A Christmas (Tree) Miracle

About 20 years ago, I walked into Ace Hardware and impulse-purchased a fiber-optic Christmas tree. It was skinny, about 6 feet tall, and designed to be put out in the yard.

I loved it. The way the colors swirled around it, changing in sections, was mesmerizing. If you’ve ever been to Spencer’s Gifts, back in the day, you’ll know what I mean. Eric refers to it as the “dope light” Christmas tree.

For the past twenty years, this little tree has been our tree. Bringing it out of the cardboard box is the beginning of Christmas and every Christmas Eve we leave it on all night long, waiting for the new day.

All of Kai’s childhood, this tree has defined Christmas. It’s an essential part of our holiday tradition.

This year, however, the lights stopped moving. When Eric and I investigated, we found that the motor turning the plastic disk to change the color had burned out, and worse—had melted the plastic stand. The transformer powering the tree was crazy hot—we probably just avoided a house fire.

The tree had gone dark. (Cat included for scale.)

Getting rid of the tree was NOT an option. I had to fix it.

I’m going to tell you what I did, as an adventure story, not a tutorial. There’s a lot I did over the past two nights that was guesswork, and… probably not the best way to do it. (If you don’t want the gory details of the project, feel free to scroll down to the end.)

I started by hopping on Adafruit.com and perusing their Neopixel options. 

Neopixels are individually addressable programable LEDs. Which means that if you have a Neopixel strip with 30 LEDs, you can write a program to set of the color and brightness of each LED separately. You have complete control!

I read a lot of product pages, and took some measurements of the fiber-optic base of the tree (where all the fibers came together.)

Adafruit has a whole Neopixel guide, and there are lots of sample projects. However, none of those were “fix your twenty-year-old Christmas tree” and, a lot of the project write ups had assumed knowledge that I, um, didn’t have.

(Knitters, it was the equivalent of the single-line instruction “turn the heel” in old sock patterns.)

So I took my best guess and bought some stuff:

  • Arduino Uno (the microcontroller)
  • Neopixel Shield for the Uno (RGBW), 5×8 LED grid (comes with headers)
  • 5V, 10A power supply (possibly overkill, but I wanted full brightness)
  • 2-pin JST SM plug (a power cord that you can connect & disconnect)
  • Female DC Power adapter (for the 5V power supply to plug into)
  • 1000 micro-farad capacitor (to protect the neopixels from all this power)
  • 470 ohm resistor (that I did not use)

On hand I already had:

  • Soldering iron (and supplies)
  • Wire stripper
  • USB 2.0 cable Type A/B (for connecting the Arduino)
  • Arduino IDE installed on my computer

Here’s my workbench

The white box on the left held the supplies for this project. The box on the right is for a different project.

My first challenge was figuring out how to connect the Neopixel shield to the Arduino Uno. The shield came with two types of headers, stacking and plain. 

I wasn’t sure which to use, and was even more confused about what connecting the headers would do. Neopixels really only care about three connections: 5V power, ground, and pin 6 on the controller. The shield headers would connect the Neopixel shield to 32 pins on the Arduino. What the heck would that even do?

I toyed around with putting all the headers on, none of the headers, some of the headers. There was no place I found that said “dear reader, here’s all about headers when attaching a shield to an Arduino”. Finally, after looking at pictures of other people’s projects and zooming in, it looked like everyone was using all the headers, making a solid connection.

So I did, too. I chose the plain headers because they stuck up less than the stacking headers and it was important for this project for the LEDs to be as close as possible to the end of the tree where the fiber optic fibers came out.

I was very happy to have my “helping hands” doo-dad when soldering on the headers. I had one hand hold the header and the other the shield.

NEVER solder on headers this way. I learned the hard way that this is a recipe for soldering on your headers crooked, and then they won’t fit into the Arduino Uno (unless you get… creative with some needle-nose pliers.)

Next time, I’ll try setting the headers on or into a cardboard box and lay the shield on top, letting gravity hold it in place while I solder. I think that might help the headers come out straight. (If you have any killer header-soldering tips, please tell me them.)

Helping hands not so helpful, actually. 🙁

In addition to the plain headers, Adafruit included a terminal block for the Neopixel shield, so you can power the Neopixels with a bigger power supply than is provided by the Arduino. Because I wanted bright lights for my tree. I installed it. It’s the bit with the two tiny screws on the bottom of the board.

There was a bad moment where I couldn’t find a screwdriver that would fit those screws. Fortunately a glasses repair kit had the right size.

The cord coming off of the terminal block is half of the 2-pin JST SM plug. This isn’t essential to the project, but does make it easy to connect and disconnect the shield from the power cord. I was very happy I had added it later, as it gave me more slack when I went to install things in the tree.

This is an aside. These are the best wire strippers ever. I highly recommend them. I bought them for working on el-wire and have never regretted it. They’re so easy and accurate!

The other thing I dithered over was the instruction “cut the center of the solder jumper to the right of the terminal block”. This was something Adafruit said to do in order to power the Neopixel shield separately from the Arduino.

Um, what the heck does the solder jumper look like?  

