Writer’s Block

Little_Miss_Busy

Well, hello everyone. I hope everyone is having a happy May. Once again, I have been very busy. There is a lull at work until we have a major uptick with a new upcoming assignment, so I’m working an abbreviated schedule. Having some time off has encouraged me to tackle some projects at home. I’m currently organizing and cleaning by drawers, cupboards, closets and desk. It’s a huge undertaking, which is going to take several weeks to truly get done, but already I’m feeling a huge sense of accomplishment. Just seeing my book shelf all organized is making me want to do the happy dance.

And I’m also feeling a huge surge of creative adrenaline. I love to make beaded jewelry and in the past couple of weeks I have made over a dozen pairs of earrings, a statement-y necklace, and a bracelet for one of my dearest friends. This friend also commissioned me to make a necklace for her niece.

As for this blog, the publisher who sent me an advanced copy of In the Company of Legends sent me another book to review and read, so look for a blog post on that shortly. Plus, a lovely on-line acquaintance of mine is writing a guest book review that I hope to receive shortly. I met this potential reviewer through an message board devoted to one of our favorite TV shows. She writes wonderful fan fiction based on the characters of this TV show, so I’m really looking forward to her guest review.

And what else? Well, on July 3rd I, along with two great friends of mine, will be at the U2 show at Chicago’s United Center. Can’t wait.

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Reading to Reels: Handmade Nation

handmade-nation-dvd-lgSeveral years ago, my friend Kristine and I got to see the documentary of Handmade Nation at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I wrote a review of the book of the same name, now I have a review of the movie. Enjoy!

Handmade Nation is the brainchild of Faythe Levine, a local indie crafter, musician, entrepreneur and film maker. Levine, who has been involved in the DIY art, craft and design scene for years, wanted to find others who shared her passion. She traveled throughout the United States to interview talented, passionate, creative and inspiring men and women who shun the homogenized mass-produced for something handmade and personal.

Handmade Nation grabs you from the opening credits where stop-motion animation shows the creation of handmade embroidered graphics. And throughout the just over an hour-long film, we visit crafters in places like Austin, Chicago, New York, and yes, my hometown, Milwaukee. We meet them at their personal work places and at craft fairs. We meet them in galleries and in garages. Some of them make a living doing their crafts, and others work bread and butter jobs while selling their wares on places like Etsy.com.

But one thing binds them, passion, and it is this passion that makes Handmade Nation so absorbing. In the film we meet a young woman who is setting up her wares the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago. We meet the guys behind Buy Olympia, a one-stop shopping website for independently made products. One crafter designs erotic hook rug patterns, and another creates embroidered pictures of objects like sushi and celebrities like Loretta Lynn. Seeing one crafter create glass beads and another create intricately cut paper cut-outs was riveting. I really admire both their artistry and devotion to their craft. I was thrilled to see JW and Melissa Buchanan from Little Friends of Printmaking. As Imentioned in my book review of Handmade Nation, the three of us toiled together at Discovery World. And Levine pulls a major coup in getting an interview with one of my she-roes, Debbie Stoller, the founder and editor-in-chief of Bust and the goddess behind the Stitch and Bitch books.

These crafters got into their work for a multitude of reasons. Many of them were put off by the mass-produced stuff they found at places like Wal-Mart. Some of them wanted to make a living out of something they loved to do. Many of them expressed interest in supporting fellow crafters and artisans. But so many of them do it because it’s so much fun. They can look at their work and say, “I created this. This is mine.” Crafting very empowering. For me personally, making my own soap is more about making something that will keep me clean. It’s about experimenting with scents and colors and making something uniquely my own. And when I cut my soap into smaller bars, and none of the sizes are perfectly uniform, it’s okay. Imperfection is part of the charm of crafting.

When Handmade Nation was over, Kristine and I could not stop talking about how inspiring it was. Every once in a while Kristine and I have “crafternoons” where we drink wine, watch a DVD, and yes, make crafts.

