What the hell is a table runner for anyway?

Every quilter has made a table runner. I admit it. I have too. In fact, I’ll even admit I have no less than six that are done and just need binding. It is the ubiquitous quilting gift – fast, easy, good use for leftover blocks. But what is it? Have you ever heard somebody say, “All my table runners are worn out. I really need to get some new ones”? Have you ever even seen any body actually use a table runner for anything functional?

Me either.

I’ve never used one, other than to decorate at Christmas because I made myself one when I made a batch of them for Christmas gifts, but that’s not really using it. Is it? I started thinking about this because the last quilt I made came from a pattern book that actually had table runner patterns in it for leftover blocks which I found curious on a number of levels.

If you’re writing a quilt book and offering instruction on how to make a quilt, why would your patterns require so much extra fabric that you can make extra blocks? Or require cutting so much extra fabric that you ended up with enough random strips and triangles to make some ever useful table runners?

Table runners were invented because of guys like this.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the history of the table runner. Apparently, back in medieval times, people would wipe their faces on the table cloth. Eventually, thank God, this became unacceptable and somebody invented napkins, but people still ate like pigs and spilled their food and drinks all over the tablecloths which then had to be laundered, so some wise woman invented the table runner to protect the table cloth.

As I can imagine, doing laundry in the 15th century would be pure hell, especially a giant greasy, wine-stained piece of table linen. I’m not sure who invented the first table runner, but my guess is that it was the poor peasant woman who had to do the castle’s laundry.

I struggle to get the clothes out of the dryer and folded. Usually by the time a load has been folded, I’ve “reheated” it in the dryer 4-5 times to get out all the wrinkles because God forbid I might have to iron something. I can only imagine the hell of having to go the river to drag buckets of water back to the fire to heat in order to wash the table cloth and then burning your hands in some sort of soap that you had to make by hand the day before. And you still had to rinse the damn thing. The table runner was clearly invented out of necessity.

But I digress. In order to avoid having to repeatedly wash the entire table cloth, the table runner was invented. Apparently, they were easier to clean than an entire table cloth which actually makes sense. For some reason, they stuck around, and now we quilters can make them when we want an easy fast project.

Thankfully, we don’t require the use of them anymore. Quilted table runners are somewhat useless when it comes to protecting anything precious. If you’ve ever set a glass of wine on top of a quilted table runner, you know what I’m talking about. The sometimes poofy quilting can make the glasses a little bit tipsy (doesn’t have anything to do with drinking any of the wine) and causes them to tip right over, staining the table cloth and the table runner.

My table runner conclusion? In a functional sense, table runners are . . . completely dysfunctional. But when it comes to quilting, who really needs function?

First Day of School Nightmares

I’ve been attending the first day of school either as a student or a teacher for well over half of my life (at 41 that’s a lot of first days of school), yet I still get nightmares about them.

They always follow the same sort of pattern:  I enter my classroom completely unprepared without a single lesson plan written or syllabus copied.  Sometimes the administration has moved me to a different classroom without telling me, another teacher has absconded with all my stuff, and my new class is full of boxes and stacked desks.

I even dream of natural disasters like lightning or floods hitting, and I have to rescue a whole group of kids I don’t know.  In every scenario, I have absolutely no control over anything; I flounder, panicked, trying to survive, as I sometimes do in my actual classroom.

I had another first day of school this past Monday, and in some ways, the nightmares aren’t so far off.  I have classes of up to 33 teenagers and see well over 150 total students.

I have students who read at a fifth grade level sitting next to students who read at a college level; kids who read classics for fun next to fifteen year-olds who have never completed a single novel; students who have traveled the world next to students who have never left this corner of rural Nevada; semi-homeless kids who bounce around from one parent, to another parent, a grandparent, or to a friend’s house sitting next to kids who have two supportive parents at home with high expectations for their success; kids who want to learn next to kids who don’t care, whose families don’t see the value in getting an education; kids who can write beautifully next to kids who struggle to write a single complete sentence.

