Sock-cess!

Ta-da!

Two finished pairs of put-on-able socks!

So I have to share this with all of you, because it just makes me so freaking happy ūüôā .

(And yes, I know … they’re *just* socks … but I have a small, simple life; therefore, small, simple things have the power to make me inordinately happy).

I had finished knitting my pair (the ones on the right) in early December, and managed to get the first of my daughter’s all the way to the toe stage. For the non-knitters out there, these socks are a cuff-down construction, so I was just about an inch and a half away from completion, when my daughter came home from university for a long weekend break in the middle of exams.

She was barely in the house when I nonchalantly tossed her my pair and quipped Hey, look what I just finished!

Sure enough — without my asking — she immediately tried them on while I stood by and rubbed my hands together and cackled gleefully Oho! my plan is coming together!¬†.

I even managed a stealthily-arranged and nearly-blasé foot comparison, sans measuring tape, of course, because that would have immediately aroused her suspicions.

As soon as she went back to school to finish her last exams, I once again whipped out the knitting. I finished the first sock, but between baking and agonizing over presents shopping and way too much hockey (oh why is there so much hockey?!), I didn’t manage to finish the second one before she came home for the holidays. Not wanting to ruin the surprise, I hid the knitting once again, spent the next two days shaking from knitting-withdrawal, and on the night of the 24th tucked one lone sock into my daughter’s Christmas stocking, along with a promise that the second would be done in time for her to take the PAIR back to school with her on January 3rd.

And yes, as you can see by the photo, I managed! And she LOVES them. Sock-cess!

So for the knitters out there who might be curious as to why my earlier attempts at sock-knitting had resulted in un-put-on-able socks:

  1. I had used too small a needle, resulting in too many stitches per inch, resulting in too stiff a fabric with too little stretch. Apparently I am a very tight knitter. (*WHAT* a surprise ūüėČ ).
  2. Although I had used a good sock pattern, following it to a T and adjusting properly for calf length and length of foot, the heel flap had followed a one-size-fits-all approach, which doesn’t provide a very good fit for those of us with high in-steps. I have since learned that measuring from the floor to the ankle bone is the way to determine whether or not you can stick to a standard heel flap, or whether you should make yours longer.

What’s next on my needles?

Well, more socks of course! ūüôā

 

Are any of you making anything these days? I’d love to hear about it ūüôā .

Knitting Over-analyzed

I feel like I have just a bit more to say on food waste, but my mind has been off on other things lately, so it may be a while until that post comes together.

In the meantime…

I was sitting in the Honda garage last Monday morning, waiting on an oil change and a tire swap, and I was busily knitting away, pondering the weightiness of life and death as I thought about my father-in-law who was, at that very moment, on an operating table undergoing coronary bypass surgery —

(I was also, to be honest, thinking hard about whether or not sway bars were a real thing, and if so, if a¬†weak sway bar link — which a repairman had just told me our vehicle had — was something warranting a $250 repair. I’m rather ashamed to admit I’m the stereotypical female who might¬†one day be persuaded that the car needs a new mezmerglobber*… )

— when a female employee walking through the waiting room stopped, and said, “Oh! What are you knitting?”

“Socks,” I replied, although my mind automatically pedantically corrected, Sock, actually…

“Oh!” she said, surprised. “Do people still do that?”

“Yup!” I said, immediately thinking of the Yarn Harlot, and the mother-daughter team at my local yarn store, and Kate, and Glenna, and my favourite aunt, all of whom still determinedly¬†do that.¬†I kept my response to that one chipper word, though; I didn’t confess that I was a bit of a pretender, that I had last attempted to knit socks over a decade ago. I certainly didn’t tell her that the pairs I had knit for my older two kids when they were about 5 and 7 years old, while technically perfectly constructed, had been nearly un-put-on-able, a rather unfortunate quality for a pair of socks to possess.

My kids picked out the yarn and they thought it was pretty neat that their mother was knitting them socks. If only they could have gotten them on their feet without a struggle …

“Wow,” she said. “That must take a lot of time. You must love it though, to spend that much time making something you can just buy. I take my hat off to you!”

So I admit I sat there for a few moments after she left the waiting room, my hands still, pondering. Why indeed, I asked myself (not for the first time) would anyone spend loads of time making something, oftentimes at greater expense, when they could simply walk into a store and buy an equivalent pre-made thing?

Because I can?

Because it makes me happy to make things?

Because of what knitting represents to me?

I’ve been knitting, fairly steadily, ever since my first pregnancy, about 20 years ago. Although I had been taught to knit at a young age,¬†stitchery was my *thing* and the Knitter wasn’t born until I learned I was bearing life, which I’m fairly certain isn’t a coincidence. But while I suspect knitting is, for me, mostly about an innate and instinctual desire to slather my kids in sweaters and mittens and hats in order to keep them cozy and warm and protected, I¬†don’t think that’s the whole story. Why IS knitting so appealing to me?

On a purely philosophical level —

(I do believe I warned you, right in the title, about the over-analyzing part ūüėČ )

— it’s worth noting that knitting is a very positive endeavour. Unless you’ve had a gauge accident and things go horribly awry, there’s not a single destructive act in the process of knitting, except for the snip at the very end. There’s no¬†leap-of-faith cutting-out at the beginning (as with sewing), and there’s also no noisy machine to sit in front of; knitting is all building, all quiet creating.

There’s also something¬†staunchly basic and unapologetically practical about knitting which sits well with my minimalistic and down-to-earth soul. Not only does knitting create warm and useful things, but any beauty that may arise out of knitting feels incidental; it’s part-and-parcel to its creation, rather than being an added-on after-effect. A stitch is a stitch after all, and while cables or lace may take a bit more time, their beauty is integral to the item’s form and function.

Knitting has also always been held in my mind in a lofty, aspirational, one-day-I’ll-be-a-knitter kind of way. And that — the feeling that knitting is a worthy thing-to-do — is entirely due to this woman, sitting next to me: my favourite aunt.

I don’t know what it says about me, the fact that keeping this picture here and pressing publish is so nail-bitingly hard.

