Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Happy Muharram, Happy New Hijri Year. But why today?


As a calendar maker, I am quite interested in calendar folklore and history, including the different start dates for the year. Many calendars have their origins in the agricultural cycle and thus begin the year in spring, with the vernal equinox, or in the fall, with the harvest season. Our calendar’s start date has its origins in the Roman practice of beginning the year shortly after the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen again. All of these traditions are based on the sun and what is called the solar year. 

Then there’s the Muslim calendar, which begins the new year on August 20 this time — but really this evening (August 19), because an Islamic day begins at sunset. Next year it will occur on Aug. 10, and in 2022 it moves into July. It will keep moving forward in the Gregorian calendar because the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar, without adjustments to make it align with the solar year. 

Whereas the traditional Jewish and Chinese calendars, and a few others, are luni-solar — a hybrid that inserts an extra (intercalary) month or two at regular intervals so that holidays move forward on the Gregorian calendar (the lunar part), but then move back again so as to stay in the same season (the solar part) — the Islamic calendar makes no such accommodation, perhaps because its basis is religious, not agricultural. Prior to that, the nomadic Arab people had been using a lunar calendar, which was adapted by Muslims to mark their founding event. 

The Islamic calendar began in the common year 622 (AD/CE) and the month of Muharram, when Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca, where they were persecuted, to Medina, where they established the first Muslim community. The migration is known as the Hijri, which is also the name of the Islamic calendar. 

The new year is called al-Hijri (or al-Hijra) or Muharram 1. (The different spellings reflect different transliterations from the Arabic.)

Addendum for nerds like me

This page started as a Facebook post on my business page, but quickly became unwieldy for that format. The information is based broadly on the various books and articles I have read over the dozen or so years I have been fascinated by calendars. But I did not wish to take the time to go back through my sources and notes to cite anything specific, so do take the foregoing with a grain of salt. I did check Wikipedia to refresh my memory and get a couple of details straight, though.

For those who want more information, the Wikipedia page on the Hijri year offers a nice concise explanation. 

For a broad history of calendars presented in an engaging format with photos and illustrations, visit the web museum Calendars through the Ages. 

These two sources don’t entirely agree on the details, and neither is reliable enough to use alone for fact-checking or term paper research, but they do provide some historical and cultural context for understanding the Islamic calendar (and others, in the second one).

I welcome corrections from those who know more than me about this topic, and other relevant comments. But I do moderate so I can delete the spammy stuff.

Monday, August 10, 2020

With apologies to the bees and goldfinches

I'm not the most fastidious gardener as a general rule, and when a relentless heat wave like we experienced for nearly all of July comes along, I'm even worse. There were a few days at the beginning of the month when I got out in the garden early in the morning (like, around 6 a.m.) intent on making at least the most public part of my front garden presentable, and I did accomplish that much anyway. But for the rest of the month I looked out through my windows at the rampant weeds and said, "mmmm ... maybe tomorrow."

I favor a not-too-tidy cottage garden look, with an emphasis on native plants balanced with and contained by a few old-fashioned staples, like peonies, disease-resistant roses, and a boxwood hedge. 

I planned the garden with birds, bees and butterflies in mind, and placed a bird feeder in the front yard where we could see it from our dining room windows. Knowing the spilled seed would mean a lot of weeds (mostly sunflowers), I tried to design it so that the messiest areas would be screened somewhat from the street view: there's a serviceberry (Amalanchier laevis) and then a row of boxwood between the feeding area and the front edge, with a "terraced" flower garden next to the sidewalk (shown here in August when it's mainly just the mums blooming).

("Terraced" is in quotes because the front edge of the yard is set off by a low retaining wall we made from chunks of concrete after taking up a sidewalk in the back. A second row of sidewalk chunks is arranged a few feet back from that, in front of the boxwood. Hence, it's a "terrace.")