Last week as I prepared, and during the past few days as I started to learn names and read through the first pieces of writing they submitted, I’ve been pondering if it’s at all possible to prepare enough to teach or even reach every kid that walks into my room?  The honest (and depressing) answer I’ve come up with is no, though I will try, even though it will give me more gray hair, but at least then I get a quiet moment at the hair dresser while she covers it all up.

On the bright side, I also know that I’ll teach some of them something.  There will be great days, and that is what I look forward to as a teacher.  I’ll do my best to teach each of them the power of words, to help them find and share their own voices through writing and speaking.  Some kids will discover their voice, or they’ll discover books and finish reading their first novel ever or maybe they’ll even write one.  (I actually had three students do that last year.)  I teach for those “aha” moments kids get when they understand they have a voice, they have a story, and it matters.  That is my passion; it is why I teach.  It is also why I write, to find and share my own voice.

So far, the past three days have gone well.  I haven’t had a nightmare since last weekend, and thankfully, my classroom hasn’t been struck by lightning yet either.  We’re off to a good start.

Want to people watch? Hold a yard sale.

Last weekend, a friend and I got inspired to clean out our closets and garages and hold a yard sale.  We set up some tables on the driveway, loaded them up, priced all our goodies with little round neon stickers and were ready to go.

The morning was a study in people watching, not quite as good as a Nascar race (the ultimate place to people watch) but still pretty good, especially for a writer.

The first observation I made is that yard-salers drive like crap.  They’d fly up the road, slam on their brakes to drive by really slowly craning their necks out the window to check everything out from their car as if they could really see the cool fish shaped shower curtain rings all the way from the street.  This is worse than texting while driving.  They were not watching where they were going, and those who chose not to park missed out on some truly cool stuff.

Those who deemed the tables of treasures adequate for further perusal fell into five clear cut categories.

  • The Discerning Shopper – this person would question us on every item.  They would pick each treasure up, turn it over, and completely check it out.  One woman undressed every one of our daughters’ old baby dolls to make sure . . . well, I’m not sure what she was checking, but she didn’t dress the dolls that she didn’t buy back up.  We had to.  That was annoying.  Another guy opened up every single CD to make sure he wasn’t purchasing an empty case.  I wanted to tell him just to get an ipod but then I would’ve lost the sale, so I kept my mouth shut.
  • The Haggler – This person refused to pay full price, even on items marked .25¢.  One woman actually asked if I’d take a dime instead of a quarter.  I get that people are looking for bargains at yard sales but really?!?
  • The Browser – This person would circle the entire driveway checking out every item on every table.  Then they’d do it again . . . and again.  I’d ask if they were looking for something in particular.  They never were, but they’d usually circle one last time before leaving empty handed.
  • The Talker – The talkers came incognito as shoppers.  They acted like they wanted to shop, browsing away and slowing down when they got near our chairs.  As soon as one of us said, “good morning” their true nature emerged.  They were really there to talk.  Total strangers told us their life stories.  One man talked for over twenty minutes.  I can tell you his kids’ names, the breeds of each of his eight dogs, which ones are nice and which ones fight, why he needs a lawnmower, his job (he was a truck driver) etc. You get the idea.  Thankfully, we only had a handful of talkers.  They were the most exhausting of the bunch.
  • The Boss – These are the laziest of the yard sale people.  They sit in their air conditioned car and send out scouts, either their spouses or their kids.  The scouts then report back either by cell phone (even though the car would be parked, maybe, 30 feet away) or by actually walking all they way back to the car to let the Boss know what they had scouted out and if the sale was worthy of their presence.

Since I’ve started writing, I’ve found that I tend to people watch with a more discerning eye.  I’m not sure if this is a good thing.  For my writer self, it’s good for character development, but then I also find myself highly entertained by random details which makes me wonder if I’m being an “observant writer” or if I’m actually just overly judgmental and bitchy.

I think I’ll go with “observant writer.”

Scrap Stashes – Ziploc Girl or Tote from Hell?

We started with this . . .

