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Why does it feel like 2020 is half over already?

Would you believe me if I said I’ve written two posts over the last few weeks, both of which were eaten by dying laptop batteries? (More to the point, I suppose: would you care?)

I don’t know about you, but what with wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, impeachment trials, and something about the british monarchy, 2020 already feels like it’s a few months old, so writing about either 2019 or goals for 2020 feels irrelevant.

But here is something, before January ends. I’ve given some thought to sewing goals for 2020:

1. As little as possible. I have enough damned clothes.

I’m sure needs will come up over the year and I will make things, but I’m trying to slow it waaaay down, and spend that time doing other stuff that I “just haven’t had the time” for. So far, that’s meant that I finally (finally!) replaced the dining set I hated, and finally (finally!) got window coverings (that I am not sewing because there is nothing relaxing or fun about sewing three miles of straight seams). It’s also meant even more books, not that I needed to read more, but I’ve finished 14 so far in January. Which is excessive, but at least they’re mostly library books, so when they’re done they go back to share with someone else.

I’ve set myself two goals for 2020 that are working a bit at cross-purposes. If you all have brilliant insights for reconciling it, please let me know!

1. Write more, here and elsewhere
2. Focus on communicating in person on issues of importance

I know technically it’s possible to do both. One can both write and speak! If a body starts typing, no one comes along to cut out your tongue. I know. But I am a single working mom, and my favourite human has a lot of medical appointments, and it does affect free time, and if your suggestion is that maybe I didn’t need to read 14 books in January and might have contented myself with ten and done more writing *and* speaking with that time … I probably would concede your point and then say that I spent the first two weeks with a terrible cold (you know the kind where a phlegm monster moves into your lungs, and you spend weeks expelling them one ounce at a time? Yeah), which has something to do with the book count.


The downside with reading research on climate communications and outreach strategies, is that you (I) learn that all the things you (I) would rather do, enjoy doing, and are good at, don’t work. Which is a bit on the harsh side, maybe, but the research keeps showing that, in climate as in other contentious subjects,what works is small group or one-on-one in-person conversations. So I am committing myself to doing more of that (see goal #2), in the climate parties, as well as hopefully organizing some small community groups this year.

But I am much better at writing than speaking. Those of you who have never met me in person will just have to take my word for it.  If a sentence makes it out of my mouth in the same word I order I conceived it in, it’s a miracle.

In fact, if you were going to describe a person who would be most suited to organize small community dialogues, you would look for my opposite.  Ideal community organizer: extroverted chipper sort with a lot of patience and enthusiasm for people and their foibles.  Andrea: highly introverted bookish/crafty person who enjoys spending entire weekends speaking to no one, alone in her house, and who is often driven to slight misanthropy by the behaviour of many humans.

(If you live close enough to be involved in community climate stuff and want to know more, let me know! I’ll probably post about it eventually anyway, but given my blogging schedule the last few months, god only knows when.)

So in my limited free time, besides reading more books than anyone has any need to, I am trying to be more active in person in local climate work, and also, I am trying to spend more time by myself writing things. The balance is hard to find. (“Read fewer books, Andrea.” Maybe I will read slightly fewer books. But still. What is the right mix? How does one approach writing when, these days, it seems all of us pre-select our reading to confirm what we already believe? Is that a good use of time? <–asks the woman who spent a few years sewing more clothing than she could possibly wear.)

At least I am contemplating this dilemma in a living room with blinds.

The Outrage Economy

It just so happened that two books I put on hold at the library ages ago (Team Human and How To Do Nothing) became available at the same time and were about mostly the same thing: the attention economy, why it is very bad for us, and how we need to reconnect with each other and with the physical world around us to lessen its grip. I read them both over a couple of days, and came away with two things:

1. How To Do Nothing is way better than Team Human, if you’re interested but don’t have time for both.

2. It isn’t really an “Attention Economy”

Attention focuses on the gentlest-sounding name for the resource they’re exploiting, but that’s kind of like calling a diamond mine part of the “jewelry economy.” Yes, a lot of the diamonds will end up in jewelry; but that is a pretty dishonest description of a dirty, stressful, dangerous, and often deadly operation that digs rocks up out of the ground for further processing.

What is it they’re digging out of the human psyche to refine into Attention, or Engagement?

It’s outrage: anger, fear, and disgust.

And our social media feeds use algorithms that put content most likely to create that reaction right at the top, because that’s what gets the most likes, shares, and comments. In Team Human, for example, Rushkoff shares how social media algorithms have learned to put photos of our exes having fun on the tops of our feeds because it gets the most “engagement” (i.e. encourages FB stalking). Our social media companies profit from upsetting us.

Personality Psychology Backgrounder on Emotions & Political Convictions

The connection between feelings and political orientation is a two-way street, and fear, anger and disgust play a huge role.

In the five-factor (or OCEAN) personality model, “openness to new experiences” is highly predictive of political orientation, with those scoring low more likely to be strongly conservative, and those scoring high more likely to be highly progressive. This correlation has a lot to do with fear, anger and disgust: those who are low in openness have stronger fear/anger/disgust reactions to all stimuli, particularly novel stimuli, so “what’s new” triggers a “this is dangerous, threatening, probably gross and contaminated” reaction: people who are shown to be more sensitive to these emotions (say, a stronger disgust reaction to a picture of a dead animal) are  more likely to be conservative. Anything from gay marriage to working mothers to a zero-carbon economy is new, and triggers anger and disgust and a visceral, knee-jerk, “NO.”

But while the sensitivity to these emotions predicts political orientation, you can also push someone to embrace more conservative political positions by causing feelings of anger, disgust, and fear: if you tell experiment participants to use the washroom before a test measuring political beliefs, for example, and one group gets a nice clean washroom to use and the other group gets a dirty one, the one who gets the dirty bathroom will endorse more conservative (and punitive) policies.

So, if you were to hazard a guess about the specific dangers of a social media business model that primes people to feel outraged all the time, what might it be?

Seems like it would push people to adopt more conservative positions over time.

