Bunga, Bunga, Cowabunga

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(Sophie watching me update the blog.)

Not much motivates me to write these days; I’m continuing to bounce around in day-to-day mode, living in the moment. But, while in the shower this morning, just thinking about writing something trailed off into considering my communication skills in general.

Abby has just dropped off of Facebook and I suspect it’s not in small part because she has reached a point in her academic and professional development where she doesn’t want a lot of silliness on such a public forum- and face it, many of us have a lot of silliness hanging there on that page. It may also be that she is simply more mature and productively busy than, say, her mother and doesn’t want to bother with the distraction of idle one liners. Whatever it is, she’s off FB, along with all of her cute photos of her in dreads when she was fourteen and so forth. So I wrote her an e-mail last night and said I missed her presence there (and being able to communicate with idle silly one-liners) and that I had only signed up for FB in the first place, all those years ago, so I could keep track of her life as she moved away from me. Hover, intrude, that sort of thing. She answered my e-mail promptly with, “Too bad you can’t talk on the phone.” Well, she’s correct about that. I really dislike talking on the phone and now I fear that there are people who think I just don’t care enough about our relationship to have a decent telephone conversation with them. If I answer the phone at all I usually, in short order, concoct some ridiculous lame ass excuse when they are mid-sentence (“whoa! call you back! someone just drove up on the lawn!” click.) or worse yet, I interrupt them as they are telling me about a life-changing experience with, “Okay then. Talk soon. Bye! Love you!” Recently, to compensate for my inability to stay on the phone I’ve developed the habit of adding, “Love you!” at the end of all together too many calls. I did that the other day with a total stranger who found my number and wanted to talk to me about whether she could felt her cat’s fur. I do care about my friends and family and I think about them a lot; I guess I just don’t care enough to work through my telephone issues. However, you should all believe me when I suggest you come see me, on the mountain or here in Florida in the cold months. Those offers are sincere and I really would like to see you and cook for you and look at you, possibly hug you.

Another thing that really annoys my children and husband is my habit of stopping mid-sentence when I’m speaking with them. I would be concerned that this is some sort of dementia setting in except that I’ve done this for years. Abby says things like, “yes, and then?” to jump start the completion of a thought; Rich just says, “finish.” Perhaps it comes from spending 30+ years as a therapist, trying to make sense of the words and thoughts of others while simultaneously rooting around for some sage advice or resolution to their problem. This process involved organizing lots of jumbled ideas combined with the need to offer an enlightening response in fairly short order.

Working as a psychotherapist means spending a lot of time sitting in a chair, lost in the world of stream of consciousness- theirs, yours. It also, for me, involved a lot of time on the telephone- taking and returning calls that could go on for a bit. For years I functioned very well with high level communication skills, very successfully. Many therapists take the easy way out by narrowing their vocabulary to “ah” and “um-mmm” but I did not. I’m not being immodest here when I say I was quite competent and much sought after as a psychotherapist.

As a lot of you know, when I was through with that part of my life I moved on to the Lincoln Park Zoo. That was a great transition for me. I desperately missed my profession and the people I cared for, but the zoo provided an opportunity to talk with hundreds, no, thousands of people on subjects I was passionate about without having to worry lest someone jump off a bridge.  I’d get so wrapped up in talking about the mating rituals of Piping plovers or the niche occupied by the Sichuan takin that eyes would glaze over and people would wander off to the sea lions. Seriously, I was good at that job, too. If I’d stayed at it for decades I most likely would have become like one of the other docents who no longer spoke to the visitors and, in fact, detested them; she just wanted to hold the blue-tongued skink and shoo the children away. But then we moved from the Windy City to the mountain house.

So now I teach felt-making. Apparently, I’m pretty good at this too but much of the communication evolves around demonstrating with my hands. I still have to talk and I’m sometimes concerned that a lot of what I’m saying is coming out as gibberish, especially when I start comparing wool fleece to human hair (some is good for dreads, some is not, etc.).

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(Sophie is rolling her eyes. What is she telling me here?)

Okay. Now I’m sitting here wondering where the hell I was going with this post. When I was in the shower, in a mere 6 minutes, I covered my communication skills, my relationships with Rich and the children, the roll of stream of conscious thought in my life, Virginia Woolf and her position on the plotless novel, the insane gibberish of certain presidential wannabes, the slippery slope of verbal promises impossible to keep, and plans for making a felted moon jelly. And, I was going to discuss the origins of “bunga, bunga, cowabunga” which, contrary to popular thought, were not from Chief Thunderthud on the Howdy Doody Show of my childhood but were really tied to Virginia Woolf and the Dreadnaught hoax. And I had all of that worked into a cohesive blog post. Now I’ve wasted an hour plonking away and have come to the conclusion that when your mind works like this it’s best to say nothing. Nothing at all.

