Teeny tiny mug rug: a quilting project

I loved the tote bags that I made a few months ago in a beginner’s sewing class, so I decided to try my hand at quilting.  After months of trying, I finally reserved one of the coveted spots in the introduction to quilting class at Fabric Bliss in Denver, and made a teeny, tiny quilt for $35.
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Intro to Quilting Class:
All the fabric scraps were pre-cut so that we could finish our tiny quilts in 3 hours.  The first step was to pick out the pieces we wanted to compose our quilt.  There was minimal elbowing between the other students as we quietly, and politely fought for the best scraps.
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Next, we laid out our fabric pieces.  These pieces were not pre-washed.  Some quilters prefer to wash and pre-shrink the fabrics before assembling the quilt, especially if it’s a modern design or intended for a baby blanket that will receive frequent or regular washing.  However, some quilters recommend waiting until the quilt is complete before washing for the first time since the shrinking will weather the quilt for a vintage look.
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We stitched together small blocks with a white piece of fabric in between each patterned piece, a design called sashing.  In this case, adding the white fabric helps frame each patterned piece and makes the pattern stand out.
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We stitched those smaller blocks together to make a bigger block.
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Added the border sashing, and now we are ready for the batting – the fluffy stuff in the middle of a quilt.  We used a low loft polyester batting, meaning a slightly thinner light-weight fill.  This enables us to use our teeny tiny quilt throughout all seasons!
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It was time to assemble the fabric backing (wrong side up), middle layer of batting, and the top design layer like a sandwich and pin them together.
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Here’s the quilting sandwich pinned together with safety pins.  The middle batting layer and fabric backing are larger than the top design layer just to be safe.  We are finally ready for quilting!
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At this time, we switched from a standard sewing foot, to a walking foot.  For bulky or slippery fabric, this specialized foot has its own feed dogs that work with the regular feed dogs down below to help pull the fabric forward evenly.  Without the additional dogs clamping down from the top, the bottom dogs may pull the bottom fabric forward while the top and middle layers get left behind puckering the fabric.
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Each time the needle screw on the right lifts, the dogs will engage and clamp down.  When the needle descends into the quilt, the dogs will retract.
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Stitching in the ditch:  it was time to quilt the sandwich together.  Without using any special stitching pattern, we were going to outline each patterned block by sewing on the low side of each seam.  When we initially sewed our patterned blocks together, we ironed our seam allowances to one side inevitably making one side of the seam puff up higher or lower.  In this picture, you can see that when stitching the skinny white fabric sashing, I ironed my seam allowances on the backside towards the colored pattern.  In this case, the white sashing is my low side (the ditch) and I carefully stitched as closely to the seam as I could manage, on the skinny white sashing.
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Stitching in the ditch required intense concentration and my eyes got really dry here as I would have to remind myself to blink.
Binding:  during this step, we used a strip of fabric to cover the raw edges of the quilt and finish the piece.
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We made mitered corners so the binding in the corner of the quilt creates a 45-degree angle.  First, we folded the binding fabric back away from the new edge at each corner.
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Second, we folded the binding fabric forward in the direction of the new edge.
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Each side is pinned carefully and then sewn, before beginning the next side.
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In the middle of the last side, we sewed together the fabric strips and trimmed away the leftover fabric.
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The binding fabric strip has been sewn onto the top layer.  We will wrap the fabric around the edges to the back of the piece.
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We will pin the binding down and then sew around the border one final time.
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And here it is – a teeny tiny quilt made just for coffee mugs!
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Beginning quilting is a bit more difficult than beginning sewing, in my opinion, but there’s something very mesmerizing about the process.  It takes a little more planning, and perhaps a little more precision, but the end product is pretty dang cool.

