Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Birth of a Quilt (Afternoon Delight?)

I was feeling in more than a bit of a funk on Friday. I had been supposed to test for my brown belt in Myo Sim kendo Thursday night, but the test was postponed because of the ice storm we were supposed to get at the same time. The master instructor running the test drives from Bowie, MD to Charlottesville, VA for class and could have ended up driving home in the midst of falling slipperiness. As a result, they moved the test to this coming Thursday, giving the test candidates one more week of practice but, at the same time, one more week of nervous anticipation. As it turned out, the storm never hit here, so I found myself feeling majorly bummed on Friday. I hadn’t tested, and there was no snow on the ground in which to play in nor ice on the trees to lend itself to photographing. My husband had taken my car (an all-wheel-drive Honda Element) just in case slipperiness did transpire, so I couldn't even get out to play.

Creativity usually being a good way to put the "fun" back into "funk," I decided to give myself a creativity challenge. A bit before lunchtime, I pulled out the bag of scraps from the Shooting Star quilt described below and gave myself a two-part challenge. First, whatever I made had to be done before my husband got home to pick me up for the Friday evening kendo workout, which would be at about 5:30. Second, I could not do the “liberated” sort of piecing I prefer to do where the size of the pieces isn't necessarily relevant and there aren't necessarily corners that need to be matched. I had to start with squares or other regular shapes of specified sizes and work from there, matching corner points where necessary.

I started by pulling out pieces of fabric, pressing them, and cutting them into squares of various sizes. As I was doing this, it occurred to me that I really should have photographed the pile of scraps before I started. Alas, I had not. Oh well. Try to imagine a pile of red and black fabrics, with but one piece of beige fabric thrown in. I ended up with 2-inch squares, 2.5-inch squares, 3-inch squares, and so on up to a couple of 6-inch squares. I also left some of the strips of fabric left over from the borders and binding of the quilt as strips, figuring I would use them for borders here.

I started by putting some sets of four small squares together into a 2x2 arrangement called a four-patch block. I then alternated these with squares of the same size in a 3x3 nine-patch arrangement. I ended up with three such nine-patch blocks, and as well as one nine-patch of the same size that did not involve four-patches in it. This told me that the other blocks I made needed to end up being the same size, which was 9.5 inches square.

I kept pulling squares, coming up with various arrangements, adding borders on two or four sides where needed to make each block end up 9.5 inches square. I ended up with ten such blocks, but decided fairly quickly that I did not want to do a 2x5 arrangement of blocks because I wasn’t sure the border strips would be long enough. I also wasn’t thinking of this as a table runner sort of piece. I played around with a 3x3 arrangement on the table, “auditioning” various squares in various places. I finally decided which arrangement I liked best, sewed all the blocks together, and added two borders. Voila! A quilt. I obviously haven’t quilted it yet, but I will, hopefully one day soon. The name “Afternoon Delight” has suggested itself, although no recipient for the piece has yet come to my mind. I say this because I have only kept one of the many quilts I have made; the rest have been given away, albeit some to family members who reside in the same house.

And I did think to photograph the extra block, the extra pieces, and the scraps that were left. For scale, the block is 9.5 inches square, and the piece of red fabric is 6 or 6.5 inches square. The really small pieces in the upper left of the photograph ended up in the trash. The rest have been packaged to be used some other day in some other way, maybe even the next time I need to work my way out of what passes for a bad mood around here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Yesterday's Primary ... Thoughts from the Inside

I like to say I became an election official by drinking with the wrong people. During the summer of 2004, I was at a friend's party, drinking and talking with a group that included a man who had worked at my local polling place for as long as I’d been voting there. He said that he was “retiring” because his knees no longer allowed him to stand up all day, and somewhat jokingly suggested I take his place. Someone else said she would love to do it but, as a teacher, she didn’t get enough leave time to take a day off for something non-personal. After another glass of wine, I said what the heck, I’d give it a shot. I filed the application, did the training, and reported for duty on the morning of the presidential election.

As I was taking the oath of office that morning, it hit me like the proverbial brick that I was about to help run an election. Me. A mom. Just another person off the street. There I was, with a husband and wife who both worked for the federal government and several retired people (including another husband and wife), and we were about to put on an election. There wasn’t a government official from any level, a police officer, or anyone “real” in the room. Just regular people, some taking a day off from work, with the responsibility of ensuring that the election in our little precinct corner of the world was conducted properly. It was somewhat humbling.