I won’t bore you with all the details as to why this woman is my favourite aunt. Suffice to say it involves books, and conversation, and a spirited adventurousness, and a gezellig home, all of which I’ve always aspired to, ever since I was a small child. My aunt has been knitting almost all her life, and her flying fingers, her constant knitting-whenever-sitting, have always fascinated me. She was likely taught to knit when she was four or five, because that’s how things were done back then. There were no made-in-China socks when she¬†and my mother and their three siblings were¬†growing up in The Netherlands, and because she was such a beautiful (and speedy) knitter, the job of producing the family’s knitwear (socks, sweaters, mittens, and hats) fell to her. (My mother, whose knitting was deemed uneven, was the seamstress in the family, and was called upon to do the family’s sewing).

I sometimes wonder: what was that like? Did the pressure-filled fact that people were counting on your creativity turn that creativity into drudgery? Was it even viewed as creativity, or was it simply work-that-needed-doing?¬†And extending forward to today, does the fact that one can now buy ready-made sweaters mittens hats socks turn the individual making of sweaters mittens hats socks into something that isn’t work? Is knitting now a luxury? Or worse: is it a frivolous occupation?

I don’t have the answer to any of these philosophical questions, but I do know this: my aunt is still knitting, even now, when she doesn’t have to. And the fact is, part of the reason I love to knit is because this woman I love loves to knit, and whenever I knit, she drifts into my thoughts.

I thought of her when I bought yarn to knit that first sweater for our first unborn baby. I thought about her as I knit each subsequent sweater, sometimes using yarn she helped my mother select.

I thought about her when knitting mittens for my kids’ growing hands — the small hands that once so trustingly held onto mine — pair after pair after pair, year after year after year.

Pattern from “Projects for Community Knitting”, Cottage Creations, Carol A. Anderson

I thought of my aunt when knitting hats for my daughter, and when I made this one for myself.

Pattern: Greystone by Melissa Thomson

And now, finally mittened and hatted out —

(well, not really, but I can’t seem to convince my boys that I can produce a manly enough hat for them, and they’re both now waaaay too cool for hand-knit mittens)

— and needing to keep my hands occupied, I’m turning once again to socks. I suspect that for some knitters, sweaters are the holy grail of knitting. For me however, it’s¬†socks. Socks (put-on-able ones, that is) are the thing I will one day achieve, and I know that this is entirely due to the fact that it was nearly always socks I saw on my aunt’s needles.

And somehow, now seems fitting. The last few months have been rather full of weighty issues, and I’ve been a bit of a sappy and sobby existentialistic mess. Who knows … perhaps knitting socks — that most basic of items — will help. And perhaps a good dose of thinking-of-my-aunt — and her emulatable life — will quiet some of those what-is-life-and-how-best-to-live-it questions I’m struggling with right now. Of course, the fact that my aunt was about to turn 85 when I last saw her, two years ago, is unfortunately another rather weighty thought to have to ponder.

Progress on the first sock. Before beginning, I asked the mother-daughter team at my local yarn shop for advice, because it hasn’t escaped my notice that, a decade ago, I somehow knit not just ONE un-put-on-able sock, not just a PAIR of un-put-on-able socks, but TWO pairs of un-put-on-able socks. That’s FOUR un-put-on-able socks. Doh!

 


 

*A mezmerglobber is an engine part on the Magic School Bus, which is the best children’s book series/TV series EVER. (IMHO). Ms. Frizzle (another (albeit fictional) emulatable woman) knows all about bus repairs and would never be at the mercy of a repairman.

Goldilocks Knitting

After a very hot and humid August and early September, our weather has finally turned. We’ve had days where it’s been fresh and cool and breezy; in fact, the other evening, when my husband and our 10 year-old son and I went out for our (nearly) ritual evening bike ride, my hands got so cold that I found myself wishing I had a pair of fingerless mittens.

I almost have a pair. I had been so pleased with the pair I made for my daughter:

Sorry the photo’s blurry; it’s all I’ve got as the mitts are now with my daughter in another city. This was my first attempt at cables, and they are surprisingly easy to do. The pattern is Queen Street mitts by Glenna C

… that I decided I needed a pair as well. So last spring, I began working on these:

Sprig, by Glenna C. (And who (whom?) am I kidding? All my photos are blurry).

While the ones I made for my daughter feel a bit too snug (she’s pleased, but in hindsight, I should have gone up another needle size), these ones are neither too snug, nor too loose, but are turning out juuust right.

I should have finished them by now, and would have, had I not put them down this summer in order to begin knitting a hat for my daughter. She had spent the latter half of last winter wearing the hat pictured below, an overstretched monstrosity whose only redeeming feature is that it’s not itchy (unlike the beautiful one I had bought her for Christmas two years ago):

It looks worse, sitting here on the kitchen table, than it does when actually on her head; still, it IS rather ratty looking …

When my daughter came home for the summer I promised her I would make her a new hat, and after some online searching, we found this pattern for¬†Hermione’s cable and eyelet hat, a knock-off of the one Hermione wore in the sixth Harry Potter movie. The designer’s instructions are a little vague: this is a children’s size hat, she says, but for a woman’s size hat you could try adding another repeat¬†—¬†or two —¬†and then lengthening the hat by one full repeat. Now, I don’t know about you, but all of this sounds very imprecise and a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants — not the kind of knitting instructions I usually like to go by.

Plunging in regardless (because, hello!, it’s Hermione’s hat!) I cast on as directed, using a new-to-me method: alternate cable (which was an absolute bear and required several attempts to get right), but once I got past that, the hat went swimmingly.

Or so I thought.

About halfway up, I started wondering if the hat was going to be too big. The alternate cable cast-on seemed way stretchier than anything I’d ever encountered before, and as soon as the circular needles allowed for it, the hat-in-progress began to go on and off both my daughter’s head and mine, many times over, both of us hemming and hawing, both of us wondering, Is it too big? Or just right? Too big? Or just right? while I kept on knittingknittingknitting, until suddenly, the thing was done and sitting there … and yes, it does fit … but the question lingered each and every time either my daughter or I donned it, as we did several times a day over the course of several days: Is this hat juuust right, or is it too big?

Because I’ve knit a stretched-out monstrosity once before (see the blue and green hat above), I’m more than a bit worried that after a wash and a few wearings, it too, will stretch out irretrievably. So I’ve not yet taken the final plunge and blocked it, because I’ve always assumed that that’s the point of no return. Once it hits that water, there’s no going back to unravel the sucker; you’re stuck. (Is that actually the case? I truly have no idea).