And isn’t that what we’re seeing–on social media and in other areas of our lives? More outrage, and a general shift to the right among a lot of the population: Proud Boys, Yellow Vests, Jordan Fucking Peterson, increasing sentiment against immigrants and refugees, more hate crimes?

Yeah, it’s speculative, but the science that there is backs me up.

The hard thing is figuring out what to do about it. Successive waves of people trying to “get off Facebook” or “get off Twitter” hardly make a dent, because as awful and predatory as the business model is, that’s where many of the critical conversations of our time are taking place. People aren’t really watching TV news anymore, which isn’t a conversation anyway; and if they are, they’re likelier to be watching the hellspawn propaganda shows than they used to be. Traditional news media are scrambling to keep any kind of viable business model with the “share the post first get the facts later” model that’s so successful for social media and so disastrous for our democracies: we need a free, accountable press that delivers reliable and well-considered news to our citizens, but increasingly, if newspapers try to actually do that, they get eaten for lunch by propagandistic competitors. And as a result, our politicians are often having to respond, not to what actually happened, but how it was portrayed on FaceBook and Twitter memes.

I have my own approach, which I call FaceBook Hygeine:

1. If you don’t have time to read the whole article, you don’t have time to comment on it.

2. If you don’t have time to fact-check–the article, the story, the photo, the meme–you don’t have time to share.

The first because the people who write news headlines are not the same as the people who write news articles, and often, the actual article is a whole lot less inflammatory and salacious than the headline–because the headline is meant to suck you in. But if it doesn’t manage to, at least it can get you to “engage” by making you so mad you can’t help but speak your mind … about a completely misinformed or counter-factual claim made in a headline that isn’t connected to the content of the article.

And the second because, given how dysfunctional and competitive news media is nowadays, even something appearing in a news article isn’t necessarily true. And of course memes and photos we all know are routinely faked. Even videos now can be faked.

Checking the basic facts of a piece rarely takes more than five minutes, and if you open a new browser tab to google it in, you won’t be helping to train FB or Twitter algorithms in what gets your goat.

This helps so much. It really does. It’s not the systems overhaul that we need to clean up our social media messes, but it keeps my own pages tidy and defensible without bowing out of political speech.

If you are, by the way, interested in knowing more about how and why political parties are targeting their ads to you specifically, you can try using this FB Chrome/Firefox extension: whotargetsme.

A Tiny Aside On Timothy Morton’s Environmental Philosophy, Just Because

“Commodity fetishism isn’t about just the alienation of humans, but the alienation of any entity whatsoever from its sensuous qualities, as we just saw. Production, as in the writing of a brilliant poem, is the thing you can’t help doing, your species-being. This is exactly how it can be exploited. It just happens anyway, so that the capitalist can dip a bucket into its flow to extract labor time from it and homogenize it. The capitalist exploits this fact, the non-chosen, non-‘imaginative’ part of me that I don’t have to plan, the fact that I’m a being like a silkworm. Which is precisely why my labour can be equated with the productivity of the soil–both are conveniently spontaneous bits of ‘nature’ that capitalism can turn into blank screens for value computation.” (Humankind, p. 60) (emphasis mine)

Let’s extend this thought experiment a little bit:

If humans can’t help but be productive, can’t help but make and create; and if capitalists then skim that off from us to create the value they profit by–which seems reasonable to me, and true–then what of emotions?

We can’t help but feel. Joy and sorrow and grief and humour and fear and anger and confusion and curiosity bubble out of us 24/7; feelings permeate us all the time, and form the basis of our rationality, our values, and our choices.

And if someone can fertilize that and nurture it with ideas (true or not) until we are boiling over with the kinds of feelings that keep us glued to our screens and our feeds; if someone can then use our feelings to get us to help fertilize our friends and families and acquaintances, to get more feelings out of them until we are all brimming over, like one farmer who plants their field with GMO seeds that spread on the wind until everyone’s growing GMO crops whether they wanted to or not; particularly the darker feelings like anger and fear and disgust and outrage because they are so compelling and contagious…

…and if they can build a business model that profits off it …

…what then?

Isn’t that social media?

Isn’t that what FaceBook and Twitter have done? Aren’t they profiting off our rage?

Wouldn’t this, and the algorithms they’ve built, encourage them to allow and even encourage any outrageous message, no matter how far from the truth, so long as it gets someone to hit the “share” button and yell “this pisses me off!” to their 500 friends?

I don’t know about you, but the thought that social media has effectively turned my brain into the equivalent of a newly-broken field, to be seeded with anger and fear, fertilized with constantly enraging news whether real or fake, and then “likes” and “shares” harvested for their profit at my expense–this makes me feel ill. Our increasing polarization, the steady erosion of community and compassion, the proliferation of “alternative facts” and misinformation: all of these are accepted as externalized business costs of new and unregulated industries.

And the whole business model is built on profiting from the manipulation of our most intimate and interior experiences: our values and feelings.

George Orwell comes up a lot these days, and for many valid horrifying reasons; but the ending of 1984 was in retrospect too generous by far. In 1984, if you don’t remember, the protagonist fell in love and conspired against the government, both illegal; but was convinced that so long as he still loved his girlfriend the ending could not be too bad. And he believed that nothing could change his feelings for her.

Facts, at any rate, could not be kept hidden. They could be tracked down by inquiry, they could be squeezed out of you by torture. But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings, for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

In 1984, it took torture to make him despise her.

In 2019, it takes algorithms to make us hate each other–and not even for something as large as propping up a totalitarian regime–just  a fatter bonus for a FaceBook executive. (Which isn’t to say that a lot of the alt-right neo-nazi crap isn’t totally hateful and doesn’t deserve it–but we hardly need lies to fan those flames higher; the reality is bad enough.)

We need systemic answers to this; as much as I rely on my Facebook Hygiene, we can’t simply expect billions of people to spontaneously and consistently restrain themselves; this is why we regulate casinos and driving speeds. What those regulations might be, I’m not well versed enough in this to say.

