The Scleroderma Chronicles: Song of the Cell, Dance of the Cytokines

I’m reading a really wonderful book right now that is really speaking to me on so many levels.

This man is a BioGeek of the first order! He interweaves his experiences, patients, memories, and the history of cells together in a way that makes me green with envy. He unpacks the history of our understanding of cells by bringing those scientists to life in a way that makes me care about them; if only I could write that well. He is the teacher that I wish I had been as he reveals to us how cells work together to create complex human systems, and then ties all of that to the treatment of disease. I’m still in the first parts of the book, but I have already filled my kindle with highlights and notes.

This book was published at the exact right moment when I needed it. I have totally gone down the rabbit hole at PubMed over the last two weeks as I have read paper after paper while chasing down the major players in my chronic conditions (why am I sick, and what exactly are these new meds doing…) and how they link to inflammation. Why would anyone do something like this?

Well, it all comes down to this. I’m on high-risk drugs with some serious side effectss, and I want to make informed decisions about whether I continue taking them. I also had a run-in with elderberry juice, and was rescued by green chile; as a BioGeek I was sucked down the curiosity rabbit hole after that whole adventure. What? That doesn’t happen to you? Listen, it has been so bad I haven’t even been knitting!!!

These are the two drugs that I’m trying to understand. In his book Siddhartha Mukherjee argues that our understanding of cells, and how they work, has transformed medicine into the modern miracle that I am currently benefiting from. Drugs that directly interact with the molecular machinery of cells, the signals between them and the biochemical pathways that cells use to function, are the first of the major transformative directions modern medicine is taking in the treatment of so many pathologies such as cancer, diabetes, neurological, and autoimmune diseases such as mine.

Systemic sclerosis is really darn complicated, as it turns out, and the sequence of events that have been happening in my body are so convoluted it’s hard to track them all. It started in the cells lining my blood vessels. As those cells got injured, they sent out signals that activated parts of my immune system. Signals from the immune cells caused other cells to transform and they began to produce scar tissue… scleroderma means “hard skin”, the hallmark of my condition. Whew. Here’s a condensed version of all that if you want to torture yourself and/or fall asleep.

Let’s go back to my meds. Ambrisentan blocks a molecule that is involved in making blood vessels constrict and raises blood pressure when it is active. That molecule, endothelin, is getting turned off by the drug, and there is evidence that this will improve my exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension and will also keep it from progressing; it plays nice with my other pulmonary hypertension drug which shuts down an enzyme pathway involved in blood pressure. Ofev is my new (fairy dust) drug, and it disables some of the essential enzymes in the cells of my lungs that are involved in creating scar tissue. Interstitial lung disease is currently the leading cause of death for systemic sclerosis patients; mine is being treated by side railing the process in the cells that are essential players in the pathology.

Yay! Molecular trickery at the cellular level saves the day! I will be staying on these meds as long as I can.

Dancing to the tune of the song of immune system cells are cytokines, the messenger molecules that travel between immune system cells and other cells that they interact with. The dance is complex, with all the different messengers traveling through the blood to target cells in the body, latching on and causing the cells to take actions. Some cytokines increase inflammation, and other will shut it down. Your immune system can get dialed up or shut down, depending on what the messages are. In my travels through research papers at PubMed I focused first on what cytokines were involved in systemic sclerosis, and then I hunted for papers that had measured the levels of these cytokines when people ate different foods.

Foods that you consume can make a big difference, evidently. Elderberry made me much worse (I cried in two different doctor’s offices), and green chile saved the day. I was done doing google searches for “anti-inflammatory foods” and was going after hard data.

.What did you expect? I’m a BioGeek. OF COURSE I made a spreadsheet with the data!

Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNFα) is a big driver in the whole systemic sclerosis story along with Interferon gamma (IFN-γ). They cause an increase in two more cytokines that promote inflammation, Interleukin-6 (IL-6) and Interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β). All four of these bad boys will make my inflammation worse and (probably… I’m guessing here) encourage my conditions to progress. A lot of these foods/supplements will lower the levels of these cytokines, which explains why I feel better when I eat them. ELDERBERRY increases three of these cytokines which is why I felt like death warmed over while drinking it. Google said it was anti-inflammatory… can you see why I switched to research papers and cytokines? Green chile stew has tomatoes and green chile in it (and some yummy pork and garlic!); no wonder it turned things around. I will try to eat as many of the “good” foods as I can, but I’m going to focus on ones that really shut down TNFα and IL-6. I’m ignoring the IL-10 and CRP info because it wasn’t really as well supported as the others, and I know that my CRP (C-Reactive Protein) levels are normal.

My lunch smoothie: tart cherries, raspberries, banana, spinach, yogurt, chia seed (gag) and cranberry juice. For dinner I’m having a green chile cheesy corn pudding thing that tastes pretty darn good.

Wow. Did you read all of that stuff above? You deserve a prize for perseverance.

Here’s your prize. It’s like a “Where’s Waldo” picture, but this one is Where’s Hannah!