This was another place where everyone seemed to already know this so well, that they didn’t feel the need to explain. Looking closely at the shield I had two candidates of what to cut:

I mean, I was guessing they meant cut the line between the two gold pads—maybe? Of course there was the black thing directly beside the terminal. Maybe they meant that instead?

It was tense. I didn’t buy duplicates of anything. Cutting the wrong one would mean no lights on Christmas Eve. 🙁

I Googled, I search on YouTube. I squinted at tiny project pictures that I’d zoomed up to maximum. And it seemed like the gold pads were the thing.

So I took an Exacto knife out and cut the link.

And then, how do I connect pin 6 to the Arduino? I just guessed that maybe connecting the shield headers to the Arduino would do that automatically? Because that’s how I’d design it.

(There was a lot of guessing going on at that point.)

This is what the shield looked like after I’d soldered on the headers, cut the jumper, and attached the power adapter to the terminal.

And then, the moment of truth. I finagled the wonky headers and put the shield onto the Arduino, connected the shield’s terminal to the 5V power supply, attached the USB cable to the computer, opened the Arduino IDE, and uploaded some code. 

Many hours in, many guesses… the moment of truth…

This was a very happy moment for me. All the LEDs lit! Nothing blew up!

The next bit was to write the software that would animate the tree lights. I was trying to replicate this: a light that shines through an spinning plastic disk that has been painted different translucent colors.

What I soon realized was that animating analog spinning on a 5×8 grid was a non-trivial coding problem. This was around 3:30am.

So I started plinking at it.

I mapped out the grid into blocks to simplify things, and recreate the size of blocks the original tree had. (I crossed off the pixels on the sides because they didn’t fit the round base of the tree.)

I could change the color of the blocks, but that would have created a strobe effect on the tree, and I wanted the smooth color transitions of the original.

After some pondering, I realized that what I needed was a fade transition from one color to another. I couldn’t find a fade library for Neopixels, so I wrote some fade functions on the fly. (Not bad for someone who hasn’t coded C in at least five years.) 

Here’s the full-tree fade code.

That got me the whole tree fading from one color to another. Which was still not the effect I wanted. I wanted my color blocks, darn it!

Then I realized that by combining the code I’d designed while playing with the blocks, with the fade code, I’d get exactly what I wanted!

Here’s the block-fade code. 

[It’s not the most elegant code ever. It was 4:30am on Christmas Eve and I had a deadline! :)]

Here’s a wee video of the color fading in and out. I’ve put several pieces of paper over the Neopixel shield because it was so bright!

At this point I discovered that NOT cutting the jumper gold pads would have enabled the Arduino to run off the same huge power block as the Neopixel shield. In other words, I could have one power cord running to my tree instead of two. Oy! I wanted one cord. So I squeezed my soldering iron into the very tiny space and (with shaking hands) managed to reconnect the pads without soldering them to anything else. Whew!

Note: Actually, I’m not sure this was a mistake to do it this way. I read somewhere in my research that connecting the Arduino to USB power while it was also connected to the 5V power supply could blow things up. So maybe I did it right, waiting until the final code was uploaded to reconnect it?

I removed the old electronics from the Christmas tree stand.

3D printed a holder for the Arduino Uno (Thingaverse thing by sceadu_design is here). I didn’t have the size screws I needed to attach it, though it did give me something to stick the duct tape to. (You knew duct tape would come into this at some point… didn’t you?)

I used tape* to stick the LED assembly into the tree base. *(actually gaffer tape from my friend Ruth, so I could remove it later if I wanted to update the code.)

And put the thing all together…

A glowing tree with animation! In time for Christmas Eve night. I made so many guesses on this that it was, indeed, a miracle that it all worked.

And even better, the LEDs draw much less power and are quieter than the old motor-driven electronics. The tree has been upgraded! Here’s hoping it lasts another twenty years. 🙂

Removing the “Adult Content” label from my Patreon page

I’m currently working with Patreon support to get the “Adult Content” warning label removed from the page where I share my comics.

This is important for two reasons:

Accounts labeled “Adult Content” do not show up in searches on Patreon. If you go and search on “cute comics about sheep, and vampires” or even “Syne Mitchell” my page won’t show up. Which means that people who might enjoy my comics, can’t find them.

Even if they run into a friend or fellow guild member who says, “Oh, you like comics about sheep, and vampires? Syne Mitchell is working on those, here’s a direct link to her Patreon page. They will see: “Adult Content: You must be 18 years or older to view this content.” Which probably gives people wrong ideas about what goes on in my comics about sheep…

… I’ve noticed that several people to I’ve sent my Patreon page address to and said, “I’m so excited about making comics! Here, go take a look!” Have never mentioned my comics again, if they spoke to me again at all…

Panel from a sheep comic that shows a shepherdess desperately trying to dress a sheep in a sweater, and swearing, in unreadable symbols. The image is 90% hidden behind a "censored panel". Text of the comic reads: "You must undress the sheep, roll up the cuff, and then... re-dress the sheep."

Hmm, OK, maybe it’s not just the content warning that gives them the wrong idea…

So let’s go back a step and talk about how my content got flagged in the first place. 

When I was setting up my Patreon account, one of the items I needed to fill out was whether my material contained Adult content, which includes any amount of nudity.