What I can say in the meantime is: BE CAREFUL. When you click, like, share, or comment, you train the algorithms in what to show you, and they won’t care if it’s harmful or enraging or a lie. All they care is how much time you spend on it and how likely you are to spread it around.  Anger is a necessary fuel for change, but it can also burn people out, and without a goal it can push people to the right.


My father’s family is full of crazy stories. I call them the family apocrypha because they seem incredible and there is no way to verify them. Like: his father was divorced (true); the divorce happened when he fell into a lengthy coma and his first wife gave up waiting for him to wake up (Days of Our Lives); that first marriage produced a son (true; I met him once. He seemed very nice); grandpa then married my grandmother (true) whose family disowned them because he was divorced and they saw this as adultery (true) until he converted to Christianity and they had children, at which point contact was resumed (true). Or: my Dad’s cousin was murdered (true; at least I have no reason to believe she wasn’t actually his cousin and I’ve looked her up so I know the basic story is true); the murderer was never found (also true); my grandmother was involved in undercover sting operations to try to find the killer (As the World Turns); this affected her deeply and the resulting trauma is why she was such an abusive shithead to her kids (very unlikely).

I heard these stories for as long as I can remember, whenever my Dad and I were alone. If the house was empty, if we were outside on the deck and it was night, if we were driving somewhere, the therapy session would begin. I’d hear about his mother had abused him, and all of the justifications for why it wasn’t her fault; how his father never left her and how he idolized him for staying; his hopes and dreams and work and marriage. The kind of thing a dad should really be discussing with his wife, not his nine-year-old, and I hated it.

There were no boundaries in my family, and it nearly washed me out of existence. My mother’s criticism and rejection were unrelenting, her threats to get rid of me–kick me out, give me up for adoption, send me to a foster family–unwavering, and my father backed her up. I can remember once or twice when he stood up for me, but it was rare. Because standing up for me meant he would become a target too, maybe, and he already was and it wasn’t pretty. Because reality for them was what my mother wanted it to be, and as much as he could, he lived in it, and in her reality I was permanently and inherently inadequate. Because as much as he had many wonderful qualities a strong will was not one of them and he gave in–not just on this, but on where he should work and where they would live and what they would do for fun and what kind of person he should be. She liked gardening; he gardened. She liked repainting the house; he painted. She wanted rescue animals; he cared for them. She didn’t like camping; he stopped going camping. She resented that other people had been to Europe and she hadn’t, and they made promises that they would travel there together when they retired; they retired, and instead of traveling she got another job and told him he wasn’t a real man because he wasn’t working, and they never went to Europe.

To the extent that I had a parent, he was my parent. He was the one who would take care of me when I was sick. He was the one who would show interest in my schoolwork, in what I was reading. He was the one who would sometimes take me places. He was the one who would help me, when she let him, if I was in a crisis. When she let him, he acted like he enjoyed my company, which is more than I can say for her. He was so easily pleased by the smallest trifle of affection, which from her he never got. All I can remember of them together is him trying to be close, and her rejecting him. And he stayed, just like his dad.

When I’d grown up and moved out, our therapy sessions changed. He’d call me once a week whenever he and my mom weren’t getting along and complain about how she was treating him; I’d listen and validate his feelings. Yes, you are right, that does sound crazy; no, I think anyone would feel angry about that; what she did was certainly not right; etc. I’d know when they patched things up because I wouldn’t hear from him for months, and then one day he would call again and it would be like nothing had ever happened. If I asked him how things had been resolved he would be offended; how could I imagine there had ever been a problem?

When he got sick last year, I agonized over what to do. I felt, rightly or wrongly, both that I was the last person on earth who should feel obligated to help him, and also possibly the only person on earth who really understood the situation he was in. I asked myself constantly how much help I could afford to give. What I could do that wouldn’t compromise my ability to take care of my daughter, who after all needs more than the average kid herself, and I don’t have a partner’s support. When my Dad was in the hospital last year, his wife (I am trying to retrain myself from referring to her as my mother) spoke to me only about the ways in which she assumed I would take care of him so that she wouldn’t need to take time off work. You know, your spouse of 45 years may have just been given a terminal cancer diagnosis but that’s no reason not to attend tomorrow’s IT meeting at the glove factory, and why should you miss it when your adult type 1 diabetic single mom of a disabled girl daughter can obviously easily step in to do it all for you? When I drew a line–“Frances has two doctor’s appointments and an x-ray this week that I need to be there for; I can’t be in the hospital this week as much as I have been”–she stopped speaking to me again. But for my own self-respect, if nothing else, I wanted to make the offers that I could.

They were rejected. They weren’t what my mother wanted or believed herself entitled to, so they were rejected. I was cut off, again. The same old pattern–his wife wanted to get rid of me, so he went along with it. Only this time it was his last year on earth. It punished me, as it was meant to; it also deprived my father of what could have been important support, and kept my daughter from the grandfather she loved and my Dad from the granddaughter he loved. Cruelty on cruelty and none of it mattered so long as it hurt me.

Since his wife doesn’t speak to anyone in the family except my brother, I called Dad regularly to find out what was happening and let other people know. It was the one thing I could do that she couldn’t stop me from doing. Until they moved. (Don’t ask.) And then I didn’t have their address or phone # and couldn’t call anymore.

He was admitted to a hospice shortly before he passed away and it was the first time I was able to see him since before they moved, but he was no longer in a state to recognize anyone.

After he passed away I was informed that since I was “never around” and “didn’t seem to care” that my presence at the informal memorial gathering was not considered important enough to make sure I would be able to attend. So I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t. It seems like it had very little to do with my father or his memory, and no one from his side of the family attended–I don’t know if they were even invited.

But–and in my tradition of Longest Prologues Ever, I am finally getting to the point–I would like to say something publicly in his memory. He erased himself all his life in the belief it would make him loved. I don’t want his death to erase what’s left.

