The Swanson Family Geeks Making

Fritz and Sara Swanson, and their children Oscar and Abi

swansonThe Swanson family is well-known at the library. Fritz currently serves as a Trustee on the Library Board, Sara volunteers her help at programs, and both Oscar and Abi are storytime “graduates.” Library assistant Anne Buckalew sat down with Sara to find out more about their family Geek.

You Geek Making. Tell me about the things you make.

We make everything that we can that is practical for us to make (limited mainly by time and skill). We actually adopted “making” as a term for what we do when Abi was 2 and Oscar was 5. I had noted that whenever Abi saw something in a catalog or that another child had, she never asked if we could buy one, she always asked if we could make one and Oscar said “that’s because we are a family of makers,” and that designation stuck.

What we eat is probably the most obvious area that comes into play, and it is where Oscar and Abi are most involved at the moment. We try to grow as much of our own produce as possible and can, dehydrate, cure and pickle as much of it as we are able. We bake all of our bread and buns, make our own tortillas, and we’ve even gotten into making our condiments (ketchup, steak sauce, etc.). Lately I’ve gotten into lacto-fermentation which has opened up a whole new area of making in the kitchen. Actually, it was because I checked out the book “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz from from the library. It was so compelling I read it cover to cover one afternoon while the kids were playing in the pool. After that I started fermenting everything. For example, the kids and I make our own yogurt and I’d read about a way to capture wild bacteria to make your own yogurt starter by submerging hot pepper stems in warm milk (a little bit more complicated than that – but not much more) and I had jalapeño stems I’d just cut off jalapaños I was pickling so we thought we’d try it. After a few batches we ended up with thick, delicious homemade yogurt. We didn’t have a yogurt maker at the time either so the kids and I took old sweaters and layered them together to make a very thick “jar cozy” that fits on top of the jar which we incubate on top of our DSL router – for what ever reason that combination maintains the perfect heat for yogurt to develop. Fritz is a writer and a printer. We have a letterpress studio in our basement and Fritz has taught himself how to print on his huge old press. I’m pretty sure he has read every book in the library (and in The Library Network) about the history of printing. Professionally, he does art prints and hand sets stories and poetry for other writers, but for us he prints all of our Christmas cards, invitations, stationary, etc. For Mother’s Day this year he had an artist friend draw silhouettes of the kids using photos, and he got plates made and printed their silhouettes to go on the wall. Oscar and Abi make art constantly and while much of it is art for art’s sake, Oscar has learned to sew and needlefelt and make jewelry, and at Christmas last year he helped me make gifts. Fritz is teaching Oscar the basics of printing on the proof press (the less dangerous of the presses) and they have carved linoleum blocks together and printed them. Abi and I make dolls together, I think we are on number 6. She wants us to open a doll store together in the future.  Oh, and Abi builds fairy house wherever she goes, obsessively.

What do you use to make these things?

We use whatever we can scrounge. Both Fritz and I feel strongly about reusing and not buying new. Most of the clothes, scarves and dolls I make I make with second-hand clothes, either ours or things I pick up at second-hand stores. (In the photo Abi is wearing a skirt I made out of an old shirt of mine, an hour or so before the photo was taken – when I realized she did not own any black pants or skirts!). I use tons of old wool sweaters with holes or that are out of style and no one wants, and T-shirts are practically free and a great source of material. I love wool. Fritz uses any paper he can get ahold of to print, frequently it is 40-year-old paper from someone’s basement. My parents gave us 20 boxes of empty used manila folders when their business changed over to computer files, and many projects have been printed on lovely card stock that is actually discretely trimmed manila folders. We keep our recycling in a box in our kitchen and Abi and Oscar know that everything in it is fair game for craft supplies, and it is frequently ransacked. Abi came home one day upset because a toy car had been broken in her preschool class so she got her dad to help her build a new one out of a hunk of scrap wood and jar lids.

Is this something that you or Fritz brought to the relationship, or did you begin the journey together?