Dialog box from the Patreon web site asking whether to classify your Patreon account as 18+ in terms of age appropriateness.

My goal with the Patreon site was to share both my comics and artistic journey. I was doing the audacious thing of learning to draw at age 49, and thought it would be fun for folks to watch my skills progress and read about the steps I took to get there.

A big part of my early learning was figure-drawing classes. I want to make comics about people, and want those people to look properly proportioned. The thing about community-college figure-drawing classes is that the models are nude, and for good reason; it’s hard to see bone placement and muscle anatomy if the model is wearing clothes.

I dithered ever whether to toggle the “18+ content” selector. Figure-drawing class exercises are not provocative; it’s a person in a comfortable pose they can hold for 20-40 minutes, who just happens to be nude, similar to what you see in public museums, though (in my case) more inexpertly drawn.

Being a literalist, I could not avoid the fact that the models were naked, and there was no “yes, they’re nude, but it’s not a sexual nudity” option.

So I eventually chose “yes”, figuring that I could un-check the box later if I changed my mind (you can’t) and not realizing the impact that choice would have on the discoverability of, and engagement with, my comics. In other words, I read the Patreon Adult Content guidelines, and yet didn’t understand all the implications. 

I also thought that I’d be able to mark individual pages as “Adult Content” and leave the others unmarked, like songs in iTunes. Also not the case.

After a year, I re-thought this decision. I wasn’t posting that much content with nudity, anyway. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020 (I’m in the Seattle area, where things started in the U.S.) all my figure drawing classes were suspended.

To get the “Adult Content” label removed, you have to contact Patreon Support and have an actual human go review your posts. It took about a day for a support person to get back to me and say that if I removed the posts with nudity, I could get reclassified.

I felt like a sell-out, and yet I deleted the content. It was only three or four posts, and tangential to the main purpose of sharing my adventures making comics.

Now I’m waiting to hear back whether my page has been re-classified as all-ages. I’m hoping it happens before I give my talk at the Whidbey Weaver’s Guild, because I want to mention my comics, and don’t want to scare folks away with the “Adult Content” label. 

Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time checking whether it’s gone through. I’m not able to find the slider selector on the Settings page for my site (where did it go?). And because I’m the page’s creator, I can’t try to sign up as a patron for myself.

If you have a moment, and aren’t currently my patron on Patreon, would you mind doing me two small favors? It’ll take only 2-3 minutes and won’t cost anything.

1) Go to https://www.patreon.com/ and in the “Find a creator” search box, enter “Syne”. Do I appear in the listings? You might have to scroll down the page.

2) Go to https://www.patreon.com/synemitchell and select one of the orange “Join” buttons. (Note: You can cancel before entering payment info, so you won’t be charged.) Do you get a “Adult Content” warning? To back out of the sign-up process, hit the browser’s back button or close the page’s tab. 

Note: If you do accidentally sign up to be my patron, you can easily cancel on the Patreon site, or contact me through the Contact page on this site and I’ll walk you through it.

If you do that quick test, please let me know how it went in the comments below or on Facebook. I’d appreciate it. 🙂 

I caught a swarm!

I was walking with Eric and looking around the garden and orchard, when he pointed up into a pear tree. He’d spotted a swarm of bees.

As a beekeeper, I got excited. Free bees! Capturing a swarm had been on my bucket list, and here was an opportunity in my own back yard.

So I ran off to watch a few videos on YouTube, purchase some lemongrass essential oil from my local co-op food market, and then grabbed a cardboard box, a bed sheet, my bee suit, and a 30-foot ladder.

Capturing a swarm was essentially climbing up a ladder with a cardboard box, grabbing the branch with your arm, and vigorously shaking it until the bees fall into the box. There was a point where I was at the top of ladder, bees exploding into the air around me, that I paused with my hand on the branch and watched the chaos I’d unleashed and thought, “Hmm, I guess I’m not afraid of bees.”

There is no video of me doing this. Beforehand I asked Eric if he wanted to watch and take pictures…he looked at me for a moment and then said, “No.” I told him, “I’ve got a spare bee suit for you.” Again from Eric, firmly, “No.” We agreed that he’d wait up by the house and listen for the screams. This is how our marriage works now. For the first 15-ish years, he’d actually try to talk me out of things.

When you shake the bees, you can tell easily whether you’ve caught the queen or not. If you shake the bees into the box and they immediately explode back out of the back and go back into the tree, you do not have the queen.

So I waited for the bees to re-congregate and then gave it another go. The nice thing about free bees is it really opens you up to experimentation.

The second time the bees stayed in the box, so I guessed that I had the queen.

Not having planned for a fourth hive this year, I had to quickly cobble together a hive from spare parts. The gear below is two honey supers, a feeder board that I stapled screen over for a bottom board, and the black thing on top is the metal cover off an old microwave that I was taking apart in my garage for (a) spare parts and (b) to see what a microwave is made of.

It’s the jankiest hive in janky town, but it works. The lemongrass oil mimics the “hey I found a great new spot to live” pheromone scout bees use to tell the swarm where to go. So I added a few drops to make it smell like home. Aside from some congestion at the entrance, the bees are doing OK.

I ordered some new hive parts and will add them in as soon as I can.

