Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Here We Go Again

I came home tonight and went straight to the checkbook and wrote one out to the Maine Women's Lobby, because the Governor has once again demonstrated his vast contempt for the women of Maine. It made me feel a little better, but not much.

First, let me say thank you to my dad and my grandfather and all the other veterans out there for their military service. It's because of them that we have the freedom to rant and rave and call elected officials mysoginistic morons and other choice words that I will not use in public. (Thank God the cat isn't a parrot.) It's probably not what they had in mind while they were traipsing through the jungles of Vietnam or riding a tank through WW-II Europe, but still. I appreciate it. Freedom of speech is an amazing thing, and I don't take it for granted.

So yeah, the Governor. First, he decided he doesn't buy the scientific evidence that the chemical BPH is harmful and was widely quoted in the news as saying, "worst case is some women have little beards". Oh yes, he did. Makin' us all SO very proud, y'know. I'm so thrilled to know that yet another man in a powerful position has utterly no regard for the health and safety of the women he represents. Or, y'know, his own daughter. (That's heavy sarcasm, in case it isn't clear.)

His next task? He FIRED Dr. Dora Mills, who is an extremely well-regarded public health official who served under two previous governors - one an Independent and one a Democrat. Personally I don't care what his spokesperson says, it's impossible to believe it wasn't a result of her past support of banning BPH. I also can't help but look at her resume and think, well, someone was seriously outclassed -- and it wasn't Dr. Mills.

Oh, but the fun continues. In case you haven't noticed, I have two hot buttons -- women's issues and small businesses. I am a fervent believer in supporting small, independent businesses, not the least of which is because they create about 75% of new jobs in this country (a good list of other reasons can be found here and there's plenty of additional research over here). But I also suppport small businesses because I grew up in rural Western Maine at a time before the big box stores took over. We bought shoes at Swett's and clothes at the Block Store and Margo's and sometimes I'd tag along with Dad went he went to Longley's to buy nails or to Pike's to buy work pants. Longley's is still there, but almost every other store is gone now. Why? Honestly, it was a multitude of causes (including the closure of a dowel mill) but one huge factor was that WalMart came to town -- well, the next town over -- and slowly but surely the area's small downtown businesses were decimated and went out of business. [Incidentally, it's been a 10-year effort to rebuild the downtown and there have been some successes along the way, but it's been a tough haul with many really great people losing a lot of sleep, blood, sweat and tears. Visit here to see the fruits of their labor.]

I admit there's some element of nostalgia there for me, but it's also the simple fact that all over the state of Maine, big box stores have put small, often family owned businesses OUT of business. Even up in The County (Aroostook, Northern Maine for you non-Mainers), Canadians still flock across the border to shop -- but at the WalMart in Presque Isle, not the downtowns they drive through to get there. These small business owners are REAL, honest-to-God Maine people we're talking about - good, hardworking business men and women who pay taxes and coach little league and vote and put on church suppers for the families worse off than them. And we put them out of business so we can buy really cheap toothbrushes at big box stores and call it economic development.

The other thing? Have you been to Rockland lately? Rockland's a beautiful town on the coast of Maine, with one of the loveliest downtown districts in the state and a pristine harbor. If you are out in the harbor on a lovely summer day on a sailboat, do you know what you will see? A huge bright orange Home Depot sign, because they built a Home Depot up on the side of a hill that overlooks the harbor. Yep, that's just the way life should be.

So a few years ago a coalition of organizations got together and helped pass the Informed Growth Act, which among other things states that towns must take the economic impact of big box stores into consideration before permitting the project. Well, guess what. The Governor wants to repeal that too, because it's "biased against big box stores".

Well, yeah, that was sort of the point. And why, exactly, is that a bad thing? Why are we worried about protecting out-of-state, multi-billion dollar international companies instead of protecting local businesses???