Just after finishing the hat, my daughter and I¬†found ourselves in the yarn shop yet again, this time to choose some yarn for my daughter to take to university, so she’d have a crochet project to work on during her spare time when she comes home for Christmas. Completely forgetting that I had a pair of unfinished fingerless mitts I could be working on, I said to my daughter, How about I make you another hat? Maybe two hats would be nice. And maybe this one will be juuust right …¬†

Like most other 19 year-old females, when faced with the possibility of more fashion, she couldn’t resist, and said, SURE! That would be great!

(It makes me inordinately happy that, unlike my two sons (my 16 year-old, who hasn’t worn anything hand-knitted for years, and our youngest, who has just declared he doesn’t want my hand-knit mittens anymore, despite the fact that just last year he said they were THE BEST for making snowballs), my daughter is ever-appreciative of my knitting).

So we chose another yarn and another pattern:

Determined not to make this one too big, and casting aspersions on the √ľber-stretchy alternate cable cast on, which I contend may be the root of the problem with Hermione’s hat, I cast on using my usual method, but this time with smaller needles (because by this time I had done some hat construction research), and at the same time, I also slightly modified the pattern, because although my daughter loves this hat, she doesn’t want a slouchy look; she wants more of a beanie-type hat. Oh, and I almost forgot: I was also using DK weight yarn — not worsted, as the pattern calls for — so I had to do some calculations to figure out how many stitches to cast on.

(So, yes, in case you’re thinking,¬†Oh, I can tell already that this is not going to end well … sigh …¬†you’d be right … )

Now, when knitting with circular needles, it’s hard to tell what the eventual size is going to be. Everything seemed to be going so¬†well, until the day came where I was forced to say:

“So … um … I’m kinda wondering if this is coming out a bit small … ”

My daughter picked it up, tried — and failed — to get it on her head.

“I think it’s just the needles making it so you can’t get it over your head,” I reassured her, suddenly deciding to rally. “I’m just not far enough, I think.”

I decided to go further out onto the limb, despite the fact that I could hear it creaking: “Actually, I think it will be juuust right … if Hermione is too big, then the changes I’ve made here should be perfect.”

“Okaaay,” she said, doubt in her voice. “You’re the knitter!”

Of course, the farther you get in a knitting project, the more you have invested; despite thoughts of Too small? No, juuust right. Too small? No, juuust right. Too small? running through my brain, I kept right on knitting, and then, one day, I inspected it closely and saw this:

If you look closely at the centre-most line of cabling, you’ll see that I made a mistake. Can you see it? The cables don’t all lean left; I zigged where I should have zagged ūüė¶

At this point, I may have muttered words that rhyme with truck it.

The funny thing is, I had been concentrating so hard down there, near the beginning! It was the early stages, and I’m relatively new to cabling, and I was being so damn careful to get them right. Further up, I was feeling rather cocky; I had thrown caution to the wind and was knitting while watching Netflix*.

And yet, after the swearing, I have to admit it was a relief: I knew then that I would¬†have to unravel the compression bandage the hat. That cable that I sent up the wrong way would bother me every. single. time. I saw the hat. Never mind the fact that I wouldn’t see the hat very often; never mind the fact that I couldn’t possibly see the hat squeezed perched on my daughter’s head as she trudged through snow to make her way to her classes; I could still imagine her trudging through snow to make it to her classes, and when I did, I knew I’d immediately see the cable that zigged instead of zagged.

But although I knew the hat would have to be unravelled, I wasn’t sure exactly how to fix the problem. Should I add another repeat? Should I use bigger needles for the ribbing? Should I once again go with the alternate cable cast on?

Indecisive, but needing to do something (winter’s coming!) I went back to Hermione. Leaving Version One alone, I cast on Version Two with the leftover yarn, this time with my usual method, and¬†with one less repeat.

Knitknitknit and this time my thoughts were running Okay, that’s better, this will be juuust right, juuust right, juuust right … as soon as I run out of yarn I’ll take Version One apart, and then … um … okay … wait a sec … is this juuust right or is this actually too small? Knitknitknit …¬†Oh, dammit, do NOT tell me this is going to be too freaking small! Oh, bloody hell, I think this IS going to be too small …¬†

Does the new one look too small to you? Yeah, it did to me, too, but I couldn’t tell for sure because I was at the end of my rope yarn and I wasn’t yet able to get the hat over my head because the needles were in the way.

At this point, I needed to call in the cavalry. So I took all of the above to the yarn store. Their verdict? Version ONE of Hermione’s hat is perfect. The yarn store woman — who knows everything — assures me it should not stretch out like that other monstrosity: firstly, because 1X1 ribbing doesn’t tend to stretch out enormously like a 4X4 ribbing will; and secondly, because it’s merino wool and it has memory, unlike the acrylic/wool blend I used for the other hat. And even if it were to stretch out slightly, it’s superwash wool, meaning I could toss it in the washer, and then in the dryer, and that would bring it back down a notch. She told me to stop knitting the replacement Hermione hat and to go ahead and block the original Hermione hat.

As for the blue Brae hat: it’s definitely too small. I need to add another repeat to the pattern to get more width, but I should definitely use the smaller needles for the ribbing band, and then switch to larger needles for the main body. But this time I should probably take no chances; as Mad-Eye Moody would say: Constant Vigilance!, and that means no Netflix until it’s done …


* Last Tango in Halifax, just in case you’re wondering. A modern-day, almost soap opera-esque series about two families in Yorkshire, England, whose characters say “summat” just like Hagrid ūüôā

 

Reading Now …

So when I said in my last post that I was playing a game of readaholic catch-up, I wasn’t exaggerating. I’ve become of those people who gets jittery and feels like there’s something missing when I haven’t got a book on the go, even if I’m only progressing at a snail’s pace of a page or two a day.

I think one reason I enjoy reading so much is because I’m a worrier. (What a shocking statement; I bet you didn’t see that one coming ūüėČ ).

So yes, I worry about a ton of stuff, most of which is completely, unequivocally, 100% out of my control; in other words, all my worrying is time well spent.

