Monday, December 15, 2014

Homemade for the Holidays - Sewing

Today was a real first for me, and I quietly thanked, several times, Mrs. Abraham, who was my Home Ec. sewing teacher in high school.

It's a bit of an interesting story - that one.

The story starts when my very middle class family moved from our three bedroom, two bath ranch-style L-shaped home on a quarter acre lot in a southern suburban neighborhood and moved to a rural small town in south eastern Kentucky. As a very middle class suburban girl I knew certain things. One was that I would, some day, go to college, which meant I would have a career and needing to cultivate certain skills (like anything to do with housekeeping) was most assuredly not on the priority list.

In my very progressive suburban school down south, courses like Home Ec., were electives - mostly for those girls who didn't have career aspirations. When we moved to rural Kentucky, we found that the rules were a bit different. Home Economics was a graduation requirement - for both boys and girls. What?

Most kids took Home Ec. the first year, presumably to get it over with. That first year, however, I had decided to take Geometry, and probably, I figured there was going to be some way I could weasel out of that requirement. Home Ec.? No. way!

My sophomore year, I signed up to take French II, but when I arrived on the first day of my sophomore year and discovered that the French teacher had retired, and her replacement stood at the front of the classroom speaking French with a very distinct southern Appalachian flavor, I decided not to take French II after all.

With no other choice, I ended up in Home Ec. II. It was an advanced sewing class (as opposed to the usual Home Ec. class where students were introduced to the basics of all of the Home Ec. subjects). My class was only sewing, and we wouldn't be piecing together some chintzy apron. All of the other girls had extensive sewing experience. This was an advanced elective course for them, kind of like Algebra II and advanced biology were my electives, and they were embarking on, what seemed to me, some pretty ambitious clothing projects. One of the most impressive was a prairie skirt complete with a ruffled blouse. I never will reach that girl's skill level.

But after a year under her tutelage, Mrs. Abraham did manage to teach me to read a pattern, and I can, now, make most things I try to make (I don't pick very complicated projects, usually). When I was a very poor and pregnant college student, I sewed most of my maternity clothes (a fact of which I was very proud), and I have been happy to sew many costumes for my daughters over the years.

I'm not terribly talented, but I am creative - or just very brave or stupid (or both). I've heard people talk about how difficult certain fabrics are to work with, and I'll pretend like I know what they mean, but I don't, and I've probably sewed those fabrics wrong. I don't, really, know what a selvage is. I'm notorious for using white thread for a whole piece of clothing - no matter the color of fabric.

Like with my knitting (I knit squares - and nothing else), when it comes to sewing, I've found the one thing that I'm really good at sewing: pants.

Today, I made a few pairs, and in keeping with my life's theme of reuse, repurpose, recycle, the material was repurposed. Someone is getting pants for Christmas.

I also made a pattern today, my first attempt at making a pattern and my first attempt at making this particular item. It's a very special, very secret, mystery gift, and I'm actually really proud of how this particular gift came out. Shhh! Don't tell if you can guess what it is ;).

I hope these fit, but since I can't measure the recipient, I just had to wing it.

And while I was busy at the sewing machine, my incredibly talented daughter was wrapping presents. For one gift, we had to use some of the rescued butcher paper we've had around the house for a while. It's plain white - not terribly festive for a gift wrap, but she used her artist's eye and talent to fix it.

Did I mention how much fun this year's Homemade for the Holidays is?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Homemade for the Holidays - Game Board

I love the challenge of making things with nothing more than a picture in my head. The way this particular gift came to be was pretty awesome. It was a family effort. First, I asked Deus Ex Machina to cut some pieces of wood for me. We had some discussions about the size of the pieces, and finally settled on some small birch rounds.

Then, we had some more discussions about how to decorate the game pieces. Deus Ex Machina researched "toy" appropriate paints and stains, and we ended up with pre-mixed tempura paint. We decided the painted sides would be a checkers game and the other side would be a memory game. The girls hand drew pictures - two of each picture.