DIY compost bin for $102

For the last year, I’ve been trying to compost in my backyard using a loose compost pile method.  I’ve lured a few kraken sized nightcrawlers to live in my pile, but for the most part, it’s a big eyesore of slowly decomposing kitchen scraps.
This past weekend, I made my own compost bin for $102.  Occasionally I see 55 gallon food grade barrels for $25 on Craigslist, Amazon has ready to go compost bins for $60 – $180, or Home Depot has 30 gallon trash cans that can be modified to process compost for $30.  I found this design online.  It looks real fancy-like, but was rated easy, estimated 6 hours to complete and $100-200 in parts and materials.
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Common board is commonly used for general projects.  In Denver, common board is pine, but it’s usually the most plentiful and cheapest lumber available in your city.  I used cedar wood for my compost bin.  Although cedar is a little bit more expensive, it’s resistant to rot, mold, and bugs, and weathers well when exposed to the outdoor elements.  It also smells great and looks pretty.  Consider avoiding chemically treated wood if you’re planning to use your compost in a vegetable garden.
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Eleven 8′ cedar boards:
  • 24 sections of 23″
  • 8 sections of 26″
  • 8 sections of 24 3/4″
  • 4 sections of 11 1/2″
  • 4 sections of 10 1/4″
I used Dan’s chop saw to cut eleven 8′ cedar boards into smaller pieces.  Rather than measuring out every piece that we were going to cut, I carefully measured the first piece, and then used it as a pattern to ensure subsequent identical cuts.  Cutting 2 boards at the same time saved us some additional steps too.
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Next, we used liquid nail glue and clamps to hold together the 2 pieces comprising each corner post while screwing everything together snugly.  We used 1 1/4″ exterior deck screws throughout the whole project.
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We placed the horizontal boards in between the corner posts spacing them out evenly.  For every deck screw, we predrilled a hole so the screw would not split the wood.  Even still, some of the wood split but still held together nicely with the glue and surrounding nails.  To avoid splitting the wood, I would suggest starting with the lowest torque on your drill and adjusting up for more power if needed.
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The back of the bin is completed.  3 more sides to go.
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Our friend James stopped by for Sunday morning mimosas, and we roped him into providing free engineering guidance.  Here James and Dan are carefully building each side, evenly spacing all the horizontal boards.
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The front of the box (view here is from the back) is 2 separate panels that slide in from the top.  This is where I can open the box and pull finished compost at the bottom of the pile from the front of the bin.
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The top of the bin is also 2 separate panels comprised of tightly spaced boards to protect the pile from excessive rain and sun.  This is where I can open up the bin from the top and layer in compostable kitchen scraps.
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There is no floor to this bin because that’s where the worms and microbes come in to munch on the compostable scraps.  To get started, I will layer 2-3 inches of greens and browns into the bin – just like making a giant stinky lasagna.
  • Nitrogens (greens):  vegetable scraps, garden waste, coffee grounds
  • Carbons (browns):  fallen leaves, coffee filters, sawdust – I have this already from constructing the bin!
Denver has a very dry climate, so I will likely have to water the compost occasionally and turn the pile.
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Here it is!  The entire project took 4 hours, $82 in cedar and $20 in miscellaneous hardware (deck screws) and supplies (liquid nail glue).
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Automatic Kitty Toilet Flusher

We are still working towards the very last step of toilet training with the cats, and would like the cats to keep using the toilet while we’re snowboarding in the high country.  Usually, we’ll drag out the old litter box if we’re away for a long weekend, but it confuses the cats and at least one of them will have a messy setback or two.  And to someone who has gotten used to being litter free, returning home to a house filled with gritty litter under her toes and litter dust in the air is a big deal.
Automatic Toilet Flusher:  Dan had an idea to install an automatic toilet flusher for the cats.  I envisioned returning home after a long weekend to an overflowing toilet, gushing water, and needing to clear out a teeming bowl with a large spoon.  Yuck.  I already had enough anxiety over my plumbing.  But then I started poking around online and saw there were flushers designed for humans that flush after you do your business ($200), flushers designed for cats ($210), and hilariously terrible flushers designed by resourceful cat owners (est. $35).
Dan suggested building a robot that would flush the toilet at timed intervals throughout the day.  In my mind, calling something a “robot” sounds like a sophisticated, possibly sentient being that can do your bidding.  But simply put, a robot is a machine that can be programmed to do tasks, like flushing a toilet.  An automatic kitty toilet flusher sounded perfect!

