Friday Finds: Stolen Post

I stumbled on this short, impactful post from Seth Godin the other day and I felt a strong need to share it with you guys today. It says so much in so few words - as is often the case with Seth.*

I hop you enjoy it. 

- Alex

Not a gift

posted on 11/15

Here are attributes many of us value in co-workers, bosses, employees, friends and vendors:
  • Honest
  • Punctual
  • Curious
  • Proactive
  • Flexible
  • Thoughtful
  • Generous
  • Fun
  • Committed
  • Respectful
  • Organized
  • Interested
  • Creative
  • Likable
  • Positive
you get the idea. These are things that turn someone from ordinary into a star. They are even attributes we now assign to our favorite brands, treating them like trusted or respected friends.
Someone who is likable, honest, curious and thoughtful is easy to think of as gifted. This natural charisma and care is worth seeking out in the people we choose to work with.
The thing is, it's a cop out to call these things gifts. You might be born with a head start in one area or another, you might be raised in a culture or with parents that reinforce some of these things, but these are attitudes, and attitudes can be taught, and they can be learned.
The question, then, is do you care enough to take them on? It's not fair to say, "I'm not respectful" or "I'm not creative." It is honest and clear to say, "I choose not to be honest," or "I don't want to do the work to be organized."
We can own these things. What a privilege.

*If you're unfamiliar with Seth Godin, I highly recommend you put him on your reading list - even if you just visit his blog occasionally. He is one of the great minds of our generation and always has something interesting to say.

Baby Quilt

One of my daughter Cammy's close friends recently had a gorgeous baby girl. She was so excited about her first friend ever to have a baby that she wanted to give her a gift that was really special.

We decided that we would make her a scrappy baby quilt with some hand quilting...together. You know, a mother-daughter bonding experience for us.

We joyfully started out at the fabric store. I let Cammy pick out the fat quarters (with a little guidance from me on how to choose your fabrics to get the scrappy look we wanted). It was fun to let her choose the fabrics because she picked patterns I wouldn't have chosen, and yet I loved how they worked together in the end. The teacher was the student!

The fabric was washed and pressed and we started cutting our strips. As I hovered over her cutting it was really becoming clear that my control freak tendencies were rearing their ugly head. I know cutting quilt fabric can be tricky, and I mean well...but I'm pretty sure my daughter wasn't having a good time.

After I came up with a simple design, we moved on to piecing the blocks. 1/4" seams are pretty exacting work for someone who never touched a sewing machine before. Bless her heart, the one block I let her piece looked great but came out about an inch too small. I set it in the pile of "soon to be potholders" and she looked really, really, sad. And I felt like some kind of quilting bully.

When school started up again (she's a college senior this year!), she was too busy to work together on this anymore. I pressed on and finished it in time for the baby shower. As disappointing of an experience this may have been for Cammy, she ended up adoring the quilt. And I did too. For a week before it was gifted, it rested on the back of a chair in the living room. Both of us had to pick it up and admire it every time we walked by. I hope this means there is still a little inspiration to be a sewist in her...somewhere. Maybe we can try again with a simpler project? Let's hope!

Every quilt has a story, doesn't it?


Let Me Entertain You

As you may have noticed, I haven't been particularly crafty lately. I've been cooking (some) and have been trying to knit again now that I'm on the mend. Sewing projects seem to be taking up a lot of my crafty daydreaming but none have come to fruition yet. I'm just not really in the swing of it, unfortunately.

So, what am I doing with my copious non-crafting time? Passive entertainment... Books, TV, games, and social media have been my constant companions for the last few months. Some of it has had some value - books where I've actually LEARNED something, for example - but most of it has just been diversion. Regardless, I thought you might like some recommendations... just in case you need some diversions as well. :)

- Alex

Disclaimer: Obviously, entertainment is a very subjective thing. Just because I like it, doesn't necessarily mean you will. I'll try to be as descriptive as possible and not steer you wrong. 

  • Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, young love, and the secret to eternal life — mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore. The Great Recession shuffles Clay Jannon from his web-design drone job to night shift at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Curiously, few customers come in repeatedly and never buy. Analysis reveals astonishing secrets that take the reader from the birth of printing to Google and back. 
  • The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
A social critique of our obsession with choice, and how it contributes to anxiety, dissatisfaction and regret. Whether we’re buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier, applying to college, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions--both big and small--have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented.
In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains at what point choice--the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that we so cherish--becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. In accessible, engaging, and anecdotal prose, Schwartz shows how the dramatic explosion in choice--from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs--has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution. 
  • Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. 
Dedman has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have frequent conversations with her. Dedman and Newell tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter, born into a family of extreme wealth and privilege, who secrets herself away from the outside world.
The Clark family story spans nearly all of American history in three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to mining camps in the Montana gold rush, from backdoor politics in Washington to a distress call from an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. The same Huguette who was touched by the terror attacks of 9/11 held a ticket nine decades earlier for a first-class stateroom on the second voyage of the Titanic.
Empty Mansions reveals a complex portrait of the mysterious Huguette and her intimate circle. We meet her extravagant father, her publicity-shy mother, her star-crossed sister, her French boyfriend, her nurse who received more than $30 million in gifts, and the relatives fighting to inherit Huguette’s copper fortune. Richly illustrated with more than seventy photographs, Empty Mansions is an enthralling story of an eccentric of the highest order, a last jewel of the Gilded Age who lived life on her own terms.
  • The Returned by Jason Mott
All over the world people's loved ones are returning from beyond. No one knows how or why this is happening, whether it's a miracle or a sign of the end. As chaos erupts around the globe, Harold and Lucille Hargrave, newly reunited with their 8 year old son who died 40 years earlier, find themselves at the center of a community on the brink of collapse, forced to navigate a mysterious new reality and a conflict that threatens to unravel the very meaning of what it is to be human.
With spare, elegant prose and searing emotional depth, Jason Mott explores timeless questions of faith and morality, love and responsibility. A spellbinding and stunning debut, The Returned is an unforgettable story that marks the arrival of an important new voice in contemporary fiction.

  • Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
After the Battle of New York, the world has changed. It now knows about the Avengers and also about the powerful menaces that require those superheroes to face them. In response, Agent Phil Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (SHIELD) assembles an elite, covert team to find and deal with these threats whenever (and wherever) they're found. 

  • The Goldbergs
The Goldbergs is set in the 1980s and follows the Goldberg family. Starring Jeff Garlin as husband Murray, Wendi McLendon-Covey as wife Beverly, and three children. Youngest son, Adam, documents their lives with his video camera. The series is based on creator Adam F. Goldberg's real-life family, in which he actually video-taped events when he was growing up, which are re-enacted throughout the program. 

  • The Blacklist
Raymond "Red" Reddington, one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives, surrenders at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. He claims the FBI and he have similar interests in getting rid of dangerous criminals and terrorists. Reddington will cooperate only with Elizabeth Keen, a rookie FBI profiler. Keen questions Reddington's sudden interest in her, but Reddington will only reveal that she is very special. After the FBI uses Reddington's information to locate a terrorist, Reddington reveals that this terrorist is only the first of many criminals that he will help them neutralize. Over the course of his own criminal career, he has made a list of global criminals who he believes are truly dangerous to society, most of whom are unknown to the FBI. Reddington calls it "The Blacklist".

  •  Dancing on the Edge
This six episode mini-series from the BBC follows a black jazz band's experiences in London in the 1930s. Made up of talented musicians and managed by the compassionate yet short-tempered Wesley Holt, the band gets a gig at the Imperial Hotel, by the way of the cunning journalist, Stanley Mitchell. They prove to be a hit, and become a success at the hotel. Countless aristocrats - and the Royal Family - ask the band to play at parties. The media rush to interview and photograph the band - including the ambitious American businessman, Walter Masterson and his enthusiastic employee, Julian. The band's success spirals, being offered record deals. But tragedy strikes, setting off a chain of events that may wreck the band's career.

