Tuesday, August 25, 2020

An Exercise in Humility

 Or, I used to think I knew how to sew.

As faithful readers (all two of you) know, I quilt. Over the years I’ve mentioned various quilting projects – machine pieced, machine appliqued, hand applique, whatever – made from typical quilting cotton, denim, and flannel. Projects have ranged in size from hot pads to king size. I thought I did a fairly decent job.

I’ve also mentioned more than once that after the S.O. and I invested in a motorhome we began volunteering as campground hosts. We’ve been hosts at both state and national parks, with my favorite being the first place we volunteered: Montauk State Park in Missouri. Montauk is possibly the most popular park in the state system and is well-known for its trout fishing. The Current River is born at Montauk where the waters from Montauk Spring and a small stream meet. I love Montauk. It’s a great park.

A couple months ago the two things – quilting and Montauk – collided. The Missouri DNR has a centennial quilt project in progress. A friend who is the current assistant park supervisor asked if I was still a quilter. I said yes. She then asked if I’d make a block for the park for the centennial quilt. Of course I said yes to that too. I quilt. So she sent me the requirements: using only 100 percent cotton fabric, create an 8-inch square block with a theme that represented the park. It could be pieced, appliqued, embroidered, or a photo transfer. In retrospect, the last listed would have been the smart thing to do – hindsight is always 20/20.

In any case, I said yes. No sweat. One 8-inch block? Piece of cake. No problem. All I had to do was come up with an appropriate theme. My first thought was to do something with the Montauk Mill. It’s a nifty historic structure, and it would likely be different from what the other fish parks would do (Missouri has four or five parks that highlight fishing – Roaring River, Bennett Spring, and a couple others that I can never remember). If you’re know for fishing, you’re going to do a fish quilt block. Or so I reasoned until I happened across a really nifty design for a paper pieced rainbow trout. Holy wah. It was a neat block. Granted, it was a design for a 10-inch block, but, hey, what’s a photo copier for if not to produce reduced copies. I’d reduce it down to 80% of original size and that would be that.

For the uninitiated, paper piecing is perfect for doing piecing that needs to line up perfectly. It helps ensure all your points are actually points, and is used a lot for doing hexagons (the classic Grandma’s Flower Garden pattern) because hexies are tricky to align neatly. Do a paper pieced trout and it would be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with fabric. No misaligned pieces, no weirdness. 

Point of information: that trout pattern has 41 pieces in an 8-inch block. Some of the pieces are less than 1/4 inch wide, which meant the part that was supposed to show was skinnier than the seam allowances for it. It was. . . interesting.

Three or four or possibly five rejected trout and several weeks of my life later, I threw in the towel. The trout kept coming out looking more like an oddly colored orca. Even worse, the beast was assembled in modules (A through G) and when it got to the point where the modules were sewn into the final two units, they refused to align. According to the pattern, all the seams were perfect. According to the deformed not-exactly-square disaster on the ironing board, the block was a hot mess.

On to the original thought, the Montauk mill. Nothing but nice straight lines, no curves like a trout rising has, so the pieces would be nothing but rectangles and triangles (the building has gable roofs). All I needed was a decent photo of the mill to use as a guide. Got the photo, created a pattern, did paper piecing again, and managed after another several days of my life and three botched preliminary attempts to produce something that wasn’t a total embarrassment. Only 13 pieces instead of 41, although that first floor roof was also super thin and a a total pain to get looking even remotely like a roof. 

Made the mistake of trying to embroider Montauk in cursive above the mill, which is when I learned my embroidery skills (which used to be amazing) have definitely weakened with age. It was supposed to curve around and end in a fish hook. Now it just looks like someone misspelled Montauk. Still, despite my qualms about the embroidery, the block got shoved into an envelope and is now probably jammed in a USPS automated sorting machine somewhere multiple states away from here. Never again.

Maybe. Although the moral of the story appears to be Never Volunteer (or maybe never over-estimate your own ability to do stuff), I am going to try again with the trout, except this time I’m scaling the bastard UP, not down. I invested a fair amount of actual money in fat quarters specifically to build the trout. It wasn’t easy finding a good pink to use for the stripe down the side, and it will go into a fish worth keeping. I’ve got a Rolling Stone quilt in progress that’s going to include some miscellaneous blocks commemorating our travels with the late, lamented Guppy, and the fish will go into it, as will one of the prototype blocks for the mill.

The S.O., incidentally, came close to suffering bodily injury when he looked at the Mill block and said “what about the windows?” After struggling to align pieces the size of fingernails for the building, there was no way in hell I was going to screw it up by trying to embroider windows. The silhouette is right; people can use their imaginations to put in the windows and the handrails for the steps. I'm trying to take comfort in the fact that when it's set in a quilt with a gazillion other blocks and then quilted it's not going to look as crude as it does when seen in isolation. I'm in a bunch of quilting groups on Facebook; I've seen lots of stuff that looks worse but people still manage to brag about instead of cringing. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Living in Interesting Times

I started re-reading The Stand a week or two ago. It’s maybe not the smartest reading choice while living through a pandemic, but I picked it up anyway. For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it’s Stephen King’s usual Good vs Evil using a man-made killer disease, an airborne respiratory infection that is the ultimate in horrible influenza-like illnesses. It wipes out most of the population and leaves survivors who as the book progresses are going to be sorted into Good Guys and Evil’s Minions. Fairly standard post-apocalyptic plotting, in other words.