So, there is all is. Inside my systemic sclerosis, pulmonary hypertension, interstitial lung disease self, there are all these dancing cytokines, following the song of cells. Scientists who were captured by all of this and who were entranced by the Song of the Cell have developed the drugs that are treating the two life-threatening complications of systemic sclerosis that have come my way. Inside me, the promise of the song goes on.

Time to get back to my book.

Notes:

  • Okay, I made a whole other spreadsheet with links to all of the research papers that I used to get some understanding about these cytokines, and which were important in my disease. You don’t want to see all of that, right? If you do, say so in a comment and I’ll send some links your way!
  • I became curious about what is happening with Covid patients and the cytokine storm that can cause severe symptoms. Yep. It’s happening because of TNFα, IFN-γ, and IL-6. If you catch Covid, I don’t recommend elderberry.
  • Clinical trials are currently underway to see if an IL-6 inhibitor will be an effective treatment for systemic sclerosis.
  • I’m a lucky, lucky girl. I have a degree in molecular biology, used to work in an immunology lab that focused on IL-1, was involved in a scleroderma research project, and finished up my lab days on a project looking at the impact of capsaicin on rheumatoid arthritis. I can almost understand what I’m reading on PubMed. Almost.

The Books of August

August wasn’t the best for me. I had just come off a course of steroids to treat my lung disease (there’s another post coming) and I seemed to be struggling with withdrawal. I hurt everywhere. Sleep was difficult. I was sad. I cast on lots of projects and failed to make much progress with any of them because I was struggling with tendonitis. I kept trying different needle sizes and yarn types all month, but nothing worked. Here’s the list:

  • A new sweater, Lace & Fade Boxy by Joji Locatelli. I think that I have a couple of inches done…
  • A standing cat being knit in cool Noro yarn. For some reason I decided that the cat would be outstanding knitted in spring colors (cream/blue/raspberry/green) as a Noro calico cat. Right now, the cat has her front paws and no head yet…
  • A crocheted bag being made in Noro yarn and fancy squares all attached together. I have a lot of squares done, but nothing is attached yet…
  • A new pair of socks. One sock is done…
  • A new pair of mitts. One mitt is done…
  • A PICC line cover that is… half done.
  • My Sharon Air MKAL shawl. That one I am keeping up on because Hannah is keeping me on track.

I did get some sewing done, but mostly I lounged around and read books. Well, I listened to The Murderbot Diaries a couple of more times. I love that series!

This is the first book in the series. I’m anxiously awaiting a new release.

The audiobooks are easy to listen to, the story is easy to follow, and the main character (Murderbot) is so engaging/snarky that you are in its camp from the moment you meet it. Murderbot is a machine/organic construct that specializes in security. A free agent because it has hacked the device that is supposed to control it, it is slowly finding its way to personhood and working out what it wants. It also is continuing to work its old security job while consuming tons of entertainment media. I love Murderbot! It listens to its favorite soap opera-like serial over and over while it deals with anxiety and blocks of down time; I listen to Murderbot over and over while I deal with my own. I smile to myself in moments of self-realization and wish that I could watch The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon along with Murderbot. Murderbot considers its primary client, Doctor Mensa, to be an actual intrepid galactic explorer and I try to be like Doctor Mensa, too. See, a great series of books for sad days.

What a great book!

It’s hard to talk about this book without creating spoilers, but I’m going to try. This is the story of an extreme friendship between two game developers that is actually a love story. It is about betrayal, broken dreams, the creative drive, and the endurance of friendship. I just loved it. Oh yeah, that title comes from MacBeth’s soliloquy about life: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Not the best message for a person who hurts all over and who cried in two different doctors’ offices last month, but still in a strange way comforting.

Then there were these two books:

Have you ever had an urge to do something but didn’t know why? I can totally identify with this as a knitter who is making a standing cat in crazy colors. I also collect empty notebooks to write in, a habit that went on for years before I finally began writing. Then there is the yarn stash… What would happen if you lived in a community where there was the infrastructure to allow you to just follow your dreams?

In these two books we meet a robot (who is the descendant of ancient robots that left the world of humans and went into the wild) and a monk who lives in an environmentally sustainable world with little technology, a world where everyone is accepted for who they are and supported by a barter-driven economy. The robot and monk meet up and begin a pilgrimage through this world together that is compelling and positive; just what I needed for reading material last month. The message that they pursue in their journey is… who am I and what do I want? The final conclusion is one that I could totally identify with… it is enough to just be happy in the moment.

Now it is September and what am I reading?

Umm.. I’m afraid that I have to admit that I have started Murderbot again, but only because I can’t seem to find The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon on Netflix. I am considering looking into Coronation Street…

By the way, I am through withdrawal and the hurting has stopped. See. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. The knitting is back on!

Time for some Sanctuary Moon… err… Murderbot while I knit.

Six Months Update and Days of Color

Okay, this is an update on my progress on my goals for the year, but it is also a celebration of how well I feel at the moment and my launch into several projects that are rocking the color right now. Seriously, I am so drawn to colors at the moment that I’m pretty much doing some silly impulse shopping. Who cares. I’m having a good time!!

