Entries in Sticks and Strings (27)


The Long and Winding Road: The Best of 2012

My adorable baby girl ringing in the New Year (on NYC time)

2012 was perhaps the biggest year of change of my life. I had a novel published and had another accepted for publication; I got hired to collaborate on a video game. I spoke at conferences, English classes, and signings. I moved with our large family across the continent to a very different but wonderful new life. As I look out my window at the palm trees and sunny skies beyond my balcony, I marvel at how different this day is from 1 January 2012.

Let's get to the lists. 

Favorite Books Read or Re-read:

(I didn't rank books written by close friends, many of which were excellent.)

1) 11/22/63, by Stephen King

2) Flora's Fury, by Ysabeau Wilce

3) Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk

4) Acceptable Loss, by Anne Perry

5) A Short Stay in Hell, by Steven Peck

6) The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

7) The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

8) The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

9) Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George

10) French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon

Most Disappointing (not Worst) Book of the Year:

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Best Music Purchased:

Ralph Vaughan Williams: On Christmas Day: Folk-Songs and Folk-Carols

Morten Lauridsen: Lux aeterna

Great Big Sea: XX

Gary Clark, Jr.: "When My Train Pulls In"

The Black Keys: "Little Black Submarines"

Favorite Movies Seen:

1) Moonrise Kingdom

2) Skyfall

3) Argo

4) Hitchcock

5) Life of Pi

6) The Dark Knight Rises

7) The Hobbit

8) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

9) Brave

10) Frankenweenie

Best Meals Eaten:

Per Se, NYC

Jean-Georges, NYC

Patina, LA

Brenda's French Soul Food, San Francisco

Chez Panisse Café, Berkeley

Luscious Dumplings, Monrovia

Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, Pasadena

Yarn of the Year: madelinetosh 80/10/10 MCN in the Grenadine colorway

Rose of the Year: Cramoisi Supérieur


Here's to 2013 being fabulous! Happy New Year, everybody.


A Crack in Everything: The Best of 2011

This time last year, I characterized 2010 as my most difficult year ever.  2011 was much better: still hard, but with lots of good stuff, too. I don't regret the trials I've experienced over the past two years. Looking back, I am reminded of those lines from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem": "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." I've been blessed with many glimpses of light in past months, which means I have to be grateful for those cracks, right?

Anyway, here are my highlights of the past year.

Best Books Read:

This year, I’ve decided to rank only books I read for the first time (no re-reads, as in years past). I’m also only ranking books by writers whom I don’t know personally.

1. The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

2. A Dance with Dragons, By George R. R. Martin

3. Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, by Wendy Watson Nelson

4. Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card

5. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

6. Matched, by Ally Condie

7. The Healing Spell, by Kimberley Griffiths Little

8. Little Elvises, by Tim Hallinan

9. Sweater Quest, by Adrienne Martini

10. Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder

Now I’ll list some outstanding books written by people I do know.  These are in no particular order—but they’re all worth your time.

Band of Sisters, by Annette Lyon

Keep Mama Dead, by S. James Nelson

I Don’t Want to Kill You, by Dan Wells

Not My Type, by Melanie Jacobson

The Scorch Trials, by James Dashner

Pumpkin Roll, by Josi Kilpack

Variant, by Rob Wells

Special Mention: Unwound, by Lee Ann Setzer—This book isn’t published yet. Lee Ann is in my critique group, so I got the immense privilege of reading this YA historical fantasy a few weeks ago. What. A. Joy.  Definitely one of the best books I read this year. My prediction: Lee Ann is the next Shannon Hale. Remember, you read it here first.

Best Music Purchased:

1. “Noisy Birds” (and so many other fantastic tracks), by Fictionist

1. “The Bird Song” (and the rest of the new record), by The Wailin’ Jennys

1. “Born on a New Day,” by The King’s Singers

4. “Sweet Bells” by Kate Rusby

5. “This Little Light of Mine,” by The Lower Lights

6. “You’re My Best Friend,” by The Once

7. “Baby We Were Young,” by The Dirty Guv’nahs

Best Movies Seen (I am wayyyy behind on movie viewing right now):

1. Jane Eyre

2. Midnight in Paris

3. Harry Potter 7.2

4. Super 8

5. Moneyball

6. The Help

7. Cowboys and Aliens

8. The Adjustment Bureau

9. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Most Disappointing Movie:


