Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Moments Where Everything Gels

Whatever you celebrate during these shortened days of December, I hope it brought you peace this year.

Our family, with its secular Christmas, had a truly lovely day yesterday. (And you can't exactly see it in this photo, but our tree was twisted in such a way that we couldn't make it not lean. We decided it was a very 2020 tree.)

Christmas Eve was a little harder, where I put in very long hours at work trying to get instruments off my bench in time for people to use them over the holiday weekend, and the brakes on one of our cars died. I was exhausted and worn out when I got home, and found myself curled up alone in the back room of the house watching the beginning of It's A Wonderful Life.

I got overwhelmed by thoughts of how unfair it was this year that when I already miss people who have died, that I now have to miss the ones who are still here. In 2020 I've seen my mom, and one brother. Both masked. Both socially distanced so hugs were not possible. Everyone else I haven't seen in a year or more.

Plus, when you're upset, you tend to pile on and focus on the negative in general. Our old dog has gone blind and bumbles into everything, and gets caught in odd corners in the house where he either whimpers for help or gives up and just stands. Our house is giant mess. I'm tired of my back hurting. I'm behind on everything.

On top of it all, it didn't feel like Christmas. No snow. Most of our lights were dead when we pulled them out of the basement and it didn't seem worth the effort or money to replace them. I was feeling bad about presents since most of the boxes under the tree were cereal, and literally wads of bubble wrap with nothing in them but more bubble wrap. Normally I hand make my kids little mini versions of their Halloween costumes to add to a box, and it's something personal, but no costumes this year, so no minis to sew.

But then I got my best present of the year. One of my teens, who has tended toward the aloof and surly in recent months, discovered me crying alone in the back room. They asked if I was okay. I said I would be, but this Christmas was hard. They asked if I wanted them to sit with me. I said, "Do whatever you want," which is normally the response I get when I make any suggestions to them lately. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Being Thankful in 2020

This year has been so strange and raw. It's been stressful, as somehow too little and too much is happening.

There is good and bad in all things. This year it's just been easier to see the bad.

But when I started this post yesterday on Thanksgiving (where we didn't have any guests, and I had to make my mom's stuffing without my mom) I thought I would do a quick accounting of the good things while the turkey rested and the potatoes boiled. I thought the list of what has made me smile in 2020 would not take too long.

I was wrong. When I gave myself permission to set aside the worry and the grief and focus on the positive without guilt, the list was huge. It surprised me.

Starting even with just the normal baseline for thankfulness--that we are healthy, that we are safe, that we are together--means something larger this year.

So here are some of the things specific to 2020 that I am thankful for, regardless of whatever low-lights there have been at this peculiar moment in history.

Our Neighborhood:

Bay View is a special place with some really kind and creative people in it. Our neighborhood association went above and beyond making sure the farmers market by the lake could still be enjoyed safely all summer, and they put out lists of local businesses that were still operating and how. I've already written about how they created a neighborhood-wide Pumpkin Pavilion event where our business won a "golden pumpkin" for our Halloween window display.

But beyond the official outlets organizing to make the world a little better at a complicated time, neighbors were simply good to neighbors. When everything shut down in the spring, many people came up with ways for people to enjoy their frequent walks outside while maintaining social distance. There were groups that arranged for people to put things in their windows as a fun game for kids, so they could spot teddy bears one week, flowers the next, etc. We put up information in our store windows for people to read since they could no longer come into the shop to ask questions. (I even put up a page about how the plague in the 17th century impacted the life of Stradivari.)

A neighbor named Kellie Krawczyk did a series called "Through the Windows" where she photographed people all over Bay View in their businesses and homes. She wanted people to still feel connected at a time of isolation, and it helped to see her pictures of people together and smiling through their windows. Here's the one she did of me in my shop:


My favorite activity back in the spring was a crayon-themed scavenger hunt put on by Rush-Mor records.

They asked me if I wouldn't mind having my violin store as a clue on the route, and I was so pleased! It was fun watching people discover our store, and stop to scribble down the name written on our crayon before moving on to the next clue.