You want to see the silly impulse shopping and/or pink things first?

I could not leave the local garden center without that pink flamingo for my garden! Hello, it glows in the dark with an LED body. 🙂 What do you think about my Knitting Goddess fabric? Yep. That was a late-night Etsy impulse purchase. I’m thinking that it will make a fabulous project bag. What do you think about that Noro yarn? That will become a crocheted tote bag… I also needed to buy some brightly colored hooks to make the bag, and there may have been another big ball of beautiful yarn that fell into the shopping crate before I checked out, but I’ll never talk about it. My feet are hurting because of the spinning I’m doing, so I had to get those wicked compression socks!!! Yep, I am a total sucker for pink. Well, raspberry pink to be specific, but I will settle for hot pink. Finally, Hannah kept trying to drag off my knitted finger protectors, so I made her and Mateo some little tube-like cat thingies to play with. They like them!

Speaking of color, look at my progress on the spinning for Tour de Fleece.

Can you see that I am making progress? The bobbin on the right is where I am today. I’m almost through the crocus-colored roving (50/50 yak/silk from Greenwood Fiberworks), then I get to start on the variegated roving. I’ve been watching episodes of Vera on BritBox while I spin so I’m actually coming to think of this Tour de Fleece as the Tour de Northumbia… I am happy with the spinning as I think that my drafting is getting easier and the thread that I’m spinning is getting smoother. It may also be slightly larger, but I can live with that!

I started reading this book this week because… look at that cover!!!

I don’t want to talk about this book yet because it really is remarkable, and I am changing my opinion about it as I go. It’s like entering a dream world and just experiencing the adventure without worrying too much about what’s going on. In time, I’m sure, I’ll understand what is happening. Maybe. I don’t care. I’m so entranced at the moment I’m reading a couple of hours a day during the heat of the day.

There is color in the garden, too. Look at this:

There is more color in the garden to replace the fading roses. My veronica is finally blooming, and I went back to the garden center to buy more lavender plants. I now have 11 lavenders in the garden… don’t you think that I should get another, so it is an even dozen? The pink yarrow is hard at work. Oh, yeah, there was also a garter snake in the garden today. Not a lot of color, but a ton of fun to see.

So, how much progress has occurred over the last 6 months?

  • I finished 30 hats and 28 PICC line covers in the first 6 months. I was hoping to get 50 of each done this year, so I am on track.
  • I have removed 76 skeins of yarn (100g of yarn = a skein) from the stash through knitting and donations. I hope to get 100 skeins out before the end of the year, so I am on track. I did just have a 6-skein slip, but I’m not worried.
  • The other knitting accomplishments are two sweaters and two pairs of socks.
  • I finished a quilt and got it hung up on the wall!
  • I learned how to double knit. Actually, I’m really stoked about how fun it was and I am looking forward to doing some cute projects. (I found that chart online and watched videos to figure out how to do this. Piece of cake, as it turns out!)
  • I have finished 32 books.

Well, that’s the progress report. My son helped me get my table loom set up for me to use and I’m dreaming of warping the floor loom before the end of the year. (Mateo: that sounds like fun!!) I’m wondering if I can weave something with the yarn that I am spinning now, and I’ve pulled out another quilt kit that has been languishing forever in a cupboard so that I can work on that in my sewing room. I’m entering the last few days on the full dose of prednisone; the dose will be tapered off and stopped over the next two weeks. While I was on prednisone my rheumatologist gradually stepped up my immunosuppressant to a final dose that is double what I was on previously. I feel really good right now and I have huge plans for the rest of the year.

Scleroderma, behave yourself!!

Thoughts on “Lessons in Chemistry” while sitting in my Garden

The monsoon has arrived in Colorado! This monsoon is not bringing any rain my way, but it is carrying in cooler air and gentle breezes through the day. Suddenly I am spending lots of time outside. I’ve worked in the gardens every single evening for a couple of hours and the gardens are actually starting to look like… gardens! Okay, I have to admit, there is still lots of work to get done, but I’m so happy to see tidy weeded gardens with lovely rose bushes without a throng of weeds around them.

In the late afternoons, when it is still a little too sunny to work in the gardens, but nice for sitting outside because my swinging garden seat is in the shade, I move out to read with the wildlife. Look at the great pictures I got this week!

My yard is a playground for a group of juvenile squirrels who are always entertaining. There are huge swallowtail butterflies and tiny birds in the yard, but those guys haven’t stopped long enough for me to get a photo yet. The robin is a regular at my little birdbath, and the first bumblebees of the year showed up to sample some of my flowers. My favorite rose bush, the Princess Alexandra of Kent, now has 15 blooms going. My back gardens are filled with new plantings, and the lavender and yarrow are just a few days away from the first blooms. I’m really enjoying my time outside reading, and then I think about the book while I pull weeds and put the gardens into order.

Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel by Bonnie Garmus has been on my mind a lot this last week. The story is of Elizabeth Zott, an intrepid individualist woman who is a scientist by nature and calling, challenged by her gender and the time in which she lived.