  •  Dixit  (a great game for ALL ages - even kids)

Each player starts the game with 6 random cards. Players then take turns being the storyteller. The player whose turn it is to be storyteller looks at the 6 images in his hand. From one of these, he makes up a sentence or phrase and says it out loud (without showing the card to the other players).
The other players then select among their 6 images the one that best matches the sentence made up by the storyteller.Then, each of them gives their selected card to the storyteller, without showing it to the others.
The storyteller shuffles his chosen card with all the cards he received from the other players. All pictures are then shown face up, randomly, and every player has to bet upon what picture was the storyteller's.
If nobody or everybody finds the correct picture, the storyteller scores 0, and each of the other players scores 2. Otherwise the storyteller and all players who found the correct answer score 3. Players other than the storyteller score 1 point for each vote their own pictures receive.
The game ends when the card deck is empty. The player with the highest point total wins the game.

  • Cards Against Humanity  (XXX rated. Do not let your children anywhere near this deck of cards. But it's hilarious, if you can stand how offensive it is)
Game play is nearly identical to Apples-To-Apples. To start the game, each player draws 10 white "answer" cards. One randomly chosen player begins as the Card Czar, and plays a black "question" card. The Card Czar reads the question out to the group. Each player answers the question by passing one white "answer" card, face down, to the Card Czar. The Card Czar shuffles all the answer, reads them out loud in a humorous fashion, and picks their favorite. Whoever played that "answer" card gets to keep the black card as one point. After each round, a new player becomes Card Czar, and every player draws back up to 10 cards.

  • Plants vs Zombies 2: It's About Time
In Plants vs. Zombies, players place different types of plants and fungi, each with their own unique offensive or defensive capabilities, around a house in order to stop a horde of zombies from reaching the house of the residents. The playing field is divided into 5-6 horizontal lanes, and with rare exceptions, a zombie will only move towards the player's house along one lane (the main exception is if it has taken a bite out of a garlic). Planting costs "sun", which can be gathered for free (albeit slowly) during daytime levels and by planting certain plants or fungi. Most plants can only attack or defend against zombies in the lane they are planted in. In later levels, players can purchase upgrades with different offensive and defensive abilities.

Friday Finds: Woodland Knits

Ya'll know that I love love love woodland critters. So you can imagine the squeal of delight I let out when I got a look at Stephanie Dosen's new book Woodland Knits. The patterns are inspiring and gorgeous. I've been a fan of Stephanie's knitting patterns for years and am so glad that she finally was able to put a collection together in book form.

I think my favorite pattern from the book is the Woodland Hoodlet:

To see images of the patterns included in the book and even more cute patterns to purchase, check out Stephanie's website.

Happy weekending everyone!


Winter Is Coming

Well, to be honest, it's pretty much here. 

Living in a four-season climate is a double-edged sword. Southern Wisconsin in the summer is glorious.

No... beyond glorious. The temperature is warm but moderate - usually around 80 degrees. The humidity can be high because there are lots of bodies of water but it's generally not uncomfortably humid. Most older homes don't have central air - just ceiling fans and the occasional window unit to take the edge off when it's necessary. This past summer, I ran my air conditioner for a total of 6 days.

But winter... ugh. Bitter cold and lots of snow. Even in years when the winter is considered mild, it's difficult (for me, anyway) to navigate the cold. A few years after moving here, I learned that winter is only as brutal as how inappropriate your winter wardrobe is. But, even with this piece of wisdom, I'm never, truly, warm. I live my life wrapped in wool, down, and long-johns. There are multiple blankets on my sofa and my dogs are required to act as heating pads. Oh... and the best thing I've ever bought for myself - bar none - is a heated mattress pad. I'd like to point out that it's really, really hard to be truly stylish and truly warm. 