Whoa! The mailman just knocked the box off the house! Love you!

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Working hands


Today, because it is a new year and that’s always an opportunity for a fresh start, I tried once again to tackle my wool website. The one where, in theory, I conduct business. This is a joke, in the same fashion that any artist conducting business is a joke (or would-be artist in my case). It was with relief that I laughed at Robin’s FB note about exactly how arbitrary these dates are (and that it makes far more sense to keep track of things according to the sun and the moon and the tides) because, as usual, I end the day feeling somewhat like a failure, technologically-speaking. Here are a few of the things that have been hampering me:

An ancient MacBk Pro, the first off the production line and now ready for the Smithsonian, that stopped typing 4s and Qs and then 1s altogether.

Finding enough money to buy this lovely new MacAir. We found it.

Trying to get a page, any page, to stay still long enough to work on this new MacAir. The pages hover and swoosh and dart about ala CSI Miami as I try to learn new  keypad techniques.

My kindly tech support team at iPower. They are always there, 24/7, with never much more than a couple minutes wait time and they are always really happy and willing and eager to give me technical support- and they are all named Peggy. Hence, TangledUpInWool.com makes even less sense to them than it does to me.

All of my photos are scattered about the virtual universe, on hard drives left in the mountains, in Clouds, on servers. Half are degraded to thumbnails and most I can’t find anyway. This is really discouraging because, of course, along with photos of wool and bad alpaca teeth are photos of my mother, my babies, Adelor the lion at LPZ, my best wol shots (WOLS! reference Pooh), and past homes with trees and flowers and cats.

And so forth. Today, after one of those completely debilitating trips to IKEA in Tampa last week to buy more storage, after carting and assembling and unpacking and sorting, I pushed my luck and asked Rich to take a couple of new photos of me working on the drum carder. I wanted desperately to post something, anything, at tangledupinwool.com so I could then send out e-mails to all the lovely people who have contacted me at one time or another about felt making. So I can conduct my business (this is a joke). Of course, all of those e-mail addresses are the way of my photos, half disappeared and some of them have co-mingled in adulterous ways with garden club lists and book club lists so that if and when I do get out an e-mail half of the addressees will be irritated at more unwanted junk in their mailboxes.

Anyway. Rich took photos of me working on my new old electric drum carder and as he was taking them he said, “you are not going to like these. They make everything look messy.” What he meant but was kind enough not to say was that, as usual, I was looking terribly un-photogenic, hadn’t combed my hair or put on clean clothes, let alone-God forbid- any makeup. Also, as usual, my skin is rebelling here in Florida by turning flaming red with blotches, further exacerbated by a new SPF moisturizer. So I just went about my business. When the sun hit the porch and I had to come in out of it, I uploaded the photos and found that I really like them.

I like them because of my hands. They are working hands. I never get manicures and I have never, at least since I’ve been felting, grown my nails or engaged in any other hand care maneuvers. As I get older my skin has gotten thinner and knicks and scrapes show up most every day as I go about my business. Horrid age spots have appeared. They are in pure olive oil sludge many hours a week -I think that’s actually good for them. And they are working hands. Feltmaking is hard work. Turning loose bits of animal fiber into durable and sometimes artistic product is hard work. I scrub, squeeze, rub, twist, push, pull, tangle, smooth, lather, rinse, toss, throw and rub some more. That is the work of a felt maker. I liked looking at my hands in these photos. Looking at these photos, I didn’t mind that I don’t photograph well, that I have quite a bit of surplus chin, the my complexion is ruddy, my belly paunchy and my eyebrows Vulcanesque. Most of all, I didn’t mind that my hands look shopworn and sinewy. I thought about all of the pleasures of working with my hands, I thought about my hard-working father, I thought about how very much I enjoy felt-making.

In all of these photos I am carding wool, in preparation for making felt. I found this old used and adapted electric drum carder in the mountains of Madison County, near our home in NC. It was originally a Louet hand carder and up until now, I have only ever used a hand carder that you crank away at ad nauseam. Somebody who worked with his hands built a housing for this carder and added a workhorse of a motor and automotive belts to drive it. It took forever to clean it of the alpaca (there were about two and a half beasts) and vegetative matter (enough to fertilize my garden for a season) but once done I fell in love with this machine. I think it will run forever.