But I don’t think you have to be a crafter to get something out of Handmade Nation. I think anyone who appreciates artistry and creativity will like this charming documentary.

Book Review: Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design by Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl

Handmade NationYears ago, if you would have asked me to go to a craft fair, I would have laughed. Why would I want to go to a craft fair? Weren’t craft fairs filled with crocheted toilet cozies and gingham-clad rag dolls made by blue-haired grannies? That wasn’t my scene. Well, my attitude changed when I attended my first Art vs. Craft Fair here in Milwaukee in 2006. I was overwhelmed by the multitude of interesting and creative crafts made by young men and women (some with blue hair). I was so impressed by the T-shirts, candles, jewelry, toys, journals, knitwear and assorted artistic items. I bought a few things, and talked to the crafters about their wares. Crafting to them wasn’t just a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon; it was a calling.

Art vs. Craft was the brain child of Milwaukee crafter, musician, documentary film maker and boutique owner, Faythe Levine. And along with Cortney Heimerl, Ms. Levine has written the book Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design. In Handmade Nation, Levine and Heimerl interviewed various crafters throughout the United States and tells their stories in the crafters’ own words. The crafters make everything from jewelry to toys to clothing. Some of the crafters are able to support themselves through their work while others have regular day jobs and work on their projects in their spare time. In the essays, the crafters explain how they came to crafting and why they create. And they don’t just describe the nuts and bolts of crafting, they describe the philosophy behind their work. Many of the crafters profiled said they got into crafts not only for the creative aspect, but because its also an escape from the generic and mass-produced. There is more joy in purchasing something unique at a craft fair than the same-old thing at the mall.

Crafting is also a community, with many crafters talking about the support they receive from other crafters, sharing ideas and advice about all aspects of crafting. The crafters profiled aren’t just funky artistic types; they’re also business people, organizing craft fairs and setting up their own shops on Etsy.com. And I’m happy to say that I know two of the people profiled in Handmade Nation, JW and Melissa Buchanan from Little Friends of Printmaking. JW and Melissa have been designing art posters for years and they also teach how to create silk screen prints. I was fortunate to work with them at Milwaukee’s Discovery World where they ran the print lab and I was a copywriter. To see two such talented people profiled in Handmade Nation is quite a thrill.

Aesthetically, Handmade Nation is wonderfully designed. The photographs lovingly capture the crafters’ themselves, their work and their workspaces. The words give life to what each person profiled creates. I also liked the hand-drawn timeline of the DIY crafting scene. Not only is the timeline charmingly drawn, it’s also very informative. Even after I was finished with this book, I found myself looking through it again and again. Sure, I was jealous of the huge workspace some of the crafters had. It can be a bit toiling and trying to make my soap and other bath products in my tiny kitchen. But mostly I felt inspired to do more crafting, and not just making bath soap. Now I just have to get some of my crafting supplies more organized and figure out what I want to create. My brain is filled with possibilities.

Still, Handmade Nation left me wanting more. I wanted to learn more about the crafters and other crafters throughout the United States. And Handmade Nation isn’t just a book; it’s also a documentary. *

In the end, Handmade Nation is an excellent primer on the world of crafting and DIY projects, and an interesting read for both crafting veterans and crafting novices.

* I was fortunate to see this documentary when it was shown at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago, and I will post a review of it shortly.

Ecobeauty: Scrubs, Rubs, Masks and Bath Bombs for You and Your Friends by Lauren Cox

Eco beautyI’ve been a big fan of homemade beauty and bath products ever since I learned to make my own soap nearly seven years ago. And since then I’ve also learned to make bath soaks, exfoliating scrubs and massage oils. I’m always on the hunt for more homemade beauty and bath recipes, so I was very happy to find Lauren Cox’s book Ecobeauty: Scrubs, Rubs, Masks and Bath Bombs for You and Your Friends.

