May 052020
Photo courtesy of Agnieszka Boeske on Unsplash

Working from home . . . again

Before I returned to the traditional workforce, working from home was as natural to me as breathing. I was a stay-at-home parent who stayed home long after our son became a young adult. Why? I was pursuing part-time entrepreneurial and nearly full-time volunteer opportunities. But almost five years ago, when my husband and I faced financial challenges, I returned to the traditional workforce, working full-time in an office. I felt I had made the transition comfortably in every way. But change is inevitable. Fast forward to today, the world of COVID-19 . . . and you’ll find many office employees working from home (WFH), practicing social distancing in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

This time WFH feels different. I still sit at a desk, but my interactions with human beings are limited to email, phone calls and video conferences. With the click of a button, I switch from Skype for Business to Microsoft Teams or Zoom, sharing screens with data or live images. My desk is a four-foot utility table in my living room, instead of three other desks in three other rooms, already piled high with creative projects. My office-away-from-the-office faces the street, connecting me at least peripherally with the outside world. On my lunch hour, I might walk to the end of the cul-de-sac and cross the street to the path that winds behind the houses, parallel to the creek and woodsy growth on either side. If I pass someone, we each smile in greeting, but stay at least six feet away from each other. There are so few cars on the road that you have time to describe them by color and size. If I paid any attention to models, I suppose I could share those details, too. Periodically messages scroll across my cell phone screen, telling me how many more people have contracted the virus, how many have died, how many packages of meat you’re allowed to buy at the grocery store, and which stores require you to wear masks to shop there.


Instead of marking time by hours and minutes, I mark time by stages of mask-making: laundering, drying and pressing fabric; cutting fabric into rectangles; sewing top-and-bottom seams; turning rectangles inside out and pressing them; pinning pleats and sewing them into place; cutting fabric strip ties; folding, pressing and attaching ties to pleated rectangles; and then the process concludes with laundering, pressing and delivery. Instead of writing, crocheting and producing handmade journals, I sew hundreds of masks. During the daytime, I hear the clicking of keys on my keyboard. During the evening, I hear the staccato up-and-down tut-tut-tut of my sewing machine’s needle bar as it shoves a needle in and out of the fabric beneath the presser foot. 

There is light

Despite the death-inspired darkness that prevails during this pandemic, there is light, too. New York’s governor is touched by thousands of masks that complete strangers send him to show support for frontline workers. A national news broadcast features a story about a father and son who build plastic models–and memories–together. Families and friends share meals, card games and conversation via Zoom. Co-workers gather in Power Circles and share uplifting quotations to support each other. Distance learning opportunities triumph over closed school buildings. People donate their stimulus checks to feed the hungry.

I don’t know when life will return to normal, or even how normal will be defined. But one thing I know is that when normal returns, many of us will have learned a few lessons. I hope we’ll be wiser about what’s important, more appreciative of each other, and more focused on solving problems creatively. What are your hopes when normal returns?

© 2020 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Mar 052017

This morning I ran across an Etsy watercolor print, My stash, explained, by Julia Mills of JMillsPaints, that chimed a true note with me—so true, in fact, that I purchased it.Do you crochet or knit? If you do, you know that yarn is a Space Gobbler. When guests visit, they can sit on the couch only if you sweep away your tools of the trade and balls of yarn into a bag or basket.

When it’s time to take your son’s girlfriend on a tour of the house for the first time, and he cheerfully announces that you should show her your yarn stash, you hope she is not crushed by the stacks of tubs.

Yarn can be expensive, so you never throw out the leftovers. Instead, balls of yarn reside in baskets, bags and maybe even a couple of plastic tubs.

On the positive side, you have the joy of knowing that you keep the Ziploc® company in business.

On the negative side, your house will never be on a Tour of Homes. On second thought, there is no negative side because there’s no pressure to keep your house tidy all the time. It’s simply not in the cards.

The admission that you crochet or knit is rather freeing because you no longer need to make excuses when . . .

  • you make 85 scarves from a combination of eyelash yarn and acrylic yarn long after the fad has passed, and then end up donating them because they won’t sell;
  • you say yes to your younger brother when he asks if you can use 52 pounds of doily-weight crochet cotton that he discovered at a yard sale;

  • you donate half a dozen grocery bags of baby fingering yarn to the senior community center because you don’t crochet baby blankets anymore;
  • you shop yarn sales at Jo-Ann Fabrics and Michael’s, even if you have 21 tubs of skeins waiting for you in your basement;
  • you teach your husband how to crochet so that he joins you, not teases you, when you go yarn shopping;
  • your yarn habit leads to a button stash that is the envy of your sewing friends;
  • you’ll always have a gift ready because it’s just a ball of yarn away; and
  • you have a growing circle of friends because you’ll teach anyone who listens how to crochet or knit.

