For Starters, I’ll Fix a Couple of Things

Yeah, one is The List—tonight I’m starting to write down/compile the broad generalizations and a few specifics of what I plan to do in the way of self-betterment during this school year, whilst continuing in my role of Chief of Support Staff and Household Administration chez Sparks. I’m looking to make my schedule, and especially my partner’s, as easefully manageable as I can, without feeling like there’s no room for spontaneity or getting through-and-around the surprises that life promises to bring. That’s the first scheduled item, really, making a schedule. How’s that for an awe-inspiring bit of tautological joy!

Meanwhile, the daylight hours have seemed better spent on home-maintenance and daily prep tasks than the dangerously hunched position I’m trying to avoid by slouching too long over the computer most days. While it’s a fairly natural consequence of being a daily blogger, the wholly sedentary life is not conducive to great health in the long term, let alone to the satisfied sleepiness one ought to feel at the end of a reasonably active day. So that’s part of the plan, too; I want to be sure I don’t procrastinate about getting useful stuff done around the ol’ palace here until it requires professional intervention at great expense, and doing it myself a tad sooner will get me out of my chair more often.

It’s obvious that I’m neither an abstemious sort nor averse to acquiring, using, admiring, and otherwise indulging in Things & Stuff, or stuff and nonsense, if you will, but I’m also not wholly against being frugal and economical in a few ways. First among them is to look for opportunities to improve, repurpose, upgrade, and use to the last atom those things I have that aren’t of particular aesthetic or sentimental nature.

Things in that vein? Shoes. Yes, I have an admittedly stereotypical tendency to swoon and squeal over all kinds of fabulous shoes, but for the most part, I limit my actual acquisition of them to ones that are reasonably comfortable for walking, resistant to the kinds of weather in which they’re worn, and not horrendously expensive for the amount of mileage I can get from them. But when I find those great shoes that fulfill and surpass my requirements to the degree that they become favorites, I will treat them with great gentleness and give them spa treatment days at the local cobbler’s shop, spending as much again over their lifetimes as two more pair of shoes might cost.

Photo: Once, my shoes were like this.

Photo of Lifestride ‘Hart’ shoe, courtesy of eBay.com.**

When I travel, despite my being a veteran planner-organizer-logistics manager, and not too bad with those skills, I still over-pack and under-plan; this summer, every time we got on a plane I knew I would find a day or three ahead for which I had not brought precisely what I wished I had. The temperatures and the weather were consistently different, on this summer’s trips, than what was predicted, so I was often a little warmer or colder than expected, and my shoes not quite what the weather demanded. Our Halifax visit was downright hot for some of the time, and warm for most, but our one day of real exploration on the coast was very blustery and rainy. I still had my old flat Mary Janes** along, and the support was still quite serviceable, but the straps were shot and the rough terrain we were visiting promised to yank them right off my feet. Thankfully, I’d discovered that the best air-travel substitute for an alarm-ringing belt was a wide band of hook-and-loop tape, so I tore my “belt” in half  and used the shorter pieces to wrap my shoes around the instep and secure them. Added traction, into the bargain. The end of the useful life of the shoes in their original state, but it did the trick.

Photo: Velcro Magic

Looks goofy, but it works, in a pinch.

Most of the fix-it stuff around home is far more mundane, of course. Lots of dish washing today (by hand and by machine), some  house cleaning and tidying, a bunch of online and phone and postal transactions, and the fixing of a thing or two that’s gone a shade too long unfixed. Occasionally, it’s even time to haul out my hand tools, but anything heavy-duty gets handed over to the pros nowadays. Today’s busyness included repairing a minor bit of mess that required an uncommon set of those tools:

Photo: One of These Things is Not Like the Others...

Sing it with me now: “One of These Things is Not Like the Others…” What do pliers, screw anchors, screwdrivers, a hammer, and poultry shears have in common?

Our bedroom drapes were hanging strangely. Not sure why it took me quite so long to figure out that the right side of the curtain rod had lost its moorings; the screws securing the bracket on that end had pulled right out of the wall and were hanging there, looking rather forlorn, and doing pretty nearly nothing to keep the drapes from falling on the floor. When I went to move the bracket farther along, I was quickly reminded that the header behind the wallboard prevented any kind of useful anchors from sinking all the way through in the way that would successfully grip the drywall and help keep the bracket in place longer. So I got out the strongest bypass cutters I had, which happened to be my poultry shears, and lopped the plastic anchors down to half their length. A little harder to start in the drywall, yes, but they fit snugly against the hidden header and were sunk far enough in to grip both the wall and the screws’ full length. Funny, how much better the drapes hang when they’re properly supported. Oops. But that’s how home maintenance goes. Dribs and drabs, bits and bobs.Photo: Fix That Curtain Rod, Dang It!

