Friday, April 29, 2016

Rescue Me: Reading about Survival

(I reserved this short topic for when I had "one of those weeks." This has been another one.)

The Musing:
There has been a pattern in my reading these past two or three years. I have read very few novels, outside of reading for work, with one notable exception. I reread Moby Dick. I do that whenever I feel like I’ve lost my bearings. I think that was my fifth reading. It’s not the plot. There is something about the narrator’s rambling philosophizing that calms and centers me. (Yes, the scriptures should do that, but there is no guilt when I disagree with Herman Melville.)

Most of the books I have read have been non-fiction accounts of disasters and survival. It started as “travel” reading about parts of the world that I’m never likely to see, but that quickly turned darker. It took me about a year to notice the pattern. That was well into first year that teaching seemed impossible all of the time instead of once in awhile. By year two of trying to survive my career, I realized I was reading about people facing real life and death struggles either to learn from their experiences or keep my own in perspective. My recent reads can certainly be divided into three categories: knitting, illness, and survival (or failure to survive.) 

I’m sharing my reading list with you because these are really good books. They've taught me about geography, history, and courage. 

Knitting books:

Knit for Health and Wellness: How to knit a flexible mind and more . . . by Betsan Corkhill
Knitting History by Alicia I. Arquillo
Knitting Rules by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (Every knitter should own this.)
At Knit’s End : Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee 
The Amazing Thing About the Way it Goes by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (This and most of her other books are as much about life as knitting. Think Erma Bombeck, but with knitting needles.)

Illness books: 

Out of Joint: A Private and Public Story of Arthritis by Mary Felstiner (This was read more than two years ago, but it is the best of many illness memoirs.)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies by Rhena Branch and Rob Wilson (Every time I try to read about treating depression without drugs I want to punch the author. I’m sure that’s a healthy sign.)
So Young: A Life Lived With Rheumatoid Arthritis by Daniel P. Malito
7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain by Lene Anderson (a favorite blogger)
Funny How it Hurts by Donna Barton (doggerel poetry—not my style)

Survival Books: 
The Indifferent Stars Above: the Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown
To the Moon and Timbuktu: a Trek Through the Heart of Africa  by Nina Sovich
Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks by Andrea Lankford
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larson
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
In Praise of Savagery: A Journey to the Heart of Africa, via Harlow by Warwick Cairns
Lawrence IN Arabia by Scott Anderson 
Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff
So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California 1812-1848 by Will Bagley
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett 
In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Even better than the pretty-good movie)
Astoria by Peter Stark
Frozen in Time: an Epic story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff
Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab by Steve Inskeep
The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher by Harry and Rosemary Wong (Good stuff, but I had to stop reading  because it was giving me panic attacks.)
With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West by Will Bagley
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
Last Man Off: A True Story of Disaster and Survival on the Antarctic Seas by Matt Lewis
81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s FrozenWilderness by Brian Murphy
438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by Jonathan Frank
In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin
Flood path by Jon Wilkman
Denali’s Howl by Andy Hall
Fatal North: Murder and Survival on the First North Pole Expedition by Bruce Henderson
Eruption: the Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson
Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
Alone on the Ice  by David Roberts
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox (Inspired me to swim again—in a warm indoor pool)
In the Wake of Madness: the Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon by Joan Druet
Ada Blackjack: a True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven
The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Now that I’ve failed to survive my career, I don’t know if I’ll stay with survival stories (There are always more and Amazon’s got my number.) or go back to novels. I suspect survival will continue to be a theme until I’ve settled into my new life. As an experiment, I read a couple of sci-fi books this week that were fun, but not meaty enough to be satisfying. In theory, I have a lot of time to read now, so maybe I can eventually enjoy a more rounded literary diet.

The Knitting:
One thing I realized while reading is that the wilderness most of us experience is not all that wild. Survival usually depends on staying warm and avoiding falls while waiting for people to realize you are lost and alert search and rescue. These hats were designed with rescue planes or helicopters in mind. Colors and patterns that are not part of nature attract attention. The maroon, though less bright than the orange, would still be effective in the mountains and maybe more effective for someone on a winter hike in our red rock country.

I designed the shape of these hats for me, with nothing that will bind and feel tight. (With fibromyalgia, I am sometimes claustrophobic in my own skin and can’t stand to wear anything as tight as a watch.) They would count as adult large. There is plenty of room for lots of hair. The beaded fastening at the chin makes it easy to slide off the hat and wear it around my neck if I want to feel the rain or the sun. Both the hats and the pattern are available from my shop.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

It's Going Swimmingly!

It’s Going Swimmingly 


You have seen me at the gym. I am the 200 pound, forty-something woman in street clothes, the one sneaking past the herd of weight-lifting machines so they won’t stampede. 
You have seen me in the pool—the  doggy paddler who wears bifocals instead of goggles. While broad-shouldered young men cut through the water like sharks, I swim like a house cat. But I swim—almost every day. It is my favorite part of the day. Swimming is saving my life.

