In Praise of the Handkerchief

My spouse is a handkerchief person. I thought this was quaint when we met. I have since experienced the practicality of the practice (particularly in movie theaters when I have forgotten tissue).

Not long ago when we were visiting my mom, I asked her if she had any of dad’s old hankies left. I thought perhaps I could replenish the spousal supply, and plus I’ve always loved a big hankie for myself when I have a really bad cold, most especially an old and very soft hankie. She did indeed have a supply and shared some, and then asked if I wanted any of hers. Compared to my dad’s, they were so small, so dainty. I couldn’t imagine honking into one of those things. It would feel like desecration or something.

But the next time we’re visiting my mom, I have a little sneezing attack and I’m going through tissue after tissue. I remember the hankies and ask Mom if I can have one of her handkerchiefs after all. I grabbed a small soft one mostly at random, and it was perfect for my slightly runny sneezy nose. To my surprise the next day, it looked and felt perfectly soft and clean. So I used it for another day. I had thought handkerchiefs would get icky right away, like tissues do. I was finding out different.

The next time we went to see my mom, I asked if I could have a few more. She said sure, and this time we took them out and I looked at them more closely. She must have at least 50 handkerchiefs. Beautiful, so many of them. Most were white, but not all. Some had embroidery around the edges. Some had some very serious needlework (I know nothing about needlework so I don’t know what kind, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least some of them weren’t stitched by people she knew). I took several (I believe she allowed me six). I was thrilled, and she was kind of thrilled that I was into her hankies.

Once I had several, I used them a lot more. One in the purse and another in a pocket. I found (not surprisingly) that I was decreasing my use of tissues. (I wish I had thought to measure it before and after, but ah well.) I mentioned this to a friend and she was a little intrigued, and I asked her if she wanted one of my mom’s handkerchiefs, just to see if it was something that might appeal (we are both into reducing waste), and she said yes.

When I relayed this to my mother, she said, “Oh! Well then you’ll have to get more next time you come up!” And this time we went through them more slowly, and I took many. Mostly white, mostly soft. But almost none plain white. A border, a pattern, some lace. Lots of flowers. But there were a few that were not white: purple, black, brown, bright red, turquoise. I’m forgetting some. It felt like a small array of history spread out on her bed. It was so fun.

What a thing we have lost: the art, beauty, and utility of the handkerchief.

It turns out my friend did indeed enjoy the handkerchief. With my new bounty, I asked if she might like a couple more. Absolutely, she said. (I’m almost positive that was Not her exact word. But it was a strong affirmative.)

Since we had that conversation (several weeks ago), my use of the handkerchief has evolved further still. I have had a beautiful purple hankie (with splashes of white flowers and green leaves) on the front porch table these last two days. It has mopped up tears (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr), the occasional sneeze, and the drips off glasses of iced tea. Also good for drying one’s brow on a humid day.

This is a part of my mother’s history that I cherish. Much like a paper clip, you can find endless uses for the handkerchief. Since I’m quite the neophyte, I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

Icked out about the reuse factor? The snotty handrag?

My handkerchief rule is this: Use it as long as it feels (and looks) soft and clean. As soon as it doesn’t feel soft and clean, replace. (If it’s a major cold, this could be several times a day.) I find I tend to go through 3-4 hankies a week. They take up practically zero space in the laundry, and then you’re set for another week.

I think I’m moving towards reducing tissue use by about 50%. That’s not a bad start.

Perhaps it’s time for a handkerchief revolution. They are practical, sustainable, and extremely versatile.

And often, quite beautiful.

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Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a Bird!

kestrelWe went to visit my mom today, and I decided to keep a list of birds I saw on the hour-long drive. I always have an eye out for birds when I’m on the road, but this time I decided to specifically keep a complete list. A day list. The idea struck me when I saw an American Kestrel before we even got out of Minneapolis. Kestrels are falcons and our smallest raptor. They’re pretty common in Minnesota in the summer, but not so much right in the heart of the city, so that was a fun start to the drive.

I saw a lot of the usual suspects: American Crow (several); American Robin (a dozen or so); Canada Goose (3); several Rock Pigeons; far too many European Starlings; Red-Winged Blackbirds (scads); Mourning Dove (1); and Common Grackle (2).

hawkAnd while I didn’t add any birds to my year list, I did see a few of those birds that always make me smile, even though they aren’t all that uncommon. For example, the Red-Tailed Hawk perched on a light pole alongside the highway. Not uncommon, even in the heart of the city, but they still make me smile.

swanAs do the swans. I saw five Trumpeter Swans today (none of them very close; three weeks ago they were closer to the highway and I saw several cygnets!). Also, two Double-Crested Cormorants (one perched on a branch, one flying overhead); Great Egrets (at least two); one killdeer; one barn swallow; one tree swallow; and one green heron (they have the most recognizable hunch).