He was fundamentally a gentle person, fundamentally unequipped to deal with the abuse and dysfunction he was immersed in. Where some people might fight back, or escape, he accommodated. If he could only be loved by allowing himself to be hurt and not complaining, that is what he would do. He expected others, myself included, to do the same, and when I resisted he could be cruel. Nothing made him angrier than my tears. I’ve learned since that this is a common effect of a traumatic childhood.  (In one study, children who had been abused by their parents screamed at, shoved and hit other children who were crying.)

He loved hockey and started playing when he was very young, as goalie. He made the team in University; his parents told him they would not pay for his education unless he stopped, so he did. It was a regret he carried forever. He thought he was good enough that he might have played in the NHL, but he never again played seriously, though he played recreationally throughout my childhood.

He loved the stars. Golden-age science fiction of all kinds was his favourite entertainment, and he believed that space travel would become commercially viable in his lifetime, and one day he would look at the earth from space. I wish that had happened for him. He wanted to be an astronaut; if memory serves he applied once and wasn’t accepted. But the fascination was lifelong. He bought the nicest telescopes he could afford, astronomy maps and magazines, books and documentaries about astrophysics, whatever he could that was–literally–out of this world. He grew up on Star Trek and to him none of the new shows ever compared to the original. He read Heinlin and Asimov and Douglas Adams–any paperback of intergalactic or multidimensional or time-traveling adventure. He loved technology. When I was young he’d build radios out of parts bought at specialty shops downtown; later on he had several computers in various states of rebuild and repair in his house always.

He loved Tolkien. I can’t tell you how many times he read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, or how much he loved the movie adaptations. He had no time for realism but any larger-than-life story set somewhere very far away he would enjoy.

He loved camping and the outdoors. Once, when I was young, we went camping on a lake as a family. Though our food was tied up to a tree branch, it was stolen overnight, possibly by a bear. What a thrilling thought to a young child, that a bear had maybe been that close and we all slept through it. In the morning he and I went fishing and caught our breakfast. I was so proud. Of course his wife hated camping so we never went again.

He also loved his parents’ and his wife’s parents’ cottages, and we went there once a year. When we did, he loved to stop in Bancroft to hunt through the old quarries to see if he could find anything to add to his rock collection, which had a special velvet-lined drawer in the den of our home. Bits of mica and fool’s gold and quartz, whatever he could find. Every time we went rock hounding I’d find all the shiny blue stones and ask, “What’s this one, Dad?”

“That’s sodalite.”

“How about this one?”

“That’s sodalite, too.”

Every stone I ever picked up was apparently sodalite. Frances and I both have pieces of sodalite in our rooms.

He loved carpentry, and had a whole workshop of fancy and very dangerous machines for woodworking. The furniture he made was beautiful–put together and finished perfectly.

My love of the outdoors comes partially from him, but also partially because when I was younger, people were scary and trees were safe, so I spent as much time as I could with trees and as little as possible with people. And I look at all the things my Dad loved to do, and with the exception of hockey, they are solitary, demanding technical skills that are consistently rewarding if you put in the time and effort to master them. Unlike people, or at least the ones in his life, the radios would work every time if he put them together right. Quartz was quartz was quartz, and would stay quartz, even if he looked away for five minutes. Andromeda wouldn’t switch places with Ursa Major and demand that he act as if they’d always been there. If a table saw hurt him, it wouldn’t have been on purpose, and he wouldn’t have been expected to act as if he hadn’t been hurt in order to prove how much he loved it. I’m speculating on his reasons, but I think it’s true.

His love of decadent food was legendary. Dark coffee, practically solid. Red wine, after they’d left the church. Fancy chocolate liqueurs. Any excuse to visit a bakery or the Sara Lee factory outlet was seized upon and he’d emerge with carts full of kaiser rolls, croissants, danishes, any kind of pie, rich fudgy cakes, and boxes of fancy cookies. His delight in the food of Christmas never paled. Every year I’d make him tins of treats–peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate, truffles, cheesecake brownies, sugar cookies plated in icing–and every year he would be thrilled. Entire boxes of sugary treats he was practically required to eat for politeness’ sake. And lucky man, he never put on an ounce from any of it.

He adored Frances. Which is only sensible because my completely unbiased opinion is that she is as close to perfect as it is possible for a person to be, and on which point he agreed with me entirely. They bonded over science and Lord of the Rings and beautiful stones and Christmas decorations and movies. They would snuggle up together and bask in the glow of their mutual affection, and it was a joy to see. Every time I called him, right to the end, he would ask what she was up to, and I would brag about her acts of kindness and brilliance, and he would chuckle and say, “She’s such an angel. She’s so precious.” When she was a non-napping baby with enormous blue eyes and intense leg-kicking arm-waving interest in everything around her, he would smile and say, “She’s a real going concern.” I’m still not 100% clear on what that meant exactly, but it was intended as a compliment.

His expectations were so low that it took practically nothing to make him happy. Listening to the same beautiful passage in the same beautiful song for the 50th time. A really good cup of coffee and a nice sandwich with good deli meat and cheese. Sunshine. And yet his life left him so confused about people and relationships that, though he loved people, he had no idea how to be with them. That parents were supposed to protect children was something he never learned, not for himself, and not for me. That relationships were not supposed to be tests of emotional endurance went over his head. To him, love too often meant hurting and being hurt. Whenever he got close to seeing this, he chased himself away so as not to hurt his wife by leaving her–as if anything would ever make her happy or satisfy her. As if that was worth the sacrifice of his life. I made the point to him once that staying wouldn’t make her happy because nothing made her happy, and he agreed, then said he was going to stay anyway so he could take care of her when she got old and sick and needed someone. When he got old and sick–very, very sick–she sent him to his oncology appointments alone and I was not permitted to accompany him.

We talked about her–well, I mentioned that already. But the door he opened by complaining to me about his marriage I walked through with why I wasn’t going to accept her treatment of me anymore. He didn’t like it, but he understood. And then he would forget (or “forget”) ever having had the conversation and we would have it again. He had this double consciousness, on the one hand believing that he was alone and lonely because no one really cared about him, and on the other knowing that it was really because his wife drove everyone away. He wanted so badly to have people around him and love in his life but he wanted even more to give her whatever she demanded, and the two were incompatible. I held out hope right until his diagnosis that one day he would see that he didn’t deserve it, that his sacrifices could never be appreciated and that his life would be better without her–but it never happened.

