Thursday, August 26, 2021

Afghanistan memorial

I have never been one for working on just one project at a time.  Some of my art friends find focus by finishing up one thing before starting on the next, but that's way too controlled for me.  I like to have several things going at once, picking up whichever one is closest to hand without walking up or down the stairs, whichever one is most conducive to stitching while talking with family and friends, whichever one fits my mood of the moment.

I've posted several times about my coronavirus memorials, marking each death in Kentucky with a french knot onto a roll of vintage bandage gauze.  I finished the 2020 memorial a few weeks ago (2,662 dead) and almost immediately started on a 2021 version (7,575 dead and counting as of this week).  I've finished January (1,083 dead) and am almost done with February (892 dead).  But the small scale of the knots got to be tiring, and I yearned for something bigger, faster, and involving the sewing machine.

So for the last few days I have been working on a new project, a memorial for the U.S. military dead in Afghanistan.  Longtime readers and pals will know that I did a similar piece in 2008 counting the U.S. military dead in Iraq, which traveled extensively with Quilt National '09 and is now owned by the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln NE.  It had a flag for each death, referencing the flag-covered coffins that came home from that war.

Memorial Day, 2008, 86 x 100"

This one will be similar in format -- a single little quilted rectangle for each of the dead, held together with stitching in space -- but different in materials and concept.  

Memorial Day, detail
The brother of one of my dear friends and art pals was a career Navy man, serving as Chief Surgeon for the group of ships supporting the Theodore Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq war, and then on the ground in Afghanistan at the hospital in Kandahar.  After he retired a few years ago, he decided to divest his old uniforms, and through his sister, they came to me for purposes of art.

At first I wasn't sure what to do with them but with the impending end of our Afghanistan adventure I thought that war needed a memorial as well for the troops who served and died.  Cutting up the camouflage uniforms will give me the fronts of the small quiltlets for this memorial; the backs will be made from a large variety of fabrics, to remind us that every one of those uniformed dead was an individual, a person with hopes and dreams too soon cut off.

The death count is suprisingly inexact, (perhaps because so many of our military and support activities were outsourced to contractors and it's hard to tell who's military and who isn't)  and there will probably be a few more in the coming days and weeks as we attempt to make a final exit, but it's somewhere in the vicinity of 2,400.  A lot fewer than in Iraq (4,431 dead since 2003; there were 4.083 when I made my Memorial Day quilt in 2008).

This compulsion to count the dead probably sounds morbid and obsessive.  I don't think I'm particularly preoccupied with death, certainly not in my daily life, where I have been blessed not to be closely touched by the coronavirus or the war, and where I've lost only one close family member in the last decade.  But the historian and journalist in me always wants to find out the facts and write them down, and the soldier's daughter in me always wants to remember how war is not glory, it's hell. 

I'll write more about this project soon, because working with the uniforms has proven to be quite a surprise.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Plague diary -- reading

Reading has always been one of the most important parts of my life; I can't recall any time since age 3 that I haven't had a book nearby, if not actually in hand.  In fact, "bring a book" has always been my personal motto.  Although my home is filled with books, many of them unread, I really love library books.  And in the last year or so, I realize that I REALLY love library e-books.

When the public libraries were closed and staff furloughed for several months during lockdown, I had a momentary panic until I saw that the e-book collection was still going strong, with new titles added every day.  I read a lot during lockdown, almost all of it digitally.

When e-books first started to catch on, in 2006 or 2007, I often announced that I would not like them.  I said that I loved the feel of the physical codex, the turning of pages, the recollection of where on the page I had seen a name or reference.  Reading on a device seemed far less serious and pleasant than reading "real books."  But that changed when my sons gave me a Kindle for Mother's Day in 2014, just as we were heading off for a vacation to Britain and Norway.  I was hooked immediately, especially at the thought of not having to shlep a dozen books along on a three-week trip.

Since then my e-book habit has kept me in reading matter around the globe.  Because we refuse to pay the exorbitant internet fees on cruise ships, a shore visit would begin with finding the nearest wi-fi so I could get some new books.  Sometimes that was at a hot spot on the dock (where you would always find a bunch of crew members calling home), sometimes a nearby bar, where I could simultaneously download content and drink beer.

But at sea or ashore, I realize how much I like reading on a device.  It's easier to use at the table, where I do a lot of reading -- prop it in a little easel and it's perfectly on display.  You can read in bed after the lights go out.  

Best of all, you can search in the book to find out who in hell Geoffrey is, when he appears in the narrative after 200 pages of absence, or what exactly Geoffrey said when he was first interviewed by the police.  You don't need a bookmark, or worry that your bookmark will fall out.  You can mark any passages you like, even make rude marginal notes, without a pencil!

