Thursday, October 25, 2012

Too Many Words About Annual Giving

I do believe in supporting educational institutions, both public and private, and I have a record of doing so. I attended six colleges and universities in getting my degrees, and have contributed to all but one. My children’s schools have always been well supported by us, also.
The house I grew up in
In the summer of 2004, perhaps a month and a half after my mother died, my mobile phone rang while I was driving west on 520. I answered, about halfway across the bridge, using the speaker phone. There was rowdy cheering in the background, and a voice identified the caller as someone I went to high school with. His message was simple: he was calling on behalf of our high school. It was their annual fundraising call-a-thon. He rattled off the names of some other classmates I could hear carousing in the background. “You guys have money,” he said. “You should donate.” This was followed with a roar of laughter in the background.
I do not remember saying much in reply. I may have even hung up on him. I would prefer to think that I used the catch-all I like to use in such occasions: “I am not in a position to help you right now.”
My mother’s death was widely publicized in the local papers, as she was a high ranking administrator at a prestigious university there. My high school published their condolences in the quarterly newsletter, just as they had for my father a few years before. I can certainly imagine that for the purposes of fundraising, using classmates to make the calls is a good way to get participation; it’s someone you know, if not an actual friend. The problem with this system is that if you invite a group of obnoxious drunken bullies (who were obnoxious drunken bullies in high school and seemingly never stopped being obnoxious drunken bullies since) to make the calls, they will behave in the obnoxious, bullying, drunken ways that they have always behaved. The call was an error whether or not I had just lost a parent.
I was not in the worst possible state of mind for such a call. I was still very hardened to bad news. My mother was never old, not even a little old. She was only 20 when she had my older brother and 22 when she had me. She battled brain cancer her last year and a half, so she was sick, but she was never old. My dad had died after a year and a half of bad news about his cancer, and then my mother had died after a year and a half of bad news about her cancer. I had arrived at the point where both my parents were gone, cut down in their prime, and I was still barely feeling like a real adult myself. I had arrived at the point where the unthinkable had happened, where I was among the oldest trees in my woods: my brothers and me. A phone call from obnoxious, bullying drunken idiots from my (seemingly) distant past was like squirrels playing chase up and down my trunk, for I was the unimaginably old elm. What are squirrels to a 300 year old tree?
Back when this elm was a sapling, she went to an exclusive, private non-religious, college-prep high school in suburban St. Louis.  I received what I considered a quality education; I sailed through my freshman year at an elite college with mostly As and a few Bs, feeling completely prepared for rigorous writing assignments. 
The high school partying scene was alcohol-fueled, though kids from the classes above mine were still smoking pot and a few of my peers regularly dropped acid. It was not a come-to-school-shitfaced thing, more of a get-plastered-on-the-weekend thing. Bad choices were made on a frequent basis. If my children partied today like we did in high school, I would be very, very alarmed and would probably not let them out of my sight.
In St. Louis in the late 1970s, our parents played tennis and golf, rooted for the Cardinals, went to church on Sunday (but were disdainful of actually religious people), and went to parties and had parties where they got drunk. My parents were different, in the end, because they liked to go camping, my mother was a fine artist, and my father ran marathons; we did not belong to a country club like my classmates’ families did. We were different, but we were also the same.
About a year after my mother died, in the summer of 2005, I went back to St. Louis to go through her things. This was a painful process, and I made a few mistakes which leave me with some regrets. It was a thing done as quickly as my brothers and step-father and I could manage, and it was a big task. I have not been back since.
I almost went back this past August. The previous August, I saw pictures on Facebook of a gathering of my girlfriends one weekend. Their kids were all there, and so were many of my old friends (and none of the obnoxious drunken bullies). I had just moved to New York, and pretty lonely, and St. Louis is an easy flight from here. I was sorry to have missed it. I promised to go the next year. When this August rolled around, I was invited, but I was in the midst of the move from North Dreadful to New York City, and really could not manage it.
I went to our tenth high school reunion and our twentieth, but I do not think I will go again. I did enjoy seeing some of my old friends, but there were just enough obnoxious conversations, just enough bullying questions that I did not feel like answering, and just enough drunken gossiping for me to say, “No, thanks.”
Lately, I have had to make many (if not almost all) of the folks I went to high school with invisible to me on Facebook. One of my classmates likes to post videos of business leaders who sell cheap goods (mostly made in China) in their big-box retail stores, but claim that we need the presidential candidate they endorse to create good jobs for college graduates. Another accused me of being “brainwashed.”  
Missouri is the home of some famous obnoxious, bullying public figures, including Phyllis Schlafly (who certainly deserves her very own blog post at a later date) and Todd Akin. Akin is one of the many members of the GOP who have used the extra attention of this election season to share with the world their interesting and unusual but appallingly unscientific and degrading thoughts about acts of violence towards women and human reproduction. I was wondering what kind of terrible high school was responsible for Akin’s obviously poor science education. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he went to my elite, college-prep high school.
I try to be a person who is hard to embarrass, but Todd Akin makes me embarrassed to be from the state of Missouri.  When someone who publicly and willfully flouts facts to serve what he claims to be his religious calling turns out to be an alum of the school I have been more or less proud to say I graduated from, I am chagrined. My first thought was one of, “Well, now I can continue not to contribute to annual giving.”
After some more reflection, though, it has become obvious to me that a donation is in order. If we allow the manipulative idiots and the drunken, obnoxious bullies to completely control the conversation, everyone loses.  I am thinking about contacting the school library, to ensure that they have the books I have found particularly influential to my current mindset. I am compiling a list, but, for now, two such titles that come to mind are Alice Sebold’s rape memoir, “Lucky,” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” I plan to buy the school copies of any books they do not have.
I believe in education: that when we expose good ideas to people, the world becomes a better place.
Readers, I strongly encourage you to add your suggested books in the comments, below.

