Monday, May 26, 2014

A Funny Thing

This afternoon I was feeding and watering the chickens and a thought almost bowled me over, which would have been pretty easy because I was squatting in the coop with an old skirt wadded up around me. My brother built the coop, which has a high-rise, insulated nesting penthouse, and my sister-in-law selected and raised the chicks from wee little hatchlings. 

That little fuzzy thing in the back right corner is our silky rooster. He's a bit of a freak with 7 toes on each foot and feathers in weird places. But he's our freak rooster.
Even with the pups (over 80 pounds each now) running laps around the coop, the hens were placid and I took a moment to pick up "Sleepy" and cuddle her a bit. One night recently, one of the girls managed to squirm their way out the coop door somehow. Mom discovered it when Lucy (our girl Great Dane) wouldn't leave the coop when called. Mom found Lucy herding the AWOL hen against the front of the coop. Lucy wouldn't let that bird go around the little building or anywhere. She wasn't interested in biting or being aggressive at all. She let Mom pick up the hen and return it to the coop with no problem, then happily followed Mom back to the house. 

About that thought that struck me this afternoon in the coop. Fifteen or so years ago, when I was a temporary flat-lander in the eastern part of the state, I never would have imagined myself in a chicken coop. Sure, I was raised in the rural mountains and most of my childhood was spent outside, especially at my mother's parents' house, where gardening, canning, and chicken coops were just a normal part of life. But for over ten years I was at college or working in the Triangle area of North Carolina. I became expert at navigating aggressive urban traffic and became picky about my wine, my coffee, and, later, my tequila. I wore high heels, danced till last call, and when my first marriage crashed and burned spectacularly, I bought a townhouse on my own. I shopped at Target, not Wal-mart. You all know what I mean. I was still a t-shirt and jeans girl, but those denims were low-slung at the waist and flared at the ankle (it was the late 90's and early turn of the century, after all). I am not afraid to flaunt that long ago image because these days I'm a humble 75 pounds heftier than I was back then. 

It took less than a year after that separation for me to crumble. Not completely, of course. Hitting rock bottom would come about six or seven years later. But, life is good. Just not easy to peg down with expectations or well-laid plans. I'm now a teetotaler and I'm happy with just about any old coffee, as long as its strong. Every single pair of jeans that I can now fit these curves into, and not feel smothered, have been picked up from Goodwill thrift stores. I'm a master of using trade credit at Mr. K's Used Books, Music, and More to get "new" used books that I can't otherwise find at the library. 

Back then, I never would have thought I'd enjoy that happy moment stroking a hen's feathers, squatting on a chicken poop littered floor, wearing off-brand Croc clogs, an old skirt tucked around my legs, hair chopped short for ease, feeling a breeze through wire walls. 

Of course, then there was that moment this morning when I picked up a hand-knit dish cloth from the basement floor, planning to throw it into the wash...but hesitated when I spied a shiny black speck on it.  It was a spider. Possibly a black widow because it was so shiny and glossy. In my dumb curiosity, I stalled too long and it flew towards me faster than...well, than anything with less than non-poisonous, evil purpose would. Obviously, it intended to kill me. I couldn't find it after I did my freak-out dance, so I totally stripped, threw the dish cloth, and my clean clothes I'd been wearing, into the washing machine, slammed shut the lid, then ran up the stairs and through the house--completely naked. Good thing I live up on this mountainside.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Not Finishing

There are some readers who will finish a book regardless of how they feel about the book itself or their own reading experience. It could be the worst book they've ever read, and they'll finish it, word for word, cover to cover. I do not understand this. I cannot do this. When I say "the worst book they've ever read," I mean something completely relevant to the individual reader. Your favorite book could be my idea of a hell on earth, or the other way around. I respect that. But for someone to sit still and suffer through their own version of hell on earth in a neat, handheld package is beyond me.

Thus, I do not finish that which does not earn my interest or respect by page 30. If it has a tentative grip on me, I'll give it to page 50. Due to professional need (I was a middle school librarian at the time) I tried Stephenie Meyer's Twilight twice. On the second attempt I made it to page 90. Sorry. Despite assurances that it gathers speed after that, I just couldn't do it.

Why? Because life is short and I have 397 books (and growing) on my to-read list. Because sometimes you are just not ready for Book A and only Book B will satisfy...then along comes Book A five years down the road and it knocks you off your tush. Like The Grapes of Wrath when I read it in college. I doubt I would have had that amazing experience reading it in high school. I waited to read Jane Austin, almost all of her works, in the year after I graduated from college. I managed to save her just for my personal reading for the whole four years I was getting my English degree. I also managed to avoid reading Charles Dickens, but for very different reasons. Classics are far and away better reading when they are not required reading. Dickens, well, he may not be to my taste at any time. Perhaps that will change for me one day. In the mean time, there is no space for the ol' chap on my to-read list.