My task was to create a game board/carrying case. I decided I wanted to make it out of cloth. Using material I had on hand - scraps for the checkerboard and a piece of recipient appropriate cloth for the back, pocket and handles - I cut and designed and sewed all at the same time.

It's not perfect, and my grandmother's friends would have thrown me out of the quilting Bee, but it was a lot of fun to make.

I sincerely hope the person who gets this gift enjoys it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Case for *not* Banning Books

I saw a post recently by a homeschooler about books she would not allow her children to read. Let me preface this commentary by stating that I don't have a problem with parents censoring what their children read. Not at all. And, in fact, I think all parents, every where, regardless of schooling choice, should know what their kids are reading. Parents should be reading the books their children read and not just leaving it up to someone else to decide - at very least so that if touchy subjects arise, the parents will be able to have an informed conversation, because the parent knows the context in which the events took place.

What bothered me about the post was not this parent's decision to outlaw certain books, but the fact that she posted the list of objectionable books without a commentary as to why she chose to ban them from her home. Her list was compiled by a teacher friend of hers from a very specific set of criteria, and she was, in turn, sharing the list with the group, but just the title of book that contained themes or scenes that were objectionable to her, but nothing about what those themes were and/or why they bothered her.

One of the books on the list was The Grapes of Wrath. Those who know my blog won't be surprised to note that I credit this book with being integral in leading me to my current path in life. I grew up in a middleclass, suburban family, and while I experienced tough times growing up (haven't we all?) and was very poor as a college student and post-grad/pre-job, I have never known true poverty - the kind of soul-sucking poverty experienced by the Joads in Steinbeck's timeless classic. Interestingly, there are some themes in that story that we often overlook when we discuss what the book is about and those themes are frighteningly applicable to our current time.

In her post to the homeschool community, the above-mentioned mother said that she was given a list of "better" books for studying the "Dust Bowl" - as if The Grapes of Wrath is about the dust bowl.

It's not (in fact, most of the story doesn't even take place in Oklahoma).

It's about a whole lot more than the storms of dust clouds that blanketed Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas during the 1930s and forced a mass migration of homeless souls to the agricultural belt in California. It's about getting into debt one can't repay and losing one's home as a result. It's about being forced to take low-wage jobs that can't support one's family. It's about losing loved ones. It's about desperation and bitterness and betrayal and heart break. But it's also about hope and the strength and integrity of the human spirit. And it's about Mama Joads' failed attempts to keep her family intact against a tsunami of events that ultimately rip them apart. It's also about compassion, and the one scene that seems the most offensive and the most oft cited reason the book makes the banned list in too many years is that - in the end - after the Joads have lost everything one can lose, Rose suckles a dying man, giving him the milk she would have given to her stillborn child. It's a beautiful scene, but because this adult man is given breast milk straight from the breast, it's deemed obscene. So sad.

And in the overall context of the story, it's such a tiny portion of the whole that to outright exclude the entire novel for that one scene is just a little disappointing, in my opinion. I won't disagree that the age and maturity level of the readers really should be taken into account when recommending books, but to just outright ban it is a little extreme.

What also bothered me about the mother's posting of this list was the fact that she had, admittedly, not even read some of the books. She posted this list of books she was suggesting other parents might want to exclude from their children's required reading lists based entirely on the advice of the teacher who had compiled the list ... and then, sharing her list with the group, stating that she had received "warnings" about the titles with no clue given as to what those warnings were.

There are a lot of books I wouldn't recommend to my children, not because I object, necessarily, but because I'm not ready to have certain conversations with them. There are other books I wouldn't give my kids to read, because I haven't read them myself, and I'd like to read them before I have my kids read them.

All of the books on this person's list were "classics." Classics are labeled as such, because they contain themes that are timeless in the human experience. No, not all classics are appropriate for children. Nabokov's Lolita is a classic, but I wouldn't give it to my kids. The prose was absolutely stunningly beautiful and the word choices were lyrical - like a beautiful piece of music -, but the content was incredibly disturbing. In fact, I wouldn't, really, recommend it to anyone, based on the content. I wouldn't ban it, though. I just wouldn't recommend it, and if I were a teacher, I wouldn't assign it.