There is a saying, “A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.” I captured this swarm on July 1st, and we have a late season, being at altitude. So my guess is that I’ll have to baby them over the winter and there’ll be no honey harvest. On the other hand, it’s a chance to explore and one more shot at successfully wintering over a hive (something I’ve yet to accomplish.)

So I’m proud of capturing the swarm, and a little embarrassed because I’m pretty sure the swarm I captured was my own. Swarm management is something I’m in the process of improving.

But hey, free (or recaptured) bees!

Update: a week later the hive had built up the foundation quite a bit, I found the queen and she looked healthy and was laying lots of eggs!

Headwinds and Racism

I often describe racism, sexism, ageism, etc. as a “headwind”. You may still accomplish things, but it’s a whole lot harder. And some goals you may not reach; you might even die.

The thing about headwinds, is that it’s really hard to notice a headwind that’s not in your face. They can be invisible. If it’s something that you’ve never experienced, you may not even believe headwinds exist.

Likewise, when the wind’s blowing at your back, you may not notice it. May say to yourself, “Wow. I’m really good at walking. This is so easy!”

And you might look over at someone struggling against a headwind and think, “Well, no wonder they’re behind. They’re not as good at walking as I am.”

This, my friends, is how racism (and other -isms) continue to exist.

If you aren’t experiencing a headwind, the only way to understand it is to listen to people who are. When black people tell you they’re experiencing racism, BELIEVE THEM. Do not try to explain it away. Do not say you have it tough too. Just listen. Look for the evidence of the headwind; if you try, you will see them everywhere.

If you’re not used to believing in headwinds, this can be a hard step. It can shake up your world view. It might even make you sad or ashamed.

Now here’s a harder one. You have to perceive your own tailwinds. Yep. We’re talking about white privilege here (this applies to male privilege, cis-privilege, straight-privilege, as well.)

You’re not as good at walking as you think you are.

That can be a hard thing to believe. Because it’s easy to see the things that get in your way. And easy to take credit for things you haven’t earned. We all have problems; all humans do. You will have problems and privilege too.

And if you’re white, you have some racist beliefs.

Yep. I’m talking about myself here, too. You don’t have to be openly racist to have racist beliefs. It seeps in because we live in a racist culture. It’s all those moments of looking over and seeing some not walking as fast as you and feeling good about yourself. You can be racist and not even be aware of it.

This is what is meant by unconscious bias. 

It’s racism (and sexism, other-isms) that hides in the part of your brain that reacts before conscious thought. It’s how racism continues to exist in a world where (most of us) agree that racism is a bad thing.

I had my eyes opened when I took an unconscious bias course at work. Guess what I discovered? Despite being a fierce feminist since I was eight, I had some misogynistic biases. We live in a sexist culture, and I had soaked some of that up.

And when I listened to the people of color in the room talk about their experiences, I learned about headwinds I hadn’t known existed. I spent my childhood in Mississippi in the 1970s, where racism was blatant. I told myself I wasn’t a racist because I wasn’t a person who actively abused and cursed at black people. And yet… I was (and am) living in a racist society. And yep, I soaked up some of that as well.

We all do.

Even black folks, to some degree, I’m sure. And that makes me sad. If the whole world tells you that you’re “less than” for all of your life, it’s really hard not to take some of that in. Black folks, you have my respect for having survived all that this country has thrown at you since the 1600s. And it’s a terrible thing that you’ve had to.

So let’s fix this.

I often say that the fastest way to fix sexism is for men to accept that women are as worthy and valid as they are. It’s not something that women can make happen. We can tell you about our headwind. Until we are believed, until men agree that the current situation is a problem and want to change it, sexism will persist.

The fastest way for racism to end, is for white folks to stop being racist.

How to stop being racist:

  1. Learn to see the headwinds
    1. Read books by black authors, Go to plays and movies produced by black people, Attend talks. Learn about what it’s like to be a black person in America. 
    2. If you’re lucky enough to have a black person talk to you about their experiences, listen and believe. 
    3. Also understand that it’s not the job of black folks to teach you about racism, they have enough work just surviving it. If a black person takes the time to educate you, take it as the gift it is.
    4. Look for signs of racism, obvious and subtle, in the world around you. 
    5. Learn about microaggressions. These are things that may not seem like a big deal to you. The black person (or woman, or gay person) experiences them ALL THE TIME, and that’s the problem.
  2. Learn about your own internal biases
    1. Take an unconscious bias training class if you can; a well-run one is enlightening. If one isn’t available, read a book on the subject. 
    2. When you encounter a person of color, ask yourself what you’re feeling. What thoughts pop into your head? Are you scared or upset, if so, why? Would you feel differently about them if they were white?
  3. Act
    1. When you find yourself responding in a racist way, no matter how subtle, challenge your beliefs. Is this so? 
    2. Overcorrect if you need to at first by consciously deciding to trust and like black people on sight. (Later you can dial this back, because nice folks and assholes come in all colors.)
    3. Have the uncomfortable conversations with other white folks when they say or do something racist, say it right then. LEAN INTO THIS DISCOMFORT. It is powerful to have one of your own say, “hey, cut that out.” And black folks have to stand up for themselves all the time. It’s wearying. Take one for team humanity, please?
    4. Publicly let people know racism is not OK with you.

