Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brent's illness -- a speech for the Histio Cure Fund dinner

This is the speech I will be presenting tonight at the Histio Cure Fund dinner at the River Oaks Country Club, which is raising money for Dr. McClain's research. I love writing, I love quilting, but my family is my one true passion. Being by Brent's side through his eight years of treatment for Langerhans cell histiocytosis was the most difficult,  heartbreaking and humbling thing I've ever done. I am very angry that 18 years after his diagnosis researchers are no closer to figuring out why histiocytosis occurs and haven't developed any effective treatments that are safer than chemotherapy. One reason is that there is no federal funding to support these efforts.

If you would like to help, in Brent's honor, please contact me. I appreciate you passing along the link to this post.

I thought about calling my remarks tonight, A Boy and His Doc.

Because, really, Brent’s story is as much about his relationship with Ken McClain over the last 18 years as it is about his battle against Langerhans cell histiocytosis.

Brent was diagnosed when he was just 17 months old, right before Christmas 1993. What would be his final chemo infusion finally took place nearly eight years later, in November 2001. His entire preschool and elementary years were spent under the specter of illness and treatment, alternating hope and despair ... and for us, his parents, nearly constant low-level dread.

Brent doesn’t recall his early years of chemo, but he does remember at age 3 christening Dr. McClain the Doctor with the Good Hair. It was only after he grew older, realized the seriousness of disease, and understood the extraordinary efforts that Dr. McClain had made to control it, that Brent replaced the Good Hair designation with another title, equally appropriate. At his Eagle Scout Court of Honor, Brent publicly declared Dr. McClain his hero, saying simply, “he never gave up trying to get me well.” Now, even outside of the medical care, Brent might not have achieved Eagle rank without Dr. McClain’s help.  That’s because, when Brent needed a partner for a 50-mile bike ride to complete his requirements, Dr. McClain enthusiastically agreed. On a Sunday morning, the two of them pedaled all across Houston. Brent hasn’t been back on his bike much since, but that’s another story.

Beyond cute names and adulation, however, Brent and Dr. McClain are linked together in medical history.

You know, when a disease is rare, there’s no typical case. But at diagnosis, it did look like Brent’s histiocytosis might be managed fairly easily. His first symptom, which wasn’t recognized at the time, had actually appeared about three months earlier. Of all things, it was a yellow waxy rash on his scalp. Our pediatrician prescribed topical treatments but didn’t seem overly concerned. And neither were we. Then Brent awoke one morning with a swollen eye. Our ophthalmologist felt a divot when he examined Brent’s eyebrow bone. An immediate MRI revealed a tumor in the orbit behind his left eye, as well as damage to the eyebrow and to a bone behind his ear. Although she had missed the early significance of the scalp rash by itself, when our pediatrician put that clue together with the bone destruction, she felt strongly that Brent had histiocytosis. We were seen at Texas Children’s Cancer Center two days later.

After a battery of tests to confirm the diagnosis and extent of the disease, Brent underwent radiation to the tumor and began a one-year regimen of weekly chemotherapy injections. We were cautiously optimistic when the year of treatments ended … and devastated just six weeks later when we were told the disease had returned with a vengeance. Not only were there more damaged bones, but errant cells had entered his brain and were interfering with the flow of cerebral spinal fluid. Like winning the worst lottery of all time, Brent had developed an extremely unusual complication within an already mysterious condition. We learned that most kids like Brent eventually were confined to a wheelchair or had significant neurological deficits. Some didn’t survive.

During the next seven years, Dr. McClain worked vigorously to halt the progress of Brent’s brain disease. We tried every accepted chemotherapy, including one delivered directly into his spine. When he was old enough to have radiation to the brain without it affecting his intellect, we tried that, too. But every MRI was a heartbreak, showing more disease.

On the other hand, we were heartened by the fact that Brent had no neurological symptoms. He was meeting his intellectual and physical benchmarks and was a lively, happy kid. Although he had developed diabetes insipidus, that was well under control. He had even successfully undergone a dramatic 9-hour surgery to reconstruct his eye socket.

Then his third grade teacher sent home two writing samples that Brent had done just a week or so apart. One showed his normal, large, careful printing. The other looked like it had been scratched out by a stroke victim. And when he walked, we now saw that his gait was slightly off.

We had exhausted all of the alternatives. The neurological decline we had feared had begun. When Dr. McClain shook his head and said with a sigh, “You never stop challenging me, Brent,” we imagined there was nothing left to do.

Fortunately, the Histiocyte Society – which is the international group of doctors and researchers studying histiocytosis – was meeting in Vienna later that week. Dr. McClain would take Brent’s MRI films with him and see if the world’s other experts had any new ideas.

They didn’t.

But, they agreed that Dr. McClain’s last-ditch plan to administer his new chemotherapy protocol was worth a try. Although this treatment had been effective for histiocytosis in the bone, it had never been used against disease in the central nervous system. Another course of low-dose, highly targeted radiation to the brain was also prescribed. Without other options, we agreed to what amounted to a pretty significant experiment on our child.

Astonishingly, after so many blind alleys and setbacks, Dr. McClain’s previously untested treatment worked. All we had hoped for at the next MRI was a stable report. Instead, there was actually some improvement. Within weeks, Brent’s symptoms resolved: his handwriting returned to normal, as did his gait.