Dan designed and 3D printed a frame to sit underneath the lid of the toilet water tank, spanning the width of the tank.
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The frame would suspend a single stepper drive above the water in the toilet water tank.  Dan peered vigilantly into the water tank and flushed about 50 times.  I told him to stop wasting water, but he assured me that he was observing the motion of the arm lifting the flapper to initiate the flush, and verifying there was no splashing that could get the mechanism wet.
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Stepper Motors:  the next step was to program the stepper motor ($15).  These motors are small stationary boxes with a central screw that spins around and around in one direction or the other, powering whatever action you’re programming.  The hallmark of a stepper motor is that each full rotation of the screw is divided into a number of equal steps.  For example, the screw can rotate 360 times around to complete a full rotation, by moving 1 degree for each step.
The idea here was to use a motorized pulley system to wind up fishing line to lift the flapper in the toilet water tank and initiate a flush.  Dan found some code to operate a single stepper drive using a small Arduino computer.
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Testing the Flusher:  an hour before we were to leave for the mountains, I serendipitously discovered that the Arduino was telling the stepper drive to flush, but no flush was happening.  Turns out the fishing line might be too lightweight and slipped off the pulley.  Next time, we might try a heavier brass bead thread, but no time for that now.  Dan re-threaded the fishing line and attached a fishing sinker for additional heft, and then we tried to coax Charlie onto the toilet one last time before heading off to the mountains.
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By now, both of the cats are used to strange new stuff around the toilet.
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Success!
Stepper motor drivers sound pretty straightforward and affordable.  I wonder if I could build a similar robot to do my own non-toilet-related bidding. . .

My experience as an Airbnb host

Dan and I live in a single detached home set up ideally for additional rental income.  At one time, the house was converted into an up/down duplex, meaning someone can live on the ground level and someone else can live down below on the garden level (in the basement).  The garden level has its own private egress, living quarters, kitchen, bathroom, and access to a shared laundry area.
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I had been leasing the space to short term renters, but was curious about putting it on Airbnb, an online marketplace that connects people looking to rent their homes with people who are looking for accommodations.
Mutual Trust:  I knew I could make a lot more money (2-3 times) by charging by the night, but I was worried about the types of people that would come through – dirty drifters, irresponsible party animals, or crying and pooping babies.  It could be a lot of wear and tear that would end up costing more money in the long run.
The good news is that Airbnb hosts can be as selective as they want in accepting or declining requests from guests.  You have the opportunity to chat with each prospective guest to get to know them first.  Every guest (and host) will likely will be rated and reviewed, so there’s a mutual pressure to ensure the experience goes smoothly for both guest and host.
Setting a Price:  Pricing your home for Airbnb is an equation composed of many variables which primarily boil down to personal utility.  For me, I weigh how much utility or satisfaction I get from sharing the house with strangers vs. cold hard cash.  For some, that $ figure would be much higher because they value their privacy and space much more.  For me, I get a kick out of hosting travelers in my own little bed and breakfast (well the bed part at least) and making sure they have a good experience.
Initially, we looked at comparable spaces in our neighborhood to get a feel of how much we should charge, and then lowered the price.  We wanted to attract a few guests and build up some good reviews before raising our price to market levels.  For Denver at least, my impression is that demand still outpaces supply, and therefore pricing below the market is not necessary at all.  We’ve raised our prices since then, but still keep it below market rates.  This could very well be a mistake, but I want the guests staying at my Airbnb to feel like they’re getting a great value.
Here’s a great financial rundown someone else posted with detailed debits and credits of running an Airbnb vacation property.
Time Investment:  The initial investment is the biggest one:  setting up an online profile, taking pictures, writing a guide that orients guests to the apartment and sets the house rules.  And then each guest requires a varying level of correspondence.  They might have questions about the apartment, arrival / departure details, or they’re looking for recommendations of things to do in town.
Certain factors come into play that make the hosting experience much like actual work and somewhat stressful.
  • Finding the time to clean the apartment thoroughly when you have a guest checking out at noon and another guest checking in at 2pm.
  • Seeing when a guest clearly ignores house rules and tracks mud across the carpet when you told them shoes off at the door, or smelling cigarette or marijuana smoke wafting through your home when you told them absolutely no smoking in the apartment.
  • Trying to jam in major home projects between guest visits like this emergency plumbing repair.
And yet there’s other factors that offset these stresses.
  • Meeting new and interesting travelers from around the world
  • Seeing Denver through their eyes and remembering why you decided to make this place your home
  • And the personal satisfaction of making sure your guests have a killer vacation or a stress-free business trip.
If you’re going on a long vacation, have an extra room (or couch!), then you might consider joining the 350,000 hosts across the world on Airbnb to make some extra cash.  You never know when you might be accepting someone special into your home, like Preston here:
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3D printing a 3D printer for $500

A few months ago, Dan brought his MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer in to share at a local co-working facility.  It’s only a 10 minute drive to their office, but it might as well be an eternity.  We could no longer 3D print in our pajamas – no more troubleshooting print jobs gone awry or waking up in the morning to see what the 3D fairy had delivered.  It was time for a new printer.