A sign of the times

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do. (Willa Cather)

I’ve always taken good care of my trees. Back in Ann Arbor I had several trees that I was very attached to emotionally. I had a Norway Spruce that the White House would have been proud to have as their Christmas tree. It was the largest, oldest in Ann Arbor and at the base of the drive with unchecked space it grew to over 100 ft high by 30 ft wide. I often wondered what it would cost to put lights on that puppy. I had a Bradford pear that I planted as a seedling and when I left that home it was in full bloom at about 35 feet. Right out the front window we had a white birch that had far exceeded it’s life span for a water bound tree and was home to many many birds who came to the feeders there. My neighbor would make me a lovely collage of that tree , done on clementine boxes, as a parting gift when I moved.

(you can see the collage of my birch tree on clementine boxes, now on the wall of the mountain house.)

My favorite tree at that house was a wedding gift to Rich and me. We were given a gift certificate to the American Heritage Tree Nursery and we selected a Yoshino Flowering Cherry, aka a Tidal Basin Cherry like the ones in D.C. that were a gift to the American people. Original stock. We ordered it and it arrived in a 4 ft tube with a 4ft stake and detailed planting instructions and it was no bigger than a pencil with about as much evidence of life. I was appalled and called the folks at the nursery and they said, essentially, “patience, Grasshopper. Have a little faith.” I planted that pencil and by the time the weather started to turn cold I could feel two small nodes, barely perceptible, with a promise for Spring. Come Spring those nodes turned into leaves and all that growing season the cherry tree had 4 leaves. Since I had high hopes for it, I had made a large circle, outlined by rocks from Lake Michigan and planted some shallow root primrose at its feet. They flourished and bloomed. Late in the summer the husband of the couple who gave us that gift was diagnosed with advanced bladder cancer. The wife was a good friend from BCMA. The battle was on. I HAD to keep that tree alive. Late that fall it went to bed with 4 swollen nodes and David just plain went to bed. In the end, David died and the tree lived. When I sold the house 3 years later to move to Chicago I couldn’t bear to leave the now flourishing young Cherry tree but it was growing well enough that transplanting had become an issue, especially when left in the hands of a grieving home owner and a grieving widow. We humped that tree over to Linda’s down-sized new home where everything was still mud and construction and damn, if that Michigan Spring didn’t last five minutes before it turned to hot, dry Michigan summer. She said she would work on it as well as her heart and energy could muster but neither of us were particularly optimistic and life went on. We moved to Chicago and Linda remarried. This year she sent me a picture of that Tidal Basin Cherry.

When I lived in Ann Arbor, if  I needed tree work done (this would have been through the nineties when I was an established mature homeowner) I would have called some company with a solid reputation like Urban Foresters and they would come out and give me a bid for 800.00 to trim up the trees and treat the cedar-apple rust and I would save up for a month or so and then have them out to do the work.

When we moved to Chicago I began doing my own tree work on the flowering crabs that were in our meager courtyard. By climbing onto the roof of the detached 4 bay garage that served the entire condo building and by leaning out in far too precarious a posture for a woman of an age where bone scans are routine, I managed to whip them into a nice shape and they bloomed well while we lived there. Mostly, I went down to the conservatory on the lake and the area all around my beloved zoo when I wanted to see really good trees.

North Carolina has brought us more trees than we can shake a stick at- they’re everywhere, acres of them. A lot of nut trees- hickories, oaks, chestnuts- all with fruit that shoots out of the sky like missiles when the weather is just so. Fruit trees including apples and a Damson Plum I plan to use for Damson gin and of course, spectacular rhodies and shockingly orange flame azaleas. It’s tree paradise and they most all take care of themselves and all we have to do is haul off downed branches after a wind blows through. I do fuss over the giant Carolina hemlock which has been doing battle with woolly adelgid disease since we moved in, but as of this fall, the tree is winning.

And then there is Florida. In keeping with the general Florida theme, there are some real gems down here and then there are a lot of trash trees. We removed a giant Brazilian Pepper with some reluctance this past year as it was home to half a dozen Cardinal families and provided good shade on the kitchen side of the house. It also provided more falling garbage than any tree I’ve ever encountered. Dropping little invasive seeds and berries on everything, it would get so bad that we couldn’t step foot int the kitchen door without removing our shoes and I was continuously pulling out millions of little trees. So good riddance to that tree and I don’t say that lightly.