It was such a waste. If he’d had the slightest bit of reliable nurturing as a child his temperament would have made him a natural friend to so many, and his life would have been so rich and full. Instead he made himself live and be happy with a feast of crumbs. He exclaimed over every one of them as if it were a prize.

I wish someone had told him he deserved more when he was young enough that it could have made a difference. When I visited him that Saturday and held his hand, I told him so. I’ll never know if any part of him heard me, but I hope it did.

He said he didn’t want a funeral. But that, I think, is his belief that no one cared combined with his unwillingness to impose; I think if a bunch of people had got together during his life to share fond memories of him he would have had the best time ever. It’s too late now, and I wouldn’t have had any weight in the decision-making process regardless, but if you have a fond or happy memory of him to share, I would love to see it here.

Merry Christmas


To all of you who celebrate, I hope you have a wonderful day filled with good memories.

To those of you who celebrate something else, please forgive us once again our annual excesses.

And for those of you who are struggling right now, I wish you survival, good alcohol (if appropriate), and good company (if desired).

My favourite holiday song this year is Tracey Thorn‘s Joy, discovered from an internet friend many moons ago.

It puts the darkness and the light together in a way that I think is better and truer than the constant onslaught of Merry Merry Merry. I hope you love it as much as I do.

this is not a blog about refugees

Except for when it is. Today is that day, you lucky readers!

We’ve had an agonizing whiplash situation with respect to Syrian refugees here in Canada over the last few months. Of course, if you are Canadian, you know this already; but to recap for the readers in the outfield seats, early in the fall it looked like the Conservative party might win the federal election largely by appealing to anti-immigrant, specifically anti-Muslim, sentiment here in Canada. Perhaps those of you in America are having a well-isn’t-that-a-coincidence moment right now.

Then the Liberals smashed the Conservatives (and the NDP, unfortunately) in a wholly unanticipated landslide win. Since then, our new federal government has committed to taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February (this is, to my mind, insufficient but at least it’s a good start) and the new national pass-time has become obsessively watching and reading stories of Syrian newcomers, at least if my FaceBook feed is any indication. Community groups all over the country have formed to sponsor refugees under the private sponsorship process, in which individuals, families or groups commit to donating or raising at least $27,000 per family of four, to support them for one year after they come to Canada while they are adjusting and looking for work etc.

There are of course a ton of such projects all over the country, each of them worthwhile and deserving and a great use of donation dollars, but today I am going to share with you one formed by a friend and former co-worker, Katie Meyer-Beck, who is working with a small group of people to sponsor two families of Syrian refugees (with three small children between them) to relocate to Hamilton.

Walking Together

The short story is that the first family (of four) came to Walking Together’s attention as relatives of a Syrian family already living in Hamilton, and they committed to almost the entire $27k required to resettle them here. Then they found out there was another family of three also related to those two initial families, and they are trying to raise the money required to bring them over too.

As of my writing, they are about $15k short of their fundraising goal. And hey, if you live in the States and you are wishing you could do something to directly support people living through this crisis, and you want to take advantage of the crazy US/Canada $ exchange rate, here is your chance! (Or anyone else too.)

There are a lot of ways to express financial support, and I’ll feel remiss if I didn’t mention them too:

Wesley Urban Ministries, coordinating the resettlement work in Hamilton
Immigrant’s Working Centre’s 20for20 campaign, through which Walking Together is planning their sponsorship effort
and the UNHCR

All of whom would, so I understand, make wise use of your donation dollars on behalf of refugees.

But if it seems ok to you, and there’s still room in the Walking Together campaign when you read this, please consider donating to this effort.

Review: Vintage Quilt Revival: 22 Modern Designs From Classic Blocks

Vintage Quilt Revival: 22 Modern Designs From Classic Blocks
Vintage Quilt Revival: 22 Modern Designs From Classic Blocks by Katie Clark Blakesley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve had Vintage Quilt Revival for about a year, and finally got around to making a project from it. The blocks, projects, aesthetic and photography are all very appealing and pretty. But either it was my dumb luck, or the book suffers from a number of errors, because the cross-patch bag project’s measurements were all wrong.

What it is supposed to look like, when done, assuming you pick the same colours and all in solids, which I didn't.
What it is supposed to look like, when done, assuming you pick the same colours and all in solids, which I didn’t.

It is supposed to make an 8.5″ block before finishing. The book tells you how many of each type of block to cut out, and in what size; this I did, right off the bat. Then it says to get the template off the included cd and print 16 copies and use foundation piecing to put them together. Well, this is absurd. The cross-patch block is not difficult, from a piecing perspective. Careful measurement and piecing will work to produce a good block without wasting 16 pieces of paper. Also, I don’t have a cd drive on my computer, and I’m not buying a new laptop so I can make better use of a $20 book.

The block. See where it says 8.5"? And see how simple and straightforward the assembly is? Why would they require a reader to use foundation piecing?
The block. See where it says 8.5″? And see how simple and straightforward the assembly is? Why would they require a reader to use foundation piecing? Also, when I say “inner” I mean “inside the yellow border,” and when I say “outer” I mean everything else, including the yellow rectangles.

Or it would work, if the measurements given for cutting were accurate.

But they weren’t.

(Aside: the inner pieces are given as 1.5″ wide. The outer pieces are given as 2.25″ wide. I have double-checked and yes, it does say 1.5″, and yes, it’s for all of the inner pieces, not just one–so not a typo. I have a feeling that the 2.25″ is the correct measurement so if you are going to make the crosspatch bag from this book, cut your inner squares out at 2.25″x 2.25″, and the white strip as 2.25″ x 6″. That should work better.)

Finished block. You can see how it wouldn't really work if the inner squares and rectangles were thinner than the outer ones.
Finished block. You can see how it wouldn’t really work if the inner squares and rectangles were thinner than the outer ones.