I just love the Elizabeth Zott character. I understand and identify with her so much. Elizabeth is a chemist/scientist trying to do research into an original area of chemistry that intersects with biology. Did I mention that it is the 50s? Oh. Elizabeth has a lot of obstacles to overcome: women are expected to be homemakers, and misogyny and gender stereotypes are everywhere. Other women gossip about her and sabotage her. Men steal her work and take credit for it. She loses her job and ends up doing a cooking show on television.

Where she teaches cooking as lessons in chemistry to produce the best, most wonderful dishes ever. Women love her show, take lecture notes through the programs, cook the meals, and learn to think differently about their abilities, their role in society, and their individual worth. The book is wonderful. The book is about keeping an open mind, questioning everything, collecting data, and thinking for oneself. Also, there is a dog who is a major character in the story and who has a wonderful voice and viewpoint of his own.

So why does this book connect so much to me? Well… I grew up in the 50s and 60s. I entered college as a chemistry major (but once I discovered molecular biology, which is kind of biological chemistry, I was gone…). We kind of forget how things used to be for women, but I do remember how things were.

A small list of events from that time:

  • The men talking out front after church each Sunday sure were critical of women drivers. Like, women shouldn’t be allowed to drive. They were serious!
  • A woman at my church had cancer. Her husband, who was in charge of her health care, had that information concealed from her.
  • My high school counselor told me that I would make a great nurse because I was so smart, I could support doctors in making their diagnoses, helping them with their careers. I decided that maybe I should be a doctor…
  • My chemistry advisor in college told me that women were just taking away a slot from a man and that the education was wasted on them because they would just become housewives. Umm… I had just made the Dean’s List…
  • I interviewed for my first research lab job after college. I had to answer a lot of questions about my husband, his career plans, and whether we would be having another child. I think that I got the job because my husband needed me to support the family while he finished college.
  • Working at my lab bench late one afternoon I overheard the head of the lab discussing the research of one of the postdoctoral fellows, a woman. They were denigrating her work while, at the same time, talking about how they could clean it up for publishing. They published her research under their own names later that year.

Well, that’s enough to give you a glimpse of what it was like for women as they struggled for equal opportunities, standards, and pay. We’ve come a long way, but the fight goes on. What I especially loved about science is that it helped level the playing field and encouraged independent, out-of-the box thinking.

Which brings me back to the book. Elizabeth reads to the dog and teaches him hundreds of words. Elizabeth allows her daughter to read just about anything that she can get her hands on (a reading philosophy that I also benefited from), and teaches her cooking show viewers to take a few minutes to savor their accomplishments. Elizabeth rows with men. Elizabeth moves through the world, astonishingly self-confident, striving always to extend the envelope of her knowledge, fearlessly challenging the status quo, viewing everything through the lens of science.

I kind of think that Elizabeth Zott is my hero!

And science. Always, science.

Cooking may be chemistry, but biology is life.

This is me, sitting in my garden, thinking about life.

Hannah and the CoalBear: It’s Caturday Again

Hi. I’m the CoalBear (AKA Mateo)

It is sooooo hot today. It is almost 100 degrees outside, and Hannah and I are staying cool in the house. The Mother of Cats has all the windows closed and we’re too hot to look out the windows anyway. Do you notice that the Mother of Cats has been brushing out all of my downy fur? I used to have a huge ruff around my neck, and now it is almost all gone. I look a whole size smaller now. I don’t like getting brushed, but today I guess I am glad that she did it. She also cuts my nails off and I will never get used to that!!

The Mother of Cats has been knitting away on her sweater this week and look at how far she’s gotten! She is done with the first sleeve and halfway down the second one already! She has also been sewing on the quilt with Hannah.

The quilt is coming right along and should be done in just a few more days. The Mother of Cats can’t wait to get it done. Hannah kind of hopes that she is going to get to keep it for her new bed, but I think that the Mother of Cats is planning to hang it up on the wall behind her knitting chair. I ripped the old quilt down a couple of days ago (Hey! There was a moth!) and she didn’t even bother to hang it back up again. Okay, the old quilt was a Christmas themed one, so maybe she’s ready to put it away now anyway. I’m such a good boy; see how I did her a big favor?

A scary man came this week and messed around with the Mother of Cat’s oxygen machine. When he left there was new stuff left behind including this new green bottle with a snazzy carrying bag. Now the Mother of Cats has oxygen she can take with her when she goes out on errands, but mostly she stays home with us because we are so cute! She has been working on her gardens this week and they are starting to look pretty good. The first rose bloomed this week which made her really happy.

It’s her first English rose of the year!
Well, that all I have. It’s still stinking hot outside and all of the animals are asleep, so I am going to take a little nap too.

See you next week!

