Keep calm and study on

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Eleven days out from taking the Amateur radio technician license test, the anxiety begins to set in. I’m fairly confident that I haven’t worked this hard to acquire knowledge outside of my comfort zone since college.

Consistent daily review over the past three months of the various categories of information provided in the National Association for Amateur Radio’s manual has given me some small measure of understanding, helpfully supplemented by my sweetie, already a licensed amateur, who also happens to be an electrical engineer.

In my effort to calm the growing nerves I went looking for online guidance about effective study habits to help me over the finish line and I discovered that I’ve been doing many of them all along. Here’s the list:

  • Quiet place, consistent time for study. First thing in the morning, coffee in hand, I sit down with the study guide.
  • Have a goal: I’m studying to pass a 35-question test that requires a passing score of 26 correct answers. The manual lists all of the possible test questions. And the ARRL web site offers practice tests, you can take repeatedly, which I do.
  • Take written notes. When I miss questions on the practice test, I write them down in longhand and then search out the relevant section of the manual for review. Research has shown that writing things down is a good way to help embed concepts in the brain.
  • Stepping away periodically. I’ve been known to push a little too hard. But you can’t push learning, especially in areas well outside your knowledge base. Things come over time. I knew I couldn’t cram at the last minute on this effort. And I haven’t.

My curious mother

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It’s hard to guess which of us was more surprised. In our most recent book group, Irene Palmer asked me if I had read “House Made of Dawn” by N. Scott Momaday. Happens I had, thanks to a literature professor committed to diversity in the literary canon she taught.

But hold on there, Irene. How did you happen on this literary treasure, published back in 1969 that won a Pulitzer Prize and established Momaday on the literary scene. A Kiowa who grew up in New Mexico among the Pueblo and Navajo, Momaday is credited with nudging Native American literature into the mainstream.

Irene discovered Momaday, when he was mentioned in a Ken Burns documentary on World War II. It turns out that Momaday, among many awards, received the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize in 2019, which honors an individual whose body of work has advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit. That’s Irene, she takes notes and searches things out.

I haven’t read Momaday since my college days, but I kept my paperback of “House Made of Dawn” among the books I couldn’t part with (Terry Tempest Williams, Willa Cather, John Nichols, Wallace Stegner, Tony Morrison, Edward Abbey…). But unlike the books from those other authors, I didn’t go back and reread House Made of Dawn.

Until now.

Thanks to my mother whose curiosity — always far-ranging — has lately pulled her into the realm of fiction. Previously, she has preferred nonfiction — biographies, history, philosophy, religion.

What we are remarking on, as we read Momaday, is the poetic cadence of his story-telling. It should be no surprise that this well-regarded author has several volumes of poetry. I expect we’ll go there next. Unless my curious mother finds some other path to wander.

Not in my wheelhouse, yet

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Amateur radio, AKA ham radio, never caught my interest. People fussing with complicated gadgets, raising odd antennas on the roof — someone in Antarctica talking to someone in Alaska — I mean, get a cell phone for heck’s sake.

It might as well be magic for all I understood it.

But I have this amazing partner, Craig Cherry, who likes tinkering with gadgets and who is involved in our neighborhood’s emergency preparedness group. Ham radio, it turns out, is integral to that effort. Last winter he suggested that I get my ham radio license, a process that requires some study and taking a test to show you know your amperes from your ohms and your farads from your henrys.

I dismissed the idea right out of the gate. I couldn’t even tell the difference between watts and volts. And up until a few months ago, I did not care. When Craig asked a second and then a third time, I saw that it was important to him, and since he has been known to visit Canada in the freaking winter with me just because I ask, well, quid pro quo. Also: We live on a river held back by 13 aging earthen dams, the next subduction zone earthquake and accompanying tsunami are overdue, and wildfires have ramped up in recent years. Semper paratus as the Coast Guard says.

So I said, OK.