So I made up the first block just following the diagram, and the lattice arms on the outer portions were about an inch wider than the arms in the inner portion, completely breaking the interwoven effect. I had to take them apart and trim an inch off of the outer lattice pieces to make the effect work–and at that point, of course, it was no longer 8.5″. It was 6.5″. Which would mean a bag that was 12″ across instead of 16″ across. Not something I was really keen on.

So I trimmed all the outer pieces into sizes that would work with the inner pieces, cut out pieces for one more block, and turned it into a cushion cover. (3 blocks x 3 blocks with an envelope back in a solid yellow.) It’s a very pretty cushion cover, and I’ve had the 18″ form inside it hanging around for years, waiting for an appropriate home. But it’s not a bag, and I’m not sufficiently motivated to try another project from the book to see if they have more accurate cutting measurements. I’ll just use the book for inspiration, and use block instructions from elsewhere.

It's a very pretty cushion. It's just that I wasn't really planning on making a cushion.
It’s a very pretty cushion. It’s just that I wasn’t really planning on making a cushion.

View all my reviews

I’m starting to think, though, that I may be one of the few people on the planet who waits to review crafting books until after I’ve tried a project from them. This book has a lot of good reviews on GoodReads, but none of them mention anyone having actually made something from the book. Buyer beware.

Goddammit. The roof.

For recent folks, a short recap:

Mid 2012, I bought a house. And then got a lawnmower, bbq, etc., to go with the house. As one does.
End 2012, the old car fell apart on the highway and I had to buy a new one, and my bike was stolen.
In 2013, my cell phone, laptop, printer all died. A birch tree in the backyard died and had to be taken down. And I lost my job. I found a new one by the end of the year, but still.
And in 2014, my 60-foot retaining wall rotted apart after our very snowy winter and needed to be replaced.

It’s like everything in my house is determined to break all at once. With the exception of the bike (I still haven’t replaced it), nothing could wait. The consequences of not replacing whatever it was was always more costly and difficult than going ahead with it. This is not to say that I could, by the time the retaining wall gave out, actually afford it. Single mom–one income–seriously depleted bank account thanks to house and car downpayment–ongoing mortgage and loan rendering it difficult to rebuild savings–all equals some debt for the retaining wall. Curses.


If you’ve known me for longer than fifteen minutes, you’ll likely have heard me compare the costs of climate change to a roof on your house. Yes, if the roof leaks, it is expensive and a total PITA to repair it. Maybe you can’t afford to fix it right now. You’re still better of fixing the roof, because if you don’t, you’ll end up losing your house to rot. Go into debt if you need to.

Well, guess who found shingles on her lawn this morning.

Yep. This person.

There was a massive windstorm Monday night this week, and it apparently did more damage than I was really, really, really hoping it would do. I was really, really, really hoping that the roof would last through one more winter, and I could replace it in the spring after paying down the retaining wall.

I so can’t afford to fix my roof right now. But I guess I’m going to have to.

If only I could sew a new roof … but no. What this does mean though is that my current super-strict sewing budget will need to be both stricter and in place for longer. Sigh.

I love it when I become the living embodiment of my own analogies.

Review: 1, 2, 3 Quilt: Shape Up Your Skills with 24 Stylish Projects

1, 2, 3 Quilt: Shape Up Your Skills with 24 Stylish Projects
1, 2, 3 Quilt: Shape Up Your Skills with 24 Stylish Projects by Ellen Luckett Baker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had some issues with 1, 2, 3 Sew–such as errors with project instructions and cutting measurements–which I was happy to see not repeated in this book.

Still in regular rotation as an office tote-bag.

The measurements for all the projects I’ve tried work and the instructions are clear and result in a good product. My 10-year-old daughter even tackled the first project (I did the slicing and pinning), and made a lovely checkerboard. My one complaint is that most of the projects are best suited to solids and many are quite basic. While yes, I am learning to quilt, the occasional bit of complexity would be a welcome break.

Still, it’s a good and accessible introduction to quilting. Highly recommended if you are considering making quilts but don’t know where to begin.


2013 really knocked the stuffing out of me.

(Technically, it was fall 2012-fall 2013, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll just round it to the nearest year.)

It then dragged the stuffing into the street, spread it all over, and drove on top of it in a muddy mac truck with snow chains on the tires.

I have gathered up my precious stuffing, but it is now hiding under the bed, still rather filthy and bedraggled. It is in desperate need of laundering and a good fluffing session, but so far it prefers to shiver in the dark.

I will not lie to you (and why would I?). Working in the wind industry was definitely one of the big gashes through which much stuffing escaped to the street. At some point, years from now, I may have more perspective on the entire experience. I’m not there yet. Certainly receiving threats of civil unrest and personal violence, and regular accusations that I must be in it for the money, from people who felt it their democratic right to abuse power developer’s consultants, was very interesting. Of course, my daughter’s ongoing health issues, a few new health issues of my own, some criminal activity on the part of an ex that affected me rather directly, and a year in which every expensive thing in my house (except the furnace–please god not the furnace, not yet) broke, all contributed. My poor stuffing. Just listing it all out like this has it shaking in its wet, fleecy boots.

Anyway: 2013: good riddance to bad rubbish. Don’t let my machete knock you on your way out the door. Etc.

2014 looks at this point to be potentially a better year. After ten long years (ten! long! years!) we actually have potential diagnoses for my little girl, which come with actual potential treatments that may vastly improve her health and quality of life. For this I will be immensely grateful, once I can articulate the decade-long wait without anger and see something good happening for her, both at the same time. I have a new job. So far I am really enjoying it. Also, so far, no one has told me I should die. Hurray! My own health issues seem to be resolving–possibly they were stress-related. Even my blood sugars are better so far this year. Which is weird. Good, but weird.

Anyway, I have high hopes for 2014. Including that my furnace will continue to heat my home for a few months more.

What I don’t have right now is the ability to do any kind of environmental activism.

