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What Can You Get for a Dollar? August 27, 2011

Posted by J. in Genius.

It’s been one of those weeks.   I know what you’re thinking, and you’re not wrong; usually when I say that I mean it’s been one of those shit weeks, but not this one.

I've read this article so many time I actually have parts of it memorized, and I still laugh out loud at this. Every. Single. Time.

It started a few days back when I read an article at Cracked.com.  I go to Cracked because the articles there, while factually questionable, are invariably funny.   I mean, if you haven’t been there and read the article “The Nine Most Badass Bible Verses” please click the photo to the left and do it now.  You will see the kind of delightful fuckery I’ve come to expect from the good people at Cracked.

If you are like me and are still guffawing over “Gaze upon our dick tower and despair,” you’ll see why, when I clicked the link to read “Eight Tiny Things That Stopped Suicides,” I figured it was going to be the usual delicious serving of the ridiculous bordering on the sublime that I’ve come to expect.

I was wrong.

It was eight instances of one little thing standing between a person and death, and in most of those cases, that little thing was something another person did.  By the time I got to number one–the one where the soldier decides not to kill himself because his puppy looked at him with that ‘if you die who’s going to take care of me’ look on his face, I was all weepy and shit.

After all, it’s the little things that matter.  Things you don’t even think that people notice, or because they’re really not much, you feel don’t really matter.  But they do.  Sometimes in very big ways.   I mean, you never really know what little thing is going to make a difference to someone else.  This is not news.  I know you know this.  There’s a reason I’m attracting your attention to an anomalyously touching Cracked article.  Bear with me.

One of the blogs I follow is Ask Sister Mary Martha.  She’s a nun (I think–who knows on the Internet?) and she’s mostly in the business of saint matching.  Who is the patron saint of people who are irritated by the annoying habits of others?  Saint Terese, of course!   I read it because she’s my kind of funny.

You may be starting to sense a theme here.  Poops reads things that amuse her.  Go figure.

Anyway, the other day she posted this bit about these people who think they are superheroes.  As in First Order Nerds who are so into comic books and role-playing that they put on ‘stumes and masks and the whole nine yards.  But yeah, this time there’s more, isn’t there?  Of course there is.

Superheroes” by Sister Mary Martha.  Go read it.  I’ll wait.  It’s short.

This resonated with me, especially.  “Today, we call these types nerds. But from the time of Christ on, we have called them saints. Oddly dressed people with funny ideas about doing what they can to help humanity in need, wherever need exists. People who really don’t care what other people think about their odd mission in life or their funny hat.”

Okay, I get it.  I see what you’re driving at.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  Get out there and get your hands dirty.

*sigh*  But I’m not a hands-dirty kind of person, really.  I’m an amuse-myself-on-the-web kind of person.  It’s not that I don’t want to give toiletries to hobos, but…no, that’s pretty much it.  God help me, I don’t want to.

Anyone who really knows me knows that I’m a snarky bitch by my very nature.  I can’t help it.  I try to be good.  I try to see the good in people and I swear that I try to be patient and generous.  But man, sometimes you just gotta say What The Fuck.  I’ve embraced that particular shortcoming of mine.  I expect I will pay for it eventually.

To that end, love the site Cake Wrecks for the same reason I like Cracked and Sister Mary Martha and Regretsy.  It’s funny.  Smart-funny, which is the only kind of funny I like.  For the uninitiated, Cake Wrecks is dedicated to making fun of professionally decorated cakes that go horribly wrong. So I click on, expecting to laugh at the day’s findings, and I read an article about an African village that got four new wells and how that has impacted their lives.

What the fuck, Cake Wrecks?  First Cracked plucks at my heartstrings for no good reason, then Sister Mary Martha makes me feel bad for making fun of guys in Spiderman masks and tights.  Just what do four new wells have to do with badly decorated cakes anyway?

Well, back over the winter, the wickedly funny writer of Cake Wrecks had a “Give a Dollar” challenge. Every day she put up a different charity on the site and urged the readers to each donate one dollar. You could give every day, or one day, or just to the charities you wanted, whatever. Just one dollar.

The money Cake Wrecks raised from the readers who donated one dollar on one day to the one charity that digs wells in areas that need them made enough money to dig not one but four wells and provide clean, safe water for a village.

The heartwarming story of how one dollar can make a difference is here: “Water Works“.  Go read it.  I’ll wait.  It’s short.