If you’re thinking, “Wow. That seems like a lot of work” here’s some motivation:

  1. Studies show that diverse teams are more successful and profitable, and better at innovation. They make better decisions. Here’s an article from Harvard Business Review that provides an overview of the science: “Why Diverse Teams are Smarter”.

    Our world is on fire at the moment: culturally, politically, climate-wise. We need all the best people working on this. And I don’t want the young black girl who would have the best ideas about how to stop the next global pandemic to be stopped by headwinds.

    Want to make America great again? Stop racism.
  2. If you’re sticking to the bubble of people who look and think like you, you’re missing out on some great folks.
  3. Because it’s the right thing to do. If you believe in justice and “all people are created equal”. If you believe “treat your neighbor as you, yourself, would be treated”. If you are compassionate, or want to be. It’s going to make you feel so good to live up to your values.

I hope we will step out of our headwinds and tailwinds and walk together in a place of calm.

— Syne Mitchell


Click on the image above to read the comics…

I’ve started making comics! I’ve loved the medium since I was a kid, and even did some educational comics work at various tech companies. There’s a lot of research that combining images, text, humor, characters, and narrative improves comprehension and retention of information.

And they’re fun! I’m finding that it’s a great medium for storytelling because you can pack a lot of emotion and ancillary information into the art. Sometimes my subconscious will sneak something into the comic that I don’t notice until the end.

It’s hard and super rewarding. It’s been a long time since I’ve done something creative that tells “my” stories.

It was somewhat audacious of me to start making comics, since I’ve never studied art before, and I’m now mumble-mumble years old. So I’m taking lots of classes and learning lots, and accepting that the art is evolving. Though I must say, I find a lot of things fun about it even in these early days.

I’m sharingh my comics via Patreon. A lot of the content is publicly available, and you can “follow” me on Patreon for free to get all my public posts delivered to your inbox. If you’re interested in that, you can find me at patreon.com/synemitchell.

I’m going to keep this blog for talking about personal things I get up to that are not comics. Like a bookbinding class I took recently, prose fiction I’m working on, what’s on my loom, and fun things like that. 🙂

Inktober: day two, “Mindless”

The prompt for day two of Inktober was “Mindless”. The first iteration of idea I had for this was a drop of water splashing into a pool. But that seemed more like mindfulness than mindlessness.

Then I thought of an image of a woman with a head full of butterflies escaping out of her mouth. A metaphor for mindless speech and thoughts. One thing that didn’t sit easy with me was promulgating the idea that women’s speech is mindless. There’s enough of that in the culture already.

A hand-drawn sketch of a woman with butterflies in her head and coming out of her mouth.
First noodling around for an image for “mindless”.

And someone along the way made me angry. And “mindless” turned into “mindless rage.” In looking for a reference image to express how I felt I found this beautiful woman (and ended up subscribing to the BitchMedia mailing list.) For images of butterflies, I found an article on monarch butterflies. Looking at both images on my computer monitor, I drew the following pencil sketch. (Click on the image to view a larger version.)

A hand-drawn ink sketch of an angry mother nature screaming up butterflies.
Pencil sketch for day two of inktober, with the theme “mindless”

It was only after I drew it that I came up with the title: “Mother Nature is Tired of Your Bullshit.” That’s when I got in touch with my subconscious and realized what the imagery was saying. I liked the juxtaposition between rage and butterflies (normally not associated with anger.) And the more I thought about it, butterflies are symbols of transformation and change. And the monarchs are disappearing because of climate disruption. This piece started because I was angry in the moment, and changed into something that expresses my rage about what we as a species are doing to our planet.

Because this is “Inktober” and the original inspiration for the challenge was an artist wanting to improve their inking skills, the next step was to ink the work. I’ve used Micron markers in the past, and they’re easy, with good control and fineness (it’s what I used on day one.) The results are also a bit “flat”.

I’ve always admired the irregular, calligraphy-like lines in the inking of traditional manga, so I started researching what would be involved in using a quill pen. I found a couple of videos on YouTube: “Difference Inking with G-Pens Vs. Microns” by Whyt Manga and “Dipping Pen Tutorial ❤ EVERYTHING You Need To Know ❤ How to Ink, BEST Brands, Best Paper, & MORE!” by My Mangaka LIFE. Which gave me enough courage and information to try.

I started with a $3.50 pen and ink set from Michael’s. First issue: the ink bottle had adhesive on the side, so when I opened the lid and tried to set it down and pull my hand away, it stuck to my hand and 80% of the very, very black ink spilled all over my drawing table. Good news: my fear of spilling the ink was all over in one go. Better news: the ink was water soluable. Best news: the grooves in the drawing table (my grandmother’s old kitchen table) kept all but one drop from falling on the carpet.

Delayed but undaunted, I cleaned everything up and then took my dip pen and the remainder of the ink across the room to my light box. Back this summer when I went to bra camp (long story) a calligrapher there recommended an LED light box for pattern tracing. I knew I’d want to do comics one day (and trace bra patterns) so when I came home, I bought a Daylight Wafer 3. It’s what the woman at bra camp let me try out and it is ah-maze-ing! (Eric looked at it and got a bit envious.)