Constant pain from rheumatoid arthritis and dark thoughts from chronic depression make me question the value of my life. For more than a decade, I fought to keep it together—working full time teaching middle school English, raising two sons, doing volunteer work for my church. But I knew, and my patient husband knew, that everything was gradually getting worse. 

My doctors probably knew too. My rheumatologist diagnosed me with fibromyalgia in 2015. His theory is that fibro develops as a comorbidity with RA when patients don’t sleep well and have a hard time consistently managing their pain. As a writer and English teacher, I was annoyed about being tagged with another unspellable label. As a budding disability advocate, I am still annoyed to have an invisible condition that even many doctors don’t believe in. As with RA, treatment is experimental and hit and miss.  My rheumatologist tweaked and doubled my pain meds,  while my GP tweaked and doubled my antidepressants.

All the medication only worked a little. I was still hurting, stressed, and exhausted. The only time I felt better was when I was eating.The lunch I brought to school was the creamiest yogurt I could find, but Saturday was even better because that’s when I went shopping and bought ice cream. I often ate two pints per weekend and joked about committing suicide by ice cream. But it wasn’t really a joke. My genetics point to two options: dying fairly young from a heart attack or living with chronic pain well into my nineties. Some days the heart attack seems like the best option. 

When I started my second very hard year of teaching and nothing seemed to work, I decided to fix myself. I started the “Take Shape for Life” diet which is taking off about two pounds per week. (My health coach would love me if you message me for her information.) I looked forward to getting a gym membership and swimming once summer came. But losing weight didn’t make me feel better. My new drugs made me lose track of what I was doing. Teaching really didn’t work any more. I chose sick leave over job loss and started swimming in February.

Water takes away my struggle with gravity. While I swim, I breathe hard and feel my muscles working, but the pain is gone. That small respite, four times a week, improves my outlook on life. So does the silence. I swim at a gym, so there is no kiddie pool, no water slide. Even when it’s crowded, everyone swims quietly. I can spend time alone with my thoughts while not being derailed by pain or interruptions. 

I admire the serious swimmers, athletes who probably competed in high school or college, their swimming is beautiful. But they are not the swim team I am aspiring towards. I want to join the little old ladies. I have met three so far that swim on a similar schedule to mine. My grandmother, who is now 96, swam regularly well into her eighties. 

You have seen me. I am the 200 pound woman who used to weigh 260, working hard to become little,working hard to become old.


The first thought was a hand-knit swim suit, an idea I instantly found hilarious. I’ve seen crocheted bikinis, but nothing that could actually be used for swimming. There is also the issue of figuring out who it should fit—my size 0 mannequin, my size 18 self, friends or relatives in between who would never wear such a thing? Luckily I remembered my swimming pool colored yarn and decided a pool-inspired scarf was quite good enough.

I owned this yarn for years. It was a clearance find that never quite fit any of my project ideas. But the colors remind me of a swimming pool from my childhood. Grandma lived in Orderville and a motel owner across the street let her use the pool. I remember going to the pool at sunrise and shivering into the barely-heated water. Although I had a couple of neighborhood swim courses, it was really at that pool that I learned to swim. I jumped off the diving board for the first time and figured out treading water and Grandma’s two head-up swim strokes—the side stroke and doggy paddling that I do now.

The wavy pattern on the scarf is inspired by the gentle waves of a summer swimming pool. But since the yarn is 100% wool, most people will want to wear it fall through spring. It is available for $30 at my shop. I wanted this to be a relaxing knit.  Despite the lacy open-work, there is no actual lace knitting involved. This is an easy-level pattern that can be worked with any type of yarn. You can purchase a copy for $5.

Friday, April 15, 2016

This is What Chronic Looks Like

[Author’s note—I try to work ahead because I never know when I’ll feel lousy. This week is one of those times. Luckily I wrote the article, knit the pieces, and photographed them in advance. Today, after a two hour morning nap, I am trying to write the pattern and put everything together.]


This is What Chronic Looks Like
(but only to me and only right now.)

I don’t have, or need, a handicapped parking permit. In fact, I park far from the gym and the supermarket. Our local hospital painted some spots say, “Park here to walk farther and be healthier.” I do; plus I swim for 45 minutes a day, four days a week. I’ve lost about fifty pounds. I eat my veggies, avoid empty calories, take my vitamins, drink a lot of water.

This current, 6-month health push has helped. I smile instead of scowl when passing my reflection in the window. I can tie my shoes without sitting down first. I can sit on the floor knowing I’ll be able to get up again. And during those three or four times a day when the pain is overwhelming and I want to curl into fetal position until it passes, my body will actually bend into fetal position. 

If I take my pain pills every four hours, I can fake normal life and do everything I want to—for one day. Then I have to rest for at least two afterwards, feeling like I went on a long hike, instead of to a family party or on a long, scenic drive.