Respectability isn't the only reason to weed and maintain a garden, of course. Weeds tend to hog water, nutrients and sunlight, and they'll take over everywhere if you don't yank them out once in awhile, such is their nature. 

But the birds and bees don't care about any of that. I have let bindweed get way out of hand after seeing a hummingbird nectaring from its small pinkish white flowers, and now we are struggling to untangle the bindweed from everything else, including the volunteer sunflowers around the bird feeder.

A mystery mint showed up in the flowerbed next to the front steps earlier this summer, standing out conspicuously as it loomed over the coral bells and low growing vinca surrounding it. I kept putting off doing anything about it until I had the time and inclination to weed that whole garden. Knowing how aggressive mints can be, I finally decided that I had to just go yank it out and leave the rest of the weeding for a cooler spell. 

Then one morning as I sat at the dining room table drinking my tea, I noticed goldfinches landing on the swaying mint plant and happily plucking something from it again and again. I don't know what, exactly, they were eating, but I didn't have the heart to spoil their fun, so I let it go a bit longer.

Finally I did yank it, and a few of the surrounding weeds. Not long after, the goldfinches had moved on, and were plucking petals from my neighbors' tall zinnias. 

I also cut back the catmint (Nepeta), which the bumblebees really love. Like other members of the mint family, it kind of over-grows itself and falls open at the center; the stems get too long and flop over, and the flowers fade and lose their charms. The bees continued to visit the blossoms even as I was cutting the whole think way back. I laid a blooming stem aside on the front step for a few moments because a bee wasn't finished with it yet. 

But the bees, like the goldfinches, moved on to other flowers. (They especially love my repeat-blooming Henry Hudson roses in the backyard, below.) And the catmint will be blooming perkily again by September.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Packing some unstructured play into a little tin

Our grandson, who's almost 3, visits on Friday afternoons. When he arrives, he usually heads straight for the den, where we have an assortment of toys and random items, including wooden blocks and animal figures; puzzles and cards; books we saved from our children's early years; a couple of long cardboard tubes; balls; cups; measuring pitchers and other kitchen utensils; and assorted containers. 

Some secondhand items that will go into tins of "stuff" for kids.
Surely you remember playing with some mix of toys and nontoys when you were small—inventing  games and stories, conducting experiments, and generally playing in unscripted ways. I remember playing with my mother's extra buttons among her sewing notions, as well as other objects that weren't really toys. 

Early childhood professionals stress the importance of such unstructured or open-ended play in developing children's skills in creative problem solving and original thinking. Carrie Shriver, an early childhood education specialist at Michigan State University, says, "Play, and in particular creative play, has been identified as a key component of building children’s resilience, ability to focus, and the ability to act intentionally, even when the outcome is unknown. These skills translate into competence and capability in adults." 

She describes "open-ended materials" as those things that do not have a predetermined use (the way a licensed character is connected to its role in a movie, say). "A block can be a car, phone, doll’s chair, ice-cream bar or any number of other things in play," she says. (Read the full article here.)  

The little desk where I assemble the tins of stuff.

I think I must have been feeling some nostalgia for this type of play when I decided to make and sell little collections of random "stuff" for kids, in a mint tin (which always include a few buttons). I first got the idea when I would be selling at craft shows, and I had a dice game I invented for school-age kids to practice math skills. I noticed that children who were too young to do the math wanted to play with the dice.

After adding these tins to my inventory, I noticed that preschool-age kids were attracted to them, while slightly older children tended to look at them quizzically and say things like, "What are you supposed to do with this?"

That change in attitude with age seems to fit Shriver's explanation that the first five years are critical in laying the foundation for creative skills later in life. "From birth through age 5, children’s brains are literally forming the complex web of synapses that last throughout their lives," she says. I can't help but wonder if those kids who don't "get" the little boxes of random stuff have already had their capacity for inventing their own form of play driven out of them. 