I saw the swallows at Dan & Becky’s Market where we stopped to get beeswax. I’ve been looking for a good local source for beeswax (which I use in my medicinal herb work), and they recently started carrying it. Nice! It even smells like honey. I can hardly wait to try it out. Also at Dan & Becky’s I saw two chickens. I don’t count birds that are penned up, but these were truly free-range chickens, so on the list they went. Dan and Becky commented on the number of people that tell them they have a chicken loose in the yard. That shop is a total joy to visit. Becky asked me if I might have any interest in pig farming. They can’t keep up with demand.

I’m thinking about it.

pelican_davidstephensThe best birds of the day were the pelicans. American White Pelicans. I still marvel that we have pelicans in Minnesota. As we were nearing our destination, I saw a large V-formation in the distance. Too far away to identify, but I thought they were pelicans. I wanted to chase them, but Mom was waiting. We picked her up, and on our way to the restaurant Hal pointed up and said “There are your birds,” and they WERE pelicans. Up close and personal and 18 in number. Not long after, we saw a small group of 3, also flying, and on the way home we saw a solo pelican on a lake.

It amazes me how much you can see, when you look.

May Reprise

May is my month of abundance; an embarrassment of riches. Books, bookstores, birthday, and birding rise to the top as highlights, as well as gardening and watching things come back to life. MinBooks.  I read 13 books in May, 5 each for fiction and nonfiction, and 3 poetry. The big standout was The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, which I’ve already written about. I also particularly liked Red Azalea, by Anchee Min, a memoir of growing up in China under Mao. Very compelling and I learned a lot (not surprising given my sparse knowledge of China). The reading theme for May was color, and I did indeed complete the color spectrum:

  • Red Azalea, Anchee Min
  • From the Orange Mailbox, A. Carman Clark
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee
  • A Few Green Leaves, Barbara Pym
  • Blue Jelly, Debby Bull
  • Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Ntozake Shange
  • Violet & Claire, Francesca Lia Block

It was fun in that I had the books in my collection to do it, and I read a lot of books that have been languishing unread for years (one of the great boons of the monthly reading theme), but I didn’t get to several of the books I had really wanted to read (the one that stands out most particularly is Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett). Of course that seems to be the case with every reading theme, so I guess I’m best off not blaming the color spectrum.

moon palaceProbably the bigger book story of May was the purchasing side. We went a little wild on that front. May is always a big month for buying books because it’s my birthday month and also we usually go to WisCon (Feminist Science Fiction Convention hosted annually in Madison, WI) where the books are not to be resisted. We didn’t go to WisCon, but we have a goodly number of local bookstores and we managed to hit several of them (Moon Palace Books, Minnesota’s Bookstore, Micawber’s Books, SubText, Magers & Quinn, Dreamhaven, Sixth Chamber, and three different Half Price Books). Crazy, huh? But it’s a vacation! We saved all that travel money, but then we spent it on books (yes, even more books than last May when we DID go to WisCon, an increase of a hefty 75%). We got more books in May (58) than we did in January-April combined. Lots of nonfiction (31) and fiction (19) and also several new volumes of poetry (7). An extravagant month as books go!

Birding. I added 62 birds to my year list in May! This was a spectacular May for shorebirds and I added a few to my lifelist, including White-Rumped Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Short-Billed sbdow_beauliddellDowitcher. Of these, the most exciting was the Short-Billed Dowitcher, which we saw at the Princeton Sewage Ponds. It was just there for the longest time, and we watched and watched and watched. The sandpipers I know I have seen before, but never close enough views to truly identify them. The waters were really low at Old Cedar one birding morning, and what at first looked like empty mudflats were in fact mudflats teaming with shorebirds. Oh they can blend! Other particularly fun sitings in May:

  • Wilson’s Phalarope (5-8)
  • Indigo Bunting (5-12)
  • Red-Shouldered Hawk (5-16)
  • Blue-Headed Vireo (5-19; new yard bird!)
  • American White Pelican (5-24)
  • Earred Grebe (5-30)
  • Caspian Tern (5-30)

I’ve only seen a few Caspian Terns in my life, so it was a rare treat at Old Cedar. Just one, but it flew in close and then settled down on a sandbar where it stayed for a good half hour or so. Lovely.