Ian and I had a great time solving all the riddles and walking and biking all over Bay View to find everything over the course of a few weeks. We got all the clues right, and even found most of the extra dummy crayons (for a total of more than 70).

The only one we missed I felt ridiculous for not getting, because it was right by my daughter's high school on my drive home from work every day.

We even looked there once as a possible place for a clue about an old library, and still didn't see it. I don't quite get how that happens. We went past a bright green crayon alone in a field at least twice before we finally saw it, so we're apparently bad at things hidden in plain sight.

Ian and I learned stuff about our neighborhood we didn't know before (Milwaukee has a submarine dock!), and found several restaurants we're looking forward to going inside one day when the plague is over.

Here are all the crayons mounted outside the record store after the hunt was over. (The one we had in our window was a lavender one at the bottom.)

There was a Saturday afternoon in spring when Ian and I were able to leave the store for lunch. In normal times that doesn't happen because Saturday is our busiest day, but when you're by "appointment only" there is newfound freedom. We got takeout sandwiches from a place on the scavenger hunt route we knew would have a crayon. It was chilly out, but sunny, and we walked for miles collecting crayons and enjoying each other's company. The clues and crayons were a wonderful distraction, and it was the first real stretch of time after the lock down began that I simply had fun. It felt good to smile. We started to think ahead that maybe when things get back to normal that we should not be too busy to make time for a walk on a Saturday again.

Things I made this year:

Creative energy is a strange thing. Big projects that take real continuity of thought were hard for me to handle in the spring and summer. But I still had bursts of inspiration here and there, and small projects that you can pick up and put down are always fun for me.



This year I made a display case for my books, a clock out of a bass top for a friend, a cribbage board for my son, and a Cell-O-Lantern for our window (among other things).

I love making things. I wish there were enough space in the world for all the things I want to make, but I have to limit what I do to what storage will allow.

In terms of those bigger projects that take more focus, I'm thankful that both writing and violin making are activities that aren't hindered by lock downs. (Only by my state of mind.)

On the writing front, back in January and February before things shut down, I was really proud of myself for taking a real stab at proper book marketing for my latest novel, "Just Friends, Just War." Writing is such a fun challenge, but I find promotion and marketing rather painful. I learned how to make a press release, lined up a review in a local paper, and scheduled a book reading/signing at my favorite bookstore. All of that fell through, and my book got kind of lost in the peculiar scramble and shutdown that was the spring, but I am still pleased I tried. Next time I need to promote a novel, I will know better what to do. 

Check me out on the wall of upcoming events back in March! One day, I'll actually get to DO such an event.

Speaking of new novels, my most recent one is called "1001 Weddings" and the manuscript is currently in an agent's hands for consideration. That's exciting, even if nothing comes of it and I have to publish it myself. Keep your fingers crossed for me! It would be an interesting adventure to be published traditionally.

And I finished my repair diagnostics guide! "My Violin Needs Help!" has been a project I've been meaning to do for years, and I finally did it. The timing is good, too, because now more than ever, players and teachers need help troubleshooting violin (and viola and cello) problems from home. At least once a week now, I get phone calls from parents of players who have issues with tuning or something buzzing, and I just read to them straight from my book until they figure it out, and usually fix it safely themselves. I hope that book helps a lot of people.

Related to my repair guide, I was invited to write an article version of it for Strad Magazine. It's a beautiful publication out of London devoted to violins, and I contacted them to possibly review my new book, and they offered to commission an article instead. It's all written and submitted, and uses my photographs. Having an article in the Strad was not even on my bucket list, because I was intimidated by that particular bucket. But wow, what a cool thing to have happen this year.

I also got to do a Zoom book club meeting for a group in Ohio that read "Just Friends, Just War" and that was really gratifying. I don't know if that would have been a possibility in the past, but online everything is a way of life in 2020, and I had a blast talking with that book club.

Violin making took a bit of a hit early in the year, because it was hard to get my head into that focused, creative space. But in recent months I've jumped back on that lutherie horse and I have two violins and a viola underway. I'm not as far along as I'd like to be, but I keep reminding myself that any progress is good, and I am making progress. (Except when the dog gets into my shop. He does NOT like me working in there. He likes to herd us all together into one space, so when I'm trying to work on instruments he sits at my knee and stares at me imploringly to leave already.)