Dr. McClain’s treatment, which finally halted Brent’s disease, is now the accepted protocol for children with histiocytosis in the brain and central nervous system. It has helped several other children, although so far none has responded as well as Brent did.

Brent has been off treatment 10 years now. We only see Dr. McClain in the clinic once a year. At our last appointment, he referred to Brent as a great story – a patient who’s gotten healthy and stayed that way.

Today, Brent is a sophomore at Lone Star College. He’s active in our church. He plays golf and the piano. He still has a few medical issues that keep him from doing all he’d like to, but we know those will resolve some day, too. Brent’s spirit, courage, ambition and good humor are an inspiration to a lot of people. As I hope is this story … of a boy and the doctor who was devoted to getting him well.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why are you doing this?

Not to be outdone by my husband's query, What made you think that was a good idea?, a friend asked recently why I'm writing this blog.

Although I had invited her to read it when it launched, I don't suspect she ever has. Which is too bad, because there aren't many people who can make Faulkner seem orderly, an effect my ramblings probably have.

It's a valid question, of course. So I'll try to do it justice. (If I were really talented, I'd do it in Letterman Top Ten reverse order. Where's Paul Shaffer when you need a muse?)

1. Writing this blog is fun.

When you spend your days scribbling about floating operational oil platforms or next-generation chemical compositions, getting to write about something you have a passion for is kind of a thrill. (I never imagined I'd enjoy working on technical, scientific or engineering accounts, but making something interesting out of the dullest stuff on earth -- or North Sea -- is very rewarding.)

2. Writers should write.

I wasn't doing that enough. I was waiting for clients to give me business. I lacked the discipline to try to start a new spec magazine article each week. This way, I'm not getting as rusty between paying gigs.

3. Motivation.

Not just to write more and to use this venue as seed for future articles, but to sew through the stash. Even if I only pretend someone's reading, I have to keep producing.

4. Self-absorption and self-indulgence.


5. Routine.

I know there are adventurous people who continually seek new forms of excitement. I'm more of a Groundhog Day kind of girl. I still get teary before the end of the school year because it marks a change in routine. But then I get used to the summer and I'm upset when September rolls around. I suppose it's losing my mom at an early age and then being sucked up into a whirling vortex of insecurity that makes me crave predictability. Knowing what to expect can be very comforting.

Writing this blog lends a little routine to my day, or at least to my Monday through Thursday. Each day at 5, I make myself sit down and work on it. Only a text from Alec Baldwin that it's my turn in Words With Friends can distract me.

6. You like me. You really, really like me.

So, I like positive feedback. And I get it from you nice people who read me. Some of you tell me I make you happy. That's been my goal since first grade, right? I like to tell tales, and the cats have already heard all of my stories. (You should see how cute they look, though, when they put their little paws over their ears.)  It's nice to have this audience.

No photos today, but I have started a new project. Inspired by a quilt I saw on Pinterest, I'm taking the 4.5 metric tons of Kona I have left and combining it with my favorite batiks.  I'm also going to get back to the table runner I quilted with the embroidered sun motif, bind it and put it up on my etsy shop. I've also challenged myself to make what I'm calling IPod quilts -- wallhangings based upon music I listen to at the gym. Now, if they'd only invent a treadmill powered sewing machine, think of all I could accomplish in a day.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What made you think that was a good idea?

Despite his training as a psych nurse, I find my husband sometimes lacking in the area of compassion. Oh, he's pretty good with the bigger disappointments in life, but when I do something silly or stupid, he's more likely to ignore my plaint than to offer any advice or consolation.

Sometimes, though, he will say: What made you think that was a good idea?

I like to think that he means, "Someone of your great judgment made a misstep? There must be a sound reason for your folly," (he does speak like Mr. Darcy on occasion) rather than, "Are you crazy or what?"

After a week or two of working on the Kona cotton quilt -- the top is completed, but I haven't decided how to quilt it -- it was time this morning to venture back into the archeological site I call my fabric closet to look at prints.

I have to tell you, sometimes I wonder what made me think some of those purchases were a good idea.

Case in point: a brown cotton decorated with beady-eyed lovebirds and lemons that I had intended to make into a purse for Hilary. 

First of all, I'm pretty sure Hilary never wanted a citrus purse. Second, if those are lovebirds, there must truly be a fine line between love and hate.

Because of its scale, you can't really cut this fabric into squares or strips without destroying the intent of the design. Which, I guess, is a good thing. Let me just fussy-cut all those birds' eyes pieces and sew them together for you.

And how about this one? Sadly, not only do I have it in orange and yellow (with magenta accents), I purchased a set of fat quarters of the same print in different colorways. I'm not sure if those are flowers or something we studied in the biology class marine unit.

Finally, this one is kind of cute. It's flannel and I bought it when a quilt shop was going out of business, thinking it would be fun to have in a raggy flannel baby quilt. Only paid $3 a yard for it, too. But after studying it a while, maybe it's more appropriate for a buckaroo than a baby. Paired with denim? Perhaps. But it's possible the best idea would be to just put it out to pasture and give it to the first reader who wants it.

I promise to only affirm your decision to take it. And that's no bull.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How'm I Doing?

When he was mayor of New York City, the Hon. Ed Koch famously asked his constituents, How'm I Doing? 

(I hate the use of the word "famously" in that context, but it's so prevalent that I just felt all band-wagony and had to jump on and say it.)

In fact, How'm I Doing became not only his catch-phrase but the title of his best-selling autobiography.