To make a long story short, I had so much fun with my cheap-o pen and very small amount of ink, that I decided to make a trek to Artist and Craftsman in Seattle and purchase some more ink and a few other quill pens to try out. Here’s what I’m currently experimenting with. (There’s a learning curve, so I’m trying to stick with one pen until I’m fairly comfortable with it.)

Japanese brand quill pen and ink.
Tachikawa quill pen, G nib, Carbon Ink

And after a few iterations to get past the first part of the learning curve, here’s what I came up with. (Click on the image to view a larger version.)

“Mother Earth is Tired of Your Bullshit” by Syne Mitchell, 10-06-2019

It’s one more step on my path of learning how to create art and comics. I learned a lot today and had a lot of fun, and I made something meaningful to me.

Inktober: day one, “Ring”

So I’m taking drawing classes this fall, with the goal of eventually creating sequential art (aka comics). Being me, I jumped in the deep end and took courses that had a prerequisite of Basic Drawing, even though I’d never taken a drawing class before. So I took them concurrently with the basic drawing class, started looking at some online courses (Brent Eviston on Skillshare is amazing) and hoped I could stay far enough ahead so as not to embarrass myself. So far it’s worked out.

Here are the classes I’m taking:

  • Basic Drawing
  • Figure Drawing
  • Cartoon Illustration
  • Graphic Novel Memoir

My thought was that if I took all the drawing classes at once, I’d spend so much time drawing that I’d progress more rapidly than if I strung them out over time. I’m also attending drop-in figure drawings and keeping a sketch diary, so there’s a lot of drawing going on over here.

And this brings me to Inktober. It was a challenge put forth in 2009 by an artist who wanted to improve his inking skills. Each day in October, you post online an inked drawing inspired by a one-word prompt.

Today’s prompt was: ring. So I drew a ring of roses. I’m dedicating today’s drawing to my friend Julie K. She knows why.

ink drawing of a ring of roses.

Spicy Lime Tofu

I was playing around in the kitchen today and came up with something tasty! I thought I’d share it with you.

Bowl of spicy lime-flavored tofu and vegetables.

DISCLAIMER: I created this recipe in the “splash of this”, “dash of that” tradition, so measurements below are my best-guess approximations after the fact. Try it, if something’s not to your taste, play around with the amounts. If you hit on a variation you love, please leave me a note in the comments. It’d be fun to share ideas. 🙂

BONUS GOODNESS: I’m currently following The Abascal Way of eating, which is anti-inflammatory. I’ve had great success with it in the past. This recipe is adherent to the first (and strictest) part of the Abascal program. In other words, it’s super healthy and good for ya.

PROLOGUE: I cooked Shitaki-Ginger Bok Choy right before I cooked the Spicy Lime Tofu, and without washing the wok in between. So it’s possible that some of the pre-flavoring of the wok influenced the Spicy Lime Tofu. Just in case, I’m including that recipe (also of my own improvising) here.

Shitake-Ginger Bok Choy

2 tablespoons diced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic
4 baby bok choy, washed and sliced horizontally into 7mm widths (Yeah, I can only estimate widths and lengths in metric, Mississippi was introducing the metric system when I was in grade school and it stuck. With me, alas not with Mississippi.)
10 shitake mushrooms, stems pulled off and saved in the freezer for making soup stock later. Chop caps into 7mm-wide slices.
1/4 cup of diced red onion, about 1-cm square pieces
2-3 tablespoons sunflower oil
2-3 tablespoons soy sauce
2-3 tablespoons rice vinegar

  • Mix the shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and rice vinegar together in a bowl and set aside.
  • In a carbon-steel wok, on high heat, heat up the sunflower oil.
  • Stir fry the onion, garlic, and ginger together until fragrant.
  • Add in the bok choy and stir fry until the top green parts are starting to get kinda wilty.
  • Add the mushroom mixture, including all of the liquid.
  • Stir fry until the mushrooms are cooked.
  • Remove from heat and enjoy!

Spicy Lime Tofu

4-5 tablespoons of sunflower oil
One 12-oz block of firm or extra-firm tofu (I used Island Springs Organic), cut into 1cm cubes.
Juice from 1/2 of a large lime
3-4 tablespoons of soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon of Shichimi Togarashi

  • Heat the oil on high on a carbon-steel wok.
  • When it’s hot, throw in the tofu and stir fry rapidly. Continue for 1-2 minutes until there’s some nice browning on the tofu.
  • Throw in the lime juice and soy sauce. Stir fry rapidly for another 1-2 minutes. The tofu will suck up the liquid and become “fluffy”.
  • Sprinkle the togarashi on top of the tofu and stir fry until it’s all mixed in.
  • Take off the heat and it’s eatin’ time!

Birthday Blanket Raffel

I’ve finished the Birthday Blanket and am ready to raffle it off for charity!

If you’d like the chance to win a handwoven (by me!) king-sized, mostly wool, blanket. All you need do is donate money directly to Doctors Without Borders and then email me and tell me the amount that you donated. There is no minimum donation required; give what you can. One entry per person. On February 19th, I’ll randomly select a winner from all of the entrants and mail the blanket to them.