This summer, I got together with my quilt buddies to make scrap fabric blocks.  The blocks are wonderful.  No rules, no measuring, no guidelines and no restrictions, just creative fabric play.  We also thought we’d get rid of some of our scraps which somehow accumulate exponentially over the years.  I can never throw away fabric that just might come in handy in some future project.  Even though it rarely does, I hang onto it.  It’s some sort of sickness.

The idea was to throw all of our scraps into a big pile in the middle of the table.  We would then grab scraps as needed and hopefully put a dent into the pile.

Our scrap stashes were fascinating as they seemed a direct reflection of our personalities.  We should have a taken a personality profile assessment, and I am willing to bet that our stashes would reflect the results of the profile.

Type A, or “The Ziploc Stash” – These quilters have all their scraps organized according to color and size and are sorted into individual baggies.  This quilter probably has stock in Ziploc in order to help fund a future retirement and considers the mass quantities of baggies an investment in her future.  The scraps are pressed and ready for use in any new, organized project she might dream up.

Type Z, or “Scrap Totes from Hell” – These quilters have all sizes and colors of scraps smashed together into some sort of plastic tote(s).  There might even be partially completed quilts woven in between the scraps.  The owner of said tote must sit on it to get the lid latched, and still scraps stick out between the lid and the sides.  Taking the lid off is a bit of an adventure as the scraps, now free, literally explode from their confinement.  When these boxes are opened, it is not necessary to carry any to the middle of the table for the scrap block project as the top half of the scra

. . . and ended with these. Lots of them.

ps in the bucket have already exploded out and landed on the table where they need to be.

Perhaps there is some middle ground here, but I have not met that scrap stash yet.  Scraps stashes, like fabric stashes, seem to have personalities all their own, and mine is determined to just keep growing despite my best efforts at controlling it.

One of the goals of this day was to put a dent into each of our scrap stashes, but when we were done, the type A stood, looked at the giant messy pile in the middle of the table, and shook her head.  No longer were her scraps in organized little baggies.  She suggested the rest of us keep all the scraps, even hers, until next time, and she ran for the door.

At least one of us put a dent in her scrap stash.  Mine, it seems, are never going to go away.

I’m worried, and it sucks.

I am leaving shortly to take my baby to the DMV to take his driver’s test.  He will walk away with his first official ID, and the ability to take a vehicle, a large moving projectile, on the road all by himself without me stomping on the highly effective passenger side brake.  I’m scared to death.

I’m not normally a worrier.  Worrying is a waste of time and energy, and who wants to spend time thinking about all the bad things that might happen?  Not me, especially when 99.9% of the time whatever horrible scenario I have dreamed up would be as likely to happen as California falling off.  Surprisingly, this actually did come up when I was a kid.

I had a crazy great uncle who lived on a secluded compound with his cult somewhere in Montana.  Occasionally, he would call my parents with dire warnings that they must flee the Bay Area as California was destined to fall off into the sea, drowning us all.  I’m not sure if it was going to be a clean cut along state lines or if it would follow a fault line in which case only half of the state would fall.  In any case, my parents moved us to the safety of Nevada when I was seven, so I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.

Thankfully, I’ve never worried about such dramatic events as the end of California like my great uncle did; however, I’ve never had a son get a license before either, and I’m finding that on a worry scale, its about as high for me as California falling off was for my uncle.

Two weeks ago, my son bought a truck, a little 2001 Ford Ranger.  It’s a great little truck, and we probably could have got a slightly better deal on it but the lady who sold it to us had no teeth and was on oxygen, so my husband felt guilty chewing down her price too much.  Happily, the truck has a 3 liter V6 engine which translates into relatively “gutless.”  Despite that fact, I have had visions of it rolling, bursting into flames, the tires falling off on the freeway, any variety of disasters all of which end with my baby horribly injured.

I would love to say that my son is a responsible, extremely mature 16 year old who always considers the consequences of his actions, but he’s not.  He’s typical.  Two nights ago he took me for a drive to a nearly gravel pit to show me how he figured out how to pop the clutch and make it fish tail all over the place.  Oh God.  I just grabbed the “oh shit” handle above the window and shut my eyes, fondly remembering how he used to show me safe things, like how high he could jump.

