about cooking on a budget, stories about economic hardships, and reminders that the Red Cross and the Unemployment division are helping people and need our support.

It’s not going to be a very “material” Christmas at the Savinos, but it never really has been. We like to make creative things, cook, take walks at the metroparks and just spend time together.  We realize this year that we are luckier than most… we have a roof over our heads, a healthy, loving family, job skills, and a support system of extended family that would help us if we ended up in trouble.

Happy Holidays, all. I’ll try to post pix of the kids after their Christmas concert this weekend.

 

 

Firewood and meat

I am working hard to come up with a rationale for winter that sounds more convincing than “it feels so good when it stops”.  I am weary already of the hunched posture of winter in the north, the clench against the cold, and the days of grey rain or sloppy melting snow.  The things people cite as winter joys — sweaters, fires, hot food — seem more like defense against the cold than a celebration.

I am hanging onto the notion that there is some kind of kinship, remembered in our DNA, with people since forever who had to weather the inhospitable season. I think of those Dutch paintings of medieval villages, smoke from the chimneys, skaters on the ice, people and clothing the only splashes of color in a scene of black stark trees, grey sky, white snow.

Leeks and potatoes make a hearty soup that feels right for the cold, and grainy bread, squash and a few withered apples baked in a crisp seem familiar and timeless this time of year.

But I suspect winter has always felt like the enemy. People harvested their gardens and crops with an eye over their shoulders to the blue north wind, the clouds that looked like snow.  They worried whether they had enough laid away to get them through.  Old people and little children didn’t always survive the winter; my sense is that people hunkered down by the hearth in the smoky dark and waited it out, content to just be safe and fed in a time when worries included,  not just economic woes, but an actual wolf at the door.

Firewood, and meat.  Those are the currency of winter: enough wood (or peat, or buffalo chips) to keep some heat and light going for the winter, and the only winter harvest, which required a kill.

Yesterday morning there were two deer hanging from the frozen swingset in the back yard. I take some pride in being a good skinner, because it feels like work that women’s hands have been doing for millennia.  I am eager to remove the skin, the head, the feet, any evidence that the meat was not always just meat.   I’m aware of my emotional hypocrisy, as I am not the least bit hesitant to eat what comes in pink rectangles at the store — from creatures I have never met.  Still, I like the end of the process when the deer looks less like Bambi and more like those butcher shop diagrams locating roast,  tenderloin, chop, and steak.

We took the carcasses to my dad’s, so he could walk us through the process of removing the best cuts of meat.  He is better at wading in to do it himself than he is at showing us how, but he was having trouble with his hands and eventually relinquished the knife.

We brought the deer back to our own kitchen, working on big plastic fold-up tables, and Jeff and I worked late into the evening, cutting and vacuum-sealing steaks and chops, tenderloins and stew meat. Most of what we had we ground, with a little fatty pork roast for moisture, since we use it for chili, tacos, meatloaf and burgers (we really never buy beef.) 

Connor and Molly pulled up chairs and set to work with sharp little knives, oddly engrossed in the project. Molly was quite proud of her clever little hands, holding up each meaty bit to say, “This looks too good for the grinder. I’ll put this in with the stew meat.” Tyler is not a fan of gore, and opted to help get supper on, instead of joining the butchers.

We finally quit, backs aching and weary of little gobbets of red, but this morning two more rear haunches are waiting for me to cut steaks, and a mixing bowl of bits still awaits the grinder.  Jeff and Connor have gone to grandma’s to discuss the details of thanksgiving fare, peas and pearled onions, sweet potatoes with candied ginger.  I’m going to finish with the meat, fire a kiln, and this afternoon we’re off to the library. I need to pick up the full spectrum lights my doc recommended to keep me focused in this season of grey, and then we plan to take a family walk at the park if it doesn’t start to sleet or rain.

Either way, the summer’s split wood is stacked outside my kitchen window, and the fall’s venison is stacked in the chest freezer.  It’s like insurance against the worries of winter: we’ll be warm, we’ll be fed. We don’t know what’s coming but we’re OK for now.

Happy thanksgiving to all…

A day.

Yesterday we raked, dragged and blew the leaves from the back yard to the curb, where the big orange city trucks will come by and vacuum them up. Some are piled in the garden, some over the raspberry beds, some around the beehive, and some tucking in the flowerbeds and herb garden for the winter.