Now, I used to think that if you weren't handed a pink slip, a summons, an arrest warrant or a divorce decree, things were going pretty well for you.

But over the past couple of years, I've started selling things on etsy, and I've made the -- ahem -- occasional Facebook and Pinterest post.

And suddenly, my performance in those venues has become a very big, if somewhat capricious, deal to me.

I crave the 100% Positive  Feedback rating on etsy, which I 've earned, but I fret when someone buys something and doesn't leave a report. As with my writing, I take pride in my sewing and customer satisfaction is important. I've told myself that if someone were unhappy with the quality of the quilt she ordered from me, she'd say so. But, it's still nice to hear the "I love it and it looks great over my fireplace" remark.

I monitor my Facebook "Likes" like a latter-day Stuart Smalley: They are my affirmation that my status update was good enough, smart enough and, doggone it, people like me. (I'm not sure when Facebook posting became a competitive sport, but I'm in.)

I'm please when I find out someone new is following me on Pinterest, even though the idea of being followed used to be at least creepy, if not dangerous.

So, today, I thought I'd show you how I'm doing on sewing through the Kona cottons. This isn't the final layout, but the individual blocks are coming along well. The only bad part is that when you're cutting strips no wider than 2", you don't exactly steam through your stash.

Feel free to Oooh and Aaah. You know I like to hear it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Good Quilt. A Plain Quilt, but a Good Quilt.

Aunt Mildred was our family's version of an IED.

She'd lurk quietly, waiting for you to make the most minor misstep. Then, boy oh boy, she'd let you have it. Her tongue could slice tomatoes, it was so sharp. Her glare could freeze you faster than a winter wind off Lake Michigan. The only time you'd get your way with her was if she had determined what you wanted and you agreed to it. She was difficult, demanding and a first-rate battle-axe, to use a term of the day.

It's fair to say I was generally terrified of her. But there were certain things I actually admired about her.

Although she had married into the family, Aunt Mildred assumed the role of matriarch after my grandmother -- her mother-in-law -- died in 1962.  She was a savvy businesswoman, building a successful business with my uncle. Her knitting and needlepoint were outstanding. She had lovely silver hair. But, more than any of that, she was easily the most impressive cook I've ever known. She'd come home from a day at the office and tap-tap-tap those stilletto heels around the kitchen, whipping up a veal marsala  with the same ease the rest of us might make a sandwich. Her Thanksgiving dinners and other family feasts weren't to be missed. Before she married Uncle Al, she'd worked in a cookbook test kitchen. I imagine she was considered quite an asset there.

By no means were my mom and Aunt Mildred close. The enmity may have begun earlier, but it probably didn't help when, soon after I was born, Aunt Mildred visited, looked at me and announced, "Pretty she won't be." (Seriously -- in what kind of family does someone say this to a new mother. And who is cruel enough to compound the insult by actually telling the subject of the slur what was said?)

When I was a teenager, maybe four or five years my mom died, I was minimally helping Aunt Mildred prepare a meal. I don't know if it was a perverse test on my part or what, but I asked her if she had thought my mother was a good cook.

She answered, She was a good cook. (A beat's pause.) A plain cook, but a good cook.

Now, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with that response, although it would have been kinder to cut the one-upsmanship and simply say yes. There's no real dichotomy here -- plain and good aren't halves of the same whole. They can exist together or separately, right?

So if a plain cook can be a good one, can a plain quilt be a good quilt?

This topic has been roiling around in my brain since I overheard a discussion by some Guild members at the quilt store. Apparently one of the organizations to which they donate charity quilts had asked if some more care might be put into their donations.

One woman took the position that she didn't have to do the quilt at all, so whoever got it should be happy with it. Another agreed, adding that she wasn't going to spend a lot of time on something she was giving away. The last of the Macbeth trio said they'd just have to realize that what she was offering was good enough for them.

It reminded me of the struggles I had when I chaired the Social Action Council at church, trying to convince certain congregants that donating expired canned goods or open cereal boxes to the Food Bank wasn't really doing anyone any good. The argument I got in return: If they're hungry enough, they'll eat it. Wow. Talk about disregard for basic human dignity.

As you know, one of the ways I'm sewing through my stash is by making charity pillowcases, flannel blankies and quilts. Because I'm aiming for high production, I can't spend the months it would take to, say,  piece 1300 scraps into a New York Beauty. But there are plenty of simple patterns out there that make quite handsome quilts. I make sure that the fabrics are appropriate and go well together. I take time with my finishing and binding.

So, all in all, my charity pillowcases, flannel blankies and quilts might be plain, but they're good. And by that, I mean they're done with the same care I'd make any items, so I can feel good about giving them. Plain and simple.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Don't Look Down the Rabbi's Sleeves

I was a nice Jewish girl raised by a retirement-age widower in the small, predominantly German Lutheran city of Appleton, Wisconsin, which made me roughly as common as a four-leaf clover, but without the good luck.

Our synagogue was dominated by familial dynasties, to which we did not belong, even though my great-grandfather had been one of the synagogue's founders. Before there was a building, services were held in my great-grandparents' living room. But when that generation died off, the remaining members of our little clan, with the exception of my dad, fled as if they were escaping some modern-day Cossacks to Milwaukee.