Cox learned to make homemade beauty and bath products from her mother Janice, who has also written about the topic. In fact, I have the elder Cox’s book Natural Beauty for All Seasons: More Than 250 Simple Recipes and Gift-Giving Ideas for Year-Round Beauty on my bookshelf and I’ve referred to it many times. Now it’s the younger Cox’s turn to pass her homemade wisdom to others.

Divided up into several sections, Ecobeauty‘s recipes are for your face, body, mouth (yes, you can make your own homemade mouthwash), hands and feet and hair. They include facial masks, bath bombs, foot soaks and deep hair conditioners. There is also a section on combining Ms. Cox’s recipes into different gifts, and fun packaging and wrapping ideas.

A majority of the recipes can be made using products found easily at any grocery store. Some require items only found in health/nutrition stores or online. Do your homework when purchasing these items to find the best deal. And if a recipe calls for more exotic ingredients, stick with the instructions and don’t try substitutions. However, there are times when a recipe can be amended. Use your best judgment.

For the most part, the recipes are very easy to follow. The layout of the book is clean and crisp, and the photos of the products are lovingly done. Interspersed throughout are quick tips on being environmentally conscious, saving money, health and beauty. One quibble: I’m not fond of the book’s binding. I would have preferred a spiral bound book because then I could lay it flat on my work space in my kitchen.

Ecobeauty is an informative manual for anyone interested in making homemade beauty and bath products for both personal use and as gifts. This book helps you to be green, creative and economical. Making these creations is also fun for a girls’ night in, a slumber party or other activity, and it’s full of recipes for everyone’s taste, need and spending habits. It’s one book you just want to refer to again and again.

Brag Book (With Some Lovin’ from the Oven)

square-recipe-file-bookJust checked the email account I have for this blog, and Emily Matchar, author of Homeward Bound, emailed me back to say she loved the review and she re-tweeted a link to my review. Here it is (scroll down):

Ms. Matchar also mentioned in her email that my sugar mint cookies sound amazing. Well, they are! Here is the recipe.

Sugar Mint Cookies

1 cup butter
1/2 cup of sugar
2 cups of flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp of peppermint extract
2 tbsp of crushed dry mint leaves (or 4 tbsp of crushed fresh mint leaves)*
Additional sugar

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and the 1/2 cup of sugar. Add flour, salt, extract and mint. Chill dough for at least an hour. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Form chilled dough into 1 inch balls and roll in additional sugar. Place the balls on an ungreased cookie sheet. Press each ball with your thumb. Bake for 12-15 minutes.

*The original recipe (which I believe I found in the Milwaukee Journal’s “Food” Section)  calls for dried or fresh mint leaves, but you can also use chocolate chips (Nestle makes a great dark chocolate/mint chips combo), Andie’s Candies chips or mint M & M’s. They’re all good!!!!

 

Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar

homeward_bound_rev3You must be living on another planet not to know that many American women (and some men) have caught the domesticity bug. They’re cultivating their own gardens (or buying locally grown produce). They embrace crafty projects like sewing, knitting, woodworking, soap making and jewelry design. They are total foodies who can their own fruits and veggies and are experts at making a pie crust.

Some of these people also eschew the public realm by leaving corporate America to have their own home-based businesses, and choose to homeschool rather than send their kids to private and public schools. They practice something called “attachment” parenting. When it comes to political and social issues, these domestic divas and dudes run the gamut from very liberal to very conservative.

But does embracing the new domesticity have a dark side? Well, it could and Emily Matchar focuses on both the positive and negative elements of this phenomenon is her thought-provoking book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.

I was initially drawn to Matchar’s book because in my own quirky way, I’m pretty domestically inclined. I make my own soap and other bath and beauty products. I make most of my meals instead of eating out. I like to bake, and my sugar mint cookies are in high demand. I love my city’s local farmers markets and I’m growing a fledgling herb garden on my window sill. I even made my friend Kristine’s wedding veil.