I even got to carve scrolls up at the cottage in October. That whole trip with all the leaves changing and where I got time to be alone and read was wonderful. I got to visit with my mom and spend time with Aden. I got a weekend with my friends that was more fun than I can properly describe. I loved every minute of it.

Plus, this fall was stunningly beautiful.

Aden was supposed to start college in the fall, and I'm sad she didn't get to because of Covid, but I'm not going to lie--I love still having her here. We've been watching Deep Space Nine together, and she makes dinner a couple of nights a week before I get home from work. This has been a less than ideal kind of a gap year, but I'm not looking forward to not having Aden as a part of our household.

And even though some of her big milestones got derailed a bit, my first baby still graduated high school this year. Amazing. And she not only voted for the first time in 2020, but she was able to convince a few of her friends to vote for the first time as well. It's odd that she'll look back on the graduation ceremony that never was, and voting in her first presidential election at our dining room table (where I signed as her witness, and she signed as mine, and then we went to a drop box), but still. I don't take for granted for a minute that I got to watch my child grow to adulthood. (I am so damn proud of her.)


Anonymous gifts of 2020:

As part of Aden's graduation, she received a gift card from "Grandma Book." We have no idea who that is, but apparently "Grandma Book" left graduation cards and gifts at every home in Bay View with a "graduating senior" sign out front. How's that for making us feel better about people in general?

We also got our unexplained coconut light in the mail earlier this year, and a few weeks ago I received a beautiful book about the famous Studley Tool Box (that every woodworker I know is mesmerized by). Who sent them? Don't know. But if you did and you read my blog, "Thank you!"

And not that this was anonymous, but my kids made me breakfast in bed for Mother's Day this year where they got up at five in the morning to make cinnamon rolls from scratch! I was really impressed and touched.

I'm thankful for our health this year:

Health-wise, things are good. My granulomatous mastitis issue seems to be done, and I had surgery recently for a uterine problem that should make my nightmarish periods go back to normal again. Only my back is giving me trouble, but eh. I just make Quinn pick things up off the floor for me when possible. 

Quinn broke his wrist in March on a school ski trip (back when schools and trips were a thing) but has healed just fine. I am always thankful we have health insurance.

As much as virtual school has its drawbacks, I think in terms of Mona's pain issue, it's been better for her to do school from home. The hours are shorter, she's not under as much stress, and she can manage things like headaches more easily. That's a win.

Not having to deal with the physical schools in general has been nice, actually. My kids are all old enough to take care of themselves, so from my end it's easy. They get themselves up, get on their computers, and go. We haven't had to worry much about clothes or showers or anyone outgrowing shoes.

The other sort of health related thing was that after my pool was shut down in March and I couldn't swim anymore, I decided to dust off my old stretching notes from my dojo days and revive doing that and some blocks and strikes. We taught all of it to the kids, and got into a nice daily routine. We got a hold of some donated yoga mats, and cleared space in the living room to stretch. We take turns choosing the music, but most often we listen to records. (I think my kids were most confused by Prince, saying, "Well, that's a lot of sounds.") The dog goes back and forth between ignoring what we're doing, and bringing us toys to throw while we're all on the floor.

We got away from our stretching routine during the last half of summer, but it's back. I really like family stretching time. I can't imagine it ever would have come about in a normal sort of year.

I miss swimming, but I've been doing more walks by the lake. It takes me about an hour to walk the loop from my violin store through the neighborhood and down along the lake path and back. It's always beautiful. And often I use that time to call someone and chat as I walk, and that's nice, too.

A good year for our Mold-A-Rama machine:

We got the Mold-A-Rama machine up and running! We've had it in our garage since 2014, and it sort of worked, but not reliably enough to put it out for the public to use. This year, mostly thanks to the extra time that comes with wiping all activities off the calendar, we were able to really look it over, call in the proper experts, and get it working. Ian and I put better wheels on it, so it's easier for us to roll it down next to the store. We had it out for public use for a couple of days in October, and it was so much fun! Little kids in particular were so excited to make their own dinosaurs.