(Yes, that last bit is sarcasm, which probably required no clarification; I don’t think I have any readers from Betelgeuse?)*

Anyway¬†… diving headlong into a book is the one sure way to get me out of my head and to quiet those worrying thoughts.

The second reason I’ve become such a reader is because¬†people’s lives — the intricate details, the nitty gritty hows and whys — provide an endless source of fascination to me. And while yes, I do know, thank you very much, that characters in a book aren’t *actually* real, to me … well … they really kind¬†of are. So¬†sitting amongst them and immersing myself in their lives, while curled up in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea, is my idea of one of the coziest, most gezellig, ways to spend an evening.

I seem to go on reading jags. I went through a Margaret Atwood phase, and then a prolonged jog through medieval English historical fiction. There was a longish smattering of bestsellerish stuff (John Irving and Jean M. Auel and Diana Gabaldon). There were the books I read alongside my husband (Douglas Adams, Alexandre Dumas and George Orwell). There are the classics, a seemingly endless list that I’ve been dipping into and out of ever since our daughter was born 19 years ago: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bront√ę, George Eliot, E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy… There’s been a lot of non-fiction, of the environmental and nutritional variety. And then there’s the children’s and the YA I’ve read, not aloud, but alongside our kids, after or before they’d read the book, so I’d be able to have discussions with them. (And quite often, truth be told, the children’s and YA have not only not¬†been read aloud, they’ve not even been read alongside … but simply just because).

Currently, I’m on a World War II historical fiction jag, and the reason I find this narrow genre so interesting is two-fold:

First, it makes me enormously grateful to be living in a time and place where there’s peace and good government, as well as sufficient food, clothing and shelter. It also hits me at a very personal level, because both my mother and father, as well as my father-in-law, were children in Europe during the war.

My mother is from a small town in The Netherlands, just outside Rotterdam, and she was eight years old when the war began in 1939. She huddled under desks and church pews during bombings; she had to try to sleep in dank, over-crowded cellars; she felt the fear engendered by the German soldiers occupying the community centre directly next door; she went hungry in the latter years of the war when much of the Dutch population faced starvation.

My father, on the other hand, was only two years old when the war began. His German family was living on a farm in Prussia (an area which today is encompassed by both Germany and Poland), and he had older siblings who were part of the Hitler Youth. When the tide of the war turned, his family didn’t heed the warnings to leave; their farm was overrun by Polish soldiers who rounded them up and transported them to a work camp. My father-in-law’s war story is eerily similar to my father’s: he was the same age as my father, also living on a farm in Prussia, and with an older brother in the Hitler Youth, but when the warnings came to his¬†widowed mother to skedaddle, they did. He was seven years old when he and his brother and mother made their way — by foot, by Red Cross train, by hitching rides with anyone who would take them — to relatives in Austria.

Experiences such as these can’t help but colour a person for the rest of their lives, and reading accounts that resemble the conditions in which my parents found themselves as children allows me to understand them more fully, and has helped me come to terms with events that occurred in my own childhood.

The second reason historical books of this vintage fascinate me is because I’m keenly interested in knowing how people used to live. I’m not so na√Įve as to wish to go back in time and live in a different era (I’m rather fond of medical advances such as antibiotics and such), and while I do have a soft spot for ALL historical fiction, I do feel there could be something to be learned from this relatively recent history. You know, before we embarked upon this age of consumerism and globalization, before plastics and convenience and disposability became so ubiquitous and so pervasive that no one can seem to fathom how to hold a school dance without supplying flats of bottled water and dollar store trinkets…

(Whoops … I guess that’s a mini-rant; my apologies).

So … the books I’ve been reading:

  • Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. I loved this book, not just for the historical details, but also for the back and forth, “what if you could re-live your life” aspect, which was a fascinating concept for me.
  • The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I read this alongside our daughter; we both loved it, although it is a very sad read.
  • Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay. This seems to be one of those must-reads that people either love or hate. I hated it.
  • The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to love this book, but I couldn’t quite get there. It’s definitely not a hate, but is somewhat of a meh.
  • Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Our 16 year-old son read this for English last year, so I read it after he did. While I didn’t love it, it was a very compelling read, and the time travel made it very interesting.
  • All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. What can I say? I absolutely loved this book. The gorgeous writing, the back and forth in time, the separate stories that came together in the end, the mystery of the gemstone …
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This one had me with the title alone; I loved this post-war story, which is told solely through correspondence between the characters.
  • The Occupied Garden, by Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski. I happened across this book while buying stroopwafels¬†with our youngest ( ūüôā ) at a small Dutch deli. It’s a memoir of a market gardener and his wife and family, set in The Netherlands during the war, and ohmygosh¬†hello?!¬†… my own Dutch grandfather was a market gardener who had an orchard and a large vegetable garden behind his house. So, even though I’ve been trying to limit my book purchases and use the library more often, this was one I had to buy. I’m only halfway through, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

I’d love to know what you’re reading now, or, conversely, if you’re not reading, I’d love to hear about that, too. There was a point, when the kids were young, that I hit a wall; it felt almost as though I was reading my life away. It may not look like it (from the list above), but I don’t read ALL the time. On that note, I’m thinking my next post will be about knitting … because that’s gezellig too.


* Shameless literary reference: Betelgeuse is a planet in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; they don’t have sarcasm there. I feel immensely sorry for them and can’t quite fathom how they manage ūüėČ

 

I Was Not a Well-Read Child …

… and I’ve been playing a game of readaholic catch-up ever since.

My parents had the best of intentions when it came to books and reading.

My mother used to say: When you have a book, you have a friend. And she would tell us how she and her younger brother would sit side by side at the dining table, a book laid in front of them, the slow reader on the left, the fast reader on the right, the intervening pages held up vertically in the middle.

And from my father: Knowledge is heavy! This, jokingly, approvingly, as he hefted bags filled with library books into the trunk of the car.

Every other Saturday morning was the same: we’d pile into our VW Beetle and drive downtown. We’d park in the underground parkade and ascend to the library, a huge two-storey structure with the children’s library tucked in a corner of the basement. Because it was the 70s and this practice was de rigueur, my parents would say See you later! and wander off to do their¬†own thing, my mother going to the paperback racks to select a dozen or more detective or romance novels, my father to the magazine section where he’d get his stack of back-issue Popular Mechanics or Popular Photography.

