Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Snow — just another spring ephemeral

A note: I wrote this for the March 8, 2004, edition of the late Minneapolis Observer, a short-lived newspaper that my husband and I used to publish. It's topicality is apropos this spring, while at the same time revealing how unusual it is even here in Minnesota to get this much snow this late in the season. Still, it's a reminder: it's all ephemeral, nonetheless. —Sharon

On Thursday, my friend Sandra was positively gleeful at the prospect of 6 inches or more of snow. She is an avid winter athlete and once cross-country skied on Theodore Wirth golf course after a particularly late April snowfall, much to the chagrin of the groundskeepers.

By March, my attitude toward winter is one of indifference. After 47 winters, I am no longer impatient for spring to begin—I know it will come soon enough. And I am no longer dismayed by late-season snowfalls, even after a long thaw has dangled the promise of an early spring only to snatch it away again. I know it won’t last.

I think of this snow as the first of the spring ephemerals. In gardening, we usually think of ephemerals as those early bloomers that disappear, leaves and all, once summer is underway: the bulbs we plant in fall; the woodland wildflowers that bloom before the trees leaf out, then retreat under the ground again.

But snow is one of these too. Consider how profoundly it transforms the landscape in winter—the mounds that turn our sidewalks into valleys, the mountains in the corners of parking lots, the bright white clingy coat that forces the arborvitae to bow down in homage to the forces of nature, the snow “flowers” on mugho pines. And then it all melts away. Vanishes. A re-creation of the great ice age, in mere months, and then nothing. I know I’m odd, but the whole transformation from winter’s snow-sculpted landscape to flat, muddy early spring—even before the greening of spring at its peak—fascinates me. Every year.

So as I went about my business on Friday while clumps of wet snow dropped heavily from the trees as frequently as the big sticky flakes fell from the sky, I was glad I didn’t have to look at the dirty grey-black patches of ice that had been everywhere and will be exposed again soon. We can put off cleaning the yard a little longer. I just discovered one of my boots has a leak but my wet foot doesn’t make me miserable because I’m distracted by the unfolding drama. I look around and marvel at a fleeting winter wonderland that soon will be no more.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Making your own polish for wood and other things

One of the toy sets from Arty Didact

The little tins of "stuff" that I assemble as quirky amusements for kids usually include a few wooden objects, as do my "respite boxes" for adults.

In order to give these wooden components a nice luster and to  provide a pleasant tactile experience, I have taken to rubbing them with a beeswax-and-oil polish. It's a simple homemade concoction that's quite versatile—you can use it on stones and on your skin, as well—and it's a good way to reuse beeswax candle stumps and bits of beeswax cakes that have become too dry and brittle to use on thread anymore.

I thought I'd share it here for others who, like me, derive some satisfaction from finding a practical reuse for something that would otherwise be discarded.

Expecting to find that the process of making one's own polish is somewhat complicated, I was pleased to come across Amber Dusick's charming blog, where she offered her simple recipe using only two ingredients: oil and beeswax. My adaptation is to use scrap beeswax and whatever oil I have on hand at the time. The first time I made it I used grape seed oil, which resulted in a very green polish. My current batch is made with olive oil, which did not alter the color of the beeswax in any noticeable way. Neither polish changed the color of the wood I rubbed it on, other than to darken it, so I don't think it really matters what oil you use.

As a frequenter of estate sales, I found a nifty little metal pitcher with a long handle, which seems to be made for just this sort of thing. I put my beeswax bits in it and added olive oil, attempting for a ratio of 2–3 parts oil to one part beeswax; but as I don't actually measure anything, I don't know whether that's quite what I've got here. That's a lot less oil than Amber's ratio, which is 4 parts oil to 1 part beeswax, and I do end up with a rather stiff polish. I'll probably try getting closer to her proportions next time, for a softer polish.

I also don't bother to grate the beeswax as she does, I just break or chop it into chunks. For the small amount of polish that I make at one time (about a half cup), that seems to work just fine. I place the metal pitcher in a pan of water on the stove and let it simmer until all the wax has melted.

Since the wax has bits of thread in it—and if I were using leftover bits of candles, there would be a wick and that little metal thingy that's in tea lights—I pour it through a tea strainer into a small canning jar.

A little thread lint captured by the tea strainer
Then you just let it sit until it cools and sets. The outside will set first, of course, which will insulate the center and keep it from cooling as quickly. 

You could go have a cup of tea and read the paper while you wait for the rest of it to cool, I suppose. 

Or, if you're impatient like me, you can stir it to speed the setting process. 

Here are a few wooden cubes, half rubbed with the polish and half not. See how it brings out the wood grain and generally prettifies them nicely?

Oops. Better put the cubes away before they disappear under the furniture.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Who Said What: Why I Don't Repeat Quotations Found Online

Today my local newspaper reprinted an article from the Columbia News Service about the common practice of finding and repeating false quotations on the Internet. The article by Jennifer Hollander leads with the example of a quote I saw often on Facebook after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, which was falsely attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.: "I mourn the loss of thousands of previous lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one. Not even an enemy."

In  fact, writes Hollander, it was the Facebook status of an American living in Japan, who followed her eloquent statement with a quote from King. A friend reposted it, dropping the quote marks, after which it went viral, with the false attribution.

The article reminded me of a little project I undertook a couple of years ago, to make a little booklet of quotations from children's books that offered humorous "good advice for all occasions."

The project started with a quote I remembered from a book I had read to our children more than once, Talking to Dragons, by Patricia Wrede, the last book in her Enchanted Forest series. The lead character, Princess Cimorene, had, in the very first book in the series, run away from the pampered and boring life of a princess (as she saw it) and gone off to seek adventure or at least intellectual stimulation in the company of dragons, which turned out to be rather erudite creatures.

In the last book, Cimorene was sending her son, Daystar, off on adventures of his own, and her parting words to him included the simple advice, "Always be polite to dragons."

Alice illustrates a quote from the Red Queen. 
I filled the six-page mini book with a few other favorites I remembered from reading various books to the kids when they were little, and which I could easily check because we hadn't gotten rid of any of the books, even though both kids are now in their twenties. But I needed one more quote and so turned to the Internet to find it.

There I came across a charming quotation attributed variously to Kenneth Graham or more specifically his book Wind in the Willows: "Come along inside ... We'll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place."

Such a sweet sentiment. So I did a drawing of tea and buns to go with it. Then I realized that I needed a more specific attribution for the quote—which character said it and to whom? So I took out my copy of Wind in the Willows and started perusing. I couldn't find it. Maybe I skimmed right past it, I thought. I found an online searchable copy of the book and looked for it there. Nothing.

I found an online source of other works by Kenneth Graham, yet still could not find the quote.

In the end, I gave up. Not knowing the true source of the quote (it may still have been said/written by Kenneth Graham, but in what I do not know), I decided to use a different quote. But I already had my drawing of tea and buns, and I wanted to use it, so I remembered that Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn had said something about drinking tea mindfully, and I set out to find that one to use instead. On the Internet I found several slight variations; fortunately, we have several of his books, and I guessed correctly that it must surely be in The Miracle of Mindfulness, which it was.

"Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole world revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future." —Thich Nhat Hanh

And that's how my little booklet of quotations from children's stories ended up with one quotation from a book for adults about living our lives with intention. (And why I illustrated a Buddhist quote with a drawing of a very English-looking cup of milky tea and brioche buns.)