Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Handywoman by Kate Davies
Book Review

I like to knit, mostly sweaters. It's fun to find knitwear designers who have a look or style that pull me in over and over as I discover and research their creations. When that happens, I not only track down whatever I can find on the internet that they've made, I like to discover more about their lives. Where do they live? How'd they get into knitting and designing?

Kate Davies is a knitting designer I recently discovered and admire. I would make just about any of her sweaters. I was further enchanted when I learned she lives in Scotland near the gorgeous West Highland Way, a 95 mile hiking trail my husband and I backpacked in 2012, and that it inspires many of her designs.

I also learned she became a professional knitwear designer after having a debilitating stroke several years ago while she was in her thirties. She's written a memoir, Handywoman, an account of who she was before the brain injury, how she dealt with it, and how her life was changed afterwards. It's also an intelligent, thoughtful, methodical exploration of all facets of being in the physical world, and in communities. Davies was a maker and knitter before her brain injury, but an academic by profession. She turned her intellect to understanding precisely how her changed self interacted with the environment. Along the way she determined she would start a new profession: knitwear designer.

The tone of the book is serious and thorough. For example, Davies' chapter "Raised" takes us through her experience and epiphany being assisted with the Etac turner, a non-motorized piece of equipment for transferring someone that leverages the weight of each person. She does so in explicit detail: its construction; each choreographed movement as the technician secures a brake, stabilizes the turner; each of Davies' own movements in response; and her elation at the realization her own body participates in the entire process, never surrendering to the complete trust of another person's physical effort.

She dissects why that is, and begins to look at designed objects with new eyes. She says, "I now think of the habit of attentiveness I began to develop during the time I spent on the neurology ward as a form of material engagement. Material engagement is both reflective and participatory. . . After my stroke, I came to understand that, in the processes of their making and their potential for creative accomplishment, tools and objects possessed a wisdom that was far greater than my individual mind and body."

But Handywoman is not all about the physical and social experience of brain injury. There are plenty of fascinating stories about her interactions with textile making communities. My favorite was her journey to the Shetland Islands and developing a deep connection and relationship with the woman and culture of knitting there.

I'll probably read this one again because her thoughtfulness about the dailyness of life is inspiring. Meanwhile, I've decided which of Kate Davies' designs is on my project list: the Carbeth Cardigan. Davies is well known and beloved: over 1,800 people on Ravelry have made, or want to make, this sweater, too.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
Book Review

Edith and Helen are sisters who grew up on a farm in north central Minnesota in the 1940s to the early sixties. They become estranged when their father leaves the farm to Helen, the younger, at his death some time in the 1960s.

Before that, Edith and her new husband, Stanley, leave their roles as caretaker and hired hand to move to the small city where's he's been offered a job. Stanley's no farmer and Edith's dad is not well, but this decision surprises Helen because Edith is loyal, hard-working, and lives to help people.

Helen hasn't paid attention to what's happening at the farm since she left for college three years ago, much less to Edith, but she sees how to turn this event to her advantage. Helen fell obsessively in love with the taste of beer and the process of brewing it when she was 15, and has been spending her college years learning everything she can about it. Her fiance, Orval, is from a beer-making family whose brewery has failed. Helen and Orval are trying to revive the business, but they need money.

Helen persuades her father, who is clearly not going to last much longer, to leave the farm to her. She promises she will give Edith her share when the brewery is making money. She and Edith never speak after Helen breaks the news, and the sharing plan falls aside.

Edith is not the kind of person to dwell on financial misfortune; she's much more sad to have no parents and an estranged sister. Edith and Stanley never have much money, and neither does anyone else they know. Edith resolutely, sometimes even cheerfully, shrugs off never owning a home, having no savings, and working well past the age she is when the book starts. (She's 63 and working in the kitchen of a nursing home.) Helen is ambitious, driven, and lonely (though she has Orval) but she doesn't care. Success is what she wants at all costs.

Edith's granddaughter Diana becomes the third major character in the story. A mixture of Edith's Minnesotan unpretentiousness and morality, and Helen's shrewd assessment of how to profit from all she encounters, she's the catalyst for Edith and Helen to find the end of their stories.

We know the setting of a book often works as a character in its own right. In The Lager Queen, it's not quite so much the rural landscape of north central Minnesota as it is the sturdy, unassuming civility of Edith and her friends. They judge people who don't play by their rules: don't swear, don't ask personal questions, be friendly and honest--but they keep it to themselves. Emotions are sublimated. But once in a while they'll make a subtle, insider joke about someone with people they trust.

