Knitting Changes

You know, some of the best lessons in life are ones that you didn’t see coming. Years ago, I was a member of a 6th grade instructional team that taught integrated units. The kids were learning about Canada in social studies at that time, and the language arts teacher had them reading Julie of the Wolves. I read the book too even though I was the social studies/science teacher, and one of the lessons really stuck with me. It was advice from Julie’s father to her: if what you are doing doesn’t work, change what you are doing. I am not one to quit easily, but sometimes that isn’t the right attitude.

I’ve been struggling with my treatment plan for months and I finally decided that we needed to do something different. My pulmonologist stopped the medication (Ofev) that I was taking to treat my lung disease (interstitial lung disease) because of side effects and started me on two inhaled medications instead. In the aftermath of this change, every single one of my tendons has decided that it hates my guts. Everything, everything hurts, and my arms are back in braces. I have two canes going so I am never far from one when I walk, and the walker is back out for use in the house. Feeling sorry for myself, I was slow to realize that Hannah had a rash on her tummy, and she was just miserable, licking and cleaning herself so much all the hair was gone and she had open sores.

After eliminating everything that I could think of, I have concluded that Hannah is allergic to the blanket that I’m knitting!

That yarn that makes up the Nectar blanket is made of recycled fibers, and it includes raw silk. If you don’t know raw silk, it has a slight smell because the proteins from the silkworm cocoon are present. I kind of think that the silk is the problem, so I have packed the blanket away for now because Hannah LOVES TO LAY ON IT!!! Hannah got a bath with soothing anti-itch shampoo and the rash is gone and her fur is growing back. Bad yarn, bad!!

It hurt my hands too much to knit on it anyway. The lace is hard to work, and the purl rows are misery. Goodbye, blankie. You are going into time out for now.

I also packed away the yarns for the La Prairie sweater that I wanted (really badly) to knit because it is a cardigan and is knit back and forth (instead of in the round); all those purl rows on the wrong side will kill me. The yarn is now keeping company with the Nectar blanket in time out.

Obviously, I needed to find something that I can knit. What I’ve been knitting (and want to knit) isn’t working, but by golly, there must be something that I can knit on. Something that is only in the round, almost all knit stitches, and easy to pick up and put down again without losing my place.

Behold: Scrunch Socks!!

These socks were a free pattern on Ravelry, and they are just what I needed. There is no ribbing at the top: just stockinette that curls around to form a rolled edge. The purl row is every 9 rounds, so I can manage that. The heel is made with all knit stitches! I’m able to knit with size 1 cable needles because I push them with the back of my hands without using my wrists.

and these socks are… scrunchy!

The socks are slightly oversized so they are easy for me to pull on. I’m slowly making progress and my wrists have improved so much that I’ve transitioned from the hard braces to compression braces on my wrists while I work. I knit outside most mornings with the cats enjoying the birdsong and fresh air, dreaming about the colors to knit a Soldotna Crop sweater in fingering weight yarn.

The cats hang out under my swinging seat while I knit. I think that they are dreaming about catching bunnies…

Soldotna is written to be knit in DK weight yarn, but I think that is too heavy for me to use as a light topper over long-sleeved shirts. I have been messing around looking at other sweaters by this designer that I’ve made that were written for fingering weight, and I think that if I go up a size in the pattern, I can substitute fingering for the DK. Also, fingering is easier to work with while my hands are totally acting like assholes, and stranded knitting is slower knitting and hopefully easier on my hands than my usual speedy pace. Did I mention that there are no purls in this pattern once I’m through the first rows of ribbing?

As usual I am fussing about the colors and the order in which they will be knit. I had completely decided on the first combination (with Mateo in the background) when I decided to play around with a combination that is more colorful by adding in the turquoise multi. Everything depends on the order of the colors in the design; I’m pretty happy with the combination on the right, and I’ve decided that if I don’t like it, I’ll just shop the stash and start over with some other colors. You know, if what you’re doing doesn’t work… The other factor that is causing me to lean towards the more colorful set is that the yarn is a little heavy for fingering, so I have a better chance that it will work in the pattern.

Have I wound the yarn for the sweater yet? Nope. It still seems too exhausting right now, but it is hopefully set out by the umbrella swift in my dining room. Soon, Soldotna, someday soon my wrists and hands will decide to behave themselves and it will be your turn.

Take that scleroderma. You’ve been messing with the wrong knitter!


  • Julie of the Wolves is one of the books that gets banned from time to time, but it certainly made an impact with me and my students loved it.
  • My pulmonologist says that there are two other drugs in the pipeline that I may be able to take when they are approved. Yay, science!
  • Hannah was the best girl ever with her bath. She didn’t struggle or even meow while I was washing her tummy and then she let me blow dry her with absolutely no fuss. How about that!
  • The color of the yarn that I am knitting the socks with is… Perfect Miracle. How cool is that? Just the color that I need right now.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Miller Moth

Last night a miller moth got into the house. The cats staked it out and Hannah kept trilling for me to come help her get it. The poor moth, trapped in my house in an environment that was definitely not safe, clung to the wall up near the ceiling.