I know, I know. Marden's, the company the Governor used to work for, is a Maine-owned big box store. That is true. And that did give me pause for a moment, particularly since the Marden's Lady from their ads is from the area I grew up in. (I'm more of a Reny's gal myself, in large part because there are several Reny's stores that anchor downtown districts and do just fine.) There's no doubt in my mind LePage's wish to repeal this law is directly related to his past employer (no special interests, my ass). Regardless, I still believe it's important for towns to assess the impact of any big box store coming to town - whether it's owned by a Maine company or not. In addition to economic impact, the Informed Growth Act allows towns to consider things like traffic implications, air and water quality, and those are important issues for small towns. And, truthfully, if it helps protect Maine's small business owners against the Wal-Marts of the world, I'm ultimately okay with making life a little bit difficult for Marden's. I can live with that trade-off.

I am well aware that it's all too easy for me to sit here in another state and spout off about this stuff from the safety of my little apartment in a renovated textile mill, with a bustling and quaint downtown just a ten minute walk away, and a job I happily potter off to (though I loathe and despise the commute into Boston every day). It's so weird to me that I had to leave Maine to find what I wanted - it was kind of like breaking up with a really great guy that you really love but just isn't working out...and every once and awhile you hear a song or see someone on the street that reminds you of him and you get a little sad, even though you know you did what you had to do. (Or, y'know, you pitch a raging hissy fit because you find out on Facebook that he got married and didn't tell you, not long after giving you a key to his house.) It's a weird analogy, I know, but it's the best one I have. The point is, I'm sad that I'm not in Maine now, that I'm not fighting this from within, because I love it and it's incredibly important to me...but I also know I'm here for awhile, and these rants on my blog are about all I can offer up in solidarity.

Also? It might be time to make some whoopie pies.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Popcorn, Piggy Parts, and Penicillin

I don't know why, but I've been thinking about food lately, and the memories certain foods evoke for me. We have some odd food habits in our family tree, some that were one-time deals and others that have stayed with me well into my adulthood. In many cases, I have utterly no idea why. Here's a random smattering:

1.One of my earliest memories is standing in my great-grandmother's pantry, on a little step stool, watching her make me popcorn. She was my dad's Nana, but my mother also had a Nana, so I christened Dad's Nana "The Popcorn Nana" to keep things straight in my 3-year old head. (Further complicating things is that they were both Nana Allen's, because in some weird twist of fate there are Allen's on both sides of my family tree; though why nobody thought to have me call them Nana Ruth and Nana Hazel is beyond me.) Later on in life, someone (probably my father) introduced me to the notion of eating popcorn like cereal. You take a glass of milk, throw in a handful of popcorn, and eat it with a spoon. Then repeat. This, more than any other Weird Food Thing, has consistently grossed out my friends and roommates and boyfriends over the years. Given that popcorn is, well, CORN, and given that most breakfast cereal is made of CORN, I don't know why this freaks people out. But it totally does.

2. More weirdness (although much less weird than popcorn cereal): taking crackers (usually saltines, but tonight it was Wasa sourdough), putting American cheese on top, sprinkling it with paprika, then either microwaving or toaster-ovening them until the cheese melts. It's the paprika that makes this odd to me, mostly because I have never, EVER used paprika in anything else. My family is mostly of Scotch-Irish descent, why this Hungarian spice? on American cheese??? But indeed, I own an entire bottle of paprika just to make these.

3. Then there's maple syrup on chocolate ice cream. Most objections to this one are just simply that people find it too sweet. Actually, our family has found that there's not much that maple syrup can't improve. Nana Hazel used to make corn fritters, which are kind of like a plain donut with corn mixed up in it, and they were spectacular with maple syrup. (Up until that time she had us all over for dinner and and there were ants swimming in the gravy boat of maple syrup...but that's another story).

4. My dad cooks hot dogs in a frying pan with butter. The only time I will eat hot dogs is when I am back in Maine with Dad and he cooks them this way, usually when it's just us and my mother isn't around to calculate the calories involved. Dad prefers the red hot dogs, the ones I think you can only buy in Maine these days, the ones in a bright red casing that snap when you bite into them. I like the all-beef Hebrew Nationals, because I don't like to think about random piggy parts, but sometimes they are hard to get in rural Maine so I just eat the regular brown ones. I smother them in relish and listen really hard to whatever Dad is talking about so my mind doesn't wander to thoughts about those random piggy parts.