Then I began reading the study guide. It kicked me back to junior high school days when I was wrapping my head around algebra, the first stumbling block being that letters had, through some strange metaphysical process, become stand-ins for numbers. Frankly, it pissed me off. Learning that doesn’t emerge from one’s own native curiosity and that requires time and effort to absorb, that’s hard.

Learning about electricity, radio frequencies, bandwidths, transmitting, receiving, amateur radio etiquette, FCC regulations, has brought the adolescent me back in spades. I get cranky. I storm around and yell. Then Craig explains a thing. Then I settle down and read some more and another little piece of knowledge embeds in my brain.

One slow step at a time, I am making progress. I do know the difference between current, volts and watts. I do know that farads are a unit of measure of capacitance and that henrys are a unit of measure of inductance and that capacitors and inductors store energy differently. I know enough to pass practice tests about half the time. That is 100 percent more than I knew last April.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke noted once that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Perhaps I will end the year viewing radio as technology, something in my wheelhouse.

71,000 stitches, give or take

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When I began hand-stitching this quilt last January, I discovered that sewing spirals took a lot longer than sewing straight lines. As I went along, I realized it would be months, not weeks, of work. Then I learned about temptation bundling, the pairing of enjoyable activities with tedious ones, and began listening to plot-heavy audio books that enticed me back to needle and thread.

Ten months later, I’ve listened to 30 books (novels by Elizabeth Bear, Ursula LeGuin, Gregg Hurwitz, Patrick O’Brian, Ellis Peters, and Alan Furst).

These authors attracted me for two reasons. The first: the narrators of the audiobooks had voices that I wanted to listen to. Secondly the authors wrote series, books with repeating characters or themes or locations — the Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters, the Night Soldiers by Alan Furst, and, of course Patrick O’Brian’s masterful Master and Commander collection).

Nine days ago I finished the quilt stitching. Two days ago I finished the binding.

I counted the stitches in an 8″ x 14″ section of the quilt to extrapolate the total stitches and that came out to 71,364. It took me roughly an hour to do about 350 stitches. That’s 198 hours of sewing.

It was interesting to notice that even though I only used one color of thread — a light teal — it looked white on the dark portions of the quilt and almost black on the light portions.

I think I may now be completely done with the whole quilting thing.

Totally sated.

A two-fer

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Every now and then, fate dishes up a surprise. The journalist scheduled to write about Oregon pioneer Louis Southworth and Oregon bronze sculptor Peter Helzer, had an unexpected family emergency and I was asked to step in and write the piece. It was a pleasure to meet Helzer, whose work graces many public spaces in Oregon. And it was an honor to be able to share Southworth’s story, all wrapped into one article.

The oldest art form?

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My grandmother, Maydell Cazier Palmer, had a way with a needle. I was reminded of this on my recent visit with my mother, Irene Palmer, who gave me Maydell’s pincushion, an item I recall from childhood visits to Grandma’s house, but hadn’t seen in decades.

Maydell’s needlework is inspiring, the tidy satin stitching in the middle, the intricate crocheting on the surround, and the blue ribbon holding it all together.

My needlework is informed by hers, and I’m also inspired by contemporary artists Mary Corbet and Trish Burr.

This is a sampler designed by Corbet that I enjoyed working on. Its graceful form obscures its sampler nature, which is how sewists learn new stitches.

Our generational connection is a tiny trickle in a flow of history. Textile art is one of humanity’s oldest art forms. I love dabbling in it, knowing how far back it goes.

Always learning, even when I think I know

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Cameron Lake, Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada

The air is still, so windless that the water itself hardly moves, reflecting sky and Rocky Mountains. Not so many people know about Cameron Lake, one of many tucked among the stunning peaks of Waterton Lakes National Park in western Alberta. The much better known Glacier National Park just south of the Canadian border gets a lot more press. To say nothing of the press of visitors.