Most Saturday mornings, a gentle hum would greet me as I descended the stairs, and I’d have to skirt around the long vacuum hose that snaked a path behind the janitor as he cleaned the long, carpeted hallway that led to the children’s library. I’d pass through the check-out area where the librarian was busily and quietly working, and I’d enter the silent stacks.

And once there, I would wander … going from shelf to shelf …¬†staring at the spines, overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Indecisive about what to choose, and too shy to ask for help, I’d — more often than not — choose the same books, over and over and over again.

There was Charlotte’s Web; The Wizard of Oz; Harriet the Spy; Katie John; What the Witch Left; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach; Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret; Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great; Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me; Freaky Friday.

I remember hearing at one point, about a girl who’d decided to read every single book in her library. She was going to do it alphabetically, methodically; what an incredibly noble and worthy goal, I thought.

Every summer, I’d look at the race track the librarian had set up for the summer reading program and marvel — be awed, in fact — by the sheer volume of books other children were reading. I wanted to catch up to them; I really did! Oh, to read that many books!

And yet, what would I do?

I’d invariably choose the same books, over and over and over again, I’d go home with my bag stuffed full, sit on my bed and … cross-stitch.

I suppose it’s no wonder I was not a well-read child. (But I was a heckuva grandma, according to my brother’s best friend … ).

It was¬†Rita’s¬†post on purging books that set me to pondering about all of this, specifically her statement:

When I needed help knowing what to do and how to be, I turned to fiction, memoir, and poetry, where I found solace, companionship, adventure, wonder, and answers to important questions.

This is, I think, the absolute ideal, the magic that flows through stories, the reason so many people LOVE books.¬†And while Rita’s words fit me to a T now, I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t have that life-transforming relationship with books while growing up. While it’s clear that I suffered from an appalling lack of gumption as a child, it’s also fair to hazard — without laying blame — that I might have fared better if I had had some help in the book-choosing department. But those two factors aside, I think there was yet something else going on.

Ahem … there’s usually a point in my posts where I falter; either because I’m droning on (check!), or because I’m fast passing into the realm of Hmmm,¬†should I really¬†be admitting to XYZ? —

/ plunging onward regardless /

Here’s what I’m wondering …

What happens when lessons-on-how-to-live morph into something different? What happens when “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” crosses a line and becomes copying? Are any of you, dear readers, nodding your heads in understanding, completely *getting* where I’m going with this … or is what I’m about to say only relevant for those of us who should have been taken to a child psychologist instead of to a library?

It pains me to admit how long it took me to wake up to the stark reality embodied in the proverb,¬†If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.¬†Here’s the thing: for me, despite the fact that books were held up as friends, reading all-too-often became a double-edged sword. What should have been wonderful escapism or edifying lessons-on-how-to-live became instead angst-filled comparisons.

The sad fact is that,¬†Charlie and James aside, the characters in the contemporary books I was reading led lives which seemed so much more preferable than mine. Some of these girls lived in New York City (my gosh,¬†New York!); most of them were spunky and lively; some of them had fascinating quirks, and all of them seemed to be stubbornly who-they-were, no apologies given. I didn’t want to just imitate these characters in order to learn what to do and how to be; there was a part of me that strongly imagined, fervently hoped, that if I tried hard enough — that if I went around the neighbourhood √† la Harriet the Spy, armed with a notebook and a pencil — I could somehow magically¬†become¬†one of these characters; I’d somehow cease to be me, a scrawny and shy and scared girl with parents who fought all the time but who — unlike storybook parents — wouldn’t mercifully divorce.¬†And it’s only now as I stop to consider it, completely recognizing the bizarre overarching wishful wistfulness of it all, that I see this must have been a pretty exhausting way to grow up. Maybe it’s no wonder I stitched my heart out: beauty came flowing out of my hands;¬†it was the only time I felt good about being me.

And then, far too young, I ceased making the trek downstairs. I left the classics — the books from another time and place, the books with characters I would have had enormous difficulty becoming,¬†but whose lessons might possibly have helped me, books like The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables and Little Women — unread on the shelf. By thirteen or fourteen I was upstairs, perusing the same racks my mother chose from, and escaping into detective novels and bodice ripper romances, feeding my mind on the continual, and rather addictive, metaphorical equivalent of candy and pop.

(I’m sure that last sentence is going to come off as elitist, and frankly, I’m not sure what to do about that. I swear I don’t look down on people whose entire literary diet is made up of¬†V is for Vengeance and Fifty Shades of Grey*; I’m all for a little escapism …¬†BUT … I think, and hope, it’s perfectly okay to admit to wanting to fill my mind with something a little more substantial).

It wasn’t until university that a lightbulb went off: if I was feeling as though I had somehow missed out on something important by not reading Margaret Atwood and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, well then, that was something that was eminently fixable, wasn’t it? All I had to do was to put down the Harlequins and pick up something else.

Ah, if only ALL problems were so easily solved …

So when it came to our children, I made it my mission: I was going to raise well-read kids. My kids weren’t going to wander libraries and bookstores, overwhelmed and indecisive! It seems to me that much of what we do as parents can be labelled pendulum parenting — I was raised this way, so I will do the polar opposite for my own children. Sometimes this can be a disastrous approach: a child raised in a totalitarian home grows up and decides to raise his/her own children with absolutely no rules whatsoever. Fortunately, there are no ill-effects from reading, and when my husband sent me this link a year or so ago, in which the benefits of being a reader¬†were extolled, I admit I allowed myself a rare, Well, I’ve done something right at least.

What I didn’t count on, though, when setting out to raise readers, was how profoundly that process would change me; that when our first-born¬†—¬†our daughter — would spend hours parked on my lap, getting up only to fetch another book from our quickly growing supply, that when I would plant a kiss on her temple with every page turned, that that would not only be good for her, but it would also be good for me. The rhythms, the rhymes, the characters, the plots, the illustrations — all of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, nuances that wash over you as you read a story — together with the speaking-aloud in various voices and the physical contact¬†… for someone who grew up in a turbulent household, this new-found sitting-cuddled-up-together and reading, this immersion into peaceful whiling-away of hours at a time, was pure healing and bliss. (I know. It sounds over-stated. But there it is … ).