Michael Patte, professor of education at Bloomsburg University, describes what he calls unstructured play as "a set of activities that children dream up on their own without adult intervention." He's concerned that too many children are over-scheduled, and that open-ended play is not happening enough these days. 

Magnets I made with buttons, postage stamps, and my illustrations.

I no longer sell at craft shows, but I still enjoy assembling my odd collections of very small open-ended materials into tins, which I cover with digital collages of my illustrations printed on a label. I suppose I'm really indulging in my own type of creative play when I collect items for the boxes, and make others (magnets, bottlecap tokens), fit them into a tin, and arrange them for photographing, before offering them for sale in my Etsy shop.

Are you ever too old to enjoy a little open-ended play? I sure don't think so.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Your Valentine's Day guide to a few card sellers on Etsy who eschew crudeness and cliches

With Valentine's Day coming up, and as part of my continuing effort to revive the rather forgotten tradition of sending cards in the mail to those you love, I'm offering this guide to a few of my favorite shops that sell cards on Etsy (full disclosure: and mine). You need this if you want to search for any kind of cards on the site, because a generic search for Valentine cards—or even birthday cards!—yields an unpleasant abundance of the crude and cliche'd. While Etsy automatically screens your search results to favor those shops that offer free shipping (usually with an order of $35 or more), you're on your own to filter out anything else.

I made this rather unpleasant discovery recently when doing a test search on the site. I simply searched for "birthday cards" to see what came up. Boy, did I get an eyeful! Nearly the entire first page of results featured crude sexual humor and images. If I were a first-time shopper on Etsy, those results would likely turn me off from using the site at all. I actually worried that I could be losing potential business because people who might like my cards will never get past their first impressions.

An assortment of mild-mannered valentines (made by me) you will not see in your search results on Etsy. To see more like this, just click here.

I looked for a button to filter my results from "adult" content and found nothing. I then looked in the discussion forums and, after several minutes of searching, learned that I wasn't the only one to be dismayed by such results. Someone offered the helpful tip that you can include in your search terms "-mature" to screen the results—except, that only works if the sellers remember to mark their items as "mature," which many of them do not. Plus, that still left me with an abundance of derivative pop-culture cliches, not to mention rampant copyright infringement—a lot of sellers on Etsy don't seem to realize that Disney characters are not theirs for the taking.

With Valentine's Day coming up, a search is even more likely to be problematic for those who don't really care to sift through all that. So I thought I would help you bypass the search process by showing you some shops selling cards that are original, creative, clever, beautiful, and suitable for all audiences.

Of course, I sell cards too, and you can see them in my Etsy shop here. But apart from that plug (and the photo above), this post isn't about my items. Herewith, a highly selective list of Etsy shops with cards that I'm sure will delight you. For each, I selected just one example, and linked the name to the corresponding shop on Etsy.

Wild Roses card by Cindy Lindgren

 Cindy Lindgren is a fellow Minnesota artist who creates illustrations in an arts-and-craft/nouveau style, many of which are iconic images from that era, such as this stylized wild rose. She also sells prints of her illustrations, fabric pieces with her designs printed on them, and several useful items all featuring her artwork.

Letterpress card by Green Bird Press

Green Bird Press is a letterpress shop whose cards are simple and elegant in that way that only letterpress does; yet this artist also serves up subtle geeky humor, sometimes purely through the images.  It's a fun shop to browse, especially for fans of sci-fi, comics, and general randomness.

Tattooed hamster card from Go kittie

Go kittie is the shop of an artist in London, UK, who does whimsical illustrations of animals and prints them on notecards. She seems to especially like pugs, so if you're looking for a card for someone who owns a pug, or if you love pugs, you will be delighted with the selection here. In additions to pugs and this tattooed hamster, you'll find cats, foxes, a badger, a few other breeds of dogs, and other animals. All of them are really cute, but not in a cutesy way, if you know what I mean.

Tandem bike love card by Rachel Inc.

