Children's Fashion Workshop

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I'm Erin.  Gardening addict, incurable maker, insatiable reader, closet author, chronicler of childhood, wanderer, wonderer.  I'm glad you've come to sit a while with me.

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Offhand comments:

9.y.o.-"It would be awesome if we had a 3-d printer because then we could print anything.  Like...like a tiny little model of Angkor Wat!"

Thursday
Dec042014

in case you can never get enough

On Thanksgiving, as I stood in my mother's kitchen, my sister took my phone out of my hands and signed me up for Instagram.  Everyone who's anyone, she said, and I was no one but when she was done with me I was someone. So, if you're one of the flattering few who can't get enough of our antics, you're welcome to look over our shoulders over there.  Not, you know, that Instagram can replace the lengthy, moody picking apart of life that we do over here, but it has its own place, I am having to admit. 

Find us there-@ewatsonhowe, or you can click through on the little widget to the left of your screen.  Scroll down a bit if you don't see it.

~E~

Monday
Nov242014

On our coffee table: The Moscow Puzzles

I always wonder about them.  

You know, them, the math people.  I always wonder what the difference is between those of us who learned enough math to demonstrate competence, did so, and then set out to forget all about it, and those who fell in love with math somewhere along the way.  Whenever I discover I’m in the presence of the latter type of soul, I start pumping him or her for information on how this strange thing happened.  Inevitably, they get this funny sort of a glint in their eyes and say, “It’s just…this puzzle.”  

Aha.

A puzzle is a game.  Games are for playing. Everybody loves a game.  

Enter The Moscow Puzzles.  It’s not a textbook.  It doesn’t have a grade or age written on the spine.  It’s a book of “Mathematical Recreations” for people who love the puzzle of it all.  Or, as in our case, people who are learning to love the puzzle.  

It's also important to point out, I think, that neither is this one of those books that promises to "make math fun!".  That math is already fun is an unspoken assumption, and no time is wasted on bringing anybody who doesn't understand this up to speed.  If you didn't have this basic understanding, you wouldn't be bothering to read a book like this.  Which has the effect of making you act as though you think math is thrilling and entertaining even if you don't, really, which is kind of delightful.  You want to be in the in club.  Those making-math-fun books always seem to bear the stink of trickery.  

Remember the wolf, the chicken, and the corn?  That the farmer has to take across the river without them all eating each other up?  That's here, along with a whole range of other puzzles.  Many of them have a distinctly mid-century Soviet flair, as when "Communist boys and girls" are decorating a hydroelectric powerhouse newly built by "Komsomol youth" and need to know how to place the flags at even intervals around the roof.  If you look closely at the diagrams where coins are used as counters, you'll find that they've used kopecks (if, you know, you can read Cyrillic) so you'll need to round up all the kopecks you've got lying around the house if you're going to replicate the coin puzzles.  The trains leave from Moscow and Leningrad, everyone is named Misha and Kostya and Boris.

And, well, we're completely enthralled.  Every day we solve a few puzzles, never knowing whether the ones we get today will be funny and simple-“Three matches are on a table.  Without adding another, make 4 out of 3.  You are not allowed to break the matches,"-or frustratingly difficult.  Once we’ve beaten them, the children wait for Daddy to get home so they can try them out on him.  Groans and rolled eyes always ensue, because he’s one of those funny-glint people and can usually figure out in minutes what took us half an hour of head-shaking and nearly giving up.  "Don't you want to actually move the toothpicks?" they'll ask him incredulously, impressed that he can do it all in his head. "Nope," he says, and smiles, and drives them all crazy.

It is, as Peter Gray says, play in the realm of mathematics.  Who would have thought such a thing was possible?  I mean, besides them.

~E~

Thursday
Nov202014

three

I know that the title of a post just after someone's fourth birthday is supposed to contain the word four, but four is as-yet unknown territory.  It's three we've loved this year, and three we say goodbye to when we put the fourth (pink) candle on the cake.  

And oh, three is such a treasure and a heartbreak of a year.  Everything grows at super speed-her vocabulary, her understanding, her legs.  I called her "baby" without a scruple a year ago, and now it's clear that the word is an honorary title.  The last of the baby fat rolls are gone, melted into miniature little-girl legs on which she strides confidently down the street, to feed the ducks, to play at the playground, swinging from her big sister's hand and singing.  

What I'm going to say next I know you will dismiss as mother's bias.  I can't argue, since I am her mother, but I'm also the mother of four others, and the sister, daughter, friend of many more.  I've never met anyone like her.  Most of us are some kind of mixture of pleasant and unpleasant, forgiving and harboring resentment, having good and bad days.  We're normal people.  She, I think, is not normal.  Everything makes her happy, everything she's offered is just right, everything is an occasion for throwing back her head and letting out that deep, satisfied chuckle that's all hers.  Just this week, as they piled into the car after gymnastics, one of her brothers said something gruff and rude to her.  I waited half a beat, expecting her to flare up like people do.  Instead, she laughed as if he'd been joking.  He was completely baffled, and so was I.  It goes on (and on) like this.

