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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Magpies & Craftsters

I am getting a lot of love from Craftzine.com lately. An article I wrote for them a little while back went live today as part of the launch of their magazine, CRAFT.

It's about the excellent crafty gift store Magpie, in Somerville, and the Bazaar Bizarre holiday fair that its owners helped found.

I interviewed Craftster.org founder Leah Kramer and her four business partners for the article, and they all had lots of interesting insights into the world of indie crafting, how the fair got started, and why they decided to open a store of their own.

If such things interest you, you can check it out here: The World of Magpies and Craftsters.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Unlikely Quartet

An old friend recently asked me if I'd make clothespin dolls of her daughters' favorite book characters, characters that were too unusual to be available as mass-market children's dolls. Thinking that for two girls under the age of four the requests were bound to be something simple, fun and girly, I said sure.

So imagine my surprise when she named the desired figures: Abraham Lincoln, Jesus, St. Peter, and "some sort of Spider Lady (Halloweeny, not like Spider Man)."

These are some unusual little girls! Little girls who clearly have some books about historical and religious figures in the house. Also, I'm told, little girls who love snakes and insects, and think kittens and bunnies are "icky." I love this. And as it turned out, the challenges of making their chosen figures recognizable was more interesting than any pink-and-purple fairy princess doll.

Here is Honest Abe, posed against a sort of prairie woodland backdrop. His top hat is made of electrical tape, as is his iconic bow tie.

I don't know about you, but I never formed much of a concept of St. Peter or what he should look like, not even with 16 years of Catholic schooling. Luckily, my two-year-old client had the answers. She felt he should have a halo, a long red garment, and a fish net.

The halo is a gold paillette from the craft store. I glued the heck out of that thing so it will hopefully withstand the test of toddler fingers. I really love the way the fishnet turned out - I just sort of made up a crochet stitch (I know very little about crochet), and then stitched on several felt fish. The backdrop is from a calendar of Scottish landscapes, but it reminded me of those Biblical pictures from the '70s. The photo even has that 3-D postcard image quality - what is that called? When you shift the angle of the card and the image moves?

Here is Abe again, this time posed with Jesus. I felt a little ... blasphemous? ... making a Jesus doll. False idols, or something. Also, his beard looks more like he's been eating chocolate than like a beard. He is wearing the blue sash because my friend's four-year-old thought he should have one, "like Miss America." There he is, Mr. Jesus ... And I think somehow it does distinguish him as special from the rest of the gown-wearing, long-haired, chocolate-eating masses. Jesus and Abe are pictured here in heaven ... or maybe Antarctica.

This one's my favorite: Spider Lady! I hope she doesn't frighten her two-year-old owner. But hey, she asked for it!

The embroidered spider web on her dress is inspired by a similar one my mom made on my Halloween witch's costume when I was three. The story goes that the morning of Halloween, when presented with the costume I had begged for and my mother had slaved over, I cried and cried, and said I didn't want to be a scary witch - I wanted to be a fairy princess! So apparently I, too, flirted with a snakes-and-spiders phase. Though as it turned out, I was still more of a pink-and-purple girl at heart.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Kitty's Guide to Good Grooming

Our cat Dinah has a self comforting habit, persistent since her kittenhood, that consists of madly licking a particular spot of fur on her hip while purring ecstatically. The licking is a little creepy-sounding and she always has a wet spot on her coat, but she never seemed to be doing herself any harm until the semi-recent convergence of two things: the fleece donut, and summer in Boston.

The fleece donut is a small blue cat bed that sits on our living room sofa. Dinah loves it so much, she consistently curls up in it rather than directly on the sofa, thus sparing our upholstery much cat hair and damage from the blissed-out kneading that happens during the lick sessions.

Unfortunately, the cozy, bowl-like shape of the donut causes her coat to rub and tangle against its sides. And this year, our first full summer in Boston, both Dinah and her brother, Bruno, shed like never before, which led to really big mats, basically covering her entire hind half. Even Bruno (who does not have the self-licking habit) developed a few nasty dreadlocks in hard-to-groom areas like the thickly furred neck ruff and the can't-be-bothered region around the tail. But those we could carefully cut out, with a little complaining on Bruno's part. With Dinah, even when we pinned her down for a two-person mat-trimming session, there seemed no way we could address the problem without having her fur completely shaved off.

