Playgroup Strong

Our neighborhood playgroup got an email this morning from one of the parents on it, breaking the news that they have been diagnosed with a medical condition that will require a grueling course of treatment that will likely last months, but also expressing gratitude for the way they knew they could count on us to show up for their family in the times ahead.

And they were right. The mobilization was immediate and impressive. Our phones lit up with WhatsApp notifications: plans to provide child care and meals, to take the older child along on the playgroup beach weekend that the affected family was going to have to back out of, and to designate point people to coordinate our efforts so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed. “Playgroup Strong,” we tell each other.

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Self-care is a stocked freezer

When I’m feeling a very particular combination of helplessness and rage, say, the kind I felt the day Christine Blasey Ford testified, my coping strategy is to cook.

I don’t mean that I pick a new recipe and cook an elaborate meal. I don’t mean that I bake decadent treats to self-soothe by sheetcaking. I mean that I cook like your great-grandmother who lived through the Depression. I cook like a pioneer farmer’s wife. I make huge vats of stock from scraps and bones. I cook beans in that stock and make stew. I fill the freezer with enough dinners to last weeks.

So anyway, after our family got some upsetting news about someone important to us, tonight I took out a vacuum-sealed bag of homemade meatballs from the 5 pound batch I made the day Bill Barr’s half-assed summary of the Mueller Report came out, simmered them on the stove for half an hour in some crushed tomatoes, garlic, and herbs, and fed my family homemade meatball subs for dinner.

Because cooking is how I remind myself that I always have my own back.

Welcome to Happy Valley

I wrote the original version of this upon visiting State College, PA for the PSU MacAdmins conference in 2018. After the 2019 conference, my husband performed a dramatic reading of it actually at the Berkey Creamery, and I’ve started to expand it.

The Creamery is indeed excellent, but having grown up in Pennsylvania, I’m already aware of it, thank you.

You mention that you’re visiting State College, PA this week. You hear a sound, a low-pitched vibration just at the edge of your perception. “You must go to the Creamery,” your acquaintance says with a smile, looking steadily at the center of your forehead.

“O…K. What’s the best thing to get at the Creamery?”

“You must go,” they say, their smile unchanging, “to the Creamery.”

You turn to leave, but to your immediate left is a stranger, wearing a Penn State sweatshirt, smiling as they stare at your forehead. The buzzing is louder now. “Yes, you must go to the Creamery.”


You get into your car at the end of your day in State College. You turn the car on and start to back up. Then you turn the car off and look out the window. You remember nothing since turning the car on, but now you are at the Creamery. 

You start the car again, and as you drive down the street, you ask Siri for directions home. She guides you swiftly around the block until you return. “Siri, I need directions to HOME.” “You must go to the Creamery,” Siri replies. 


All the doors of the Creamery have signs admonishing you to use the correct door for what you are ordering. There is no correct door. They are all the wrong door.


You sit at a table among the gleaming white tiles of the Creamery, eating your chocolate ice cream cone. A drop of melted ice cream falls from your cone to the table. You reach for a napkin to clean up after yourself, but the drop is gone. You feel a shift in the air, a barely-perceptible rousing. Another drop falls. It is absorbed into the table, and you hear the faintest of whispers:

More.


There are rumors that, after the scandal, the agricultural department stopped production of Peachy Paterno and staff pulled all the stock off the shelves.

The next morning, the Peachy Paterno shelf was once again full.

No Peachy Paterno is being manufactured.

The shelf at the Creamery is always full.


Sated at last, you return to your car, shoulders drooping under the weight of insulated bags laden with gallons upon gallons of ice cream. You are bringing this ice cream home to share with your friends and loved ones.

You will take the pints and gallons from the bags as though unveiling a rare and precious jewel. “Try this ice cream,” you will say, staring at their foreheads. “It is from the Creamery.”

You are compelled to share the Creamery with others. You must share…the Creamery.


Hidden spaces, public oasis

We returned today from a trip to Australia, where we spent 6 days in Sydney and a weekend in Melbourne.

Something that struck me again and again during the course of the trip is how intentionally these cities make use of hard-to-use space. We visited a literal alley into which a street food market had been built, and an alley dedicated to urban street art, but it was an afternoon spent finding and wandering around in Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden that really got me thinking.

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Sometimes, you CAN blame your tools.

I got caught up in an Instagram/YouTube rabbit hole the other day (YouTube rabbit holes: for more than just Nazi recruitment!) and ended up on this video about cheap vs. quality water color paper:

I’d been hearing forever that “Arches is the best! Just use Arches!” but a. that stuff is expensive, and b. they don’t really make sketchbooks, just loose sheets and block. And I had never really run across the explanation of what it is that makes a high quality watercolor paper, or why should care about that if you’re still in the “make a lot of crappy work” stage of making art. I knew about hot press (smooth) vs. cold press (rougher) paper, but beyond that, it was all kind of a mystery what makes one paper better than another.

TURNS OUT, the difference is wood pulp vs. cotton fiber. This video does a detailed comparison (seriously, it must have taken him most of a day to film) of different watercolor techniques across three wood pulp papers of varying quality vs. a 100% cotton sheet from Arches.