My mom had her tonsils out, at 70. I took her pudding pops.

It rained last night but cleared this morning, briefly, before going leaden grey again. I sat on the studio deck this morning and made bowls, teapot bodies, spouts, lids.  My hands froze, after a while, despite the hot water I poured in the throwing bucket, so I came in and worked on my portfolio.

The starlings were doing that annual miles-long flock migration thing, as I threw, and they always come the same way — from a tree East of here to the enormous, leaf-bare cottonwoods filling the sky behind my yard.  The tree looks like it’s leafed out in starlings, and they make a sound like a truckload of silverware poured over a waterfall.  Until suddenly, all at once, they stop, and lift into the air as a single, amorphous shape, headed north-east. The chickens stop scritching in the leaf-litter and look up. The silence is deafening.

The neighbor to my right has a small apple tree and a big, dorky, half-grown black lab.  As I sat at the wheel today, I watched the dog stand on hind legs and pull leftover frozen apples off the tree with his mouth.  The tree flailed wildly. I laughed, and my laughter got stuck in one of my pots and I left it there.

My oldest son suddenly has square shoulders, as tall as my eye-level.  I have to look up to talk to him.  When he hugs me, now, he rests his arms on top of my shoulders.  I know that none of this is remarkable, or unprecedented, but part of me still expects the talky little redhead to be hanging on my knee while I stand at the kitchen sink.

I just finished some historical fiction set in Viking times — good, but a littl ebloody — and now I am reading “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink.  It’s making me feel like homeschooling was a good idea, like Tyler’s arty school is perhaps less impractical than I had supposed. That it’s OK to be a potter, that creative is not less important than “successful”. 

I can’t imagine how we can be expected to parent without a crystal ball: those who were schooled and trained for the new “Industrial Age” didn’t foresee those jobs going overseas. The schooling and messages I got, about which courses of study would guarantee a good job, didn’t foresee the internet or a global technology that allows our science, medicine, lawyering, technology and engineering to be done in New Delhi or Colombia as easily as here.  So what shall I teach my kids? To memorize facts, in an age when google can provide them in seconds? Pink says imagination, innovation, design, empathy, humor and a whole list of other stuff not on the ACTs will be the essentials of a new economy.

I will be satisfied if my kids have learned to respect themselves, to trust their own insights, to be true to others, and retain their creative individuality.

Hopefully they won’t starve.

Speakign of which: I was offered a spring semester ceramics 1 class today, at a nearby college, beginning in January.  Tomorrow I will write back and accept it, and try hard not to offer to take over the program, build them a soda kiln, write grants,  raise the bar, and put them on the map.  I could do it, and I know it… but it may be presumptuous to start there, y’think?

Molly is obsessed with paper airplanes.  She found a book about making them, and now anything that can be folded is either flying though the house, twirling to the ground, doing loop-de-loops or piled on the floor around the furniture.  There are airplane wrecks in every room, forgotten paper angles with names like “phantom” or “sonic flyer”.  Some have flames or eagle heads. Others look suspiciously like my electric bill or some unchecked homework.

Jeff made enchiladas for dinner, with leftover venison. We didn’t count the weight watcher points, but after yesterday’s raking and aquajogging we’re ahead of the game anyway.  He took Tyler to the dentist and I took Molly and Connor to clarinet/guitar lessons this afternoon, and we all met back here for supper.  Molly always comes up with a dinner discussion topic. Tonight’s was, “If you had three acres and an unlimited budget, and could build anything you want, public or private, what would it be? “

I bought some little thin reading glasses to keep next to my bed. They are in a wonderfully kitschy sequined tube that makes me think about design, and homeschool projects, and why the beautiful is as useful as the useful.  The cabin in Bastrop, Texas where Jeff proposed to me had that phrase carved into the fireplace mantel, and I’ve spent 19 years now trying to understand what it means.

It’s almost midnight. Rain is beating on the metal roof Jeff and I put on our sunroom-addition. The shy, bony old cat is in my lap, purring.  Tyler is asleep, threatening to grow longer than his bed like that guy in the Dr. Seuss book whose feet stuck out at the bottom.  Connor downloaded a Redwall book into his new ipod and is likely listening still, in secret, in the top bunk: he’ll walk around tomorrow half-there, pouring cereal and tending his pigeons with his mind in Redwall-chapters, until we make him shut it off and focus on school work.

