Friday, April 29, 2005


Amsterdam Scarf, completed
Originally uploaded by panopticon.

...or: How I Worked Nine Feet of Garter Stitch and Almost Lost My Mind.

Above is the Amsterdam Scarf, all finished.

It's about as lackluster a project as you will ever see. The specs? 100% garter stitch, made from some cheap Turkish yarn the name of which I don't recall.

By way of a pattern, I made the first half blue with three gray stripes (like the London Beanie). The second half switches to gray, with three blue stripes.

The damned thing did not get finished in time to accompany the beanie to Amsterdam, so when I came back it took a lot of self-discipline to pick it up and finish it. The mirror-image pattern meant I couldn't just stop it short and call it done.

Here's the funny part: I really like it. The colors suit me, the switch in ground color halfway through looks unexpectedly cool when it's around my neck, and the weight and width are precisely what I require in the middle of a Chicago winter.

Who would have thought crap yarn and garter stitch could make a guy feel so happy?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Point of No Return?

Okay, I did it. I signed up for Stitches Midwest.*

Three classes, two in knitting lace and one in intarsia.

It looks like a lot of classes are already full. None of the poncho sessions has sold out, which gives one hope.

I feel like I've crossed a bridge of some kind.

Could stash acquisition be next?

*At least, I think I did. I registered through the Web site, which should be in a Web design and development textbook under the chapter heading "Don't Ever Do This." All I can say is, oy gevalt.

They Call Me Interruptus

I work out at the straightest gym on the planet. Even the male aerobics instructors are straight, and honestly I thought that was against the law.

In a way, this is good because it means I have no trouble focusing on my workout. On the other hand, sometimes the parade of ugly straight men can be downright depressing.

And when I say ugly, I mean uhhhhhggglly. If Pope Benedict XVI came in and climbed onto the stationary bicycle next to mine I wouldn't even blink.

It's bad enough seeing these men naked in the locker room. Most of them go through incredible Kama Sutra contortions to hide their naughty bits when they change (who do they think is looking?) but there's still enough showing to wreck your appetite for a week.

Just imagine my discomfiture when yesterday I walked into the steam room and interrupted two of them who were lusting after each other.

They weren't touching or anything, but I could tell in an instant what was going on. There was a third fellow already in the room, and these two were obviously wanting to be alone together. Both had wedding rings and (judging from appearances) came from "I must marry and produce children despite my lust for men" sorts of cultures.*

As I sat down they glared at me, and then looked at each other, and heaved obvious sighs of discontent. (Amateurs are so indiscreet.)

I wasn't going to curtail my schvitz to enable their covert game of leapfrog. When I left ten minutes later for the sauna they were still sitting there, flirting with each other and with severe dehydration.

The sauna, ironically, was empty. I sat down in my favorite spot, this sort of deep niche to the right of the door that isn't well lit and where the heat tends to concentrate.

I hadn't been in there two minutes and was just getting to a marvelous state of relaxation when the door opened, and in came Tweedledee and Tweedledum. They were so in rut by this time that they didn't check the niche to see if it was empty. They just opened their towels and started playing Pole Position.

So I did what any compassionate gay man would do. I sat very still, waited for what dramatists call the Apex of the Action Sequence, and then I SUDDENLY COUGHED VERY LOUDLY.

Have you ever seen a man startled out of his wits while in the throes of orgasm? It's cute.

*I'll be honest. I have about the same amount of sympathy for these men that I do for the people who sue fast food chains for making them fat.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

My Grandmother's Hands

Grandma, Summer 2004

I'm finishing the Amsterdam Scarf today.

The Amsterdam Scarf, which I knit in Chicago and did not finish in time to wear to Amsterdam, is made to match the London Beanie (which I knit in Chicago with Turkish yarn and wore in Amsterdam, and which has never been to London).

It is not to be confused with the Edo Scarf, which I knit in Amsterdam with yarn imported from London, and which I am wearing in Chicago.

Everybody clear? Good.

I decided to sew in the ends on the Amsterdam Scarf today during my commute. Our weather is pleasant this morning for a change, cool but sunny, and so I sat down on the train and pulled out the scarf and darning needle feeling very calm and unusually cheerful for 8 a.m.