My dad grew up just like that in the same area, and I recognize my cousins' way of talking in this book. Stradal, who's from Minnesota, has captured the personality of the region in a laugh-out-loud, entertaining, yet respectful, way. He also must love beer. I don't drink it, but this book is saturated with detailed descriptions of hops, brewing facilities, types of beer and their taste. I started to want a cold bottle.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Ice Cream Pails Have to Go

Thankfully I'm not buying this much ice cream anymore.
It seems everyone is decluttering these days, no matter what their age. I babysat yesterday for my daughter and her husband so they could sort through their storage room without one-year-old Nolan insisting on being involved. I've been working on paring down my own considerable amount of stuff, and see echoes of my sentimentality in my daughter's reluctance to let go of old dance costumes and art projects (thank goodness those managed to find their way to her house, not mine!).

In the past months since I've retired, my husband and I have sent bags and boxes and piles of unwanted or broken things to Goodwill or the landfill. Some of it was easy to get rid of, but a lot of it felt like throwing important parts of my own life away.

I don't want to forget past lives and experiences, yet I understand there's a cloying, heavy atmosphere pressing down when you surround yourself with your history instead of what's happening and important now. My husband and I often remind each other that we don't want to live in a museum. We've found we can let go of things that are sitting around out of sight, yet represent cornerstones to our identities, if we give ourselves time to get used to the idea. Terry, a former newspaper editor, finally gave away his lifetime collection of important newspaper headlines.

"Do you think my kids are actually going to pick this up someday to read about Barack Obama's election in 2008?" he asked, holding up a copy of the Wisconsin State Journal. Wordlessly, we both shook our heads, and he flipped it back on top of the stack.

I have given away hundreds of my books over the past years, first the disintegrating paperbacks, then the outdated nonfiction, then the novels I didn't enjoy that much, and finally all that I don't plan to read again, or fail to admire with a five star rating. It was hard, and I could do it only by not thinking about it too much (the "spark joy" Marie Kondo talks about, perhaps?), but it is stimulating to see only the books that matter most when I look at my shelves (there are still plenty, and now I'm trying to be a lot more discerning in purchasing ebooks).

Our basement laundry room is also a storage room, and every day I see what's on those shelves, which have been culled several times over the years, without noticing any particular items. But today my gaze fell on three gallon size ice cream pails taking up prime space on a shelf within easy reach. They're perfect for picking raspberries, strawberries, or children playing with water, or any other number of things. They're substantial, handy buckets with their handles and lids.

But we no longer grow raspberries or strawberries, and if the grandchildren want to play with water, there are many other options. We haven't found a use for them for two years, and I carried those pails to the recycling bin with a feeling of accomplishment.

After I did that, I remembered I should take out the trash, so I removed it from the kitchen. I went through the storage room with my plastic bag where, perhaps predictably, the large plastic bags we were issued one of the last times we skied the American Birkebeiner race caught my attention (while you ski for hours, your belongings are transported to the finish line so you can change into dry, warm clothes). Completing that race several times in my mid and late fifties is one of the most important things I've ever done in terms of meeting a challenge I set for myself. How could I simply throw those bags away? Or use them for trash? They are badges of honor! It's energizing to remember skiing all those kilometers through the Chequamegon Forest, not an oppressive weight!

I'm sure some other items on these shelves will show up in future posts.
Like the ice cream pails, no pressing or worthy use for the bags had turned up in the past four years. But they are, in the end, ugly, nondegradable plastic bags that the Birkie people don't even use anymore.

I moved them upstairs to live with the roll of kitchen trash bags, awaiting their turn to hold our garbage. Okay, I'll come clean: I will move them there after I finish this post. It just takes a little time and processing to say goodbye.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Dad's Badger Honor Flight, September 24, 2016

This post is for everyone who wrote a letter for my dad, Lewie Smith, to read on the way home from the September 24 Badger Honor Flight. Your letters were handed out as part of Mail Call, an Honor Flight tradition that volunteers told me was "the worst-kept secret."

We hid our letter-writing well; Dad had no idea they were coming. Once that fat envelope was put in his hands, he didn't sleep a minute on the way home after an exhausting 15 hour day. He read letter after letter from family and friends telling him what his military service as a Korean War veteran meant to them, and we both had to keep brushing away tears.

I wish I could include them all here. Dozens of expressions of thanks and respect like "We are all in debt for the years you gave up for your country," and "What must it have been like for your mom to see all three of her sons serve during wartime," had Dad shaking his head, saying "This is for all the guys that didn't make it back, we're all just standing in for them."

He smiled in wonder at "Thank you for always taking time for me," "You taught me to be a good, honest, and fair man," and "I always admired you," to name just a few from family members a generation or two younger. He laughed out loud at friends' notes like "Don't think this honor gives you an advantage playing cards" and "I've always been impressed with your story about the Commander who turned wine into hydraulic fluid."

For me, reading each person's perspective on Dad's service was one more gift of the privilege of accompanying him that day. Every single person had something unique to say.