Oaks. We have Live Oaks here in Florida (Quercus virginiana) and they are indeed lively, multi-trunked and branching trees with great canopies that are constantly dropping shit. They celebrate Fall and Spring simultaneously because the thing that forces them to drop leaves is not a change in temperature like their Northern cousins but rather, new leaf nodes pushing off old leaves. This means that in a matter of weeks, but continuing for months, there are leaves everywhere along with flower parts and yellow pollen. Inches of pollen. Pollen that turns a British Blue purebred cat into a scratching yellow rat. Pollen than covers the furniture, floors, counters and makes it so you can’t see out the windshield of your car. Because live oaks have such a broad canopy they also drop branches and limbs and sticks and threaten to topple on your roof come hurricane season. And while the Florida bungalow is a place where I would rather not invest much time or money in the care of all these wild and crazy trees, it dawns on us periodically that we need to make sure they don’t become a liability to our house or the neighbor’s. Today a truck full of guys with a tall ladder and chain saws came by and offered to “clean up” our oaks. I swear these are the same guys I see panhandling by the freeway off ramp every day- truly, I did recognize them. But here they were, still toothless and filthy, but chainsaw in hand. To their credit, in response to my first question regarding license and insurance, they produced a soggy well-handled business card that said “licensed and insured.” I took it from him just in case( he really wanted to hang on to it and I could see his eyes shifting with indecision: “a card in the hand or beer?”) and we gave them the job. Rich stood out on the front walk and supervised and in something under two hours the six guys had removed every low hanging branch on the property for 175.00. We had previously had this same job bid by a professional tree company, one where the guys wore polo shirts with logos, for 700.00. What can I say?  I think it’s a sign of the times that 6 guys will trim all these giant oaks and haul away the refuse for 175.00 and also that we would consider hiring them. The whole episode made me very nervous but it’s done now and it looks great. Rich had to follow them to the compost center to show his license so they could dump the stuff for free and he noted that they took side streets all the way, rather than the main road. Hmmm. There was one fatality; I guess that was bound to happen. 

All I want for Christmas

It’s a good thing I didn’t want any presents this year, of the variety that come wrapped up in paper with beautiful bows because I didn’t get any.

Well, before I commit to an exaggeration, let me think about that. I guess I did get a few small presents.

From Abby and Misha I received a wonderfully soft cotton t-shirt with a great horned owl on the front and back. It reminds me of Hoo2 and what a gift it is that I’ve been able to work at places like Lincoln Park Zoo and Boyd Hill. Abby also got me a good sturdy canvas knitting bag with a sheep print on the front. Those are both great, suit me fine and are entirely useful. “Useful” reminds me that I am so happy that both Dan and Abby learned fairly early that Christmas wasn’t about a big sleigh full of presents. By middle school Daniel appreciated that we were investing in musical instruments and lessons in support of his now life work, gift and passion. At thirteen I told Abby that there would be no more depreciating goods except underwear at Christmas and she needed to think of something that she wanted with lasting value. She said fretfully, “nothing from the mall?” and then cooked my Christmas goose by asking for a kayak trip up the Inside Passage. That started us on a decade of the most amazing travel adventures, trips we took together that gave us a lifetime of colorful memories and launched her commitment  to the seas and environment. (Everyone still always gets new underwear, pjs or socks for Christmas.)

(Abby working on her dissertation proposal on sustainable coastal ecology, with her little LED USB Christmas tree.)

From the women I teach to make felt in Sugar Hollow I got a lovely pillow with a beautiful silk screen of birds at a feeder. Perfect choice for me. It reminds me of another gift from a friend, a beautiful collage painting of my birch tree in Ann Arbor, with all of the birds feeding.

My friend Cathy gave a Guatemalan child enough food for a month, from me. This made me so happy I cried. Every day in January, a child is not going hungry because of the gift she gave on my behalf. I was just overwhelmed. I’m going to reciprocate by giving enough diapers for a month for one of her little orphans there. Cathy’s gift also reminded me of the best Christmas gift I ever received from Rich and that was the first year when we were still courting. He was also trying to win favor with Abby that year, so he gave enough to care for all of the cats in one enclosure for a year at the humane society and the cage had an engraved plate on it that said, “We are being cared for by Vicki and Abby Bennett.” Gifts that care for those in need are wonderful gifts.

(Despite a plethora of bubble wrap and neatly folded waxed paper, these always arrive broken. They are that perfectly crisp.)