My family visits Waterton often, and my first visit there predates my active memory. But there are pictures of little-kid me alongside Linnet Lake, pre-adolescent me at an uncle’s cabin in the tiny town of Waterton nestled among the lakes and peaks, teenage me on the trail to Bertha Lake. And there are dozens of adult me kayaking on Cameron.

Cameron Lake is famous for its winds. Smart boaters get an early start because the wind checks in late morning and gets rip roaring by late afternoon. Of course it’s almost always blowing away from the boat dock. And this lake only permits human-powered rigs. Muscle up and paddle hard. A float on Cameron is a workout.

But not on an early October visit in 2022. This year, the weather gods offered a boon, a perfect sun-drenched autumn morning and no wind. Also. a deep deep quiet. No sighing of the trees, no chatter from other boaters. And, for a short time, no jets overhead. Then a brief chitter of magpies. Then the world in stillness.

I like to say I know this place well. The lake, this day, said otherwise.

A master craftswoman

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British author Edith Pargeter, who also wrote under the psuedonym Ellis Peters, does a masterly bit of work in the second novel of her fine Cadfael Chronicles. That book, One Corpse Too Many, is set in 1138 England and includes a scene pivotal to the plot of the story, but also meaningful for its glimpse into human tragedy. Following the hanging of more than 90 men who were in rebellion against King Stephen, the families of the fallen come to claim their bodies for burial. It’s quiet and sad:

Some dozen or so had been claimed by parents and wives. Soon there would be piteous little hand-carts pushed up the slope to the gate, and brothers and neighbors lifting limp bodies to carry them away. More of the townspeople were still coming timidly in through the archway, women with shawls drawn close over their heads and faces half-hidden, gaunt old men trudging resignedly to look for their sons.

Among the men hung by the orders of the king, is one murdered and then thrown in among the other dead and it falls to the series’ hero Brother Cadfael to both discern that one corpse is not like the others and then to discover the killer.

I found myself moved by the small detail of a horror of war — the trauma of reclaiming the dead — and impressed that this scene was also pivotal to the development of the plot.

I’ve been enjoying Pargeter’s Cadfael Chronicles, impressed with her diligence in creating a believable historical setting but also with her skill in building a compelling narrative. It’s one thing when a scene evokes deep emotion. It’s a mark of expertise when it serves the plot so well.

Real world projects as metaphor

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I’ve had these director’s chairs for 32 years and the original white canvas finally failed on one of them. Since I’d taken them apart a few times over the years to clean the canvas, I knew replacing the old canvas wouldn’t be too difficult.

In the realm of projects, this was a short one and satisfying not the least because it’s simple and in the summer these chairs get daily use on the patio. A medium-term effort, bug screens for the van windows, took a few months. My long-term sewing project (a hand-stitched quilt begun in January) is two-thirds complete.

The varying length of these projects matters. Conceiving of, working on and finishing a creative task in a few days while other projects perk along at their own plodding pace, offers the reward inherent in finishing. Things that take longer — these middling length things that spin out of control because they involve unexpected problem-solving — provide the satisfaction of the ah-hah! moment when a solution presents itself and the making can continue.

They are like way-points, reminders that the long-term project, the 70,000 word book, just needs its own daily infusion of effort — solutions to thorny plot problems, taming of characters threatening to kick the book to pieces (a line I borrowed from E.M Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”), releasing of the shy folk of the story who will unexpectedly step up to fix that plot issue. But it can only happen in the daily tedium of words going down on the page. Thinking of it in smaller chunks — this scene, that chapter, etc. — is useful.

And that is today’s little pre-writing pep rally.

In love with August

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When you get a dozen or so ripe tomatoes from the garden every day, dehydrating them into crispy sweetness is just too easy (after all the tomato sandwiches and fresh salsas, etc., have been indulged in). A note about food safety: We freeze the dried tomatoes to avoid concerns about not getting every last bit of moisture out of them. They hold up well in the freezer for well over a year. Many state university extension offices also have great recommendations for preserving fresh tomatoes.