I’m one of those people who is tempted all the time to feel like that because I can’t do a lot, there’s no point in doing anything.  Sometimes it does feel very much like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

I know I shouldn’t feel this way.  I mean, any idiot can figure out that one dollar isn’t much, but if you put it together with a bunch of other dollars it starts to add up.

Or one act of kindness, for that matter.

I like to curate Etsy treasuries, but I have trouble making them on this computer because for some reason it likes to crash my browser.  I’ve tried everything I can think of it make it stop, but to no avail.  Still, sometimes it works okay and when it does, I work like a mad man to put one together.  I made one last week.  Long story short, it’s free advertising for the shops that are featured.

My awesomeballs treasury that spend Friday on the top of the hotness list. Click the pic to see the actual treasury. You can read the comments and you can click on each item and visit the seller's shops. There's some nice shit here.

Anyone with an Etsy account can make one and it’s a great way to show some love for your favorite shops or sellers or items.  You choose 16 different items from 16 different shops on Etsy, and you arrange them in an aesthetically pleasing way and hope they get chosen for the front page.  I, of course, filled it with my team members from April’s Army and made it as pretty as I know how.

My team is made of equal parts snark and whimsicle fuckery, but they’ll give you the shirts off their backs.  It is, in fact, the main reason our team exists at all.  I believe I’ve mentioned that we have a charity shop on Etsy that opens the last week of every month.  Every item in it is donated by an April’s Army member and all the proceeds each month go to help another Etsy seller in need.  So it’s not surprising that they clicked and favorited and commented and tweeted and liked it on the Facebook and it spent the better part of Friday on the front page of the treasury lists.  Lots of people not on our team got exposed to some great sellers they might not have otherwise seen.  Which is nice.  Yay for pimping.  But I got this email yesterday afternoon from one of the featured sellers:

Her jewelry is gorgeous. Seriously. Go look.

“I wanted to say thank you for including one of my listings in your Teal We Meat Again treasury. It totally made my day. I’ve been having a rough week (got news we needed {some very expensive} house repairs from repair people and I’m on half pay this year). I know a lot of folks are in worse situations, but it’s been super stressful for me dealing with all that this week. Anyway, my shop is getting lots of views from your treasury, and it was so nice to have something good happen this week. THANK YOU.”

Well, you’re welcome, quidditydesigns.  You’re very welcome.

All that love for my treasury went down on Friday while the kids were in school and I was at a funeral.  Joe Holiday died on Monday from a swift, sudden, and unexpected illness.  We thought he was going to get better, and he didn’t.  All week I’ve been hearing from people on my Facebook page about the little ways Joe touched their life.  And as per my theme for the week, it usually wasn’t anything big at all.

He owned a restaurant and played the organ and that’s what most people knew him for.  His daughter told the local paper that his motto was “Keep ’em fed and dancing.”  And I thought about it.  Joe’s driving force was making people happy.   It’s what he did.  His whole business was based on that simple premise, and he did it well.

St. Joseph’s in Laconia was standing room only.  People took the day off on a Friday morning to go to Mass to say goodbye to a man who made them happy.  There were good friends there, people who knew him very well.  But there were also hundreds of people were there in a stuffy, sticky church to be counted among those who he had perhaps only known peripherally.  These are people he welcomed warmly, fed, and serenaded from time to time.  That’s it.  Nothing big.  A smile, a handshake, a dubious rendition of “Ring of Fire” and a kick-ass prime rib.  Simple things, really.

I guess what I’m getting at in my own round-about way is that while grand, sweeping gestures might get all the press, the little ones matter too.  Like the week I just had.  Any one of those things I saw this week might have gone by and been forgotten a few days later, like a dollar that you absent-mindedly shove into the pocket of your jeans and send through the wash.  But taken all together like that?  I think I’m meant to be paying attention.

What can you get for a dollar these days?  More than you think, I bet.


Is Handmade Really Better? August 23, 2011

Posted by J. in Genius.

You’ll probably think this is a strange question coming from someone who owns no less than a half-dozen glue guns, over 100 sets of rubber stamps, and has enough yarn in the house to open my own shop, but I’m not sure that something being handmade automatically makes it better, or worth more, than something commercially produced.

I mention this because in the world of handmade things, there seems to be an over-reaching assumption that an item made by one person with his or her two hands has more inherent value than something produced by many hands on an assembly line, or–God forbid–a machine.  The general consensus is  that handmade items should be priced higher, and in some cases way higher, than what is available commercially.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but if I allow that being made by human hands increases the perceived value, I reserve the right to assert that there are different degrees of handmade and many levels of skill and not all of them are worthy of the higher price tag.

