Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Remembering my friend

Remembering, always, my dear friend Kim, who died a year ago today.

Our family had a lovely few days with her family this past summer. At one point during the visit, D. was looking through one of my favorite collections of poems, and it fell open to this one. We all shared an emotion-laden pause, and then read the poem. Ah Kim, I miss you.


She wore
her coming death
as gracefully
as if it were a coat
she'd learned to sew.
When it grew cold enough,
she'd simply button it
and go.

Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Panna Cotta inspired by Top Chef

For some reason, panna cotta appears to be the next go-to dessert on Bravo's Top Chef lately. A few seasons ago, it was the "scallop," whether actual an mollusk or an imitation made from bananas. But this year, chef after chef seems to be making variations of panna cotta. Or attempting them. They mostly seem to fall drastically short of the mark, garnering criticism along the lines of "tastes like a hockey puck."

Having never eaten a panna cotta, much less cooked one, I was nonetheless inspired to make one last weekend. Maybe it was a craving for dairy, or maybe it was just the appeal of such a short list of ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, gelatin, vanilla. Following on Thanksgiving, making something simple and cool felt like a good idea.

Because I've had no experience with it, my notion of panna cotta comes from what I've heard, and some idea that, when done right, it's nourishing in that primal way milk and honey are when mixed together. As for texture, I had the sense that the end result should be a hybrid of gelatin and pudding, with more subtle flavor.

I'll tell you how I made it, and how it turned out. But the most notable thing about cooking this was the peace I found in doing so.

Such a simple thing, stirring milk and cream together. Everyone else was lost in a mid-afternoon nap, and so it was just me and the soft burr sound of the spoon scraping the pan as I babysat the mixture.

I don't often give myself permission to have nothing to do. It's a self-imposed state of frantic, I know. The upside to that is that I am incapable of being bored. One of the downsides is the frenetic thought pattern I make for myself, even when I am supposedly at rest. Ideas, fears, plans, and obsessions flood my mind constantly, often overwhelming me with insomnia. During the day, I feel as though I am constantly moving from one thing to the next. The end result is not a model of productive energy. It's sort of a muddle somedays. Most projects I start never get finished in one sitting, and some never get finished at all.

So finding myself at the stove with a rare quiet around me was a real treat. Even rarer: that silence spread into me, and my mind stilled. I was there, and there alone, just breathing in the cloud of creamy vanilla that rose up around me. The southern window over the stove was filled with winter sun, angling off the glass in a such a way that it fell on half of the saucepan, and made the whorls of milk seem lit from within.

I hypnotized myself into that little pool for the time it took to watch it come to a boil. The watched pot does indeed boil, I thought to myself as I stirred. Leaning on one elbow, I just let myself just give into the whole bliss of doing one thing at a time.

At some point, the milk boiled, and I went into motion to finish it. A stir of vanilla and orange extracts, a quick pour into ramekins, and it was done.

A few hours after dinner, I unveiled the little pots for my family. Ada loved it, which I took as high praise from someone that regularly proclaims "I hate cow milk." My husband and I also agreed it was worth making many more times again, and vied for Esme's abandoned ramekin. (Esme was not a fan--but I'm discounting that, as she is not a fan of most food besides chocolate.)

Top chef or not, I made this version of panna cotta well enough that it is going on my own go-to recipe list because it hit my imagined ideal balance between gelatin and pudding. The cream was neither tough nor runny, but loosely gathered to consistency slightly thinner than a yogurt. It held its shape if you tipped the cup upside down onto the plate and served it that way, but Ada and I both relished scooping it from the little bowls ourselves.

That fragile texture was even better because of the subtle flavor. The orange had cooked off a lot, and what was left was like a whisper. It was hard to place whether it was orange or vanilla I was tasting, and I loved that.

What I liked most was that the whole dessert seemed like a metaphor for the process of making it. How simple it is to imagine taking a few moments to "just be." And how hard it is to do. There's not much to those moments--some sunlight, some stirring--but the subtle flavor of being concentrated on something is something I savor when I give it a chance. And the big thing: it's fragile, it's delicate--like moments themselves. A little something to remind myself...

Here's the recipe I adapted, using a few slightly lighter substitutions from a traditional version:

1 cup 2% milk
3 cups half and half
2/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (like Knox)
1 teaspoon orange extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch of salt

Butter 6-8 ramekins and set aside on a tray. Set aside 1/4 cup milk in a small bowl, and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Let it sit, with the gelatin floating on top, for 5 minutes.

Mix the rest of the milk and half and half together with the sugar in a large saucepan. Bring it just to a boil, then take 1/2 cup of the hot mixture and add it back into the bowl with the gelatin and milk. Whisk it until it's dissolved, then pour it all back into the saucepan. Stir it all together, add the vanilla, orange and salt.
If you want, you can run the whole mixture through a fine-meshed sieve. I skipped this step, and it turned out fine.
After you strain it, or if you choose not to, divide the mixture evenly among the ramekins. Put them into the fridge for at least 5 hours, or better yet, overnight.
When you're ready to serve them, either leave them in the little bowls or turn them upside down onto little plates. If you do plate them, it sometimes helps to run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen them first. Don't set them into hot water to loosen them--they are too fragile.

That's the basic how-to of it. If you do make it, tell me about how yours turned out. And if you got to sneak a quiet moment for yourself in the process.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Grateful for what might not have been

It's a time of reflection and thanksgiving, and I remind myself again: it might have been otherwise. I wrote this poem at a time when I was almost consumed with longing and anxiety. Among my desires then: to have a child, to transcend my own childhood and be a grownup, to find some way into what I dreamed my life could be.

We meet between the glass of frames
And photo paper
And the thirty years
That separate us.

And mostly, you seem
Blue eyes looking out
from plans and details
and preoccupations with, premonitions of
long and good
days to come.

In your winter coat and muckluks, you are
bright with snow light
on your cheeks and in your eyes.
And I--
I am there, too.
on my sled,
small and red, veloured and fat-fisted,
not yet a miniature you,
not yet aware of the camera
or the spring that follows.

There is a chemistry of shadow and light
on certain nights
when the fan above my bed starfishes
itself across the ceiling,
past the rattling cage of
minutia mind
to the rocky beach
of memory.

I stand on the shore
skipping thoughts along the flashing lake
singing in clean strokes across the water
until they sink
like obsidian into oil.

And here you are again,
but opaque to me
This time.
And it's clear to me that
those captured, auspicious moments
left a world of questions
of the frame.

What must you have thought,
worried over, as your own night-
beach tumbled into your room
and roared you awake with its waves?

I have learned that
if I touch the glass, or
ruffle through papers
or sing stones over water 30 years deep,
I can imagine you as
Another me.
And for a moment,
I can see the world outside the lens.

And as for the me that was then, well,
is lost at the bottom of the oily lake,
(for now)
for a tide.


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Monday, November 23, 2009

Purple and green

Spring this year hang on well into the summer, and, in a fitting symmetry, autumn is doing the same thing.

That translates to some really beautiful surprises in the garden, like the few handfuls of supersweet raspberries and strawberries.

And in wandering around the yard, I've discovered some gorgeous and unexpected color, especially purples and greens. Sometimes the purple is seems just a natural bleed out of the red of the summer color, as it does on the setum flowers. But look at the lamb's ear below, and it's hard to pinpoint the season: it seems almost springlike, the delicate blossoms just peeking out from the leaves like a glimpse of a petticoat.

