Reading: Listening Is an Act of Love

For years I have enjoyed the excerpts from StoryCorps interviews on NPR’s Morning Edition. The audio interviews of everyday people, by everyday people, have always captivated me. I wasn’t aware of the story behind StoryCorps until I read Listening Is an Act of Love, by Dave Isay.

The inspiration for StoryCorps was the idea that the stories of ordinary people are worth preserving. The radio, TV, and internet are filled every day with glamorous or sordid tales of celebrities and politicians, yet the meaningful events in the lives of lower-profile individuals go unrecorded. StoryCorps has changed that. The result is stories that impact on the interviewer, the interviewee, and those of us lucky enough to hear the recordings.

StoryCorps locations now include a permanent booth at Ground Zero and three mobile studios that travel the country.  Each session consists of 40 minutes in a small recording studio. At the end of the session, one CD is given to the interview participants, and one CD is stored in an archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. What a wonderful treasury of stories.

There is background information, but the book consists mainly of stories separated into these categories: Home and Family, Work and Dedication, Journeys, History and Struggle, and Fire and Water. The recorded recollections are transcribed for the book, and the stories are wonderful—filled with joy, love, pain, suffering, and other details of everyday life.

You can listen to stories from the StoryCorps archives. The website also contains information on scheduling your own interview.

P.S. Evidently there are additional titles in the series that contain more stories. Look for All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps, Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps, and Listening Is an Act of Love: Notes on Ten Beloved Stories and How to Record Your Own.

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Driver Education

North Carolina has a lot of personalized license plates, and I love reading them. It is amazing what people can squeeze into eight characters. I am surprised that I haven’t been in an accident, as I sometimes get distracted at traffic lights or follow a little too closely when I am trying to decode a particularly clever vanity plate. I see a lot of plates that make me laugh or groan, but I usually don’t remember them for very long. I saw one the other day that is sticking with me. It took me a little while to figure it out. Have your deciphered it yet?

What a wonderful message to share with fellow drivers: Be who you want to be.

I am entering a new phase of my own life, with my children reaching ages where they are more independent. I’m still needed, but in a more peripheral way. Soon they will be out of the house and pursuing their own young adult lives (I know, I know–probably not as soon as I think). The license plate has been a wonderful prompt for me to think about who I want to be, books I want to read, things I want to learn, and projects I want to undertake.

Driving can be so educational.

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Succulent Container Garden

Succulent garden in the bay window.

Plants add so much to a room—color, texture, a bit of nature inside. In theory, I love plants. In practice, I forget to water them, or I have trouble matching a plant to the amount of sunlight that makes it happy. But the recent trend of succulent arrangements inspired me to give houseplants another try.

The containers are some silver pieces that belonged to my husband’s great grandparents. The note that was in the teapot says they received it as a wedding present in 1902. The teapot and the sugar bowl match. I am not even sure how the third piece, the taller one with the Grecian lines, is intended to be used. So succulent holder it is!

I measured the openings of the silver containers and then headed to the local garden center. I chose the succulents mainly by size. I knew I wanted a succulent that would drape out of the teapot. I am not sure of the names. They all have the same watering instructions: water thoroughly when soil is dry to the touch.

The plants need to drain, and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to drill holes in the family silver, so I rigged containers that would fit inside the silver. I was able to cut down two of the plastic containers to fit in the shallower silver pieces. Finding something to fit in the teapot was more of a challenge. I ended up cutting the top off an empty plastic water bottle. I put holes in the bottom of the water bottle and then added a few inches of aquarium gravel before adding the dirt.

The succulents seem happy sitting on a tray in the bay window, and I like having the silver pieces out on display. I have my fingers crossed that I can keep the plants alive for awhile.

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Adventures in Composting

The fruits of our labors.

It was time. I felt guilty every time I peeled a bag of potatoes and put the peels in the trash. We had done a good job cutting down on our family’s weekly trash by recycling, but we generated a significant amount of compostable waste every week.

I live in suburbia with a decent-sized yard, but it butts up to neighbors on three sides. It really isn’t the right situation for an open compost pile. I didn’t want to offend anyone with the appearance and possible smell of an open bin, and I was worried about attracting raccoons or rodents—or snakes! I researched manufactured compost bins and fell in love with a few models of rotating and tumbling compost bins that claim to speed the decomposition time and screen the finished compost. I did not fall in love with the price tags. The cost was outside my budget for this project, and it seemed contradictory to me to spend that much money on something to make us more efficient with our trash.