These moths are small: about an inch across and they will leave a dusty powder behind if you touch them. This powder, reminiscent of the powder on people working in flour mills, is the source of the moth’s common name.

Later in the evening, after I had turned out lights in the house and was reading in bed, the moth, attracted by my reading light, arrived upstairs to bat and fly around my light. Chaos erupted as cats launched themselves towards the moth, and I grabbed the lamp. Mateo dove down the wall behind the bedside table, chasing the moth while Hannah tried to cut it off from the other side. Sigh. It was another long night…

This year there are an awful lot of moths on the move. Look at what showed up on my Facebook feed!

That’s right. As the cats and I know well, these moths are creatures of the night. I see them snacking on flowers that attract moths (lilacs, I’m talking to you!!) and bopping around lights during the night hours. Why these moths, creatures that hide from light all day, are attracted to sources of light at night, is a mystery to me, but there you are. There are several theories about why this happens, which you can read about here if you’d like.

Miller moths are annual visitors to my part of Colorado as they migrate westward towards the cooler foothills of the Rocky Mountains for the summer. In their caterpillar stage of life these moths existed as army cutworms, wreaking havoc on crops and grasses in fields on the Great Plains to the east. Once they emerge from their cocoons, the adults take to wing and head west in a great migration that lasts for weeks every May-June. Why are they doing this? There is a lot of speculation, but mostly it is thought that they are looking for better food and cooler conditions to survive the hot summer.

I try to keep a good attitude about the moths at this time of year. These moths are nocturnal and hunt for hiding places during the day where they are safe; too often they crawl into the cracks at the edges of the doors and windows and if you open one, the moth will take flight, end up in the house, and begin frantically searching for another hiding spot. Opening the garage door sets off a flurry of moths. I’m not going to lie; it can be really spooky when an unawares homeowner opens the front door to an erupting cloud of moths suddenly taking flight and batting against their face and hair. In my case it is worse because I have a storm door outside of my front door, and when I open the door, the moths have no place to fly except into my house. <Cue the cat excitement!!> How do those moths squeeze past the storm door to get inside the gap? They are experts at squeezing through tiny openings! Seriously, it has been so bad this year that this also showed up in my Facebook feed:

You are supposed to gently trap them and return them to the outside world where they belong. Here is the link to the article.

Can you hear Mateo wailing why??? He thinks that these moths are the best cat toys ever, and this is what Hannah looked like the first time she saw a moth on the wall:

Hannah: what is that??!

Well, the reason why they should go back outside is because they are important to the ecosystem. They are significant pollinators of flowers like the lilacs I mentioned above and other plants with strongly scented (and lightly colored) flowers. They are also important sources of food for birds like swallows; right now, there are furballs of swallows dipping and darting through some intersections and dodging cars as they snatch moths from the air. It is so bad it can be concerning when you approach the intersection; a swallow hit a car next to me while I was waiting at a light yesterday. Clearly, there are miller moths at these intersections and the birds are dive-bombing the cars as they hunt the moths. The reasons aren’t clear why the feeding is so good at some intersections, but as with all things miller moth, there you are. It must have to do with the lights, the lines between the poles, the swirling air, nearby fields, whatever. Just another magical phenomenon associated with the migration.

There is one last thing that I think of when the miller moths arrive. It is time for the kids to graduate! Year after year, graduation after graduation, I shook the hiding miller moths from my robes, carefully arranged my masters hood around my shoulders, and marched with my students as they left me and moved on with their lives.

The best migration ever!

Thoughts while knitting to Demon Copperhead

Okay, I don’t get out much. When I have to go to a medical appointment across town it is kind of a big deal. I have to adjust my drugs and diet for a couple of days. My oxygen bottles need to be ready to go. I need to minimize my time out of the house (brain fog becomes a big problem after about 3 hours) so I use my smart phone for everything that I can: check in, payment, and navigation to the medical center. My car, named Stumpy, handles my email along the way, tells me the route, and also gives me weather reports. I love technology!!

Getting ready for an outing.

The last time I went to my rheumatologist’s office I didn’t get into the elevator in time before it closed its door and left. Hey, there are a lot of elevators there and they don’t all go to the floor that I needed. Behind me, I heard the voice of a man who complained loudly about how impossible modern technology is, and he advised me to push the button again and to hope for the best. I pushed the button, and this time when my elevator car arrived, I had sorted things out and managed to get in the right one on time. He joined me and continued to rant about technology, and then suddenly began to vent about “needing our country back” and assured me that it would take a long time, but that we were going to “get the country back.”

Stunned, I looked at him from across the elevator car. He was an older white man in work clothes, someone who looked like he lived in a rural area. I may have backed up a little more. All I could manage to get out was that I had a different opinion from him, and immediately his manner changed, and he became polite. Yeah, right. I saw that rage you’ve got going on under your farm hat…I got out at my stop, got my little ol’ liberal butt out of there, and didn’t look back. How did that segue from frustration with technology to MAGA extremism in a heartbeat?

The incident really hit me because I was reading (well, listening to) Demon Copperhead at the time.