The combination of green and purples resonates with me, maybe because it's got an interesting complexity--not all sweetness and light, but some beautiful shadow, too. I get an almost tactile feeling thinking about them---they just feel good to carry around together, don't you think?

In a nice coincidence, I've had purple and green on my mind lately. My cousin is getting married next year, and she is contemplating using all sorts of purples and green tones in her plans. What lovely ideas she has! She's started a blog called Bridalhood to document her inspirations--and it in turn inspired me.

So I grabbed my camera, and started looking more intently for purple and green--and found it everywhere this fall, in all kinds of interesting contrasts.

The lavender unfurled yet another crop of stems, too, which my husband brought in for me in sweet little vases yesterday. Smelling fresh lavender in the room in November is a little secret thrill.

The thyme flowers bloomed again, too, in tiny violet whispers on the wiry stems. I love the contrast of the glossy green leaves, the spiky stalks, and the almost orchid-shaped flowers which, individually, are tiny enough to fit onto the heads of pins.

Hydrangeas blend the purple and green so perfectly--not only in their blooms, but in their leaves.

I see these fanning out from the hydrangea stalks, and the word varigated swims into my thoughts and sticks there like a little tune.

In fact, I start noticing purple in all sorts of leaves in our yard:

These mates of our pachysandra (I forget their names) are normally a dark green, with cornflower blue flowers, but they've faded out to a fantastic shade of purple/brown.

The blueberry leaves with some raindrops are even more tenderly purple--maybe catching the color of the sky.

And as the sleepy rhododendrons go dormant--their leaves get dusky as over ripe plums. And it's surprisingly beautiful.

So with all this purple foliage and flowers, I felt inspired to make a flower of my own. Here is a paper hybrid of some sort which I fiddled with recently.

I enjoyed shaping the paper, incorporating different papers and inks. I found some old maps of my cousin's home state, and a few pages of interesting text to add to the petals. Finished with a few beads, some wire, and some ribbon--ta da.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Influenza Series, Part IV: The tricky part for me--making sense of risk

I started writing this series on influenza because I felt compelled to write about my fears--both the reasonable aspect of them, and the more extreme. My goal for each of these posts is not only to show some of the research I've done, but also to let you into the workings of my mind on this. The photos of clockwork gears that you see throughout are my attempt to represent that process.

I said at the outset of this post series that my worries about H1N1/09 are only amplified because of my own tendencies to crave control and fear illness. A fear of illness, is, of course, an ultimate expression of the need for control over chaos. I recognize all of this about myself. I'm constantly grappling with my judgement about risk, questioning whether my worries are based in logic or not.

In most areas of life, I know that from time to time I downplay real risks, as a way of minimizing my worries, and I know that, conversely, sometimes I overcorrect by being too cautious. Fortunately, what was once more of a constant obsession now only surfaces from time to time; when these worries do surface, they don't stay long.

However, in the spring of 2009, the advent of H1N1 brought my anxieties about health into clear, focused energy once more.

I remember I was in our kitchen, cleaning up the dishes from a Sunday morning pancake breakfast when I saw the first footage coming from Mexico City. The headline said something about influenza, and the reporter was wearing a white face mask. My own transformation was extraordinary. A fear that I had set aside years ago came roaring back like a wind in my head, and I abandoned the dishes to follow the story.

As the numbers of infected and seriously ill people in Mexico were reported, I grew more concerned. The new classification as "swine flu" made me think immediately of 1918. I told a few people about my worries for what may be coming down the pike, feeling like a Cassandra.

Meanwhile the world spun neatly on its axis. Spring blossomed in our yard as quietly and gently as every other year. The sky, to my relief, did not crash down. H1N1 continued in its elegant way to infect people all over the world, enough people, in fact, that the WHO declared it pandemic by early June.

For the most part, I kept sane about it. No, I didn't stop traveling, nor going to public places like theaters. But I did have that nagging feeling that this fall may bring a surprise with it.

Now we are well into the fall, and I feel the pull between the reasonable and the extreme each time I consider the "what to do" about the H1N1 situation.

What I'm doing:
I'm attempting to get the vaccine for us. Ada has had one dose, and needs a followup that may come by January. Esme and I have had no luck in locating one, though I check clinics a few times a week. My husband should get one at work, but--like everyone else's--his vaccinations have been delayed.

I'm also practically swimming in alcohol-based hand cleaners. The girls are pretty well trained on washing up after every trip outside, and before meals, and after visits, and on getting in the car...and so on. Ada tries to be conscientious about that stuff at school, as much as she can. And I have her change her clothes when she comes home from school.

When a whopping 20% of her school was out, we kept Ada home for over a week. After 10 days, it was my hope her first vaccine had at least kick started an immune response against H1N1. A leap of faith for me, but...

I beg off shaking hands, saying "Oh, I've got a cold." Inoffensive, I hope--effective? Who knows? But it make me feel like I'm at least doing something...

What I want to do (but don't):
If I think about it too much, I sort of want to hide in our house. I get nervous about going to a big public gathering, especially one where there are lots of other little kids who sneeze, and wipe, and do all that gross stuff kids do (hey, I know--my kids do it, too.) I want to huddle down in our own little nest and just wait it all out. I want to beg or bribe or get that vaccine right now, and cross my fingers and cast some special spell to keep the flu away from us.

You might have noticed that many sensible and rational people, given the same facts, have a less alarmist reaction about getting this year's flu, or getting sick in general. They trust that whatever happens won't be so bad, that either it's no big deal to start with, or, if it does get to be a problem, that someone will take care of it.

Both of these sensible reactions are based on trust, and as I examine my own fears, I realize I don't feel it. At least not in this capacity. My own concern about the influenza outbreak this year is based on fact, yes--but it is amplified 100 times by my own insecurities.

As I've brooded, I've also tried to see my own process of worrying in an objective way. What is setting me off, I've wondered? I've wondered this especially as I find myself watching a newscast and replying back to the television, retorting something a reporter said about influenza. Why am I acting like this? This is not where I want my energy to go--into stridently arguing with a reporter on tv. Or reading every little thing I can about H1N1. When I step back far enough from myself, I can see that what Kirie is doing is called obsessing.

It's hard to admit that. It's hard to say that what I perceive as a real threat might not be as real to someone else. It makes the ground under me feel shaky. But the fact is there: my obsessions might be based on fact to start with, but they spiral way out of reach of normal at some point. And they tend to be related to my own need to control my environment, to create an illusion of impenetrable safety. On so many levels, I crave predictability, because it solidifies that illusion, like a playback loop whispering: all is well; you are safe. all is well; you are safe.

I've said that this year's H1N1 influenza scenario hits all my panic buttons. Essentially, for me it created two perfect storms. One of those storms is, certainly, the reality that this is a pandemic. The other storm is clearly in my mind--the storm of unpredictability and distrust.

The first issue for me is the unpredictability. The virus is unpredictable, and easily spread, even by people who seem well (because it is contagious even a day before symptoms appear). What appears to be one thing: "just flu" or "don't worry, I don't have it!" might be something else entirely. Of course, the flipsides to these (the ones that slip my mind too often) are a) most people who get sick with flu WILL NOT find themselves at death's door, and b)most people who are walking around town are not in a contagious state of influenza.

The second issue for me is the trust. Basically, I don't trust people in general to take this flu seriously. I really don't trust people to wash their hands, to cough in their sleeves. I don't trust that there will be adequate vaccinations for people who want them *before* the virus peaks. I don't really trust that a cold is just a cold at this point. If I hear someone is coughing, I'm assuming it's flu. I don't trust the media to give a clear portrayal of what flu is, or isn't. I don't trust the government to really stay on top of tracking the changes of the virus, to put funding toward a new method of making the vaccine. I don't trust people to believe me. (Ah, the irony!)