Since then, I’ve worked every election we’ve had here. It’s exhausting—get up at 4:00 a.m., arrive at the precinct at 5:00 a.m., get everything ready to open the polls at 6:00 a.m., keep the polls open until 7:00 p.m. with only short breaks for snacks and responding to the call of nature, undo all the morning’s preparations of signs, etc., then prepare the official statement of results and other paperwork. Because the core of our team has been together now for four years, we close out pretty smoothly and are usually on our way home between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. We do get paid, but on an hourly basis it’s not what I’d want to earn on a regular basis, especially for 15-hour days. Every election, I spend the day before wondering why the heck I’m doing it again, when it totally kills one day and leaves me too tired to be very productive the next day. And then when I’m doing it, when I’m actually running a voting machine or recording a pollbook, it makes sense. Some people put their hearts into supporting a specific candidate. I guess I put my heart into supporting the electoral system.

Don’t take that comment to mean that I’m not active in terms of politics. I contribute to the campaigns of folks I support, and I wear “vote for” buttons and affix “vote for” bumperstickers to my car. But when I sign a statement of results or a zero tape (the tape that comes out when we turn our voting machines on, the one that indicates the totals at the start of the day were all zeros) as an election official, I’m signing in support of all the candidates, and the right of each of them to have all the votes cast in their favor recorded and counted.

Yesterday was the presidential primary in Virginia, another long election day made longer by the fact that since school was in session, our polling place was moved from an elementary school gymnasium to an elementary school “learning cottage.” This means we were in a double-wide trailer on school grounds, but at a distance from any amenities of the school building such as bathrooms. We were also down one official due to illness which meant that if any one person took a break or walked to the school building to use the bathroom, someone else was doing double-duty on the voting machines or the pollbooks.

As primaries go, it was a busy one. Before the polls open, we usually jokingly predict how many voters we will see during the day. Yesterday, I predicted 500, lower than someone else’s guess of 600 but above another person’s 300. As the second hand neared 7:00 last night (if you’re in line when the polls close at 7:00, you’re allowed to vote), the 500th, and last, voter walked up to the check-in table. Our 500 voters was way under the number we had when the ballot included an amendment to our state constitution that would ban gay marriage, but well above the 65 or so we had for a state primary election one June. We got lots of reading, knitting, and chatting done that day, with about five voters coming in per hour that we were open. With yesterday's 500 voters, we saw about 35 percent of the registered voters in our precinct, which was a higher turnout than was expected and also higher than the turnout at many other precincts in the county.

There were some surprises yesterday. We had more “first-time” voters than usual, teenagers voting for the first time. Seventeen-year-olds who will turn 18 before the general election can register to vote in the primary, and it was fun to see my own son and several of his classmates from elementary school come in to vote. It also seemed as if we had more African American voters than we usually do. The increased youth and African American vote was likely due to Barack Obama’s presence in the race, or at least to the combined presence of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Voters do not register by party affiliation in Virginia, so anyone can vote in the primary of either party, just not in both primaries. We had several people I know to be pretty die-hard Republicans (including one who displayed an Oliver North sign in his window when Oliver North and Chuck Robb competed for a Senate seat in 1994) vote in the Democratic primary. One, who came in near the end of the day, wondered aloud whether he should vote Republican or “screw Hillary.” He ended up voting in the Democratic primary. I wonder how much of Obama’s two-to-one victory over Clinton, at least in our precinct, was due to the “screw Hillary” factor. I also wonder if the Republican desire to “screw Hillary” results from looking to the past and the success of the (first?) Clinton administration or from looking to the future in terms of which Democratic candidate they think they have a better chance of beating and would rather run against.

There’s no word yet on whether we’ll have a state-level Democratic primary in June, so my next election official gig may not be until the November general election. I’m thinking it will be a good one, with turnout over 50 percent. Besides the presidential election, Virginia needs a new senator since John Warner is retiring. I know already that I’ll wonder the day before the election just why I’m working again, but the day of and the day after, I’ll know. When it comes right down to it, it’s pretty darn awesome to help run an election. Besides, the man who talked me into taking his place said he'd done it for 16 years, so I figure I've got a few still to go.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (Review)

At last, one of the books I actually intended to read when I signed up for Annie’s challenge, my weather event book, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson. I must admit that, much as I sometimes hate that the cell phone in my pocket means I am never totally out of touch, this book did more to make me appreciate our current state of technology than just about any other book I’ve read recently. Here’s the quick and dirty summary: Imagine if no one had known that Hurricane Katrina was coming. It’s not pleasant, right?