Medicinal Herbs. After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve gotten back into the swing of things. I felt like I had gone too broad, taken on too much, tried too much (with scads of bottles and jars filled with tinctures, herbs, and oils to prove it!) and said as much to a friend. My wise friend said it was probably not a mistake to go so broad to start—that’s how you learn the scope of the field. And I realized that I have learned a lot about what’s out there, and also the things that I most use and need, as well as what I am most drawn to. So now I am starting to focus in.

One of the things I like best is salve. I like to make it, I like to give it away, and I like to use it. I made another batch of the ginger, chamomile, clove, and black pepper salve (good for muscle massage and body aches); another batch of rosemary-chamomile salve (my favorite and most popular with my friends, and good for mild arthritis); and a thyme-chamomile salve (soothing and good for disinfecting).

Chamomile is one of my go-to herbs, so I’ve planted some from seed this year. I’ve moved several into large pots and am hoping to have a decent crop in a few weeks. Last year I was horrible about harvesting, and this year I vow to do better. Most especially with the chamomile (which I can buy at the co-op but it just doesn’t smell as good as the home-grown does) and rosemary (which I use vastly in cooking and for medicinals).

rhubarbCooking. My rhubarb was crying to be picked by early May, and pick I have. Several batches of rhubarb sauce later (the most recent just yesterday, with brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon), it’s still going strong. When we had a cold rainy spell mid-month I made some beef stew. I also made a huge batch of spaghetti sauce and froze a few pints for summer days when I don’t feel like making it from scratch.

Other highlights. May Baskets! Seeing Bernie Sanders, first mowing of the lawn (second, third), and cleaning out the garden beds. Perhaps the greatest highlight of the month: My mom gave me her dutch oven. She has used this for roasts for years, her most prized piece of cookware. But at 94, she isn’t cooking very much any more, and she has handed it down to me. I am thrilled. I hope to do her proud.

Father Knows Best, Coda

One thing I wish I had thought to include in the original Father Knows Best post is that my dad was a conservative Republican and I was a liberal Democrat for pretty much all of our adult lives (he died in 2008). This wonderful conservative man taught me to buy local and to value community. We did not agree on our political parties, but we found common ground. Sometimes we foundered, but we always gave each other leeway, and we often agreed on issues of finance.

I would often start out with a “What do you think of ______” kind of question. You can almost always find common ground if you ask a few open-ended questions. Dad and I did.

Oh my, I do miss my father. I think we would have a bit more in common politically (and economically) today, and I would certainly welcome his take on the Great Recession from a conservative perspective. One thing my father and I agreed on is that you have to work together if you want to get things done. Compromise. Respect. Honesty.

These are Republican values. These are Democratic values.

One of Paul Roberts’s talking points in The Impulse Society is that our political parties have become branded, and as a result, both have pulled away from center (I would also blame gerrymandering and our political processes in general—most especially the caucusing process). While the two parties become increasingly opposed to agreeing on anything, on principle, the country shuts down.

It’s not just politicians. Several of my friends make blanket comments about Republicans. About how they’re ruining this and that. They hark back to Reagonomics and the war in Iraq.

But Clinton was responsible for overturning Glass-Steagall—the regulatory bill put in place after the Great Depression, to prevent another Great Depression. So instead we had the Great Recession, with the government bailing out banks because they’re too big to fail (TBTF), because if they did, they would take down the entire national—or global—economy.

I was super pissed about the government bailing out the banks. It seemed so unethical. I had surprise company in my anger. A lot of Republicans were pissed about government interfering in the free market and using tax dollars to do it. We’ve become so polarized, we can’t even find common ground when we have common ground!

Since the Great Recession, the TBTFs have become even bigger. They are engaging in similar schemes to increase profits and shareholder value. The crucial thing to note here is that they have not changed their behavior except perhaps to increase the risk factor. It does not take a rocket scientist, or even an economist, to conclude that this is not a good thing for the economy.

Here’s some potential common ground for moving beyond our current political polarization:

MoneyFinancial reform: According to Roberts, “It’s worth noting that some of the loudest voices calling for financial reform are conservative. Likewise, when the Obama administration failed to break up the TBTF banks or to restrict their capacity to make high-risk gambles, the failure outraged not only liberals but many on the right as well.” The implicit promise of another bailout is, to many Republicans, a market-distorting government subsidy that allows big banks to take government-guaranteed risks that smaller banks have to avoid. There’s even been some bipartisan movement here: In 2013, Republican David Vitter (staunch Louisiana conservative) joined the very liberal Sherrod Brown of Ohio on a bill to force the big banks to dramatically cut the amount of debt they take on. The bill was stalled by the banking lobby. (Why is that even legal?)

spending_banCampaign finance reform: Between 2000 and 2012, spending on presidential campaigns more than quadrupled—to more than $2 billion. Two billion dollars! Since the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into politics. A lot of rich people love it, but the average person—even the average Republican—is not in favor. Roberts reports that 7 of 10 Republicans favor an amendment that would exclude corporations, unions, and other organizations from free speech protections for large campaign donations.