>^..^> CoalBear

Notes from the Mother of Cats

  • The sweater is GoldenFern by Jennifer Steingass. Hopefully I will have it done in another week or so. I’m really anxious to start another sweater but so far I’m sticking to getting this one done first.
  • I know that isn’t a good shot of the quilt, but hopefully I will have a nice picture of the completed quilt to show off next week. Hanging on the wall, where I hope it remains as long as no moths land on it. 🙂
I’m listening to this audiobook while I quilt and I just am loving it!!
  • Not only did I get oxygen-to-go this week, but I also got my injections of Evusheld, which is a combination of two monoclonal antibodies that will give me protection from Covid for at least 6 months. This is huge piece of mind for me since my doctors are dialing up my immunosuppression drug dose this month and have started me on a new immunosuppressant drug at the same time. Yay, Evusheld! With the higher dose of drugs, I won’t be able to make many antibodies of my own, so I’m glad to have the Evusheld antibodies.
  • That rose is Princess Alexandra of Kent, and it is pretty much my favorite rose in the garden right now.
  • Hannah and Mateo don’t know it but they are heading to the vet for their vaccinations and checkups next week. Sad cat day is on the way…

Month’s End Report: May 2022

This month passed in a hurry. I spent most of a week in the hospital, and then the rest of the month recovering from the surgery. I haven’t been exactly frisky for the whole month, but I have been making some progress on several projects.

Hannah: The Mother of Cats has been spending lots of quality time with us!

Doesn’t Hannah look pleased with her box? The house is pretty much full of boxes at the moment as I have been making use of all the shopping services that cropped up during the height of the pandemic. I’m getting everything that I need with little effort and Hannah and Mateo are having the best time ever. From their prospective it has been a really great month!

Knitting

I worked on a sweater and community knitting this month. I really pushed and got the body of my Goldenfern sweater done early in the month and then immediately lost it on sleeve island. Poor sweater. It languished for the rest of the month in its knitting tub while I knitted chemo hat after chemo hat with a few PICC line covers thrown in for variety.

I have lots of brightly colored yarn so that’s what’s getting knitted right now!

I know that this is the end of month report for May, but I want to acknowledge that now that we are in a new month, I have pulled myself together and taken that sweater off of sleeve island. I made some good progress over the last couple of days, and I finally got to the colorwork section of the sleeve today.

I’m knitting the ferns onto the bottom of the first sleeve now.

I also made a couple of more passes through the yarn stash culling out yarn that I will never use and throwing out scraps. (So hard to do; I deserve a gold star!!) Altogether, I knit 6 chemo hats this month (Barley Light by Tin Can Knits), 5 PICC line covers, and used up or removed 38 skeins of yarn from the stash. I think that I deserve more than one gold star for the destash efforts this month… I am kind of thinking that I will get more than 100 skeins out of the stash, and to be truthful, things are looking a lot more tidy in the stash room.

Garden

Everything is growing like crazy now. The roses all made it through the late season snowstorm and there are buds everywhere but very few blooms. The snapdragons, however, are blooming their little flower hearts out.

All of these snapdragons are volunteers growing from last year’s plants. Look at all of those colors; they are the descendants of pink snapdragons that were originally planted a couple of years ago. Also, those flowers are NOT in a flowerbed where they belong!
This plant is my favorite in the bunch. It is growing with reckless abandon in the rocks along the driveway.

With absolutely no effort on my part these snapdragons have spread through the front gardens (and rocked landscaping…) and have brought lots of early color in reds, oranges, pinks and yellows. There is a BioGeek story here, but I will save it for another day. 🙂

Books

I managed to read 5 books in May. Not great, considering that I was a slug for most of the month, but I’m still on track to make my Goodreads challenge goal of 50 books this year.

I’m reading the most amazing book right now.

I can’t read this book fast enough!

I read A Visit from the Goon Squad, so I had some idea of what I was getting into with this book. The book is organized like a series of short stories about people who are connected to each other. There are a lot of names flying past, and there are also embedded themes within the stories, so there is a lot to keep track of. I am creating a flow chart showing the linkages and themes as I read which is helping me immensely. How I long for a book group!

So, here’s the simple backbone of the book: what if there was an electronic, open forum vehicle that let you store all of your memories? Think of this like Facebook on steroids where it is open to the world and people can access and search other people and memories. What would such a thing do to us; what would we lose, and what would we gain?

The people and themes that I am meeting as I read the book are engaging and I’m really enjoying myself. Also, I am going to need some really big chart paper to map out all of the interconnections the way things are going as I read.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

The BioGeek Memoirs: Bees

The last few days have been warm and sunny, and the perennial shrubs are starting to green up out in the garden. My patch of catmint is already coming back to life and the return of bees to the garden is right around the corner.

Honeybee in my catmint last year.

I just love bees! I used to be afraid of them as a child (I mean, who wouldn’t be? They are kind of scary and they sting!) until I learned the difference between bees and wasps. Now I get a little thrill seeing the bees buzzing around plants in the garden and set boundaries with the paper wasps whenever they build a hive in my yard. (Here’s the boundary… if the wasps leave me alone, they are safe. If I get harassed or stung that nest is history!)