However, I work for the “man.” My shabby chic apartment is more shabby than chic. I’m childfree so homeschooling and attachment parenting aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse. So just who are these people (mostly women) who have fully embraced the new domesticity?

According to the interviews that pepper Homeward Bound, there are various reasons why so many women are focusing on domesticity. Some do it because they are creative types who enjoy making everything from soup stock to laundry detergent. They also like saving money by making things themselves, especially in a shaky economy. And by focusing on the homemade they know exactly what they and their families are consuming and using.

A majority of these women are highly educated and many of them had good careers. However, they found the workplace lacking. Many jobs are not exactly worker and family friendly. And employees often live in fear of layoffs, outsourcing and other less than progressive corporate practices. And it’s often easier to jump off the career ladder, pack your belongings and head on home rather than try to change the system.

With some public schools in tatters and private school tuition out of reach of some people, many moms are relying on themselves to educate their broods through various homeschool strategies. And by staying home some mothers can practice the concept of attachment parenting, which includes methods like baby-wearing, co-sleeping, extended breast feeding and something called “elimination communication,” an alternative to changing diapers you might want to Google on an empty stomach.

And then there is the “F” word—feminism. Some of these women believe embracing domesticity as another act of feminism, employing the unique talents and qualities of women like nurturing and collaboration and using them at home rather than in the workplace. Other women embrace domesticity as a way to blow feminism a huge raspberry. They believe feminism has opened up a Pandora box of problems, including the breakdown of the American family and society as a whole.

Not surprisingly, many of these domestic divas blog. I’m sure you’ve read quite a few of them, one of the most famous being Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman. Many of Matchar’s subjects in Homeward Bound also blog about their domestic projects, often with beautifully crafted photos of cupcakes, knitted sweaters and adorable children. Though they might not be as well-known ad Ms. Drummond, many of them have sizable followings. And some of the interviewees have been able to monetize their domestic skills via their blogs, Etsy boutiques and writing books.

You might be thinking, “Okay, so far, so good, nothing wrong with cupcakes, knitted sweaters and adorable children.”

Nope, nothing wrong with any of those things; I’m a fan of all three. However, not everything in a homeward bound world is hand-crafted glitter and organic rainbows. There can be a downside.

Amongst Matchar’s misgivings about the new domesticity involved the issues of race, class and gender. A majority of the women interviewed in Homeward Bound are white, come from educated, middle-class backgrounds, and have husbands whose incomes allow them to stay home. They are a pretty homogenous bunch.

Furthermore, a lot of women, no matter their race or ethnicity can’t be homeward bound due to a lack of money and the need to work to support themselves and their families. A single mother working two jobs might not have the time to provide a perfectly made from scratch family dinner. And she’s probably too pooped at the end of the day to start her own Etsy boutique and plant a garden. The act of daily survival is a huge undertaking itself!

And where are the men? Sure, the men provide the paychecks, but if some of these women see themselves as the sole providers of their children’s nurturing does that mean the dads are just cash registers on legs and sperm donors?

Sure, being a stay at home mom is work, but what about financial independence? Marriages end in divorce, men do die and even if your husband is the most amazing man on the planet he can still lose his job or become disabled. Matchar points out it might be difficult for some of these women to jump on the career track after being out of work for so long. And those preserved peaches might taste great but they won’t pay the mortgage or fill up your gas tank.

Furthermore, being fully homeward bound can be a very insular and individualistic. By focusing solely on their own homes and families, some domestic divas can be so solipsistic they ignore on issues that a huge swathe of American citizens face daily—failing school systems, a less than ideal work culture and a lack of access to nutritious, non-processed foods. Not all of them have an “I got mine; screw the rest of you” mentality, but there are a few who seem to be a bit too self-focused, and don’t realize not everyone is as blessed as them. Fortunately, I know plenty of people in the DIY crowd who can focus on their homes and who are still engaged with their communities as a whole. And in the final chapter of Homeward Bound, Matchar wraps her book up in a final thesis of both observations and interesting thoughts on just this very idea. Family and community are not diametrically opposed. They are intermingled.