So I felt somewhat isolated and lonely at what seemed to be an endless cycle of Sunday School, Hebrew School, and Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation classes populated by cousins. (Yes, I can still read Hebrew, although I never had any command of the conversational -- as opposed to the liturgical -- form, often confusing it with the Spanish I was learning at the same time.  As have many things in my life, this fusion was repeated with my children: when Brent was in middle school, he and his lunch buddies decided to teach each other snippets of the other language they heard at home. The Yiddish/Spanish mash-up resulted in such phrases as Estoy Meshuga - I'm crazy -- and Limpie tu  Schmutz -- clean up your mess.)

I was Bat Mitzvahed on Friday, November 13, 1970. Of the dozen or so kids in my class to be so honored, I was the penultimate. I can't recall why I didn't ascend the pulpit during my birth month of August, as would have been customary, but it did give my dad extra time to write my speech. He did a very nice job discussing ecumenical relations, by the way.

Toward the end of each ceremony, the Rabbi, dressed in his clerical robes, raises his arm and blesses the young person. After the first in our group was Bar Mitzvahed, he said, "I can't tell you why, but don't look down the Rabbi's sleeves."

One by one, like obedient, mythical lemmings, everyone else in the class commanded the remaining uninitiated students: Don't look down the Rabbi's sleeves.

So, of course, I looked down the Rabbi's sleeves. I mean, how could I not?

And what was down them? A nice, white shirt.

Since then, the notion of Looking Down the Rabbi's Sleeves has come to mean to me a disappointing surprise.

Like finding that my bin of Kona cottons also has Cherrywood solids in it.

Now, Cherrywood is a beautiful, hand-dyed fabric available in a delicious array of solid colors. They also have a suede-like, tonal quality to them. This makes them an unsuitable pairing to my clear Kona cottons. Which means the Christos-worthy quilt I'm working on won't be as large as I thought ... and that I need another way to use up the Cherrywoods.

When that inspiration strikes, you'll hear about it here first.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Please Restrain Me, Don't Let Me Go

I was just in the checkout line at the grocery store behind a woman who was buying what can only be described as one big-ass Valentine's wreath.

It was constructed of giant loops of red burlappy-looking netting stuff with a garland of heart-emblazoned ribbon twisted throughout. In a further nod to wanton excess, there was a sign glued in the center that said Kiss Me in pink glittered letters.

The shopper -- a woman of about 65 -- was as excited as I've ever seen anyone at Kroger although it's possible I've never seen anyone excited at Kroger before. Her women's support group is coming over tonight and this half-price decoration will be her centerpiece, she explained to the young, pleasant cashier. (In the meantime, as the wreath conveyed toward him, the sacker, a Morgan Freeman look-alike, was having a difficult time stifling his laughter. But those were some twinkling eyes.) She'd also hit the Whoops! We Baked Too Much cart for a cake and had apparently picked up all the day-old prepared fruit and vegetable trays. (I have a keen eye for those specially colored stickers, too.)

Now, I admire her thrift. I like sales, and I've said "and I had a coupon" so many times that my family now beats me to it, allowing me to get just as far as "It was on sale and..." before they jump in and finish my sentence.

But does one really need a big-ass Valentine's wreath? The day after Valentine's Day? Oh, sure, her guests might think she's had it on display for weeks. And, she did describe to those of us in line her intent to convert it to a Christmas wreath come December.

The question is: just because it's a good deal, should you get it?

Yes, yes, I can hear those of you who know me well laughing. I have fallen prey to the allure of a sale a time or two (thousand).

Looking at all this fabric, though, some of it a gift, much of it purchased on sale and probably more of it acquired at full retail, I feel a little embarrassed. I can only stimulate the economy so much. And if it's true that she who dies with the most of something wins, I could live to be 90 and still be in the running.

If pledging to sew my stash is the Yang, the Yin of course is not buying any new fabric. Or even begging for it, as I sort of did Sunday when a friend who is divorcing and clearing out her home said she might have some fabric and I instinctively asked if I could have it. Not buying anything new -- or getting something left over from someone else -- seems like a dark, cold, forbidding place.

I think there's a glimmer of light, though. In my email is an unopened message from my favorite quilt shop with the subject line February Sale. (Ok, I haven't trashed it. One step at a time, please.) Today's Groupon was an offer for $50 worth of fabric for $25. And to make matters more difficult on that account, a friend messaged me about the deal, too. I resisted both appeals. Of course, last night I did "favorite" a half-yard of Michael Miller cat fabric on etsy. But it isn't in my shopping cart -- or on its way to me -- so that's an improvement.

Given my new willpower, you probably no longer have to worry about me wrestling a giant Valentine's Day wreath from you. Even if it is on sale.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Do you know the Duchess of Alba? She's the 85-year-old Spanish royal who made news last fall when she married a 61-year-old "commoner." (I almost typed coroner, which might have been Freudian.) The most titled woman in Europe -- she has 46 -- she is also one of the wealthiest. Among her treasures is Columbus' first map.

Now, I have long postulated that Columbus must have been either (typical man) too proud to stop for directions or he was holding his map upside down, because he discovered the Americas while trying to find an all-water route to India and China. So maybe that first map would be nice to show off at a cocktail party, but I can't see that it has any GPS cred.

It does remind me, however, of the axiom, If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there.

Boy, when I was working full time in corporate America (I suppose I should thank Columbus that I wasn't working in corporate China), I hated snarky sayings like that. Every year, I had to help develop marketing plans that included goals, objectives, timetables, budgets ... working on items that, while necessary, took time away from creative pursuits that still had to be completed on deadline.