Rachel King Birch is a Philadelphia artist who puts her hand-drawn illustrations on cards, tags, and tea towels under the shop name Rachel Inc. She has several love-themed cards and tags worth checking out. This tandem bicycle is one of my favorites.

It's very hard to choose just one card from Sacred Bee!

Pamela Zagarenski is an award-winning illustrator and author of children's books who sells elaborately illustrated cards with quotes and clever sayings through her business Sacred Bee. Her Etsy shop is under her own name. I ordered a few cards from her last summer and was delighted not only with the cards, but also with the packaging.

Added eco-friendly bonus: Her cello card sleeves are compostable, which she mentions on her site but it's not indicated on the sleeves themselves.

This two-puffins card would be sweet for a wedding.

Kate Broughton is an English artist living in Leeds, UK, who describes her artwork as nature-inspired. Besides a very nice selection of cards, she also makes nail stickers, notebooks, magnets and more, all featuring her lovely artwork.

Here's a tip for getting the most out of your Etsy shopping experience: scroll all the way down from a shop's main page until you get to the "About" section (which used to be easier to find). It is a sure way to identify the true makers from the copiers and resellers, and it's a nice way to get to know the artist a little better.

One of many love cards by Edgar and Suzanne Cabrera

Edgar and Suzanne Cabrera are a husband-and-wife team who make their playful illustrations into cards, posters, garlands and tea towels. There's a bright, simple cheerfulness to all their artwork, and they seem to like raccoons a lot! Their Etsy shop is called An Open Sketchbook.

I'm going to stop here, even though there are more artists selling cards on Etsy that are quite delightful. You are welcome to browse my favorites on the site anytime, and you can search within my favorites to see only cards (or anything else if you want to see my recommendations). To see the public favorites of any Etsy seller whose taste you like, such as those featured above, click on their name in the upper right of their shop's homepage. It's possibly the most effective way to do a filtered search on the site—let an artist be your curator.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

January is the time for seed catalog season to begin

The pretty little mug was made by Judy Anderson, Dragonfly Guild pottery.
The first seed catalog arrived more than a week before Christmas. I was annoyed. Don't they know better than to send it out before the holidays? It's like they broke a cardinal rule of gardeners' etiquette.

It wasn't one of my regular garden supply companies, nor will it become one. It went straight into the recycling.

But now that January is well underway, I have begun to peruse the assortment of catalogs that arrived at more suitable times, all of which I've ordered from before. I'm not at all ready to start planning my garden yet (the garden plans in the photo above are from last year), but I relish this dreamy pre-planning phase, when anything is possible. I mark pages with sticky notes, circle plants I like, jot notes in the margins about where I could grow this or that.

The glass mosaic with orange flowers was made by
Chris Miller, a LoLa artist.
I do this for flowers, vegetables, and herbs, but I'm mostly interested in flowers at this stage. I want them all!

I plan to start some clover seeds soon, to have a nice pot of shamrocks by St. Patrick's Day. (I've written about clover and shamrocks before, such as here.) And I'd like to get an early start on some strawflowers or paper daisies, which seem to need lots of lead time. I started some from seed last year, but got only a couple of the dryable blossoms. I had envisioned making a charming string of them for a sweet botanical garland, like the one I saw in a Remodelista post last fall. But two blossoms does not a garland make!

To get me through the dreariest winter months, I'll splurge on flowers from Seward Co-op, where I buy my groceries each Friday. And begin setting up my seed-starting operation in a sunny south window upstairs (with added lighting). And pore over my seed catalogs, enjoying this easy, dreamy stage, when the garden has no weeds or pests. Just possibility.

"I dwell in possibility," —Emily Dickinson
(For the full poem, visit the Poetry Foundation)

Some seed catalogs I like:

Johnny's Selected Seeds

Select Seeds

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Jung Seed

Renee's Garden Seeds

Monday, July 15, 2019

An ode to chamomile and shade

One day last week I got out into the garden early so that I could do a little weeding in the shade. The chamomile, which scatters its seeds rather widely next to the fence where I was working, was still shaded also, and so its petals drooped, awaiting the sunlight.