Then, sleep, and on to the next day’s tasks. At least our bedroom curtains close properly again! So—well, good night, then. We shall see what tomorrow brings.

Fix-It Fixations

Any homeowner or even mildly obsessed apartment-dweller who likes customizing his or her nest, office, cubicle, or living space knows that there are numerous ‘projects’ that are never officially finished. Most DIY projects of any sort, in fact, are only satisfying right about the time they’re in their last stages of preparation and very, very newly finished. Then we’re on to the next change or update we’ve been itching to see transform our spaces. For me, the Next Big Thing is perpetual: I never quite settle down and stop having new ideas and fantasies. My now-spousal partner knew even before my dad jokingly warned him when we sprang the (not especially surprising) news of our intent to marry that it was not merely in jest Dad told him to expect to come home virtually any day of the week and find the furniture moved all over the place, half the house painted, or the chairs reupholstered. Thank goodness he’s a very flexible, tolerant guy…of course, he wouldn’t be with me in the first place if that weren’t true.Photo: The '70s Called...

Nowadays I’m lazier and less willing to spend much money on concrete Stuff if I can save it instead for our various retirement plots and plans or spend on current doings. But the urge never dies; there’s always some little tweak or To Do lurking in the back corners of my brain’s attic. The one thing I’ve learned to appreciate better about the process is the slowness of it all that used to irk me immensely. Over the intervening time between idea and execution, the possibility of improving both process and product grows, and in many instances, the availability of a better set of materials and solutions arrives as well. Though I had in mind a nifty reboot of the existing dining room fixture that was, sadly, thwarted by the outdated wiring’s channels being too narrow for me to fit the necessary updated wiring through them, my time pulling apart and cleaning and fiddling with  the entire fixture in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass the problem was long enough for a more suitable modern fixture to at last appear on the market at a price I was willing to pay.Photo: Let There be Better Light!

Likewise, the wildflower and sapling “nursery” meadow I made out of half our backyard a couple of years ago has taken that long to begin coming to recognizable fruition as such a space instead of merely a raggedy weed patch. The time spent waiting for the (semi-dead, weak little one-dollar end of season) plants I picked up here and there to take root enough to survive longer term, let alone bloom, was well worth it, since those were not seasons of rich encouragement. This year’s mild winter and spring and its extraordinarily generous rainfall are providing a much friendlier environment for the plants now old and established enough for bloom to make their first appearances. So, though you can’t see it behind the blast of rose blooms in the last photo, there have been much more encouraging bursts of growth on a number of patches of chrysanthemums, Echinacea leaves, and myriad wild cousins, with some Salvia and Cynoglossom amabile (Chinese forget-me-not) throwing bright blue sparkles into the mix of pink primroses and green leafy things even before others come into bud.Photo: A Long Winter's Nap

Kind of the way that one new idea breaks in upon the muddle of all the old ones stirring in the brain while they wait to be put in order for becoming DIY projects and household fixes.Photo: Spring has Sprung

I Did It Myself…*to* Myself

Do It Yourself (DIY) projects, when well executed and realized, are impressive and admirable. They double one’s pleasure in the end product by being not only beautiful and useful as desired but also the satisfying result of her own skilled labors. Personal investment increase value exponentially.

I can claim a few DIY accomplishments on my resume, happily, despite my ordinary limitations of resource, monetary or of expertise or ability for the project in hand. But having mentioned hands, I must also confess to having a DITY (Do It TO Yourself) record as well. On the occasion of the hand-made hand injury, I was fortunate that my second of inattention resulted in no worse mishap than a tiny nip on my finger.

Being an artist, I did however do this with a certain degree of style: when I stuck my finger with a single tooth of my nice, sharp little hand saw (too aptly named, perhaps?), I did manage to insert the steel into the only small spot on my hand that already had a visible scar. Puncture becomes punctuation, so to speak.