I have hope again that one day we will get a custom mold made so the machine can crank out little violins, but in the meantime a corythosaurus is plenty good. We even got written up in the local news! They plan to run another piece in the spring when the machine is out again once the weather is nice.

The bird and game time:

A couple of years ago, Mona got a cockatiel. I have never been keen on the idea of birds as pets, because it seems to me any pet that would leave if you left the door open, probably shouldn't be a pet. Plus birds are meant to fly, and it seemed cruel to prevent one from doing so. But Keiko LOVES Mona, and has grown out their clipped wings and flies just fine. We leave their cage open when we're around, and sometimes the bird hangs out with us and flies a bit, but for the most part they really like their cage, and they sit on top of it.

Anyway, the bird seems to love having people in the house all day, and is just the funniest thing. Recently Keiko discovered ponytail holders, and those frequently wind up around their neck and then the bird protests loudly when we promptly remove them.

And the bird likes to hang out with me and Quinn when we play games.

I like evening games with Quinn. We have a card table set up in the living room where games are stacked to choose from. Regular favorites are Boggle, cribbage, rummy 500, and backgammon. The bird often joins us as we play, and last week got so fussy with us about moving cards around, that we gave them their own hand of Jokers and the rules to Texas Holdem which seems to keep them content. Keiko sits on their cards and occasionally scolds Quinn for reasons unknown.

For Quinn's birthday this year, I made him a scavenger hunt of plastic frogs hidden around the house, and a Boggle cake. (We played the Boggle cake board before we ate it.)

Quinn and I have also gotten out a couple of times to do archery in the park. That's a nice socially distanced activity that I wish we could do more of. (It's also near our favorite frozen custard stand, that when it's not too crowded we indulge in.)

Random bits of thankfulness this year:

Ian retired from the army in April, and we don't miss drill weekends. I'm not sure what those would have looked like this year anyway, but we didn't have to find out. I like having my husband home. I like not being in a panic every time something in the world goes awry that might necessitate calling up his reserve unit again.

I learned poker recently. It's fun. I'm sure it's very different with actual people and real money involved, but at the moment I find my online games with fake money and virtual opponents really enjoyable.

Work is good. I am beyond thankful to have a job I love that is apparently rather recession-proof. (We learned that back when we opened our own business in 2008, and it remains true.) The teaching studio has been closed since March, and I miss the sounds of lessons in the back, but we've retooled the space to be Covid-safe to teach in if anyone wants to. And I miss having people inside my shop, but having quiet time to work is great. I am thankful to have a space to go to that I can control and that is like an extension of my home. I like having somewhere else to be so I don't have to be in my house all the time. Aden even used the teaching studio over the summer to do art and practice guitar when she needed a break from her siblings. Work has been sanity saving in this time of isolation.

I like that Aden has been learning guitar since she now has the time.

I like to eat popcorn and binge watch things with the kids. We all loved The Good Place. Currently we're watching Community, and just finished Season One of the Amazing Race. When we're feeling really fried and need something simple, we watch House Hunters International, and marvel how many times the woman in the couple has given up a job she loves to follow her man someplace where she knows nobody, and she wants to be in the city center because she has nothing to do which clashes with his need to be near his job or screws with their budget. We watch all such shows now with an eye for how good a place would be to quarantine in.

I'm thankful for grocery pick up, which we may continue to do even after you no longer need a mask to go inside a store.

I'm thankful my husband is good at computer stuff, and found a way I like for storing my photos that frees up memory on my laptop. (My MacBook Air now kind of looks like a Borg, but it makes me happy.)

I'm thankful for how generous people are when given the opportunity. Yesterday on Thanksgiving morning I went online to see if anyone had foil tape, which we needed to finish the vent installation part of putting in our new microwave. Within minutes not only did people offer up foil tape, they all offered to deliver it. How nice is that? We are also members of a "buy nothing" group on Facebook where you can ask for things or show what you want to give away. Recently a woman escaping a domestic violence situation with her kids needed anything people could spare for her new home. We put a rug we don't need anymore on our porch for her to pick up, along with a bag of toys my kids assembled that they've outgrown. It feels good to help someone. It feels lovely to be helped.