I don't trust, I don't trust. I hear these all strung along in my head as I write this and I feel another feeling echoing it: I feel lonely. That Cassandra-like sensation of being disbelieved is, at its heart, isolating. And overwhelming. Feeling isolated and overwhelmed are cues for me that my worries are not completely related to the influenza pandemic alone. Really, my worries are rooted in my past.

A little headshrinking: My childhood was relatively chaotic--my parents, though they loved me, were somewhat absentee. The day-to-day of my life was far from predictable, people's emotions were volatile--my own, my brother's, my parents'. My own physical environment felt out of my control, and very different from that of my peers. I often felt different and alone, and misunderstood by most people. I could not, if pressed, have imagined what my future would look like. I didn't really trust that I would have a real adulthood--because I couldn't imagine what that could be.

Of course, my adulthood did come to be. Sometime in my early 20s I discovered that I could try to shape my own existence a little. And in my grown-up life, I have predictability in abundance. Calm rules the day--literally, it leads the list of our family rules, which we have written out. Sure, there is the messiness of life with little kids, but it is joyful, and welcomed. Trust is the keystone between my husband and me, between my kids and me. I often catch myself saying to them, "You're doing great. You can do that. I trust you." And I do trust them. I have, as an adult, become faithful in a religious sense, and I trust God, too.

So--here is the contradiction, right: With all this goodness, and all this solid trust and predictability in my life, why worry? Why indeed? Because as much good and beauty as I see, I also get glimpses into the underbelly of life, too, and it unsettles me, deeply. There is room for both, I know. A need for both, in fact. I am practicing holding both the beautiful and the dreadful in my mind at once, and letting it be.

It was not my hope in writing this series to spin up fears, but rather to show how the genesis of my own worries about influenza. I also hoped that writing through my own thought process would help bring some clarity to me about why I have become obsessed. If you have gotten this far into my posts, you must see that, as a threat, influenza sits neatly someplace between something very scary and something to be brushed off as inconsequential. When you consider it, it's best to recognize both extremes as unreasonable, and try, as I am, to find some middle way.

Yes, H1N1 is frightening because it does have a potential to become a terrible flu--one that resembles 1918. Actually, that potential is in every influenza. Given those facts, any objective person would admit that flu shouldn't be taken lightly.

But of course, the potential is there for this to NOT become a deadly flu. And the numbers indicate--in fact, they indicated this in 1918 as well--that the vast majority of people who get influenza recover. Given those facts, any objective person would admit that hiding from the world doesn't actually mitigate the risk--the minimal risk.

The scary potential and the benign potential exist simultaneously, all the time, in all actions. Just writing about that uncertainty makes me catch my breath. I refocus, I breathe, I vow to accept that calmly. I have to push myself to remember these things, but I do. I do push past them and go out into the world, send Ada back to school, take Esme to swimming class, make my art, have playdates, Halloween parties, and see my friends and neighbors. To meet me, you would never guess at the contradictions wrestling each other in my mind, but they are there. And someday, I hope, to accept them without anxiety.

If you are interested in catching up with the rest of the series:

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Part III on Influenza: What it is not. An anti-definition

It is the negative definition of flu that concerns me.

At its core, influenza is not a simple disease. From an evolutionary standpoint, it's pretty damn elegant and efficient. And complex.

There is a lot that is understood about influenza and its method of evolving, infecting, and persisting. But a huge part remains unknown. For instance, scientists have discovered the "how" of influenza infection, but they are still working toward understanding what actually happens to the human system when influenza infects it.

This surprises me. When I first learned this, I was amazed that that science hadn't answered this long ago. But there are countless mysteries that remain about the human immune system, its response, and the exact process of many diseases.

A particular mystery of flu is why certain cases of influenza have such horrible systemic complications. These complications, usually involving lungs and circulation, can arise rapidly from flu. These are the most troubling, and the most fatal. There is a point of no return when a flu turns aggressive, and the mystery is often this: it is impossible for a doctor to determine at the beginning whether a specific case will involve these complications or not. This is true even with seasonal flu, but predicting outcomes is even more difficult with a novel influenza.

Before you stop reading and accuse me of being alarmist, let me clarify that in terms of percentages, there is still certainly every reason for to most cases of influenza infection to resolve without any serious complications for the patient. Most people who get flu--seasonal or even pandemic flu--recover without a problem.

The numbers are more complicated than they seem, though: To talk about the scenarios of infectious disease is to talk about variables. The outcome of each case is based a whole set of variables, some of which are unknowable. In a regular season of influenza, some of these variables are better understood. For example, a person with a weaker immune system (think of an elderly or immunocompromised person) will tend to be more at risk for a severe case.

With a novel influenza, the scenario is sufficiently different. There are several new considerations, each which influences the potential for poor outcomes:

First, with a novel influenza, the number of people who get sick is much larger than it is in a regular year with "seasonal" flu. This year, some projections from the CDC estimate that up to 60% of the population in the US will be infected with the virus. This is vastly different from the estimated number of people who get flu in a regular season, which caps at around 20%. More people getting sick means more potential outcomes. That's the first variable.

The second consideration regards who is getting infected. A novel influenza affects entirely new groups of people, people who usually aren't as vulnerable to infection in general. 2009's H1N1 is hitting young adults and healthy children pretty hard. The elderly, who are usually the most vulnerable, are not getting this flu in the same numbers as the younger people in our population. There is some speculation that some older people may have been exposed to some element of the older genetic material of this year's H1N1, and that is making them slightly less likely to get infected. With that said, though, when the elderly do get it, they are quite sick--and they one of the larger groups hospitalized for complications related to flu this year.

A particular variable that concerns me regards the elusive nature of flu as a virus. Consider these points:
  • Flu is a common illness, but--surprisingly--it's often an unknown quantity. It's not always easily diagnosed at the bedside, as there are a whole host of "influenza-like" viruses. The symptoms of flu can vary widely from person to person, from something that resembles a cold, to something closer to pneumonia. In particular, this flu is presenting with *no* fever in some people. This, again, makes it trickier to diagnose. Even a test for that's done at a doctor's office is not 100% reliable for determining if the patient has flu.
  • There are several types of rapid tests used in clinics, but they all operate in mainly the same way: they detect influenza viral nucleoprotein antigen. To put it simply, the rapid tests search the sample for elements of protein from the influenza protein. What these tests can't do is determine specifically which subtype of flu a patient has. Unfortunately, samples vary, and not everyone who gets these rapid tests gets an accurate result. The CDC advises clinicians that they should not rule out flu based on this test because there is a possibility of a false negative (the test says no flu, but you actually do have it). And again, there are false positives, as well. The tests that do the actual subtyping of flu are the ones done by the CDC and by state health departments, and these are accurate, but expensive, and time consuming.
  • Flu is constantly using several mechanisms to adapt itself. Antigenic drift is happening all the time with flu. The flu circulating now will not be the flu that circulates next year, or perhaps even at the end of this flu season, in the spring. That constant change just adds to the uncertainty.

All of this--these variables, this shifting, these spaces in understanding--it all indicates flu is nothing if not more complex than it seems.

Which brings me to the next definition of what influenza is not: It's not "just flu." Though it may be a common ailment, it shouldn't be taken casually. It teeters on that edge of dangerous, even in years of regular old seasonal flu. A novel influenza, such as this year's H1N1, falls off that edge into dangerous territory more often.