Which is sad. A couple of times a day, I’ll consider it briefly–consider writing or reading or sharing links or going to a meeting or something–and even this will cause the stuffing to retreat further under the bed. I know that it will come back, since it is ultimately as inseparable from the rest of me as my eye colour or addiction to printed matter, but in the meantime I will allow my stuffing to act as if we are not living in the middle of the Sixth Great Extinction. A short denial period, purely in the interests of recovery.

Hence a lot of silence here (you may have noticed), which brings me now to … well … here.

Dear Readers, what should I do with this place?

Leave it empty until I can look at a climate report or protest ad without shuddering?

Or talk about what I am actually doing these days?

Now I know that the vast majority of you are already FB friends and you know full well what I am doing these days: I am sewing. (And working and taking care of the house and the dog and the kid, but when all that’s done, I am sewing.) And crocheting. And I am reading about sewing and crocheting. And I am shopping for sewing and crocheting supplies. And this is pretty much what I am doing.

Every year since I was … well, actually I can’t remember how old I was when I started to write New Year’s Resolutions, but it was a pretty comprehensively long period of time ago, and they have always been focused on self-improvement. I will exercise more! I will test my blood sugar more frequently! I will send out x article submissions! I will read y# books about science! I will volunteer at a shelter! I will donate 5% of my after-tax income to charity! I will learn how to cook m# new recipes! And so on. Every year. Most years I’d even do it. Last year, I accomplished essentially none of my resolutions–except the one to ditch the Diet Coke, which has me unreasonably proud of myself. Still, my self remains resolutely unimproved over its late-2012 incarnation. My self wants nothing to do with improvement of any kind, unless it involves improving my bed through the addition of a lovely new handmade quilt. But that’s bed-improvement. Not the same thing.

This year I don’t even have any new year’s resolutions, except to Have Fun. All in the interests of stuffing recovery, you understand. Now for other people, Have Fun might mean going out to restaurants or to movies or new clubs or parties or the kinds of things that involve other people laughing and drinking alcohol. I am not opposed to these things and I may participate should the opportunity arise, but the kind of Fun I am determined to Have involves … sewing. And crocheting.

I will sew clothes. They will be pretty and I will wear them.

I will sew a throw quilt for the living room. It will be a critter quilt. Then I will sew a quilt for my room. This may or may not happen this year, since quilts take a very long time and I have a very long list of crafty goals to accomplish.

I will crochet two sweaters. They will be comfortable and pretty and not-beige. I will crochet on weeknights, since it’s something quiet I can do while Frances is sleeping. On weekends, I will sew and make a big noisy mess.

I will dye fabrics using cochineal, logwood and onion skins. You’d be surprised at the onion skins. It results in a particularly vibrant and sunny shade of orangey-yellow. I will turn these dyed fabrics into cute little handbags. Some of them I will keep. Some of them I will not. What other things can I turn hand-dyed fabrics into? I’m sure I’ll think of something.

I will learn to sew with leather. Or suede. Or both. Why not?

Should I crochet a throw blanket? A nice cuddly throw blanket in a lovely soft colour out of some lovely decadent fibre like cashmere or alpaca? Just to have something I can cower beneath while my stuffing recovers? I don’t know. I am torn on this one.

I will cook some new things. When I feel like it. No pressure. And I will bake scones which will be eaten with our homemade strawberry preserves. And then I will sew.

There you have it, Dear Readers: 2014 in a nutshell for me. I will build myself a fortress out of yarn and fabric and emerge from it when I am bloody well good and ready. And in the meantime I suspect all I will feel like writing about will be sewing and crocheting.

Should I put it here, if I do? This is where you can weigh in, if you’d like. Here or FB. Do I irretrievably contaiminate my little-read green blog if I post about sewing and crocheting for a while? Should I just let it rest? Can I pretend after the fact that actually sewing up a pretty shirt out of a lovely italian cotton is somehow eco? I kind of doubt it.

Thoughts welcome.

Janome 2030 QDC


This isn’t exactly the intended use of this space, but a bunch of people have been asking me for sewing machine reviews and tips, so here it goes:

For about 15 years, I sewed very happily with a very basic entry-level Kenmore machine. It had straight and zig zag stitches and a three-step buttonhole, and a couple of stretch stitches for knits. It was absolutely all I needed for a long time, and this review should be construed in no way as to say that anyone needs a fancier machine for the vast majority of sewing. If you’ve got a machine that does the above, you’ll be able to sew household goods, costumes, clothes, accessories etc. very well. I’d actually say that if you’re new to sewing, spend as little as you can on a basic machine from a good brand (even used, assuming you can try it out before you bring it home); upgrade when you know what it is you like to sew and what kinds of additional features and functions you would most like. There’s no point in spending a couple of hundred extra dollars on decorative stitches you’ll never use–or automatic buttonholes when you don’t like sewing clothes–or a quilt extension table if you discover you hate quilting.

And I’d likely not have replaced my Kenmore if it hadn’t been breaking down on me. After fifteen years of dedicated service I suppose it was destined to happen: if I selected the straight stitch, sometimes I’d get zigzag; if I selected the buttonhole stitch, sometimes I’d get a straight stitch. I’d end up faking a buttonhole with a very densely set zig zag stitch, overlapped a couple of times. The bobbin thread was forever getting tangled. It was loud. Also, Kenmores are decent machines, but they’re from Sears, and it’s not so easy getting support on sewing machines these days from Sears (my local store doesn’t carry sewing machines or supplies) which can make it difficult to get extra bobbins or accessories or different feet or, you know, repairs when the machine starts breaking down. I didn’t want to deal with that hassle, so I struck when the boxing day iron was hot and got myself a Janome half-price. (Looking at the Kenmore page, it wasn’t actually much more expensive than a similar Kenmore model–so there you go.)

Janomes are reputed to be the world’s most reliable sewing machines; Berninas are good too, if you have the money; Singers are inexpensive, but not as good as they used to be. Basically, Janomes are like Hondas: a really nice little machine at a reasonable price. Two things settled the choice for me: the recommendation of my local fabric store and sewing studio, which is completely stocked with Janomes for their sewing classes; and a recent bit in a sewing magazine, asking the issue contributors what machine they have at home and use most often. One person said Bernina. Every other contributor said they use a Janome.