There are two issues here:
First is that our culture has the mistaken idea that all classics are always appropriate for our children to read, because, well, they're "classics"; and second is that banning books with themes to which we object, even if we've never read the book, is an appropriate way to protect our children.

In the second case, the reality is that, in the world we live in, even if we're very careful and we monitor everything our kids read and watch and listen to, they're going to learn these things. No, we don't have to give them the matches they use to burn themselves, but rather than trying to keep them away from fire (not going to happen), maybe a better response is to teach them how to be around fire without getting burned.

We should definitely be reading the classics, because these books are well-written prose with themes that are applicable even today. They teach us to speak better and to write better, because they are well-written, but they also give us insights into human behavior. The thing we tend to forget, however, is that most of these books were written for an ADULT audience, not children, and rather than an outright ban, perhaps, we should be ensuring that we are making the best age/maturity level choices for our children. What we should be teaching, therefore, is not "the classics", but rather a love of reading so that when our children are older and better able to handle some of the more adult-themes in these books, they will want to read them - not because the books are assigned reading, but because they are good books.

We need a well-read population of people, because people who don't read are more easily manipulated by those who may not have pure intentions. Please consider this when encouraging others to ban books. I haven't loved every book I've ever read, but I guarantee every single one of the thousands of books that I have consumed has made me think and many times challenged my core beliefs, which is, actually, a very good thing. If we never challenge what we think we believe, how can we know what's best?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Things are a Little Tight

The news is filled with optimistic messages about the improving economy. The stock market is up. Gas prices are down. The real estate market is holding its own.

Maybe, in other places, it's improving. Maybe it's improving here, but we're just slow to get the memo way up here at the tip of the country. I don't know.

What I do know is that more Americans are on food stamps than ever. The food pantries have more customers than they can serve. In spite of the mandatory insurance provision, people still can't afford to go to the doctor, and insurance companies are still wont to approve some treatment options - even when those treatments are prescribed by the physician who sees that individual. Almost half of the residents here in Maine are receiving some sort of Federal aid. Every time Deus Ex Machina and I go to the grocery store we're sideswiped by the increasingly higher cost of feeding our family. More than ever, I'm seeing charities in need. Everyone wants, but no one can give, because no one has anything.

Maybe it's just Maine. Maybe it's just my family. But I just don't see any improvement in the economy here - not in the overall economy, nor in our personal economy. Things are tight, and what I keep hearing - from everyone and everywhere - is that Christmas giving may be more lean than usual.

There was a time when making homemade Christmas gifts was simply not an option for me. I'm not terribly creative or very talented (I'm no Martha Stewart - and that's for sure!), and the kinds of things I could imagine making didn't seem to be very useful, actually. Further, the ideas for gifts to give were a long the lines of reusing baby food jars to make snow globes, which are fun, but not very useful.

Over the years, I've started saving websites that show ideas for gifts to make. Some of my favorite ideas are on Martha Stewart's website, but I've also been saving articles, like this one, that lists 25 Handmade Gifts Under $5. I won't, necessarily, choose to make any of the gifts listed, but it gives me some ideas, and at a time when I can feel overwhelmed, these kinds of very specific gift options help to focus me.

I love giving (and receiving) handmade gifts. It's fun, for me, to think about the people to whom I wish to give, and to think about what they might like, and then, to figure out a way to create that gift. It's even more fun when I can create that gift from things I have here at my house.

And as a hoarder, the kinds of things I have available for giving are pretty impressive.

We also have some very cool tools, like a bottle cutter so that we can make some upcycled gifts out of used wine bottles (the ones we don't refill with our homemade wine, that is :)). Or I might be able to spare one or two of my beloved canning jars to make one of the ideas on this list.

We will give a combination of bought things and homemade things this year, as usual. What I realized, though, is that too many of the things I've purchased over the years are things that I could have made - with a bit of imagination.