Because it is a new virus, with genetic components from avian, swine, and human influenza, this year's H1N1 seems to have triggered a very, very robust immune response in some people, especially healthy young people. Pregnant women also have a huge immune response. Unfortunately, there is a limit to what good that robustness can do. There is some speculation that, at some point, the immune response can actually overwhelm to the body, creating what is called a cytokine storm. Think of it as too much of a good thing. One theory about the cytokine storm is that it creates a sort of "feedback loop" among the antibody response, and that this contributes to the collapse of the respiratory and circulatory system.
There is a lot of work being done on this topic right now, and here is an excellent explanation of what a cytokine storm is, and some great discussion of the topic in general, if you are interested. While the jury is out on the exact mechanism of the cytokine storm and how to mitigate it, it certainly seems to be present in the worst cases of influenza infection. Whether the cytokine storm is a cause of death, or a result of the infection itself--this remains unknown. At this time, cytokine storm remains one of the mysteries about influenza infections, but once understood, this knowledge might make a huge difference in changing the outcome of severe cases.

In 1918, the pandemic was caused by a novel H1N1 influenza. The numbers of people affected with serious or fatal cases was (fortunately for us) much higher than what we are seeing with the H1N1 circulating this year. But there are certainly similarities in the populations who seem to be having the most severe cases. Pregnant women and young adults suffered disproportionate numbers of complicated cases in 1918. And this year, pregnant women and young adults seem particularly vulnerable to influenza infection, and more likely to suffer complications once ill. With all that is unknown about influenza, this much seems clear: this year's novel influenza is more dangerous to more people than a seasonal flu.

And that's why my alarm bell has started ringing...

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Part II on Influenza: a little primer to add to the barrage of information you've already gotten

Part II: Yet another primer on influenza

I know everyone is inundated with information about influenza these days. Still, a little about the basics makes sense in the context of my post, so here goes.

I've seen quite a few gaps in the explanation offered on the evening news, and I'm going to make an effort to fill some of those in. In the process, I hope to perhaps debunk a few of the myths that are circulating about what flu is and what it isn't. Bear with me, or skip ahead to part three, if you like. You may, with good reason, question my medical background and authority to write these definitions. No, I am not a doctor. But I am a great researcher, and what I have compiled here is based on that:

What influenza is:
A super-simple way to think of influenza is as a virus with an outer "shell." The shell is studded with two distinct glycoproteins, one which is sort of long and spiky, and one which is sort of squat and mushroom-shaped. Long and spiky is called hemagglutinin, or "H" for short. Shorty mushroom-shape is an enzyme (also a protein) called neuraminidase, or "N."
When a specific influenza is categorized, it is typed according to the proteins present on its shell. As of this writing, there are at least 16 variations of the "H" protein, and nine of the "N" enzyme. When you see "H1N1," you are seeing a name that refers to the types of surface structures on that specific strain of influenza.

Influenza is also categorized into types A, B, and C. These classifications, which dates back to the 1930s, offer a basic means of determining a variety of influenza, but they are quite general. The H1N1 circulating in 2009 is Influenza A.

When a type of flu is called "novel," as this year's H1N1 happens to be, it refers to a "new" strain of flu, essentially a combination of genetic material that hasn't been circulated before in a human population. The bits of genetic code in the novel flu aren't immediately recognized by most human immune systems. And all of this translates to more people becoming infected. People who study pandemics are especially interested in novel influenza.

How it is transmitted:
You know the basics about this: Tiny airborne particles from those already infected will expose you to the virus. You get these from breathing them in (from someone's cough or sneeze--ick!), or from touching a surface on which these little guys have been camping out. (By the way, they can wait patiently for a host for anything from a minute up to 48 hours, depending on the surface and the environment.) Once it gets into you (through your mucus membranes like eyes, mouth, nose), it basically turns you into a flu factory. The mechanism of how flu infects its hosts and replicates itself (humans and animals) is fascinating and frighteningly efficient. For a great example of a video that depicts it, check out this piece by Harvard's Medical school.

How it changes:
Influenza is a constant invader to humans because it's highly adaptive. First, the proteins on the surface change pretty frequently. Each change makes a slightly new virus, one that is newly unrecognizable to the human immune system. This is why the seasonal flu from last year is always different from the seasonal flu the year before, and so on. In an attempt to help create a wide range of antibodies for those vaccinated, each year's vaccine actually includes bits from several strains circulating the year before.
Influenza has yet another trick: when it replicates its RNA, the virus can exchange bits of genetic material with other influenza variants, even variants that infect primarily animals. This is why some strains of influenza have genetic material from avian or swine flu, or both. This year's version of H1N1 actually has all three.

What actually happens when a person gets infected with seasonal flu:
You know how this one goes, too. The symptoms of flu are generally related to the human immune system trying to expel the virus. Generally, after a 1-4 day incubation period, influenza has an extremely quick onset, that hits a person like a ton of bricks. Common symptoms are the headache, body aches, fever, chills, shaking, cough, sore throat, and weakness. If it's flu, you are flat-out sick in bed for at least 2 or 3 days, and more likely 5-7. Basically, it sucks. It's not uncommon for a cough to hang around after flu for up to 5 weeks, and post viral weakness can linger, too, for several weeks, especially in adults.

And for novel H1N1? What happens?
Well, keep in mind first that H1N1 is an influenza. The symptoms are similar. But because it is an influenza, it also has a range of symptoms and severity. I think it's worth noting that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has stated that a fever is not always present with this flu. The cough seems to be universal, as do the aches, fatigue, and sore throat. The incubation time is similar to a seasonal flu (1-4 days), and the recovery time is similar as well, but a person is contagious for at least one day after the symptoms disappear and--more problematic--a full day before the symptoms begin. Additionally, there is some speculation that the virus continues to be contagious several days after symptoms have abated, especially in children. The symptoms that can linger for weeks include a generalized weakness and a cough.

That is the very basic outline of what flu is. But my concern about influenza, and this particular strain, has more to do with what flu is not, than what it is. And that is the subject of Part III.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

In-flu-enza: A post in several parts

A multi-part post in which I alternately stand on my soapbox and step down to muse a bit.

There was a little bird
Her name was Enza.

They opened up the window,
and in-flew-Enza.
--American jump-roping song popular in 1918-1919
PART I: Flu on my mind.

I've been debating for months whether to add my voice to the cacophonous bluster about flu that fills our media these days. I'm writing about it here because the whole pandemic influenza thing is not a new worry for me. I've been wary of it for many years, probably because it hits all my sorespots of worry and illness and control. I'll get more into that in the third part of this post series. For now, hang on for a bit while I hop up onto my lecture/soapbox and explain a few of my thoughts on it.

If you know me, you might well know that I have been, at times in my life, a fantastic worrier. But I'm also pretty damn willful, and I've been willing myself to let go of that worrying tendency. Over the past five years, I'd say it's actually starting to work.

Sometime in my anxiety-ridden twenties, I discovered completely by accident that I loved reading about history. And it brought an added benefit: visiting and studying the past was soothing, comforting. I am nostalgic at heart, and a sucker for a story--it's amazing it took me until my twenties to cultivate an interest in history. As I read more, I found myself not only drawn into the stories, but also calmed by the greater fact of history: the fact that life goes on.

Of course, looking to the past presents other problems. History is unconcerned with neat endings or safe outcomes. The past is, in its essence, a place peopled with figures who, right or wrong, with dignity or with disgrace, lived--and died. To embrace history is to make the admission that we, too, recede into the past; our lives will become simply remnants of stories, bits of ephemera that fade away.