Birthday Blanket Hem

If you’d like to see the blanket in person, I’ll have it in the rotunda at Madrona Winter Retreat in Tacoma on Friday (2/15) and Saturday (2/16). I don’t have a booth or any formal support, so just look for the woman spinning on a Pocket Wheel with a ginormous folded blanket next to her.

The blanket is delightfully cozy. I used Highlands Shetland in Black Cherry as the weft and it became lofty and soft once washed and brushed. The other yarns are mostly-ish wool. They range from hand-spun silk and cashmere, to alpaca, to acrylic, to various types of wool. They were sent in by people all over the U.S., and some overseas. Much of it is handspun, including some of my first yarn, a lovely three-ply by Brenda Dayne, and some singles yarn spun by my son Kai when he was three years old.

The binding is recycled silk from old shirts. I folded it over as in a quilt binding and hand-stitched it on. This blanket is full of intention and love. It’s light enough for three-season use in most parts of the United States. And it’s a generous king size. If you have a smaller bed you can probably fold it in half and use it. Here’s what it looks like on my king-sized bed.

It’s been a long time since the project started, so let me restate what this is. When I was 39, for my 40th birthday I asked that people would send me 40 yards of a yarn that represented them. My plan was to take their warp yarns, weave it off with a weft that represents me, and have a wonderful reminder of all the people in my life who encouraged and supported me.

I got yarns from WeaveCast listeners, WeaveZine readers, friends, family. I was heart warmed by the amount of yarn that came in. I had a birthday party / warping party in which people, both weavers and not, helped me wind 21-yard warps. The plan was that I’d weave off two king-sized blankets. One to become my bedspread, and the other to raffle off to charity to support Doctors Without Borders.

Then life happened, or rather life and fear. Or if I’m completely honest, mostly fear.

I hate to disappoint people, and ironically, that often leads me into doing exactly that. Fear that what I create won’t be good enough can paralyze me.

So the fact that this blanket is finally finished, and that I’m posting it here is a triumph of sorts. A slow, painful triumph over eight years of fear and exhaustion.

I’m trying to learn from this experience how I can get out of my own way when working on big projects. Some of the things that made this one hard were:

  • Being afraid of failing, of disappointing others.
  • Fearing the technical challenge of weaving a warp with so many different yarns, each with different shrinkages.
  • Fearing my new-to-me AVL loom, with all its unknown complexity.
  • Moving house, and being afraid to re-assemble my loom.
  • Working insanely long hours at Amazon and coming home too exhausted to think.
  • Having a breakdown from overwork and getting diagnosed with a chronic condition.
  • Looking away from the project because it had been sitting idle too long, and I was embarrassed it wasn’t done. (repeat endlessly)
  • Avoiding the project while writing a book.
  • Avoiding the project while working at Google.
  • Finishing and then being too embarrassed to write this post or ask for help getting the word out about the raffle.

Through all of this, however, I never forgot the project. I felt that I owed finishing it to the folks who’d sent me yarn. Slowly, quietly, I worked on it. Not as often as I could, not as frequently as I should. Now it is finally done, and I’ve gathered up the courage to write this post.

The emotion I’m feeling is some combination of pride at never giving up, embarrassment at how long it took, and relief that I can finally get this out into the world and let it go.

The blanket is lovely. Like me, it’s imperfect. It was created with love and intention. I hope the person who wins it enjoys it.

ASL Midsummer Night’s Dream

Yesterday Eric and I went on a date and saw a play put on by the Sound Theatre Company and Deaf Spotlight. It was a bilingual version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” presented in both English and ASL.

Poster for "ASL Midsummer Night's Dream" featuring Titania gazing lovingly at Bottom, who's been transformed into an ass.

The stage was small and intimate, with the only setting being curtains and a few pillows. It’s always amazed me how actors in such venues can transport you, evoking a setting with their performance.

Stage for the 12th Avenue Theatre, set with stairs and silk streamers hanging from the sky. Lit blue with spotlights.

All the actors were great. A few performances I’d call out…

Ryan Schletch, playing Nick Bottom, was amazingly energetic and expressive. He chewed the furniture in perfect William Shatner style and gave a tremendous performance of an “over the top” actor in the play within a play. His presentation was wonderfully funny. Especially the two instances where he stood behind another actor and spoke as them in ASL by replacing their arms with his own. Each time ended with a certain amount of bawdiness and then indignation on the part of the “puppeted” actor.

Puck was played with mischievous glee by Michelle Mary Schaefer. Her antics were fun and she fully embodied that trickster elf.

Kai Winchester, as Lysander, won me over with his gentle wooing of Hermia, and then briefly Helena, and then Hermia again. Oh Puck, what trouble you wrought!

Michael D. Blum and Kathy Hsieh brought dignity and gravitas to the roles of Oberon and Titania, respectively.

Kyle Seago’s performance of Demetrius was masterful and ardent. He also brought humor to the role. My ASL instructor once told me that Deaf people can easily pick out hearing folks signing ASL from native speakers, and having watched a play with both hearing and Deaf actors, I can see what he meant. Kyle’s ASL was so crisp, however, that I was startled when he spoke. Now that I’m looking at the program, I see he has the same last name as one of the directors, I’m guessing he grew up in a family both Deaf and theatrical, which explains his dual skills in ASL and acting.