I’m thinking about a conversation on the Etsy forums recently.  A seller was upset at negative feedback she received on one of her products.  The buyer bought some of her handmade lotion for his girlfriend and she didn’t like it, and he said so, basically saying her handmade-with-love lotions were sub-par.  And the responses were…odd.

I mean, I’m sure they were just trying to be supportive of the poster.  But the comments were things like “Some people just don’t value handmade.” I came away with the feeling that if you prefer Oil of Olay to a batch of lotion someone whipped up in their kitchen, you’re some sort of a Philistine.

What does thinking a handmade product is crap have to do with not valuing it as a handmade item?  I mean, I’m sitting here possessed of a couple of containers of handmade lip balm that I’m not crazy about.   Compared to my Avon mass-produced lip balm, they suck.  I’m not a Philistine.  I appreciate handmade stuff.  But these products are waxy, kind of gritty, and feel weird on my mouth.  I’m glad I was able to support a fellow crafter and all, but I could have bought twice as much Avon with the same amount of money.  Sorry, but the Avon is better.

I’m not one of them, but I know people who don’t buy handmade because to them it’s synonymous with “home made” and that has connotations of amateurishness about it.  I always think about the Little House books and how a premium was put on things that were “store-boughten”.  Almanzo coveted a friend’s earflap cap and considered his own hand-knit wool cap to be inferior.  Laura loved her handmade rag doll because it was hers, but Nellie’s baby doll with the eyes that opened and closed blew her pioneer mind.

Now, of course, just about everything can be made by machine.  Store-bought brooms are the norm, rag dolls are museum pieces, and what of the perceived value between an ear-flap hat from some Big Store somewhere and a hand-knit wool cap made by a skilled knitter?  It’s still there, but the tables have turned.

That earflap hat was mass-produced on machinery by stitchers whose sole goal is to make as many as they can in as short a time as possible.  Perhaps they get paid by the piece, which is entirely likely, so the more they sew, the more money they make, and the more hats they make, the more go to market.  They’re not a luxury item anymore.  Everyone can afford a hat from the store.

But that knit wool cap is still being made the same way Mrs. Wilder made her hats all those years ago: by hand.  After her long day’s work was done, Mrs. W. would relax in the evenings with her family and what amounted to still more work for her.  She’d have her knitting basket and be making hats, mittens, and stockings to keep her family warm through the New York winters.

Later on in the books, Laura talks about how by the time she was a teenager she was working for a seamstress, even though she loathed sewing.  At one point she worked making buttonholes on men’s shirts.  She hated it so much she learned to do it as fast as possible and was able to work 60 buttonholes in an hour.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t even do a buttonhole a minute on my sewing machine.

That was then, of course, and this is now.  Since then, we’ve had an industrial revolution, and the way we make things changed forever.  The earflap hat from the store is commonplace, and a hand-knit hat is something special.


I find that even on Etsy, there’s still a mindset of “make as many sales as you can”.  To that end, there are sellers who claim to embrace the handmade aesthetic, but are still making what I’ve come to think of as Laura Ingalls Buttonholes.   There is a top-seller on Etsy who knits and crochets hats by the hundreds.   She works 12 hours a day and can make many of them a day.  She uses bulky, inexpensive yarn and simple patterns and sells a ton of them, and makes a ton of money.

But I wonder, even though the hats are made by hand, if that’s the kind of thing I think of when I think of “handmade.”   What makes that hat any more special than a similar hat hand knit by a woman getting paid by the piece in a factory somewhere?  Setting aside the human exploitation of buying sweatshop products, and taking out the consideration that if you are an American, you are supporting an American business, and just looking at the item itself on its own merits, why is that mass-produced hat any better than the one made in China using the same techniques, cheap yarn, and oft-repeated pattern?   What really makes something “handmade”?  To me, and this isn’t snobbiness in any way, the hats themselves that are being churned out by the Etsy seller are not inherently more desirable than the ones being made by a nameless, faceless knitter in a far-away place and resold at a Big Store because there’s no real heart in the final product.   It is, in the end, just a product, a way to make some money, and nothing more.