Since I started daily calligraphy two and a half years ago, I have written a passage from every book I read.  It's the first time in my life I've kept track of what I read, and I think just keeping the list has added to the reading experience.  If you want a recommendation, I have really enjoyed "The Premonition" by Michael Lewis, and "Nightmare Scenario" by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Palette -- both about the pandemic and how the government dropped the ball on managing the outbreak.  Depressing reading, yes, but informative and thought-provoking.  Or if current events just have you spitting expletives, try "Nine Nasty Words" by John McWhorter, a linguist's take on the naughtiest taboo words in the English language.  Not for those who clutch their pearls upon hearing "darn it."

What have you been reading lately?  Anything about your reading choices or reading habits different now than it was before pandemic?  

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Plague diary -- just when you thought it was safe...

I can tell you exactly when I decided that it was time to get worried again.  It was on the morning of July 23, during my sister's visit.  We went to two different art supply stores that day, and in each one the employees were masked.  We had not brought our masks along, but we agreed that if we had, we would be wearing them.  It just seemed that caution was in the air again, at a suddenly higher level than we had detected for months.

We didn't go cold turkey; we went out to eat that night (but were happy to be seated in a corner of an uncrowded room, far from other people) but we skipped the opening reception for the show by my fiber and textile art group the next day (and were happy we did, after we heard that the small room had been packed with maskless visitors).  And this week I ate inside (but was happy that we were seated right by the door, with nobody at the adjoining table).  I've been wearing a mask in the few stores I've been in, and today noted that at least half of the customers in the three stores I visited were also masked.   

We're feeling particularly paranoid because the four-year-old started school this week.  She was supposed to go last year, but her parents held her out and now she is totally excited about this new adventure.  The kids are all wearing masks, but of course they're unvaccinated, in the midst of the delta variant firestorm.  Apparently it will be months before the FDA gets around to perusing the data, and waiting for additional data, and maybe even requiring some more data before the little ones can get protection.  

daily calligraphy from Monday

Early in the pandemic we took comfort in the fact that children seemed to be less likely to contract covid, and far less likely to suffer severe illness or die.  Now that has changed.  As of last week, 131 children under 5 have died, and 292 between 5 and 18 have died.  Yes, I want the FDA to be careful before releasing drugs whose safety and efficacy are in doubt.  But there's also a risk to doing nothing.  And I tend to think we're now in a situation where the risk of perhaps dropping the heavy fire extinguisher on your foot is far less than the risk of letting the building burn down.

I also have to wonder why, if it's OK for parents to flout medical advice and keep their kids unvaccinated (whether for covid or measles or any other potentially fatal disease) it isn't OK for parents to flout medical advice and give their four-year-olds a dose of covid vaccine.  Are parents the ultimate authority over their children's medical treatment or aren't they?  If yes, then give the shots to any child who can walk or be carried into the place with Mom or Dad.  If no, then require every child between 12 and 18 to be vaccinated.  But when we want to have it both ways, we lose and covid wins.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Pandemic knots

Earlier this year I did a project of memorializing each of the 2,662 people in Kentucky who died of coronavirus in 2020. I stitched 2,662 french knots onto a roll of vintage gauze bandage, distributed by month, starting in March with only 15 deaths and ending with 754 in December.

I finished the project about two weeks ago and had already decided that I needed to continue into this year, since the virus has done the same.  

I learned some things from my 2020 memorial.  First is to be more careful in counting!  In the first project I tended to get carried away, stitching while watching TV without really noticing how many knots I had made.  I ended up having to cut out dozens of knots where I overshot the mark -- and that hurt.  Fortunately the gauze was forgiving, and I was able to erase the needle holes with a scratch of fingernail or needle end.  But it was stupid to do it that way.

This time I'm going to plan ahead a bit and gauge the relative density of the knots in a given month by comparing to the 2020 piece.  For instance, January 2021, which I'm working on right now, has to have a third more knots in the same space as December 2020.

This is a meditative project.  When I posted a shot of the new stitching on instagram earlier this week, a friend left a comment: "I imagine you have a very profound realization of exactly how many deaths the "number" represents.  So easy to see a number and move on."

I replied: "You're right -- that's exactly what I think about when making these marker pieces.  I guess this is the sixth death marker that I have embarked upon (one is half done) and this genre, if you want to call it that, has great meaning for me."

Meanwhile, if more people would just get the damn vaccine, there would be a lot fewer knots in my future.