Eric’s favorite was Guthrie Nutter’s performance as First Fairy, calling out Nutter’s expressiveness and the way his hands moved like poetry.

What impressed me most about the production is the way ASL and English were integrated seamlessly. Sometimes ASL was at the forefront with one a background character on the stage providing spoken translation. Other times spoken English was at the center of the action, with a background character providing ASL translation. The hearing actors had been coached in ASL and often integrated ASL signs with their speech. It flowed beautifully back and forth. I was impressed at how inclusive the Deaf community is.

For the past year-and-a-half I’ve been taking ASL classes. I very much enjoyed watching Shakespeare translated into ASL. I recognized about 20-30% of the signs and learned a few more. As with any translation, there were places where the translation changed the meaning a bit, sometimes creating in-jokes for the ASL crowd.

Eric, who knows only a handful of signs that I’ve taught him (I tend to be non-verbal before coffee, and sometimes use ASL then) also enjoyed the performance.

The play was abbreviated from the full Shakespeare, but masterfully so. I found it more fast-paced and engaging than traditional productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Howie Seago and Teresa Thuman, the co-directors, brought us a wonderful theatrical experience. I’d recommend that you go. Unfortunately, Eric and I caught the last show. I will definitely be on the look out for future productions from these directors, Sound Theatre Company, and Deaf Spotlight.

Another joy was getting to interact with the Deaf community. I’m shy, and my ASL is still primitive. Still, I managed a few brief conversations and people I interacted with were very friendly and kind.

P.S. If you’d like to leave a comment, please do so below. I don’t always see comments left on Facebook and Twitter, but I read every comment posted on my blog. Thanks!

eBook version of Inventive Weaving

The ebook version of my rigid-heddle book, Inventive Weaving, is on sale during the whole month of November for $2.99. Which is something like 90% off. Please help spread the word because I don’t want anyone who’d like to take advantage of this offer to miss out.

What’s happening is that Storey’s added my book to their Fresh Picks selection this month, along with books on cooking, solar panels, and electric fences. All of these are available in 5 different ebook formats.

If you’re new to ebooks, you don’t have to have a Kindle or iPad to read them. You can download a free app (Windows or Mac) that makes it possible to read the ebook on your computer or on other devices. For example, I buy Kindle-format books from Amazon, but usually read them on my phone or iPad.

And finally, Here’s the link to the Kindle version of Inventive Weaving.



Emmy’s New Home

This past Thanksgiving I had an adventure. I spent the day with my family, then bright and early on Friday, hopped in my car and drove from Seattle, WA to Mountain View, CA. A thirteen-hour, one-way road trip, by myself, in Black Friday traffic.

What would induce me to do such a crazy thing? Why a new loom of course! I was driving down to purchase Tien Chiu’s 40-shaft AVL Production Dobby Loom. She’d stopped using it since getting a Jacquard loom, so I was happy to get it out of storage and give it a new home.

Driving down was amazing. The parking lot of every mall I passed was entirely full. The only highway traffic I ran into was three lanes slowed down so much that I thought I had reached the inspection point to cross into California. Nope! All that traffic was from people trying to get into and park in an outlet mall. Yikes!

This is why I don’t shop in Black Friday sales. Though the irony that I was spending all day in the car the day after Thanksgiving to go buy something was not lost on me.

Ruth Temple and her wife Lise, generously offered me crash space for the night. I was supposed to get in around 8pm, but with one thing and another (I drive slow and sometimes get lost) I ended up there around midnight. Ruth was very kind and offered me a bed and a cup of herbal tea. I mumbled something like “You are a goddess of generosity” and passed out.

The next day, Ruth offered to help me pack and move the loom, which is a substantial gift of time and labor considering the many parts of an AVL loom. I generally have a hard time accepting help, but this time I gratefully accepted.

We dropped by Tien’s house to pick up keys to the storage facility. Right after Thanksgiving is when Tien does her massive chocolatiering for charity, which was fun to see in progress. Many hands packaging tasty things. If you ever have a chance to buy a loom from someone the same weekend that they’re finishing up creating 80 pounds worth of gourmet chocolates, do so. Tien generously gave us some samples of the goodies and they tasted as wonderful as they look on her blog.

The last question I asked about the loom was whether it had a name. Tien said that she’d named it Emmy, after Emmy Noether, a mathematician known for her landmark contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics. I usually like to come up with my own names for looms, but I like this one. It may stick.

Packing the car was…interesting. The question was, can you pack a 40-shaft, full-frame loom into a mid-sized SUV? The answer was, yes, barely.

Ruth excited that it all fit in the car

As you can see, Ruth and I were both happy that it all fit in the car. There may even have been happy dancing involved.

Then another 13+ hour car trip home! This time I stopped and spent the night in Grant’s Pass, OR, because the road was getting icy and slushy. Had a good night’s sleep and then the guys unloaded the pieces and parts into my studio.

Next step?  Assembly…


That’s only part of the loom. The compu-dobby and other e-lift aren’t pictured. Good thing I like puzzles!