Demon Copperhead (by Barbara Kingsolver) seems to be a modern rendition of David Copperfield set in rural southern Appalachia (Lee County, Virginia) that has packed into it all the horrors of vulnerable populations in one neat package. It was the kind of book that is just horrifying while completely engaging you in the story. Demon is the child of a mother who dies young and is forced to enter the foster system. In placement after placement, he is mistreated and sometimes starved as he is used for labor or a source of income by his foster parents. As I read the book, I became aware of how bad things can be in an at-risk population where the job opportunities are few and far between, resources are limited, and education substandard. These communities, insular and tightly knit, cling to each other to help out and somehow survive as they are preyed upon and abused by corporations and pharmaceutical companies.

In spite of all of this, and even though Demon is betrayed again and again by the people in whose care he is placed, he survives, comes to terms with his history and the people in his life, and shines on as the author of a comic series about his people, the Appalachians. All the events and understandings of his life, the good and bad, come to life in his comic series called RedNeck, that shines a light on the people of his community.

This book is just amazing, and it really made me learn new things and start thinking about the world around me in new ways as I knitted along listening. Towards the end of the book, Demon mulls about the differences between people who live on the land, relying on each other, and the people in cities who scramble for money since money is needed for everything. From the perspective of advanced technology and more money, city people look down on land people as unsophisticated and ignorant, when in truth people should be more important than things. Conversely, it is also easy to feel intimidated and overwhelmed in unfamiliar situations; a modern high tech city (or medical center) certainly can be that to people who don’t have weekly trash pickup, sidewalks, or, yes, elevators. Suddenly I was back in the elevator in the Kaiser building, looking at a frumpy man who was furious about technology and the loss of his country.

This is me a few years ago, deep in a flare, clinging to my beloved cat, and living my best little scleroderma life. It was at about this time that my pulmonologist referred me to palliative care.

I’ve always been a fairly reflective person, but lately I’ve had more time than usual to think about things. I know people who are consumed by money and who hunger for expensive possessions. Some of these people want expensive things as status symbols, and there really isn’t enough money to make them happy. I recently ghosted someone who thought that I envied and resented their inheritance. I no longer correspond with a family member who told me that they would have more things if they hadn’t had children. My tax preparer last year exclaimed, in a shocked tone of voice, that I hadn’t made any money at all last year!

Well, yeah. After you have been referred to palliative care you just don’t worry about money anymore; I have everything that I need, and why would I want more? My prognosis has improved since then, but the lesson remained. Demon’s thoughts about the divisions between the people of the land and people who live in cities based on economies remain with me. In a way, the division between the healthy and the chronically ill is similar. The divisions between different ethnic and religious groups. The divisions between gun owners and those of us who want gun regulation. How many of these divisions are rooted in the underlying social/economic structures glimpsed in Demon Copperhead? I guess you could say that this book was life changing. I’m knitting to a new book these days, but the reflections rooted in Demon Copperhead go on.

Yesterday Demon Copperhead won the Pulitzer Prize!!

Hannah and the CoalBear: Backyard Adventures

Hi. I’m Hannah.

Don’t you think that the new blankie looks nice with my fur? The Mother of Cats made good progress this week with 6 more hexagons knitted.

The weather suddenly turned nice this week and the Mother of Cats has been letting us spend more time out on the catio. WE LOVE THE CATIO!!! I mean, there is so much stuff to see out there that we never ever really saw before, and it keeps on changing all day long. The leaves move all by themselves!! There are more bugs than Mateo can chase, and this squirrel hangs around barking at us. Mateo wants to go play with it, but the Mother of Cats said no. She kind of says no a lot to Mateo. He kind of deserves it!

I’m not sure that this squirrel wants to play with Mateo the way it carries on up in the tree… so much noise!!

Luckily for Mateo the baby bunny is starting to get more used to us and comes out when we are on the catio. At first it wouldn’t come out if it even suspected that we were there, so Mateo had to resort to watching it from afar…

Eventually, the bunny began to come out to munch on dandelions while we were on the deck right by it. Now we can watch it up close as long as we move sneaky. Mateo is beside himself with excitement and I have to admit, I really like it too.

Do you see how close I can get to the bunny now?

Friday we spent all morning outside. The Mother of Cats was working on planting new flowers while we snoozed under the garden chair on the deck.

Do you see how nice these flowers are?

Lots of birds stopped by the yard: a blue jay, a robin, mourning doves, and even a crow. The leaves on the trees had just burst out of their buds that morning, and the ill-tempered squirrel was literally frolicking in the grass of the yard. It was a perfect, perfect morning.

Until the Mother of Cats looked up in time to see Mateo streaking across the lawn outside the catio wire…

I told him not to do it…

Soooo… there is a little problem with Mateo. He likes to streak through doors, but if he thinks that he is trapped on the other side, he has a TOTAL COW with so much yowling and frantic racing around that it is just horrible to watch. That’s exactly what happened when Mateo figured out that he was trapped on the WRONG SIDE of the wire. The Mother of Cats put me into the house, and then went outside the wire to catch him. Nope. Nope. Nope. There was no catching that little CoalBear because he was too intent on getting back into the catio, he is covered in slippery fur, and he just kept racing past her and pawing at the wire. He acted like he was afraid of the Mother of Cats! Did I mention that he was yowling? The dog next door started barking, all the bunnies and birds were long gone, and things didn’t look good until the Mother of Cats finally managed to herd him towards the opening in the wire so he could return to safety. Whew. She let me back out, got the staple gun to secure every single inch of wire so that there were no gaps at all, and then turned around to see…

Mateo leaping off the table and over the catio wire like a freaking gazelle!!