Then, some guy coined the term Benchmarking, which he probably appropriated from the pigeons in Central  Park.

I get it. It's important to see how close or far we are from our goals. But wasn't "measurement" a suitable word? Did we really need a new way to express something we'd been doing all along? With Benchmarking came multiple definitions -- measuring against best practices or agreed-upon standards; measuring and evaluating improvement; measuring an organization's internal processes. See? They all include the word Measuring. I rest my case.

Anyway, I've decided that I need a little "yardsticking" (that's  fabric-related benchmarking, OK?) on my  goal to sew through my stash in 2012. So, here's a glance at my bin of solid fabrics. They are mostly Kona cottons that I bought online, on sale , with no real purpose in mind.

It doesn't look like that much, but that's because I've squished everything down in the plastic bin. That's about five pounds of fabric there.

I've started a little Kona project. Each strip is 1.5 inches wide. (You do the math. This has the potential to be a quilt so large only the artist Christos will be able to use it.)
I plan to make each square different from the others, but they'll all be a Courthouse Steps variation. I like spontaneity. It's freeing and allows me to be more creative.

So even though I don't know exactly where I'm going yet, I plan to have a lot of fun getting there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

It's Not a Quilt if it's Not Quilted

I don't know much about the writer Gene Fowler, except that he gained a reputation for impertinence in an interview with the Army scout and Indian fighter Wild Bill Cody, during which he spent more time inquiring about his many love affairs than anything else.

But Fowler did come up with one of my favorite quotes about writing. It goes something like this: It's easy to be a writer. You just sit and stare at a white sheet of paper until blood forms on your forehead.

(As a writer almost since I could, well, print, and the 6-year-old author and illustrator of a story called "Kippy the Kangaroo" that became a minor sensation in Mrs. Bastian's first grade classroom, I also like this, by P.G. Wodehouse: I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don't know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.)

Whether I was trying to rend something Plath-like on a notepad as a teenager seated at the kitchen table ... pound out something lucid in journalism school on an electric typewriter ... or tappitty-tap a client's annual report on my keyboard, I have experienced the very tangy sensation of blood dripping from my pores known as writer's block.

But I've never had quilter's block.

The problem with quilts isn't starting them. It's the finishing.

Not the piecing. The quilting.

I hate the quilting.

I know there are many who find the rhythmic rocking motion of needle through cloth layers that produces those tiny stitches soothing, therapuetic, Zen-like.

I stab and stitch. It doesn't sound pretty, and it doesn't look good, either.

Haunted by the specter of Unfinished Objects -- yes, UFOs -- and the idea that a quilt is defined by its quiltedness, I've hired professional quilters to finish my quilts. One time, my good friend even let me try her longarm machine, an experience that was as nervewracking and exhilarating as I imagine it is to be in a runaway car.

But now, I've taken quilting into my own hands, thanks to my embroidery machine.

I'd wanted an embroidery machine for at least a decade, although I had only some vague sense that it would improve my quilting. I really didn't imagine embroidering little flowers onto squares and then inserting them into my quilts. And I found most of the built-in patterns to look like Nixon-era throwbacks.

But I couldn't shake my desire. (For the machine. I've gotten over Nixon.)

With the advent of etsy, the world of embroidery designs opened wide.

So I went to my favorite sewing machine shop and took a couple of models for a spin.

Yeah, they're fun. But will I ever use them for quilting, I asked. I don't need a completely new hobby, like embroidering duckies on baby bibs.

"You know you can quilt with this, right?" the clever salesman said. He showed me a child's quilt with appliqued letters, all done on the embroidery machine. Then, he shoots! he scores! told me about actual quilt patterns I could buy that would emulate longarm machine quilting. The Elna 8200 was mine.

My contest quilt -- shown in my first post -- would still be just a top, a batt and a back if not for my embroidery machine.

And here's my latest. I made a long, summery table runner from a charm pack of 5-inch squares and quilted it with a sun motif  from Advanced Embroidery. I like the subtle texture that the embroidery/quilting adds, even though it's not an overall design.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Take Your Hands Off the Color Wheel

I had a lot of offbeat ideas when I was a kid.

I thought dogs and cats were the same animal, only dogs were the males and cats were the females.

I somehow got it into my head that if you were Jewish you were also African-American -- and vice versa -- and I was mightily disappointed when I learned I was "only" Jewish.

And, I thought people died in the order in which they were born.

So when Debbie Bahr, who lived across the street from me throughout elementary school, bragged about being 6 while I was still 5, I told her that was fine because it meant she would die before I did.

A much more worldly child than I perceived myself to be, she quickly disabused me of the notion. And, just this once, she didn't use her fists to prove her point.

Debbie was the first person to show me how to outline the picture in a coloring book, which helped you to stay inside the lines and made your work look even more vibrant.

She also introduced me to the idea of a favorite color. Well, actually, she asked me what my favorite color was. I didn't know you could have a favorite. Weren't they all great, particularly the extra 48 that her box of crayons had, which my 16-pack didn't?

"I don't know. What's yours?" I said.

"Blue," she quickly announced.

Well, I kind of liked blue, too. But I came from a contrarian mother -- when it seemed that everyone brushed his or her teeth with Crest, we used Gleem, and our detergent choice was Cheer, not the prevailing Tide -- so I said what I thought was the opposite of blue: green.