I still can’t sit through a movie or a church service without paying a price in pain. I can’t concentrate well enough to copy information from one page to another. I can recite a dozen different poems, but I won’t remember your name, not on the first try, even if I’ve known you a long time. I put my shoes on the wrong feet and try to click my front door open with my car keys.

Despite the best efforts of myself and three doctors, despite the thousands of dollars my insurance pays for the fist full of drugs I take every day, I will always have rheumatoid arthritis. My capabilities go up and down, but most things stay the same. A poem I wrote a decade ago illustrates the repetitive nature of this illness. Things haven’t changed very much.

I lie on the sofa. It’s my birthday.
Murders on cable fail to distract
from angry blood that pulses at each joint,
drives heat and pain that keep me from my work.

Murders on cable fail to distract,
neither chocolate, love, nor children can relieve
heat and pain that keep me from my work.
I live on ice packs, hot baths, Tylenol.

Neither chocolate, love, nor children can relieve
the tedium of premature old age.
I live on ice packs, hot baths, Tylenol,
sleeping pills as lovely weekend treats.

The tedium of premature old age,
fifty more years of arthritis,
sleeping pills as lovely weekend treats--
sole refuge from my body.

Fifty more years of arthritis,
of angry blood that pulses at each joint.
For refuge from my body,
I lie on the sofa. It’s my birthday.

On a less whiny note— Every year I teach my students the difference between denotation and connotation. The kid-friendly denotation of chronic is: going on and on. The connotation is always negative. If I described someone as chronically cheerful or chronically kind, you could imply that I had a problem with that person. Infinite has a similar denotation, but it’s connotation is much grander. The universe is infinite, so is God’s love. For kids (and adults) infinity is the coolest concept you ever learn in math. (Imaginary numbers come in a close second.) So, although I could be described as a chronic knitter, I chose to base my pattern on infinity. 


The pattern I have developed is an infinity scarf made from infinity symbols. This was much harder to make than I expected. Anything that can be knit can be written out on graph paper, so I drew it up and knit. However, my final result looked more like a cool diamond texture than anything anyone would recognize as infinity symbols. 

This “rough draft” was made of very nice, very pricy yarn. It is “Mountain Down Sport” from my favorite woolen mill, (They are located in Buffalo Wyoming and give free tours!) The yarn is 25% American Bison, which explains the price. Bison are wild animals. The fiber is pulled off of shedding animals that have been herded into chutes. Their is a Dirty Jobs episode about it. Since I liked the result and didn’t want to unravel it, I just put it up for sale in my shop.

For my next try, I used my own home-spun Shetland in a natural oatmeal color. This one met the goal much better. It is also for sale as is the pattern, at I am really happy with both the infinity symbols and how the yarn bloomed once it was cleaned and blocked. It is fuzzy and slightly felted. I may have to make one for myself.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Off The Rails


Off the Rails

Life should be wonderful. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary. My husband gave me a beautiful spinning wheel, something I have always wanted. I’ve  dieted away fifty pounds since Thanksgiving. Our home and cars are all paid for. Our sons have grown into wonderful adults. But I can’t enjoy this the way I would like to because my health and my career have spun out of control. 

For a long time I’ve looked at my health as a train wreck in super slow mo, knowing that a serious crunch at the end would be inevitable. But I haven’t always been unhealthy. My childhood was free of major illnesses and injuries, I climbed mountains and jumped across red rock. I took PE every term in college. As a young mother,  I tried to be a runner— savoring the  freedom and the time outdoors. To motivate myself, I signed up for races. I ran a couple of local 5 K run/walks and beat most of the walkers. I bought a subscription to Runners’ World.  

That was probably a mistake. I read many inspirational articles about marathons. I increased my running and started training for a half-marathon to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. I came in last, but made it, two years in a row. I never recovered from the second race. Instead, I continued to feel completely worn down. It took two years and too many doctor visits and tests to figure out the problem.

I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at 34 and the pain has never left me. My doctor keeps finding miracle drugs that keep me more or less on my feet. These miracles have allowed me to continue work at a job I love and hate—teaching middle school English.  

But last year, the old drugs failed to dull my pain, and the pain was different—hotter, more insistent, everywhere. I was so tired and could no longer “fake it” at work. New fibromyalgia drugs helped a bit, but made me forget names, words, and even what I was doing.

No longer able to pass evaluations, I sought accommodation  through the Americans with Disability Act. District administrators basically accommodated me right out the door. So now I’m running out my sick leave, preparing for long-term disability.


This situation inspired my “Off the Rails” wool hat. The one pictured is made out of natural colored wool. You can buy the original hat at my ETSY site for $35, order a custom version in your choice of colors, or spend only $5 for the pattern so you can make your own. It would be a great gift for anyone who’s fond of, or nostalgic for railroads, although in brighter colors, it might just be a cool design. Feel free to rearrange the order of the charts to suit you.