So not my favorite year by far, but many good things to look back on. More than I can even put in an already too-long post.

This Thanksgiving was even nice, if a bit low key. We worked together to install our new microwave, we made food, we ate food, we walked the dog as a family which made him very happy, and then we played a few rounds of Jack Box games with my brother Barrett and his family online (and over the phone). Our favorite games are Quiplash and Earwax. (We highly recommend them if you get a chance to play--they are party games that require devices, not "video games.")

We even enjoyed our annual plate of orange goo at our Thanksgiving feast. I have no idea what we are doing wrong with that jello recipe. We even added extra gelatin, and let the whole thing sit in the fridge for an extra couple of days. We have gotten that orange jello to set exactly two times since I inherited my grandmother's coveted mold and glass serving platter. I have no clue what we're not doing now that we did then. But orange goo still tastes good, so we served it in little ramekins instead of adding it to our plates.


I hope however your orange goo came out, you had a nice Thanksgiving. I hope there are moments in 2020 you'll look back on with fondness as well.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Not Our Normal October (A post of too many photos)

Happy Halloween!

What a strange month in a strange year. 

Lots of things to catch up on, including a few things Halloween, and way too many pictures of leaves, so if you like photos, this is the post for you.

First off: No costumes. 

I never expected to have to go cold turkey on the making of all the costumes at once. I figured Aden would go off to college, and maybe every other year or so want me to help her make something again, and that would be fun. Mona's been mostly doing costumes on her own, but sometimes still needs help, and I liked shopping with her for fabric. Quinn had a few years left. We had been working our way through a list of different categories of creatures, and I think "amphibian" was next.

But no in-person school and no Trick-or-Treat--and frankly, no sense of time or feeling that one day is different from another--means no desire for costumes. So... no costumes.

However, I feel like I don't want 2020 to get to steal everything, and I know a lot of people pull up my blog at this time of year to see what we've made for Halloween, so I can offer up the pictures of some of the minis.

Every year for Christmas I use scraps from each of the Halloween costumes and make little mini versions for my kids to collect in a box. My thought was that instead of getting sentimental over the full-blown costumes and hanging onto them forever taking up space, my kids could have a little keepsake. Of course they currently hang onto all of it, but it's still a nice idea.

So, here are Quinn's costume minis from 2007 to 2019: Kangaroo (twice), Purple Cat, Blue Jay, 13-Lined Ground Squirrel, Skunk, Wolf, Pigeon, Iguana, Lobster, Lion Fish, Chimera, Hoatzin

(I have links here to all those actual costumes, but for some reason the images on the post about the 13-Lined Ground Squirrel aren't appearing, so I'll put that with the mini images.)

Kangaroo (2007 and 2008)

Purple Cat (2009)

Blue Jay (2010)

13-Lined Ground Squirrel (2011)

Skunk (2012)

Wolf (2013)

Pigeon (2014)

Iguana (2015)


Lobster (2016)

Lion Fish (2017)

Chimera (2018)

Hoatzin (2019)

I'm really sad not to have gotten to make any costumes this year. Maybe in 2021?

But instead, this month I put my Halloween energy into the window displays at the violin store. Normally the Bay View Neighborhood Association puts on an event called the Pumpkin Pavilion, and it's a weekend of pumpkins and music and food trucks, etc. Not such a good idea in a pandemic, so they decided to create a map of cool displays. We signed up, and had fun coming up with violin-themed spooky stuff.

I decorated the window on the left. I went with a Cell-O-Lantern, and a violin graveyard. There's even a coffin case with a violin Aden decked out as a vampire. And the white violin "ghost" in the back is an instrument we experimented with 3D printing a while back. (That's its own scary story.) I have lots of dead and destroyed instruments in our storage area, and decided a violin back or top cut in half could make a pretty good pair of headstones


Then to explain all the musical jokes in the graveyard, I put up a key on the side window of the store.