Did I say earlier that I had willed myself away from worrying? That history soothes? Because that last paragraph is nothing if not melancholy. But as I consider history, I find a strange comfort in the juxtaposition it presents. Thinking about the past offers that rare chance to hold in the mind, simultaneously, the ideas of both mortality and hope.

The events of the 1918 influenza pandemic distilled these feelings for me, when I stumbled onto it. As I learned more about it, I had the feeling of discovery, as though I had unearthed some weird secret of the recent past. Of course, it's getting its fair share of play right now, but for decades, it was a largely forgotten story.

My interest in what happened in 1918 fostered a curiosity about influenza in general. And what I hope to do with this next posts is to share some of my thoughts and attempt to make some sense out of pandemic flu since I started thinking about it years ago.

Pandemics are nothing new. And--this part is important--pandemic does not necessarily mean deadly. Pandemic just means a disease significantly "spread worldwide." Simply because a virus has a high infection doesn't always necessarily mean that it's deadly for many people.
But influenza is a tricky virus, and it *can* be deadly. It's that unknown element that makes it frightening.
The past 900 years of European history is peppered with accounts of entire countries or continents being besieged with deadly respiratory disease. We would certainly consider these pandemics today. Many of these aren't well documented, but the descriptions that do exist bear a striking resemblance to what we know as novel influenza. Of course, the most well-documented pandemic in history is the one of 1918, which killed upwards of 50 million people worldwide. As a comparison point, consider this: 675,000 Americans died as a result of the 1918 influenza, more than twice the number of Americans who died fighting during World War I.

When I first encountered them, these figures stunned me. I mean, come on. Flu. Everyone gets flu once in a while, right? A sore throat, a fever, a few days of rest---and it's gone. Flu is no big deal, right? I was incredulous that the flu actually killed so many otherwise young and healthy people. My initial, childish reaction to these accounts came from fear and ignorance: I scoffed at the limits of medicine at the time. What a long way we've come since then, I reassured myself. Nothing like that could happen today.

Still, my curiosity had been piqued, and I read anything I could about 1918. And then anything I could about influenza in general.

The picture that started to form in my mind was less ill-informed, and more frightening. The pandemic of 1918 was a perfect storm of circumstance, and it was not unlike what is happening now with the 2009 H1N1.

I want to be clear: I'm not implying that history is repeating itself. The H1N1 virus of 2009, while similar in makeup to the virus of 1918 , is not the same virus, and the scenario is obviously different. I do not believe that the strain of influenza (Novel H1N1/2009) circulating at this point in time will kill 6% of our population. I do not believe we are seeing the beginnings of story to rival The Stand, or the bible (how strange to see those in a sentence together). Still, some things happening now with the current strain of H1N1 give me pause. And my alarm bell, though admittedly prone to go off, has started ringing.

And to skip to the reason on why I, in particular, am concerned:

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween Redux 2009

It's funny how I can spend over 4 weeks sewing a costume that gets worn for fewer than two hours. And stranger still--I still think it's worth it. For the details of the whole sewing process, see here. Or here, for the planning part.

Ada loved her costume! She swished and flowed and floated around the house with a few friends who came for a Halloween lunch of macaBoni and cheese, and slimeade.
After a couple hours of "swimming" around with the tomato, the kitten, and Esme (who wouldn't dress up for lunch), Ada and her friends decided to become kids again, and we put the costumes away for the afternoon.

Esme enjoyed dressing up, too. Though from the photo below, it's hard to guess! She was itching to just get out and march through the neighborhood. Esme's real love was the candy, I have to admit. We are in the midst of bargaining now to limit how much she eats, and I have designated tomorrow as the official toss-out-the-candy day. (I will probably stash away a couple of little chocolates for them as treats, but don't tell!)

Aside from their playdate with friends, the best part of Halloween was handing out the candy. They loved to see all the other kids and Esme, to my delight, even gave away some of the candy she'd received. All in all, it was a frightfully good Halloween.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mermaid costume endnotes

Mermaid, mermaid, blah, blah blah. Anyone who's talked to me in the past month has had their fill of hearing about sewing this costume. Still endnotes are productive for future projects, and for anyone interested in sewing something similar--maybe I can save you the time of reinventing the wheel.

So, here are a some notes on the costume making, for those of you who are interested in such things...

A few lessons learned:
  • Ada's scaly blue tail was a perfect fit, but because I sewed a blue sequin border where the blue tail meets the fin, we lost some of the stretchiness of the blue scaly fabric there. As a result, Ada had a bit of a challenge walking.

  • I made the cape with the idea that it was going to be cold, and, for the first time in decades, it wasn't. The evening temperature was around 68 degrees! Fortunately, the cape is something that will work for magician play, or fancy dress, and it's reversible. I'm hoping she gets more use out of it.
  • As I was attaching the bodice to the scaly tail, I realized they didn't match: the bodice was too wide, and the tail was too narrow. After some reading, I realized I could probably make a few darts in the bodice to decrease the waistline. I had no idea how to do this, so--more reading. After some fiddling around with samples, and lots of ripped stitches, I got four darts into the waist, and--big grin here!--it worked.

  • The biggest time-eater was sewing a lot of this by hand, from attaching all the sequin tape to putting the layers of the bodice and tail together. My hand sewing is atrocious, but maybe it got a little better with the can only hope.
  • The fin was tough to fit onto the scaly tail--it flattened out at first, so I sewed a little triangular piece to each side to make it more circular (essentially I made two gusset-like pieces, I think), and then suddenly it had dimension.
  • I did decorate an old pair of shoes for the costume, too. I used pale pink sequined tape, glitter, and some little shells. But because I glued all of this onto the shoe--they were too stiff! Ada shuffled around a bit and admired them, and then we decided to just keep them as a decoration.

My favorite parts of the costume:
I really love the entire cape. It's hangs well because it's got some weight to it. I used a heavier silk lining for the dark blue, and then I used batting between the layers to add warmth and heft. And I was pleased with how the ruffled collar came out. It was my first stabilized collar, and yay! It worked. My favorite part of the cape, though, are the plackets on the cape armholes. I taught myself how to make these, so I don't know if they are technically right, but I think they look really nice, and they make the cape look that much more elegant on Ada.

I lined the entire costume with a green stretch satin, and I loved the color so much I wanted to pull it through other elements. I made the piping for the arms and neckline with some of the sparkle organza wrapped around the green satin. I really liked this, and I'm going to find a way to use this fabric again.

I also used the satin to make a little tape to ruffle out around the edge of the bodice. It's tiny next to the piped border, but I think it's a sweet little detail.

The tail is really fun, and was neat to watch come together. I used four colors of an sparkly organza called "fairy dust." To make the tail, I used an interfacing base, and then added layers of different colors. Then, for the flowing part of the tail, I used unfaced bits of organza just cut in wispy shapes. We lost a few of these on the trek through the neighborhood, but that's okay--it still looked fishy!

If you are sewing your own mermaid costume, I would be happy to offer any advice--drop me an email!

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mermaid costume in process

If you've spoken to me in the past two or three weeks, you know my studio is awash in mermaid-like fabric.

Here are some peeks at what is happening at the sewing machine:

This is a partial view of the tailpiece. Stretchy blue, and a neat compromise between lycra and vinyl, it's perforated with little half moon shapes, which seem to perfectly suggest scales.

I attached the tail to the bodice with a little piped border. In the process, I learned how to make darts to pull in the bodice fabric. Everything has a little stretch, so the end result should be snug on Ada, but only to the point of fitting well.