It’s also, perhaps — or at least, I’m hoping (really, really, really hoping) — an insulator against troubled times. Our 16 (almost 17) year-old son has been testing us enormously these past few months, pushing pushing pushing at boundaries, and I have to say it’s been somewhat helpful¬†(not enormously, but still … ) that after the hyperbole of you never let me do anything, after¬†I’ve just been accused of shouting (when all I’ve actually done is levelled a counter-argument in a completely measured and non-shouty way), after the door slams, I’m able to bring to mind and hold tight the memory of¬†him as a four year-old: blonde-haired and blue-eyed, cuddled against me, thumb in his mouth, completely engrossed in the encyclopedic DK Dinosaurs And How They Lived.

(Sheesh, where’s the gratitude? It’s not easy for a non-palaeontologist to roll ornithischian¬†and rhamphorhynchus off her tongue).

Oh wait … maybe, one day, I dunno — when he’s 30? — he’ll remember this brief conversation he reportedly had with a boy shortly after moving here:

How’d you get to be so smart? he was asked.

I dunno, he replied. I guess because my mom read to me and she feeds me good food.


* Just for the record, when Fifty Shades of Grey was being passed around the cul-de-sac, when it was being read by ALL the women (and at least one of the men), I took my turn with it too.

 

Repurposing a Drop-Side Crib

It was “large item pick-up day” a couple of weeks ago in our city, a monthly garbage collection event that never fails to both fascinate me and fill me with dismay. The stuff that gets hauled out of houses and piled on the curb! On this particular day, I ended up stuck behind a garbage truck that was gobbling up a fuchsia leather sofa, a process that took several chompings before the sofa was finally consumed. I sat there and watched, hoping against hope that the sofa was irretrievably broken or ruined, and that it wasn’t out on the curb simply because its owners were re-decorating and didn’t want the bother of calling Habitat for Humanity (or some other such organization) to arrange a pick-up.

Although our city sends out informational leaflets on garbage collection, explicitly encouraging people to donate usable household items such as chairs, tables and shelves, to organizations such as Goodwill, many people clearly can’t or won’t be bothered. This means that our city is a paradise for¬†those people¬†who make their living fixing and/or repurposing furniture items, as well as for those who simply want or need to set up their home as frugally as possible. While there is a certain something in the rescuing and re-imagining and re-making that really speaks to me (I admit to feeling a powerful urge to stop and poke through curbed items, and I did pick up a library cart (!) last year that I will eventually blog about), the minimalist I-hate-clutter side of me has so far prevented me from giving in to the impulse to stuff the garage with potentiality. For now at least, I’m more interested in using what we already have on hand, like our¬†now-illegal drop-side crib, for example.

I blogged about our¬†crib¬†several months ago, sharing a photo of what became of one of the side rails, and confessing to a somewhat over-the-top sentimentality about our children’s “stuff”. It was my intention, early on in the planning stages of this blog,¬†to dole out these finished pieces one by one, but that seems almost coy now; all the pieces have been completed, and are sitting or hanging in their final locations, just awaiting photographing. So,¬†in the interests of contributing to the repository of useful inspiration that the internet so often is, and linking back to the original tutorial¬†we used,¬†I’d like to show you what we did with the other four pieces of the crib.

This piece sits in a corner of our master bedroom (or, putting that sexist term aside, the owner’s or principal suite):

At night, this bench gets piled with the five decorative pillows which sit on our bed during the day. Prior to making this bench, those pillows would simply get piled in the corner, which I have to admit worked just as well.

This next one sits in our mudroom, and in my mind, I refer to it as the if you build it they will come … NOT … bench:

Because things that don’t line up evenly niggle at me, we also had to build the cubby shelf above the bench. We modified an Ana White plan (http://ana-white.com/2011/07/martina-bath-wall-storage-shelf-hooks) and I initially planned on one cubby per person, for mittens and what-not, and even envisioned (momentarily) making fabric baskets to fit inside the cubbies to keep everything neatly organized. Then I remembered my name is Marian, not Martha. Ah well… It’s hard to tell in the photo, but ALL five cubbies are filled with my husband’s cycling gear; considering what he puts up with, I’m perfectly OK with this.

We built this bench hoping it would be a repository for school backpacks, but I failed to account for the fact that, unlike in our previous house, in which the kids arrived home from school via the attached garage, in this house, they enter through the front door. They dump backpacks and shoes upon entry, and because life is too short to be on them everysingleday to walk the backpacks through the house to the mudroom, there they sit. (We also have a ginormous front door shoe problem that I need to tackle; the backpacks are one thing, but the shoes (the SHOES!) are positively driving me up a creek).

When this logistical flaw became apparent, I was a bit miffed; I figured the bench was going to be largely useless. However, because there’s a law pertaining to horizontal spaces (they will get piled with something, sooner or later) we discovered a use for it when our youngest started hockey last year, at the ripe old age of nine.

A rather verbose aside:

We exist in what many might consider to be mutually exclusive state of being: we’re Canadian, and we’re NOT hockey.

Yes, it actually is possible. And, contrary to what one hockey-crazed Minnesotan once insinuated, Canada does not kick you out of the country if you fail to profess an all-encompassing love for the game; they won’t even do it if your meh¬†is perilously close to actual dislike, which is pretty much where we sit on the sliding scale that measures hockey-ness.

Because we’re not only NOT hockey, but are actually closer to UN-hockey, this meant that we were just a bit bewildered when, shortly after moving here, our youngest asked for a stick and a tennis ball and told Dad to take shots on him in the neighbour’s net which sat (communally) in the cul-de-sac. Truthfully, we hoped it was simply a passing phase.

It wasn’t. Soon, street hockey wasn’t enough:¬†he was asking to play the real thing. On ice. And with a team. Stalling, we told him he couldn’t play hockey until he learned to skate, so we enrolled him in lessons. And all during those Friday evening sessions, he kept gazing wistfully at the other end of the ice, where boys in full hockey gear were being schooled in power skating, wielding sticks and juggling pucks. Succumbing, my husband asked around at work: what to do with a nine year-old kid who has never played hockey on actual ice? When most Real Canadian Kids start at four? His co-workers’ advice? Enrol him in a summer hockey camp. So that’s what we did last¬†summer. We got him padded up with second-hand gear, hoping fervently thinking he might not like it, but alas great news! He loved it, and last October began playing house league hockey.