The man of the subtitle was Isaac Cline who was in charge of the weather station in Galveston at the time of the hurricane. A proud man who thought he knew the laws by which weather operated, he claimed later to have personally saved the lives of thousands through his warnings. In fact, the main warning of the storm was transmitted to the national headquarters of the U.S. Weather Service by Isaac’s brother, Joseph, who was a subordinate in the Galveston weather station. Already somewhat estranged, the brothers rarely spoke or acknowledged each other's existence in the years following the storm.

The time was 1900, and weather science and a national weather service were both in their infancy. There were people who knew that a major hurricane was closing in on Galveston, Texas--forecasters in Cuba. Unfortunately, Cuban forecasts were seen as unreliable and inflammatory by the leaders of the U.S. Weather Service; in fact, the Weather Service had established that Cuban forecasters were not permitted to transmit their weather information over telegraph lines controlled by the U.S. military. Without satellite and other technology so commonplace today, forecasting storms was as much or more an art than a science. Despite what someone actually in a storm might think of it, only the Washington, D.C. office of the U.S. Weather Service was permitted to call a storm a hurricane.

The hurricane in question had no name; named storms didn’t come until much later. If it had been given a name, that name, like Andrew and others, would in all likelihood have been retired in acknowledgment of the power of the storm. Larson does a superb job of describing the storm from its formation over Africa to its growth over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and its progression across the U.S. mainland after it ravaged Galveston. A reader doesn’t need a science background to understand and appreciate the description of the mechanisms underlying the storm; Larson describes it in terms of sight and sound. What would the clouds have looked like? How would the winds have sounded? One looks at a storm with a new appreciation after reading this.

Quality Rating: 10 out of 10. Written in the narrative style of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Isaac’s Storm was well worth the time to read. The interweaving of the man, the time, and the storm was seamless, and the resulting woven story made me not want to put the book down.

Audience Rating: Anyone with the appropriate reading level and interest in history or nature in general or meteorology in particular should enjoy this book.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sleeping with Ward Cleaver (Review)

I was going to do Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear for my “name” selection, but I don’t know Jacqueline Winspear from Eve, and I do know Jenny Gardiner. Our sons were together on the high school academic team for three years, and I got my copy of Sleeping with Ward Cleaver at her very own book release party just last night. This is not Jenny’s first novel, but it is her first published one. (What is it with me and first novels?) Jenny got the contract through the American Title III contest sponsored by Dorchester Publishing and Romantic Times, and I was one of the friends who hustled online votes for her with my online quilting group.

Don’t let the Romantic Times reference trick you into thinking of this as a bodice-ripper. While Sleeping with Ward Cleaver is definitely of the “chick lit” genre, it is not what I would think of as a romance, though it is very much a love story. Claire and Jack Doolittle have been married long enough to have five kids from age 14 on down, and more than a lot of the magic has gone out of their marriage. Jack’s view of parenting is to set the standards for behavior high but to leave all enforcement duties to Claire. Jack’s view of housework is to leave everything to Claire; after all, how much time can her part-time job, one cat, one dog, one parrot, and five kids take? “Marital relations” have become perfunctory and are limited to Sunday night. Claire has come to view Jack as Ward Cleaver from “Leave It To Beaver” infamy.

As Claire is nearing the end of her rope, into her inbox pops an e-mail from the boyfriend who jilted her right before she met Jack. He claims to want only to know how her life has gone and whether she has forgiven him, but the progression of their e-mail conversation hints at underlying motives. Meanwhile, Jack has a new, young, female co-worker, Julia, who hangs on his every word and whose work relationship with Jack is making coworkers, as well as Claire, wonder what else might be going on. When Jack announces a business trip to Miami with Julia, Claire decides to leave the kids with Jack’s parents, follow Jack and Julia to Miami, and see for herself just what might be going on between them. What happens after that? Well, I'd spoil it for you if I told you.

Unfortunately, that description totally fails to convey that all this action (and what follows) is described in a boisterous, bawdy manner that is downright laugh-out-loud hilarious at times and somewhat tender misty-eyed poignant at others. It’s a very light read, though the deeper message comes through that marriages, like people, age and, also like people, some age better than others. Also, just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to make a marriage work, and rarely are the missteps due to just one of the partners.

Quality Rating: 10 out of 10. It’s not great literature, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a good, fun, easy read, but one that makes you reflect a bit afterwards, especially if you’re at a stage of marriage similar to that portrayed here. The one where things are so different than they once were, and you find yourself wondering if this is all there is.

Audience Rating: M, more for age and life experience than anything else. Teenagers, even college-aged kids, will just not have the life experience to get this. And note that I did say “bawdy” above. You don’t want to be explaining some of the references here (especially the last line in the book, which is one of those downright, laugh-out-loud hilarious ones) to your kids.