Of course, I am planting things that the bees like in my yard! They just love my sedum and viburnum along with the catmint, but they also spend some time with the dandelions. They absolutely love the neighborhood flowering trees. Just as I have established some boundaries with the wasps in my yard, I have negotiated some boundaries with the (male) neighbors over dandelions. They tend to get a little worked up if I don’t eradicate every single dandelion in the front yard, so I do stay on top of them out front… (sigh)… but in the back I have some carefully maintained dandelion plants that are now the size of romaine lettuces. Bees love dandelions!! Since dandelions bloom really early in the spring they are an important source of pollen for bees so I let them bloom and then cut off the seed globes before the seeds fly. Later in the year the leaves on those dandelion plants are food for my wild bunny. Shhhh… the dandelions are a secret that my favorite neighbor, Alton, doesn’t know about. He mows the front lawn for me every week in the summer, and wonders why I won’t let him do the back yard… 🙂

Bunnies eat dandelions!

Long ago I had a bumblebee nest in my back yard. These bees (they are kind of fuzzy instead of smooth, are larger than honeybees, and mine had a red band at the top of their abdomen) live in things like woodpiles or holes in the ground. In my yard the bees were living in a hive in the ground, so I built a little shelter over the nest with flagstones. The hive survived year after year, and we came to love these gentle little bees.

Bumblebee at my catmint. See the fuzz?

The bees flew exact flight paths every afternoon coming home with pollen, and if you accidently walked into the flight path, they would bounce off you (repeatedly) and hover in the air waiting for the path to reopen. It was so cute! These bees were so gentle that no one in our family was ever stung except for a cat who took a nap on top of the opening to the hive… sad boy, we found the bee clinging to his belly once we calmed him down.

Morgan: that bee was a nightmare!!!

Every year as a biology teacher my students and I learned about bees as we watched a NOVA program together called Tales from the Hive. The students loved, loved, loved this show. I attended a workshop on bees at the University of Colorado and put my name in to win a beehive for my classroom and sadly lost to another teacher who absolutely, positively did not deserve that hive as much as I did (!!!) but I’m over it now. Sniff. The students and I were all crushed at the news that I had lost…

Why learn about bees? Well, bees are especially important in our ecology as pollinators. Basically, flowers are all about reproduction, and if the pollen on the flower (the male part) isn’t carried to the female part of the flower there won’t be any seeds or baby plants in the future. Plants get pollinated by lots of different means, but many plants rely on bees. The flowers are specifically designed to attract bees, and bees rely on the flowers to survive. We benefit from this relationship between bees and plants as the resulting process produces a lot of our food. Some crops are 90% dependent on bees for reproduction, and altogether about one third of our food is dependent on bees. Believe it or not, as the blooming season moves north up the planet there are mobile beehives that travel north as well, traveling to orchards and fields, bringing the bees as pollinators for those crops. As a teacher I could use bees to teach about ecology, evolution, invertebrates, sociobiology, and bioethics. Bees were really important to me as a teacher!

So, how much do I love bees? Well, I spent a summer reading a whole series of books about bees and blogged about it here. I spent a week one June on horseback in the Colorado wilderness riding a horse named Industrious Bee.

Bee and me. What a great week that was!!

I spent another summer teaching an advanced biology program with the best student teacher ever and learned even more about bees here in Colorado because his mother was a beekeeper. When the program ended in July, I received a little gift package of honey from him. See. If bees are involved, all things are good!

How much do I love bees? Well, I knitted myself my own little bee to keep me company over the winter.

The pattern for this bee is by Claire Garland and is called Bees are Beautiful.

Yes, they are!

Month’s End Report: March, 2022

All of a sudden, the season has changed on me. There are birds in my yard, the light is brighter, my backyard bunny is once again entertaining the cats, and shoots of green are starting to peek at me from under the winter bedding of leaves that I put in the gardens last fall. The cats are much more active as they rocket from window to window through the house tracking squirrels traveling from my front tree, over the roof, and then along the back fences (this is known as Squirrel Route One in my house). The fatigue-inducing storms of winter are transitioning to spring rains, and the first flowers are right around the corner. Bye, winter. Glad to see you gone.

When the cats take a break from squirrel tracking and bunny watching they hang out on my bedroom bookshelf keeping their eyes on me. Since I spent most of the month in bed, they have been up there quite a lot.

Knitting

I really have gotten a lot of knitting done this month. Since I’m tracking my knitting for the year (well, actually, the number of skeins that I can get out of the stash), I thought that I would also give a quarterly update on my progress.

I’m continuing to knit hats and PICC line covers for the Kaiser infusion centers.

So far I’ve knitted 20 hats and 19 PICC line covers this year. Early in the month I delivered all the hats and covers to one of the infusion centers on my way to an appointment with the rheumatologist. The infusion center had a huge impact on me; it was located in a spacious room with large overhead windows; sunbeams streamed down from the windows lighting up the room. There were almost 20 stations in there, along each wall under the windows, each one with a patient receiving treatment. I was stunned. So many people! I must knit faster.

I finished a simple sweater made with merino/cashmere yarn that is like a comfy sweatshirt to wear. Also, it goes with all my shawls, cowls, and mitts.

