Sunday, March 22, 2015

Equinox sunset walk

Finally rousting myself from my winter sedentariness this past week, I started going for a walk in the morning before breakfast. This is not so ambitious as it probably sounds—I seldom eat breakfast before 10 a.m., and I seldom rise earlier than 8:30.

Nine-ish in the morning is really an excellent time for a walk this time of year, when the sun is fairly high and the air is warming up. The school buses have finished their rounds and the commuters have driven away and it's really pretty quiet around here.

I enjoy listening to the chatter of birds and observing the gradual greening of my neighborhood. It helps that my neighborhood borders on the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Falls.

Minnehaha Falls on March 16
But, I have arthritic knees, I'm overweight, and I'm out of practice—yes, walking is a practice, and subject to both good and bad habits, like everything else. So these walks have resulted in my knees hurting all day long, relieved only partially by the yoga I do afterwards, and the bike rides I take later on each day. They always recover by the next morning, so I figure it's a problem that will gradually get better as I continue to do it; especially as I start practicing Feldenkrais again, which I wrote about some time ago here. When I stopped my one-on-one lessons, I bought a set of CDs by Feldenkrais guru Russell Delman for practicing on my own, but until this week they sat largely untouched.

On Friday I decided I was tired of the day-long pain and skipped the morning walk. I did some yoga and had my usual bike ride of about 5 or 6 miles, with a stop at a coffee shop, of course (because bike riding is about the journey and the destination, for me). At suppertime I was commenting about how pleasant it was to not have pain all day.

But as I sat at the supper table looking out our west-facing windows, I was totally enchanted by the beautiful colors that were playing across the western sky. And then I remembered that it was the vernal equinox. So I decided to take a walk at sunset—an old-fashioned "evening constitutional," I told my husband—reasoning that I would only have pain for the evening and be recovered as usual by morning.

Looking west on East 46th Street at 7:11 p.m., Friday, March 20, 2015

I stopped while crossing East 46th Street to admire the perfect symmetry of the equinox sunset, and then continued on to the falls to take in the beauty and watch several Somali immigrants enjoying this stunning natural feature in the midst of our urban neighborhood.

Afterwards, I did a little yoga and then had a bath, massaging my knee a bit while it was immersed in the warm water. My knees didn't feel too bad after this, and, as usual, they were just fine in the morning.

Minnehaha Falls, about 7:20 p.m., March 20, 2015
I think I'll continue with the evening walks, and make time for my Feldenkrais "awareness through movement" lessons more regularly, and eventually resume the morning walks as well.

And when I go for a walk after supper, hubby washes the dishes. Maybe I should start doing the cooking more often.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Coffee and Virtuosity

Recently I became very curious about the word virtuoso.

I've always thought it had only one meaning—a gifted artist, usually a musician. But then I was reading a book about the history of coffeehouses, and in it, the author makes the argument that the reason coffeehouses caught on in 17th century England was because of the English virtuosi.



What? I could tell immediately that he wasn't talking about a bunch of really good violinists. 

In the introduction to The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse, author Brian Cowan, a professor of British history at McGill University in Montreal, Québec, writes:

"The crucial social legitimacy for both the coffee commodity and the coffeehouse was provided by the unique combination of a genteel virtuoso 'culture of curiosity' and a rapidly growing commercial world centered in London. ... Coffee culture began with virtuosity and quickly became an integral part of urban living."

Well. I wondered if that was some obscure meaning only known to scholars of 17th century English history.

As I continued to read the book, I was able to infer a sense of who these virtuosi were: men who liked to dabble in scientific experiments, but were not necessarily scientists themselves; who collected art and antiquities and exotic things and arranged them for display in cabinets of curiosities (a cabinet being, at that time, a small room); and who liked to hang out at coffeehouses to read newspapers, observe demonstrations, and engage in learned discussions, or at least make a pretense of doing so.  

Too bad there was no espresso in the 17th century. Imagine what they would have thought of latte art.