I read all kinds of books. Autobiography, other nonfiction, urban fantasy, erotica, paranormal romance, literary fiction that pretends to be "above" genrefication, name it. I do not read crappy writing. Example: recycling almost whole sentences or paragraphs in a book....I'm looking at you, Danielle Steel. I may have trouble memorizing things, but you only have to tell me once that our heroine is blonde and suffering from some trauma in a single book within the first five chapters. I haven't read a Steel novel since that one when I was in high school. Nora Roberts is a far better writer to my mind.

Here's my bedside table right now. One book of essays, two memoirs, one Pulitzer-prize-winning literary fiction, and one urban fantasy (from bottom to top).

The only thing I absolutely will not try reading (I'll give any book or author a fair chance) is an author or book that doesn't respect its readership. How can I tell? I love all things bookish and I've delved into most aspects of the book world. I've worked as an editor at a major publisher, a published writer with a very small press, a freelancer, a proofreader, a researcher, a bookseller in an independent bookstore, and a librarian in all kinds of libraries, including working in acquisitions directly with vendors and distributors. Here's a great example. A certain major New York Times bestselling author was hosted as a guest speaker by our book store and told a store employee that his job is so easy because his readers would purchase and read any ol' slop he puts on a page. Oh, yeah? I will never touch that man's books and I'll give his name to any personal acquaintance who cares to ask. I don't care to be sued by a man with far more moolah and clout than I, but there you have it. I'll tell you many names of who it is not. That, I'm happy to do.

Well. That's one way to find out if a book is not worth your precious reading time. And my lovelies, your reading time is precious.

I feel guilty about not finishing knitting projects. I do not feel that same kind of guilt when I can't finish a book. Some books, yes. I have no idea why I cannot get finished with The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It is beautifully written and I am keen on the descriptions and the characters. I'm on page 329 and I believe we're in Cold War Hungary. Many other books, mainly nonfiction, are bookmarked and await moments when I need to dip back into them to clear my literary palate of the high drama, and sometimes anxiety, of fiction. Not that nonfiction can't be dramatic. But the writing style can often be soothing.

One marked exception is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It is fiction, but is so beautifully written and has a "still waters run deep" joy about it that I just love to read it in small chunks in between other things. Sad things happen in it, but it overcomes them with something far more powerful. Another exception is Scattershot: My Bipolar Family, a Memoir by David Lovelace. The very first chapter was such a violent trigger for me that I couldn't read any further.

So, I have intense experiences and sometimes relationships with books and authors. And I can't always predict what will happen, so I give each one a chance (unless they've already burned their bridge, as mentioned above). If you've read my About page, then you know that I'm an unapologetic book sniffer and I love the book as an object and artifact, as well as for its treasured contents. I'm one of those women who include careful consideration of trade-paperback carrying capacity of any purse prior to purchase.

Since I'm being honest about my bookish self, I will let you know that I don't just cease to finish books if they fail me. I have been known to throw them, if the experience was especially bad. Yes, I'm a tosser. Not into the trash. But into the air, against things, into donation boxes with more than necessary force. Even in knitting, I throw the working yarn around the right needle instead of "picking". When Frank E. Peretti killed off a certain female character in The Oath, that book went flying all the way across my bedroom and smacked the wall with a satisfying thud. I know exactly what Bradley Cooper's character felt when he stuck with Hemingway all the way to the end of A Farewell to Arms only to feel utterly betrayed. What did he do? He threw that book as far from him as he could get it. (Here's the scene on YouTube. Major spoiler alert if you haven't read the book and care to.) That's me.

Before readers or writers freak on me, I am a firm believer that the author is utterly free to make their story decisions without worrying about pleasing everyone. You cannot please everyone and if you tried, you'd have a very, very boring book on your hands. So, George R.R. Martin, you keep writing what you want. Piss some readers / viewers off with your willy-nilly powerful death pen. I would soooo read your books if I wasn't kind of scared of them. (I don't want to get all excited, fall in love with a character, and then need to throw a book that size through a wall. This house is a little old.)

I believe there are tons of good books out there and we just have to keep looking for the right book for us at that moment. And that means sometimes looking beyond the “safe” places, such as Oprah's list or any book club list (no offense intended to either). Forge a new path for yourself. Use some (really cool) online tools, like GoodReads or LibraryThing. Use Amazon as a jumping off point for finding read-alikes, or, even better, go right up to a real, live, breathing librarian and say, “Dude, I don't know what to read next and I'm kind of bummed out about it.” Or browse the stacks at a bookstore or library like this: walk very slowly and keep an eye out for fonts or colors on the spines of books that interest you. Sometimes I lightly touch the spines with my finger tips. Make sure to stop here and there to look at the bottom and top shelves, too. Pull these books off the shelf and read the plot summary on the inside flap or the back. Don't put the book back on the shelf if it doesn't strike your fancy. Just put it on a table or lay it flat on an empty space on the shelf. The library magically makes it disappear and return to its proper place later. If you end up with ten books that sound interesting, check out all ten! You don't have to finish them. If you read one, that's great. Especially if that author rocked your world and now you know she/he has five books published. You are now on a quest to find the other four. The only tool you need prior to any of these book-finding techniques (except for the random library / bookstore shelf tours) is the title / author of a book that you really enjoyed. Use that title / author to discover what other readers purchased or read next. That may be a good "read-alike". If you like Christine Feehan's Carpathian series, a good read-alike for you might be Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series. It's a cool librarian word. Now, you're cool like us. ;)

I have to go now. There is a major sweater that is not finished. That is not cool.