If they’re anything like me, of course, they have more than one sewing machine at home: I have five right now, embarassingly, including my daughter’s, my old broken Kenmore, an antique Singer that I’ve been told works but which I bought for the sewing table it’s embedded in, the new Janome, and a used BabyLock serger that I also adore. I thought it quite significant that for almost all of the contributors, the one they used most often was their Janome.

The 2030 QDC was on sale, as I said; it also had a few features I was looking for:

a) automatic one-step buttonholes.
b) quilting accessories and a little extension table for quilts
c) lots of lovely additional feet, including a quarter-inch seem foot, a walking foot, a darning foot, a buttonhole foot, a zipper foot, a see-through foot for the decorative stitches–basically anything I could think I might want to use

That it’s computerized I didn’t really care about one way or the other. Indeed, the computerized part means it makes a bit of a hum when it’s on whether it’s in use or not, which may be annoying to you. At any rate, computerized models are not superior to mechanical models for most sewing.

I’ve now put it through four sewing projects–three patchwork/quilting projects and one piece of clothing–and I love it. It’s a great little machine.

First: patchwork pouch


Frances has now commandeered this for her personal use to corral part of her mountain of art supplies. The project came from 1-2-3 Quilt, a book of progressive learn-to-quilt projects. Threading the machine was completely intuitive, assisted by the autmoatic needle threader, and winding and installing the bobbin was really simple. The bobbin is installed horizontally beneath a transparent plastic plate, so you can see how much thread is remaining. You change feet with a button at the back of the foot holder–no screws!–which was fantastic, and the quarter-inch and zipper feet were super handy and very easy to use. The machine sews much more quietly than my old Kenmore. Janomes also can be operated with the use of a start/stop button on the machine itself rather than the foot pedal, and I played with that and found it pretty handy. I’m used to foot pedal operation, so I’m not sure it’s something I’m going to use often, but for someone shorter who has a hard time reaching a foot pedal or who hasn’t spent fifteen years sewing with one, I think it could be really great.

It also has a button to control whether the machine stops with the needle raised or lowered. Most of the time I use it with the needle raised, but lowered is great when you’re fidgeting with curves or corners and need to pivot frequently.

Second: table runner


There is only one reason I would sew a table runner. Well, ok, two. I might sew one for a gift, for someone else. But there is only one reason I would sew one for me, and that is as a learning project. It was my second project in the 1-2-3 Quilt book, so I made one out of leftover fabric, and god knows between craft supplies, sewing projects and homework, the dining room table will never be clear enough for it to be used. But it’s done. The quilting extension table came in very handy. It was great to have the project at the level of the machine; kept everything moving through in a nice straight line. I also used a walking foot for the first time ever, and once I got the hang of it, it worked great and made for nice quilting lines with no fabric puckering or pulling.

Third: patchwork tote bag


I know the handles don’t match the fabric, but it seemed silly to go out and purchase new cotton webbing for another practice project. Still, it’s cute, eh? And very sturdy. It carries a lot of books. I think I’ll keep this one at my new office for any midday errands I need to run. It didn’t really show me anything new about the Janome, though.

Fourth: the Fancy Shirt

aka, Vogue Pattern 1366 , an Anne Klein pattern I got on sale for $3, rated “average” for difficulty. I bought a really nice super-soft bright pink Italian cotton for it on Queen West a month or so back, and I was not looking forward to attempting a buttonhole in this gorgeous fabric with my wonky old Kenmore and it’s fickle buttonhole settings–and this shirt has a lot of buttons. You can’t see them in the picture, but take my word for it. Isn’t it pretty? Look at those cool sleeves!

(I made the pants in a test fabric a while back, and will make them again in a nice light wool, too. It’s a great pattern set if you’re looking for some nice work wear and don’t mind spending a bit of extra time fidgeting with the details. I will also say that unlike many brands, Vogue patterns are correctly sized for the body measurements included on the pattern envelope, so do not undersize yourself. I sewed up a size 16 and it’s just about perfect for me, pants and shirt both.)

This was where I really fell in love with my beautiful little Janome.


Automatic buttonholes! You put the button you want to use in the buttonhole foot, and it automatically sews the buttonhole exactly the right size with the push of a button! Once I got it all figured out (and I do recommend practicing on some scrap fabric pieces first), I put the placket underneath the foot, pushed the button, and got up and went to the kitchen to fetch my tea. And I came back and there was a perfect little buttonhole waiting for me. Just thinking about it I could go downstairs and give it a hug and a kiss right now. Apparently you can also use the machine to sew on buttons (buttons!), but I haven’t yet been brave enough to try that.

Overlock stitch! You know when a pattern tells you to sew once, sew again 1/4″ away, and then trim close to the second stitch line (if you don’t, it’s for seams with heavy use to reinforce them)–instead I stitched once, trimmed, and then overlock stitched 1/4″ away to get a serged effect without having to get out my serger. The seams inside this shirt are a thing of beauty, I tell you. They will last for 20 years.


No tangled bobbin threads; no skipped stitches. All of the accessories are stored in a little flip-down compartment at the front of the machine, so they were all to hand when I needed them.

Now, a lot of this is not unique to Janome, and I could have gotten automatic buttonhole features etc. with any number of different brands. But it’s smooth, quiet, makes lovely stitches, is a pleasure to use and designed to be as easy as possible–with things like the viewable bobbin and the button for changing feet, for example. One of the stitch settings automatically reverses at the beginning of a new seam to “lock” it; I haven’t used this yet, but again, I can see how this would be very handy for new sewists. I could have found something much fancier for a lot more money, but I frankly can’t see why.

I won’t say the new machine makes me like sewing even more (though I’m tempted to), but I will say that it has eliminated some not insignificant frustrations from my old machine, and I can’t wait to start on my next project (that’ll be the fifth since buying the machine last Friday). Pants or throw quilt? Throw quilt or pants? I suspect I will be lost in a fabric haze during all my spare time for at least a few months to come.