She's our ragamuffin, our tag-along, everyone's favorite toy.  She becomes more herself all the time, astonishing us with her wise statements delivered in the steadily-improving baby English we all love.  And will four be as pleasant as one, two, and three have been?  I don't suppose I can really say, the future is always unknown.  

But I can hear her now; she's just woken up upstairs.  Already she's laughing.

~E~

Thursday
Aug212014

halfway there

I've been silent for a while, as some of you have gently pointed out.  Thank you for looking for me, wondering where I've gone, missing my voice.  Someday, when I'm able to begin writing in earnest, it'll be you that I think of when I first take up my shaky, frightened pen. 

When we left our heroine, she had just blasted across the country and was living in a hotel, scouring the countryside for an appropriate home for her family.  She had kept her hopes and her camera up, found stories everywhere she went, and posted them to you episode after riveting episode.  And just when we were about to reach the stunning conclusion...

she stopped.  It was a cliffhanger.  Where did she go?  What will happen next?

Well, I'll tell you.  But it isn't stunning, and it isn't a conclusion.  We moved into a house in a neighborhood to wait.  And along with the waiting for the house in California to sell, and the waiting for the right house or land-to-build to come up here, I waited for what to say to you about all of this to come to me.  

Because I didn't want, on the one hand, to complain and be ungrateful.  We have a beautiful, friendly neighborhood, very manageable rent with flexible terms, good location, and a nice house that became available precisely when we needed it.  On the other hand, I didn't want to be unrealistic and gloss over the parts of this that are difficult.  We are country people in a lot of ways now, and this is not the country or a country home, by far.  So I wanted to wait until I could offer you a philosophical point of view instead of whining, glossing, or even just facts.  But philosophy is a capricious muse.  Sometimes she comes willingly, other times she makes us wait. 

We spend a lot of time in our lives wishing for something else.  I think this is human nature, and probably rather helpful to us.  It keeps us improving.  I wonder sometimes whether I spend more or less time wishing for something else than other people, but I suppose that comparison is as pointless as most others.  Maybe that's why the times when I've been able to say, yes, thisand nothing else, please are so clear in my memory.  Because they're so few.  

I stopped beneath the red oak tree in my front yard in Georgia one early-autumn day, on the way to the garden to gather vegetables and eggs.  A breeze blew, not a hot summer breeze, but one of the first really cool ones of fall.  I had goats, a garden, chickens, and a fenced acre of green grass that represented my goal of buying a milk cow in the near future.  I was writing a novel in the afternoons while my little boys napped and my older children played together.  I was beginning to make entire meals from what we grew on our land.  We had built friendships for ourselves and our children.  Our home was a retreat, out of town, far back off the road, tucked in among the trees.

I had spent so much time striving and trying and reaching that I was stunned to feel that if my life went on indefinitely exactly as it was going at that moment, I would be happy forever.  

When that life came apart, I felt that I'd been foolish.  I was embarrassed to have been so simple, and not to have been wiser instead.  We moved to California, and I tried with everything I had to create that life again.  But California has proven herself, twice now, to be a hard mistress for us.  We had to live very far from my husband's work in order to afford "the country".  The price of water and the onslaught of pests made it phenomenally difficult to achieve any degree of the self-sufficiency that's always been one of my goals.  There was a list of reasons that we left, but these were at the top.

Now we're here, where it's safe, and relatively inexpensive, where there's rain and possibility.  We're waiting for things to play out, wondering where we'll be in six months or a year.  I'm wondering just how much of each box to unpack, which pictures to bother hanging on the wall.  And at the same time, I'm wondering what all of this can teach me.  Inside, I have this struggle.  In my hands, and in my mind, are the skills to grow what we need to feed us.  But this beautiful, shady, grassy yard doesn't belong to us to dig up or cover over as we would.  Farm animals, needless to say, are not welcome here.  And yet, here is where I've got to be for now, and it's my choice, as it always is, to open up and gain something useful from this part of my life, or close down and be forever sorry for the lost opportunity.  I'm determined to do all I can to bloom here instead of wither.

So here are the questions that Philosophy has finally given me:  How can we keep moving toward goals that we feel are worthy and attainable, but we can't reach right now, while remaining grateful for and willing to learn from what's available today?  It's so easy to lose sight of one while straining to keep our focus on the other.  If what we thought was the finish line moves, can we square our shoulders and continue to plod onward without giving up, or becoming blind to the beauty of the landscape that is around us?  When we find ourselves on an apparent detour, can we step back and realize that there is no detour at all, just the loopy, zigzaggy, adventuresome road of life?  