Enter my home at your own risk. You never know what you’ll take away.

© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jan 082017

We visited my mother-in-law over New Year’s weekend in Rib Mountain, Wisconsin, where we celebrated her 84th birthday. If you’re unfamiliar with Rib Mountain, it is known for its ski slopes on Granite Peak (originally called Rib Mountain) and its ice fishing on Lake Wausau. We knew we had arrived in northern Wisconsin when we stopped for gas in Cadott, halfway between Rib Mountain and the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Hanging from pegboards in the shop aisles were retractable ice picks for pulling yourself out of holes in the ice (should you fall in), as well as ice tip-ups (flags) that pop up to tell you when you’ve hooked a fish.

Located near Wausau about an hour away from the home of the Green Bay Packers in north central Wisconsin, Rib Mountain is a beautiful area studded with forests and lakes, hiking paths, and snowmobile trails. Winters are long and cold, so you learn to dress for the weather. When we arrived at John’s mother’s house, the wind chill factor was -17 degrees. Needless to say, the weather is always a topic of conversation in northern Wisconsin. Before we returned to Iowa, we pulled out our iPhones to check the weather app. Roads close during blizzards when there are whiteout conditions, or when the roads are completely ice-covered. Checking the forecast won’t change the weather, but it prevents you from getting stuck.

This photo of my mother-in-law and me was shot half a dozen years ago in December, up on Granite Peak in the town of Rib Mountain, Wisconsin.

Snow showers were forecast in the vicinity of Minneapolis, the edges of which we normally cross on our way home. To avoid the prospect of icy roads, we headed straight south on Interstate 39 from north central Wisconsin. This added about an hour to our usual seven-hour drive home, but we consoled ourselves with the thought that the road less traveled often yields unexpected surprises. That’s when we saw it—the unexpected, that is—in Windsor, Wisconsin as we stopped for gas. Across the street was a tiny building topped by a jaunty mouse.

That washed-out sky told us that either rain or show showers were behind us, further north.

Who could resist The Mousehouse Cheesehaus, especially in Wisconsin, the Land of Cheese, where Green Bay Packer fans are fondly referred to as Cheeseheads? Besides, it was dinnertime and we knew we’d find something tasty inside. While our orders for ham and chicken salad sandwiches were being filled, John and I browsed the aisles. In the cold case we discovered a Swiss & Almond Cheddar Cheese Spread. A second stop at the sausage tasting counter netted us a 1-1/2 pound log of Old Wisconsin Beef Summer Sausage. As we rounded the corner, a glass case with 23 different homemade fudges caught our eye. Buying four squares of fudge and getting two free ones was a no-brainer. It was tough to narrow down our choices to Chocolate Walnut, Rocky Road and Dark Chocolate Caramel Toffee, but we got the job done. If you’re diabetic, they even offer two types of fudge made with sucrose-free chocolate.

After we returned home, we visited the Web site for The Mousehouse, and discovered that it has garnered various awards. The Swiss & Almond Cheddar Cheese spread, for example, which uses a white cheddar base, earned 1st place in the 2011 U.S. Cheese Championship. The summer sausage logs are hand-tied and made in what is called the “old style Wisconsin tradition.” I’m not sure what that means, but I can tell you it tastes much better than my grocery store’s summer sausage!

The cheeses that you buy at The Mousehouse are purchased from 19 different cheese-making factories in Wisconsin, each with its own specialty. What makes these cheeses so special is that many of them are crafted by Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, a distinction earned by only 51 cheesemaker artisans in the state. The title is earned by graduating from a three-year apprenticeship program administered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the Center for Dairy Research, whose standards are more rigorous than any other cheesemaker certification program in the nation. Veteran cheesemakers can enter the program only if they have a minimum of 10 years of cheese-making experience. Five of those years must be in the specialization of up to two different cheeses, which is the maximum number of cheeses in which an artisan can be certified each time he or she enters the three-year program. During that time, candidates take required courses in cheese technology, artisanship, grading and quality assurance. They select from a set of elective courses that include applied dairy chemistry, water and waste management, and whey and whey utilization. Finally, apprentice cheesemaker artisans submit samples of cheese for taste and consistency evaluations, and pass a final written exam.

The tradition of cheese-making in Wisconsin goes back more than 160 years, when Europeans first arrived in America and sought the best environmental conditions for crafting cheese. They found it in Wisconsin’s pastures and limestone-filtered waters, perfect for the cows whose milk begins the process of cheese-making. You can learn about The Art of Cheesemaking in the fascinating 12-minute-or-so video shown below, produced by the University of Wisconsin Extension Office.

Making unplanned stops when you travel definitely produces surprising discoveries. You can bet we’ll visit The Mousehouse in the future, either in person or online.

© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.