The window on the right side was all Aden's work. She wanted to do a sort of mad scientist laboratory using broken instruments.

I think my favorite thing was the scrolls in jars. They are just in water, but over time the water got good and creepy looking. (The scrolls also sank eventually, after they had absorbed enough water.)

For our efforts, today we received a GOLDEN PUMPKIN award, for best Halloween business display! 

Wasn't expecting that, but it made an otherwise lackluster Halloween an awful lot nicer. Next week we'll pack up all the headstones, etc., but I'll leave the Cell-O-Lantern up a little longer, and probably the jars of scrolls (mostly because I'm very curious what will happen to them the longer they sit).

Deviating from Halloween for a moment, the other big thing for me this month was that I got to spend a couple of weeks at our cottage in Michigan. I drove out there with just Aden, and it was absolutely the peak time to see changing leaves. We spent hours on that drive simply saying, "Wow!" over and over, and feeling ridiculous that we couldn't find better words. It was almost too beautiful, to the point that we were a little relieved after a couple of weeks on the drive home that things had softened to a more comprehensible level of beauty.


The original goal of the trip was to hand Aden off to my mom where she could isolate for enough time to then visit my brother's family in New York, but it didn't quite work out. She ended up spending time with her grandma in Detroit instead, while I got to see my friends for a weekend, and then Aden helped me shut down the cottage for the winter and we drove home together.

On this trip to the cottage I got to learn how to replace the heating element in the oven. (Plus now I own a nice new hack saw, because after driving an hour away to get the new part and discovering it was too narrow, I had to adjust the connecting plate by widening it to fit. Good times.) But the lovely thing at the cottage, is even though things go wrong and there are unexpected projects to do, it doesn't matter.

After months of being isolated at home, the cottage was a welcome break from that kind of frustration, and a way of embracing seclusion. The cottage is simple. It's easy to keep organized, there's no pressure to get anything done at a certain time. And I got to have some time to be truly alone, and it was wonderful. I kept a fire going in the fireplace in the evenings. I watched whatever DVDs I wanted from the library. I was unplugged from the internet (except for those visits to the library when I checked my email). I wasn't responsible for anyone or anything. I carved scrolls, ate garlic bread, and read books from cover to cover. I loved it.

Plus, I took walks and admired all those leaves and the lake. I don't remember a more beautiful fall.  (And keep in mind that I never use a filter on my photos. If anything, my camera kept toning down everything I was trying to capture.)


So, yeah. Very pretty. Not too cold, but not hot enough to make you sweat. Good jacket weather. On the days it rained, it was nice to be inside by the fire and read. When Aden was there with me, we watched movies and ate down whatever was left in the fridge.

The only sad part was knowing this should have been my annual writing retreat there if not for the pandemic. The past two years I've gotten so much writing done with my friend Fernanda, where we read each other's work and push each other to finish our projects. Although, to be fair, I'm not sure what project I would have worked on. Last year I proofread "Just Friends, Just War" which I published in the spring, and I added to "1001 Weddings" which is currently being considered by an agent (fingers crossed--I feel like this is my most marketable book to date). So I suppose if there were a year I didn't get my writing retreat, this would have been a good choice for it anyway. Still.

On the upside, I did get a kick out of seeing my first two books at the local library.

Okay, back to Halloween. The kids did what they could with it today. They made cookies. They made pie from actual pumpkins (which I've never done). Mona made some horns, so I guess we can say some costume work happened this year.

(They don't believe me that their cookies are cool, because they think it's just "Mom Compliments," but they are wrong. These cookies are cool.)

And now we're off to admire other decoration displays around the neighborhood. Tomorrow we may do a scavenger hunt for discounted candy. I still can't believe that our neighborhood's trick-or-treat finally fell on actual Halloween, and a full moon, and nice weather, and we didn't get to go. Yet another moment of 2020 where we had to make do and call it good.

I hope whatever your Halloween looked like this year that you enjoyed it! Happy October. On to the next month. (Leaving you with my demon dog! Spooky.)