So we resigned ourselves to having a professional deal with this procedure, and I finally settled on Brookline Grooming in Coolidge Corner, solely because a highly indulgent fellow cat owner I met at a party (he and his partner refer to their cats as "the princesses") told me, as I was asking for recommendations, "I haven't been to this place, but if I needed a groomer that's where I would take my cats." If it was theoretically good enough for the princesses, it was good enough for our beloved but distinctly plebeian Dinah.

When I made the appointment the clerk said I had to come in the morning - "we take the dogs in the afternoon" - and I asssumed this was arranged to avoid dog-cat conflict, kind of like the separate cat/dog entrances at our old San Francisco animal hospital. So imagine my surprise when I walked into the shop, fifteen minutes late and out of breath, to find at least a dozen dogs roaming freely behind the counter. I thought they might hustle us back to some safe, dog-free zone, but instead Dinah and I were led to a grooming table directly in the midst of the frolicking canine pack.

"Uh, you know this is an appointment to groom a cat," I said, vaguely pointing to the two standard poodles coming over to greet us.

"Yes, it's fine," the groomer replied. "This is our doggy day care. We find it keeps the cats on the table."

Well, all right then! And indeed, Dinah was incredibly docile, as she always is for the professionals. But especially so now! No mrowling or batting of paws, just the occasional half-hearted attempt to break free and make a run for it. Overall, she seemed to be attempting to keep as low a profile as possible until she was delivered from the nightmare. In short order the groomer had all four sets of claws clipped and was raking through those mats with various implements, with barely a peep from my cat.

Meanwhile a big golden retriever had made himself comfortable spread across my feet, and a little white poodle had settled in next to us, repeatedly balancing on his hind legs by my side, looking up at us expectantly. The groomer told me the little poodle lives with a cat at home. ("He likes to say hello.") At another table, a curly-haired brown dog was getting a thorough clipping, yelping at key moments. When the ordeal was over, his groomer held him steady and gave him a little spritz of perfume.

I've tried to use a de-matting comb at home like the one this groomer used, but neither of my cats would have any of it. In this new universe, this comb was all it took to remove Dinah's mats. The groomer didn't even think they were that out of control. (I had braced myself for a scolding for letting them get so bad.) What were once hard, felted lumps of hair lifted away like so many wisps of cotton candy, no shaving required.

None, that is, until the groomer asked if I'd like her to trim around "her behind." Um, is that a common practice? I decided we'd give it a whirl, and before Dinah could meow "Rio," she got her first kitty Brazilian.

The final step was a good tummy-brushing. To accomplish this, the groomer held her up full-length by the scruff of her neck and swiftly combed through the fur of her underbelly. By this point, Dinah appeared to have surrendered any idea of struggle and gone into a deep, pre-domesticated animal place. As she dangled limply from the groomer's grip, her yellow-green button eyes staring blankly into space, she reminded me of some sort of anonymous woodland creature, or even something hanging in a gamekeeper's shed - not my pet anymore, with all her quirks and characteristics so well known to us, but simply Cat, a furry animal with pointed ears and whiskers, and no personality of her own. It was a disturbing moment.

But then the indignities were over, and she willingly scrambled back into her carrier, never so happy to be there in her life. We skipped the bath this time - I figured Dinah had already been through enough for one day - but I may be a new convert to professional cat grooming. Dinah is obviously in a much better mood without the mats pulling at her skin, and I wonder if the summer heat would have been easier on both cats if we'd gotten their shedding undercoat fur more thoroughly combed out. I'm still undecided about the kitty bikini trim, but then again, Dinah does have occasional trouble with the old clinging dingleberries, and anything the helps avoid the dreaded dragging cat butt (cat owners know what I'm talking about) should be okay in my book.