In my search for a simple, economical way to compost, I came across a few descriptions of compost bins made from 30-gallon plastic garbage cans. I had an extra garbage can, so a few months ago I used an electric drill to create air holes in the sides of the can. (I drilled eight rows of holes about four inches apart.) For easy access, I placed the new compost bin near our back porch. I set aside a two-quart plastic container with a tight-fitting lid and started filling it with kitchen waste, using the guidelines below from our town website.

What to Put in a Compost Pile
Almost all organic food scraps and yard waste scraps can be added to a compost pile with good results. The smaller the pieces are when they are added to your compost pile, the faster they will decompose.

  • leaves, grass clippings, plant stalks, vines, twigs, and branches
  • fruit and vegetable scraps
  • coffee grounds
  • eggshells and nutshells
  • hair clippings, feathers, straw
  • dryer lint, moisten first

What Not to Put in a Compost Pile
Materials should NOT be composted if they promote disease, cause odors, attract pests, or create other nuisances.

  • meat, fish, poultry, dairy products
  • foods containing animal fats
  • human/pet (dog, cat)/bird feces
  • weeds with developed seed heads
  • plants infected with or highly susceptible to disease, such as roses and peonies
  • charcoal ash, contains sulfur dioxide which can harm plants

DIY compost bin.

I emptied the plastic container into the aerated garbage can a few times, and in about 10 days I was rewarded with—the largest colony of flies I have ever seen. So I moved the compost bin to a location a bit further from the house, found the flyswatter to handle the flies that followed me into the house, and I went back to the drawing board to learn more about the balance of wet and dry and green and brown in the compost world. Evidently, adding only kitchen scraps (green) to the compost bin creates a slimy mess, so I needed to balance it out with layers of finely shredded newspapers and brown leaves. I also added about a cup of lime to keep down the flies and aid in decomposition.

A few months later, I can’t say that I have really figured out the science of composting. I can say that we have reduced our trash by quite a bit–and we have generated some compost. I still have to remind the kids to put the banana peels and apple cores in the compost bucket, but my husband is on board and regularly treks the scraps to the compost bin. (I think he is also worried that the scraps will draw critters to the porch. It hasn’t been a big problem, but the occasional squirrel can open the bin. A few days ago I watched a small squirrel nibble every little bit of red fruit off of the strawberry hulls I had placed in the bucket. I didn’t have the heart to scare the little guy away.)

Cage for curing compost.

I am not sure that the trash-can method allows enough air to get to the compost. The contents of the bin were decomposing but not looking like fine soil, so I dumped the contents of the bin into a circle of garden fencing and it has finished up nicely. I will be adding the compost to the soil in my garden beds, and I am repeating the process—fill the compost bin with layers of green and brown stuff and turn it occasionally until it is sludgy, and then dump the bin contents into a pile to finish up. My low-tech compost solution seems to be doing the trick for my family at the moment.

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New Life for Old Jeans

Awhile back I saw a denim quilt and thought, “I could make one of those.” I started saving our worn out jeans and cutting out squares when I had some time. These projects always take me longer than I think they will, but this weekend I finished the denim quilt! It is heavy! I think it is going to be more like a picnic blanket than a blanket for snuggling on the couch.

The finished picnic blanket.

I found several great tutorials online and read through them. Then I combined a few of them and made it up as I went along.

Here are the steps I followed to make my picnic blanket:

  • I cut open the inside leg seams of each pair of jeans.
  • I used a rotary cutter and a 6 ½” acrylic quilter’s template to cut out squares on my cutting mat. (Avoid worn or stained areas on the jeans.)
  • I arranged all my squares in rows in a pattern I liked. I alternated rows of 9 and 10 squares so I could stagger the seams and not have to sew through so many layers at the intersections of blocks.
  • I sewed the squares in each row together and then pressed open the seams.
  • I sewed the rows together, staggering the blocks like a bricklayer would. This left fabric hanging on the ends of alternate rows. I pressed open the seams, and then I used my rotary cutter to even off the ends of the rows to create a rectangle. Ta da! Quilt top!
  • I used a piece of cotton fabric to make the backing. I pinned the top to the backing to hold it securely while I tied the top to the backing with embroidery floss at the intersections of some of the squares.
  • I used the self-binding method shown here to finish up the quilt.

