Freebies during Isolation

Several companies and individuals are offering freebies to help pass the time in isolation. Here are some of my favorites. Got any others?

  • Blues guitar lessons – 5 lessons over 5 days with a helpful PDF and backing tracks
  • BitGym – great little app for the treadmill or stationary bike. Pick a beautiful hiking trail and walk it on screen.
  • Logic Pro X (Apple’s professional music editing software) – free 90 day trial
  • VidAngel – filter for Amazon and Netflix, perfect for The Tiger King without all the swears.
  • Audible – a plethora of free audiobooks in a variety of languages, mostly classics and kids titles. (Doesn’t work in the Audible app, only in a browser.) Includes the Stephen Fry (UK) version of Harry Potter.
  • Starcraft video game – this has been free for a while, but I just found out about it.
  • Ink Cards – they’ll print up a postcard and mail it for you – you can even add a signature with your finger on your phone. First one free, $2 each after that.
  • Kindle books – these ones are free even without a Prime membership.
  • Library – check your local library website. Mine has free MP3s, lessons, eBooks and Audiobooks through Overdrive, etc.

Honey Harvest

I caught three swarms earlier this year and I’m pretty sure at least two of them were from my own colony. They were doing much better in the spring than I realized and had seriously outgrown the hive. I kept one for myself, gave one to a neighbor, and combined the third back into the original colony because it ended up queen-less.

My two hives produced 24 medium frames of honey, which I harvested last week into about 6 gallons or 72 lbs.

Here’s a quick summary of the process:

And here’s the video of the first swarm earlier this year –


Scrap Map Throw Pillow Sewing Tutorial

A few weeks ago, I saw the idea for a US map quilt that looked great, but also like a lot of work. I decided to make a throw-pillow size instead using fabric scraps. It turned out better than I expected, and matches almost any color scheme! Here’s how you can make one:

Start by printing your map template. Use this PDF, and click Print > Poster > Landscape > Tile Scale between 150% and 190% depending on how big you want your map. I printed it a few times and held it up to the pillow to see how big I wanted it.

Next, tape together your map into one big piece, then cut out each state. This map has somewhat simplified borders so it’s actually not that bad to cut each one. Make sure to put them in a plastic bag as you cut them out, or the little New England states might get lost.

Once the paper states are all cut, pick your fabrics. I used 25 different patterns of scraps, so there were 2 states cut from each. Try to pick fabrics with basic patterns or solids, because the map starts to look pretty busy if there are lots of big shapes within each state.

To cut the fabric to the right shapes, tape the paper state to the fabric with scotch tape around the edges. Then cut right through the tape and fabric to the right shape. It is important to be pretty accurate with cutting at this part, so the states will match up later.


Once all the states are cut out, take a big piece or muslin or other lightweight material and lay the states out on top of it, using a regular-sized map as a reference.

Pin the states down well. For smaller states like Rhode Island, I used some Elmer’s glue to hold it to the fabric, because a pin wouldn’t really fit without fraying.

Now, it’s time to start sewing the states to the muslin. Try out some different zigzag widths and lengths on scrap fabric to see what you like. You’ll want it fairly thin in width and close together in length, kind of like a basic machine embroidering stitch. On my machine, I ended up liking a width of 3 and length of 0.5.

Carefully sew around each state, around 1/8” from the edge of the state, backstitching and cutting the threads after each one. I started with Washington and moved east, so that I could get used to sewing them with the bigger states before I got to the tiny ones.

When it comes to the super small states like Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Delaware, I just did one line of zigzag to tack the fabric down. Otherwise, if possible, I sewed around the edges of the state, because it looks nicer.

Once all the states are sewn on (except Hawaii and Alaska), cut the muslin right to the edges of the country. Press everything well, using some steam to make sure the whole thing is flat.

At this point you pretty much have one big applique with states on one side and muslin on the other.

Use a regular straight stitch around the edge of the country over the zigzags to attach the map to your pillowcase. (You can use an existing pillowcase or make one from this pattern. If you use the pattern in the link, sew the map on the fabric after you cut it and before you sew the pillow together, to make things simpler.)

Pin/glue and sew Alaska and Hawaii directly onto the pillowcase now the same way you sewed the states to the muslin.

Sew around one more state toward the middle of the map (I did Nebraska) with a straight stitch to secure the map to the pillowcase.

And you’re done! If you want, you can sew on a little button where you live, or on your favorite states. Hopefully everything makes sense- let me know if you have any questions!


My back is getting younger

I want to shout this from the rooftops.

I am writing this while sitting at my desk, something I haven’t been able to do in the past 14 months.

My daily life until recently involved an hour-long routine of stretching, lying on my back, hanging upside down on an inversion table, taking a bunch of pills, alternating hot and cold compresses, and swearing under my breath.

Last month I took a van service to the airport for an international flight. The van driver noticed the back cushion I brought as well as how much I shifted in the seat to try to get comfortable. I told him I had sciatica and I hoped it would get better soon. “In my experience,” he said, “the way you feel right now is the best you are going to feel for the rest of your life.” That hurt his tip.

[amazon template=iframe image right&asin=0446557684]But it inspired in me a fresh batch of research into back pain. I’d already read a dozen-plus books on the subject, but I checked Amazon’s current bestsellers in the chronic pain category and checked Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno out from the library. I started reading it on New Year’s Eve and by January 6 I had less pain than I’ve had in over a year.

To emphasize how big a deal this is, let me quickly review what I’ve experienced so far.