This sparkled organza is flowing and crisp at the same time, and it makes for a perfect tailfin. I'm putting together pieces of blue, green, white, and pink, and layering them. The base piece has interfacing sew in as a base so it is pretty stiff, but the other pieces are loose. My goal is to attach them to the tail in a a V-shape, then add a border along the top to neaten the edge. This element has taken longer than I anticipated!

The part of the costume Ada loves best is the sequined bodice. I am sewing sequined trim tape to the top in strips. Talk about taking longer than I anticipated! I have been up late many nights with a needle and thread as I catch individual sequins and anchor them to the satin. To save some time, (and to be sensible about who is wearing this thing), I decided only to sequin the front of the bodice. The back will remain plain satin, which will be much easier for Ada to sit in.

There are other details I'm working on: shoes, a shell necklace, and a cape (it's cold on Halloween night!). I'm hoping I finish them.

And all of this because....well, because it's fun to try to learn to do new things, and Ada's face when she sees each step completed is a fantastic motivator. She appreciates all the things I make, and she is learning how to do these sorts of things herself, too.

I'll post the final results this weekend!

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Because the mind of a toddler is ever-changing,

a wise grownup should not commit to a handmade Halloween costume.

Halloween is not a huge holiday around here--that is to say, we don't go all in for the decking out the house all things spooky, and most years, my husband and I don't dress up.

But the entire month of October is filled with costume-making activities for Ada and Esme. We actually sometimes start the sketching and fabric hunt as early as August. Ada and I love making designs and poring over fabric colors and textures. And by October 1st, the studio is noisy with the whirr of the sewing machine, and my under-the-breath mutterings as I stick myself with pins or rip misjudged stitches.

I rip a lot of stitches. As soon as the fabric gets into my hands, the costume becomes less about Halloween fun, and more about how I can learn from the sewing at hand. I get obsessive about trying new techniques, experimenting with lining, or seam finishes, or little embellishments. I have to stop from time to time to remind myself that this is just a costume, and that Ada will love it regardless.

I admit I almost feel guilty about how much I like the whole process. If one of my friends coos over "what a good mommy I am" for making the costume, I'm quick to correct her that this is really not the altruistic act she thinks it is. Once that fabric hits the sewing table, the costume really becomes selfishly and deliciously mine. As obsessions go, it's pretty tame. But it's a bit magical just the same, I think--the sensation of the fabric changing form is wonderous. With some cutting and stitches, it goes from a flat, smooth square into something with dimension. And if I am lucky, it somewhat resembles what Ada requested in the first place. Win for her, win for me.

This year, Ada has decided to be a mermaid, and true to form, I have gone overboard (very punny). I will post more about it in the next few days after I've taken some decent photos of it in process, but for the meantime, think: Sparkles! Turquoise! Texture! Oh, and a lot of pin sticks for me.

As for Esme, well--she is a toddler, and her interests change from day to day, or sometimes from hour to hour. I had the ambition to make her a fancy, fringy, leather-skirt-and-vest kind of costume costume when she first declared she would be a cowgirl, but five costume ideas later, I gave up on sewing anything for her this year. That same day, we stumbled over this Dalmatian costume at Old Navy, and we decided it was perfect. Esme has worn it for many days now already. My only fear is that she will decide that, come Halloween, the Dalmatian costume is too "everyday." Ah well.

Ada's costume is draped over the back of my sewing chair, singing its siren song.
Must. Finish. Soon. Ada reminded me at breakfast that there are only three days left before she needs it. Wish me luck!

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Balancing Act and a Time Audit

Like every other woman I know, I spend altogether too much time trying to "achieve balance." The fact that that tired phrase includes the word "achieve" is telling. It's held up as a goal for the modern woman; being balanced is an achievement, balance is a treasure we "find."

I've been thinking of this a lot lately. I go through projects in fits and starts, and sometimes I berate myself for not being able to do all the things I want to do in a day. But recently I started reevaluating my standards for completing things. Last month, I caught myself ending a string of days with a sigh of resignation that I "didn't do enough." That was a clear signal that something was indeed out of whack: my perspective.

I love the idea of having a balanced life, a picture perfect combination of rest and activity, of giving to others and cherishing myself, of order and chaos, of consumption and saving, of social activity and alone time.

And why wouldn't I love that idea? Consumer media feeds my desire of such a life with images of a sleek woman in a lotus pose, or a neatly put-together "mommy" type person vacuuming her home with the super-efficient Dyson, or whatever. I'm admittedly hungry for approval, and so a perfect patsy for advertisers who prey on that need. I buy into it, and chase after balance in my life.

The funny thing is that as much as my imagination would like to run with these images and flesh out the details of such a "balanced" creature, I cannot. I can picture pieces of that life, sure: the put-together Kirie, lithe, made-up, wrinkle-free. I imagine patient hours with my kids spent in spotless spaces of my kitchen, my studio. Nutritious dinners, which I have prepared, are eaten, without complaint, by our daughters, and evenings with my husband are quiet and long.

Nowhere in my imaginings are the real nitty-gritty of day-to-day. Into what spaces does the balanced woman squeeze the following?:
  • the endless washing and folding of laundry
  • the scrubbing of dishes
  • the tidying of toys and books and markers that creep under chairs and couches and everywhere else
  • the reading time--how one book turns to ten books, and afternoons are dreamed away with a curious toddler cuddled in a lap
  • the continual process of reorganizing spaces--drawers, cabinets, shelves
  • the packaging and mailing of gifts and letters
  • the coaxing of said toddler into naptime, or bedtime, or getting dressed time, etc.
  • the visits to friends' houses, the entertaining when a friend visits ours
  • the baking--for school, for friends, for our own cookie jar
  • the endless sweeping and vacuuming
  • the workout--and recovery!
  • the self-care time, from a simple shower, to a self-manicure, to keeping my eyebrows neat
  • the fixing of all things broken--from the leg of a Playmobil deer to the toilet paper holder that's come out of the drywall
  • the cleaning of spills, from milk to scat
  • the spontaneous walks or outings or explorations that lead us away from the house for untold hours
  • the late night "pop ups" from the kids, with worries about monsters, or excitement about caterpillars
  • the mommy-time reading--from books, to blogs, to the newspaper--that fills my mind as I move through the other tasks of the day
  • making any kind of art at all--from music to painting
  • the phone calls to and from friends
  • the slow and savored time spent gathering fruits and flowers from the garden
  • the whole chase of groceries, from shopping to putting things onto shelves
  • the minutes (or hours) that can be lost because you sat down, and were too exhausted to get up to finish any of the above...

What of these? The advertisers have left these out, the most pleasant, most repetitive, and most necessary parts of the day.

I give up. The logical part of me sees this list and recognizes there is absolutely no way I could complete all of this in the space of a day, or even in a week. I would be crazy to even attempt it. So no more berating myself for not doing it all.

My daily schedule is like a balloon, with finite space in it. Squeeze one end, and the excess air will have to go somewhere. If I take time to do one thing intensively, it will steal time from somewhere else in the schedule. It does not all fit into the small space I've been allowing. So obvious! But I'm only just now starting to recognize that.

Perhaps, over the course of a month, I do have some kind of equilibrium. Regardless, the majority of my tasks these days seems to focus on making order or the illusion of it. Instead of fighting it, I'm trying to accept it as part of life at this stage. As I get older, and our kids get older, I imagine that will shift slightly away from chasing after toys and spills, and into the very different focus that teenagers bring. I recognize that my mix of activities will always include some need to control chaos around me, as well as my need to create new things, whether it be a painting, or a quilt, a costume, or a song. These are endless chases of their own, each pleasurable and challenging in their own way.