The funniest thing happened. I threaded the first yarn end, and as I slipped the needle into the stitches suddenly my hands weren't my hands, they were my grandmother's hands.

My grandmother probably knows how to knit - she knows how to do everything useful and domestic - but her needlework forte is sewing. She sewed, mended, and altered clothes for herself and her family before marrying, supported her three children as a young widow by sewing, and still (in her mid-80s) takes in light alterations when her eyes permit.

When I close my eyes and picture her, she's always holding four or five straight pins in the corner of her mouth.

And as I sewed this morning, I realized that I bend my head, hold my work and move my needle in exactly the same way she does. I even purse my lips in the same way when I'm coming to the end of the thread.

She lives far away from me, in Pennsylvania, and I don't get to see her as much as I wish I could. But I never realized until this morning that I suppose there's a part of her that's always with me, and I suppose always will be.

Pictures of the finished Amsterdam Scarf tonight, unless the Neverending Pain in the Ass project I'm working on for the university kills me first. In which case, it's been nice knowing you, and please send my intarsia sweater to Jon or Tricky to be finished so I can be buried in it.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Knitting Report

The Edo Scarf, 98% complete
Originally uploaded by panopticon.

I know perfectly well what most gay men go to Amsterdam to do.

However, the most exciting thing I got from a handsome Dutchman in a dark bar was the address of a good yarn store.

At the end of the street in the Southern Canal Belt where my guest house sits was a tiny little place called De Spijker. I stopped in on my first visit, and found the crowd so friendly I never bothered to explore any of the more exotic flesh palaces.

I spent a lot of time chatting with a fellow named Edo, with whom I share common interests in British comedy, graphic design, and - wonder of wonders - knitting.

A Visit to de Afstap

Edo insisted I pay a visit to his favorite yarn store, de Afstap. It's located at Oude Leliestraat 12 in Amsterdam, not too far from the Anne Frank House.

I wasn't disappointed. The charming old storefront would be easy to miss if you weren't looking for it, but the shop behind it is ample and airy, with plenty of natural light for checking colors.

The two ladies at the counter during my visit spoke excellent English (as does just about everybody in Amsterdam over the age of six). Moreover, they didn't blink an eye at the arrival of a man in the shop.

If you like Rowan, the selection will give you palpitations. It seems to be their specialty, and the prices were a good bit lower than I'm used to seeing in the shops in Chicago.

They also have stacks of Rowan pattern books in English. I asked about the availability of Rebecca, but they don't carry it in either the German or English editions.

Aside from the Rowan, about anything you might need for a project is in evidence - wools in all weights, cottons, notions, and a small but ample stock of needles.

Upstairs, for sale, are finished needlework pieces. I confess, I didn't spend much time up there as I wasn't looking to buy a sweater - but what I saw looked fairly gorgeous.

They also have abundant supplies and kits for embroidery. I had to fight the impulse to go nuts and snag one of their tapestry kits, a wonderful European design in the the Baroque style (think Watteau) instead of the country kitschen garbage I keep running across in the United States.

I probably should have splurged and bought it. Next time.

Instead, I bought four balls of Rowan felted tweed worsted: two in gray (with blue flecks) and two in purple (with orange flecks).

The Edo Scarf
The Edo Scarf, detail

As my conversations with Edo and my stop at de Afstap were highlights of the trip, I decided to name the scarf I made from the yarn after him.

I didn't want to do anything too complicated. Alumni tours are hard work - I knew I wouldn't be able to count on long periods of concentration without interruption.

On the other hand, I didn't want to knit another goddamned rectangle, even with stripes.

So here's what I puzzled out. The pattern yields a very long, thin parallelogram with stripes that appear to run on a diagonal. It curls slightly at the sides, but doesn't roll up.

Actually, this is so simple I don't think I should even call it pattern, and I can't imagine it's original, but here goes.