Not so grateful that we become complacent and let our goals fall to the wayside.  Not so wrapped up in them that the journey toward them becomes flat and colorless.  It's a delicate balance, I think.

This little flowerpot on the front step makes me smile every time I go by it.  It was left here by the owner of the house, and it contained one struggling petunia.  Over the next few days, between rain showers, my three-year-old dug up the petunia, mixed black beans in with the soil, and scattered the mess all over the steps.  We swept it up and dumped it all back in the pot, and I was astonished to walk by a week or so later and discover these beautiful bean plants happily shooting up out of their container. 

And why, I wonder now, does this seem to fit?  Why do these bean plants make me so ridiculously happy?  They remind me of us in some strange way.  Country plants in a tidy neighborhood flowerpot, growing like mad where they happened to fall.  

Maybe they're a reminder that although we're not where we're going yet, we might be halfway there. 

~E~

Wednesday
Jul302014

the man I met at the coin laundry

When you have a house, and one set of laundry machines, you can do your laundry one of two ways, I've discovered.  You can wash and dry it in a series of back-to back cycles and try to get it done all in one crazy day, or you can wash a load or two every day and just keep it constantly cycling through.  Unless, I guess, you have 7 or more people and/or the amount of clothing we seem to have, in which case the laundry plan pretty much devolves into running the washer and dryer from dawn to dusk all week and hoping nobody throws up on anything. 

This week, as I may have mentioned, we're living in a hotel.  Which means we don't have access to our usual hardworking laundry facilities.  Instead, we pile up our dirty clothes in a closet somewhere until nobody has clean underwear anymore, and then we pack it all up and head off to one of man's most brilliant creations: the coin laundry.

The beautiful thing about the coin laundry is all those machines lined up side by side, waiting to take your week's laundry all at the same time.  Half an hour or so through the washers, 40 minutes in the gigantic drum dryer, and you're done until next week.  Done.  Until next week.  I will have a hard time going back to the old way, having seen the light. 

But the obvious tradeoff is that you have to haul all your dirty laundry down there, and sit around while it washes.  And feed quarters into the machines, of course.  But the laundry we've been using has a few compensations to help you make it through.  Two English-speaking TVs (and one Spanish), a children's toy area, a couple of ancient exercise machines, an arcade game or two, and a little short bookshelf full of books.  

I skimmed the bookshelf the first time we went to the coin laundry, and was impressed with the selection there.  There was a string of battered paperbacks, but many of them bore the silver seal of the Newberry Award.  Between these venerable titles, I found a book covered with Quentin Blake's unmistakable illustrations, and found I was holding the second half of Roald Dahl's autobiography, Going Solo in my hands. 

I had read The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, a collection of short stories by Dahl, a couple of which are autobiographical, and had been charmed by his story of how he discovered himself to be a writer.  I didn't know there was more autobiography to be had.  I'm not one of those who looks up every published work by an author I've enjoyed reading, so this type of surprise isn't unusual to me.  I operated that way once.  But then I made the mistake of reading Jude the Obscure back-to-back with Tess of the D'urbervilles and was so depressed that I decided a little airspace between works by any one author might be best.  

So I opened Going Solo and began to read about Dahl's trip to Africa to work for Shell Company, about the barmy empire-builders he met on the way, about deadly snakes and learning to speak Swahili...and the clothes were finished drying. So we folded them and left.  

My usual reaction to finding a book I've enjoyed part of is to buy it and have it sent to me, or at least check it out of the library.  But I have no library card.  I have no address.  I have got a Kindle, but I've about decided to throw that baby out in favor of the irreplaceable sensory experience of paper, and that book isn't available in Kindle format anyway.  There was no way for me to continue to read about Roald Dahl except to return to the blue plastic seats at the coin laundry and take their crumbling copy off the shelf. 

And, well, I liked him.  I know that I'm one of millions who have loved his easy storytelling style and bizarre sense of humor, but somehow when you're reading a book it feels like you're alone with the author, hearing a story that's never been told to anyone else.  So I was sad to leave him, cut off in mid-story, on the shelf at the laundromat.  

But the clothes piled up, and we were still hotel-dwellers, so a week later, I found myself in front of the laundromat bookshelf again.  Another few chapters' worth of flight training, snake-hunting, and amused easy grace, and I was completely smitten.  I looked Dahl up on my phone.  He'd been dead for 24 years.  Good.  I could be in love with him all I wanted. 

But there remains the problem of getting my hands on his book, and the first half of his autobiography, Boy.  By the end of the week I'll have an address and the slow-style laundry to go with it.  There will certainly be a measurable loss in the speed-laundry department.  But there are compensations there as well.  Who cares about all the other perks of having a house?  If I have an address, it means I can order my book.

~E~