With my revised view of balance, perhaps my goal instead should be to look at whether my life is balanced as a whole, as a long line of days that each offers opportunities to indulge in the repetitive or the generative. It seems to me to be a much more forgiving and reasonable perspective. Maybe, if I see it that way, I will start to see I've "achieved" the elusive balance already.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

The shifting nightscape of my insomnia

I sometimes have insomnia, the kind where you find yourself wide awake at 2 am, mind racing.
The river of thoughts that rushes through me at these hours used to be frightening. I would torture myself with a full spectrum of what-ifs, which spun my nerves more tightly with each round, until it was all I could do to lie flat on the mattress. During the first years of our marriage, my poor husband would sigh as I slid out of bed and fled toward the study. There, I would turn on a light and read or write, and wait for a feeling of "normal" to pull me back into my life.

This habit of getting up and doing something became an easy habit for me, and one that only made my insomnia worse. If I could grab a last hour or two of sleep before I showered for work, I felt like I had "slept." To my surprise, I managed; in fact, I thrived during the day. The light itself was a tonic, a revelation that everything was okay. And in the middle of the daylight I marveled at how clean and safe everything seemed. It felt impossible that the shadowy loneliness of my wee hours could coexist with the happy days I experienced. I look back at that time, and I know that I must have propelled myself through the world on sheer nervous energy.

The funny thing is, I never dreaded going to sleep. I loved our room, our home, our cozy life. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, and my dreams were mostly rich and sweet. It was the slow, dark hours I hated, while I worried myself into a frenzy, my mind buzzing at the low frequency of the traffic on the interstate outside our loft.

In college, years before I had my own sleepless nights, I shared a dorm room with a girl who had chronic insomnia. She was the first person I'd ever met who talked about it and accepted it as a part of her life. When I woke to use the bathroom at the end of the hall, the half-light from our window revealed Lisa in the bed across the room, her eyes wide open and fixed on some spot on the ceiling. Almost always, she would roll over on her bed to greet me in strangely chipper yet sotto voice, "Hi Kirie!" Amazingly, sometimes she would start to engage me in conversation, as though I had just returned to the room after a class.
Lisa was probably only 20 years old, but she was as sensible as a real grownup. She never complained, but instead just took her insomnia on her own terms. Her solution: the radio on her Walkman. During those post-midnight hours, she tuned her radio to AM talk radio hosts, and they lulled her off to sleep just before light each day.

Knowing what I know now, I probably would have made a point to waken just to talk to her. The hardest part of my own insomnia was the loneliness. The otherworldly feeling of the wee hours comes not from the darkness so much as the absence of other people. No wonder Lisa welcomed my waking so eagerly. How I would have loved to wake my husband to talk with me on those interminable nights in the loft!

My insomnia pursued me through several moves, the arrival of our oldest daughter, and some practice with meditation. But, by some stroke of grace, once I got into my mid-thirties, the river of thoughts started bringing fewer and fewer anxieties with it as it coursed through my 2am bedroom. The darkness started feeling less oppressive, the dusky forms of our dresser or the curtains less threatening.

I stopped retreating to a lighted room, and resolved to instead feel the night settle around me each time I woke at odd hours. And on many of those nights, something resembling a calm came to me. Sometimes, I would even find that I could get myself back to sleep. By some small miracle, more and more of my nights were spent sleeping. Insomnia has now become only a sometime companion for me, and for that I am grateful.

When the formula in my life is right, the river of thoughts resumes its path through my night room. But bobbing along with it now are ideas, plans, things to puzzle through. When I wake up at 2 am these days, I am not buzzing with what-ifs. I am dreaming of projects, I am mind-writing, I am hearing music in my head. A few weeks ago I even caught myself practicing the fingerings for a song I'm learning on the piano. It is still otherworldly at night, but now the world feels charged with possibility instead of dread.

When I was younger, waking to the knowledge that I was the only one conscious left me gasping. And far from comforting, my husband's rhythmic breathing made me only all the more aware of how far away he was when sleeping, as though he had receded from me and into his dreams. My panic was practically tangible, like a whispered, frantic mantra of "I'm alone! I'm alone! I'm alone!"

Something has shifted since then, certainly. And perhaps it's because I'm distracted by my burgeoning list of projects, but I no longer feel so lonely when I'm up with my thoughts. Or perhaps I feel more secure in my marriage; fifteen years with my soulmate has taught me something more about trust, and I no longer feel he has fled from me in his sleep. The house itself offers its companionship. Far from frightening, the house at night envelops me, welcomes me, and nurtures some excellent ideas for all the things I enjoy making.

There is still the silence, but it is laced with the sounds from the woods outside our window, the foghorn on the bay, the thrum of the cats as the sleep on the bed. When I do want for a facsimile of human interaction, I find I crave voices. Last year, I realized I could, like my old college roommate, listen to stories through headphones, and I started using my ipod during my night wakings.

Hearing the whisper of a storyteller is intoxicating. I've found that with these voices in my ears, I'm soothed to sleep, but at the same time, inspired by the stories themselves. I've been discovering an unexpected energy in the spoken word, an energy that carries over into my perceptions of the next day. And, most surprising, I have actually started relishing my sleepless hours as quiet opportunities to just listen and dream my waking dreams.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Repost: The sky was blue on September 12th, too...

Like so many other people this week, I found myself lost in thoughts of eight years ago, remembering. Indulge me as I take a detour from the tone of my normal postings, and reflect on where I was this week in 2001...

Do you remember how blue the sky was? All along the east coast, it was a stunningly clear day, bright and clean, and a welcome reprieve from the summer. A perfect fall day. Normal, everyday, happy. Until. Until the phone call from my husband that sent me to the television, and we saw the second plane hit.

You know the story from there. We all do. The phone lines were jammed; the news, stammered by reporters as stunned as we were, became an instant addiction. The world tilted for me as the pentagon was hit, then as the impossible happened--the towers fell. I was convinced then that more terrible things really could happen, and would keep happening. Anxiety, not a stranger to me on any day, was overwhelming that afternoon. The day was wrongly beautiful. The sky, eerily silent and empty of any planes, was sharp with blue and cloudless, yet the birds and crickets continued to sing, the sun continued blithely across the sky.
Lines from Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, kept popping into my mind:
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

The sky was perfectly clear on September 12th, too. And I was, admittedly, at a safe remove. I was near Washington DC at the time, but not in it. But "safe" was something I wouldn't feel for a long time. The low drone of fighter jets crossing the sky all night woke me for weeks, and comfort eluded me for much longer.

2974 people died in those attacks that day, and our world did indeed tilt off its comfortable axis. Peace to their souls and their families...

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Because I am learning to focus

I'm learning to focus on what I like to do, and (at least in terms of art/craft), I am going to start delegating the things I don't truly enjoy.

With some shame, I admit it: I don't really enjoy quilting. Well, to be more exact: it's the the quilting part of making a quilt that I don't like: you know, the part where you stitch the top, batting, and back, together. I love the feel of a finely quilted quilt, and I know lots of talented quilters, but I don't enjoy it enough to put in the time to do it well. There. I said it.

I do love making the quilt top. I seem to always come up with a plan for a quilt design, and I have many quilt tops in the works, but doing the actual quilting has been such a task that I've postponed finishing the pieces I've started.