Things may be a little tight, but that doesn't have to mean that we can't enjoy the holiday season. In fact, since all of us are in the same boat, seems to me that it could be even more fun to see how creative we can all be.

Sneak preview:

There is always a lot of painting of wooden things here at this time of year ;).

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Enough with the Gadgets ... well, almost

I'm not usually a gadget kind of person. Don't get me wrong. I like gadgets. They're fun, and the first time I used an actual bread knife to cut a loaf of homemade bread rather than the steak knives I, pretty much, used for all cutting tasks, I realized the value in having the right tool for the job.

I've baked on top of my woodstove using inverted kettle, and yes, it worked, but I really like using the Dutch oven better. I think it's faster. I think it also gets hotter (although I haven't tested it). Both do the job, but it's a matter of, as above, the right tool for the job, which makes the job, easier, overall.

So, we have a lot of tools and a few gadgets, even. Like the several solar/dynamo radios - all of which also have USB ports for charging phones and/or iPods. One of our solar radios will even charge the Kindle (not that I'm a fan of e-readers, but there are other things we can do on it, like accessing email and watching Season 1 of Homeland while I was traveling last summer).

As such, when I saw the headline, Six Human-Powered Gadgets, I was intrigued and at the same time a little repelled.

I read the article anyway, and while I say "I'm not usually a gadget kind of person", I will admit that I swooned a little over some of them. I mean, a flashlight that works off body heat? I think my daughters need those.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Deals

For a limited time, Deus Ex Machina and I are offering a package deal on our books, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs and Browsing Nature's Aisles. Get both books, autographed, for only $30 with free Priority shipping via the USPS anywhere in the US (sorry, no international shipping this time :( ).

We have a PayPal link set-up for your convenience, but please order earlier rather than later if you want to take advantage of this deal. We have a very limited supply of the books, and the offer ends on December 14.

Remember, books make a great gift, and there's nothing so wonderful as giving friends and family the gift of self-sufficiency.

Happy reading!

Click here to take advantage of this limited-time offer.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

It snowed

On Thanksgiving Eve much of the northeast was pummeled with a huge snowstorm. I say that with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, because only a few days before this, parts of Upstate New York really were pummeled with snow in a storm that put more snow on the ground than most people are tall. They had an emergency. With less than 12" in most places, we had a bit of inconvenience.

What made this snowstorm seemingly newsworthy was the fact that it was a very heavy, wet snow - which is actually kind of typical for this time in the season. The first few snowstorms and the last few snowstorms are always that heavy, wet stuff that no one likes to shovel, and it's the best snow for making snowmen and snowballs, because it's the kind of snow that really sticks together.

I heard, once, that the Inuit people had multiple words for snow, which makes sense, because snow has different characteristics depending on the time of year, the temperature, and the humidity in the air. But I digress.

On Wednesday night, our electricity blipped off. No one panicked, because, well, there's nothing to panic about. It's just electricity. It's not like the roof caved in.

We lit some candles, stoked up the woodstove, and pulled out the Scrabble board. No electricity? Family game night! Woot! After an exciting hour of word-smithing, I decided to see if I could get the mobile hotspot on my phone to work and was able to successfully connect my laptop to the Internet. I didn't stay on for very long, because I wanted to save my batteries.

Big Little Sister and Little Fire Faery treated us to some music. What's that commercial? Instruments = $$. Music lessons = X dollars per month. Private concert = priceless. Beautiful voices raised in song accompanied by an acoustic guitar with the fire in the woodstove crackling the background was perfect. It's exactly what every summer camping trip is all about - getting off the grid and just enjoying the moment.

Thanksgiving morning, we woke up and there was still no electricity. We made coffee and fed the dogs and cats. The girls went out and took care of the animals outside. I turned on my laptop and connected up to the Internet for a couple of minutes.

Then, I cut a squash in half, took out the seeds, put one half in the Dutch oven with a bit of water, and put it on the woodstove to cook. I took the cranberries out of the freezer, put them in a pan with a bit of water and some sugar and put it on the woodstove to cook.