Jeff is asleep. He gets up early to take Tyler downtown to the charter high school for the arts, and then comes home to wake us all, send me to the studio with coffee, set up their school day. 

Molly is asleep in a sea of pink bedding, with her light on — she read The Lightening Theif right up to the last minute, and blinked out without turning it off. I’ll do it on my way to bed.

When I went in earlier to say goodnight to the boys, I took Snowflake the guinea pig — (recently shampooed by Molly, and  fluffy white) — a leaf of chard from the hoop house, and gave and Dusty the chinchilla (in the cage next door) some raisins.  They both come over for scritches and petting, and I tell them absurd lies to make my boys laugh.

I remind myself that if one of us lands a full time job, and we have to leave this house, (our newlywed “starter home”  where my babies were born and raised)… If we move to Texas, or North Carolina, or wherever the CVs are winging off to tomorrow — well, this bony cat will still be in my lap, there. 

The pig and the chinchilla will still look at me with dark trusting eyes as I tell them ridiculous stories.  My boys will sleep, under a new roof, the way they do here, one buried under pillows and blankets and dead to the world, the other mumbling and gesturing and talking in his sleep.

The pigeons will come along, and re-home themselves to a new location, and the hens, and the bees… my potters wheel and kilns… the coffee pot and the truckload of books would all go along.  I could dig up my sinchokes, my rhubarb and some raspberry plants, and start again, if we move to a place with real soil and sufficient rain.

 

 

 

 

….aaaaand life suddenly gets weird.

When nothing is happening in my life, I have time to sit here and tappity tap out details of daily triviata, small comforts, dear-diary.

When suddenly life goes haywire, I don’t write. Sometimes because situations are intense and controversial and you never know who is reading… sometimes because, as I told my friend Tony — “When you’re hanging on with both hands, you can’t always manage to wave”.

After a nerve wracking month, things have settled out to the point where I can share this much:

After 12 years of commendable work at UT’s Lake Erie Center, a place he helped design and build, my Jeff is out of a job. 

He negotiated a severance package that will get us through the rest of the year with pay and health insurance, and now we’re both applying in our fields, and working on that big, “Now what?”

There’s an up side, like always… we’ve lived frugally without a lot of debt, and Jeff was increasingly dissatisfied with the narrowing focus of his job. He was less and less part of the research, boat piloting and field sampling, teaching and outreach, aspects well suited to his enthusiasm and gregarious personality. 

And though we moved to Toledo 18 years ago because my family is here, it is not the only place to live in this world.  My brother and his wife are local but are travelers, and my parents spend more and more of the year in Florida,  while we scrape ice off our windshields and sigh over the grey expanse of stoplights, strip malls and payday loan shops.  The economy here is in trouble…  like everywhere, I guess.  Four people standing near us in the voting lines were also out of a job… one from Jeep, one from Chrysler, and one was a secretary for a small business that closed shop when the economy tanked.

So… maybe the adventure we were too comfortable to consider has been thrust upon us, after all.  My husband’s boy scout troop, my own girl scout troop, Tyler’s marvelous charter school for the arts, local friends, the potter’s guild, my house and garden and studio all keep us applying locally, but we’re also sending resumes and portfolios everywhere  — like those little dandelion seeds with the parachutes — and there’s no guessing where we might take root. 

The kids are on board, and have been supportive and marvelous. We are a close family, and any move that includes us all (and the pets, of course) seems “doable”.  (Connor informed me that Texas has an on line virtual academy just like the one he uses here) 

 I am also reconsidering the utility of my MFA, now that we’re no longer tied to the town that provided Jeff’s income and benefits all these years.  I would love to find a college small enough to really be able to make a difference.  The thing I’ve seen with ceramics programs is that the right person, in the right place — someone resourceful and energetic — can create a thriving program from the ground up.   I’d like to give it a try.