The fact is, declaring green as my favorite color gave me a sense of ownership in it and, in short order, it actually did become the one I liked the best. With reddish hair and blueish eyes, I thought I looked well in it. It's the color of grass and leaves and money. And the Packers' uniforms! Whether it's bright M&M kelly (admit it -- the green ones taste the best) or a soft sage, I find green appealing.

I might have felt better about my first quilt if it had been green.

However, I had married a man who liked blue. And beige. With just a touch of brown. And because we were newlyweds and couldn't afford to decorate much anyway, those were the colors in our apartment.

The fabric stores weren't much help, either. Actually, it wasn't entirely their fault. Quilting was just starting its modern renaissance, so while there were still bolts and bolts of double knits and a mystery material called Qiana, there wasn't much in the way of the cottons and muslins my quilt class teacher instructed us to use.

For our first complete quilt project -- four huge blocks (honestly, they must have been 16" x 16"), each a different traditional pattern -- we were to select three colored fabrics and muslin. I chose this cloying little calico with gold and blue flowers in it. As its complement, I picked a dull gold solid and sort of Prussian blue solid.

Let's just say, this little quilt was so homely that the only thing I could do with it was send it to my sister as a gift, knowing her unconditional love for me would trump whatever creative disaster I was presenting her.

In the 30 years since, I've become pretty adept at choosing colors for my quilts. I think this is one area in my life where risk-taking isn't just acceptable, it's required. You don't want to be stuck with a bright red couch, do you? But you can put a little ruby cotton in that blue quilt, and it will make the piece sizzle. Decorators will tell you a can of paint is cheap, so splash that wall with fuchsia. Ok, but isn't it less back-breaking to add some sparkle with hot pink triangles strategically placed in a green and purple quilt?

When I set about making the LSU baby quilt, I gathered up all the purples and golds I had, then put half of them back. I wasn't crafting a checkerboard, so I knew I had to break out some complementary colors. Ahhh, this was the place to finally put that yellow/orange/pink dotted fabric that I bought because I needed more yellow and orange in my high-fiber diet. I'm particularly pleased with the way the orange adds gusto while the deep red is like a baritone in the choir, settling things down a bit. The unexpected blocks of pink batik add a nice kick, too.

So while my favorite color remains green, I know there are no "bad" colors. Only quilters who are afraid to use them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Raggy Flannel Quilts

I've made at least a dozen more raggy flannel quilts since that first one for my friend's new son. In fact, when she adopted another little boy, he received one, too. Last summer, she commissioned me to make one for each of her nieces. That was a great creative exercise as I tried to match fabric and style with each girl's personality.

When I was in the hotel business, we used to joke about selling space for "meetings for two (persons) or more." I've heard decorators refer to the three-object rule -- once you have three similar objects, you have a fledgling collection.

Thanks to sales at Joann Fabric and random late-night online stalking sessions, my flannel collection has grown considerably over the years, particularly since I started making Project Linus blankets, primarily little flannel "sandwiches" for newborns and infants. A lot of the prints I have accumulated -- archived? -- feature baby animals and other juvenile themes.

But every once in a while, something like this has caught my attention.
I thought that was a fun, bright print. But I wondered if it would be too mature for a baby quilt.

Then, my daughter was accepted to a PhD program at LSU. Now, she's not a baby. And she's not having a baby (although, tick-tock, I'm not getting any younger). But I've never seen such fervent, nay, rabid, fans as LSU Tigers. They love their purple. Their gold. And their unique way of spelling Geaux.

Getting a little caught up in Tiger fever,  I thought I'd  make a baby quilt for the etsy shop ( I think this polka dot pattern adds a lot of excitement to the overall look, and keeps it from being too sweet, too fussy, too relentlessy purple-and-gold.
The tiger faces and central motif that says, My first words Geaux Tigers, are courtesy of my new embroidery machine, which my hubby bought me for the holidays. (No, he didn't spend hours searching stores for the right machine, but sometimes it's the unfettered access to the credit card that counts.)

I have two more steps before I'm done: clipping and sewing.

Clipping used to be a tedious, arthritis-inducing job. Then I bought these fabulous little Fons and Porter rag scissors. They're designed to cut easily through multiple layers, and they snip the clipping time in half.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My favorite quilt

I learned to quilt at my husband's suggestion.

We were living in Rochester, Minnesota, at the time. And while a mythical neighboring burg might have good-looking residents and above-average children, Rochester had giant Canada geese and long, dark winter nights. I seem to recall 4pm sunsets and ice-slicked sidewalks ... and that was in May. So you can imagine how rough January was.

I was working full time as the advertising and promotions coordinator for a small hotel chain, the flagship property of which was physically attached to the renowned Mayo Clinic. This was a grand old dame of a hotel that catered largely to meetings and Mayo patients. As such, in addition to a rooftop pool, the elegant fine-dining Elizabethan Room and -- it was 1980 -- a disco, the Kahler Hotel had a nursing service. That was our euphemistic way of saying you could get your pre-test enema right there in your room.

With responsibility for all broadcast and print activities related to marketing eight hotels (in Minnesota, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas) as well as internal employee communications, I was busy and, occasionally, slightly stressed. I needed something relaxing and entertaining to do during those frigid evenings, and thought a community ed class might fun. Because I couldn't make up my mind -- Norwegian tole painting? Cooking with white food? -- I handed the course catalog to hubby and asked him to pick.