Of course, along with the change of season comes the sniffles. I've already had one bad cold (it's still hanging on a bit) and Cassandra has pneumonia. And it's only November. All winter-season survivors have some routine for when they get sick. This year, I've started making my own Cold Buster Tea that came from a recipe that was originally printed in Bon Appetite Magazine (of all places). I swear it helps - especially when combined with a Neti Pot regime and a lot of sleep. 

Cold Buster Tea

1 Tablespoon of fresh lemon juice (fresh makes a difference - I've tried using bottled and it's not the same)
2 teaspoons of honey (use more if you need it to be sweeter or if your throat hurts)
1 teaspoon of finely grated ginger (fresh is a must. powdered/dried ginger doesn't work)
1/4 teaspoon of echinacea extract (you can find this at natural food stores or online)
A pinch of cayenne pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a mug with one cup of boiling water. Stir until honey is dissolved. Let steep for a few minutes. You may strain it if you prefer not to ingest the tiny bits of ginger.

Additionally, I like comfort food when I'm sick and my new, favorite crunchy snack is homemade, seasoned hard pretzels. This also makes a GREAT game-day snack for those of you who follow the sportsball.

Seasoned Pretzels

2 lbs of hard pretzels, broken into pieces
1 1/2 cups vegetable or Canola oil
1 package of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix
1 teaspoon dill
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. 

Put broken pretzels in a large roasting pan. Mix all other ingredients and pour over pretzels. Stir well to coat the pretzels. Do not cover the pan. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Beware - these are totally addictive.

Stay healthy everyone!

- Alex


I've returned to the land of the living...still getting both feet back on the merry-go-round...but much, much, better. As part of the process of reacquainting myself with the world (I know I've sort of "checked out" from everything for the last couple weeks) I was perusing my camera roll on my iPhone last night to see what making I've recorded while in my pneumonia haze. I think sharing the randomness of my sickness journey is a nice place to start this Monday morning.

Making strudel with Grandma a couple weeks ago.

Little pumpkin pies for the pre-k class Halloween party.
Too sick for anything but TV and knitting simple hats and mittens.
Little Bear wears his new hat indoors and out.
Super-secret family recipe baking yesterday.
Last night I dove back into the cables. I'm on the mend.
Pretty heavy on the baking and knitting. So curious. But, I've been doing some dreaming and sketching about some bigger sewing projects. We'll see what comes of it now that I'm back in the saddle.


Throwback MD: FREE STUFF!

It's been a long and difficult week for we Mighty Distractible gals.

Cassandra has pneumonia and the rest of her family is alternately sick with fever, snotty noses, and puking. And I, of course, managed to catch a devil of a cold - the result of working in a corporate petri dish and having a slightly compromised immune system - which caused me to be foggy-headed and miss work.

So, it's a "Throwback Thursday"... The only way a post was going to make it up this week. But I think it's a good one - especially as we're in the throes of holiday crash-and-burn crafting. 

Send good vibes for speedy recoveries on all fronts and, hopefully, we'll have something new for you next week. 

- Alex  *cough, sneeze, blow*


ORIGINALLY POSTED: Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Everybody Loves Free Stuff

Ah, the holidays! It's a time of...well...stress, frankly. And the source of that stress? (besides family of course) Gift giving.

What started as a simple gesture of generosity, love, and friendship has turned into a billion dollar industry with layers of guilt and inadequacy piled on top. Just makes you all tingly for the season, doesn't it?

Between having to find the "perfect" gift for every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the phone book and the cost associated with that quest, the holidays are more of a nightmare than a hot chocolate-filled dream.

On top of it all, we crafters get to experience our very own extra-special gift stress. Here's how it works:

1. Crafter says: "I'm going to put 75 hours of my time, plus the cost of materials, into this handmade item. I am going to meticulously choose a pattern and colors that will be perfect for the receiver. I'm going to craft every bit of this with love and care for this special person."
2. Receiver opens gift and says: "Oh, isn't that pretty. Thanks!" and moves on to the next gift.
3. Crafter is crushed.