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Dan bought his MakerBot two years ago for $2,200.  Since then, the price for MakerBots has not come down at all, but there are competitors charging $800 – $1,000 for a comparable base level model.  If you want to save some more money, you can build a DIY kit for $500.  Dan decided that he wanted to customize and 3D print his own 3D printer.  He found a design for a Delta-Pi Reprap 3D Printer that would cost about $500 in materials.

Getting Started:  Dan was using SolidWorks as a blueprint for the project.  The software provides a visual representation of the assembly and includes a parts list (on the left).  We could zoom in on each section when we were ready to move along, and click on each piece to verify which parts we were working with, kind of like following an interactive recipe to make a 3D printer.

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Dan did all the planning, downloading the designs he wanted to use from various 3D printing web experts and manufacturers, printing some pieces with his MakerBot, and ordering additional parts and materials.  We continued to receive packages of incoming parts, big and small, for weeks!

I have tiny hands, so I told him I would help him put together his printer.

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Assembling the Frame:  we attached footings to the top and bottom base boards with metric screws, washers and nuts.  These footings will house 3 vertical supports from which arms will extend to a central printing hub.

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Each vertical support has a motor underneath its base board controlling the vertical coordinates of the printing arm via rubberized belts running over ball bearings.

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These are greasy ball bearings.

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The rubberized belts will eventually loop around bearings in the footings and requires delicately threading a screw through each footing using a washer, 2 bearings, and then another washer.  This was a real pain in the keyster for our clumsy ham hands, so we worked together on each footing, and I ended up using a library card to slide the dainty washers into place.

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Next, we assembled 3 orange carriages that will ride up and down the 3 vertical supports, and hold the carbon fiber arms extending towards the central printing hub.  Dan said they’re called “carriages” because they care about how the print job is going.

Delta 3D Printing:  Dan’s MakerBot Replicator 2 is a Cartesian printer with two motors that move independently to control the X or Y axis and the print plate moves up and down to control the Z axis.  With this new printer, each of these orange carriages will move interdependently to control the coordinates of the central printing hub.  Orange carriage A, B, and C will work together to plot X, Y, and Z coordinates.  That interdependency is the hallmark of a Delta printer, and that’s a lot of math!

Assembling these orange carriages required even more precision and patience than the last step.   These were tight spots, so the part’s design included holes through which we could poke in an allen wrench to tighten the screws.

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The carriages will ride up and down these vertical supports.

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Dan went outside to cut the carbon fiber arms that would extend to the central printing hub.  In the meantime, he asked me to assemble these ball joints and thread in grub screws (with no heads).  These metal balls are very difficult to squish into the hard plastic ball joint, but they are usually marked on one side with a number or letter.  The ball will be easier to squeeze in from that side, according to a tip from Dan’s friend Adam who was monitoring my bumbling assembly via live chat while working on one of his own nifty projects.

Safety first!  I asked Dan if I should wear safety glasses, to which he said no, but I would recommend always wearing safety glasses if it ever occurs to you that you might possibly need it.  One of these metal ball joints popped up and hit me squarely in the eyeball!

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Dan finished cutting the carbon fiber arms.  It’s very important that they are precisely the same length, so I sanded them to equal lengths using this jig.  Would probably not recommend sanding carbon fiber in your living room – it made quite the mess!

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We mixed a small batch of epoxy to glue the ball joints onto the ends of each carbon fiber arm.

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We quickly threaded each arm onto a rod to ensure they were all the same length.  One was too short, but luckily we checked it fast enough before the epoxy had hardened and adjusted the depth of the ball joint by lengthening the runt.

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It was getting late and I was tired, so I went to bed.  Dan stayed up a little later to work some more.  When I woke up in the morning, I saw all the progress he’d made!

He attached rubberized belts to run from the 3 motors for each vertical support beneath the base board, along the vertical supports and through the orange carriages.  You can see how the belt threads through the plastic slot, doubling back over a piece of loose filament.

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The carbon fiber arms extend from the carriage on the vertical supports to the central printing hub where the Hot End of the extruder will be positioned.  Dan designed this piece himself so that you can easily remove the Hot End for troubleshooting.

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There are sensors at the top of the vertical supports to calibrate the carriages and signal when each carriage has reached the top.  The carriage will ride up the vertical support, and when it reaches the top, push the metal flap to push the red button, signaling to the computer that it has reached the top and is in the Home position.