So this means two things:

  1. The bench has a use! It’s where our son’s humungous hockey bag sits, with all his gear strewn out on top, airing out after practices and games. (Because, oh my! the sweat pouring off these kids when they get off the ice!)
  2. I’ve had to become the thing I never imagined myself becoming: a hockey mom. Considering that I felt we had dodged a bullet when our older son showed no interest in the game, this is quite a feat for me ūüėČ . (Fact: hockey change-rooms have to be some of the least gezellig places on the planet. And sitting in the stands with rabid NHL-dreaming¬†overly-competitive¬†really, really, really excited parents who eatsleepbreathe hockey … ? Um, yes … this doesn’t quite make my list of gezellig-things-to-do-on-a-Saturday-morning … BUT (!) I do have to admit that as the season wore on, I began to see why our son was loving the game … )

Moving on …

The crib spring is, for now, hanging on the wall in our mud room, and is a message centre of sorts:

So yes … I admit this is a bit strange. When our 16 year-old son saw this he said,¬†OMG Mom, really?! Why … ?! Just why would you … ?

Although I’m normally not one for cutesy decor, I have to say there’s something eclectic and industrial to this vignette that really appeals to me, especially when taken in context with the washer and dryer which sit in the same room. Maybe one day, if we move to another house, it’ll become a trellis for peas, but in the meantime, it functions very well in its role of fridge declutterer, holding the calendar, a birthday calendar, and a small blackboard (I rolled chalkboard paint on the glass of a framed embroidery I was no longer fond of) where I jot notes about when I last watered the plants, chores for the children, and library book due dates. It’s also where I clip school notices and field trip forms. (As it was July when I took the photo, it’s rather emptier than it usually is).

My favourite piece, a small shelving unit, sits in a corner of the dining room:

I think perhaps the top left corner is in focus … clearly, I need to work on my photography skills …

The open spots on the top and middle shelves are where framed photos of the kiddos usually sit (I took them down for the picture because I’m still a bit paranoid about the Big Bad Internet). Because my method of design involves at least six hands holding up sticks of wood, this piece took several months of pondering, and at least two false starts. We were a bit hard-pressed to figure out how to construct the shelves and the front supports in order to remain in keeping with the style of the crib, but I think we managed fairly well in the end.

And to keep the fate of the crib in its entirety all together, here again is the first piece I blogged about, the plant bench which sits in our ensuite:

photo

To wind up, I’d just like to provide encouragement to those people who may look at these projects and think, Ah, but we’re not handy enough to make anything ourselves.¬†It’s actually not that difficult to do small woodworking projects, either from scratch, or by repurposing something you already own. Prior to moving into this fixer-upper four+ years ago my husband and I had done very little DIY work (apart from painting), and it was only my anger at a contractor (you want THAT much money for THAT teensy job?!) that set our handy wheels in motion. Home Depot will gladly cut large sheets of wood into strips for those who don’t have access to a table saw, and while we did buy a mitre saw, a mitre box and a hand saw would have worked just as well. For the actual construction of these pieces, we found a Kreg Jig¬†(an inexpensive tool used to drill pocket holes) to be an invaluable tool.

Does Everyone Need a Hobby?

About a year and a half ago, my then-seventeen year-old daughter requested something that made me inordinately happy:

She asked me to (once again) teach her how to crochet.

Have I caused you to roll your eyes and say, Oh, puh-leaze!?

If so, you might want to stop reading.

For anyone who’s not rolling their eyes, here’s the backstory:

I’ve been crafting *forever*. My Dutch mother put a threaded tapestry needle into my hand at a very young age, and started me off with running stitches on scraps of linen. Rows of cross stitches soon followed, which were then translated into pictures on printed canvas, which quickly morphed into charted (counted) projects, all at a very young age. I can still remember — forty-some years on — the extreme embarrassment my mother caused when she brought my needlework to my pre-school (yes, to my¬†PRE-school!) so she could show my teacher what an accomplished little stitcher I already was.

Although my mother schooled me in nearly every other imaginable fibre-craft as I was growing up — crochet, knitting, rug-hooking, macrame, weaving, sewing — it was cross-stitch that held sway with me. Growing up in a turbulent household, those Xs became what I now recognize as a bit of a lifeline: stitching away in my bedroom, concentration on the pattern perforce blocked out at least some of what was happening outside, and it became a bit of a compulsion, or — shoving questionable mental health under the rug — at the very least, a hobby relentlessly pursued, one project held just threads away from completion while I started the next, the rather whacky un-spoken feeling hanging over me that my universe might just implode if I didn’t have a project on the go at all times.

While all this stitching did absolutely nothing to forward the childhood feeling that I was destined to be a novelist (and in fact, can largely be blamed for a rather dismal resumé of books read), it did result in this:

(pardon the wonky light and wall colour – I’m a stitcher, not a photographer!)

Here’s a close-up:

And then there’s this, the first and second vignette in another bell pull, this one a montage of Dutch nursery rhymes and songs:

And a sampler, one of many:

(this one with a paraphrased quote from The Secret Garden)

How many samplers does one need? It’s a good thing my husband is comfortable with his masculinity and isn’t opposed to needlework adorning the walls.

So it should be pretty clear that while I didn’t have a clue how to write a novel, I did know how to produce home decor. I think I must have reasoned that until such time as I could figure out how to write that novel, I might as well keep stitching. This plan — I now know — will never produce a novel. But it did fit in well with my early life lessons: my mother’s admonitions that (female) hands must always be busy, and my German father’s strict work ethic (Be Productive!), the result being a copious output of completed needlework projects.

This past-time continued, unabated, until at the age of 29, pregnant with our first child, I was overcome with a sudden urge to knit a sweater for the small person kicking around inside me.

Out came my trusty Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework¬†(given to me by my mother upon my marriage, because what else does a woman with Dutch blood need¬†when embarking upon married life?), and tucking long needles under my arms, I re-taught myself to knit, and very soon was clacking off a sweater.