Drooping petals await the morning sun.
Once the sun cleared the tree across the alley and its light fell on the chamomile, the flowers came alive. The white petals perked up and spread out around the yellow centers, the sweet appley fragrance rose invisibly, and dozens of tiny flower flies showed up, fluttering daintily from one blossom to the next.

The flowers open, the flower flies come.

It made me think of a poem by Japanese poet Ryokan (even though it's about butterflies). 

The flower invites the butterfly with no-mind;
The butterfly visits the flower with no-mind.
The flower opens, the butterfly comes; 
The butterfly comes, the flower opens.
I don't know others,
Others don't know me.
By not-knowing we follow nature's course.

[From Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, trans. by John Stevens. Shambhala Publications, 2004.]

Harvesting chamomile on a not-so-hot day in the garden

I try to keep up with harvesting the blossoms to dry for tea, not so much because I drink a lot of chamomile tea, but because if I let them all go to seed, they stop blooming and the plants dry up and that's the end of it. If I keep harvesting, they will keep blooming all summer. I don't worry about picking so many that I keep it from reseeding; it's really not possible to do that.

I usually pop off the blossoms with my thumbnail and into a bag while sitting on a chair that I bring out to the garden. But harvesting those prolific blossoms can get tedious even while sitting, especially in the sun on a hot day, so with temperatures in the 80s already at 10 a.m., and climbing to 90-plus pretty quickly, I took a scissors and cut off several bunches, then sat down in the shade of our patio umbrella to pop the blossoms off and into a paper bag for drying in the garage.

A thumbnail is a very handy tool for separating the blossoms from the stems.

A lot of the flowers were already past their peak and destined for the compost, so I placed my harvest basket on the table to hold a handful at a time from the bucket where I had put all the cuttings, with my paper bag between my feet for dropping in the blossoms. A second bucket collected the compostable leftovers.

A mass of chamomile stems and flowers in the shade of the patio.

For drying the flowers, I use a grocery bag that's been cut down to half its height, plucking the blossoms so they fall into the bag until there's enough for a single layer at the bottom, then set the bag on a table in a dark spot in the garage where they won't get sunlight to turn them brown, and leave them for several days to dry; I leave the bag open for maximum air circulation. We don't put our car in the garage in summer (much easier to get our bikes in and out that way), so there's no exhaust fumes to spoil the herbs. 

A glass of iced tomato-veggie juice aids the harvest on a hot day.

I've got some spearmint growing in a pot this summer, so I'll be sure to dry some of that, too. It complements the chamomile very nicely in an herbal tea blend, which tastes pretty good iced on a summer evening, when shade from the house falls on the patio and reaches across the backyard. 

Pretty soon the chamomile is shaded too, and the petals fold down, as if tucking themselves into bed for a good sleep before the morning's visitors arrive.

Chamomile with poppy petals and a tiny bee (probably Ceratina genus), on a morning in July.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The delight of starting pink pansies indoors

I haven't started seeds indoors for several years, but this year I decided to renew the practice because I wanted pink pansies.

They are surprisingly hard to find. My local garden center, Mother Earth Gardens, has a really good variety of plants during the growing season, especially when it comes to Minnesota native plants, heirloom vegetables, and herbs. Plus loads of perennials and annuals. It's pretty amazing all the choices and variety they offer for a small urban garden center.

But, like other garden centers, they don't have pink pansies, except maybe in a six-pack of assorted colors, with one of them pink. But I wanted lots of pink ones, from light pink to mauve and burgundy. So I searched online until I found them at Swallowtail Garden Seeds.

The photo at left is  of the Heat Elite Pansy in pink shades, from their website, but you can't find these particular ones anymore. I assume they are sold out for this year.