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The printer’s frame is 90% complete.  This is how far we got after 1 full day of tinkering.

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Assembling the Main Controller:  Dan did all of this part himself.  He programmed an Arduino computer ($20) to be the motherboard for the daughterboard, RepRap Arduino Mega Pololu Shield or RAMPS ($40)  for short.

The Arduino is shown here on the bottom, the RAMPS is in the middle, and the LCD display is on top.  The Arduino is like the brains of the operation.  The RAMPS is like the muscle that interprets the Arduino’s commands and amplifies power (from an Xbox) to drive the motors.

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Arduinos:  these are tiny little open-source computers that are very affordable ($10-45).  Dan loves them and has a small army of these servant robots that can be programmed to do your bidding.  It’s on my list to make a robot with one of these little guys soon, perhaps an automatic toilet flusher for my cats . . .

Assembling the Extruder:  this is the Airtripper’s Bowden extruder filament drive gear, available on British eBay or in this case we printed and assembled our own from Thingiverse.  The yellow PLA filament shown here will feed between the motorized brass drive gear with the idler pushing from the other side for resistance.

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Dan bought a E3D-V6 extruder nozzle from another British company, and we assembled the part using their British English instructions, whereupon I learned a “spanner” is a wrench and “ferrules” are circular clamps that hold together wires – same as the things on the ends of shoelaces!

The filament will be room temperature as it feeds through the drive gear and approaches the nozzle.   There’s an external fan cooling the silver Heat Break up until the filament reaches the Heat Block which houses the heating element.  In the Heat Block, the filament will heat quickly and uniformly as monitored by the thermistor.

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Dan was using Repetier software to control the printing.  We calibrated the upper limit (home) and the lower limit (glass print plate) so as not to dive bomb the brass nozzle through the glass print plate.  In order for the bottom Z coordinate to be zero allowing us to slide a piece of paper between the glass plate and the nozzle with just a bit of resistance, we calculated the upper limit to be 326.8 millimeters.

Using Repetier, Dan heated up the extruder.  The red line is the temperature of the Heat Box according to the thermistor.  The purple line is a goal temperature of 200° C to melt the PLA filament.  You can see the Heat Box warming up, getting hotter and hotter until exceeding the goal temperature before coming back down to settle at 200° C.

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All systems go, we are ready to print!

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Massage cupping: therapeutic myofascial release

I’ve seen a massage therapist a couple times before to work on my quadriceps, which are overdeveloped from years of running, cycling, and squatting and lunging at the gym.  Over time, the connective fascia beneath the skin and surrounding the muscle has been damaged resulting in limited mobility and other painful issues.

This cold wintry evening, I went down the street for a massage cupping treatment.  I wasn’t entirely looking forward to my treatment session to break up and soften the fascia surrounding my quadriceps.  I walked into the Symmetry Therapeutic Massage Spa in the Highlands neighborhood of Denver.

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The massage room was cool and inviting, with the lights down low, a soft Peruvian pan flute playing in the background, and the faintest hint of burning incense.

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My massage therapist, Ryan, was going to try cupping on my legs today for a short 30-minute session.  I had never received this type of treatment before, but he talked me through the process.  He showed me the small, glass cup he would be using in conjunction with a hand-operated pump to adjust the air pressure inside the cup.

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Cupping originates from an ancient Chinese form of needle-less acupuncture primarily intended for circulation benefits.  In the modern Western world, it can be used by massage therapists and other healthcare practitioners for a number of applications.

Benefits* from cupping:
  • improved circulation
  • lymphatic drainage
  • trigger points and myofascial release
  • relaxation of the central nervous system

*These are just a few of the benefits that I talked about with Ryan.  There are many variations in how cupping is administered, and there are a number of cited secondary benefits as well.  

Beginning the Cupping:  Ryan started by lubricating my skin with lotion to facilitate smooth movement, and then placed the glass cup on the front part of my thigh.  Using the hand-held gun, he pumped a few times to suction out some air and reduce the air pressure inside the cup to form a tight seal between the cup and my leg.  Once that seal was established, the vacuum pressure pulled the skin and fascia away from the soft tissue and muscle underneath, creating a pleasant-feeling negative pressure (pulling up on my skin, instead of pushing down as in traditional massage).

The pictures I took during the session turned out blurry, so here’s what it looks like on someone else.

