Sunday, March 18, 2012

Springtime Garden & Woods

Spring came early this year. The daffodils were finished by the beginning of February. I have grand plans for my garden, as usual.


 Here's one of my hollyhocks poking through the leaves. It was devoured by some varmint not long after this photograph was taken. I'm in the process of constructing a three-meter barrier around my flowerbed to keep the deer out. Unless I have some way of protecting my plants, there's no point in having a garden anymore. I used to live at the edge of things, close to the countryside, but suburban sprawl has swallowed up my area, and the deer are multiplying.


 Most of my plants didn't go dormant over the winter, because the weather never cooled down significantly. Some of the daisies persisted in blooming well into December.


 I've posted pictures of these lawn violets before, but they're too cute to skip. The flowers are about a centimeter across, and sprinkled by the thousands all over the grass.


 This is from my rosebush that went wild. The hips are a nice rich burgundy. I pruned the entire thing down not long ago, and it's already sending out new shoots.


 I had a happy little surprise a few weeks ago. The crocuses that I planted back in 2010 appeared out of nowhere and bloomed for the first time. It had been an assortment of corms, but I wished for the purple striped kind-- and look! I like this kind especially because they remind me of growing crocuses when I was little, and of a favorite professor who always wore thinly striped shirts.


 The earliest leaves are just starting to show. These are from an American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). The greenish haze in the background is more hornbeams down in the swamp. The leaves look so fresh and crisply pleated. This will probably be the last week without greenness. One more big rain and everything will burst forth verdantly.


 Here is a vibrant fungus on a log in the swamp. I'm not sure exactly what species it is. Last fall I collected quite a few pictures of fungi from the woods, and sometime I'll tentatively identify them and write a post about it. I'm no Hobbit when it comes to mushrooms, but I do think they're pretty to look at.


 This picture reminds me of Megan for some reason. A fungus has killed most of the dogwood trees in the region, but there are still a few left. The tree was too tall for me to take a closeup of the flowers, so I took a shot up through the branches. I'll post more pictures later of the vegetable garden and the deer wall. ^_^

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Summer Garden

It's been hard to maintain a garden, this summer. Back in June there was a yellowjacket nest near the woods, and there were scouts patrolling my garden; every time I pulled a weed they would come to see what had changed and who had changed it and why. Some deer decimated everything that wasn't a weed, and the few things they missed, they stepped on. Here are some pictures of what managed to straggle through.I grew this 'Mr. Majestic' marigold from seed. It's the sole plant that survived; squirrels dug up the other seeds and ate them. I love the striped petals. At least deer don't eat marigolds-- yet.I have two rose-of-sharon bushes-- this light pink one, and another with a lilac-bluish tinge to the blossoms. The deer chewed the buds off the second one, though. Rose-of-sharon likes to grow at the corners of the house where the downspout is, so that it gets lots of water. It's the national flower of Korea, and reminds me of some folks I'm fond of and haven't seen in a while. The deer didn't eat my monarda, either. This specimen came from a plant sale at a local botanical gardens a few summers ago. I forgot to stake it, so it flopped everywhere. I love the way it looks like fireworks. Hummingbirds like these, but I didn't see any this year.The feverfew finished blooming by mid-July. It's a biennial; I got two little plants many years back when I was first diagnosed with migraines, and now they've taken over my garden and come back every year. They're pretty, with leaves that smell muskier than chrysanthemums', and dainty flowers a little larger than baby's-breath but with a similar effect. Sometimes I make a tea of the leaves, but prefer to mix it in with another type; it tastes rather unpleasant. There are times when I have felt that it slightly dulled my headaches, but I'm not sure if it's that or the fact that drinking tea is therapeutic for me.The liatris bloomed earlier in the summer, too. Goldfinches like the seeds; I've often seen them perched on the blooms and pulling them apart to see if they're ready yet. I have five or six of these, nice big clumps that I grew from corms. The flowertops are over waist high. One year a pest control man decided to put a termite trap right on top of one of them. I guess he thought it looked like a perfect place. I was greatly displeased.These black-eyed susans are descendents of a plant that my auntie got for me at the farmers' market in Tonawanda a few years ago. Its leaves and stems are fuzzy, and the flowers are big and soft-looking with rounded cones. This year the flowers have been rather stunted due to being constantly chewed off and trying to grow off the sides of the stalk in a desperate attempt to survive. The flower on the left is what it originally produced.The fuzzy black-eyed susan reseeded itself and grew some non-reddish ones, too. The flower variation in its offspring is interesting. Here are two of the results. I also have some black-eyed susans which a neighbor gave me several years ago. They have narrower petals and leaves, flat "buttons," and are not fuzzy. Next year I'll be giving away a lot of fuzzy and non-fuzzy black-eyed susans to happy homes, since there are too many here and they're choking each other out.These are my leucanthemum daisies. A neighbor gave me three spindly, half-dead specimens and insisted that they would grow-- and grow they did. I just gave away several bags this year, and can't even see where I took them out.My phlox barely had a chance to bloom before being eaten. Now there is literally one floweret sticking off the top of a stalk, but since that picture was too depressing to post, here are the original plants that mine were divided from, in my Nagypapa's garden. Hummingbirds love these-- it's so cute to see them checking each tiny floweret on a whole florescence. Actually, if you look really closely, you can see a sphinx moth somewhere towards the left half of the picture. They look like overweight hummingbirds with antennae, and are hard to get used to.My dahlias are still trying to bloom. I didn't stake them, either, and then couldn't find them in the tangle until they resurfaced. These white-tipped burgundy ones are some of my favorites.I wanted to take pictures of some young skinks with turquoise tails, but couldn't find any. Here's a spiderweb, instead. The spider has a curled leaf near one side of the web where it sits to keep out of the sun and rain. It chose not to be in the picture. I know how it feels.