I bought the seeds in January, along with some lettuce seeds (romaine and butterhead, my favorites), and paper daisies (Helipterum roseum), which are also mostly pink (as you may notice if you click the link).

I started the pansy seeds in late January and the paper daisies soon after, along with a few other flower seeds. The lettuce I'll sow directly in the garden very soon (ideally, I should have done it already—as soon as the soil became workable, which was a couple of weeks ago or so).

I used cardboard egg cartons as my seed-starting trays, which has worked very nicely. Pansies germinate in the dark, so I covered them with the egg carton lid until they poked their tiny green noses up, about a week after sowing. Then I uncovered them and kept them in a south window in a warm upstairs room.

My pansy seedlings in their egg-carton tray in mid-March, six weeks after starting.
But I didn't buy and set up supplemental lighting until March, which, in hindsight, I should have done much sooner. I had hoped they'd be forming flower buds by now, but they still have a ways to go, and I blame inadequate lighting for their slow progress.

I eventually potted them up to 4" diameter round pots, which was probably too big of a jump, so they languished some more after that, but now, on the first of May, they are showing real signs of progress in the porch, where they're getting sun from south and west windows.

The pansies are in the round pots farthest back. The square cardboard "pots" (boxes) hold marigolds at the center, and 3 tithonia at front. Photo taken on April 28 in the porch.
Even though the pansy seedlings haven't gotten as far along as I had hoped, I'm glad I started them from seed, along with the other flowers. It's very satisfying to nurture them along and eventually watch them flourish and bloom in the garden.

If the bunnies don't eat them.

Come to think of it, maybe I'll plant the pansies in the tall cast-iron urn on the front stoop.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Writing notes by hand really is better sometimes

I've taken to jotting appointments and dates on a pocket calendar, and then later adding them to the  calendar on my computer, rather than entering them via my phone when I'm scheduling them. Although, honestly, I find myself using the calendar app less and less as I have gotten used to going back to paper.

Writing stuff down first with an actual pen on an actual paper calendar is working better for me. First, because it's quicker and easier to do it that way than to enter the pass code on my phone and then open the calendar app and then enter the info into the form—even when the process is not interrupted by a reminder to update my software. And, second, sometimes the phone auto-fills the wrong information; or I discover later that there's no reminder when I was sure I had set one up; or I am unable to find the appointment on my electronic calendar at all.

It also seems like I remember things I wrote down better than things I noted via device; so I was pleased when I came across some research supporting that claim.

Studies comparing these two methods of recording information suggest that writing by hand really does improve learning and recall, even without all the distractions and annoyances I experience using my devices.

Neuroscientists say that our brains are engaged more and in different ways when we write by hand, and this brain engagement helps us to learn and remember things better. For example, a study in France found that children who were taught letters while writing them by hand, later recognized them better than a group of children who learned their letters on a computer.

Those same scientists repeated the experiment on adults, teaching them a new language that used a different alphabet, and again found that the adults taught by way of handwriting remembered more than those taught by computer. (This and other fascinating research is reported in The Guardian in this December 2014 article.)

Meanwhile, at UCLA, two psychologists tested college students to find out whether taking notes by hand affected learning and recall differently than using a laptop. They, too, found that students performed better on tests after a lecture if they had taken notes by hand. They tested one group of students (divided into a pen-and-paper set and a keypad set) shortly after the lecture, and another group a week later, allowing time for study and review. In both instances, the note-writers did better than the typers; and the group tested a week after the lecture showed an even bigger difference favoring the notes-by-hand technique.

The way that these studies were conducted suggests that the participants did not have to deal with all the little distractions and annoyances that I stumble over when I attempt to use electronic devices for jotting appointments and notes, and yet they still found an advantage in taking notes by hand.