Cue the yowling, frantic racing and wire pawing … Thank heavens the next-door dog had been taken away and wasn’t barking anymore. Yeah. We had to go through the WHOLE THING AGAIN to get him back to the safe catio.

Mateo: Hannah called me names after we got back into the house. Why is she so mean to me?

Today we are staying indoors and taking it easy. The Mother of Cats moved the table so that it is farther from the wire, but we can’t go out unless she is right with us.

That’s okay. During all that commotion a freaking MOTH got into the house.

Mateo: best cat toy ever!

So now I’m hanging out with the Mother of Cats while she knits, and Mateo is relentlessly tracking the moth. He is such a silly, silly boy.

Have a good Caturday, everyone.

This is Hannah, signing off.

Knitting after the Cath Lab

Hey. I know that I’ve been missing for a while (again). In my last post I wrote about my upcoming trip to the cath lab to get a right heart catherization. This procedure involves having a small sensing device threaded into your heart to check (in my case) the internal blood pressure. Normal pressure in the right side of your heart should be about 14mm Hg; mine had measured 44 mm Hg in an echocardiogram so my cardiologist wanted to get a direct reading.

Here I am, rocking my scleroderma symptoms along with the cath wound. Puffy hands, bluish nose and lips, tons of little red dots on my face… That bandage came off the next day and the entry wound healed right up.

The procedure went well. My pressure measured in the low 20s, which was soooo much better than my cardiologist feared. The number was higher than the last time I had a direct measurement, so my pulmonary hypertension has advanced, especially since I am now on medication to treat my condition, but I’ll take it! It was, once again, a really positive experience and I felt well cared for by all the staff. I was pretty exhausted, hungry, but upbeat on the drive home.

Then I went into a flare… I slept for almost the entire week after the procedure. Seriously, like 12 hours a night and a couple of naps. I had to go back onto daytime oxygen. My hair started falling out again. I was dizzy and exhausted. My joints really hurt. A flare.

This week I’m finally awake again and I pulled out the blanket that I’m knitting. I knitted more hexagons and measured the blanket on the bed. I went out and bought more yarn. I have the hexagons to add another row and the blanket is slowly growing…

I think that I’m going to need more yarn… this is the Nectar Blanket by Ysolde Teague.

I’m really happy with the progress of the blanket, but I have to admit that it is becoming a little boring. I dream of other knitting projects as I sew the hexagons together. I have a serious urge to knit a new sweater in some fabulous colors.

Look at this little topper sweater!! It is called La Prairie (by Joji Locatelli) and I seriously want this sweater. I want to knit in cool colors. Did I mention that I live on the edge of the Great Plains? I long to wind yarn and to cast on and to start knitting those waves and bobbles…

I broke down and bought this kit to knit the sweater online a few weeks ago.

Don’t you love these colors?

The trouble is, I just have to dream and fuss about colors before I am happy. I’m not sure about the order in the kit yarn. I’m not completely a fan of the middle yarn, and I feel like the lavender should be in the middle. I’ve been digging in the stash and trying to image the finished product with other blends of color…

Here are three more spins on the yarn. I like the one on the left the most, with the yarn fading from dark purple to the light grey at the sleeves and bottom of the sweater, but I’m kind of interested in the middle and right versions. I have to ask myself… which version will have the most flexibility in the wardrobe? Definitely, it would be the first spin on the kit, the version with the light grey at the sleeves.

I also desperately want to buy yarn to knit a Soldatna Crop sweater, and some new arm warmers, and then there are those PICC line covers and hats to get done… Did I mention that I have been looking at more yarn online and dreaming of sweaters with lots of colors in DK weight yarn? I’m totally on a knitting drive, but my wrists are not on board with all this needle action. It could be that I’m not completely done with the flare…

Sigh. Guess I’ll just cast on another hexagon or two…

PS I’m still dealing with shortness of breath and low on oxygen; lung testing happens next month as my doctors continue to sort me out. 🙂

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Carrying Light

You know, I think that synchronicity is a real thing; you just have to pay attention to what is going on around you. Sometimes, if you take notice, the world hands you just what you need at that moment.

Scleroderma has been kicking my butt lately. Having improved dramatically over the summer and sailing through my heart/lung testing last fall, my doctors were pretty upbeat when I reported worsening symptoms while visiting them in late winter. They ordered some testing, but they were also very reassuring.

A week ago I arrived at a Kaiser facility bright and early for a routine echocardiogram and 6-minute walk test. The echocardiogram did not go well (usually they don’t hurt, and what was up with having to pause so I could pant a little to catch my breath…) and I was in the red zone (the pulse oximeter starts glowing red if your oxygen drops below 90%) after a minute of walking. The test was halted after 3 minutes, and the concerned nurse walked me out to the elevator.

Ugh. Not good, little BLZ, not good. Refusing to overreact, I went to my favorite yarn store on my way home, bought some great yarn, and then hit Starbucks by my house. It was a bright, blue day and I headed out to the deck to knit.