How about quilting? he said. You like to sew. (He was probably just relieved there wasn't a Tailoring a Safari Jacket for your Husband class.)

Quilting didn't become an immediate consuming passion during that eight-week course, but I did like what I learned enough to keep trying.

I don't know exactly how many quilts I'm made in the 30+ years since, but when people see my work they typically ask one of two questions: How long did that take, and Which one is your favorite.

I have to admit -- I love the challenge of assembling spikes with angles and curves, which is why I've made multiple quilts in variations of the New York Beauty pattern. This one has 1300 pieces, and I suppose I worked on it for about six months.

But my very favorite quilt is quite pedestrian by comparison. It's simply an assemblage of colorful flannel squares, some appliqued with stars, that are sewn together so the seams are exposed then snipped to achieve a fluffy, raggy appearance.

I made my first raggy quilt --many have followed -- for a friend who was adopting a toddler son. I didn't know much about his birth family or origins, but the idea that this child was lucky enough to be chosen as part of a loving, boisterous extended family made me so happy about his future. The whole course of his life was changing. I wanted him to have a little hug from me when he went to bed each night.

When my friend sent me a photo of him, tucked carefully under that quilt, sound asleep, I knew that would always be my favorite quilt.

I recently made a similar fluffy, raggy quilt for his newborn cousin. And when this boy -- now 10 --  and his mom came to pick it up, he stroked it gently, said it was pretty.

But his mom called me from the car to tell me this: as they left the house, he had said, This quilt reminds me of mine. It made me happy when I touched it.

Monday, February 6, 2012

I think about plaid

The trip between Houston and New Orleans takes anywhere from 5.5 hours (if you leave at, say, 5 am on a Saturday) to 7 hours (if there's construction at Baton Rouge, where there invariably is. When my son and I were caught one time in a particularly snarled traffic jam en route to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, I suggested that the intersection of I-10 and US 290 in west Houston must be the worst spot for driving in the world. At age 12, my son had no experience in the driver's seat, but he remembered well the bladder-kicking he took in the back seat as we spent nearly an hour negotiating a two-mile section of Baton Rouge freeway. So on this rodeo night, he said, "No, the worst traffic is in Beirut." "Beirut?" I asked. "When have you been to Beirut?" "Oh, I mean Baton Rouge." I read once that the typical round trip commute in Beirut takes three hours, so maybe my son is more attuned to worldwide comparative traffic messes than I could imagine.)

On our Lousiana driving trips, my husband I would take turns at the wheel. He is an avid reader of history who seems to recall every word on the page. We were returning from New Orleans and I was doing the 60-minute stretch to Baton Rouge when he started to tell me, nearly verbatim, about the book "1491," which imagines what the Americas were like before Columbus. For the first five minutes or so, I was able to split my attention between the road and the story, but eventually I did the only thing I could to keep my focus on safety and restrain myself from pitching us off the road just to get him to stop.

I started thinking about plaid.

I like plaid. I've liked plaid since Ann Schumacher, the little girl next door when I was 5, started going to parochial school and wore a navy plaid skirt. I like that plaid can be sedate or playful, and I especially like it when the crossbarred pattern changes hue where two colors intersect. I like mixing plaids with dots and florals. It makes me happy.

In his book, "Passionate Patchwork," Kaffe Fassett uses plaids and stripes to great effect. Inspired by his quilts, I started collecting plaid and striped fabric. I used some of the stripes in this quilt:
This was an extremely fun quilt to make, and I'm really pleased with the secondary patterns that developed from combining light and dark fabrics. (This is for sale at, if you're interested.)

Now, I'm experimenting with plaids. In order to stretch my creative muscles (i.e., make it harder on myself), I decided to sew brightly colored plaids into a log cabin pattern. I'm working with about 30 different plaids; Each log cabin block has five different plaids in it. The center from one block becomes the outermost band on the next block, and so on.

Here are a few of the blocks I've completed, which I think will make a colorful, fun quilt for a baby or child.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Mardi Gras Ties

My dad was a 32-year-old bachelor when he was drafted into the US Army in 1941 and began a four-year tour of duty, much of it overseas.

Before he left for Italy, he told my cousins -- who were in their late teens when I was born but were just little 4- and 5-year-old girls at the time -- that he would bring an Italian baby home for them. Apparently they were terribly disappointed when, instead of proffering the promised bambino, he gave  each a good luck keepsake, the fabled Little Bell of San Michele. I prefer to think of this story as an example of my dad's enthusiasm for playful teasing rather than any sort of commentary on his personal prowess, or lack thereof, while overseas. (Actually, I prefer not to think at all about the latter.)

Dad loved to tell tales of his Army days. (Actually, Dad loved to tell tales of most any kind, a trait that is apparently heritable.) He mentioned several times that on his first leave to Naples, he felt as if he had been there before. He described an unerring sense of where things were and how to most easily travel to them. Perhaps he was reincarnated, he mused, and had been a Neopolitan at one time. (He did always like their ice cream, he added.)

The dutiful daughter I was, I listened then discounted a lot of what he said.

But then, I took my first trip to New Orleans. And the same thing happened to me. I felt instantly that I knew the place.

My husband marveled as I negotiated the streets of the French Quarter, which converge at odd angles and change names without notice. I hadn't been there before, but, somehow, I sensed that I had.