- Cast on 34 stitches with color 1
- Row 1 - knit across
- Row 2 - join color 2, purl across
** Row 3 - pick up color 1, knit across
- Row 4 - with color 1, purl into front and back of 1st stitch; purl across row; purl last 2 stitches together
- Row 5 - with color 2, knit across
- Row 6 - with color 2, purl into front and back of 1st stitch; purl across row; purl last 2 stitches together **

** This bit makes the pattern. Repeat until the scarf's the length you want. Bind off.

The knitting of this scarf became quite an event on the trip.

The old ladies on the cruise were a little startled at first to see me clicking away like Madame DeFarge's nephew during our lectures and bus rides.

After the shock wore off, they got very chatty and entertained me with stories about their own knitting and more than a few laments about how their daughters and granddaughters refused to learn.

But when I told them that at 34, I'm one of the older knitters in my very large knitting group, they seemed comforted.

"You just hate to see the old ways die out," said one of the women from Tulane.

Amen, sister.

Blame It on the Purple Midget

I think I put into one of the installments of "100 Things About Me" that I don't drink.

Unfortunately, after working most of yesterday on a project that would have been done four weeks ago (no weekend hours required) if most of the key people in my department with were not brain damaged, I found myself inexplicably craving alcohol.

I wondered if this might, perhaps, be a sign of delayed-onset normality. Normal people like a drink after a hard day, right? One says, "I need a drink," and one has the drink, and then one achieves what I have heard referred to as a "buzz" or "glow," or one "mellows out."

Now I have never (in answer to your question, Ms. Newton-John) been mellow, and last night I thought it might be time to try.

By coincidence, it was also Prince Night at this club in Boystown called Berlin.

Berlin is a place I'd never have set foot in before I met Chris. I hate bars, for one thing. I'm shy under any circumstances, and in a place where I can't make myself heard over the music I'm reduced to invisibility. Not a recipe for happiness.

But Berlin has a monthly event devoted to the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and one of the side-effects of dating a devotée is that I've gone along for the ride once or twice. My acquaintance with Prince is limited mostly to "Darling Nicky"* and "Raspberry Beret" (which were banned at my Catholic school, and therefore played incessantly by my classmates). Nonetheless, I like Chris's friends, the music is growing on me, and I feel honor-bound to support the artistic endeavors of other Very Short Men.

Chris ordered me a rum and pineapple juice, after double-checking to make sure I wasn't kidding. I'd had one once a long time ago, in Ogunquit, on an afternoon when Mr. Ex got so insufferably drunk the only way I could cope was to go along with him. I remembered the taste was nice, but forgot that about a quarter-glass had turned my knees into room-temperature gelatin.

Last night, I drank half the glass. I hear I was fun to dance with.

This morning, the sound of my eyes blinking is making me wince.

If there's a silver lining to the cloud, it's the knowledge that my incipient normality was only an illusion.

*I always wondered how exactly one did that with a magazine? And what magazine was it? Cat Fancy? Better Homes and Gardens?

Friday, April 22, 2005

Girlfriend, Interrupted

One of the very happy results of getting back in touch with my college friend Amy (see "My Dinner with Amy") is that I've also been back in touch with another member of our happy little band, who blogs under the alias of "Birdfarm."

She's already blogged about me twice and I'm returning the compliment in this tardy fashion because she needs and deserves an entry, but I wanted to do it right.

How to describe Birdfarm?

Oh goodness.

We had an odd, delectable sort of friendship, which began by accident in our sophomore year when I left a comment on the white board on her door in answer to a query about why cucumbers might be better than men. Considering the way the two of us turned out, the question was almost prophetic.

(N.B. For you young kids, a "white board" was sort of like Yahoo IM, and sort of like text messaging, except not.)

I recall a great deal of affection, mixed with rather a large number of arguments. Not mean, nasty arguments - if she has a nasty bone in her body, I don't know of it. I mean the sort of disagreements that will arise between two people whose high regard for each other often leads them to wish passionately that the other person would change his or her mind about something immediately and completely, for his or her own good.

In fact, if she reads this Birdfarm may well disagree with the above assessment, but this is my blog. So, as Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, "Nyah."