My sister Betsy gave me my all time favorite Christmas treat: dark chocolate cookie press cookies. She makes them like nobody else in the whole wide world. All of us girls us Gramma Moe’s recipe but Betsy’s are always truly fantastic and far superior. They are the most perfect thin crisps of ridged chocolate and with a glass of red wine, late on Christmas night- well, that’s a bit of Heaven. And every year they remind me of the year I was pregnant with Daniel and absolutely miserable with morning noon and night sickness of the sort where they threaten to dump your belly in the hospital with IV hydration. She sent those cookies and that was the only reason I was able to survive and give birth to my first-born love, Daniel. So the cookies mean a lot to me. Betsy is also the Queen of Wrap. No matter what she sends, the paper is lovely, the ribbon divine, the gift tags perfect classy bits, printed on re-cycled papers and covered with birds and bees. We have similar taste, but like the cookies, her wrapping is always done just so while mine has a corner poking through here and a patched in strip of paper there where I was being too stingy on the original cut. This is the first year I’ve failed to get her gift to her on time and since it was already late I went out early this morning for the day after Christmas sale on Christmas items, including wrapping papers. I wouldn’t have done it for anyone but her and I know next year this morning’s headache will be back to delight me. Now to the post office.


My neighbor, the Other Vicki, (she and husband Ken are the world vagabonds who spend a giant portion of each year traveling on his airline passes from life as a pilot) out did herself and opening the bag from her revealed a treasure trove of goodies: a bottle of olive oil from my favorite place in Tuscany, spices from the casbah in Turkey, a small bag of paprika from Hungary, a lovely star ornament she made in ceramics class and three exceptionally cool stones from oceans far, far away- the Black Sea, the Aegean. We didn’t know Other Vicki and Ken when Rich and I got married so she doesn’t know that on our wedding invitations we asked people to please not give us any gifts because there was absolutely nothing we needed more than their friendship- but if they insisted on a gift, a stone or a shell from a place that they loved would be nice. As a result we have some really super stones, including Petoskey stones from Lake Michigan and some from the Holy Land in Jerusalem . So Other Vicki’s gift reminded me not only of how much I love stones from special places but also that there is absolutely nothing I really need more than a good stone.

All of these reminders were good because Rich , as usual, struggled this year in the gift department. He’s never been especially good at holiday times (that is a kind understatement) and the entire family laughingly tells him it’s time to go to CVS at 11pm Christmas Eve so he can buy gas and Starbucks gift cards off the revolving rack. This year he left late Christmas eve afternoon, right when I needed help around the house, to go to Target where he bought a screw driver for Misha, a rocket blender for Abby and four beer glasses “for the house.” (this was written on the wrapping paper in ink). Neither of us drink enough beer to need a dedicated glass. Sophie, by comparison, made out like a bandit. I think it was with embarrassment and humor that he chose a comic card with the punch line reading, “cuz you’re in charge of picking it out.”  After a day of feeling irritable about it, I finally found his gift to me: remembering that there’s not a single thing I needed and not much that I want to clutter up my life at this point. Cliche that it is, the truth is most certainly that Christmas is not about stuff. Rich’s inability to go Christmas shopping is not indicative of his feelings for me. I have no idea why he is holiday challenged; the therapist in me is quite certain that it goes back to his childhood in some similar fashion to my need to have Christmas be perfect and shiny bright. I’m remembering that he works very very hard to provide for us and that we live, relative to most everybody else in the world, among the rich and well nourished. And in my effort to stop being childish, I was able to  remember all of the kindnesses that he shows me, including his love for the children (and Sophie), his weekly letters to my stepfather Bud at the nursing home, wonderful travel to see the world and the random acts of compassion and kindness he shows towards others. He stood up from the Christmas dinner table yesterday and packed up an enormous plate, got in the car and drove it over to a homeless man he’s befriended. In other words, his gift to me is that he makes me work a bit on my attitude. And as grudging as I was when I set out to adjust my attitude this morning, I now remember all of these amazing gifts. Thank you, Rich.

(I also got a bouquet of flowers Rich picked from the yard- a reminder that I am basking in the warmth and beauty of our surrounds here at the bungalow.)

What did you get for Christmas?

(Here’s something else I got for Christmas. Bonnie came by and left one of her kind comments, which I always love. What, no poem?? And I re-read my post and realized that the paragraph about Rich, as I originally wrote it, was kind of snarky. So I made yet another attitude adjustment. Good deal.)