Our baby arrived (a girl!), and while she grew and the boys came along, my spare hours were spent sewing and knitting (cross-stitching left off as suddenly and irrevocably as Forrest Gump stopping his running in the middle of the desert), my knitting expertise growing as the years went by. Pieced sweaters on the long, held-under-your-arms needles were left off when I discovered neck-down seamless patterns which could be fashioned on much more comfortable circular needles. I taught myself how to use double pointed needles and knit items I had always viewed as nearing rocket-science: socks and mittens. And because this level of obsession was something that was just begging to be shared, I had cozy visions of teaching my growing daughter to stitch or knit or crochet — anything, really, just so long as she had her *thing*.

And oh, how I tried!

Over the years, I taught her cross-stitch, latch-hooking, crochet, knitting, and sewing. My mother was in on the scheme as well, bringing back stitchery and spool knitting kits which she had gleaned from trips home to The Netherlands.

But nothing took.¬†Truthfully, our next-in-line — our first son — showed more interest in stitching than she did! And although my daughter was creative in a myriad of other ways as she was growing up — painting, drawing, card-making, modelling with clay, and imaginative play galore — there was no fibre arts craft that I felt she could take into adulthood with her, something she could work on while watching tv, something tangible that could flow from her hands to mark that her quiet hours were well-spent.

And then, in my daughter’s grade twelve year, she came home from school one day and said, “Melissa crocheted herself this really cool infinity scarf!”

I waited for her to ask me to make her one, but instead, this was what she said:

“I was thinking I’d like to make one too. Can you show me how to crochet again?”

ūüôā

Three scarves later (the third finished while watching The Walking Dead on Netflix), she’s still at it.

Successfully shushing my minimalist self who kindasorta wanted to ask, How many scarves do you need? Should you perhaps branch out…?, we bought yarn for her fourth scarf when she was home for the Christmas holidays, and while we were looking around, the owner, an √ľber-helpful woman (as all yarn shop owners seem to be), came up to us, and in her chatty way, informed us that knitting is good for warding off dementia.

“Crochet too, I’m sure!” I quickly put in, glancing at my daughter. (I needn’t have worried: at eighteen, she’s not worried one iota about dementia).

Although I will allow for the fact that the woman, as the owner of a shop, might have some self-interest in promulgating the notion that knitting is the miracle cure for dementia, this was welcome news to me. I’ve had some alarming slips over the past few years — gas burners left on low; names of people I know I¬†know, dammit!, completely forgotten; my embarrassing problem with¬†disappearing nouns¬†(not safe for work or with children around, but a hilarious must-watch)¬†— all causing me to wonder whether this was just “normal” aging, or if my neurons were beginning to fail me.

And this is where I finally (!) —¬†Phew!, you’re saying — tie back in to the title of this post: in the interest of exercising our brains, do we all need a hobby? Some sort of occupation for the snatches of quiet in our evenings during which we could be doing something — anything! — beyond binging on Netflix? (Or — ahem —¬†while binging on Netflix?)

There’s reading, of course. A resounding yes to reading! But unfortunately, reading isn’t so easy to do while binging on Netflix.

And writing. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a writer, of course you have to write! /whistles uncomfortably/

But it’s exceedingly hard to write while watching Netflix.

There’s crossword puzzles and sudoku, jigsaw puzzles and stamp collecting — all of which can be done fairly well while glued to Netflix.

And then there’s woodworking, but of course it’s not quite so easy to watch, let alone hear, Netflix with a table saw running (to say nothing of the danger involved in such an endeavour).

Gosh Marian, you might be saying at this point. What the hell is it with you and Netflix?

I think maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to talk about Netflix.

Here’s the thing: Why (she asks plaintively) does there have to be such good stuff on Netflix? Because if our brains have a better chance of thriving into our old age when we challenge them with novel and difficult tasks, AND if a little escapism is good (because there’s only so much sitting quietly and pondering Earth going to hell-in-a-handbasket one can do) then how in the world can I expect myself to knit something as complex as these¬†Queen Street mitts¬†for my daughter:

Pattern: Queen Street mitts by Glenna C

when I have to catch all the gorgeous nuance in Downton Abbey? It’s one thing to treat an episode of Friends or Mad About You or Star Trek like a radio program, but to attempt that while watching¬†Call the Midwife?

Yes! Success! I’ve mentioned Call the Midwife, which was part of my diabolical plan all along ūüėČ . Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I can tell you that I can no longer hear or think the word Gosh (as in the Gosh, Marian, above)¬†without it coming through¬†in the deepish tone employed by¬†Miranda Hart aka “Chummy”¬†whose character drops a husky¬†Gosh every chance she gets. And, best of all,¬†now I can finally ask the question that’s been burning in the back of my brain for weeks: was anyone else out there in Netflix-land slightly disappointed about the slip-up in the third season afghan episode?

For those of you who haven’t watched Call the Midwife, I’ll explain:

Call the Midwife is a period piece set in London in the 50s, and in this particular episode the nuns and midwives are tasked with making an afghan for charity. They’re all shown busily¬†knitting away, making squares for what eventually becomes a granny square afghan.

But wait a second … hello? … you can’t knit a granny square. It’s crocheted!

I know.¬†I’m being totally nit-picky and pedantic. And I probably should do something about getting a life. But there you have it. As¬†much as I loved loved loved watching this series, I have to express my disappointment that seemingly not one member of the cast or crew of Call the Midwife picked up that obvious slip.

Yes, well …

Rather than leaving this post hanging by a thread of what could perhaps be construed as a blatantly anti-feminist statement —

(Am I actually saying that I expect all females everywhere to simply know — as though¬†the knowledge is encrypted within the nucleotides of our second X chromosome — the difference between knitting and crocheting?! —¬†Well, no … /hums nervously while looking at shoes/)

— I think I’ll end by showing you this:

This is the bench¬†my sixteen year-old son made for his sister two Christmases ago. You see, I have crafty dreams for my boys as well ūüôā .

(Hmmm … I’m not sure an item made from wood by a male child (wielding power tools) lets me off the hook. I think I’d better add that I recognize — and fully support — the fact that¬†men knit too).

(Disclaimer: No Netflix was watched during the manufacture of the aforementioned bench).