5. Dad also makes really great hot cocoa from scratch - the kind with milk and unsweetened cocoa (brown Hershey box) and sugar, made in a saucepan on the stove. One year, I think 8th grade, I got a terrible case of strep throat that would not go away. I was a total wuss and incapable of swallowing pills, and for whatever reason there was no liquid penicillin to be had (rural Maine, not many pharmacies, who knows), so every morning before he went to work Dad would make me hot cocoa and dissolve my penicillin in it. It was disgusting, no doubt about it; I can still remember how awful it tasted, like moldy chocolate-flavored pond scum. And I'm sure it diluted the effectiveness of the medicine - but I eventually got over it, so it must have retained some of its mojo. Still, I can clearly remember sitting at the table, wearing a flannel nightie and wrapped up in an old quilt, miserable as miserable gets, watching Dad make me my cocoa-penicillin concoction. And though it's not something I would recommend trying, it's actually kind of a sweet memory for me, not the least of which because I could tell Dad was pretty worried about how sick I was.

And, truthfully? I have yet to find another man who wouldn't have just said "Swallow the damned pill already".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Kitty Love

If you've been reading this blog for a bit, you know that this summer I adopted an 8-year old cat from my local humane society. I went in anticipating I would adopt a particular 3-year old cat, but Ms. Calypso made sure I didn't leave without her. I had some reservations about adopting an older cat, though...and I will admit the vet bills have not been pretty these past few months as there were a few health issues that we had to sort out. But I'm SO glad she came home with me, so much so that it's a darned good thing that I have a one cat per person rule around here, because otherwise I might have gone back for another kitty or two. (Plus, I have a small apartment and also, most importantly, Calypso has let it be known she hates other cats).

It's still difficult for me to understand how her previous owners could have given her away after 8 years. As much as I hate the idea of Cal being in the shelter, I'm glad the shelter was there and able to take her in, and they took very good care of her. She definitely hated it there, though; she was only 7 pounds when I adopted her because she barely ate during her month-long stay at the shelter. When I agreed to bring her home it was clear the entire staff at the shelter was relieved; partly because Callie is such a sweet cat, and partly because they knew how difficult it can be to adopt out older cats (in fact, the shelter's price for adopting older cats is significantly reduced, in order to encourage their adoption).

Even though I'm perfectly happy with Cal and our one-to-one cat to person ratio, I find myself occasionally back on the shelter's website to look at the available cats for adoption. And it is so, so, SO sad to see how many cats are there because their owners lost their jobs and their homes...just awful. Many of these cats are older, which makes it even more sad to think about - losing their homes and their families in one fell swoop. I know they are cats, but change is traumatic for them, especially when (even in the best of shelters) they spend good chunks of time in cages. My apartment is small, but at least Cal has plenty of soft and warm places to sleep, windows to watch the birds from, and open access to food, water and a clean litter box.

So if you are considering adding a feline to your family, PLEASE consider adopting from your local shelter, and PLEASE consider bringing home an older cat. For one thing, they are already litter trained. While there can be an adjustment period, most will transition with few if any accidents. For another thing, the shelter most likely has an idea of what sort of personality they have - whether or not they are child friendly, or whether they can cope with other pets. With kittens, it's trial and error guesswork as to how they will adjust. And, particularly with indoor cats, the lifespan of a healthy cat can be upwards of 16+ years, so they will still be part of your family for a number of years to come. And, if Callie is any indication, they will be all-too-grateful to be welcomed into your home.

It is true that Callie came with a tapeworm and a heart murmur; in the first 6 months I've spent at least $500 on vet bills, medicine, food, and kitty litter. Oh, and let's not forget the toys and the cat perch...yikes! Happily, the tapeworm went away and the heart murmur has been deemed benign. But kittens can have exactly the same issues, so there's no guarantee of perfect health with them either.