For now, I am out in the studio every day, making new work for holiday sales and on line stores.  I found I needed to reclaim those few rare uninterrupted moments I used to find every day when Jeff went to work and the kids were still in bed, or busy with schoolwork.  A remarkable number of projects are getting done, now, with both of us home;  Jeff has the kids on a schedule, helps them with algebra and science experiments, is rewiring my two extra kilns, and we’re talking about what we might need to do to sell the house.  The kids each have a night to make dinner, and thus far we are continuing with the music lessons (sax, clarinet and guitar) and the tae kwon do, the swim lessons, aquajogging for the grownups, and other quality-of-life expenses. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. But the family, together, is keeping a record of all our expenses and talking about the optionals and “non-negotiables” in our budget.  That’s probably the most important homeschool lesson they’ve had yet.

So. Life got weird.

Every morning for the last few weeks I have awakened to the unsettling realization that we have three kids and no jobs.

Yesterday morning, though, I woke with a smile and thought, “President Obama.”

Hope is good. Change is good. Scary, but good.  My goal is to control what I can, have faith about the stuff I can’t control, and keep one notion at the front of my mind, come hell or high water:

“Yes, we can.”

Molly and Snowflake

Molly was sad to have lost her guinea pig, Ebony… but her brother’s pig, Snowflake, is getting lots of extra attention.  She took this picture this afternoon.

Entry for October 04, 2008

Today’s tally:

One trip to the downtown farmer’s market… in sweatshirts, a first for the year.

I found myself walking, arms linked, with my two sons.. one now four inches taller than I am, the other almost my height and strong enough to take my half-bushels of plums, bags of cooking onions, and boxes of canning tomatoes and carry them with ease. How did this happen, that I went from being the mom with children forever clinging to my knees — to this woman walking between two young men?

We canned a nice row of pickled beets last night, that I had picked up from the suburban farmers market on Wednesday. My hands were stained beet red this morning at out weight watchers meeting (I am ounces from having lost 25 pounds, and Jeff is like three sit-ups from 30.)

Today we put up pickled cauliflower — purple, yellow and white ones, so pretty Jeff took a picture before we pulled them apart. (I’ll post it here soon.) We bought turnips and carrots, gorgeous big broccoli and green onions, and I canned a dozen pints of Italian prune plums and made rows of jars of bright plum jam — all made with apple juice concentrate instead of sugar.

The kids sliced enough roma tomatoes to fill the trays of two dehydrators, and I canned more beets, more tomatoes, and two pints of pickled brussels sprouts. Connor picked out little pickling cukes and made his famous dill pickles. I canned some apple-plum juice, and before bed, made a huge pot of Mama Lea’s navy bean and kale soup for the freezer.

Tomorrow we go to the lake and pull out the dock, drain the pipes and help my folks close up. I don’t know what will happen with the kiln, yet — there may be some big changes rolling our way soon, so I am waiting to see, and meanwhile busying my hands with teaching at the guild (two nights a week now) and working on a commission job in my studio.

And canning. Sorting. Unloading. Tomorrow night Jeff will be out of town but my boys can help me put the top on my hoop house, protecting leeks and chard against looming frost.

Connor was my sous-chef all day, and stood in the kitchen tonight after I mopped the floor, looking at our rows of canning jars in reds, oranges, yellows and greens. “It’s a good feeling”, he says. “Like keeping summer in a jar”.

I am satisfied and weary and ready for bed, tempted to switch off the alarm clock that will wake us all for church tomorrow.

I’ll try to post pictures this week of the girl scout leader training last weekend at Camp Libbey, where a bunch of women dressed like pirates, bunked in cabins full of strangers, cooked caribbean chicken with mango and conch salad on a campfire, and I did the zip-line off the high ropes course.. .

This made my day

I came to the kitchen one afternoon to discover that Molly had awarded me this honor.  Yeah, I earned it this month!

So far I have emptied out one of my attics, a huge loft full of decades of stored paperwork/fabric/memorabilia, and half my basement.

I have sent dozens of bags to charity — outgrown kids’ clothes, adult clothes that are now too big (happy dance), household gadgets that I can suddenly admit I will never use, and craft supplies that I wouldn’t get around to if I lived to be 107.

I have large trash bags full of shredded paper, and more being generated every day — old files, old bills, kid art (ouch ouch ouch but I had to edit… I had several large boxes per kid of every precious crayon scribble) and outdated stuff from teaching at the U.  Shredded paper goes from here to the henhouse for bedding, and then to the compost, and finally to the garden.