When we got home, my husband asked where we had gone, and I could only glare at him.  Our son has learned his love of crazy driving from his father.  I would never make a vehicle go sideways on purpose.  My husband lives for snowy days when each corner becomes an opportunity to go sideways; empty intersections become perfect places for brodies.  For him, driving is much more fun in the snow when the truck is not in 4 wheel drive.

Apparently, he’s taught our son well, and it scares the crap out of me.  I’ve been praying for weeks, worrying about this impending day.  Feel free to pray with me.  Or just pray for yourself as you drive down our roads and highways that are littered with 16 year old drivers.  We’re adding one more today.  Lord help us all.

What I Learned at my First Writing Conference

This past weekend, I traveled to Portland, Oregon and attended the Willamette Writer’s Conference. I learned enough to fill twenty blog posts, so I decided to try to condense the experience into a single list of major lessons.

1)      I learned that you can pitch an incomplete novel.  No agent will buy it, but they’ll give you great feedback.  I signed up for this conference last spring having only written a small portion of my novel. I even signed up for pitch sessions, not realizing that I was supposed to be completely done with the book before I pitched it.  Oops.  Prior to getting to Oregon, I realized my error, called the conference people, and asked if I should cancel those sessions.  I didn’t want to waste the agents’ time.  They said, “No way.  Go for it.  You’ll learn something.”  They were right.   I spoke with two agents and one editor, each of whom were kind and not even a little bit scary.  They happily answered my questions, gave me helpful feedback, and asked questions about areas they found confusing or unclear, letting me know that these are areas I need to address.

2)      I learned that it’s a really bad idea to argue or get defensive with an agent during practice and real pitch sessions.  You come across as arrogant and difficult.  I watched this happen several times when agents asked writers who were pitching to them to clarify a point, or the agents offered suggestions for improvement. People got angry and argumentative.  You could watch the agent’s body language as they wrote these difficult people off as potential clients.  With that said . . .

3)      I learned that pitching a novel well is really hard.

4)      I learned that lots of elderly people write.  In fact, the demographic of conference attendees shocked me.  So many attendees were old, as in “needing a walker to get around” old.  At first that made me a little sad for them.  Were they just now able to find time in their lives to write?  Had they worked at some soul-sucking job their whole lives just waiting for the day they would finally have time to tell their story?  This seemed like such a tragedy. Then I realized (actually my brilliant sister pointed out) that these people still hadn’t given up on their dream of writing.  They were still out their learning, writing, sharing, dreaming even if they have never gotten on Facebook, written a tweet, or read a blog.  That’s a good thing.  It’s never too late to follow a dream.  Hopefully, I’ll be published before I need a walker, but if not, there’s still room for me at writing conferences.  Good to know.

5)      I learned there is no such thing as “The Writing Process.”  The sign the school district requires me to post in my classroom outlining this process is a bit of a farce.  After talking with and listening to a huge variety of writers, I know, without a doubt, that every single one of them has their own writing process.  Trying to teach the writing process seems somewhat silly.  I’ve known this for a while with my students and have tried to encourage kids to find their process, but actually talking to “real writers” about made it finally sink in that this is a crucial lesson.

6)      I learned that there are lots of passionate writers out there and some really fabulous unpublished novels.  As writers shared their stories, I kept wanting to read them, not just hear about them.  They sound great!  On the one hand, the writer in me realized how much competition there is out there, but on the other hand, the reader in me is excited to get my hands on these stories someday.

7)      I learned that it is possible to go to a workshop on virtually any aspect of writing but sometimes just writing is as helpful to my learning as anything.  A conference lasting for three weeks, broken into round the clock hour and a half long sessions, wouldn’t be long enough to cover all the aspects of fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays that could possibly be taught.  There is so much information out there, so much to learn.  I spent yesterday sifting through all the handouts and notes, trying to organize them, but then I stopped sorting and just started to write.  I can read and study all day, but I’ll learn the most when I’m actually writing, practicing my craft, and applying the lessons.