I guess for me it’s the idea that each handmade item is original in some way because of the inspiration behind it.  Maybe it’s knowing that a crafter made a certain thing on a creative whim, or maybe it’s seeing detailed and intricate work that just can’t be cranked out.  So I confess that I find myself underwhelmed by shops that have “best selling items” in their inventory.  It means they’re making what sells, and for me, that’s when the perceived value goes down.  My “how much would I pay for this” total goes down.

And we’re back around to perceived value.  “How much would you pay for this?”  I think it’s the question everyone asks himself before making a purchase.  How much is this particular item worth to me?  We do our mental calculations on the spot, taking into account all kinds of factors we might not even be conscious of considering.  I realize that my price ceiling varies on where I’m shopping.   I realize that if I see something that’s not unique, my perceived value of the item drops.

And the degree of handmade is important to me, which I’m finding out is a sensitive topic among some crafters.  “Craftier than thou” is a favorite slam among Etsy sellers, but the truth as I see it is that yes, there are some people who are craftier than thou.  Some crafts can be done by anyone with opposible thumbs, where others can only be accomplished by an artisan with years of experience.  I value skill.  I will pay more for it.   Maybe it’s why I find myself aggravated by crafters who have figured out how to mass-produce their items with minimal skill, time, and effort and charge premium prices because they can call it “handmade.”   But hey, caveat emptor, and all that.

I think that there’s a limit to how much value is added by being handmade.  I think that all handmade is not created equal.  I think there are things that I’d rather buy commercially-produced from a big company than from an individual artisan.  I think that because something can be both handmade and mass-produced at the same time, the one rather cancels out some of the value of the other.

Of course, that idea is not popular in the handmade community, so let’s just keep it between ourselves, okay?

Latin Lover August 1, 2011

Posted by J. in FYI, Genius.

Only in my mind. And sometimes the car.

I love languages.  I wish to God I had a precociousness when it comes to speaking and understanding foreign tongues.  I can learn languages after a fashion, and I’m lucky that it sticks with me long after I’ve learned it.  In a way, it’s sort of how I am with music.   I’m sure if I had the opportunity to practice communicating in another language on a regular basis I’d probably be pretty passable at it.  Not proficient.   I mean, I’m better at reading music and staying on key better than I’ve ever been in my life, and I’ve lost my self-consciousness about singing in public, but I’m not Beverly Sills and won’t ever be.

Such is the case with languages.  I took three years of French in high school and two advanced classes in college, but even at my most immersed, I was only passable, and I never really felt confident speaking it, though I can still understand it well enough to follow directions or laugh at an overheard dirty joke.

I’m a word nerd.  I love the English language.  It is a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary.  I don’t know who said that, but I love it. It’s big and bold and it doesn’t give a shit.  You have a better word in your language for something?  We’ll take it.  We’ll change the way you say it.  And spell it.  We’ll combine two other words if there’s not one good one handy.  Hell, we’ll make one up on the spot.  We drop words we get sick of.  We learn the rules of grammar and then break the shit out of them, because we can.

As a native speaker of English, the process of translation is fascinating to me.  We had to write reports to present to the class in Sr. Eugenia’s French class, and because I’ve never been fluent at thinking in French, I would write the report in English and laboriously translate it into French.  I learned about the importance of idiomatic expression in translation.  For instance, if I’m talking to a native English speaker and I refer to the straw that broke the camel’s back, my friend would know I wasn’t talking about broken camels.  But if I wanted to relate the same idea of being past the limits of tolerance to a French friend, I’d refer to la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase, or literally, the drop of water that overflowed the vase.  Same idea, different expression.

Translation comes up in my life again these days because the latest translation of the Roman Missal from Latin to English is finally done and we’ll start using it at Mass in November.   There aren’t a lot of changes that the great unwashed masses of us in the pews will have to deal with, but the clergy is going to have their hands full.

So today, I got to feed my inner word nerd and my latent theological tendencies with a double-whammy wet dream of a introduction to the new translation.

In a nutshell, for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Mass was said predominantly in Latin with a bit of Greek thrown in here and there.   Latin is the official language of the Church because Jesus put Peter in charge and Peter set up camp in Rome.  But ever since the Council of Trent, which took place after the Protestants stomped out angrily yelling, “Hey, Luther, wait for us!” the Church has allowed for certain groups of people in certain places to say certain parts of the Mass in the vernacular language of the area.  It became more widespread into the 20th century, and after Vatican II in the 60’s, the vernacular was in and Latin was out.