Friday, October 12, 2012

25 Things My Cat Does

In the interest of fairness, I made a list of areas in which my cat is more skillful than I am. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments section.
Jumping onto things
Jumping off of things
Sleeping curled up anywhere
Sniffing at crumbs
Thundering down the stairs
Looking cute for pictures
Moving into the camera lens after it is focused
Eating grass
Looking comfortable sprawled on the floor
Being ready to have a fight to the death over going somewhere in the car
Showing indifference for a new toy
Showing indifference for an old toy
Rolling on the floor and becoming utterly dusty in every way
Looking out the window
Hiding from new people
Pricking ears
Begging for more kibble from the Belly Scratcher
Expressive tail gestures
Pooping in the bathtub
Being creepy
Barfing up hairballs

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Numbers

Americans write the date in the format “Month/Day/Year,” so today’s date is one of those fun sequences (10/11/12) that makes a memorable birthday or wedding anniversary. I have a friend whose birthday is 11/11, so last year’s fell on 11/11/11. I think I probably know someone on the Facebook who has the birthday 12/12, but if I can search by birthday on the Facebook I do not know how. The 12 months of our calendar and 30 or 31 days within are pretty arbitrary anyway; a 52 week year breaks evenly into 13 four-week-long months, so why don’t we add a month?
I know a bunch of folks with birthdays which fall on other holidays, like Halloween and Christmas, dictating not only the color of the wrapping paper of every gift of their whole lives, but also over-shadowing their anniversaries. No doubt there were children born on a December 7th in the 1930s for whom the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor forever ruined their birthdays. I have a couple of friends who were born on September 11th.
Church Street, TriBeCa, September 11th, 2012
On September 11, 1857, something like 120 Arkansas emigrants were murdered by Mormons and either Paiute Indians or some folks dressed up to look like them. There many different accounts of this story, and you might be interested to compare this one to others you can find.
September 11, 1971 marks the death of Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor. Khrushchev is famous for a shoe-banging incident at the U.N. and for warning us all that “We will bury you!” and, “Your children will be communists,” which Barry Goldwater used in his political television ads for his run for President of the United States. In 1959, Khrushchev visited the United States, and if you have 5 minutes you should watch this.
My childhood neighborhood friend with the braids was married on a September 11, in the 80s, in a ceremony in the old Catholic cathedral in downtown St. Louis. I was one of many bridesmaids, all in mint green taffeta, and I remember being very hot while we were kneeling and standing and kneeling and standing. 
That same day, September 11, 1987, in St. Andrews, a suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, the reggae musician known as Peter Tosh was shot and killed in his home. He was 42. A lively retelling of this brutal murder can be read here.
 The morning of September 11, 2001, I was eating breakfast in our kitchen in Seattle with all three kids, getting ready to go to school. The phone rang. It was my mother, explaining that she knew I didn’t watch TV but I better turn it on because something was happening in New York.
We had a small TV in the kitchen, and we turned it on in time to see the footage of the first tower engulfed and collapsing as well as footage of the second tower being hit. My children were very young, and unaccustomed to TV news, and did not know what they were looking at was real. While I was trying to explain to them that it was something serious and bad, the phone rang. It was a friend who mis-dialed another, mutual friend, with a similar number. A native New Yorker, the caller was completely distraught; I wonder if she even remembers calling me that day.
Last year was the tenth anniversary of the attack, and though we were living in North Dreadful, it was observed with a ceremony at the public school with solemnity and formality. My youngest son missed this event completely, thanks to a stomach ache.
This year, we live within view of the new towers under construction. There is a memorial at the site of the now missing towers, but I still have not visited it yet. I was awestruck by the two towers of light shining there the two nights of the 10th and the 11th which I find a fitting memorial: abstract, quiet and ephemeral, requiring no tickets or online registration.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gray Area