I have a few dictionaries

So I got to wondering if any of this was in my haphazard collection of dictionaries.  

Consider my dad's 1929 dictionary—the entry for virtuoso reads:
"1. one with a special knowledge of, or taste for, objects of art, curios, or the like; a collector; 2. one skilled in the technique of an art, esp. the art of music" (The Winston Simplified Dictionary. The John C. Winston Company, 1929)


virtuoso in The Winston Simplified Dictionary, 1929

I found some variation on that first meaning in seven or eight other dictionaries, dating from 1935 to the 1960s, with some adding a third meaning that included an interest in science. But notice this 1964 entry, which includes the science bit, but labels it obsolete:

"... 3. [obs.] a person learned in the arts and sciences; scholar; savant —SYN. see aesthete" (Webster's New World Dictionary. The World Publishing Company, 1964)

Webster's New World Dictionary, 1964

And then there's this simple, single meaning offered in a 1992 dictionary that I would not consider to be more abridged than the others (judging by its size):

"Someone very highly skilled in the technique of a fine art, esp. in the playing of a musical instrument" (New Webster's Dictionary and Thesaurus. Lexicon Publications, 1992)
And that made me think that perhaps the sense of the word as meaning a science dabbler and art collector, etc., had fallen out of use by the 1990s. Until I looked up virtuoso in an online dictionary,  which included the older definitions once again, even while labeling one of them obsolete.
Which leads me to a hypothesis: Perhaps the older meaning of virtuoso is making a comeback because of the renewed interest in the quirky obsessions of those virtuosi, with their cabinets of curiosities and their fascination with antiquities and art objects, as well as the aesthetically similar iconography of steampunk.
And coffeehouses. Which are almost as popular today as they were in 17th century London. 


Virtuosic latte art at Dogwood Coffee



Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Happy lunar new year, all you goats and sheep!

Year of Yáng, or goat/sheep
I love the lunar new year, aka Chinese new year, not because I actually celebrate it, but because it heralds the coming of spring and features an animal of the year -- or, as is the case this year, two animals!

The 19th of February ushers in the year of the sheep and the year of the goat, depending on where you live or by which translation route the name traveled.


I discovered this dichotomy by chance after I had been working on drawings of sheep for my 2015 Useful Calendar (which are on sale now, btw), which always features the coming year's Chinese zodiac animal. When I got an inquiry via my Etsy shop from someone wondering if I would be making Year of the Goat greeting cards, I thought I had better do a little more research and so discovered that it can go either way.


That's because the Chinese word for it, yáng, refers to the group of animals that includes goat and sheep. Wikipedia does a rather nice job of explaining it, so I won't duplicate that here.

My solution? I featured both animals, having a little argument about who should really get the honor.



And why do I think the lunar new year heralds the coming of spring, you might ask? Because in China, it's the beginning of the spring festival, which continues until the Lantern Festival, on March 5 this year.

The date of the Chinese/lunar new year is determined as the second new moon after the winter solstice, and by that time, we're about halfway to the spring equinox, and the minutes of daylight have noticeably increased. Yay for that!

Click to print this as a letter size poster if you like.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Little Boxes


A few years ago when my husband, Craig Cox, and I visited Susan Hensel Gallery, Craig was taken by a tiny paper box with a laser-cut design on the lid, titled "The Way to be Empty." It sits on his dresser still.


The Way to Be Empty, looking a little the worse for wear. It's about 1.5 inches wide.

Little boxes. Small packages. There is something appealing about them, even when they don't contain anything.

Or when they contain something surprising and silly, like this match box that my friend Carrie Mercer gave me years ago. (She sells a few zines in her Etsy shop, Alterior Motives/Cocoanap.)

Box by Carrie Mercer. Around the inside, it says: "Please do not wake the chicken until tea is ready."

Etsy shop The Paper Assembly makes a variety of finely crafted little boxes. Lately she has added house-shaped boxes.