Arranging the denim squares.

My blanket ended up being 52″ x 72″. I used two pieces of cotton fabric stitched together to make the backing, so that determined the length of the blanket. I like how the blanket came out, but I think I will use a strip quilt variation like this one next time. There would be less waste and less cutting of squares. I didn’t use a batting between the top and backing because I didn’t think I needed to add any more weight. I used a heavy-duty thread and it worked fine on the denim. My sewing machine sometimes balked at the denim, but I think that is a tension issue and/or a user-error issue. I was glad that the squares were staggered so I didn’t have to sew through so many layers.

I felt bad throwing away all of the denim scraps from cutting up the jeans, so I saved some of the small scraps of denim and I am adding them to the compost pile. I will let you know how that turns out.

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Baffle the Squirrels

We gave up on the bird feeder in the backyard because the squirrels were eating all the birdseed. We tried a feed marketed as being less appealing to squirrels, but the squirrels seemed completely willing to eat less-desirable food in a pinch. When birdseed became a significant household budget item, we gave up on feeding the birds and the squirrels.

I have seen various baffles or types of feeders that are meant to deter squirrels. There are feeders that tip easily under the weight of the squirrel but not the lighter weight of the birds. Some people suspend a 33 record below a hanging feeder to keep squirrels from leaping up to the feeder. Our feeder was already mounted on a tall post, so I decided to create my own version of a baffle.

My first effort  involved cutting a plastic bowl to try to create a barrier. I cut up the side of the bowl and cut an X in the bottom of the bowl so it would fit around the 4×4 pole. In theory, it was fabulous. In practice, the squirrels were able to use the lip of the bowl as a step up to the feeder. It confused the squirrels for a few minutes, but it didn’t keep them away from the birdseed.

Plan B was made of sturdier stuff. A visit to the hardware store for a piece of venting, a vent collar, and some sheet metal screws got us started. To construct the device, we first closed the collar and secured it to the bottom of the birdfeeder with the sheet metal screws. Then we closed the piece of venting and pressed in on the ridged portion at the top so the venting would slip into the collar. We thought we would have to secure the venting to the collar, but we tugged on it and it seemed really secure—certainly a few squirrels couldn’t dislodge it.

Ahem. So then we added a few sheet metal screws to secure the collar to the venting. Success! It was very entertaining to watch the squirrels try to conquer the pipe so they could get to the seed. A few of them launched themselves at the pipe, only to be embarrassed as they slid to the ground. We did have to move the lawn chairs further away from the feeder after a few particularly agile squirrels showed us that they were part of the Flying Wallendas.

We are back in the bird feeding business.

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Reading Throw Out Fifty Things

I enjoy clutter-busting books, and spring is a good time to get rid of a few things, so I thought Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life, by Gail Blanke, would be a refresher for me. Blanke’s high-energy personality comes though in her writing. She gets right in the trenches with you and keeps track of her own fifty things as the book progresses.

FiftyThings moves beyond cleaning out your closets and drawers. Don’t worry—there are plenty of pointers for getting rid of what Blanke calls the Physical Stuff. She helps you sort, discard, and let go of stuff that is taking up your valuable time, money, and energy. When your personal spaces are lighter and brighter, it is time to move on to what Blanke calls your Professional Clutter.

Getting rid of professional baggage, such as old presentations and ancient expense reports, can help you be more efficient in the workplace. Blanke also discusses focusing your personal brand to help you use your energy more effectively.

After your personal and professional areas are cleaned up, Blank tackles an area that isn’t usually covered in de-cluttering titles. Part Three of Fifty Things is called Attacking the Mental Mess. The chapters discuss letting go of regrets and mistakes, letting go of being right, letting go of thinking that you have to do everything yourself, and other thought patterns that should go.

The final portion of the book covers how to move forward with the insights you have gained through clearing the cobwebs from your personal, professional, and mental spaces. Blanke is supportive and inspirational, and her client examples are interesting and insightful.

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