I’m not sure why the pain started in the first place. It was getting bad in December 2015, so I thought back and blamed it on Turkey Bowl football Thanksgiving morning (my team won but my muscles ached for days) and then helping a neighbor move a week later. I was lifting a big couch at the end of the move and felt a bolt of pain in my back. Sciatic pain started up a couple of weeks later.

I’d experienced sciatica a couple of years earlier but it wasn’t too bad and it went away after some physical therapy that included leg exercises and stretching. This time around it got worse and worse. For a few weeks I had a cane next to my bed to help me get up in the morning. The pain was constant and consumed my thoughts.

I started with a family doctor who specialized in sports medicine. He gave me an oral steroid that completely relieved the pain. . . for one day.

He referred me to a physical therapist. Physical therapy left me in so much pain I could barely walk back to the car in the parking lot. I quit after 5 or 6 visits.

I got x-rays. Inconclusive.

I was referred to another specialist who prescribed an MRI.

I got an MRI. Herniated disc, spinal stenosis.

He referred me to a back surgeon.

The back surgeon referred me to a pain specialist, a physiatrist, who gave me a steroid injection.

This sounds fast as I write it out, but each step in this process took at least two weeks. We’re into March 2016 now and I’m sleeping on and off all day, exhausted from the constant pain. I’ve tried TENS therapy, As-Seen-On-TV Magic Back lumbar stretcher, acupressure mat, ice packs, hot packs, yoga, stretches, ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, muscle relaxants, turmeric, hydrocodone, Jamaica dogwood extract, meditation, and crying.

Almost every day some new back gimmick was arriving from Amazon.

I would give up for a few weeks and then try something new. A new book, a new doctor. Two chiropractors, acupuncture, so many YouTube videos and forums on back pain, an inversion table, ointments, creams, deep-tissue massage, the Miracle Ball Method, McKenzie exercises, Egoscue exercises, the exercises of some random dude on YouTube. I investigated a clinic that offered laser therapy and the DRX9000 spinal decompression system but balked at the price ($10K) and the 20+ required sessions in a machine that claims to stretch my spine (and whose effectiveness is much disputed).

I switched to a standing desk at work. I avoided sitting down, as much as possible. While my family sat on the couch to watch tv, I knelt on the floor and propped my arms up on a stool. Piggyback rides and wrestling matches with the kids were a distant memory. I couldn’t pick up my 3-year-old and I imagined my kids describing their dad to their kids as the guy who had a bad back and couldn’t do much. I bought all slip-on shoes because I couldn’t bend over to tie anything.

The steroid injection is the one thing that actually worked, for a while. It cut the pain down to a manageable level from March until about October when I got a second one (which either didn’t work or took several weeks to kick in). I still couldn’t sit very long and had to take back support cushions to meetings. And I had incessant hip pain, a pinch in the back of my right knee, an aching right ankle, and sometimes just numbness or pins and needles all the way down the right leg.

On that international flight I mentioned, I took a seat cushion, a back cushion, and an old-fashioned ice pack that I had flight attendants refill 6 times on the way there and 6 times on the way back. (They were very nice about it, by the way.) I walk around a lot on flights and do stretches wherever I can find a little space. I usually end up talking with someone else who has back pain and/or sciatica. Most of them are about as hopeful as that van driver.

Ok, I think we’re caught up to New Year’s Eve 2016. I checked out the book and started reading. A week later (January 6, 2017), I was almost pain-free for two days. I could sit for an hour. I played basketball two nights ago for the first time in a year. I could stand up and sit down at will!

After a couple of blissful days, some of the pain came back. I’ve been a serious student of Dr. Sarno’s other books and I found an amazing website,, with all sorts of free information. It’s now March 13, 2017, and I hardly even notice the pain any more. In fact, I only notice it when I realize it has been gone all morning.

I’m hesitant to go too much into the book because I’m at the stage right now where it seems like magic. And I’m not sure if discovering it the way it’s presented in the book is part of the magic. But here’s a brief overview:

My pain is real but it’s not necessary. It’s not fulfilling its usual purpose of warning or keeping me from doing something dangerous. There’s nothing wrong with my back. The herniated disc was there all along and has nothing to do with my pain.

But there’s something in my subconscious that my brain thinks it needs to protect me from. And a great way to do that is to distract me with physical pain. It doesn’t have to be something big — it could just be everyday stresses or anger.

The trick is to shine some light on that. Convince your brain that you can handle the repressed emotion and it doesn’t need to distract you. Just reading the book provides most of this education. Reviewing a few daily reminders keeps you on track. And giving up on all your other attempts seems to be part of the trick — no more stretches, exercises, magic balls, physical therapy, etc. Just get back to work — sit and sleep normally, go for a run, play some ball. And your brain does the rest.

That’s it. For reals. I can barely believe it myself. It’s almost infuriating when I think of all the time, money, and suffering I’ve been through. And all it took was reading a book and thinking about it for a few weeks.

I have no idea if it will work for you. But, holy cow, you should try.

[Update May 24, 2017] When I wrote the above, I still had some minor daily pain (especially evenings) and occasional “relapses”. Another couple of months and it’s all gone. I catch myself slouching in a chair – something I couldn’t do without sharp pain and pins and needles a month ago. So, for me, the full recovery took about 5 1/2 months. This is in line with several others I’ve met in online forums. Interestingly, those who meet directly with Dr. Sarno tend to have a much quicker recovery – perhaps something about the authority of a doctor makes it all click into place more rapidly.


Road Construction Time-lapse

They’re putting in 7 homes, storm drains, and sidewalks across the street. I put the GoPro in an upstairs window and set it to take a picture every 10 seconds from 9am to 5pm yesterday. The clouds are cool and I like the crane that appears at about 24 seconds to move the green roof off the detached garage.