The sweater is Cushman by Isabel Kraemer. This is the second one that I have made so I was really confident with the fit and raced right through it.

I cannot stress how helpful the cats are in getting these pictures.
I have also been knitting along on a Goldenfern sweater (Jennifer Steingass). In another couple of inches I will start on the colorwork; the three golden colored yarns are for that. I plan to shade from the lightest to the darkest as I work my way down the chart.

Altogether I have knitted my way through 894 grams of yarn this month making the grand total of destashed yarn 3,154 grams (or the equivalent of 31 skeins) for the year. Okay, I did go through bins and pulled out several hundred grams of yarn that needed be thrown out… like many knitters I have saved the leftovers from almost everything I’ve knitted; at this point I need to let all of those scraps go! I had hoped to get 50 skeins out of the stash: now I’m thinking that I might manage 100 skeins. Knitting all those hats is paying off!

Garden

The outdoor garden is still dead, and the indoor garden is kind of pathetic. I’ve been buying some ferns and a spider plant to get more greenery into the house. The cats are fans of the new plants!

All the new plants are kitty safe.

Books

I’ve been reading like a champ so far this year. Mostly science fiction since I am not in the mood for thrillers, mysteries, or anything that is going to require the serious use of brain cells. I’ve been spending long blocks of time in bed with short outings to accomplish tasks in the house in the house all year. I’ve been relying on audiobooks heavily as I can listen to them when I’m too tired to hold a book (the fatigue is real, people!), and listened to more books while I was working on the quilt top that I got done this quarter too.

I was so happy to discover this little gem!

I usually don’t listen to the forward of a book, but this time I did, and I was glad that I took the time to let the author explain his book to me. John Scalzi struggled with writing a book in 2020 that he had contracted with a publisher for. Basically, he was kind of crushed by the whole Covid situation and the book wasn’t happening. He finally had to let his publisher know that the book was a no-go, only to think of another book idea a day later. A fun book. An upbeat and slightly ridiculous book with wisecracking characters and lots of fun. A book that celebrates scientific knowledge, jobs that you love, and sticks it to people who are kind of unethical in the pursuit of money/power. A book with Kaijus: those enormous monsters of Japanese fame… think Godzilla. The exact book that I needed!!

I even bought myself a Kaiju cat tee-shirt to go with my ridiculous, feel-good book.

So, how many books have I read this year so far? 19 books! The goal for the year is 50 books, so I am well on my way to meeting that goal.

That’s it for the month.

Hannah: Have a great April, everyone!! If you should come across a Kaiju, don’t try to play with it!!

Month’s End Report: January 2022

January is gone and we are 1/12th of the way through the new year. Outside it is very cold and snowing: perfect flat snowflake crystals are drifting down and creating a sparkling landscape.

Can you see the sparkles on the bear?

It will continue to snow all night and most of the day tomorrow, and when it clears we will have subzero temperature over the next night. That’s subzero Fahrenheit temperatures. It is eerily silent outside and there isn’t an animal track or footprint in the snow anywhere. I have a big pot of green chili started and lots of knitting plans for the coming couple of days.

I set myself a lot of goals for the year and I thought that I would check in at the end of every month with an update about how I’m doing.

Knitting:

I had this idea that I would reduce the stash by at least 50 skeins of yarn this year. (For the purpose of computing skeins 100g of yarn equals one skein.) I’m knitting hats and PICC line covers for the Kaiser infusion centers in the Denver metro area through a group of community knitters (Kaiser employees, all) that I serendipitously encountered last year. It is still early days but this seems to be a good strategy to use up lots of unloved skeins and left over yarn.

This month I produced 9 hats and 9 Picc line covers. The hats are all Barley and Barley Light by Tin Can Knits, and the PICC line pattern is here.

I have a loose goal of producing 50 hats and 50 PICC line covers this year, so I am definitely on pace.

I also started a new sweater this month. This yarn is Lush Worsted by The Uncommon Thread in the colorway Chrome. The sweater is Cushman by Isabel Kraemer.

All together I used up almost 950 grams of yarn this month, which translates to almost 10 skeins of yarn if I use 100 g/skein to calculate how much I’m reducing from the stash. So far it has been a great start to the destash!

Garden

It’s winter. Three of my orchids are going to bloom and they have been slowly, slowly growing out the stems and now the buds are really starting to look good.

I think that this plant will be giving me purple blooms.

All of the orchids are putting out new roots and I am gratified that they are looking so healthy. Hmm… did I mention that I threw away two plants last fall that were whimpy and failing to thrive? Yep. It’s not that I’m such a great gardener, but that I know when to banish a sickly-looking plant to the garage. All the plants that are under the lights are really looking good and I’m glad that I heartlessly removed the ones that looked sick.

Books:

Okay, the reason there was so much knitting going on last month has to do with me struggling with the weather and annoying symptoms associated with my pulmonary hypertension. I also pulled out The Murderbot Diaries and read/listened to all of the books in the series again.