Ralphie's aunt worked hard on this
Do you see what's happening here? There's a huge disconnect between the crafter's and non-crafter's perceived value of the gift. I have family members that would be appalled if I gave them something handcrafted - regardless of how expensive and lovely the materials and finished product. I mean...only poor people and hippies "do" crafts, right? On top of that, it's hard to convince a non-crafter of an item's value when a machine-made, off-the-rack version is cheaper and looks as good. The industrial revolution really took it's toll on handcrafting, in a lot of ways.

When it's all said and done, if you want to give a handcrafted gift, the key is to keep your costs and efforts down and make the actual value of the present a little closer to the perceived value (and save yourself some soul crushing.) Here are my tips:

Use free patterns.

I can't remember the last time I paid for a pattern because there are tons of resources on the web. Granted, you may only be saving $5-$10 but, if you're making more than a couple of handmade items, this can add up quickly. My favorite resources are:

1. Ravelry - Also known as "Facebook for knitters." There are, literally, thousands of amazing free patterns (as well as patterns for sale) on this site. The very best part is that, for most patterns, you can look at other people's attempts at making the piece. This gives you invaluable insight into the pattern's difficulty level and flaws. I can't recommend this site enough.
2. All Free Sewing - This site is incredibly comprehensive - with patterns for everything from accessories to quilts to holiday projects. The clean and easy interface makes searching for patterns a breeze. The site even has video tutorials. You are going to love this resource.
3. Craft Bits - Most of the free-craft project sites online are aggregators - they gather links to free projects on myriad other sites. Craft Bits, as best I can tell, has all "original" content so you're not popping off the site every time you click a project link. I also really like the site design and I find the projects appealing. One specific tip for this site: scroll down! There's tons of content below the fold on every page. It's easy to miss it if you don't think to scroll.

Keep materials cost in line.

Let's be honest, it's easy to want to buy that gorgeous yarn that's $20 a skein because the scarf is for your mom. But, honestly, she'll probably never be able to tell the difference between that and the $10-a-skein version. The key to this one is: know your audience. If the person you're crafting for has an eye for good materials and you KNOW they'll appreciate the color or hand of the piece at the end, go ahead and look for the material on sale somewhere. Otherwise, buy materials that are "good enough" to make the piece nice but not over-the-top. My favorite resources for reasonably-priced and sale goods are:

1. Knit Picks - Knit Picks is an all-around great site for yarn crafters. They have beautiful tools, like their interchangeable circular needles set (I seriously covet these), but they also have great basic yarns for ridiculously low prices.
2. - This clean and easy-to-navigate site is one of my favorite resources for fabric. Their selection can be light - especially in specialty fabrics, like decorator (upholstery) weights - but most of the time, the styles are really tasteful and the brands are higher-quality. The thing I love most about this site (besides the amazing prices) is that, under each fabric "swatch", they list the number of yards they have in stock. Saves me tons of time if I know how much yardage I need.
3. - You may have a Joann Fabrics in your area so this may be redundant but... not for nothin' Joann is a great resource for craft supplies and their online store has damn-near anything you'd need. The quality tends towards the middle and the prices are reasonable (not super-cheap) - but you can be assured that they have what you need and that, if you need to return anything, their customer service will do you right.

The 5-minute Skirt:
Finally, don't pick difficult projects. This one is easy, people. If it's a gift, make it something you can complete with plenty of time to spare and that it's easy enough that you won't be struggling. That way, you'll spend less total time on the project and your finished piece will be top-quality because its instructions will be well within your comfort zone.

So, there you go. My tips for making the 2010 holiday season a little less stressful. I think what it boils down to is this: if the person you're making a gift for won't appreciate the time, money, and effort that went in to your handmade creation then to heck with 'em. Go buy them something that they've seen on TV and save yourself some heartache. ;)

- Alex (bah-humbug)