It makes me feel hopeful that there’s such strong common ground. I agree that these are good—and important—starting places. And I’m pretty sure my dad would as well.

Father Knows Best

bikeI grew up in a small town. When I was in sixth grade or so, I wanted a new bicycle (having pretty much outgrown my little bike with the banana seat). I had my eye on a fancy new 10-speed and wanted to go to “the cities” (as Minneapolis-St. Paul is still called in greater Minnesota) and pick from the cream of the crop. Nope, my dad said. I could have any bicycle I wanted, but I had to buy it in town. My hometown of about 1,500 had two hardware stores (three grocery stores, a general store, two furniture stores, a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a roller rink) so it’s not like I didn’t have options, but I whined. Usually I could wrangle my way with my dad.

Not this time. He didn’t even remotely budge. Hometown purchase it was. He was a small business owner (one of those furniture stores). He knew the value of social relations. He was instilling in me a number of values here that I didn’t realize for years: the importance of social relations, the value of buying local, and the difference between being a customer and a consumer.

ImpulseI had not particularly marked the customer/consumer difference until reading The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification, by Paul Roberts. Shopping used to entail a social obligation. The person that owns the grocery store is my neighbor. You say hello, you have a little chat. They see what you buy, you talk about your leaky roof, her dog, your sore back. Historically, economic relations have been completely intertwined with social relationships. Buying meant being a customer, “a socially constructed, socially constrained role that required us to engage in an often complicated and time-consuming social interaction every time we made a purchase.”

And then came the big-box stores. According to Roberts, “The genius of the big-box retail stores, for example, wasn’t just their low, low prices, but the depersonalized, one-stop format that let us minimize shopping’s social obligations.” (Well and wasn’t that a welcome thing for many of those small-town people who didn’t actually WANT the person behind the drugstore counter to see what they were purchasing, but that’s a topic for a different blog.)

But my dad knew what he was talking about. My argument that the bicycle would be cheaper in the cities held no weight with him. He knew people could find cheaper furniture, too, if they were willing to obviate their social obligations. And then where would our small town be? Main Street would be empty, which it pretty much is today—in my hometown and many like it throughout the midwest. Roberts cites research on the big-box phenomenon and its impact on small towns:

closedWithin two years of a new Walmart coming to town, local shops within a twenty-mile radius see sales decline by 25-60%. These kinds of losses lead to the closing of small-town stores, leaving residents with fewer shopping options. The success of a big-box store can substantially increase the distance people have to drive for groceries. My hometown now has only one grocery store, but they are lucky. Many small towns don’t have any grocery stores at all anymore.

Not only have they lost their local shopping options, they’ve lost a large chunk of their supportive infrastructure: Local merchants provide more stable work environments, are more supportive of local social programs, initiatives, and community affairs in general.

So it happened. Most of Main Street went away, to the detriment of the local residents both in terms of convenience and livelihood. Why do we do this? According to Roberts, it has a lot to do with intertemporal decision making. In short, immediate desire often trumps delayed gratification. Less and less are we willing to put off until tomorrow what we can have today, even if we can’t afford it (that’s what credit is for). I’m giving it short shrift—there’s so much more there.

The Impulse Society is fascinating reading, looking at our increasing self-preoccupation and its relation to marketing, economics, culture, politics, digital technology, friendship networks, and power (a mere starter list). I expect I’ll fill you in more as I continue. It’s that kind of book. In the meantime, I’m going to work towards being more of a customer, and less of a consumer.

December Reprise

December was an indoor month, with cooking and baking, writing Christmas cards and making Christmas gifts, and, unfortunately, the flu. I also read 15 books in December, 6 each of nonfiction and poetry, and 3 novels. Most of the books were mediocre (possibly due more to my mood and my busyness rather than the books themselves). The only book I feel compelled to rave about is The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons, and I’ve already written about it. But in case you missed that post, here is an additional poem from the book that I loved:

Crow Ride

When the crow
lands, the
tip of the sprung spruce

bough weighs
so low, the
system so friction-free,

the bobbing lasts
way past any
interest in the subject.