I have thrown away a TON of stuff.

The front room is full of sorting boxes: camping gear, sewing stuff, tools, a box for every room in the house, plus donation, garage sale and trash.

The hall is lined with still more boxes of paperwork to sort.

Some folks would say that if you haven’t opened a box of assorted stuff for five years you could pitch it and never miss it, but I find that — like cracker jacks — there’s one prize in every box. That earring I’d been missing for a long time, a favorite fancy pen, a photograph or love note that got stirred into the mix.

It’s incredibly empowering and lightens my emotional load… letting go of baby clothes and educational little kid-toys, old successes and failures and unrealistic expectations… handing on what’s useful but in general unloading my baggage, loosening my grip on the past, admitting that life goes on and no amount of attic souvenirs will let me move forward while staying in the comfortable world I have known and loved.

I finally pitched the box with dusty dried remnants of my prom corsage, my wedding bouquet, assorted bits of magic that have lost their sparkle..

Here’s what I have learned:  

A lot of what I kept was for the mom/wife/person I thought I SHOULD be.  Or the one I imagined I would one day have time to be. Or the woman my mother was.  I have learned to get real. 

The world moves faster that I expected. Technology that seemed expensive and ripe for resale is now laughably dated and barely worthy of donation.  Half my homeschool curriculum never got used, because my kids zoomed past those skills and kept going, without my interference and best laid plans.

All this stuff has weighed on me — photos waiting to be sorted into albums, projects waiting to be finished, way too many puzzles and games carefully hoarded because the missing piece would surely show up one day. Now the puzzles and pieces are reunited, and my kids way too old for the games. I should have chucked them long ago.

I feel lighter every time stuff leaves my house, whether by trash can or goodwill bag. Lighter is good. I have lost almost 25 pounds of fat since midsummer, and hundreds of pounds of junk in this house purge. Soon I expect I shall be able to fly.

My “little” boy’s first day of school

Ok, well, we did it ten years later than average, but we finally got a “first day of school” picture.

Ty started last week at the Toledo School for the Arts. He’s enjoying it so far… updates as events warrant. Connor and Molly are easing into their schedules with the Ohio Virtual Academy (on line schooling) and all three have begun the year’s music instruction at a music school called “Forte”. Molly’s taking clarinet, Connor’s starting guitar and Tyler’s playing saxophone.

So with boy scouts, girl scouts, tae kwon do, Dad teaching an evening Biology class at Lourdes college and Mom teaching two nights a week at the Toledo Potter’s guild, we’re nback to scheduling our days on a grid.

We have plenty of down time, though, and family time. The nights we have a leisurely supper we cook together and have “family game night” once a week.

This weekend we moved the last of my new kiln bricks to the lake, went to the homecoming service in our UU church’s new building, and had my parents over for Tilapia and mango salsa for dinner tonight. Connor had a buddy over all weekend and I read a book called “Storyville” about the seedier history of New Orleans.

I’ve also gotten the OK to go ahead with a prototype for a commision, 100 beer steins for a guy who is opening a new bar. I have the first dozen done, and he wants them in batches of 25.

A class tomorrow night at the guid of all new students. I had pared my schedule down to one class while I was finishing my MFA, but I’ll have two again this year.

Lots of tomatoes, the sweet corn is still at roadside stands, the evenings cool for sleeping… summer hanging on. Life is good.

Oh, and as of the last weight watchers weigh in, Jeff and I have both lost 10 percent of our body weight

Rest in Peace, Spooky.

The abandoned kitten that Jeff brought home from work when Molly was brand new, the cat who slept on her or beside her for the last ten years like her appointed guardian, is gone tonight.

Last night we watched old 1998 videos of little Spooky chasing a clothespin on a string, behind giggling three year old Connor… or napping under a kid’s chin… or sprawled across baby Molly’s back (It’s a wonder she ever learned to crawl, as she was perpetual cat furniture.) We all sobbed, and laughed, and wiped tears.

This morning, the kids and I put her into a pet carrier, on the thick wooly lambskin we used for babies, and drove her to the vet. She had gone (in a month’s time) from a healthy cat to a painfully thin, anemic, feverish and weak one. X rays and ultrasounds showed tumors in her liver, and spreading through her lymph nodes.