So I went back through my art supplies last night, and sure enough, the pads and books holding the pieces where I found the paint most frustrating to work with were the cheap wood pulp ones, and the pieces I liked best and found the paint easiest to work with on were on 100% cotton paper (not Arches, but still noticeably better than the others). So I guess that settles that. (The exception is my Stillman & Birn Beta series pocket-sized art journal in my portable kit- I can’t find anything about the paper composition in it, but I love it and will probably buy another one when this one runs out.)

The problem is, I’ve got this stack of cheap watercolor paper sitting here and it feels wasteful not to use it up. I’ll probably go way more experimental with those now.

Being still very much a beginner, I hate to sound like I’m blaming my tools, because if I were a more skilled artist, I could make crappy materials work better, if not ideally, but: There’s something validating about looking at the uneven color in some of my sketchbooks and comparing it with the much better color in the work on higher-quality paper and understanding which is a better reflection of my actual skill level.

Unconscious Bias is Running for President

The Fortune 500 as of 2018 had only three black CEOs, all male, and 24 women, and it’s not hard to imagine that this would be a different country if white men didn’t control most of it. A 2011 scholarly paper on climate change denial with the fun title “Cool Dudes” concludes, “We find that conservative white males are significantly more likely than are other Americans to endorse denialist views… and that these differences are even greater for those conservative white males who self-report understanding global warming very well.” White men are the most conservative sector of this society, and wealth and power makes them more so, overall. The climate-denial study then mentions “the atypically high levels of technological and environmental risk acceptance among white males,” which is a reminder that though man and not woman is supposed to be the measure of all things and whiteness our American norm, white men are in many ways outliers. Another scholarly paper notes, “non-White minorities in the United States expressing consistently higher levels of concern than Whites… Blacks and Latinos also typically express higher levels of support for national and international climate and energy policies than Whites.” So three decades that may have doomed the earth come down in no small part to who was in charge, which makes who’s in charge a matter of survival for humans, especially poor non-white ones and women and children, and for countless other species.

Rebecca Solnit, “Unconscious Bias is Running for President”

This piece is straight 🔥 . Read, as they say, the whole thing.

A space of one’s own

Because my company is completely distributed, my primary workspace is at home. When I needed to select a permanent workspace in our home, for various reasons, the most sensible location was a corner of the front room of our house. I have our old dining room table (bought on consignment for the tiny dining area in our old condo- incalculable sentimental value) set up there as a desk, and have added shelving and drawer units and other accoutrements over time.

Since I also wanted some creative workspace where watercolor paintings could be left out to dry, this is also my art space.

This setup has advantages, but has proven to be a challenge for setting boundaries. My computer and monitor are kept right next to my paints and markers, paperwork to complete kept next to my sketchbooks.

I’m already someone with issues setting boundaries between work time and personal time (not because of external pressure to work all the time, but because I like my work and I find it engaging in a way that borders on hyperfocus), and the idea behind choosing analog hobbies like watercolor and hand lettering was to get away from screens all the time. But having all that work happening in the same space is not the most conducive.

I can’t wait to show you…

This post was originally a Twitter thread, but I delete my tweets after three months. So I’m preserving it here.

A while back, after feeling shamed by– of all things– an XKCD cartoon, I started adopting a posture of delight when someone tells me they haven’t seen/heard/read some bit of culture that I consider essential or universal.

Which is how it came to be that I recently spent a Sunday night on the couch, lights dimmed, drinking good wine and eating spaghetti with homemade sauce, watching The Godfather with a friend who was seeing it for the first time.

I’ve been watching this movie since I was a kid– it was a family favorite– and to this day if I flip past it on cable, it’s what I end up settling on. I’ve seen it so many times now that I literally forget which parts are supposed to be suspenseful. That’s why I love riding along when someone sees it for the first time- their reactions make it fresh for me, and I discover nuances and contours I had previously missed.

We both have young kids and clearly can’t watch it with them, so we had to start the movie pretty late, and it’s long, so the next day we were both pretty tired. But it was worth it! She loved it, I loved watching it with her, and we’re already plotting when to watch the next one.

So I truly believe that adopting the phrase “Oh! That means you still get to see it for the first time!” will enhance your life, and I recommend it to all.

Eight remote workers walk into a meetup…

Today is the third anniversary of the day I left the office at my federal contracting job like:

That means it’s been three years of working from home. Three years of being home more or less alone all day, hanging with the family in the evening, seeing friends on the weekends. As an introvert, I’ve grown accustomed to this level of human contact and have come to prefer it.

So imagine the abrupt adjustment needed to go to my team’s meetup last week and live with my coworkers, most of whom I had never met in person, in a rented house for a week.

I feel like I’m going to spend some part of Monday staring at the wall.

There is nothing quite like living with semi-strangers you work with for a week to throw all your weird quirks and habits into sharp relief.

Sunday afternoon art time

…while the husband and some play Mario Party in the other room. 😍

This is a kit from Let’s Make Art. They send you instructions, a reference image, watercolor paper, paints, an outline (where appropriate) and provide a YouTube tutorial so you can paint along.

There are things I’d like to be different about this painting, but I’m overall pretty pleased with the result.