Small house box from The Paper Assembly

An exquisite small-box maker here in Minneapolis is Jody Williams, aka Flying Paper Press. She calls her handcrafted containers, which are artfully arranged with artifacts and natural specimens, "Not Empty Boxes." They are like miniature cabinets of curiosities.

Transformation specimen box by Jody Williams

My own little boxes are much simpler (and cheaper!). You not only get to decide what to put in them (chocolates come to mind, always), but you get to assemble them as well. They are just 2 inches square.

Mindfulness DIY box/cube



Holiday DIY box/cube

I've created a Pinterest board for little boxes; you could follow it if you like that sort of thing.












Sunday, November 30, 2014

Andrew, Whose Day is Today — is a Well-rounded and Well-traveled Saint

St. Andrew, sans golf clubs
"Hey, today is St. Andrew's Day," I say to hubby. "He's the patron saint of . . . "

"Golf?" hubby interjects.

I ponder this for a while, trying to think of a famous golfer named Andrew. I'm stumped.

"Why do you say that?" I ask.

"Because of St. Andrew's, the famous golf course in Scotland."

"Oh!" I say. "Well, he's the patron saint of Scotland."


Then I decided to do a little search on the saint, to see if anyone else has dubbed him the patron of golfers, and, well, yes. He is considered to be the patron saint of fisherman, evangelists, Scotland,  Russia, and golfers. (Russia has a few other patron saints.)

He is the patron of fishermen because he was a fisherman, and was fishing with his brother, Peter (aka Simon), when Jesus called them both to follow him, saying "I will make you fishers of men."

Andrew and Peter were also present when St. John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus the Messiah, and then the two of them followed Jesus to the place where he was staying at the time, but this was Andrew's idea, so that apparently made him the patron of evangelists. (They weren't stalkers, btw; Jesus invited them. Of course there are a few variations on this, and I'm no biblical scholar, so I'm referring to this source, and the first chapter of John, verses 40–42, in my mother's Revised Standard edition).

The Scottish flag, featuring the St. Andrew's cross, or saltire

And Scotland? Because some 300 years after he was crucified by the Romans on an X-shaped cross in Patras, Greece (because he did not feel he was worthy to be crucified on the same sort of cross as Jesus), part of his remains were taken by St. Rule (you look that guy up, I have a narrative to finish here) from St. Andrew's tomb in Constantinople because St. Rule "was told in a vision to take the bones to the 'ends of the earth' for safe keeping." So, naturally, he took them to Scotland, to a settlement that later came to be called St. Andrews. (From Scottish History Online.)

The X-shaped St. Andrew's cross is also called the saltire, a word with a curious etymology of its own, and which forms the blue-and-white Scottish flag and is also incorporated into the UK's Union Jack.

Image "borrowed" from True Fresco online art shop

Now, of course, the town of St. Andrew, Scotland, is best known for its famous and beautiful golf courses, seven in all, to date. The playing of golf in Scotland dates back to sometime in the 15th century, and the Old Course at St. Andrews was established in 1552.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Plaid Friday — It's a thing!

Image "borrowed" from Minneapolis Happening Mag

First, I'll just admit that I have never liked "Black Friday." The name just sounds dreary and ominous, and the shopping frenzy at the mall and big box stores even worse. I've never really understood the appeal or why so many people want to subject themselves to it, and with such zeal, no less.

So then there was Buy Nothing Day, an anti-consumerism campaign started by Ad Busters; an understandable rebellion against the rampant consumerism that reaches such a fevered pitch at this time of year.

But that always seemed a little extreme to me. Sure, I could take all the money I would normally spend for gifts and decor and such and give it to some worthy charities instead, while spending the holiday season on meaningful activities that don't involve buying things.

But, let's be honest here: What's the fun in that?

I think Buy Nothing Day misses a very important point: that it's possible to engage in the consumer economy in a moderate, enjoyable, and beneficial way, and set aside some of your holiday budget to give to charity.