This summer, in the middle of my frenzied organizing/cleaning/refreshing/repainting, I discovered a beautiful quilt I'd made for Ada with the many of the same fabrics from her baby quilt. Above is a photo of the baby quilt, which I did for her while I was waiting for her as a baby. During that waiting time, I had so much frenetic energy that I made dozens of projects for her room, including the twin-sized quilt I found in the armoire this summer. As I examined it again, I realize had made a good start on it, with putting the layers together, and beginning the quilting, but there was a lot of work left on it.

Ada found me with the newly-found and unfinished quilt, and looked at it with such longing. I wanted to finish it for her, but frankly, the idea of cramming it into my machine to try to quilt it left me feeling overwhelmed. Suddenly it came to me: There are people who do this sort of quilting professionally. What if I found someone to do this for me? And guess what?

Ada's quilt was finished by a lovely lady with a longarm machine and a talent for fixing my assembly boo-boos. Ada and I are both really pleased with it. Ada and I worked with Sharon to pick a design for the edges--Ada chose butterflies--and wow!

Now I'm ready to move on to piecing Esme's baby quilt, which has been on hold for, oh, about three years. My new friend Ms. Sharon will be doing the quilting part, and suddenly I feel the inspired energy to pick up that project right away. I think knowing I don't have to spin my wheels with the quilting has made me feel more free to enjoy the process of sewing the patchwork.

What's funny is that feeling okay with delegating is a huge deal for me. I'm a do-it-yourself kind of girl, and delegating runs counter to that. Or maybe not. Because--especially with artwork--if I can peel off a few things that I don't love or that take more time than reasonable--then I will have more time to do things with my husband and girls, and more time to make things and do things that really make my heart sing. With that in mind, I am going to embrace a little delegation so I can really enjoy the work in my hands as much as possible.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Message from a Cornet Case

In some of my favorite types of fantasy stories, a person is able to bend the constraints of time and space and communicate to their future or past self. I find this notion endlessly fascinating—what would I say to the Kirie of 20 years ago? What would she have to tell me? Would she look at the 40-year-old Kirie with skepticism, or admiration, or worse—shame? Just imagining the possibility to encounter my future or past self sets me aflutter with excitement. I hope that’s something I have in common with the Kirie of 1989. Enthusiasm seems to be a common thread in all the times of my life, and it’s my aim to buoy that feeling forever.

Over the past few months, I’ve revisited an old enthusiasm of mine—a love of music. As things happen, we recently got a piano, and both Ada and I immediately started lessons. Ah, wonderful thing, that piano! Ada and I literally debate about who will get the next turn to play, and by my best guess, is that at minimum, we are playing an hour a day, every day. Ada is playing with equal parts precision and passion, and it is a pleasure to listen to her play. Esme has given the music a try, too, but she is still a little small to play the keys. Her contribution is mostly singing with gusto, and dancing with abandon to our songs.

I have never formally played piano before, but I have been an avid admirer of those who can. When I was a teenager, I loved to sing and to act and (try) to dance, and I was often around amazingly talented peers who could do all three with skills beyond their years. One girl in particular was especially gifted not only with a hauntingly lovely voice, but an innate sense of music that allowed her to play and compose rich, beautiful songs that seemed to come from some special place that only she could access. Vickie was so talented that when she would perform or practice, I literally felt chills run down my back. I was in awe of her then, and it pleases me no end to think that she still is composing and singing today.

When I started lessons on the piano, some element of myself felt as though I had stepped back in time, to that space when self-made music was such a part of me. How much I had wished I could play piano so that a real song would come forth, something I could sing to, and carry in my head all day. As soon as I started working with our piano teacher, Ellen, I had the sense that that long-closed door had opened wide for me again.

Ellen understood immediately why I was looking to learn piano. Certainly, my interest has nothing to do with performing recitals or padding a resume or impressing anyone. Rather, it’s that I want to find another way to let some beauty into my life. Music is its own language, and while it’s been awhile since I’ve used it, I’ve been longing to return to it for years.

Ellen’s teaching approach has been to work with me to learn the basics of piano, but also to let me push ahead, to play with composing and improvisation and things a beginning student normally wouldn’t do. It is thrilling! At night I am dreaming of music, and in the day, my fingers are playing the notes on imaginary keyboards, somewhat obsessively. And it is such a pleasure. I’ve been working out very simplified versions of songs I love to sing, and I found out that I can play a few songs from basic beginning songbooks. It is so fun to sing and play with the girls—and this after only a month of lessons!

Ada, too, is learning the basics, as I said, with precision. But Ellen also has her feeling the passion that goes with writing music on her own. With Ellen’s help, Ada has written—with notes and time signatures!—small songs about flowers, and butterflies, and our cat. And in the process, Ada’s learning is progressing exponentially. She’s not only reading the words, playing the song, the rhythm, and singing—she is able to read the notes as well. I was bursting with pride when, after her third lesson, she was able to effortlessly identify each note on the treble clef scale by name. She is a quick study, and she is falling in love with the music, too. I couldn’t be more pleased.

And, as things so often do, the music has multiplied. We’ve been playing rhythm instruments like wood blocks, maracas, the triangle. And I’ve pulled out my old cornet, a two-toned beauty that I played for six years when I was a young girl. I surprised myself, when I could immediately play songs for the girls, and I was able to teach them how to “buzz” on the mouthpiece and get some nice blares out of the instrument. Imagine the sound of an elephant’s cry, and you’ve heard Esme’s playing. Not bad for a two year old.

It was with the cornet that the message arrived. On Sunday, as I opened my battered cornet case, I found the most amazing communiqué from my past self. On a 4 x 6 note card, scrawled in green ink, was a to-do-list that was so typical of me that it might have been written last week. But the date on the top of the card was Thursday, August 7, 1992.

In August 1992, I was on the very brink of a life change, but I didn’t know it. Those days full of routines marched me closer to a series of important days arriving only months later: The day when I would leave an abusive relationship, the day I would meet the man I would marry, the day I would graduate from college. And all those days flowed toward lovely today…but what was I to know of that future as I contemplated what needed doing on Thursday, the 7th of August, 1992?

On Sunday, August 23, 2009, I sat on the floor of my studio with my open cornet case and I mused about the oddities on the old list: 5 loads of laundry? And this before being married with children. And tanning? What was I trying to do to myself? Nylons?

Mostly I wondered why this list was there, nestled carefully in with the mouthpiece. I flipped the card over, and some childlike attempts at musical notation answered my question. It was a song—I had been writing down the notes of a song, clearly something I could play on my b-flat cornet.

So I picked up the cornet, and played with some surprising ease the song I’d tried to capture in late 1992. And as I did so, a bouncy, 22-year-old Kirie materialized along with the ending verse of Chet Baker’s “How Deep Is the Ocean.” --The verse? "And if I ever lost you/how much would I cry? How deep is the ocean/How high is the sky?"

Yes, that fits. Message received. I think about that Kirie who comes back to me with those ringing notes, and I smile to think about how intense I was! How dreamy! I loved that song then, and hearing it fresh from the bell of my horn, I love it still. And that younger Kirie, as clear as the ringing notes, tells me to play the music, to hold onto that childish dreaminess. If I could send a message back to her, it would be: Thank you for visiting me! Please know that I hear you, and thank goodness I remain as enthusiastic, dreamy, and intense as ever. Thanks for the memo, sweet girl. Hang in there—your dreams are going to come true, and some wonderful amazing things await you.

As for how to deliver that message—I leave that to playing the music and seeing where it takes me.

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