I took this picture of Hannah. Look at that bright, blue sky!

Do you know the quote by Elizabeth Zimmerman that goes “Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises.”? Yep. That is a quote to live by! I cast on a new hexagon for my blanket and started knitting. I felt myself settle inside, my breathing steadied, I began to process what had happened, and my anxiety faded away. Scleroderma is a monster, and by the time I was casting off the hexagon, I was ready to once again face it down.

This post had appeared in my knitting group on Facebook from Michelle Obama a few days before:

Well, look at that: Michelle Obama is a knitter! Yay! It looks like she also knows about the Zen of knitting and the ability it has to bring calm and purpose to a simple activity while you reflect upon and process problems large and small. I knitted every night to finish my teaching days. I knit in hospitals. I knit in meetings. I knit just about everywhere I can, and I especially knit to deal with the rolling shitshow that is my chronic illness. I went and bought Michelle’s book.

Thursday morning the results from the echocardiogram were posted and a couple of hours later my cardiologist called me. I was knitting and ready for the call.

For the first time the words stage 3 heart failure were used in the discussion with my doctor. My pulmonary pressure is higher than ever before and there is more fluid around my heart. It is not clear if my symptoms are caused by worsening pulmonary hypertension or pericarditis, but the only way to sort this out is to go back into the cath lab and directly measure the pressures with a right heart catherization. It may be both. I will need a different treatment regimen. An emergency referral was put in and tomorrow I’m heading back to the hospital for the procedure. This is what happened the last time I did this.

My pulmonologist, who works closely with my cardiologist and rheumatologist, saw me on Friday for a lung function test and office visit. My lungs are hanging in there, but my ability to diffuse oxygen into my bloodstream has dropped significantly. I told him about the upcoming trip to the cath lab, and he started checking those test results. I’m not going to lie, it is a little alarming when your doctor says, “No, no, this is not good. I am not happy with this at all.” More testing has been ordered. He emailed the other doctors on the team to start the discussion about what changes should be made with my meds.

I took this picture of my new Goldwing sweater in his office the day that I met him. If you are going to scary appointments, armor yourself in your favorite knits!

This weekend I started reading The Light We Carry and was amazed that it starts with… knitting. Serendipity strikes!! Michelle Obama began knitting at the start of the pandemic as she struggled with the lockdown: grief, isolation, loss, and everything else that happened in that time. It became an important vehicle for processing, recovery, and perspective for her. The daughter of a father with MS, she is very aware of disability and how it absolutely impacts how someone like me can view myself and the rest of the world. She talked about using tools such as the cane that her father needed to empower ourselves to deal with what comes our way. Her book appears to be a toolbox of different strategies to cope with the challenges in life.

For the first time since all this started happening last week, I cried. This book is absolutely, positively, what I needed to read right now as I pack my bag for the hospital and prepare for what is coming my way in the upcoming days and weeks. It’s like someone could see right into my heart and lit a light for me. I will carry that light along with its warmth and glow tomorrow as I join my doctor and the pit crew in the cath lab. Whatever happens, I am positive, I will glow, and my light will shine.

So, Michelle, whatever can I show off as a favorite knit? Every single item that I cast off my needles has left me with a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and fed my creative needs. Knitting helps me cope with adversity, plan my day, and work through problems. Knitting delivers calm in a time of crisis. Knitting allows me to deal with an unpredictable autoimmune disease that delivers an uncertain future. Knitting connects me to all the knitters in the past and provides gifts for others as I pay forward. It is essential for my being and a vehicle to connect with others.

Here are some things I’m really pleased with: Goldenfern, a knitted copy of a beloved (and lost) cat, baby booties gifted to a neighbor knitted from a pattern handed down through 4 generations of my family, the hats and PICC line covers that are donated to Kaiser infusion centers in my area, and Mando (and Grogu) mitts for a knitworthy niece.

Tomorrow I’m wearing arm warmers and knitted socks into the cath lab. Take that, scleroderma.

Behold, I carry my (knitted) light with me!

Did you wonder what a BLZ is? That’s me, the Blue-Lipped Zebra!

The BioGeek Memoirs: Jade Plant

I still have with me the jade plant that I bought for my classroom almost 25 years ago. I had to make a special trip to the garden center to locate one that year as I needed it for a prop in a lesson in AP Biology about photosynthesis.

Okay, I told a little lie. This isn’t that original plant, but a direct clone of the original. In a way I still have that plant that was bought so long ago in a panic trip to the garden center near the high school I taught at.

Why did I need that plant? Well…do you remember anything about photosynthesis? (I mean, why would you unless you like to memorize chemical formulas from your days in the classroom, and then retain them for the rest of your life…) I’m guessing that you haven’t thought about it in a loooong time! I should start out mentioning that plants use their leaves as little factories to capture sun energy and then they transform that energy into a chemical form that can be used by the plant to make everything that it needs to stay alive. On their way to producing sugars (which we can think about as stored energy) the plants take carbon dioxide from the air, water from the ground, and then produce oxygen as a waste product along with the sugar that they need. Whew. Photosynthesis. There are a lot of structures and chemistry involved and it makes brains hurt everywhere when this unit is taught in biology classrooms. As a teacher I tried to use cute animations, labs, demos, activities, and as many props as I could drag into the classroom. Facing a section in the AP Biology curriculum that demanded that the students understand different types of photosynthesis (adaptations that plants have to survive in extreme environments), I needed examples of the different types of plants.