As always, the tiniest wound is magnified by other pains, not least of them the injury to ego and dignity when on the instant of infliction I succumb to a combination of reactions that to the uninjured could only have a sort of serio-comic ridiculousness perfect for cutting me down to size. The unpleasantness of having made an unwanted incision in my personage is compounded by the leap back that threatens to throw me over a chair and onto my tailbone; the pinching clamp of fingers on the cut to stanch the bleeding hurts almost more  than the initial stab; the yell of pain that, in my nephew’s youthful terminology ‘scares my ears’ is also loud enough for the neighbors to hear and enjoy. On top of all this is the diminution of my sanguine pride, reminding me that my handy skills are sorely limited no matter what I tell myself.

Does this prevent my attempting further DIY projects? Hardly! Being by nature a timid and lazy and not-so-brilliant craftsman hasn’t made me give up but instead tends to make me plan and work things out fairly exhaustively before I begin, and to assume that I’ll make mistakes or need help before I finish. It all slows me down, to be sure—and that’s not a bad thing, mind you. Any DIY work is bound to be only as polished as patience and occasionally remedial work can make it.

When I speed up too much, I get sloppy and unfocused; I make silly mistakes like sticking my finger on a saw tooth/a saw tooth into my finger. Luckily for me, I didn’t have a power saw going there, so all I lost was a few minutes, my composure, and a few red cells rather than a digit. In return, I got a good reminder to sharpen my attention, to use tools with greater care, and to call in expert help when needed.

After all, I’d far rather sacrifice some dollars and a touch of my DIY pride than an appendage. This is how I’ve survived to my advanced age without losing any body parts or breaking any bones. I have recovered numerous times from being an (or falling on my) ass. Self image is ever so much more resilient than such things. Arguably, a little too much so in my case, or I wouldn’t tend to get into these fixes at all.

Of course, getting into a fix is something I can easily do all by myself. For that task, I do have all of the necessary experience and expertise.Digital Illustration: In Which I am a Silly Ass

Blowing through the Wild Grasses

Weed or wildflower? Messy or naturalized? Everyone has an opinion, and they often differ distinctly on the same little plant or plot. Part of the pleasure of good company will always be in its variety and the interest that it brings to life. Gardening tastes are very much in that vein.

Digital illustration: Wild Grasses

As a sometime gardener, however amateur, I can think of few styles of landscaping that I don’t find appealing and attractive in their own ways. I admire the near-perfection of elaborate, formal palace gardens and magnificent, fountain-filled parks with their follies and allees. I am fond of a rustic campfire-side bramble patch, punctuated by straggly hydrangeas run wild, down by the lakeside. There is both soul refreshment and eye appeal for me in a delicate Zen garden with bonsai, laceleaf maples and a barely rippling koi pond.

When it comes to my own gardens, I tend to walk just a little farther on the wild side. I hate to fiddle and fuss at length with the hard labor of a garden. I greatly prefer the genteel pleasures of the design of the garden, and perhaps the occasional artistic pruning to shape a rhododendron or sapling tree. But I’m not so wild about back-breaking rock picking and digging; I moved from incredibly rich but equally rocky volcanic glacial till of western Washington to the cement-like red clay of Texas, both places where putting a one-gallon root ball into the ground requires a pickaxe.

My first garden was an exploration of the beauties of cottage style gardening. Washington, temperate and moist, was ideal for a grand assortment of bulbs, flowering shrubs and cutting flowers, so I had profuse blooms and constant green with little effort. The traditional cottage style allowed me to squeeze a massive amount of lively growth into a normal city house lot, and the more I wedged into the ground, the less room there was for volunteer and invasive plants. Weeds had a tough go of it there, so it wasn’t especially hard to keep ahead of them.

There are plants I don’t invite to my parties. Much as I enjoy and admire most, I’m no friend of those pest plants that choke out others, cause massive allergies, or stab at me with cruel thorns, or those that threaten entire ecosystems, mine or others’. Good riddance to misplaced English Ivy, kudzu, poison oak and wild blackberry canes. Conversely, one of my particular favorite garden options is to find ways to encourage native plants to thrive. The more a plant is suited and accustomed to its environs, the more it will grow and be healthy and attractive and weed-proof.

Texas has reinforced that love in my aggressively. It’s a harsher climate than the Pacific Northwest’s in which I now garden, so what I plant and tend must needs be up to surviving and flourishing in those more demanding circumstances—or die. Even desert plants don’t necessarily have what it takes, since north Texas can still get true freezes in winter, and occasional snow, hail and ice. This last winter, a relatively mild one, still killed off a lot of specimen agaves and prickly pears and even cut some mighty oaks down to size.