While none of these researchers is suggesting that we go full luddite and abandon our electronic communication devices altogether, their findings do make the case for also using our pencils, pens, and paper notebooks and calendars. Think of them as exercise equipment for our brains—and as the ultimate backup devices, provided you remember where you put them.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Flowers in the house as we wait for flowers outside

It's April in Minnesota, which means that today is lovely and sunny and about 60 degrees, and there are tulips and crocuses just poking their green tips up out of the soil.

And tomorrow, a snowstorm is coming.

So I have been trying to complete my late winter/early spring pruning of trees and shrubs that I was supposed to do in March, except there was way too much snow on the ground and I needed to buy a new pruning saw and shears, which I didn't get around to until a week ago. For that, a not-so-early spring is actually helpful.

But for my spirits,  I have taken to buying bouquets at the co-op during my weekly grocery shopping trips, so I can enjoy some flowers and greenery in the house while not-so-patiently waiting for them to appear outside.

A recent article on one of my favorite eye-candy websites, Gardenista, offered some tips on arranging flowers like a Frenchwoman. I find myself torn between falling into dreamy idolizing of all things French, and Oh, Please. Really? But it was fun to look at the photos, so there's that. And some of the tips were actually helpful, in that they helped me articulate what I am attracted to when I see a flower arrangement that I really like, such as a limited color palette and a touch of wildness.

I started some seeds in January, including some pink pansies that have been languishing. I should have invested in some supplemental plant lighting a little sooner, I have concluded. I have the seedlings in the porch now, which is enclosed but unheated, with south and west windows, and I added a grow light, but they remain tiny. I'll end up buying pansies at the local garden center for my front step urn, but my tiny pansies will surely bloom eventually. Other flowers I have started from seed are looking pretty good, and giving me some hope for the near future.

I also started some Dutch white clover, for St. Patrick's Day, by which time they looked pretty cute.

But I decided to keep them going, and now they've become quite lanky. I've changed up their companion figurines from elves to something more Easterlike, and I'm rather enjoying them as quirky houseplants. I may repot them in something that will go in an Easter basket, although I am enjoying them in their cute little planters, so maybe not. They'll eventually join the compost pile out back.

Meanwhile, I'll be trying to finish up that pruning before new growth starts, and checking to see what new bouquets Seward Co-op has to offer this Friday.

Monday, March 11, 2019

It's a calendar, it's a zine, it's a diary — It's the Useful Calendar Almanac!

Yeah, I know. I'm writing about my 2019 almanac in March of 2019. What?

I actually finished the thing in January, and stitched together a prototype, which I marked up with corrections and notes, and then decided to use that one myself rather than discard it. Then I made a second one for my husband, who was missing his old-style printed calendar-planner. It's the size of a quarter of a letter-size sheet of paper, 4-1/4 by 5-1/2 inches, a nice handbook size that's also manageable for me to print and assemble at home.

Then I ran into a friend at the coffee shop, and when I showed him my copy he immediately said he would like one, so I made a few more to display during a neighborhood art event in February, the LoLa Winter Fine Art Exhibition, and he bought one, and the remaining 5 copies are now available in my Etsy shop. 

The truth is, this has been about four years in the making. Since 2015, I have made some version of an almanac-diary for my own use and as prototypes, always finishing them after the first of the year and telling myself I will make the next one in time to sell in the fall for the following year. These prototypes had limited text, since I didn't want to research and write articles, lists, and such for myself only.

But as I have modified the design of the Useful Calendar to allow more room for art, and to keep the font a readable size, and still keep it small and pocket-sized, I have left out more and more of the fascinating tidbits of information I gather along the way, and I really wanted to make them available in some complementary format, for which an almanac seems just the thing. And then it just made sense to have a few pages for a person to jot their own notes of whatever sort, whether using it as a planner or diary or phenology journal. So I added three lightly gridded pages per month.

This time I was determined to just get it out there, no matter the poor timing, and set the precedent that there will now be a Useful Calendar Almanac every year, alongside my usual compact-yet-informative calendar formats.