Because we live just six hours away, we visited New Orleans fairly often while our children were growing up. Then, as if to cement our love affair with the city, our daughter decided to attend Tulane University there.

Now our trips became more frequent, our immersion into the culture more complete. With daughter as guide, we explored every mainstream and offbeat art venue, learned all the shopping areas -- from popular to obscure, ate at places only locals knew, and could tell at 50 paces the difference between a pedestrian snowcone and the city's revered Snow Balls.

One thing we never did in her five years there (four in school, one working as a researcher post-graduation) was attend Mardi Gras.

She thought we'd hate it. That the noise, the crowds, the dirt, the drunkenness, the strangeness of it all would be upsetting or at least offputting to us. She even discouraged us from attending the Krewe of Barkus parade, thinking the procession of pet dogs might somehow be offensive.

She, of course, never missed an event. I had apparently raised a very hearty (and perhaps somewhat sneaky) child.

Her freshman year she asked that I make a Mardi Gras tie for her male RA, with whom she and her roommate had become quite friendly. I found fabric printed with a mask montage -- appropriate in scale, daring in color treatment, and still quite masculine overall. I understand that, six years later, he still wears the tie each year.

And, six years later, I still had some of it left. So, as one of my first steps in my sewing closet clear-out, I made a table runner. In addition to the featured fabric, I used the traditional purple, green and gold of the season and added a little pink and turquoise for pop.

This way, I'll always have a tie to Mardi Gras.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The 21 Pillowcase Weekend

One of the many great things about the fabric haul my friend gave me was that it included yardage. Over the years, I've been the recipient of everything from upholstery samples with the display hangers still attached (those pieces made great, sturdy totebags, by the way) to thumb-sized bits of cotton. But rarely am I given a full yard of anything, among fabric "collectors" that being generally considered too valuable to part with. (I have to admit, the 10 yards of bright fuchsia cotton/poly blend I received were a little unwieldy when it came to washing and ironing, and I have never mustered the courage to ask what she intended to do with all of it, although I suppose if anyone were planning a flamingo-themed wedding, this would have made lovely tablecovers.)

Which begs the question, How big is a scrap?

For seamstresses (I was happy to see someone coin the term sewist to replace sewer, but I still prefer the original designation), anything smaller than a half-yard appears to be considered scrap. But a quilter -- especially if she appliques -- can make something with a piece no larger than a quarter. I read a clever article in Quilter's Newsletter Magazine in which the authors compared scrap sizes to cooking measurements. A tablespoon of fabric could be a yo-yo, they asserted, while a cup could perhaps craft an entire patch.

But back to yardage.

On the first Memorial Day weekend after my fabric windfall arrived, I decided to comb through the material mine to search for treasures. There were stripes and solids and polka dots. Prints adorned with cats and cows, frogs and fairies.

Spread out on the bed in the sewing room (which is sometimes actually a guest room where I get to sew), the combinations and permutations astonished me. The polka dots and frog prints simply sang next to each other. A turquoise plaid toned down a bright paisley. I might still be playing with the fabric, except I remembered a sign in my favorite quilt shop (Quiltworks in Cypress, Texas) asking for donations for the Million Pillowcase Challenge.

(Click here for more information

I was particularly moved by the fact that, in our area, pillowcases would be given to pediatric hospital patients. My son had been diagnosed with a rare disorder called Langerhans cell Histiocytosis as a toddler and although it took eight years of chemotherapy and radiation to control his disease, he was only hospitalized a few times. The idea that I could, in some small way, bring comfort to kids like him with a silly, funny, colorful, delightful pillowcase was motivation enough for me to start cutting and sewing.

And when I finally got up from the machine the next day, I had a stack of 21 finished pillowcases. The idea that someone is sleeping a little better because of my efforts, cheers me to this day.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Let's Use Up All of this Fabric!

About two years ago, a friend who was preparing to move to another state gave me part of her fabric collection. The fact that my share amounted to 300 pounds tells you a little about the extent of her fiber addiction. Now, it's not easy to store 300 pounds of fabric and it's even tougher to use it all, particularly when your stash already runneth over. But I was now the proud owner of colors and patterns that I might never had selected myself. And if I had to attach a pricetag to this bounty, it was pretty much like winning a lottery.

I wrote about this mixed blessing in an article published by Threads Magazine called "Weighty Windfall."

At the time, I vowed to make a charity quilt each month, which I have. I promised to donate a lot of the fabric to organizations like Linus Project and Quilts with Valor. Done. And I even started an etsy shop called Quilting Miss Daisy ( to give me a venue for saleable items.

However, my sewing room closet still harbors untold yardage, as well as scraps too precious to set free. (What do they say? If they were meant to be mine, they'd come back to me anyway.)

It didn't help that late last year I decided to enter my first quilt contest. Sponsored by a fabric retailer, it required me to purchase all new fabric (because submitting the receipts was part of the entry). Now, buying fabric is a great joy, but for the piece I made, I challenged myself to work only with fat quarters. 65 of them. That were then cut into small pieces. So I have a lot left over.

Anyway, I've decided that (unless I enter a similar contest this year) I will sew through what I've been hoarding (uh, storing) and not buy any fabric this year.

Join me on my journey. You'll get to see the sum of what I've sewn and listen to my musings along the way. I can't promise to always keep you in stitches, but at least it will "seam" like I'm trying.