I've often thought, since leaving college, about what on earth was happening to me in those four years. I was a mess. Took me ages to figure it out. I touched on it when writing about how I started knitting. Learning to knit was a symptom of my overwhelming desire to cut my ties to a past I hated and become a member of a world I'd spent my life watching through windows from the outside.

And - she may disagree with this again - Birdfarm was to some extent like the other Alice on the other side of the lookingglass, wanting to leave her side and come over to mine.*

Heading in opposed directions like that, we were bound to collide once in a while.

But during the Dark Ages when Mr. Ex was neatly and efficiently cutting off all my friendships at the roots, I didn't think about that much. I just thought about this generous, screamingly witty, dazzlingly intellectual, delightfully unpredictible person who had been part of my life, and then was not. For somebody who spent so much time shaking her head over me, and who so often puzzled me with points of view I couldn't fathom, she nonetheless thoroughly carved out and occupied a place in my affections.

When people ask me if I'm glad I went to Harvard, I say yes. Not so much for the education, which was fine but which I might well have acquired at some other school. More for the chance to meet people like Birdfarm, who frankly are not to be met on every street corner. Not in this neighborhood, certainly.

She blogs, and she blogs very well (even when she's not writing about me), so go read her.

*Although we did have one thing in common - early childhoods spent in Tucson, Arizona. As I recall we were fairly certain our mothers pushed us past each other while shopping at Park Mall, and that we threw cookies at each other.

And another thing we had in common - coming out to our parents at about the same time, and sharing that lovely period of angst about when and how to do it. One day, Birdfarm said she was going to tell her father the news while driving in a speeding car. That way, if he reacted badly, she could immediately steer them off a cliff or into a wall and end it all.

I thought she meant she was going to shout it out as she drove by him.

Which led her to draw a fetching cartoon (a classic in our circle) of our four parents sitting at a table as she and I whizzed past in an open-top roadster screaming "WE'RE GAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYY!"

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Anne Frank

Statue of Anne Frank, Amsterdam
Originally uploaded by panopticon.

When I realized I would be traveling to Amsterdam for this university tour, one of the first thoughts that popped into my head was, "I'll be able to visit the Anne Frank House."

In fact, the opportunity to do so was one of my prime motivators in spending four vacation days there before the tour began - the tour group experienced nothing of Amsterdam but a paltry cruise through the canals.

I first read Anne Frank's diary when I was about ten years old. It immediately became a perennial for me - one of those books I experience a need to re-read every so often.

It didn't just make an impression on me, it made several different impressions on me. There was the usual one, of course, a visceral feeling of what suffering the Jews underwent during the war.

And there was another that I would venture to say has been fundamental to my view of my place in the world, and which fostered my love affair with language.

Reading the diary made me realize this:

No matter how small a person you may be, your words are just as large and loud as anyone else's, and have as much of a chance to make an impact.
I read the book so many times that Anne, Margot, the Van Daans, Miep Gies and all the rest joined my mental pantheon of familiar beloved characters, most of whom (like E.F. Benson's Lucia, Sebastian Flyte, and Henry James Trotter) were fictional.

The Secret Annex, in a similar way, became a literary locale I "knew" so well I could see it with my eyes closed - like Brideshead or Lucia's house in Tilling.

This being the case, to enter the building gave me the oddest feeling of reality and unreality blending. The Secret Annex was a place I knew well from a book, but here it was, incontestably real.

A modern museum building has been put up alongside the original house. You enter through it, cross into the house, and slowly guide yourself up from the ground floor, where products made by Opekta (Anne's father's company) were packed and sent out, through the offices and storerooms on the upper floors.

The rooms themselves are mostly empty of furniture. This is a small building, and with the rooms full there'd be no space for the floods of visitors.

But the walls and floors seem remarkably well-preserved - with original wallpapers and such - so the feeling of the actual period is remarkably present.

In each room there's some kind of appropriate exhibit. In the front office, for example, Miep's typewriter and identity card sit in a glass case. On a video screen is an interview with Miep, as an old woman, talking about how after the war she was able to present Otto Frank with his daughter's diaries.