Which brings me back to the jade plant. This plant comes from Africa; southern Africa to be exact, and it is adapted to living in dry conditions. Remember that plants need carbon dioxide to do photosynthesis? The leaves of most plants have little trap doors (called stomata) that open to let air in. If the plant is losing water through these trap doors too quickly they shut. For plants growing in hot, dry conditions, this is a problem as plants need both CO2 and sunlight to do photosynthesis, but opening the stomata in the day dries out the plant. Jade plants solve the problem by only opening these little trap doors in their leaves at night. The jade does some chemical trickery to store the CO2 dissolved in water stored in the leaves where it is safely banked until the sun comes up. Did you notice how thick the leaves of the jade plant were? These plants need thick, waxy leaves with lots of stored water to support their photosynthesis. When the sun comes up the little trap doors are closed, but the CO2 is released from its chemically captured form in the leaf where it is now used for photosynthesis. Sneaky, right? Do your photosynthesis, minimize water loss, and survive in the wasteland: way to go, jade plant!! The whole process is called Crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM photosynthesis. The entire process was worked out in plants that belong to the same group as jades, which is why I needed a jade plant!

Anyway, back to my plant. It got really old and kind of ugly, so I took cuttings off it and gave plants away to people. When the plant that I kept grew into a shape I didn’t like anymore, I took more cuttings and started a whole new generation of plants growing.

So easy to get a new plant. I made four pots with cuttings, gave two away and kept two with me. They grew really well in my indoor garden under the grow lights and then in the summer I put then outside in a shady location, and they really took off then. These cutting are now the grandchildren of my original plant, but also genetically identical to that jade.

Here are the plants after their second summer outside. I now have them behind chicken wire because of Mateo. He loves to dig in the plants, but they are toxic to cats, so best to be safe.

Yes, one plant is much larger than the other. I don’t know why, but I suspect that it may have something to do with the slime mold that suddenly appeared in the soil the first summer that the plants went outdoors. Actually, that’s why they went outdoors. No slime molds in the house!!! Mine looked exactly like the slime mold used in the opening credits of The Last of Us if you watched it. Do you see why the plants moved outside?

They were fairly large at this stage and getting pretty dense. Happy plants, right?

The jades are 4 years old now and too big to get behind the chicken wire indoor garden. Mateo and Hannah don’t mess with them, so they are growing in the front room. Everything was fine until…

…this picture arrived in my Facebook feed from Nick’s Garden Center, the place where I bought the first plant all those years ago. It’s a blooming jade plant!!! Me want, badly!!!!!

I actually drove over to look at this plant, but it had already been sold.

Dying of blooming jade plant envy, I hit the internet looking for ways to get my plants to bloom. Water more, some sites suggested. Hold the water said others. Everyone said to give the plants a high phosphorus fertilizer to encourage blooming. Do it in the late winter, early spring for best results.

Okay, let’s think about this. This plant comes from an arid region. These are CAM plants, so it makes sense that more water helps with photosynthesis and that means that they have all the materials that they need to grow, and they will prosper if they grow because they need to store extra water in their leaves. The plants actually don’t like overly damp soil, so they have been taking action to keep the soil the way that works best for them. These plants have been growing really well… I think that I have been overwatering them.

This is the plant at four years old. It is now huge, and it has been doing well over the winter in a western facing window. There is lots of new growth.

Yeah, these guys are totally going on a water diet. I gave the plants high phosphorus fertilizer April 1st, and that is the last water that they got. I don’t plan to give them more for at least another month. I also decided to heavily prune the plants as they are so heavy at this point, they struggle to hold their branches up. You can see all the stakes that have gone in over the last year.

Here is the larger plant pruned down. I may take more of the lower growth off tomorrow.

I will probably water these plants with fertilizer again May 1st, but it will be a light watering. It is still too soon to move them outside, but by the middle of May the large plant will be back on the front porch doing its jade plant thing.

Remember that I started this plant with cuttings? That is a type of cloning, and this plant, happily growing on my front porch and hiding all of my delivered packages, is the same plant I used that day decades ago to teach about CAM photosynthesis. That lesson, taught so long ago, reverberates today as I try to convince this plant that it should bloom.

I used to tell my students that biology is life.

Yes, it is.


  • There are three main types of photosynthesis in plants. C3 is the most common type that is used by the grass in my lawn, my roses, and the ash tree growing in the front yard. All of these plants struggle in the high heat of the summer because they have to keep the stomata in the leaves shut due to the extreme dryness of the air.
  • C4 plants overcome this problem with some chemical trickery that lets them move lots of CO2 along in the cells of the leaf without losing too much water and they grow quickly in July. Corn and sugar cane are examples of these plants.
  • Cacti are also CAM plants, but they have really gone to extreme measures to control water loss. The plant that we see is the stem (and the stomata are there) while the leaves have adapted into needles that help protect the plant.
  • Class is dismissed.
  • Oh, I forgot. Pineapple is also a CAM plant. Pina coladas for everyone who read all of this!!!
Mateo: Don’t forget: it’s Caturday!!