The kids insisted that they wanted to be there while the vet put her to sleep. We were not brave… I cried long and hard. But when it was time, the kids and I put all our love into the palms of our hands and rested them on her head, her sides, her paws, thanking her for being our friend. She was the creature who came to live with our family during the “little kid” years, and seemed to love the little ones as much as we did, forgiving them their noise and chaos. (Our more sedate, older cat avoided the little shriekers with their whisker-pulling baby hands and unpredictable ways, preferring the company of adults.)

The vet gave her one shot to sedate her, and she put her chin on her paw like always, and looked comfortable and at peace. I made sure the kids wanted to stay for the final step (Molly opted to go visit a kitten in the next room) and then the vet gave her the second shot to end her life.

Before she took two big breaths and then stopped breathing, I felt an unmistakable purr in her chest. I know the vet could probably explain it as a muscular response to the drugs, but I didn’t ask. I’d prefer to think that she felt herself headed toward the light, free from the cancer and the failed body, born into whatever’s next.

It was a sad midwifing for us, though, and I’m sobbing again to write this down. The right thing to do, a kindness, I know. Only a cat, I know. But it has been a tearful day for us all, and I will miss her in all the places she used to be, in the days to come.

Spooky, we were lucky to have you in our family. You will be missed, and remembered fondly.

Kiln crew

I borrowed a friend’s big truck today and made the run to Ann Arbor again, to use my newly built arch form to take down the inner kiln arch. My mom and three kids rode along again to help (Jeff was at work this time). Warm day, but many hands make light work. The boxed bricks rode another hour to the lake and the kids had an impromptu swim before we headed home — a three hour triangle of driving, in all. Not too grueling. Soft brick is not terribly heavy.

I plan to hire a couple of muscular college guys for the hard bricks and cinder blocks in the final trip.

Molly’s friend

She was studying this little critter while camping at the lake with the girl scouts last week, and it hopped up to take a closer look at her.

Entry for August 18, 2008

Here’s Jeff coming up to inspect my impressively engineered pigeon door. It can be set to allow the birds to come in, but not be able to leave again.. or it can be set wide open to allow them to go out in the morning. It is strong enough to be cat and ‘coon and possum proof… and it opens onto a landing platform outside, now, with the flap that’s raised becoming its own little dormer roof.

More pix tomorrow.

Entry for August 18, 2008

This was the dovecote before the roof and final touches went on. I’m inordinately proud of it. It is made of four trash picked wooden shutters. lined with hardware cloth from our shed… four salvaged slabs of particle board from a construction project… sheets of pegboard I brought home from a fabric store that was remodeling… a bucket of paint and a bunch of hinges.

It’s on what used to be the kids’ play platform (thus the slide) and inside it has perches with poop guards hand built by Connor, nest boxes and all the pigeon luxuries. They seem quite happy there. Connor says we should wait a week before letting them out, so they don’t get confused and return to the rabbit hutch where they were living before.

I’ll take a picture tomorrow of the way it looks now, with the roofing on. We still need some windows in the sides so we can spy on them better.

My latest project

So I bought a kiln on ebay.

Which is kind of like buying an in-ground pool… first you dig the hole, pour the cement, etc. etc.

In other words, what I really bought was a large pile of bricks, which need to be boxed up, hauled to my folks’ property at Wolf Lake, and then assembled into a kiln.

We went last week (Jeff and I and the kids, and my mom) and boxed and hauled the somewhat mossy soft bricks of the outer layer, and some of the chimney bricks. Before we go back for the rest, though (and I am hiring some college boys to help with those cinderblocks) I have to build an arch form to slide in there. Once the top/keystone brick is removed, the whole thing will collapse… not a good plan, unless there’s an arch in place.

I spent Saturday and Sunday selling pots at the Monroe Jazz Festival Art Fair (lovely weather, and a pocket full of cash) and then we went Monday to haul bricks. Tuesday I headed for the lake with Molly’s girl scout troop for a tent camping night and some merit badge work (small craft, stargazing, outdoor art). Tomorrow is catch-up-at-home day, and then I begin canning peaches.

And building the arch form.

And finishing the dovecote.

Summer’s burning down fast…