2011 Movies on my To See List (See? Wayyy behind):

We Bought a Zoo


The Adventures of Tintin

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Kung Fu Panda 2

Queen to Play

The Tree of Life

Dream House

Yarn of the Year: Blue Moon Fiber Arts Woobu in the Ravenscroft colorway

Best Meals Eaten:

1. Private party at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, London

2. Craft, NYC

3. Maze, NYC

4. Thanksgiving Dinner, Cold Spring, NY

5. Em’s, Salt Lake City, UT

6. Café Cluny, NYC

7. Bernard’s Inn, Ridgefield, CT

8. Keens Steakhouse, NYC

9. Shake Shack, Citifield, Queens, NY

10. Valley, Garrison, NY

Best Theatre of the Year:

MusicalHugh Jackman: Back on Broadway—DIVINE.

PlayThe Mountaintop, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett—TRANSCENDENT.

ConcertGreat Big Sea—AGAIN and ALWAYS.


Linky Love

To tell you the truth, I'm not much for Halloween. That's strange, too, because a) I like dressing up; b) I love candy; and c) you'd think it would make a fun prelude to my birthday.  But there it is. I'm kind of a Halloween minimalist.

We don't usually carve pumpkins; I'd rather bake them and turn them into pies and muffins. We never get trick-or-treaters at our door; instead, we all travel to Cold Spring's Parrott Street for the best block party around. I DO make sure everyone has a costume of some sort, however. Some years, we all just raid our massive collection of dress-up stuff and come up with new and winning combinations.


Hope as a mermaid, Tess in the Tigger outfit that everyone has worn at least once, and the boys as Yu-Gi-Oh! characters.

Here's a photo that five-year-old Christian took of Patrick and pregnant-with-Hope-me dressed up as Han Solo and Princess Leia.  (Imagine my bitterness when people at the dance thought we were Joseph and Emma. My cinnamon-roll buns just weren't big enough; I should have used hair extensions.)

But once in a while--usually once per kid, in fact--I'll go all out and make the fabulous costume of that kid's current dreams.

There was the year Christian was a Bug Attack. (And James wore Tigger.)

And the year that James was Harry Potter. (James is also a Halloween minimalist.)

But when the girls came along, we took costume-making to a whole new level of elaborateness.  Here's Princess Hope in a dress that I sewed just for her out of pink and lavender satin:

And Mermaid Tess, with elaborate, hand-sewn-and-embroidered-and-beaded bodice and tail and purse:

This year? It was Daniel's turn. At about the end of August, he started asking me to make him a Halloween costume. His first choice was some crazy new Pokemon, but then he changed his mind: he wanted to be Link.

If you don't have children who play video games, you might not know that Link is the hero of The Legend of Zelda and its many sequels/permuations.

That didn't look too difficult, I thought. I could sew the tunic and hat, and we have tons of play swords and shields lying around. I agreed.

Then I started doing some research. The internet is a marvelous thing, friends. It boggles the mind what is out there.

Daniel also did some looking, and began printing out images for my reference. "Here's the Hylian Shield," he informed me. (Okay, I guess I'm making a shield after all.) "And I'm really going to need an ocarina."

Right. Fortunately, at the Dutchess County Sheep & Wool Fair a couple of weeks ago, we found the coveted musical instrument. I was talking to a maple syrup vendor when Daniel came rushing up to me. "MOM, MOM! Good news!" He dragged me over to another booth, where a very clever man was playing "Zelda's Lullaby" on a handmade ocarina. It was a very Pied Piper moment--gaggles of kids crowded around him, spellbound by the familiar melody. Did I end up buying one? You betcha.

The next morning, I woke up with a flash of inspiration. Instead of sewing the hat, I'd knit it. That way Daniel could wear it all winter long. I could knit some fingerless mitts and call them "gauntlets," too. As a bonus, the costume would be a little warmer. That's always good. I remember one year when I was a kid, I felt beautiful in THE most fabulous gypsy costume--but my mother (prudently) made me wear my coat over it when we went out, and that was a drag.

So--the base for Link: white baseball pants (handed down from James's Little League days) and a white Under Armour turtleneck, about $7 at Target. Next, a trip to Michael's, where we bought foamcore sheets, paint, and some craft plastic for the shield. Michael's also had super inexpensive, emerald green (real) wool for the hat and some matching green cotton fabric for the tunic.