Hannah and the CoalBear: The Blanket Update.

Hi. I’m Hannah.

I have a new box to sit in! This is my blackberry box.

The Mother of Cats has kind of been all over the map lately. She knits on a project, works on her plants, reads a book, knits on another project, starts listening to a different book, and on and on and on. She just can’t seem to settle down and get things done. The books are getting stacked up next to the bed, and the knitting project bags are all over the house!! It is just crazy! I have been hanging out with her trying to settle her down, and slowly she has gotten several knitting projects done. A hat, a PICC line cover, some socks, and a knitted cat all got done. The empty project bags are piling up and I’ve shoved most of them into places where she can’t see them. The CoalBear dragged one of them behind the plants in the living room and I have one stashed under the bed…

Finally, she is spending most of her time knitting my blanket. Yay!

The blanket is going to be made from these knitted hexagons. Don’t you like that color of pink? I think that it looks good with my fur.
The Mother of Cats knitted a whole bunch of the units and kept them in a box where I couldn’t play with them. What is up with that? Finally, last week we began sewing the little units of the blanket together.
Look at how nice the hexs are going together!

It got really nice and warm this week and the Mother of Cats finally let the CoalBear and me go outside. There are bugs out there! I was a little freaked out by the wind, but mostly it is wonderful to hang out on the catio with her while she sews on my blanket.

Where is the bunny?

Yes, you read that right. The Mother of Cats put up chicken wire around the deck so the CoalBear and I can visit the outside, look at the bunny, and enjoy the breeze while staying safe. This is our catio now, and there is also a swinging garden seat and a nice table out there so the Mother of Cats can hang out with us as she enjoys her lunch and sews on the blanket. I just love spring, don’t you?

Don’t I look nice on the table?

So, do you want to see the whole blanket? It’s not done but you can kind of imagine what it will look like someday…

See how wide it is going to be!

Yesterday the Mother of Cats finished sewing together all of the hexagons that were made and she went back to knitting more hexs. She wants the blanket to be pretty big so there is still a lot of knitting to get done, and she is even talking about buying more yarn. What? When will this blanket ever get done?

That’s okay. I’ll just grap a nap while she’s knitting.

This is Hannah, signing off.

Notes from the Mother of Cats:

The blanket is being knit from the pattern Nectar Blanket by Ysolda Teague. I got a little carried away sewing together the units and my version is going to be bigger than the largest size in the pattern because, well, isn’t it really nice looking? I want it to cover the bed and I do have to share with the cats…

I’m going to have to get another large cable needle to put the border on this baby!

It has been just beautiful outdoors this week and I put out some potted plants. Yeah. It is going to be really cold again with snow this weekend. Those flowers with the cats on their catio will be heading into the garage tomorrow.

Hannah and the CoalBear: Orchid Cat Caturday

Hi. I’m Hannah.

The Mother of Cats has been ignoring me for days and days while she knits on a… CAT!!

I hardly know what to think. She had this cool yarn in the stash that kind of reminded her of orchids and spring. The orchids started blooming a few weeks ago and that was that… she began to ignore me and the CoalBear and started fussing over the orchids and the yarn.

Okay, it is true that the orchids are kind of cool. I like to climb into the garden where they are growing from time to time to hang out with them. The Mother of Cats gets a little cranky when I do it, however, so I don’t get to do it all the time. I lately have been sleeping right next to the Mother of Cats while she knits on this… cat… Really, it doesn’t look all that much like a cat, but she kept telling me that it was. Here’s what happened.

The cat started out with some crazy knitting that produced this leg. Whatever. I have a cat paw, and it doesn’t look anything like that. The colors kind of are like orchids, however…
As she kept knitting it began to look a little more like a cat, but…
What is up with this face!!!

I was really concerned for the Mother of Cats. It seemed like she didn’t really know what a cat is supposed to look like. I can kind of see the chin, but that nose and the EYES were the stuff of knitty kitty nightmares.

Finally, the ears, nose, and eyes were on the cat. Oh, wow. This is starting to look like a kitty (or maybe a pug?) and I can almost hear it asking, “When will I be done?”
Two days ago, she finally finished knitting the cat and I helped her put the whiskers on. Gee. He almost looks like he belongs in the orchids, doesn’t he.
He even looks pretty good in my strawberry box!
But the Mother of Cats says that he actually belongs in the orchid garden. He does look pretty good in there.

Now that the Mother of Cats has finished up the orchid kitty she has gone back to knitting on my blanket. Yay!! She isn’t ignoring me so much because she keeps putting the blanket on me while she sews the pieces together. I can’t wait to get my blanket and we are working on it every evening together while the CoalBear runs wild and chases his toys downstairs.

Mateo the CoalBear: why does Hannah get all of the cool knits?

Hannah: Because I am a little princess, and also because you don’t share the toys!!

This is Hannah, signing off.

Happy Caturday everyone!!