But I'm also equally determined to do all of it myself, from the research and writing, to illustrating, to printing and assembling and stitching. Because that's just how I do things, inefficient though it is. The following photos show the steps in the assembly process. Each one takes me about an hour to assemble, so I find something interesting to listen to and just immerse myself in the doing.

The cover, printed on card-stock, about to be cut and scored for folding

The flap to the left will form a pocket, because I gotta have a pocket.

Here are the pages, to be folded into signatures to form the text block.

Marking the signatures for where I will punch the sewing holes. The cover has the holes printed on it, so I punched those first and then use them as the guides for marking the holes in the signatures, because I will be sewing through the spine.

I chose some pretty-colored linen thread since the stitching will be both functional and decorative; the signatures will be sewn through the spine in a criss-cross pattern that forms X's on the outside. It means the center signature gets a bit more stitching than it would with a different style of stitch, because it is being sewn to the first and then again to the third signature in the process of stitching it all together. The result is a good securely bound book.

After all the sewing is done, I brush the spines with PVA glue, which remains flexible when set, so it will strengthen and protect the spine and the stitching. I brushed the glue over the edges, too, because I figure that's where the most wear will occur. They'll stay clamped like this overnight, after which the glued spine will still feel a bit tacky for a couple of days, but eventually it will just have a kind of rubbery feel.
I was going to offer these through my shop as a made-to-order item, but after I assembled a few and realized it takes about an hour just to do that, I thought I really can't ask what they're worth so late in the almanac season, so I am just offering the five that I've already made for $15 each, with a note in the description that the 2020 edition will cost $25 so as not to create the impression that $15 is a normal price for a hand-bound book like this. In truth, $25 isn't really a normal price either, but I do want to strike a balance between what I see as affordable and how much it's worth to me to make them. Because while I enjoy making them, I'd enjoy selling a few of them too.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The joys of open-ended play

When our son and daughter entered their teens, it appeared they had outgrown their Legos, so we donated them. Not long after, our son showed an interest in playing with the little plastic bricks again and I regretted having gotten rid of them, so we decided to get him a box of new ones for Christmas.

We went to the Lego store at Mall of America, which was something of an ordeal for me because I hate shopping malls. Still, we figured that was the place to find the best selection of Legos and to get a nice large assortment. What we found instead were a lot of "kits" designed to make only certain things, but not one (NOT ONE!) box of just plain Legos for making anything he wanted.

I was disappointed — I had just endured the biggest shopping mall in the country only to come away empty-handed.

I didn't know there was a term for what I was looking for, and what Legos used to be: open-ended toys, like wooden blocks, generic dolls, and all the random stuff that kids naturally gravitate to — rocks and sticks and other low-tech things like Mom's button box.

Open-ended, or unstructured play is when children invent their own storylines and rules, set their own goals, create their own structures and characters. It's the opposite of licensed character dolls from movies and shows, or kits for assembling a specific thing.

And it's so necessary for the health and well-being of children, some doctors are "prescribing" unstructured playtime, which is kind of an ironic concept, isn't it?

The American Academy of Pediatrics even released a report in August stressing the importance of open-ended play to develop flexible brains that can engage in creative problem solving and inventiveness to become well-rounded, successful adults.

"Play is learning" is a quote from Joseph Chilton Pearce
So if you're looking for a good excuse to avoid the mall and to not hunt down the hottest "it" toy for your child, there you have it. How about a good set of handmade wooden blocks from an independent crafter on Etsy?

You can even search the phrase open ended toys on Etsy and get some really inspired results.

Or visit an independent shop that sells consignment items from local crafters. That can be a fun exploration for you as well as have the potential to yield something unique that really engages your child.

Or just get out your button box and let your child rummage through it.

It's the sort of thing I had in mind when I started putting together little collections of random stuff in little tin boxes to sell in my Etsy shop, some of which illustrate this essay.

Happy playtime!