8)      Finally, I learned that even though there is so much that I don’t know, there is a lot that I do know.  I need to honor that.  I’m an English teacher.  I have an MA in literature.  I read constantly and love good books.  I teach them and conference with my students about them every single day of the school year.  This is all helpful in my new life as a writer.  There is obviously a ton I still need to learn, but I think I have a pretty good foundation.

I’ll let you know if that’s true after I actually pitch a completed novel.

Ugly Quilt Border Fabric = Cool Quilt Backing

I despise putting on quilt borders. Note the quilt in this blog’s banner – no border! It seems like the border should be the easiest part of creating a quilt and technically speaking, it is. They are easy to measure, cut, and sew. I despise them for no other reason than they are BORING! There is not one creative element to putting on a border other than picking it out. That part can be fun. But there is even an art to that and it has taken me years to learn it: one must wait until the entire quilt top is pieced before purchasing the border fabric because the quilt will tell you what to put on the border. I know this sounds crazy but it’s true. Trust me.

It is actually one of the first lessons my quilting mentor taught me – always get the entire quilt top made before you pick out the border fabric. She was my instructor for the second quilt class I ever took. She had even printed this bit of advice on the course supply list. I, of course, ignored it and purchased several yards of a green flowery print for the border of my quilt that I was going to make in her class. This was in the fall of 1998.

The quilt is on my bed and has been for years, and I still have that green yardage. It’s not on my bed. It’s on the shelf, waiting for some sort of quilt call its name. Or when I die, my daughter, who hates to sew, can figure out what the hell to do with all my fabric, including the lovely green print.

Despite my teacher’s verbal and written instructions, which I chose to ignore, and the knowledge of the green yardage still sitting on my shelf, I have continued to purchase border fabrics too soon. It is a lesson I have had difficulty learning. I also have stacks of already cut border strips. This happens when I not only purchase but also cut the borders out before I’ve even sewn a stitch on the quilt top. When the top is done, the border doesn’t work, and I’m left with eight or nine 7” strips. Lovely.

More often than not the border fabrics I have purchased thinking they were perfect end up being awful, as in “what the hell was I thinking” kind of awful. I fold up the fabric or the strips and set them on the shelf next to the other giant chunks of border fabric. They look at me, mock me, and ask me, “when will you learn?”

In my defense, the ladies at the quilt shops always agree that the fabric I am considering for the border is just right and would be perfect for the finished quilt top. And these are generally really nice ladies. I am sure of it. Really.

For many people, buying giant pieces of yardage might not be a problem, NOT for me. I make almost all scrap quilts. My motto is the more fabric in a quilt, the better. I usually use fifty or more fabrics in any given quilt. I never need two or three yards. Fat quarters are this girl’s best friend.

I think I’ve ignored the lesson of a quilt telling me what it needs for its border after the top is complete because I hate putting borders on. I don’t want to give them any more thought than necessary. Why would I drive all the way to town just to audition fabrics for a border when I can get it all in one shot when I’m purchasing the fabric for the quilt top? This seems like a complete and utter waste of time. However, I still get frustrated that my sixteen year old son hasn’t learned to eat his entire dinner with his fork, and we’ve been working on that for over fourteen years. Slow learning is apparently genetic, and I unfortunately passed it on to him. Maybe I should just give myself a break.

Ugly Quilt Borders = Cool Quilt Backing

I finally came up with a use for these giant pieces of fabric and decided to piece them together for quilt backs. I actually like it. It turns any quilt into a two-sided quilt and generally the colors hide the dirt much better than plain muslin backings which, despite valiant efforts, tend to turn beige after the kids and dogs snuggle under them, toss them off the couch onto the floor, and then walk on them. I’ve tried to teach them to “fold the quilt when you’re done with it, don’t walk on it,” but we’re still working on that one too.

Here’s a picture of my most recent quilt back. I like it.