I'll have one more post for fall flowers in the next month or so, and that's pretty much it for this year's garden. Right now there are more horse nettles and microstegia than anything else. I think next year I'm going to downsize slightly and give away bunches of things, so that the remainder can have room to grow again. There are also some fascinating mushrooms coming up with all the rain we've had here-- stay tuned for more in the next few weeks. ^_^

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How to Construct a Personal Dress Form

I've wanted a dress form in my own size for a long time. Not only would it make fitting a lot easier, I would be able to post pictures of my outfits on this blog. See, I'm violently non-photogenic-- not so much as in looking particularly bad in photographs as simply hating having my picture taken. I also don't model clothes well in pictures, and would rather not stand around for photo shoots, to say nothing of finding a photographer. In addition, I have quite a few skirts and things that I'm going to attempt to sell online, and clothes on models tend to sell much better.

Professional adjustable dress forms cost a lot more than miserly me is willing to shell out, and I've read that many will only be an approximate fit because while it might get the basic proportion of hip-waist-bust, it can't simulate the exact shape of an individual's torso (for example, very narrow or broad shoulders). Even more expensive ones can be custom-made, but if I were ever to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, I might very likely never fit that size (or shape) again.

I read a few articles about how to make dress forms out of duct tape. This involved having someone mummify your entire torso in several layers of duct tape. Comments from some of these people indicated varying levels of success mingled with reports of overheating and panic attacks because of the restrictive procedure. Many said that the resulting form would not hold its shape and needed to be stuffed with insulation foam. The forms also commonly came out a size or so larger because of all the layers. I have asthma to begin with, so this didn't seem like the best way to spend an average of three hours. Other equally uncomfortable-sounding methods involved paper tape, papier-mache, plaster bandages, and other things that you'd have to be cut out of with a buzz-saw.

Later, I came across an article on how to make decorative dress forms out of rusty chicken wire and got the idea to make one in my size, by the same general principle.

Here's how I did it, for around ten dollars and a little over an hour.

