Archive for the ‘With my own two hands’ Category

Handmade Holiday

Our friend Sam (not his real name) grew up in a working class family, and each December his mother would put the family into debt trying to give her husband and children everything they might want for Christmas. She always ended up hurt and disappointed; Sam’s brother was never satisfied with his gifts, and Sam’s father always yelled at her for buying a gift for him, which he said was a waste of their money. Seeing his mother in tears year after year ruined Sam’s holiday spirit, and now that he’s an adult he doesn’t celebrate Christmas at all. Which is his prerogative, of course — what I mean to say here is not “oh, poor Sam,” but “oh gosh, how did we get here?”

There’s a lot of talk about the problem of consumer Christmas, but mostly it’s couched in philosophic terms about what it says about our society that a holiday ostensibly about the birth of somebody’s lord and savior is now more about iPods and jewelery and tickle-me-elmos. And I understand all that. I really do. But what really grips me is Sam’s story, and the idea that all around our debt-ridden country, these are the kinds of holiday memories being created. Our household is almost radically frugal, and I still feel that gift-giving anxiety. Cian has written about it here before.

This year almost all of our gifts will be handmade. We spent the better part of the year growing and preserving some the gifts that our families will find under their trees: strawberry-vanilla jam, roasted tomatillo salsa, pear sauce, dilly beans, the list goes on. Untold amounts of energy went into those jars. There were late nights and early mornings, lots of dishes, even some hysterical tears when it seemed like the tomatoes would never be done with. Over the past couple of months we’ve been opening a jar of each, just to make sure they’re good enough to give away, and you know what? They are. If they weren’t made by me, if I bought them in a store, they’d be artisan crafted local food products made with organic ingredients. But I recently saw someone, I can’t remember who, worry that her handmade gifts would be received like a child’s plaster handprints (“Oh, isn’t that sweet!”), and I’ve got that same worry in my gut.

A winter holiday is no use if it mostly inspires feelings of anxiety and disappointment. It ought to be about about family and friends and food and music and celebration at this time of year when we need it more than any other time, because darkness is scary and after all, we’re only human. Maybe you’re feeling some of the same things? Here’s what I keep reminding myself: I can not single-handedly change Christmas culture. I can only win people over, one jar at a time.

Handmade Revolution

FibrevolutionCome the revolution your humble narrator will be decked out in the finest of woolen scarves and sweaters thanks to a lovely lady called fibrevoltuion. Her tag line is even “The Revolution Will Be Handmade”!

I have it on good authority this young woman is interested in designing for specific people or wants, using whatever you want her to. Such as a carton of plush, wool-stuffed organic-cotton vegetables knitted in appropriate colors that I have yet to order. Or a handmade blanket sized specifically for your loved one.

Fibrevolution is definitely my kind of woman, and she’s not even Amanda!

On the first day of Christmas, my two hands made for me…

shelf1Hey readership, sorry for delaying new posts. I’ve had some changes going on due to job stuff and stress of holidays. I consider myself culturally Catholic (shocking, I’m sure, with my Irish name), but my family is religious so I’m visiting their little corner of the suburbs. As per my usual, I have few boughten presents and quite a few made ones. The most notable of these are the bookshelves that my brother and I are in the middle of building for our parents. It’s an ongoing project to turn our late grandmother’s room into a library of sorts for the aging parents.

shelf2The plans for the library are extremely simple and made to last virtually forever. They are made of pine, but are strong enough to hold over 150 pounds on each shelf (we tested this by standing on them). Almost everything is done with 1×12 pine boards of varying lengths, except for the structural top and bottom pieces which are 1×2″ to the desired length (same as shelf). To figure out the proper length we measured from wall to windowsill. Since the plan was to make shelves on all the open wall space, we subtracted the distance required to have the shelves meet about corner to corner (ideally a tiny bit of overlap). Almost all the shelves are 12″ high (save a few particular ‘tall’ shelves), so we had to have 28 1x12x12′s cut to build in the supports.

LibraryFor the first wall we used a fairly local lumber yard called Roval Lumber (Kearny, NJ). Unfortunately this year Roval was closed for Sunday and then Christmas and we had limited time, so were forced to go to Lowes. Roval had much better wood quality than Lowes did, and cost around the same. The difference was that at Lowes we didn’t have to pay for cuts, whereas at Roval we did. When we finish the project next year I have no doubt we’ll spend a little extra to give back to the community a little and be sure I’m getting a good quality of wood. This year we made a point of getting the screws at a local hardware store to support the local economy at least a little bit.

As for the rest of the presents, I’ll say that freshly made and yet-to-be-covered-with-books shelves are perfect for cooling a few thousand cookies and a hundred or so dog biscuits on. Stay tuned for recipes.

The Berkshires seemed dreamlike…

Amanda’s First BlanketThree years ago, about two months after I first learned how to crochet, I started working on a blanket. This weekend, I finished it.