There are a few photos on Facebook, but here's another collection from beginning to end of the September 24 Badger Honor Flight from Madison, Wisconsin to Washington, DC..

We were at the airport at 4:30 am, and by no means the first people there. It was crawling with volunteers, veterans, guardians, and family members.

When our plane pulled into the gate area at Reagan airport, we got a taste of the celebration waiting for us. The tarmac staff were waving flags, the baggage cart had a flag on it, a water cannon saluted us, and a crane held a giant flag over everything. We unloaded into the gate area and a blast of cheering, waving people met us, lined up from the first steps off the plan all the way to our buses. I think we were all stunned.

All day, wherever we went, people went up to Dad and all the other veterans, shook their hands, and said "Thank you for your service."

The first place we went was Arlington National Cemetery, for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We were told they do something special when they know veterans are in the audience. Their shoes are like tap shoes, with metal plates on them, and it turns out the special thing is a kind of dragging step on the turn.

The next stop was the Marine Corps War Memorial, which included a group photo and lunch on the agenda. Every one of the 85 veterans had a guardian (in blue shirts) with him; we had strict orders to stay by our vet's side every minute.  There were only male veterans on this flight; most were Korean or Viet Nam War veterans, but ten served during World War II.

I had no idea how large the Marine memorial was.

We went to the National World War II Memorial next. It is one of the visual anchors of the National Mall: huge and beautiful. JoAnn Mezei, my mom's cousin, joined us for a couple of hours, which made the day extra fun. JoAnn lives in the area but it was still a drive and a subway ride for her to get there--and she told us we'd picked one of the busiest, high security days ever with the opening of the African American Museum.

JoAnn grabbed the camera and took this one of me and Dad in front of the 4,000+ gold stars, each representing 100 military deaths in WWII.

After that it was back on the bus and further down the Mall where we found the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Dad said one of the guys who fought told him it was hell--you didn't know who the enemy was. Dad was a jet engine mechanic and feels humble about his role in the war...but it was an essential one.

We walked across to the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial and looked for the name of a young man from Marshall who lost his life early in that war, James Shepherd. Dad knew his father. We found the name with the help of a Park Ranger who had a thick catalog with the key to finding the right panel and the number of lines down. One of the Honor Flight volunteers was helping people, too, with an app on her phone.

Then it was back on the buses for one more stop before going back to the airport: the Air Force Memorial. Each bus had a tour guide. Ours was Niki Sollinger, a young woman from Madison now living in DC, very involved as a Badger Honor Flight volunteer.

Dad said the Air Force Memorial was his favorite, I'm guessing because he was in the Air Force. The soaring pillars represent the missing man formation.

It was hard to see Dad in a wheel chair all day, but we were both grateful to have it. He couldn't have done it otherwise. The Honor Flight organization has dozens of them, donated by businesses. Every dollar spent on the Honor Flights is a donation. There are no paid employees. For this particular one, and the one scheduled for October 22, the cities of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac raised ALL the money, which is $200,000 plus. That was a story in itself, told at our orientation a couple of months ago.

At the Washington Reagan National Airport, we were met with lines of cheering people again, including a group dancing to Big Band music as we waited to get on the plane. They tried to get some of the vets to dance with them, but there weren't any takers. One of the tour guides took them up on it.

Back at the Dane County Airport, we were met with the most enthusiastic crowd of all--friends and family and Badger Honor Flight supports. You cannot imagine what it felt like to come home to that. Thank you all so much.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Baby clothes sewing project

These two little overalls turned out great--with a lot of study of the directions and slow, careful sewing. I've never used a Burda pattern before.

They are for grandson Julius in Houston...this is the nine month size and I'm crossing my fingers that they fit. He's nine months right now. I meant to get them done in May but it took longer than I took me a while to figure out how the bib front and back attached to the body.

Buttonholes! Always tricky. I must have made a dozen before committing to sewing on the overalls.

And snaps! I was so glad my mom--80 and still sewing as best she can with macular degeneration--came up with her Dritz gripper snap pliers I could use. She had it neatly organized, directions attached, in a plastic bag with all her supplies.

I've always wanted to try sewing two of the same thing at once, and use one color of thread in the machine. It didn't feel like that great of a timesaver, except now that I'm done I have two to show for my work instead of one!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gardens Don't Read Books

Every once in a while I read a book that changes my life. That happened to me a few years ago when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Barbara Kingsolver’s a biologist by education and in her early career, but really, she was a writer, and has written bestselling novels of fiction and nonfiction with a strong component of environmental conservation and social justice.  Some of my friends say she’s too preachy, but I find her writing to be funny, human and inspiring.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is about her and her family’s move from Arizona to her husband’s family farm in Southern Appalachia in Virgina, and their attempt to eat only food that was grown so locally that they actually knew the producers. In many cases, it was them as they grew vegetables and raised livestock.