All you need is about six feet of about two-foot-wide chicken wire, duct tape, and wire cutters or tin-snips, and someone who can spare five minutes. Mesh could work instead of chicken wire; the point is that the wire has to be stiff enough to hold its shape but pliable enough to bend with the fingers. Here are some diagrams, since photographs might not be as clear.First, I measured from the top of my shoulders to my knees in front and back, taking all curves into account, and cut a piece of chicken wire of that length. It ended up being a little longer than I am tall. I covered the ends temporarily with a strip of duct tape to keep from scratching myself. Then I clipped a hole in the middle big enough for my head to pass easily through and taped the edges of it, too.Next, I slipped it over my head so that it hung down in front and back like a poncho. My particular roll of wire was two feet wide, so it extended several inches past both shoulders. It's advisable to wear very thin clothing for this, and nothing that would bunch up around the waist.With the chicken wire rolled tightly around me and fastened with a couple spare bits of wire at the sides, it was easy to cinch the front to fit my shape. I found that scrunching the wire a little smaller than I was made it sit at just the right shape when released. My brother shaped the back and shoulders. This whole process took less than ten minutes. It is perfectly comfortable, since the wire isn't tight enough to inhibit breathing, and the entire thing can be taken off and finished later without losing what you'd begun. You also get to experience what it's like to be a tomato plant.
All right, now for photographs.After unfastening the side wires, I took off the form and put it together again, making sure that it fit my measurements. At this point the shape should definitely look familiar, but unless you're accustomed to seeing yourself in a wetsuit or leotard in a three-way mirror, it might seem odd in places. If it's fitting your measurements, resist the urge to make it "look right." Since I cut the initial hole for my head a little large, I used a smaller piece of chicken wire to reshape the shoulders. I used empty duct tape rolls to make a neck.I covered the form in a single layer of duct tape to keep the wires from poking out, and to keep it from losing its shape outward. I might also sew a stretchy velour cover for it, just to give it a nice finish. Here's the just-about-finished product modeling the clothes I'm going to wear to work tomorrow (from Goodwill, of course). That's the sweater rumpling up on the side, not the dress form. I need to find some tape to finish covering up the rest of it, and also adjust the slope of the shoulders (right now they're unnaturally square).There are only two drawbacks about this model that I can see. Firstly, it can't be pushed hard against; it can support a good weight, but has the potential to collapse if squeezed or punched in frustration(I also wouldn't leave anything very heavy on it, like a ballgown or winter coat which could gradually press the wire out of shape, for long periods of time). Stuffing it with newspaper or insulation foam might reduce the chances of being crushed. Secondly, it can't be pinned to as a model with a layer of cloth or foam could. I guess if I sew a covering for it, I could conceivably pin things to it.

And there you have it-- an affordable dress form which can be made in any size and shape imaginable.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hungarian Cold Cherry Soup

Here is one of my favorite things to eat. It's a cold Hungarian summer soup, and is not difficult to make. The hardest part is finding cherries.The recipe calls for two pounds of cherries. It can be just a little more or a little less; generally one bag from the grocery store is enough for this.I like to pit the cherries. That's not actually required; the soup can be made with whole cherries, which leaves a little more flavor inside of the cherries rather than in the entire soup-- but then you have to eat it very cautiously, which isn't so nice. Incidentally, cherry pits have cyanide in them. So do apple seeds. So do millipedes. (One or two won't kill you, and it won't leach out into the soup. Cherry pits, that is.)Dump the cherries into a pot and add a slice of lemon (or a couple teaspoons of lemon juice) and two tablespoons of sugar. Simmer it for ten minutes or until the cherries are softened. Don't let it boil, and don't cook the cherries down-- that's too far.In a separate bowl, mix together two teaspoons of cornstarch and three tablespoons of sour cream. Make sure it's nice and smooth, with no starchy lumps. This is a thickener for the soup, but certainly not enough to make it taste like sour cream or anything like that. Take the pot off the burner and stir in the sour cream mixture. Don't worry if it looks all nasty like this.Put the pot back on low heat and stir it until the spots dissolve and it's a nice even pink color. Don't let it boil. The consistency will thicken ever so slightly, but this isn't going to be noticeable until you eat it, so don't worry if nothing seems to happen. After it's done, put it in the refrigerator to cool. This is a cold soup. It wouldn't taste so nice, hot.This soup is served with whipped cream. The soup itself isn't very sweet except for the flavor of the cherries, which means it's delicious, because who needs tons of sugar, anyway? It's such a lovely mauve color. Also, this picture doesn't fully capture how pretty it actually looks.