And in almost every room, there's a quote from the diary, stenciled in almost ghostly writing somewhere on the wall.

So you go through the offices and storerooms, and then...

You come to the sliding bookshelf, and it's open. And you go past it, bending to fit through the hole. You imagine Anne herself sneaking back and forth at night, fearing that neighbors would see or hear something. You hoist yourself up the step with one hand on the doorframe, your hand where her hand must have rested.

Behind that shelf, claustrophobia reigns. It's a cliché to say this, but until you've stood there, it's hard truly to conceive the cramped nature of the place.

Even empty of furniture, the rooms are close and dim. With true blackout curtains hanging, it must have been worse than a cave.

Details jump out at you. In the main room, there's the stove. It hardly looks big enough to cook meals for one person - how could it have served them all?

The floors creak. You can hear people above you walking about. You remember Anne wrote about trying to move silently so that nobody working below would hear. Now you understand. You imagine living every day knowing one ill-considered footstep could mean disaster.

You come to Anne's room. The walls are still covered with pictures she pasted up from her movie magazines. The sorts of things any kid her age would put up in her room.

There are Margot's Latin exercises, Otto Frank's copy of Dickens, Edith Frank's prayer book.

And it starts to pound in your brain: They were real. They were real. They had possessions, interests, prejudices, talents, secrets, and they were here.

You are standing in the midst of the story, walking where they walked.

(The bells of the Westerkerk went off while I was there, and you could hear them loud and clear, just as Anne did, a voice from the outside world.)

You come into the attic, where a long large room (once meant for goods storage) has the transportation cards of all the refugees from the Secret Annex displayed. Suddenly, Anne is reduced to a name, picture, and a few statistics on a card. Another Jew girl heading for a concentration camp.

There's an interview playing of one of the last people to see her alive in Bergen-Belsen. She almost made it through the war. Almost.

And then you go into the next room, the final room, and there it is. Under glass, on a pedestal.

The diary.


Dear God, it's so small.

The room is silent except for the sound of a few visitors crying.

So much was lost in the war, and yet this (or these, really - Anne wrote in three books) survived.

What if she hadn't begun keeping a journal?

What if she hadn't been so honest and thorough?

What if Miep hadn't found and saved the books?

What if Otto Frank had not survived to reclaim them?

What if they had never seen the light of day again?

This house would be nothing but another canal house on the Prinsengracht.

The people who hid there would be statistics. We might know their names and ages and nothing more. We might know nothing of them at all.

How many other Anne Franks were there? Who kept no diary? Who left no trace?

Keep Your Ads Off My Body

You know what I wish?

I wish I could knit a ballcap.

It's not that I particularly want a knitted ballcap, or even that I think it's a good idea. I just wish I could make my own, somehow. (Origami? Macramé?)

As you'll note from my photograph, I'm bald as an egg. I like the look, but in a climate like Chicago's it gets chilly. A hat's not a fashion statement for me, it's survival gear.

In this transitional season I like to switch from a pull-on knitted hat to a cap. However, I don't want to pay good money in order to turn my forehead into an ad for The Gap, Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch, a major league baseball team, Flo's E-Z Tan, The Knights of Columbus, or anybody else.

Just you try finding a plain baseball cap these days.

There's a custom shirts and hats place in my neighborhood that I thought might be the answer to my prayers. You know the sort of place I mean - they'll embroider or silkscreen whatever you want on their stock of blank items.

Problem is, they won't sell blanks. In other words, if you don't make them go through the trouble of putting a design on the hat, they won't sell it to you. They won't even sell it to you if you pay what it would have cost to buy the hat with a design. (I wouldn't do that, but I just had to ask.)

I know I could probably find a plain cap online, or at maybe a cap with a logo for something I wouldn't mind wearing. But I'm a fussy little man with a sensitive little head and I hate buying something to wear without trying it on first.

(Don't you love blogging? How else can you subject large numbers of people to petty tirades about your wardrobe dilemmas? Felicia is probably very sorry she made me her Spotlight Blog of the Week, considering the tripe I'm writing.)