–A. R. Ammons

I love poetry that makes me laugh.

potatoesI did quite of a bit of cooking in December, but nothing new or challenging: ginger jam, applesauce, tuna hotdish (vastly improved with buttermilk), roasted red potatoes with rosemary, peanut butter cookies (with Hershey kisses), oatmeal raisin cookies, apple-cranberry crisp, spaghetti, chicken adobo, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, and red fruit salad. And I have indeed decided to go ahead with my “learn how to make one new thing each month” project, even though I haven’t identified the particular 12 items. I have only decided for certain on beef stroganoff for January. I do have a list of ideas, but I also like the idea of being flexible, leaving space for context, whimsy, and inspiration.

I didn’t do a lot of herbal work in December—merely decanted a few items (hops tincture, St. Johns’ Wort oil, and St. John’s Wort tincture). There were also herbs in a number of the Christmas gifts I made, but since we missed Christmas and the gifts are still to be given, and some of my family occasionally read this blog, I will not elaborate for now. Suffice it to say I had a very fine day of making and packaging gifts.

I continued the Haiku Project in December—my 14th month! I’ve enjoyed it so much I’ve decided to continue, and Lori (my Montana friend) has happily agreed to continue collecting them for me. I’m looking forward to growing my poetry in the coming year. I want to explore other poetry forms (starting with the triolet). I guess I will have to rename it the Poetry Postcard Project. As you might guess, I am particularly interested in short forms which lend themselves to postcards.

MNI’ve also continued the Obama postcard project (28 cards so far) and will definitely continue that in 2015. I think it’s important that our public officials hear from us, and if a few other people read your ideas along the way, all the better.

December was a month of minor mishaps: my car battery died (again), the dryer started making a horrible racket (now repaired), the cat peed on my chair, and we had the flu on Christmas Day.

snow treesThe biggest thing that happened in December was the Winter Solstice. Finally the days are getting longer, and I like to think that I can already notice it. We had a brown Christmas, but on December 27 we woke up to five inches of fluffy snow. Beautiful.

Still beautiful.

Homemade Christmas

giftsA few years ago my family started a gift-giving tradition of “nothing new.” You can regift, upcycle, pass along something of yours that you think (hope) will be appreciated, get something at a thrift shop, make something, or do something. There are other variations to be sure, but these are the main avenues we’ve gone down.

It has made Christmas much less stressful (goodbye holiday shopping!), much more thoughtful (what do I have or might I find that my nephew might like?), and a lot more fun, not to mention creative.

The impetus to this was a discussion with Marilyn, my sister-in-law, about the frenzy of Christmas and the stress of shopping, and all the focus on “stuff.” We were doing a lot of exchanging gift cards, which got to a point of seeming silly, so we decided to try this new approach and everyone else in the family agreed to give it a try.

It’s been so much more than we had ever anticipated. In many ways, it has changed the focus of Christmas. Well, the absence of the gift-buying frenzy is a nice background, and the personal foreground, focused more on skills, abilities, and interests, adds a wonderful spice.

cookieI always give my brother a batch of his favorite cookies (those peanut butter ones with the Hershey kisses on top). This year I’m going to make my mom a pan of lemon bars (her favorite and I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it before this year).

I’m lucky to have a lot of readers in my family. Marilyn is a major reader (nonfiction only, which I think is quite fun) and I set books aside for her throughout the year. Both of her children married major readers, and I also enjoy accruing small book stacks for each of them throughout the year.

It’s equally fun to be on the receiving end. The first year we did this, Marilyn gave me a large ceramic bowl with a pouring spout (think pancake batter). It was beautiful. She never used it, I use it often and am still thrilled. I smile every time I look at it. My niece had received a pair of earrings for a gift and she didn’t care for them but thought I might: total score. I love them and they are in my top five earring pairs (and I have many, many pairs of earrings).

Last year, my nephew’s wife gave us a wreath she had made. She’d had it several years and loved it, but had to part with it because for some reason they could no longer hang it on their house. I have hung it outside on the garage where I see it every time I walk outside for anything. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It also makes me smile.

My spouse and I have not typically heeded the tradition in our personal gift givingclarinet (what with wanting new books and all), but this year he is giving me the gift of reconditioning my clarinet (from high school—discovered a few months ago in my parents’ basement). I am feeling compelled to return in the tradition and have come up with a few ideas. (He tends to read this blog, so I won’t write about any of them until after the holidays, and then only if they are wildly successful. Or not. Huge misses can also be fun to write about.)

Now I am going to finish writing my holiday cards. Then I hope to get a couple of packages ready to mail so I can bring them to the post office tomorrow. Then I pull together the family gifts, and then I bake.

Peace.