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Ryan moved the cup across my legs, maintaining suction and gliding across my skin in long straight strokes and then in smaller circles, until the fascia surrounding the muscle began to soften.  This part was rather uncomfortable like an intense, friction burn.  I wanted the therapeutic benefit of the cupping, so I tried to tolerate as much discomfort as I could manage, but it was quite painful and my palms started sweating.  Ryan adjusted the pressure until the discomfort was just barely tolerable.

After some time, I could tell the discomfort eased even after Ryan increased the suction in the glass cup.  The muscles in my legs felt more pliable although they were slightly sore.  Ryan suggested I take note of any bruising or discolorations that would appear later so that he could adjust the pressure for our next session.

After the Cupping:  A few hours after I went home, my legs were still a bit sore.  I gently stretched my quadriceps with a little more range of motion than normal.  I noticed my legs appeared speckled and blotchy, similar to a hickey where small blood vessels have burst from the suction.  Fortunately, the soreness and bruising was relatively mild and completely disappeared within 3 days.

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I’m looking forward to my next session in 2 weeks.  After a few more treatments, I hope to maintain the fascial mobility and pliability with stretching and rolling on my own.  Fingers crossed.

 

Sukiyaki: a hot pot celebration of the new year

This holiday season, we traveled to Texas to celebrate Christmas with Dan’s family.  Dan’s mother prepared all Thanksgiving foods for Christmas dinner, and we ate dinner at 2 o’clock in the afternoon!

Family traditions are great.  I would have Thanksgiving every week if I could.  However, after arriving back home to a bone-chilling 16 inches of snowfall, I started to miss my own family’s hot pot tradition.  My folks were from Taiwan, and when the year comes to an end, it’s tradition to share a steaming hot pot with family and friends.

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I decided to treat Dan to his first sukiyaki dinner at a nearby Japanese restaurant we’d never tried called Kobe An Shabu Shabu.  Hot pot is an East Asian stew, similar to fondue, where fresh ingredients are cooked in a simmering broth at the center of the table.  Sukiyaki is a Japanese version of hot pot.  The food is cooked very quickly in the broth.  Then my family prefers to dip it in a spicy, raw egg yolk to take the heat off.

We started the meal with hot sake, kept piping hot in a warm water bath.

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The waiter brought out a pot of fresh vegetables, noodles and tofu to simmer in the sweet and savory sukiyaki broth, as well as some thinly sliced rib eye beef on the side.  The hot pot was placed on an induction cooktop, which heats up very quickly to soften and cook the vegetables into the broth.

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While waiting for the broth to heat and vegetables to wilt, we prepared a fresh egg by lightly beating it and then adding various sauces and spices.  To my egg, I added a splash of soy sauce for saltiness and a heaping of chili pepper for spice.

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After a few minutes, the hot pot was bubbling and ready!  We placed some thinly shaved beef in the simmering broth to cook.  Swish swish’ed it about (shabu shabu), hauled it out for a quick dip in the egg wash, and gobbled it down.

Dan was a novice, so he continued to burn his mouth on piping hot sukiyaki throughout the entire meal.

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Hot Pot Ingredients:
  • Sweet and salty sukiyaki broth
  • Thinly shaved rib eye beef
  • Udon noodles
  • Shirataki noodles
  • Green onions
  • Firm tofu
  • Napa cabbage
  • Sliced carrots
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Golden needle mushrooms

Something new – Shirataki noodles:  I don’t remember ever having this kind of noodle before, but after some research, I learned that it’s a noodle commonly used in traditional sukiyaki dishes.  These firm jelly noodles are made of yams, and appear gray with dark speckles.  Although they don’t have much flavor on their own, they squeak pleasantly against your teeth, and are a nice contrast in texture to the softer Udon noodles.

Something old – Napa cabbage:  This mild, leafy cabbage is about as ho-hum as asian vegetables go, and yet it’s one of my favorite things to eat in a sukiyaki dish.  When the leaves wilt into the steaming broth, napa cabbage is the perfect vessel to soak up and transport all the sukiyaki flavors into my belly.

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The broth has become very fragrant and flavorful, absorbing all the tidbits from the simmering vegetables and beef.  Normally at this point, my family would finish off the remaining broth by cooking one last batch of noodles.  Dan and I were much too full for that, so we unabashedly asked for a to-go container for our delicious, flavorful broth, and we will make our own noodles at home, tomorrow.