Monday, May 5, 2014


If you are a knitter and spend any time talking about it with other knitters, you know that "finishing" garments is / can be a big thing. Some folks are easy going about it. Others have strict rules and will judge your knitting accordingly (you will be able to identify these folks by their reaction to learning you're wearing something handmade; they will grab an edge where seams meet and flip it over to inspect the underside). Yet others are middle-of-the-road and dream of the perfection of fine finishing. And then there are those that patronize a specific LYS enough that they actually just bring their various knitted pieces in and drop them off for a staff member to finish for them. (I get my yarn all over the place, so that's not going to happen. Especially if there's a cost involved. That's yarn money!)

For those who don't knit, "finishing" is the part where we clean up the knitted pieces, sew it together if necessary, attach buttons, and so forth. Much of this is invisible to the outside once it is done, especially if done well. Sometimes even side seams can be made to disappear. I'm a process knitter, so the actual part where I just get to sit and knit makes me the happiest. Stopping to sew it all together when I never learned to sew was, when I first began this knitting adventure, a bit stressful. There are patterns for whole sweaters that require barely any sewing, and I like those. They are knitted in the round and usually have raglan sleeves. Dropped shoulder sleeves are OK, but not the most flattering. They require picking up and knitting stitches along gapping holes left just for the purpose of creating a sleeve. I can pick up and knit till the cows come home. But...for some devilish reason, I am drawn to beautiful patterns with set-in or in-set sleeves. (You can't see me, but I just had to stop and take a deep, settling breath at the very thought.) This is not an easy finishing technique for me. It took me weeks, yep, weeks, to finish the sleeves on my mother's birthday cardigan. But it is done. Hallelujah.

In my defense, the sleeves were normal stockinette and the body was that complicated lace and twisted stitch cable combo. Plus, the front sides angled to create the asymmetrical effect, so even sewing up the sides was wacko. Oh, and I felt it necessary to take it upon myself to re-write part of the pattern and made the sleeves a different size than what was given. 

I don't think I did such a bad job. And Mom now has a Mother's Day present, since her birthday was way back in January.

On a wonderful shiny note, here are the handmade buttons she made for it. They go on one shoulder, as you can see the closed cardigan above in the second photo.

She's a genius. Aren't they beautiful?

Here's the Ravelry link to the original pattern, "A Touch of Luxe Cardigan" by Anna Cohen, which appeared in Creative Knitting magazine, Winter 2013. None of the issues I whined about were due to the designer's hard work and vision. You can see more of Anna Cohen's designs on this Ravelry page. On the other hand, my whining says volumes about my ability to follow instructions (lack thereof) and lack of patience. I could look at it this way: my patience is actually impressive, because despite over five months' of work, I still finished it!

I also finished the Norah Gaughan's Moshup, all but the blocking, that is. Again, I couldn't stop myself. I altered the pattern just a wee bit. Just the back where there was a pointy bit with yarn-overs. This one is for me. It's just chunky, over-sized, and meant for comfy warmth on cold days. I haven't picked out buttons yet for the cross-over front flaps. 

No sweaters today, though. It is beautiful and sunny! Keep on knitting and don't fear the finishing. If I can do it, you can, too!

P.S. Alison gave me a very nice compliment in her comment below, but I decided I needed to explain better what it was that unsettled me so much about finishing. (By the way, "unsettling" is the perfect word; thank you, Alison.) When I sit down to seam flat pieces together, I don't have as much trouble, as long as we're dealing with stockinette and / or garter stitch fabric. I just think about it as a visit to the Bar-V Ranch. Bars: just look for the bars between vertical rows of knit stitches and slip your tapestry needle beneath them. Vs: just slip your tapestry needle under two legs of a horizontal row of knit stitch "V"s. With garter stitch, pick a purl bump (you can think of it as a "bar" to keep with the "Bar-V Ranch" theme) row and make sure you keep using the same one all the way up. If the garter stitch is horizontal, you can poke at it until you find a row of stockinette legs and use the "V" legs to guide your tapestry needle. The unsettling bits? Fuzzy yarn and un-even selvedge edges. (Where in the world did the bars and Vs go?) In-set sleeves that require seaming in a circle. A circle. Stair-step shaped selvedges. Lacy patterns, angled selvedges due to increases and decreases...yes, even when the increase or decrease is made one-stitch into the row. The two sweaters you see above had almost all these issues. 

The one thing I highly recommend is to block before you seam. Especially if you're working with lots of pieces of plain stockinette stitch fabric because it curls at the edges. 

I hate to admit it, but I am pretty satisfied and happy once I've finished a project with seams that marry so nicely that I would let my mother or myself wear it to our monthly knitting guild meeting. That requires confidence. 

Again, thank you, Alison. Knitters need to check out Alison's blog. This "Fifty Fifty" top she knit is gorgeous.