All along we’ve been using the basic translation of the Latin texts prepared by the Church back in the early 60’s.  (This is where my example about idiomatic expressions come in handy.  I hope you were paying attention.)  Latin doesn’t translate well into English.  It’s no problem with French, or Italian, or Spanish because those are Romance languages and their sentence structure and basic grammar rules are all very similar to Latin.  In short, shit that makes sense in Latin also makes sense in Latin-based languages.  It stands to reason.

Ah, but then there’s English.  She’s a dirty whore of a language.  If you translate the Latin precisely and literally, you wind up talking about overflowing vases when your English audience understands straw and broken camels.  So the guys translating the whole thing into English the last time used a time-honored method of translating that captured the basic ideas expressed in Latin and rearranged things so that they flowed better when spoken in the English tongue.   The Mass went from being in Latin and unintelligible to most, to being in English, easily understood, and all things considered, the prayers and responses have been rolling trippingly off our English-speaking tongues for more than 40 years.

Well, with this new translation, the scholars and theologians and linguists working on the new text have been charged with restoring the original Latin that was lost.  I think it was Pope John Paul II that put forth the notion that a lot of shit was getting lost in the English translation and he thought a new one was in order.  And this time, instead of trying to make it sound pretty, he thought the dudes with the Latin-to-English dictionaries should make accuracy a higher priority this time, never mind how ridiculous it sounds and I don’t care what the other Pope told you to do last time.  This is now, fellas.  Get cracking.

Now, you'll be able to pick out a real Catholic by saying "May the Force be with you." If he replies, "And with your spirit," you've a got a Papist on your hands. Tag and release only, please.

Honestly, I had no idea why it was important.  It seemed to me that we should be making the language more relevant and recent, not taking it backwards with awkward and cumbersome expressions that don’t translate to English.   But that’s because before today I didn’t really grasp what had been lost in translation, as it were.

That, of course, is my own fault for not learning Latin in the first place.

The long and short of it, as Fr. explained it to us, is that much of the patrimony of the Mass will be restored.  There are phrases used during the Mass that are part of history, and to change the words changes the meaning.  He used the example “We, the people.”  To an American, those three words mean something profound.  “Us guys” means the same thing, essentially, but in changing the words, the profundity of the words is lost.  It means the same thing, but it doesn’t say the same thing at all.

One example of that is during the Eucharistic Prayer, there is an exchange between the priest and the congregation.  He says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” and we respond, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”  Nothing wrong with that.  We said we agree with you, Padre.

Now take the more literal translation.  When Fr. says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” we will respond instead with “It is right and just.”

Huh.  What’s the problem?  Doesn’t that say the same thing?  We’re still agreeing.  Letting all in earshot know that we heartily concur that it is a good thing to give thanks to God.  So why change it?  Patrimony, that’s why.  Where does the phrase “It is right and just” come from?  From the Roman senate.  Back in the day, when the Roman senators were done hashing out their ideas and they had it in a final form to be presented to the people, they expressed their support for the new law by saying “It is right and just.”  Early Church fathers adopted that phrase, well-known to the citizenry at the time, and incorporated it into the Mass.  It’s a small piece of verbal history right there that forty years of translation forgot.

I'm not convinced this isn't a more accurate representation. Well, if heaven is anything like they promised, it is.

The Nicene Creed is changing too.  That was written in Greek, originally, and that particular ecumenical council was where they really nailed down Christ’s divinity once and for all.  Jesus IS God.  God is Jesus.  The Holy Trinity is not, as Fr. reminded us today, an old guy, a hippy, and a damn bird.  They’re all God, and the Greek Creed says it plainly, if you read Greek.  Translate it to English and the strongest wording we have of the belief of  God becoming human, the incarnation of God, is watered down.

I didn’t know.  Who the hell did?  The new translation is closer to the Greek.  The words are awkward, and consubstantial is going to be a new fifty-cent word for a lot of people, but the theology is more clearly expressed, with no ambiguity.

So on the one hand it fills me with joy to see the ancient origins and foundations of our liturgy more clearly expressed, and as much as I love getting elbow deep into studying this stuff, when it comes to my daily routines, I still don’t like change.  Mass is going to feel different and weird, like when you go to Canada and it feels like home, but with just enough things being different that you know you’re in a strange place.

So if you were wondering what I did today, I learned lots of cool new Church stuff.  I finished a hat and a pair of booties, got three new hats ready to list this week, and finished most of my two Sunday crosswords.

Now it is 12:30 in the morning and I was going to go to bed early tonight.  Sleep, dream, and be merry, for tomorrow I bake.