I’m finding that the area’s status as an extension of the country’s central prairies may be the key to what will survive and grow here long term. When anything will grow, that is. I’m tending to my little wildflower meadow out back, to see if I can’t reintroduce something a little more self-sustaining than those long cultivated but seldom successful hard turf lawns that were popular in our area and surrounded our house when we bought it. Even better than the wildflowers, I’m finding, will be the ‘amber waves of grain’ I seeded in  among the wildflowers, the native prairie grasses.

Prairie grasses have some of the deepest, toughest and most tenacious root systems of any type of plants, and along with the leaves that sway in every breeze, often creating symphonies of susurration, they go to seed in many attractive ways. So I really am enjoying ‘sowing my wild oats.’ And Little Bluestem, Fountain Grass, Weeping Lovegrass, and many more. My backyard creatures will enjoy them, and their varicolored, many-textured attractions will beat any struggling, forced lawn that ever tried to eke out a living where its native cousins once roamed free.

Building Dreams

Dollhouses were for other girls. I preferred to design my fantasy floor plans and build them out of cardboard and found objects in the built-in bookshelves in the upstairs bedroom. I built them for dolls if those happened to be handy, but since I wasn’t ever a huge fan of dolls except as handy models for my model homes or as fashion models for my clothing and costume designs, my time and energy were more happily spent on the architectural fantasies and the drawings that led to them.

There was never any hope of building the real-world, full-scale versions of any of these, since I started as a young squirt whose whole bankroll comprised a few allowance installments, then grew up (a little) into an arty type, yet another iteration of the sort never meant to have large hunks of cash lying around. I never stopped loving buildings and the magnificent, marvelous pleasures of dreaming up all of the different ways to make interior and exterior spaces work beautifully for all of the different people and purposes I imagine in them. As I grew, my methods leaned less toward bookshelf usurpation and more toward drawings and particularly, toward inner design: one of the ways to soothe myself to sleep when my brain is too hyper for relaxation is to choose a specific kind of building, close my eyes, and try to work out every tiny detail of it in my mind. Eventually, that usually leads to the perfect combination of dozing off and waking up with some new inspirations, often enough ones that can be applied to other things than mere mental building construction.

Just because I’m realist enough to know how unlikely it is that I’ll ever afford to build a dream house in reality doesn’t mean that there’s nothing purposeful in my fantasizing. I’ve invented all sorts of dandy details that would make the constructions more ecologically sound, longer lasting, easier to change and update over time, simpler to construct, more affordable, energy-efficient, attractive in a number of styles, and flexible for multiple users’ needs. All in my head, with the exception of a few on paper and a few in the old bookshelves in Mt. Prospect.

Anybody who has a pile of money just sitting around all unloved and unused and wants to contribute to the construction of my living-&-arts community complex should feel free to give me a jingle. Barring that, I will happily continue sharpening my mental prowess as a developer of mental real estate. Come on inside, if you can figure out how to join me here.photo

My Own Inverted Jenny

book cover imageI have a little confession to make. My book-publishing debut has a noticeable flaw. It’s not huge enough that the editorial filters of the publisher, or even my own oft-repeated scrutiny, caught it in the preview and proofing processes, but I noticed it, and I’d like to make it better. See, in the hard-copy and digital proofs that I checked before giving the go-ahead to publish, I didn’t manage to spot how low the contrast was between text and background on one of the two-page layouts, and it’s not nearly legible enough for my taste in the final print, even with my relatively eagle-sharp eyes.

So I’ve made a revised version of that page duo and a couple of other pages that were quite acceptable but I thought deserved a boost of readability as well as long as I was at it, and I have requested that the publisher allow an after-publication change. Those of you who have already purchased and received the book (I’m looking at you: family members; Mira, Diane, Gracie, Christine, etc, and a handful of others that I know of thus far) will probably know which typography I’m describing. It’s readable, but it’s an effort, I admit. Those of you who haven’t bought the book yet, I certainly hope you will do so but maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to give you an even more polished product if you wait until I give the thumbs-up to a tiny revision in a week or so. Now, at least you know the whole story of my neophyte adventure.

If you’d rather hang on to the original version of the book as it stands anyhow, I promise you that all but the one poem—all 165 or so of the others—are entirely readable as the book stands, and while I can’t in any way promise that this, my first foray into unintentional-humor publication (to be fair, the rest of the book is supposed to be amusing) will be my last, let alone likely to accrue the sort of megabucks value given the famous upside-down airplane stamp of my post title, I do hope that when I croak, you might be able to get a bonus by selling off the short run of mistake-inclusive prints to crazed collectors. So if you paid, say, ten or twelve dollars this week (and I see they’re already reducing the price on Amazon, so bargains can already be had) you may be able to sell the book in a couple of decades for thirty-six cents extra. Talk about a fantastic investment! Don’t say I never gave you anything exciting.