I was completely captivated and wanted to do the same thing. We would eat like royalty all summer, then can and freeze and dry our huge bounty of vegetables! They would taste delicious instead of the bland and poisonous stuff shipped into the grocery store from around the world.

My husband read the book,too, and it wasn’t hard for me to talk him, a life long gardener, into digging and planting a huge garden, and plan to grow as much of our food as we possibly could.

So we did. And immediately discovered a few things.
  • The lot had very little topsoil, and lots and lots of thick, heavy clay.
  • You can’t work full time, bike, hike, go camping AND expect a weed-free, healthy garden during the summer.
  • Everything ripens at once, and it happens when you’re busiest at work, just want to come home and relax, it’s about 95 degrees out.

Many things didn’t grow: the peas just couldn’t get started, the lima beans were missing in action, the onions were the same size when we harvested as when we planted. The urban deer herd ate all our lettuce, chard, and spinach, and nibbled the tops of everything else. Something took huge, messy, chomps out of each ear of sweet corn the night before we were going to pick it.

However. We persevered, and enjoyed a Technicolor harvest of zucchini, green beans, cucumbers, pumpkins, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes—and more tomatoes. I took picture after picture and we ate like field hands.

I sweated through the late summer evenings and weekends, canning jars and jars of tomatoes, which were delicious. We froze everything else…and it all tasted…not as good as what’s available in the grocery store.

That winter was a time to regroup and rethink the purpose of the garden. Aside from the hard work, we loved planning it, looking at it, talking about it, harvesting from it—even the work, if it wasn’t too hot and buggy and we weren’t already exhausted.   I can’t explain how therapeutic it was to simply go out and work in. One beautifully sunny, cool day, when I couldn’t make up my mind which competing chore I should do—I thought, “what if this were the last day of my life? What would I pick?” That made it easy: work in the garden.

At the same time, I was pretty disillusioned with our ability and circumstances to grow our own food. The garden not only didn’t read the book, it had its own program, called “nature.” 

Since then, we’ve struck a compromise with the garden.  We won’t hold it completely responsible for feeding us, and in return it offers what it can. That means I have free therapy, and we have plenty of stories to tell; every year is different as to what foods we harvest. But what we mostly plant now are rows and rows of flowers: zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, bachelor buttons. Just because we like them, and we feel rich when we go outside and cut baskets full of them whenever—and if!—we want.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Highlights from Classic Wave 5 at the 2013 Birkie

  • The cute young man skiing past as I tried to surreptitiously (and safely) slow down at the bottom of a hill and turn to see if my husband was still behind me. He said “Your dude fell,” then gave me a smiling, sly little sideways glance. “I know you didn’t want him to.”
  • The man off his skis, posing at the 13K maker, taking his own picture of his face right next to the sign. I wished I had the generosity to hop off my own skis and do it for him. But I didn’t.
  • Skiing next to Jacque Lindskoog and seeing the look of determined concentration on her face. I wanted to yell “I love you, Jacque Lindskoog!” but couldn’t bear to bother her.
  • The music booming out over the slope where the 39K club hangs out. It lifted me up and carried me and I had tears. I vowed to remember the song but of course I’d forgotten it by the next hill. You know which one it is.
  • The woman dressed as a leprechaun, dancing in the middle of Bitch Hill, and the woman handing out pins who laughed as she chased us to zip them right into our pockets.
  • Skiing up Main Street, side by side with my husband, the sidewalks lined with people cheering us on, me smiling so hard, having no idea how I was managing to do that and keep moving without falling down.
  • Crossing the finish line and skiing up to the tall and skinny young man, with clouds of hair and beard, who stapled our 4 year pins on our bibs and told us “Congratulations!” with
    whole-hearted sincerity
2013 finishers
  • The young man working at the bag pick-up who expertly watched people approach, dazed, wearing their Birkie bibs, looking around, trying to make sense of a sea of numbers and white bags. He came up and put our bags in our hands, calling out our numbers with the authority of a professional announcer but the face of a high school sophomore.
  • Walking unsteadily into the changing tent, knowing I could never manage getting out of my wet clothes without a chair to sit on, but seeing they were all in use. Just standing there, trying to make my brain work, when a young woman in the corner gestured me over. She said “Ma’am, you can have my chair!”

    I was so grateful, and tried to think of what to say. “So you skied the Birkie!” is what came out. She lit up and said “Yes! My first one!” I said “Were you happy with your time?” and she looked at me, uncomprehending. “I’m just happy I skied it!” Which is exactly how I felt the first time. I was so tired I forgot about the point of the whole thing.