This gal inspired me with her overall thoroughness in approach and attention to detail without spending a fortune. Our tunic was even more basic--just a piece of the green fabric folded with the selvedges at the bottom (so no hemming or shoulder seams). After I cut out the T-shaped body, I folded it again and cut out the neck. I made a very basic neck facing, then hemmed the sleeves, then sewed up the side seams. The whole thing took me about 45 minutes, including the ironing.

The hat took a couple of hours of World Series/movie watching, and the gauntlets took a couple more. Those I made from some leftover sock yarn, which I double stranded so that the knitting would go faster.

Once I finished the shield, I thought we were done--but then, we saw this cool video and accompanying website, and I sorta had to make the sword. After all, I already had an extra piece of foamcore--and I loved that this guy had designed the sword so that all the pattern pieces would fit on one piece--all I needed was some spray paint and some electrical tape. The electrical tape is another genius touch, since if you painted the sword's handle, the paint would rub off on your hands when you played with it.

I planned to make the sword this past Saturday night, but then we lost power. So Sunday afternoon, I cut out and assembled the pieces. Oh, but there was a problem: I needed my hot glue gun. Instead, I melted several glue sticks in an aluminum pie tin on top of our pancake griddle and used a plastic knife to spread the glue like frosting. It worked just fine.

So now, the outfit is complete. Daniel will wear his snow boots, since I wasn't about to buy/make brown boots--but apparently at some point, Link has to battle in water and wears blue boots, anyway, so it's all good. Isn't he darling? (Don't tell him I wrote THAT. I'm pretty sure Link isn't supposed to be darling.)


Yes, he even told me as I took the pictures, "Mom, Link does NOT smile."

Happy Halloween!


By Small Things

I started knitting a quilt yesterday. It's a genius pattern, and I'm very excited about this project. It's easily portable, a snap to memorize, and uses up tiny scraps of yarn that I have been loath to throw away--but that I don't want hanging around, either. The hexes take about 20 minutes to make, and a golf ball-sized piece of quilt batting goes inside each one just before you bind off the edge. They are so cute and fun!

The designer, Stephanie Dosen, gives this formula for quilt-making success: a) knit the hexes in little snatches of time--while waiting for a movie to start or the school bus to arrive; and b) just keep knitting, and don't be daunted by how many hexes you need for the finished quilt.

And the number is daunting if you choose to look at it that way: for a 4x3' quilt, you need 364 little puffs. I'd like to make the quilt bigger than that, so I'll probably end up making around 600. That's a lot of hexes. If I knit two per day, it will take me the better part of a year to finish the quilt.

But guess what? The year will go by whether I knit the quilt or not. If I waste a few minutes per day instead of knitting a little puff or two, I won't accomplish my goal. But if I use my time well, by mid-summer next year, I'll have something beautiful and warm and lasting to show for my efforts.

The prophet Alma counseled his son "that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise." (Alma 37:6)

Our hours and days stretch before us in a seemingly unlimited vista. We must not make the mistake of squandering them because of their abundance. It is common for people to value things only when they are scarce, but if we can learn to remember how precious our time is even when it seems like we have plenty of it, we'll make better choices.

On the other hand, sometimes it seems like we have only a very small amount of free time--20 minutes before the kids get home, 10 minutes until it's time to leave for church. It's easy to fool ourselves into believing that that's not enough time to accomplish anything significant, so we may as well fritter it away. A quick check of email or Facebook; a game of online Boggle; a browse of the latest "news."

I don't know about you, but I can actually get quite a lot done in 10 minutes. I can do a load of dishes or read a chapter of a book or clean a bathroom or run a mile or write a couple hundred words or take half a power nap.  A wise friend recently counseled me to make the most of those little bits of time that otherwise get wasted, and it's amazing to me how those productive minutes add up when I use them well.

My new mantra is this: "The pain of self-discipline is better than the pain of regret." Whoever came up with that was truly inspired, because make no mistake, there will be pain one way or the other. Today, I choose the immediate and short-lived pain of self-discipline; I've had quite enough of the lasting and bitter pain of regret, thank you very much.

We write books a word at a time. We lose weight (or gain it) an ounce at a time. We raise children a smile or a hug or a listen at a time.  The little things--for good or bad--do make a difference. Though the individual threads of our choices are almost invisible to the eye, they are the fabric that makes up our lives.