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Wine rack – a DIY woodworking project

Tonight was the night.  A new space opened up recently in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe Drive.  I Made It is an urban garage where you can come in and complete a DIY project.  They provide the materials and tools, instructions (as needed), and most projects cost about $35.

The shop is open during the week from 5 to 9pm.  I didn’t want to just assemble pre-measured and pre-cut pieces of wood from a kit (1.5 hour project).  I wanted to make it myself (3-4 hour project), and make it from scratch.

There were several projects to choose from:  a cutting board, a trivet, various birdhouses, and wine caddies.

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I picked a pallet wine rack that could hold 4 bottles of wine up top and 4 wine glasses down below.

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The shopkeepers provided written DIY instructions, and periodically checked in to assist and give feedback as we got further along.

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Dan and I picked out a good looking pallet with a pleasant yellow hue and interesting markings, and began to pull apart the wood planks.  The pallet was comprised of solid fir, and nailed very firmly together.  We started with a hand saw and a hammer, but had limited success pulling out nails.  Then we tried a cat’s paw, a small crowbar that can be used as a nail puller.  Better, but still slow going and the wood surrounding the nailheads was getting smashed to bits.  Next we tried a handheld circular saw and then a large miter saw to get at the wood pieces we wanted.

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Finally, the shopkeepers took pity on us and gave us some fine looking boards that they happened to have in the garage.  Getting the wood was definitely the hardest part of our project.  In fact, Dan and I had initially planned to make our own projects, but it took so long to get the wood that we ended up working together on the same rack.

In the meantime, our friend Brian was nearby tinkering on his own project.  He designed and created decorative post caps for his new patio pergola, using the table saw with a retractable blade.  I had my own table saw (much less fancy) at home that I had not yet used, and was curious to see how a table saw operated.

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Brian sawed and sanded 4 cedar caps – 2 pieces for each one.

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Back to our wine glass project:  the next step was to make the lower shelf for hanging wine glasses.  I used a drill press to carve out the holes.

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Then I measured slots for the wine stem to slide into each hole.

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Dan used the miter saw to cut away the wood from these slots.

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Perhaps it was the condition of these weathered pallets (or the laws of physics), but we ended up unintentionally splitting the wood lengthwise in several places!  Fortunately, the shopkeepers gave us a handful of clamps and a bottle of wood glue to pull everything back together again.  This looks like a mess, but you can wipe up the excess glue, let it dry, and then it will be as good as new.

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We loosely assembled our pieces and began drilling, screwing, and nailing together the wine rack.

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The table vises held the rack firmly in place while we assembled the last few remaining pieces.

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The last step was to stain and finish.  I tested several different varieties on a scrap of wood.  The wine rack was repurposed from 2 separate pallets.  One was a smooth weathered gray pallet, and the other was a rougher yellow pallet.

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I decided to use linseed oil on the yellow boards, and not to touch the gray boards (except for the front panel where I had already dripped some linseed oil).

And our new, repurposed pallet rack was ready to take home!

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Two Cats and a Toilet

Dan made a proposal to me this past June.  But it’s not the kind of proposal you might be thinking of.  I have 2 cats, and Dan explained that he hated kitty litter and didn’t much care for my cats either.  The dust really bothered him, he couldn’t stand the grit under his bare feet, and the thought of cats peeing and pooping into a box disgusted him.  He had discovered a new fangled toilet training system on the internet called CitiKitty, and he wanted me to give it a try.

I told Dan – No Way!  I once had a kitty with terrible pee-havior, and I know what a stressful situation it can be to have an errant pisser in the house.  I wasn’t willing to risk a lifetime of discovering pee in unusual places.  But after weeks of incessant arguing, kicking, and screaming, I finally gave in to his tears, and agreed to start toilet training the cats on a trial basis.

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How it Works:  The CitiKitty training seat is a thin plastic cover that sits between the rim of the toilet and the toilet seat.  It’s filled with flushable litter so the cats will know it’s like their litter box.  As soon as the cat gets used to doing their business on this training seat, a small hole is cut in the center of the seat.  This hole gets bigger and bigger once the cat feels comfortable doing their business at each stage.

We started off by placing the litter box next to the toilet.  The first hurdle came up quick as we attempted to transition the cats from their litter box next to the toilet to using only the toilet.  The cats were hesitant to even go up onto the toilet, so we went back and raised the litter box to the same height as the toilet until they got used to the new height.