Also, selfishly, while I know Dinah was petrified through the entire experience, it was fun for me to be out in the world with her. Cats are so different from dogs that way - you can't put them on a leash and go off for a day's adventure at the beach. And how proud was I, as we were leaving the shop, when the groomer said to me, as though we'd passed some kind of Miss Cat Manners comportment test, "She did really well today. She is welcome back here any time."

Little Dinah, princess cat at last.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Whale Watch!

For various reasons I wasn't feeling too enthusiastic about my birthday this year, so I decided it might go down easier if I did something a little different to celebrate, something out of the ordinary, even larger than life, if you will.

For some time I'd been meaning to try one of the local whale watches that leave from Boston Harbor, and suddenly that seemed like the perfect solution.

My experience on the West Coast was that whale watching is a very tricky business, only really worth undertaking during the migration seasons, and even then it was far from certain you'd see anything. I did see a few gray whales spouting way in the distance off the coast of Point Reyes once, and more sadly once encountered a small, dead beached whale, its skin charred black by the sun, on the Marin Headlands shore. This time around, I hoped my Boston whales would be a) in closer view than those Point Reyes whales and b) alive.

If you check out a web site for one of the many Boston area whale-watch companies, one thing you'll notice is that whale-sighting is "guaranteed." One would be justified in wondering exactly how this is arranged. A special deal with the whales, perhaps? Dedicated seats at Fenway Park, in return for reliable shipside appearances? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that from spring through fall, they can pretty much count on a number of whales hanging out at a particularly toothsome (for whales) feeding area outside of Boston Harbor. If you don't see a whale you get a refund or a voucher, but my impression is that they're usually there.

We decided on the New England Aquarium's whale watch tour, thinking the naturalist on board might offer more interesting details about the whales we hoped to glimpse. It was a longer ride out to Stellwagen Bank, the area where the whales like to feed, than I'd anticipated - maybe 45 minutes or so. It was also very, very windy up on deck - I was grateful for an extra jacket and a kerchief for my hair. But part of the fun of the trip was just seeing Boston Harbor and the ocean beyond. Boston may be right on the water, but unless you make the effort it's all to easy to go weeks or months without seeing much evidence of it.

Pulling away from the city:

One of the small islands that lies within the harbor:

When you pass this lighthouse you've left the harbor for the open sea:

Once we got out to whale country, it wasn't long before we saw our first whale, or at least one little tiny corner of him or her. I think part of the excitement of looking for whales is that even when you do see them, you never see the whole animal all at once. Just a blowhole, a tailfin, a flipper, maybe a shadow suggesting the rest of the massive body beneath the water. Even if you're lucky enough to see a whale breach (jump out of the water), it goes by so quickly you're left wanting more.

There were three types of whales representing at Stellwagen Bank that day: humpbacks, finbacks, and minkes. I learned that the humpbacks have the most appealing behavior from a human perspective - they flip their tailfins up out of the water when they go down for a dive, and are more likely to cavort at the surface, slapping a fin against the water as though waving at the rapt boatload, for example.

The tip of a humpback tail:

Our boat was three decks high, but there were many other, much smaller crafts seeking the whales, too. We were a little frightened for them, these diminutive sailboats and motorboats, their passengers standing gleefully on deck as the whales glided by.

It turned out we did see a whale breach, a young humpback that seemed to be enjoying all the attention it was getting and leapt almost clear out of the water one, two, and finally three times. You can try taking a picture, but if you're like me then by the time you realize what's going on and get your camera poised, all you capture is a big, disembodied splash, and the delighted faces of the whale-seekers surrounding you.

It was really awe-striking though.

On the way back, we got a parting glimpse of two humpbacks (left) heading in one direction and a finback closely passing them going the other way. The guide on the boat told us that most of the whales in these waters are females with their calves, showing them the aquatic ropes.

And then, almost back to port, Boston Light, off in the distance, the U.S.'s oldest lighthouse.

As much as we saw, the day definitely still left me wishing we could see just one last whale, just a little bit more.