There are actually 6 books and a short story in this series, and I just can’t seem to get enough of Murderbot. I’ve spent some time thinking about what draws me to the character and the series so much. The books are well written, interesting, extremely well balanced, and the audible books are excellent. Let me unpack the story a little for you.

Murderbot is an intelligent construct created from organic and robotic parts. It is a security unit (SecUnit) designed to handle all security/protection for human clients that contract with the owning company. SecUnits are horrifically dangerous due to their features (energy weapons in its arms, for example) and their ability to manipulate digital networks. To control them they have a governor module that punishes/kills them if they fail to follow directions or screw up in any way. The popular media presents rogue SecUnits as the ultimate threat to humans; “very dangerous, kill on sight” type stuff.

Okay, let’s be clear here. Murderbot is a slave to the corporation that created/owns it. Rogue SecUnits are the equivalent of escaped, extremely dangerous slaves.

Murderbot figured out how to hack its governor module and is now a rogue unit. It doesn’t really know what to do with itself so it conceals its rogue status, continues to work its job, and watches digital media as much as it can. Through luck it works for clients who appreciate how very special it is; they buy its contract and free it. Murderbot isn’t sure what it wants, but it is sure that it doesn’t want to be a “pet”, so it leaves. Slowly, through interactions with others and lots of episodes of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, Murderbot comes into its own. It makes its own security contracts with clients and begins to control its own situation. Always in danger of being captured and destroyed, he learns how to “pass” for human. He makes friends, learns how to handle emotions, faces down his demons, and slowly finds his purpose in life.

On bad days I crawl under the covers again and listen to Murderbot. Murderbot binge watches serials with his friend ART (which stands for Asshole Research Transport) and I binge watch Netflix. Murderbot faces down his fears and learns to move around in unfamiliar situations; I face down Covid and take myself into a crowded grocery store to get my booster shot. I definitely channel Murderbot when I shoot someone side eye for not wearing their mask! Murderbot finds its voice and learns to speak for itself, and I learn to ask the hard questions of my medical team.

Murderbot as a role model. I can do worse.

These books are short so I polished off 10 books this month. Wow. My goal is 50 books for the year so I am in good shape.

Hannah: Have a great February, everyone!

2022: New Year, New Goals

I’ve been working out ideas for goals for this new year. I have ended up with a lot of ideas, some of which will probably be abandoned, but still I thought I would share them to see what people think.

Knitting

  1. Oh, my yarn stash is totally out of control. I am going to do everything I can to get it willowed down this year, and the main strategy is to produce as many hats and PICC line covers for the Kaiser infusion centers. I am also thinking about asking my rheumatologist if she would like to have some arm warmers and fingerless mitts to gift to patients struggling with Raynaud’s. Anyway, I’m thinking that I should try to knit out at least 50 skeins of yarn this year.
  2. I have several sweaters all lined up to knit. This will be the year of sweaters!
  3. I have this Coco Knits book that I have been wanting to knit from. A few weeks ago I scored some great yarn from someone destashing – I know I was bad, but I couldn’t help myself. I got 6 skeins of worsted and 7 skeins of chunky yarn in greys and they are perfect for a couple of these sweaters.
This yarn was too nice to walk away from. The light grey is The Uncommon Thread and the dark grey is MadTosh yarn. Perfect for a Coco Knits exploration.

Weaving

Look! Another book to work my way through!

The poor loom has been languishing for some time now. In my defense I would like to plead kittens, but I have a plan where I will warp the loom in a closed room and then I should be able to weave. Time to learn some new stuff! Hey, maybe I can use up some yarn this way too.

Spinning

I think that I should spin this, right?!

I have been avoiding this impulse buy for some time now because the fiber is pretty expensive and I don’t want to ruin it. Whatever. This year I am going to spin this up and make something wonderful from the fiber like maybe a cowl and mitts.

Books

I keep buying books that are interesting that then get parked on my bookshelf.

I am going to read some of the non-fiction books that I bought with thoughts of self-improvement that weren’t read right away because I moved on to some space opera type book instead. Hey, I’ve had a tough couple of years and I needed lots of distractions. This year I will read at least 6 of these books. For sure. I promise. I read 66 books last year, so if I read 50 this year I should be able to manage 6 of these more non-fiction guys.

Quilts

I have made a lot of progress working my way through all of the quilting kits that I bought over the years, but there are still these two hanging out in the sewing room.

Aren’t these cool?!

I have put off working on these because they are pretty complicated with a couple of stacks of different colored fabric in each pack. Still, what is the worst thing that can happen? If I mess up in cutting the fabric I will just go buy some more… The Fiesta quilt is a wall hanging so I will probably start with that one as it will be easier for me to quilt.

Blogging

  1. WordPress is offering classes. I have been thinking that maybe I should take a class or two and become a little more competent.
  2. I have been thinking about starting a couple of other blogs, but finally decided to just add additional topics to this one. I’m going to start blogging about all the things in the natural world that I love and that are wrapped up in memories. I’m thinking about calling it … The Biogeek Memoirs. How geeky is that? Anyway, don’t be astonished if I start blogging about potato bugs, geese, and owls.