In Hungarian, this soup can be called cseresznyeleves (cheh-rehs-nyeh leh-vesh), or meggyleves (medy' leh-vesh) if sour cherries are used. Cold apple soup is good, too, and is made along the same general principle, but I'll write a post about that one, later. Enjoy!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hat Alteration and Re-Trimming

Last week at a thrift store, I found a perfectly miserable hat.It is made of a sort of stiff netting, with concentric rings of a straw-like material. The brim is bent out of shape, the crown has a dent, and it is surmounted by a fluffy pink feather boa. Once upon a time, it must've looked somewhat nice, though the feathers seem a little... much.Here's the hat sans feather boa.

Fortunately, I had a stiff wire hoop leftover from my lampshade hat (which is currently stalled in production while I think about how to finish it). It's just the right size to fit within the brim, and hold it straight. I had to paint it first, though; why is it that paint sticks with indelible cheerfulness to everything I don't want it to, and peels off everything else? I ended up having to cover it with masking tape and repaint it. Hopefully it won't be terribly visible. I also reshaped the crown with part of a frosted flakes box and duct tape, and covered it with some black crushed velour salvaged from an old dress.

The trim was a puzzlement. I decided to see what I could do with some of my leftovers, instead of spending on more things. A satiny ribbon from another old dress looked sharp when wound twice around the crown, and I looped and lumped some wired gauzy ribbon into pretty much the only bow I know how to make. The center of the bow needed to be covered up, but I didn't have any big decorative brooches that would match-- so I made a sort of flower by rolling and gathering strips of velour to match the rest of the crown.That's the front view. It's very light to wear, but it obviously fails to keep the sun off the wearer's face. Oh well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dewdrops on Roses

Now that school's out, I've been gardening early in the morning before the heat is too great for me (>79°F). In a few weeks, that time will probably change. I love being up early, as long as I don't have to talk.This is a miniature rose that I've had in my garden for a few years, with genuine dewdrops on it. I don't think there are too many things that feel cleaner than dew from roses. The blossom is only a little bigger than the circle I can make with thumb and forefinger, so it's not large. It has a very slight fragrance. The flowers are rather indecisive; last year they were more apricot colored, and this year it's pale pink. This is not the original shape the flowers were.Here is a different flower from the same little bush, with a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the background which was a present from my family for a certain recent academic accomplishment. This is the shape the flowers used to be-- see, it's more typical miniature-rose-shaped. The entire bush is a little less than knee-high. It blooms now, and again in October.This is a rambler rose that went wild. It would be covered in little clumps of these peppery-smelling blossoms, but the deer keep chewing most of them off.
My oriental lilies are blooming, too. I used to have them all in one clump, but then a deer beheaded them all in one fell swoop. Last year, I planted them all over the place as a defensive measure. So far, nothing has chewed them. They're so bright it almost hurts to look at them.Look at this! I always wondered how columbines got their names; I couldn't see anything birdlike about them. After some research, I found I just had to change my perspective a little. Here's a top view. Can you see three doves clustered together?The rose campion has been blooming for a couple weeks. I grew it from some seeds that friends gave me. The foliage is silvery grey-green and almost as soft as lamb's-ear, and the flowers are such a vibrant magenta that my camera can't seem to capture it. The seeds look like poppy seeds except more porous, and the pods are an interesting shape.The denizens of the garden are fun to observe. There are about a dozen five-lined skinks (Eumeces fasciatus) that skitter around hunting slugs and grubs and other nuisances. Males are taupe with a red head and faint stripes, females are black with yellow stripes, and juveniles of both sexes are black with yellow stripes and a brilliant blue tail. Here's a male sitting on the deck. He's at least eight inches long, which is apparently about as long as they get. I would love to play with them, but they're fragile little things, and they can drop their tails if they feel threatened-- so I just look at them, instead. Look at his handsome little red face.

One thing I have observed about skinks is that they often flick their "hands" against their flanks. I don't know why, or what this means, and I must find out. My only guess is that it has to do with their circulation-- but I have some more research to do. That's actually what he's doing, in that picture.
Here is a peculiar insect which was standing on a campion bud. It has lovely golden eyes and two stripedy antennae much longer than its body. I'm not sure what it might be-- it sort of reminds me of a katydid, but it's wingless, and rather the wrong shape.