Deus Ex Machina plugged our on-demand propane water heater into the jumpstarter (ours is similar to this one, but not this exact one), and we took hot showers.

Big Little Sister had volunteered to walk dogs at the animal shelter on the holiday, and so Little Fire Faery, Big Little Sister, and I hopped in the car and drove up to the animal shelter. We charged our phones on the drive up and back. While Big Little Sister walked dogs, Little Fire Faery and I sat in the multi-cat room and petted the cats.

While we were gone, Deus Ex Machina prepared the bacon-wrapped rabbit, which we planned to have for dinner. Also on the menu was the wild turkey Deus Ex Machina took with his bow back in October. We decided to spatchcock it and cook it on the grill. He got that ready while the girls and I were at the animal shelter.

The grandbabies showed up around dinner time. We lit the oil-lamp wall sconces in the living room and a table top oil-lamp in the dining room.

Plus, we had some candles, which I've been collecting and purchasing whenever I find them at Goodwill. Another item that I've been collecting, partly for situations just like this one, but also for when we have our family parties, are "glow sticks". I can usually find them on clearance right after Halloween, and I buy as many as I can find. They're a lot of fun for the kids when they're playing nighttime hide-and-seek (also called "Manhunt") during the summer or when we have power outages. I like to have them for use in the bathrooms rather than leaving an untended candle, and they put off a surprisingly bright light.

We had our Thanksgiving dinner and cleaned up the dishes using water we heated on the woodstove. The girls ate all of the ice cream in the freezer, because it was starting to get soft. The girls played some games and drew some pictures. I did some reading by oil lamp. We all went to bed early. The grandbabies stayed the night and really enjoyed their glow-stick bracelet night lights.

Friday morning we woke up without electricity. We made coffee and fed the dogs and cats. The girls took care of the animals outside. I put the cast iron skillet on the woodstove and made some breakfast sandwiches. We went to music lessons. We stopped by the library. We came home. The girls folded clothes. I swept the floors and cleaned up the kitchen.

The electricity came back on around 2:00 in the afternoon on Friday. We had been electricity-free for about thirty-nine hours.

And nothing, really, about our daily lives changed. There was no emergency, and we didn't sit, fearfully huddling in a cold house and waiting for someone to save us.

We joked with the librarians that, of course, this power outage wasn't an issue ... and since I wrote the book, if it were an issue, they would have to induct me into the Preppers Hall of Shame. The reality is, though, that even if I hadn't written the book (which is, really, just about how we live our lives anyway) that this power outage wouldn't have been any different for us than it was.

The power grid is fragile, and most of us have experienced a power outage at some point in our lives. Most of the time it's a blip and then the lights come right back on, but on more than one occasion, in the seventeen years I've lived here in Maine, the power has been off for more than twenty-four hours. For this reason, we have created a lifestyle that allows us to easily transition when the power goes out.

But it's not about having a 72 hour Bug Out Bag or emergency supplies. These things we have are things we use, and not *just* when the power goes out (except for the oil lamps, and pretty much, we only use those when there's no power). We heat with wood and during the winter, we often cook on the woodstove to save electricity. We use the jump starter battery to inflate our car and bicycle tires. We always use a French press for making coffee.

We have consciously moved away from complete dependence on the electric grid, because we have seen how fragile it is, and we wanted our home to be that safe place we could go to - no matter what.

It snowed on Wednesday, a typical, heavy, wet late fall snow that bowed the power lines and caused them to snap. We lived, our normal, every day lives, without electricity for thirty-nine hours.

And on the other side, with the exception of no longer rationing computer time, not much has changed.

**I linked to several products in this post - not as an advertisement, but to show those who might be curious what the things I mention look like. I am not an affiliate of any of the vendors to which I linked, and I will not get compensated if you choose to buy those products. If you're interested in purchasing any of them, I would recommend that you shop around your local area and find a local source ... barring that, find the best price you can ;).