Before you laugh at me, I want to make it clear that I’ve only ever worked on the blanket while I was at my parents. That means a weekend here, a few days there. I’m ridiculously proud of it — I took about a dozen pictures of it, which is even more than I took of the dogs. It’s all lacy and red and scalloped and imperfect, and I love it.

In other news of the Berkshires, this was the second time I’d been home in as many months (and I’ll be home again over Christmas). I didn’t always appreciate my surroundings growing up, but now I generally can’t get over how beautiful and quaint and New England it all is. The InnWe had tea with my aunt, who recently took a position as an innkeeper at a historic inn that she’s worked at on and off for about 20 years. She lives in a beautiful attached apartment, with hardwood floors and bay windows and a big loft bedroom area. She works more or less 4-9, although a lot of that time is just being available to guests if they need her. I hadn’t been inside the inn since I was a child, so she took us on a tour. I very nearly cried when I saw this particular bedroom, with its four-poster bed and fireplace. Then again, it doesn’t take much to make me cry — I’m totally that woman who has to fight back tears during the Hallmark commercial.

Okay, but I want to be a farmer now!

Happy Saturday!

I’m sitting here in my PJs, drinking chai and eating a pomegranate and feeling generally lazy. Not that that’s anything new. But I collected some links over the course of the week that seemed worth sharing:

Self-Made Farmer
Krystle is a young woman with a passion for sustainable agriculture and the will to be a farmer, no matter what it takes to get there. I not only admire that will, I envy it. Cian and I talk about leaving DC at least once a week — in fact, this week he’s been in touch with some small-scale farmers in the region we’re looking to move to, investigating apprenticeship opportunities — but we’re always brought back down to earth by our debt and our commitments. We’ll get there. In the meantime, we’ll be living vicariously through people like Krystle. Check out her article about sustainable agriculture.

The Good Human: The natural way to clean
Holy goodness is this useful! Which, honestly, is no surprise coming from The Good Human. This is one you’ll want to bookmark, though. It details cleaning solutions made mostly from household ingredients for everything from your silver to your showerhead. My only caution is that “natural” doesn’t always mean safe. Borax is both natural and useful when it comes to cleaning (and killing bugs!), but it’s also quite toxic. Take precautions if you do decide to use borax, and be especially careful if you decide to use it in a house with children or pets.

Former Fat-Guy Blog: The Ultimate Guide to Freezing Food
More usefulness. Ever wonder how to go about freezing all those beets you ended up with from your CSA? Or, you know, pretty much anything else? Yeah, it’s all here.

Chow: Mommy, where do seedless fruits come from?
A couple of months ago I read somewhere that seedless watermelons are regular watermelons injected with growth hormones so that they’ll get big before their seeds develop. That sounded suspicious to me. Here’s the truth.

NaNoWriMo; or, Amanda has lost it

NaNoWriMoSo you may have noticed the dearth of posts following Cian’s introduction. It’s my fault. I take full responsibility. Cian has a couple of really interesting things in the bullpen, but since this is a joint blog he felt like he should wait until I’d said… well… something. I, in the meantime, have been coming to grips with the fact that my big-girl job isn’t going to be ending anytime soon and I might as well settle in. I’ve got lots of things I want to say here too, though, so don’t worry — you’ll be hearing from me.

But. On to the real purpose of this post, which incidentally has nothing to do with the revolution.

Last night, at 11:55, I decided I might want to participate in National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo has been happening every year since 1999. The premise is to create a deadline and a set of rules so that all of us who have fleetingly thought “Gee, maybe I should write a novel” actually will. Well, some of us will.

I spent every free moment today scanning through my mental cast of characters (my crazy aunts, classmates from college, co-workers present and past) and the things that I know well enough to write about credibly (um… not much). I decided to give myself until midnight, and if by then there was no idea that excited me — really excited me, since whatever it is will have to sustain me through 30 grueling days — well, then I’d just have to wait until NaNoWriMo 2008.

Then, on the way home, it came to me. I was creating a character in my head, a 27 year old woman named Patience. I passed an intriguing looking woman in tall boots and a skirt (and, yes, a long jacket), and thought that would be a good look for Patience. Only with different hair — something short, curly, blonde. Like a coworker I had in Provincetown. Actually, I thought, that co-worker would make a great character herself. In fact, all of my co-workers from Provincetown were quite the characters. And there were a ton of funny stories, and a central conflict. And Sarah keeps telling me I should write a book about it. And it wouldn’t require any research, and–

At this point, I very nearly put my key in the door of the wrong apartment. In fact, I was on the wrong floor. Such is the nature of an artist’s brilliance.

I’ve decided to think of NaNoWriMo as the Appalachian Trail. Every year, 2000 people set out with the intention of thru-hiking the entire 2,160 miles from Georgia to Maine. Sure, only a fraction of those make it, but who cares? Of those who don’t make it, I’m betting that very few regret that they tried.

Tonight I’ll sketch out the details, and tomorrow I’ll begin writing in earnest. I’ll keep you posted. Cheerleading is encouraged and appreciated!