And I think it overlooks the equally important fact that it isn't just about the mega retailers who depend upon Christmas shopping to keep their shareholders happy. Small, independent businesses in our communities need our dough for their very survival; and they aren't asking for charity, they're offering an excellent value, because they not only sell cool stuff—unique items, often locally  handmade, quirky secondhand goods, or imported through fair trade cooperatives, that you won't find at the big stores—but they also provide a pleasant, personal shopping experience, and help to make our neighborhoods vibrant.

So along comes Plaid Friday. Started in Oakland, California, in 2010, it's an initiative of small independent businesses to promote shopping local and small on what is otherwise known as Black Friday. And they encourage people to wear plaid while doing so!

The plaid gambit isn't just a playful thumbing of noses against the big guys, although that would be reason enough to get on the plaid bandwagon, but it was conceived as symbolic of:

weaving the individual threads of small businesses together to create a strong fabric that celebrates the diversity and creativity of independent businesses  (From the Plaid Friday website.)


It's been spreading throughout the country since its inception in 2010, and it has recently come to the Twin Cities (possibly last year, though I only learned about it a few days ago). 

I may have to start my plaid Friday outing by shopping for a plaid scarf to wear.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Invention and Imitation and a Dice Game—It's All Art

I made up this dice game when my kids were elementary-school age and we were homeschooling and I wanted a way for them to practice their multiplication that was more interesting than flash cards. Wouldn't it be swell if I could find a game that used multiplication in scoring?, I thought.


Well, I couldn't find one, so I made one up. I don't recall that we actually used it all that much. Kids don't always feel the same enthusiasm for our brilliant ideas as we do.

Years later, I thought this would be a good product to market to homeschoolers and other parents and teachers, so I designed a little booklet of instructions, bought dice through various educational supply sources, got some round tins from the Ax Man surplus shop in St. Paul, collaged the covers of the tins, and sold them at a homeschooling conference and then on Etsy.



With limited success. But just when I think maybe I won't bother with these anymore, someone buys one, or a few, and tells me how much they like it, and I decide to keep making them.

A third-grade teacher who bought one at a craft show later told me how well it kept a bright student occupied. A person who bought one from my Etsy shop said, "It's a fun game to work the brain." Another said, "Great for my third grader!" And this: "Great for all of us—kids and adults—in the car at first but they ask to play it at home now as well."

These little tidbits of encouragement have kept me making the games, even though they're not exactly a best-seller for me.

As my first few batches of games sold, I was scrounging for tins of various sorts to contain them, and eventually decided to buy the tins wholesale to be assured of a ready supply. Still, I was covering each one with unique ephemera from vintage bingo sheets, maps, and math books, always buffing the metal lids with sandpaper to make the glue adhere, then burnishing them to get rid of any bubbles, and glueing a label on each that coordinated with the colors on the paper. After that glue had dried, I then brushed on a sealant and left them to set overnight.



I knew I couldn't really expect to ask as much money for these as the time and thought I put into each individual game (searching for images, tracing and cutting and glueing, etc.), so I tried designing a standard cover for the tins to print out on sticker paper.

I didn't like the design I came up with, so I went back to crafting them one by one. (I disliked the design so much I can't even find an example to show you.)

Then I had a customer want six of the games for her son's birthday party. When I asked her if she had any preference as to the design on the tins, she replied "Math symbols, please."

And that made me recall a recent cover of Conduit magazine featuring chalkboard math symbols in the background.



And that made me think of a book I read earlier this summer, Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon (which I bought at my local independent bookstore, Moon Palace Books), which pointed out that all artists get their ideas from somewhere, and we shouldn't be afraid to imitate and adapt ideas we come across, because those artists stole ideas and motifs from someone else.



Or, as my art buddy Brian Western once reminded me, "There is nothing new under the sun."

So I designed new covers for the dice games, featuring numbers and equations in a white chalkboard font on a variety of colored backgrounds, and I printed them on sticker paper, which means I don't have to buff, glue and burnish them anymore.


The customer was pleased. And so am I.

You can find these games in my Etsy shop, btw.