But seriously, I hope that you will think buying a book from me is a reasonable investment not only in my happiness and well-being but in your own good spirits, because that’s what the book was intended for in the first place: playful entertainment for semi-grownups in the form of my whimsical-to-wacky drawings and poems. With your patience and a little perseverance on my part, we ought to be able to conjure up such an interlude together one way or another, no? I thank you for your good humor and support. Have a lovely day, y’all, and I promise I’ll keep you posted on my progress.photoOf course, since I’ve already made the revision of my “oops page” to submit, now I’ll be getting started with the conversion of the (reedited) book file to prepare it for a Kindle edition, and will need to decide which of the many other books I’ve got on various ‘back burners’ will be next on my agenda for what will hopefully be mistake-free from the moment of its publication. That’s the plan, my friends.

Röda tråden (The Red Thread)

Röda tråden is the Swedish phrase for connectivity. I learned it from my husband, who in turn learned it during his dissertation studies on modern Swedish choral history, and in a way it’s the perfect encapsulation of what his research revealed: that the astonishingly deep and broad influence of such a small country, in such a short time, on such a large field as Western choir singing and music came about primarily because of the remarkable and unique confluence and joining together of a huge number of events, people, ideas and resources in that little land at the end of the Second World War. As unimaginably terrible as war is on any scale, it’s all the more a testament to connectedness that at the end of one of the largest we’ve known, such good and meaningful and positive elements were all drawn into one significant, beautiful growth spurt in the art of singing together.digital illustrationAs a miniature of String Theory in the arts, this surge of the choral art in Sweden is notable (no musical pun intended) not only because it posits a reasonably substantial explanation for the larger choral sector’s modern expansive development amid the general devastation and struggle following the end of WWII, but also because in doing so it illustrates wonderfully how the intertwining of all sorts of seemingly disparate elements such as safe havens from political unrest and postwar reevaluation of norms, personal and professional relationships and experimentation with new media could come into contact and interact to create a new mode of thinking, acting, composing, teaching and singing. In turn, this is a striking model of how people from distinct cultures, educational backgrounds, economic resources and political systems and of widely varying personalities, unified by the one tiny thread of choral music, could be pulled together into a complicated system that, though still colorfully messy and imperfect, led to a potent common end that has had lasting and marvelous influence for long and fruitful decades since.

I am, of course, grateful on a personal level because this Swedish postwar influence on Western choral culture has not only enriched my husband’s professional and artistic endeavors–not to mention was the basis for his award-winning doctoral dissertation that in turn opened a lot of friendly doors to us both in Sweden–but because it produced so much spectacular music and inspiration for so much more.

digital illustration

Röda Tråden is the Swedish version of the idea that–indeed literally–fascinates so many of us: the connecting thread–that which binds one thing to another. I can think of nothing greater than to spend life seeking the Red Thread that shows us our commonalities and binds all people together as well.

Further, though, I am grateful that such an otherwise inexplicable event as the ‘Swedish Choral Miracle‘ seems to me ample proof that all things and people really are connected. And that through recognizing and making good use of those connections, however, odd or tenuous they may appear, there is hope for new and better songs to be sung everywhere.

If I needed further proof of this, last night’s concert gave it amply. My spouse conducted the combined forces of the Chancel Choir of the church where he’s currently interim choirmaster plus their excellent hired pro orchestra in performing Haydn and Dvorak’s two settings of the Te Deum text as the concert opening and closing, respectively, bookending the extraordinarily lovely and moving Missa Brevis of Kodaly. I came in to sit for the concert among strangers and acquaintances from the church and discovered a friend from another parish sitting across the aisle from me, then learned from one of the choir administrators that a friend of hers in attendance turned out to be a long-ago colleague of my husband’s from another state, and finally went up to greet my guy after the concert and found him speaking with a group of ladies in the front row, one of whom was the wife of a former US president. What brought all of us divergent people together in this moment? Music. Beautiful singing and playing. Chance, kismet, divine intervention. Call it what you will, the slender but unbreakable thread that connects us all drew us into one place for a time of basking in the inscrutably beautiful harmony that is beyond craft, beyond art. That is a concert without peer.