My niece was graduating high school in a few months, so I asked her mother what colors to think about for a quilt for her to take to college. Her reply: “[She] likes grey, colors that go with grey, and grey are her never-miss choices. The colors you see in those …pictures ...represent grey and things that go with grey; she'll wear other colors that go with grey, but I think she has something grey on practically every day.”
So I started thinking about a gray quilt.
I enjoy making monochromatic quilts. I have made two all-red quilts, an all-green quilt, a couple of all-pink baby quilts, and an all-blue quilt top. Gray is tricky because there are green-grays and brown-grays and pale grays and if you put them all together they appear to be different colors. Gray fabric is hard to find as well. I managed to lay in a supply of darker and lighter grays and set to work.
I do not remember how or why I decided on equilateral triangles for this quilt. They are a satisfying geometric shape to me, being both equilateral and equiangular, but they are not particularly easy to cut from fabric without a template.
Adding the binding
Machine quilting
The cat is always interested in sewing projects, being a big fan of sleeping on the ironing board, the sewing table, and my lap. This time, the dogs got involved, too, and sprawled out on the quilt in progress, especially when they had been invited no to do so. When I bought the batting, I had to make a special trip to the fabric store, and when I brought it home I unwrapped and unfurled it to get some of the wrinkles out. Then I took the dogs for a walk. When I got home, I found that the cat had attacked the cotton batting, taking several large bites out of it.  I was able to trim off his damage, though I did have to go back to the fabric store for more of the backing fabric, which in the end I had not bought enough of.
Making a baby quilt can take a weekend, if you know what you’re doing. Making a quilt big enough to go on a twin or full-size bed takes months, even if you do all the steps by machine. When you make a quilt for a child, you can use airplane fabric for the back and be sure that he will love it. When you make a quilt for a teenager, you run the risk of making something she doesn’t like and will never want to use. My goal was to make the quilt inoffensive enough that at least she might use it under another bedspread.
Dogs testing new quilt
I finished in time for her birthday and graduation. It was well-received. Better still, she tweeted at me a couple of weeks ago: “Did I ever mention to you that almost every single person who comes into my room compliments the awesome quilt?
The next one I am planning is for the toughest customer of all: my youngest son.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Jolly Roger Quilt, Part 2: Math Problem

Jolly Roger Quilt, cat is larger than he appears
I think I just finished my 18th quilt. I might have actually made more, but right now that’s how many I can name and remember. One is just a top, and even though it has been sitting unfinished in a box for many years, I would like to start quilting it soon; though I have to admit it is a little kid’s quilt and I do not have any little kids living in my house right now.  Many of the 18 were baby quilts, given away to close friends.  Two were made for the dogs (so they sit on the quilt on a chair instead of the chair), and I am happy that they have not been destroyed by them.  I sold one in an auction (which was not a good experience). I spent last winter finishing a quilt for my niece to take to college, and afterwards started thinking about a black and white quilt.
I was living in North Dreadful, with only one decent fabric store worth the drive, so I ordered a bunch of the fabric for the Jolly Roger online. I am an unskilled and unhappy shopper in many ways, though I, like anyone who likes quilt-making, have a huge stash of fabric and a weakness for the nice fabric stores. I found the perfect backing fabric for the Jolly Roger quilt (Michael Moore’s “Quilt Pirates”), and it is pictured here.
Quilt back, with free-hand machine quilting
I do not know what I had in mind when I ordered the backing fabric, but by the time I was finished piecing the top, I had, in my exuberance, exceeded the amount of fabric purchased for the back by a full eight inches. You would think that for an experienced quilt-maker this would be an occasional problem. You would think that for a former geometry teacher, with a master’s degree in pure mathematics this is a rare mistake. You would think.
The truth, dear reader, is that I fail to buy enough backing fabric so often that this scenario is typical.
Figuring out how much fabric you need for the back of your quilt is straightforward. Quilting fabric usually is 44” wide, so you often piece together two lengths of the same size, and have one seam on the back, running up the middle. You plan for there to be extra, because out of the scraps of old projects new projects grow.  A huge quilt might be 96” long, which is 8 feet, so you would need to buy 16 feet (or 5 1/3 yards) if your back needed to be about 88” wide (or less).  This quilt turned out to have 64 squares across its length, 2” of fabric per (pre-sewn) square, yielding 1 ½” per square after deducting the ¼” seam allowances. 64 times 1 ½” is 96”. It is 48 squares wide (or 72”), for a total of 3072 2” squares of fabric.
This works nicely if you are good at planning how big your quilt will be.   I usually strike a bargain with myself when planning quilts, because I like some aspects of planning and dislike others. With the Jolly Roger quilt, I embarked on the making of the grinning skull without knowing how I intended to use it in a finished quilt. Maybe I had a vague sense that it could be like a pirate flag, but pretty quickly I realized that this was not a very interesting design, being almost entirely black. In the end, I made two skulls and some scissors and a heart and played with how I wanted them arranged until I was happy. I was very busy cutting little black squares and sewing long strips onto the growing top and it was not until the whole top was together that I knew my enthusiasm had allowed the top to grow beyond the amount of fabric I had purchased for the back.
Back piecing to mask error
The good thing about being consistently bad at planning is I know how to deal with my bad planning. In this case, I used the largest possible square pieces of fabric that I could cut until I was down to scraps.
Now that it is done I am pleased with the quilting (which was very intense), and having that feeling of sadness that I always have when I finish a project.