And if for some reason your personal situation doesn't allow you to adopt a cat - allergies, what have you - please consider making a donation (even a small one) to your local no-kill shelter. Many have been inundated as a result of the mortgage crisis, as people have had to give up their homes and their animals. Many shelters are also in need of bedding, food, and litter donations as well. The kitties (and the shelter volunteers!) will thank you very much.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Artists & Revolutions

As a prelude to this, I should explain that several years ago I was involved with the state of Maine’s creative economy initiative, which was an effort to acknowledge and encourage the link between Maine’s stellar arts community and its economic development goals. I spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to find resources to support the initiative, in part so that we (like many other states) could support our downtown revitalization strategies with artists and art-related endeavors. As a “wanna-be” writer and fiber artist, who is also enamored with photography and mixed-media work, I liked the idea of helping working artists succeed. And I truly believed their work was helping support the state’s economy (still do).

As a result of that work, and because I have artist friends, and because I’m now a full-time grant writer, I’ve watched with dismay over the past few years as the recession has decimated funding for arts projects across the country. Further complicating matters is that very few grants are available that provide funds directly to artists - and they are so competitive that there's virtually no return on investment for the time the artist puts in to preparing proposals. Most grant funds are given to nonprofit arts organizations, who apply for them and set the budgets and pay the artists. Strangely (to me, anyway), the artists are often the last to get paid, and their fees are often small “stipends” that are so inadequate that I feel like there should be an artist tip jar at every performance. Meanwhile, the nonprofit managers collect salaries and health insurance and paid sick/vacation days.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying arts managers are unimportant; I’m actually not even saying they are (necessarily) overpaid. In my own brief stint in an arts-related organization, I saw what a thankless job arts management can be, and contrary to what the media would like you to believe, most administrators are not inappropriately compensated (particularly if you calculate an hourly rate, since most easily work 60-80 hours/week). What I AM in a knot about is that somehow the costs for managing and producing the art are valued so much more than the actual creation of the art itself. Take a new musical theater production, for example. 200 hours of nonprofit management staff time might go directly to a new project…but the artists spent the better part of two YEARS creating the work, writing the script and music. On top of this, the artists have to market the work, chase down potential investors, and otherwise try to make a living. While there are exceptions, of course, the average artist doesn’t stand a chance at recouping her costs. (I actually drafted a make-believe grant budget to illustrate this, which I can post if anyone is really that interested.)

But this doesn’t just apply to theater. Kevin Smith, the film director/screen writer/potty mouth extraordinaire, figured out that the marketing and distribution costs for his movies were as much if not more than the production costs, and he recently ticked a bunch of people off by essentially self-releasing his latest flick. Many book authors find themselves self-financing their own book tours, and their residuals get eaten up by management and production costs, such that out of every $15 book we buy, something like $1 actually winds up in the author’s pocket. It’s why so many writers don’t (can’t) quit their day jobs. And this article about Ray LaMontagne suggests he too came to realize how much the traditional music business machine was putting the screws to him, both artistically and financially.

Recently an alternative strategy has developed to help the public directly fund artists who have projects in development. Several websites have cropped up that allow artists to post their projects online and solicit funding from friends and family members, including Kickstarter, United States Artists and Pledge Music. It’s kind of like Etsy, except they’re selling ideas instead of necklaces, and your "purchase" (contribution) helps those ideas come to fruition. Like Etsy, these sites do take a small transaction fee, but it appears that the majority of your contribution does land with the artist.

These sites intrigue me. On the one hand, it’s a fairly simple way for artists to circumvent the traditional, institutional-based grant path and gain a bit more control of the project development process. And, y’know, potentially get paid for the work they do. On the other hand, realistically how many times can an artist tap his friends and extended family? Even more challenging is the issue of getting the public to these sites. Nonprofit arts organizations function kind of like our representative democracy does – the public “elects” nonprofits (by donating money) because we want to support certain causes, and we let them sort out the details that we don’t have the time or inclination or knowledge to deal with ourselves. I mean, if I don’t know the artist personally, how am I even going to know projects exist? Plus, unless I am *really* passionate about something, I’m not going to take the time to sort through pages and pages of project profiles, and I think that’s true for most people. (And, in case you are curious, there were two quilt projects listed on Kickstarter, neither of which was successful in its fundraising efforts. Knitting projects have fared slightly better.)