Notes from the Mother of Cats:

  • The pattern that I used is Grey Kitten Calico Cat by Claire Garland.
  • The yarn is a silk/merino/nylon blend by Noro called Tsubame. It is dk weight and I just knit the colors as they appeared in the ball as I worked. Mostly. I did throw out some green along the way.
  • My project page on Ravelry is here. Yeah, I was too lazy to write in any notes on the page.
  • I used the center quill of feathers to make the whiskers.
  • 5 of my 7 orchid plants are now blooming and they definitely deserve a knitted cat to hang out with them!!
  • Did you want to see the back of the cat? Here he is!
Doesn’t he look like a spring cat?

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rare Disease Day, 2023

Well, here it is again. Rare Disease Day. I kind of was going to ignore it this year because I’m quite frankly worn out by my… wait for it… rare diseases, but I also feel like I should pull myself together and represent for the community again.

People with rare diseases are referred to as Zebras in the medical community. I obtained my zebra status when I was diagnosed with systemic sclerosis in 2014. This zebra was sent to me last week by my Most Knitworthy Niece Melissa.

I wrote a pretty darn good post last year about my journey with a rare disease which you can read here if you want. I talked about rare diseases in general, my specific conditions, and the many things that have been said to me by my doctors over the years. I thought about just reposting what I wrote last year, but I’ve been reflecting all morning on some recent events that kind of shine a light on my situation and that of other people who are coping with rare conditions.

  • I recently managed to go knit with my fellow members of Frayed Knots. This was a big social outing for me because it’s hard to get out of the house, and I have to be having a really good day to go to something like this. Knitting with friends is just “normal” for most people, and it would just be a little part of their day, but for me this was something that I had to prepare for a couple of days in advance, and then recover from in bed the next day. Many rare conditions are chronic, and chronic illnesses can be very isolating by their very nature.
  • A woman at the knitting group questioned my decision to wear a mask. I started to explain, but she cut me off to say that I was doing it so I could feel comfortable. It was a little condescending and suggested that I was being paranoid. Truthfully, my immune system, crushed by the drugs that I am taking right now, is compromised in its ability to make antibodies. If I catch a viral disease like the flu or Covid, there is a good chance that I won’t survive. My vaccinations have a low chance of protecting me for the same reason. For people with rare diseases, life is fraught and full of difficult decisions. For me, and for many other immunocompromised individuals, simple decisions involve life/death level risk analysis.
  • Another woman at the knitting table was struggling with long Covid and shared her difficulties with returning to work. She especially felt crushed by the attitudes of her coworkers who seemed to feel that she was “fine” and just trying to get attention. Yep. Been there, done that. Many rare diseases are genetic or largely invisible to others. Invisible illnesses are especially hard to cope with because others tend to question their validity.
  • I’m in several online support groups, and there are always discussions about what drugs to take, and whether the side effects are worth the risks. Yep. There are no specific drugs for systemic sclerosis, no cure, and treatment can involve a patchwork of risky off-label drugs. The drugs that are used are often non-specific carpet-bombing like approaches. Rare diseases have fewer treatment options because there are only a limited number of patients.

Over the last year my wonderful team of physicians have been suggesting that I am really unusual and have been extremely responsive to my emails. They clear an hour for appointments with me. I’m one of the very lucky zebras who has managed to get diagnoses, secured treatment, and am benefiting from a team of collaborative, interdisciplinary physicians who actively communicate with each other and with me; just last week my rheumatologist told me that for a patient with my status this is the only way to deliver care. I’m so grateful to have secured this level of medical attention, but I also feel a little nervous about it. I spent some time this morning trying to work out the probability of one person having the several medical diagnoses that I’ve racked up since 2014. Like, just how rare am I?

The National Organization for Rare Disorders estimates that there are 100,000 patients with systemic sclerosis in the United States. That’s rare, but still, a big club, right?

The 15% Rule is a general measurement of the risk of severe organ involvement in systemic sclerosis. As it turns out, quite a few of the major lung, heart, and kidney complications associated with systemic sclerosis happen about 15% of the time. I have Sjogren’s Disease overlap with my systemic sclerosis, which happens in about 13% of patients. Suddenly, I’m in a much smaller group of about 13,000 patients.

My most worrisome complicating conditions are diastolic dysfunction (a type of heart failure), pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) and interstitial lung disease (SSc-ILD). I looked up the risk of having each of these conditions using the 15% rule data, and it turns out the risks are 16% (diastolic dysfunction), 15% (PAH) and 35% for the SSc-ILD. Did you notice the the ILD doesn’t fit the 15% rule? Yep. It’s much more common and is the leading cause of death in systemic sclerosis patients. I found that risk factor here.

I brushed up on my probability math (you multiply the probabilities of independent events…), and after running the numbers:

100,000(13/100 x 16/100 x 15/100 x 35/100)

I came to a grand total of 116 other patients in the US who share my set of diagnosed conditions.


See, I have lots and lots of stripes. Stripes in purple, teal, periwinkle, red, green, and blue: these are the awareness colors for my conditions.

I just ordered that rainbow zebra unicorn shirt! I plan to wear it with my mask on my next social outing…

You can learn more about Rare Disease Day or my conditions at the links below.