Ultimately, Matchar doesn’t fully dismiss the embrace of domesticity in Homeward Bound. She fully acknowledges its positive qualities. However, she wisely suggests women look before they leap fully into their “sewn with love” aprons. Baking cookies is good but so are financial independence, commitment to the public good and celebrating the hard won gains our forebears fought for women to get an education, vote and have a voice beyond writing a blog post about your latest domestic project. In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the (artisanal) bath water just yet.

Eco-Thrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life by Deborah Niemann

51iL1kO2zNL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Tuesday, April 22nd is Earth Day. In honor of this day I’m posting this book review on how to save both the planet and some money.

With a financial situation that can only be described as “meh” and a desire to be a green as possible, I’m always looking for tips and ideas on how to save some money while also being earth-friendly. Some of the money saving tips I find are way too stringent, the kind you might find on the TLC show “Extreme Cheapskates.” No thanks. I refuse to dumpster dive for medication. And as for being green, there are times when I think the green movement has become too elitist or “yuppie,” like high-end green fashion brands and home accessories. I just can’t fathom buying a tank top that costs almost a third of my monthly rent.

Well, thanks to Deborah Niemann’s latest book Eco-Thrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life, I can I can pay my rent and maintain my desire to be as green as humanly possible.

I first became aware of Ms. Niemann when I profiled her book Homegrown and Homemade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living and her visit to Milwaukee’s very own Boswell Book Company nearly three years ago. Ms. Niemann lives on a huge homestead and farm in rural Illinois where she and her family live a hugely self-sustaining life raising chickens, goats, llamas, and cows. They also have a large garden and orchard. It is from this homestead Ms. Niemann is able to support and take care of her family while being frugal and maintaining an environmentally-sound lifestyle. So needless to say, she is the perfect person to write a book on the topics of saving money and caring for the planet.

Eco-Thrifty is divided into 10 easy to follow chapters covering everything from making your own personal care products to how to make products to keep your home spic and span. Niemann also covers cheap ways to be green when it comes to clothing, raising children, feeding your family, maintaining your health, and gardening. Eco-Thrifty also tells us how entertaining and transportation can also be green and cheap. And the final chapter informs us to get things for free or almost free. Bonus!

I have to admit I looked forward to reading Eco-Thrifty’s chapter on personal care products. I’ve been making own soap for six years now. Not only am I saving money and not using products with a bunch of scary chemicals I can’t pronounce, I’m also having a lot of fun. Making my own soap is another creative outlet. So I was thrilled to read up on recipes on how to make other products like body butter and exfoliating scrubs.

In the chapter on home care, Deborah lets us know how much you can clean with simple vinegar and baking soda (and a little extra elbow grease). You don’t have to buy a mess of products from Wal-Mart. She also has a recipe on how to make your own laundry detergent with items you can easily find at you local grocery or drug store.

When it comes to food, Niemann inspires us to trust ourselves in the kitchen. We can save money, be green and get in touch with our inner Julia Child. She extolls the virtues of making things from scratch, including wine. She also encourages us to grow our own food, letting us know that even an urban dweller like myself can grow an herb garden on my window sill (and I’m planning on doing this shortly).

Other green and thrifty ideas include buying things used, holding clothing swap parties, investing in a good pair of gym shoes to go walking around your neighborhood instead of joining a pricey gym and re-purposing and re-using things you might throw out. Many of her ideas you might be using already!

Most of Ms. Niemann’s ideas and tips are easy to do and practical. Niemann’s writing style is down-to-earth and encouraging. And she knows that not all of her ideas will work for everyone and some may have to be amended to one’s particular lifestyle. Sure, she got a bit preachy about not having a television, but perhaps I was feeling some residual Catholic guilt over watching reruns of “Bridezillas” instead of doing something a bit more worthy of my time.

Ultimately, Eco-Thrifty is a must-read primer for anyone who wants to be green and save some green.