Lo and behold, and because the universe likes to keep reminding me the world is a really small place: as I was drafting this post, someone on Facebook sent out a message about a friend of hers who is using Kickstarter to fundraise for a musical theater project (go on, pledge a few bucks, I'll be here when you are done - the artist is legit and a nice person to boot).

Frankly, although I use social media on a daily basis, I never really saw how it could have a whole lot of positive impact; mostly I just like to complain about my commute and share pictures of my cat. But (late to the party, I suppose), now I'm thinking that social media has the potential to instigate more revolutions than the one we saw in Egypt this week; that it could turn all sorts of taken-for-granted institutions on their heads, including the traditional models of philanthropy. Just to further underscore my point, I read this morning about Andy Carvin, a strategist at NPR who gained worldwide attention through his tweets about the Egypt uprising. He was using his personal Twitter feed, rather than an official NPR one, but NPR was smart enough to not shut him down - and in return, Carvin suggested his followers donate to NPR. While it's hard to say how much this will actually generate for NPR and its affiliate stations, this article here suggests it could be substantial. Great lessons there, not just for the nonprofit sector but for all of those institutions who seek above all to "control the message".

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sockpocalypse 2011

Yesterday I stopped by one of my local fabric stores, which also sells yarn, because I needed some thread and a couple of fat quarters for my quilt guild meeting this week. I reminded myself that I was on a budget and needed nothing else, particularly any more yarn since I have barely put a dent in the yarn I bought last summer, and especially since I'd bought some Noro just two weeks earlier to make myself some mittens. (Which, by the way, are currently sitting in my sink in some ridiculously hot water in an attempt to shrink them. Apparently I cannot be trusted to measure my own hand.)

This particular store has two entrances; I usually use the front because I generally walk there, since it is not far from my apartment. Yesterday I was running errands and this was my last stop, so I had my car, and I had to park at the back of the lot, which was totally iced over and necessitated using the back entrance. This meant that I had to walk past the yarn section. I tried not to look, but you know how these things go, right? I had to pet a few skeins of Noro, cursing their twiggy-ness while coveting the colors. And I had to gaze lovingly at all the fabulous Auracania they had in stock, right? I mean, it's only natural.

I was fine until I saw the sock yarn display. Because this has been the winter of Snowpocalypse, I've been wearing my handknit wool socks almost every day. My sister even broke out the pair I made her a few years ago, and my nephew and oldest niece keep stealing them from her when they go play in the snow, because the socks are warm and cozy. (And just like that, I'm no longer crazy for dropping $20-$25 on a skein of yarn.)

The store had some new sock yarn stock in, and I quickly became enamored with a skein of hand dyed sock yarn from Pagewood Farms, a company I'd never heard of (according to their blog, they were recently on the Martha Stewart Show). It was lovely; really, really lovely; there were several shades I liked but the Prism colorway struck my fancy best. And, well. You know what happened next.

As I was knitting along last night, watching NCIS reruns during a winter THUNDERSTORM with lightening so bright I thought a police car with flashing blue lights was outside my window, I suddenly remembered I had another sock project floating around. I unearthed it from the heap that is my yarn basket, only to discover that one sock was completely finished except for the kitchener stitching of the toe.

This yarn is from Silver Moon farm, which I bought last May at the Massachusetts sheep and wool festival (I wrote about it here.) I loved the yarn on the skein, but I never would have expected to wind up with camouflage socks from it:

Also in my basket? A half-knit sock using Noro sock yarn, and a half-knit sock using (*gulp*) my precious skein of Madelinetosh. I stopped looking after that. I don't think I want to know what else might be down in there.

(*Both socks are knit using the pattern/instructions found in Knitting Rules by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. I find that with hand painted yarn, a plain old sock shows of the colors best.)