I'm Still Standing: The Best of 2010

Our amazing kids, December 2010, from left to right: Hope, Tess, Anne, Christian, Daniel, and James

2010 was the toughest year of my life.  It was a great one, too; highlights include our trip to London in August and the realization of my birthday goal in November.*  But a lot of last year was a struggle. 

I can’t complain; I have my health, my family, my faith, excellent friends, and so many comforts and privileges.  And I made it through!  The year didn’t kill me, so it must have made me stronger, right?

I didn’t experience as much media last year as I usually do, but here’s what I enjoyed the most.

Best Movies I Saw

1. True Grit

2. Inception

3. Robin Hood

4. Toy Story 3

5. Harry Potter 7.1

Best Songs I Downloaded

1. “Closer to the Sun,” by Slightly Stoopid

2. “Harlem River Blues,” by Justin Townes Earle

3. “Rise Like Smoke,” by Cypress Hill

4. “Tennessee Me,” by The Secret Sisters

5. “You! Me! Dancing!” by Los Campesinos!

Best Books I Read (or Re-read)

1. Hold On To Your Kids, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté

2. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

3. A Course in Weight Loss, by Marianne Williamson

4. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

5. Misery, by Stephen King

6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

7. The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkowski

8. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

9. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Maté

10. Mr. Monster, by Dan Wells

It was the year of non-fiction!  I've never had more than half of my top ten list be non-fiction before.  The top three rank right under the level of scripture for me, though, and I refer back to them often.  Highly recommended.

Yarn of the Year: Sunflower Yarns Franconia in the May Flowers colorway

I knit more than ever last year (knitting is an excellent stress-reliever for me), and I hope to build on that momentum.  Sunflower Yarns beat out other excellent contenders for YotY, including The Sanguine Gryphon and Fiber Optic.  Yarns I look foward to using this year include those by madelinetosh, Three Irish Girls, and Wollmeise

Best Meals I Ate

1.     Winvian, Morris, Connecticut

2.     Charingworth Manor, Chipping Campden, England

3.     db Bistro Moderne, New York, New York

4.     Byron Burger, London, England

5.     Robert, New York, New York

6.     Picnic lunch, Hampton Court Palace, England

7.     Livebait, London, England

8.     Blue, Liverpool, England

9.     Picnic lunch, Arundel Castle, England

10.   Memphis Mae’s, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

Yes, Virginia, there is great food to be had in England.  It's one reason I'd go back in a heartbeat.

* My birthday goal: I decided back in May that I wanted to run 4.4 miles in 44 minutes on my 44th birthday, which was November 4th.  I was copying my dear friend Shauna, who had done the same on her birthday. 

There was only one obstacle in my path: I wasn’t a runner.  I hated to run.  I had never run even a mile without stopping.  Not.  Ever.  Why I would choose such a goal boggles my mind even now.

My homegal Anne (remember Brillig?) told me about the Couch-to-5K program, and she and our bosom buddy Jana and I signed up and got going.  It’s a great program; you start very small and build on tiny, incremental successes over the course of nine weeks.  On July 19th, I ran 5K without stopping to walk once.

After that, my awesome sister Angie, who is a veteran marathoner and the fittest person I know, made me a training schedule.  I stuck to it religiously; I believe that from May to November (not counting our time in England in August), I only missed one running session.

To do so, I had to make room in my life.  I got up at 5:15 a.m.  I made the kids’ lunches the night before each school day.  I made sure I was in bed by 10:00 every night.   I faithfully took my vitamins and supplements.  And I made new running music mixes often—the music got me through some very tough moments, I can tell you.

Right up until my birthday, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to attain my goal.  I prayed; I visualized; I told all of my friends what I was doing so that I could marshal sheer pride if all else failed. 

And I made it.  Afterward, I laughed and cried and felt a little like throwing up; I still can’t believe I did it.  Even more incredibly, over the course of my training, I learned to hate running less (and now that I’ve switched to running in these, I actually like running).  The side benefit?  I lost 20 pounds.  Apparently, burning 500-800 calories several times a week for six months will do that to you.

I’m still running, alternating it with rowing on my Concept 2 rower, which I've loved for years.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever take running to “the next level”; at this point in my life, I just don’t have the time. 

This last part may sound like a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason.  I learned that, with planning, consistency, the support of good friends, and a fair amount of grit, I can do things that I would have thought were impossible.  And gaining the gift of that knowledge during the hardest year of my life came in very, very handy.

2011? Bring it on!