I’m not being real ambitious about it so I’m maybe only about 40% into the thing, which maybe should be called The Doorstop or The Brick instead of The Stand. The sucker is humongous. It was a fat book the first time around, and what I’m reading now is the revised edition, the one where King got to indulge his writer’s ego and plug in all the sections that publishers made him cut in the name of corporate profits.  nhi there’s a calculus publishers indulge in, a formula that incorporates the author’s past performance, likely sales for the new book, and how many pages a book can run before it slides over the line into Not Worth It. When the first edition of The Stand came out, King’s work was selling at a decent clip but hadn’t yet hit the point where Doubleday or whoever could have slapped the name Stephen King on the cover of a New York phone book and seen it top best seller lists. A few years later, of course, King had slid into golden territory and could do more or less anything he felt like doing. Result? A book so fat that calling it a brick would be massively misleading. It’s more like a cinder block. Or maybe one of those giant sandstone blocks that Cheops used to build the Great Pyramid at Giza.

But, as usual, I’ve begun with a long digression. I’m re-reading The Stand while the world is dealing with a pandemic. I have to say King did his homework (and he does acknowledge the help he received from epidemiologists and other experts). He invents an air-borne infection, a respiratory infection that is remarkably virulent. The infection rate is close to 100%. So is the mortality rate. And it’s fast. Victims are exposed to minuscule amounts of virus; 48 hours later they’re dead after coughing out humongous amounts of snot and then choking to death with swollen glands.

To me, King’s super-flu reads like a cross between typical influenza and diphtheria. Diphtheria victims basically choke to death, although not quite as messily as the super-flu victims in The Stand. Diphtheria used to kill a lot of people in the usual depressingly random fashion all diseases kill people. A diphtheria epidemic hit the U.P. in 1916. Locally, one family went from being a married couple with 8 kids to a widower with 5, a set of twins had one girl die while the other never got sick. The randomness really makes it easy to see why people want to believe in supernatural factors. Why would the three boys in a family die and the five girls survive? When everyone is living together in a tiny log cabin, how can some people never get sick? Depending on time, place, and culture, the survivors have either been blessed by God or are the Devil’s spawn.

The Stand picks its victims in a similarly random fashion. Some survivors have major exposures – handling a sick person repeatedly with no precautions – while some victims are exposed in such a random, tiny way (walking past someone who is infected but not yet visibly sick, for example) that if a person didn’t know that such casual contacts really can spread disease you wouldn’t believe it.
Then again, maybe that’s one reason why so many people enjoyed reading The Stand. Most people didn’t understand disease transmission really can be that simple so they viewed it all as just fantasy. From the way some people freak out over the idea of wearing masks, it’s obvious way too many people still don’t get it. If they can’t see it, it’s not real.

Out here in the real world, of course, there are no diseases quite as virulent as King’s Captain Trips. There are some that come close, especially at the novel stage and hitting a na├»ve population (i.e., one that has never been exposed before), but generally none manage to kill 99.9% of a population in one fell swoop. It took repeated smallpox, measles, and other epidemics of European diseases to eliminate millions of indigenous persons in the Americas, and even that had help – the American military giving smallpox-contaminated blankets to Native Americans, for example. 

Today, of course, COVID-19 is getting a helping hand from all the idiots who somehow smell a government conspiracy or an infringement of their rights every time they're asked to behave like civilized members of a community instead of the selfish twits they actually are. The bizarre part is that even when the twits hear about fellow cov-idiots who proclaimed loudly that they would not wear a mask, the virus was a hoax, it wasn't any worse than the flu (which they conveniently forget kills thousands of people annually, too, just not quite on the scale COVID-19 does) and who then became infected and died (or came close to it) the twits still proclaim proudly they are fine in their own personal little delusional bubble. A friend suggested that maybe we should just let natural selection take its course, but natural selection isn't particularly smart. It won't just take out the cov-idiots; there'd be collateral damage: the twits' friends, family, strangers who were exposed because one selfish twit was too lazy or too stupid to believe the science.

Given the way hot spots erupt almost every time people decide they're tired of being cautious and go to large group gatherings or hang out in crowded spaces I'm thinking we're going to be living with COVID-19 for a long time. It's not fading into obscurity until mask wearing becomes the new normal for everyone. I pin no hopes on a vaccine. Even if one is developed soon many people won't benefit -- it's pretty clear  Big Pharma won't just give it away. They'll price it the same way they do everything else: obscenely high.