Sorry, that’s a cat turd.

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The toilet lid must be taped open so the toilet is available at all times and ensure that the lid doesn’t accidentally close on a cat while they’re up there.  There’s only 1 toilet for all of us, so every time a human has to go, it’s a big ordeal to remove the training seat, and then replace it when you’re done – a little awkward explaining this process to visitors.

The first hole has been cut in the center of the training seat.

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As the hole gets bigger, the cat must learn to shift more of their weight to the toilet seat.  They can either pee directly into the open hole, or on the kitty litter surrounding the hole and then push their waste through the hole.

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Honey is the black cat, and after the first week or so, took to it right away.  Every step has been pretty easy for her to get the hang of, and she’s always the first one to bravely step onto the new training seat and do her business.  Interestingly, being able to see into the toilet alerted us to the fact that Honey was peeing blood!  We discovered she has bladder stones – poor girl – but more on that later.

Charlie is the fluffy cat, not pictured here because she’ll hold it for a very long time, and it’s a rare feat to catch her in the act.  Every step of the way she has been very slow to understand what’s going on.  She will stare for a good 20 minutes into the depths of the toilet pondering philosophical cat thoughts, and when the urge to go hits, she’ll meow loudly at the toilet – singing us the song of her native peoples.  There have been a good number of setbacks for her, and in fact I’ve gotten peed on TWO separate times while I slept – just Charlie’s way of letting me know that she’s not comfortable with the rate of progress we’re making with the training.

The CitiKitty product reviews were very mixed, but helpful.  Several folks noted that it might take quite a long while for the cats to get the hang of it, and offered some good tips and advice.  It has been a little over 6 months now, and we are so very close to the last step.  Every setback makes us question our resolve, but we are still hopeful.

Fingers crossed that this will work, and then litter is gone forever!

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Reversible Tote Bag: a Sewing Project

Brrrrr . . . it’s getting to be that time of year again, where the leaves rustle across the lawn, and the cats nestle together for warmth.  The winter chill settles in, and I dig out my old knitting and crochet supplies.  I was tired of making the same old boring hats, scarves, and assorted rectangles year after year, so I ordered an inexpensive Brother sewing machine recommended by my friend Molly.

I set up the machine, threaded the needle and bobbin carefully according to the quick start instructions, and then realized I didn’t know how to use my new sewing machine.  It had been so many years since I last used my mother’s and everything since had been small mending jobs done by hand.  I started poking around online for a good tutorial or an easy project to start off with, and a blog suggested starting with an Intro class for beginners.  Great idea!  I found a beginners class at a local shop, Fabric Bliss, and signed up to make a reversible tote bag for $35.

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Intro to Sewing Class:

The very next day, I showed up at the shop a few minutes early to pick out my fabrics.  Even though the store was small, there was a wide variety of quilting weight cotton fabrics to choose from.

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I settled on an austere gray print for the exterior, and a cheerful turquoise gingham (on sale!) for the interior lining – 1/2 yard of each, and 2 squares of pre-cut canvas.  Total cost of these materials was $7.50.

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The class was held in the back of the store.  Each student had their own sewing machine work station.  Mine is over there on the far right underneath some aggressively red and orange art.

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First, we learned how to measure, pin, and cut the cloth.  This skinny piece is for the handle of the tote bag.  It will be ironed into fourths length-wise before being sewn.

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After being ironed nice and flat, this skinny handle piece will be stitched very close to the edge.  This is called top stitch and will be sewn on both sides for decorative symmetry.

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Squares of fabric composing the interior and exterior of the bag are cut to size, and then pinned and stitched, right sides together.  The right sides are the nice ones that everyone will see, not to be confused with the wrong sides that will never see the light of day.

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We lined the bag with heavy canvas to provide some bulk and structure.  And then, to give the bags some more dimension, or rather width, we modified the bottom corners and added gussets.  They look like shark mouths from the outside.

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The long, skinny fabric for the handles was cut in half to make 2 equal length handles, and then pinned to the bag carefully so as not to twist the handles.

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Lastly, the interior and exterior panels are stitched together at the top of the bag, with only a hole the width of my fist to turn everything inside out (or right side out) just like magic.

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And voila, my new tote!

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All in all, the project took about 1.5 hours to complete.  It’s so easy, and kind of hard to mess up.  I’ve already picked up more fabric, and everyone will be receiving one for the holidays.