We are at a pretty happy middle ground. If it was up to me we would be homesteading out in the middle of nowhere, with no electricity, spinning wool and living off the land; and if it was up to Fritz there would probably be fewer jars of fermenting food covering our counters and in the fridge, but I think we keep each right where we need to be. Luckily we are both pack rats so we always have supplies for what ever project we need to start next.

Tell me about something great you made as a family, or something you thought would be great and provided a laugh instead.

Ha! There is a long list of things like “Kale Marmalade” (which the jury is still out on), and the time we were mixing our own loose leaf tea blend for Christmas presents and Oscar insisted on adding powdered blue green algae, or the time Fritz printed a huge stack of posters for Maker’s Faire only to discover he misspelled “cosmonaut”, or the time  we were going to make a big morel dinner and spent all afternoon filling a bag only to discover when we got home that they were poisonous false morels; but the biggest project was the year we decided to have an “Original Thanksgiving Menu” for Thanksgiving and we did tons of research (a book called “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History” which we checked out from the library was our main source) and spent weeks planning and doing trades to get get venison and on Thanksgiving day had a table full of roasted venison, kale pottage, mushy corn cakes, boiled cabbage, dried apples, vinegar, and water to drink. We were very excited but the rest of my extended family …. well I’m pretty sure my Grandma and Aunt stopped at a restaurant on the way home!

Why do you choose to make instead of buy?

Lots of reasons! Usually it saves us money and a drive to a store, and it fits in with our environmental and anti-consumerist beliefs, but actually the reason is just because creating things makes all four of us happy! Also, I have a theory that homemade things taste better because you can actually taste intent. When someone takes the time to make you something they are giving you something more valuable than anything they could buy, they are giving you the time out of their life that they took to make it and they were thinking of you while they were doing it. Way more valuable!

When making, do you work with a plan and purpose typically or just go with an inspiration as it comes to you? Do you create or follow directions?

We all have a terrible time following directions! I am incapable of using patterns. Oscar is following in my footsteps. Every time he gets a kit or anything with instructions to follow he will insist on making his “crazy-style” which means mixing all the parts together. (Right now, actually, he wants to be a genetic engineer when he grows up so he can invent new crazy animals.) Fritz checked out a book from the library, “Ratios” by Michael Ruhlman, (which we’ve now gone out and bought a copy of) that explains basic ratios of ingredients you use to cook anything. This was after the 10th or 11th time Abi was like, “let’s invent a recipe for cookies, Dad” and started dumping baking soda into a bowl with mashed up croutons and lemonade before anyone to could stop her. Now, at least the made-up recipes resemble the intended results.

How does Manchester District Library support your Geek? What does the library mean to you, and how do you use it? How does the library fit into your lives?

The library is HUGE in our lives! Setting aside the fact that we feel connected to the library because we live in the old one (Oscar was born in the old Claire Reck room, by the way – and we use all of the shelves and tables and chairs that were left behind when we moved in – oh, and sometimes we still get deliveries for you) the (new) library is a boundless resource. Not only does it provide a constant supple of children’s books and mysteries and DVDs and preschool story time and kids’ activities (that U of M Natural History Museum science series was incredible) but it is an evolving resource, it is always adapting to fit the needs of the community as those needs change! I can’t say enough what a wonderful institution the library is.

Does your family have a favorite book you enjoy together? Do you, as individuals, have favorite books or authors?

We all really appreciated the 3 Fairy Neverland books by Gail Carson Levine. “Peter Pan in Scarlet” and the “Peter and the Starcatchers” series were also books all four of us read together (we were really into Peter Pan the last few summers). Other than that, Abi likes everything having to do with Fairies (and Oscar does too, but doesn’t like to admit it) and Oscar likes chapter book mysteries and loves Encyclopedia Brown books. I like anything about Sherlock Holmes, things written by Agatha Christie, and mysteries with female detectives set in the 1920’s. Fritz is usually reading 20 or so books at once, many that are centuries old which he keeps in different places all over the house and may take him 10 years to finish.

Our thanks to the Swanson family!

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About Heather Sturm

Director at Manchester District Library
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