Cat Lady Chronicles

I keep my fabric in a cubby-hole sort of thing, and I have some cloth "drawers" that I picked up at Target in a couple of the cubbies. One of the bottom drawers was empty, and the cat somehow figured out how to pull the drawer out just enough so she can hop in and sleep. This picture is a bit blurry, but I love it because I caught her mid-yawn before she settled in for a nap, and it looks like she's laughing:

Friday, February 4, 2011

My Winter Song To You

I’ve written before about my inexplicable hatred of fall…but I’m not sure I’ve ever written about my inexplicable love of winter. Yes, I’m a knitter so I love to wear my hand knits, and yes I’m a quilter so I love curling up under my quilts. And I definitely love, love, love that it is now February and it's after 5 pm before it gets truly dark out. But there’s more to it than this. I'm not sure I can really articulate it, but I'm going to try.

One of my favorite books is “Winter’s Tale” by Mark Helprin (despite the author’s political leanings…). Coincidentally, I just read today that the book is being adapted for a film, which ought to be interesting; it’s a strange and complicated story and I cannot imagine how they will manage certain scenes. At any rate, in the book is a character named Beverly who is dying of consumption and has such a raging fever that she spends most of her time up on the roof in the dead of winter. I don’t know why, but I could see myself doing such a thing, had I the time and money (or access to my roof). Yes it’s cold and I hate being stuck inside during storms and I hate trudging around in boots and I loathe what this particular winter has done to my commuting (see my Twitter feed for the painful details). But there’s something invigorating about all that fresh air, the way it opens your eyes and clears out your lungs and flushes your cheeks. I love it. It kills me that I am so completely uncoordinated, because I think I would have otherwise really enjoyed skiing and the other winter sports. I’ve put my order in already; if there is such a thing as reincarnation, next time I want better hand-eye coordination along with stronger knees and ankles.

But mostly I love winter because there are mornings like the one I had today, when the sky is blazing blue and the trees are covered in ice, branches glistening in their little cocoons of frozen water, and the snow sparkling diamonds through the forest. It’s about as magical as things can get, at least around here. And when you are stuck on a painfully slow and clunky commuter rail train for the umpteenth day in a row, eating your Luna Bar for breakfast, it’s easy for even an almost 40-year old woman to imagine herself a more pleasant version of Narnia’s White Queen. Even when dressed completely in black.

Anyway. I’m loving winter at the moment, the oodles of snow and pain-in-the-arse commute notwithstanding. And in a deliberate attempt to be more positive, because something else in my life decided to fall apart this past week, here are a few more things I’m loving:

1. Ingrid Michaelson’s new album, Everybody. Also, the Ingrid Michaelson/Sara Bareilles song "Winter Song", which makes me happy every time I hear it.
2. Skinny caramel macchiato’s from Starbucks. My sister says that even when they are made with skim milk they are still loaded with sugar and caffeine, but they have become my Friday afternoon treat.
3. Apples. My appetite finally showed up again, which I had some mixed feelings about, and it kicked into gear with apples. Growing up my mother rarely allowed junk food, and if I had a dollar for every time I whined about being hungry in between meals and she told me “Have an apple!”, I would never want for cashmere yarn again. Alas, she was right; it's a perfect and portable snack. My favorites are honey crisps at the moment, but braeburns work just fine in a pinch.
4. My work. I’m currently working on 2 grant proposals that I’m really excited about. Neither is for a ton of money, but they are both unique and are forcing me to really think creatively and strategically about how to write them. It’s the sort of mental challenge I enjoy.
5. I finally applied for my passport! I kept putting it off because of the state of my hair, which is just about the most ridiculous thing I could ever say but it's the complete and utter truth of the matter. The downside is, no drastic haircut until after I get back from Ireland, lest they not let me out of the country.
6. My old journals. I had to haul them out this past weekend, as I was on a fact-finding mission to prove a certain someone wrong about something. *ahem* Now that the dust has settled it's fascinating to read what was going on inside my head back in 2006/2007, leading up to my move to NYC. You know how every once and awhile you think to yourself, "What was I thinking?" Well, thanks to these journals I can actually answer that question. And I wasn't half as crazy as I had begun to think, which is frankly quite comforting to know.

I know there's no knitting in this post, nor any sewing. I finally downloaded the last batch of photos I took of my various projects, and not one of them was usable. I must begin again. In the meantime, if anyone has any ideas as to how to hand felt a pair of Noro mittens that came out a little on the big side, please drop me a line!