I'll have more pictures, soon. The ice plant is just beginning to bloom, along with the feverfew, and in a couple more weeks the black-eyed susans and monarda will be starting to open.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Editing Process: Viewing One's Work Objectively

Once upon a time, I thought of starting a blog so that I could write about writing. Then I decided to write about other things, too. Here are some recent thoughts I've been mulling over, concerning the editing process. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to this issue; I'm sure I've left out some aspects of it.

Please note that I'm not "aiming" this at any individual in particular, so if it "speaks" to you, don't take it personally-- I've had discussions on this topic with several people. Also, keep in mind that it applies not only to writers but to any other kind of artist, and even to life in general. Please also note that I don't mean to imply that every writer necessarily struggles with this issue.

One of the most important things for the personal progress of any art is for the artist to reach a point where he can detach himself emotionally and personally from his work. This does not happen during the actual first-draft writing process, of course-- at that time, it's equally imperative that a writer be deeply immersed in his work. When it's time to edit, though, it's also time to separate his imaginary world from his identity.

It is imperative that a writer learns to look at his work objectively, and realize that it is not him. It may be a part of him, his prized possession, or even the most important work of his life-- but it is not him. Of course he has given it life, and feels through it, and even to an extent lives through it, but it is not him.

This detachment will not hurt his book, or the world inside it. If he clings too tightly to it, it will be unable to grow. If he does not release his art to the possibility of growth, it will only ever be a reflection of his own ego. Think about it-- if a writer is dead set against anyone saying anything against his book, he's essentially stating that it is finished: he doesn't want anything to change. Not only does he not want it to change, but in requesting an editor, he's not really looking for help in refining his manuscript; he's looking for someone to agree with him.

The writer has to understand that if someone comments, "This part wasn't clear to me, and I really don't find Annie a very engaging character," it does not mean that he personally is confusing and boring. Just Annie, and that one part in the book. He might think that that passage was perfectly clear, and Annie might be his ideal woman-- but what can it hurt, to step back, take a deep breath, and double-check?

Now, it is natural for the writer to still feel attached to his book, during the editing process. There's nothing monstrous about becoming a little discouraged with the amount of work that needs doing, nervous that something important might be lost, or sad that the life seems at times to have gone out of the project. Don't worry. It's not dead; it's resting.

Notice that this does not mean desensitizing oneself. Ceasing to care what happens to a writing project is the wrong approach to helping it grow. Remain connected, but remember that this time the journey is not a voyage of discovery, but one in which a path is cut so that others can follow. Every writer will find something to change or fix to make the way clearer.

If a writer asks for someone's help and ends up either lashing out at them, defending every little thing, or crumpling into his shell like a wounded barnacle, he's not going to get very far-- and besides missing out on what might be valuable opinions, he'll run the risk of deeply confusing or even hurting the person who was only trying to help him. This certainly doesn't mean he has to knuckle under and submit to every piece of advice, or even agree with the critiques. The writer will always know his work best. It is often possible that, despite the very best of their intentions, some people may have valid reasons for not being able to understand his work in order to edit it, though they may enjoy reading it or really want a part of that world.

If a writer is still so absorbed in his story that he can't bear any contrary opinions, he might need to rethink his goals. Sometimes all that is needed is time away from the story, perhaps working on a different one for a while, or an unrelated activity altogether. If he is simultaneously unable to bear criticism but has a publishing schedule worked out for himself, trouble can be expected. This can be especially hard when writing has become a form of escapism, the only thing in life that seems to be going well. That's no time to edit.

I often have to reassure commenters that I won't find their critiques personally insulting. Actually, most people who are familiar with me as a writer know that I'm constantly poking fun at my own work. I take it very seriously, but not so personally that I can be shattered. I've had to learn to be patient with myself, and with my work; I know it's worth it, in the end. On the flip side, I have to remember that not everyone automatically realizes the degree of detachment that is necessary, and that some are still learning it. I've forgotten this several times, much to my shame.

The deep and necessary personal connection to a story-world is also why I'm reluctant to give detailed feedback on unfinished first drafts. They're too fragile, too mutable, for me to take into my own hands. I don't want my editing to cause someone to continuously restart their book, to discourage them from at least getting one full draft written, or to overload their creative circuits with technical details. I do make exceptions for people who have stopped writing a draft for various reasons and want to begin again.

You discovered a gem-- now, to show it at its very best, you have to summon the calmness, focus, and strength of mind to cut it.