Meanwhile, another of my favorite bloggers (Colorado Jon) is coming to our fair city for a yarn-ridden convulsion, previously unknown to me, called Stitches Midwest.

I think this is perfectly wonderful. I'd love to meet Jon, and although the Stitches Web site leaves a bit to be desired, there's enough information there to make me want to check it out for myself.

Most of you kids know a heck of a lot more about this stuff than I do, so I have some questions.

1) The Web site makes it seem like classes are the main reason to go. Is this so? It doesn't jive with the accounts of other Stitches gatherings I've seen on blogs.

2) If you've taken classes at Stitches, have they been satisfactory? Are the class sizes gigantic? At first glance, there are only two titles that look interesting to me - Embraceable Lace and Design Your Dream Sweater. But I'd rather not pay for classes when I could learn just as well out of a book (and almost everything I've done up to now, including intarsia, I've learned from a book).

3) Why are there so many classes in poncho knitting? Is this legal? Is it ethical?

For anybody who's coming to Stitches Midwest and hasn't been to Chicago before, Rosemont is not in the city. It's a convention/hotel/business area near O'Hare Airport, and is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. To get to the city, you'd have to drive (good luck) or take the subway (recommended).

If you want to the see the city while you're here, the best bet is to hook yourself up with a local. Some of you I may have the pleasure of meeting - but even if not, I'd be happy to offer recommendations about places to eat and/or things to do.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Welcome Home

I'm working on my impressions of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, because dear Felicia asked and because it was an experience I'll never forget.

But I also want to record what happened to me leaving and entering the United States of America, the country in which I, and my parents, and their parents, and a few of my great-grandparents, were born. I would like to add that members of my family fought for this country in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam. My father had a distinguished, lifelong career in the Air Force.

I also happen to be part Arab and look very Arab, as physically I take after the Lebanese half of my family.

Leaving O'Hare, we were boarding the United flight to Amsterdam as usual, until I got to the gate agent. I held out my boarding pass, but he didn't take it.

"Are you an American citizen?" he said.

"Yes," I said.

"Where were you born?" he asked.

"Pennsylvania," I said, wondering where this was going.

He demanded to see my passport. He didn't ask this of anyone else (and I was among the last to board the plane). I had already cleared the passport check at the check-in counter and O'Hare security, but I was still asked for identification before boarding the plane.

Flash forward to the return trip.

We left from Brussels and landed at Dulles. I went through passport control, got my checked bag, and headed for customs and security.

This was the interchange between the customs official at Dulles (the one who takes the little declaration cards, and either sends you on to your next flight, or sends you to have your bags inspected) and the six or so people in front of me in line:

"Carrying any food? Welcome home. Straight ahead, please."

This was what I got:

Him: "Carrying any food?"
Me: "Belgian chocolate."
Him: "Where were you traveling?"
Me: "Holland and Belgium."
Him: "Why?"
Me: "Excuse me?"
Him: "What were you doing in Holland and Belgium?"
Me: "Leading a university tour."
Him: "An American university?"
Me: "Yes, Northwestern. In Chicago."
Him: "What is your occupation?"
Me: "I'm a designer."
Him: "A what?"
Me: "A designer. A web designer."
Him: "Are these your bags?"
Me: "Yes."
Him: "All of them?"
Me: "Yes, all of them."
Him: "You're an American citizen?"
Me: "Yes."
Him: "How long has your family been in this country?"
Me: "About 150 years."
Him: "Yeah, right. Keep moving."

Some welcome home. Mind you, there's no racial profiling going on in this country. Nope.

It makes one wonder whether Arab-Americans might at some point be heading for the kind of treatment the Asian-Americans received during Word War II. Certainly the growing attitude seems to be the same: It doesn't matter if you were born here. It doesn't matter how long you've lived here. It doesn't matter what you may have done for your country. You're still not really an American.

Monday, April 18, 2005


Vanity, Rijksmuseum Garden, Amsterdam
Originally uploaded by panopticon.

1. Most obnoxious tourists (in a large group): Americans. (But the Japanese are gaining.)

2. Most obnoxious tourists (in a small group): Japanese. (But the British are gaining.)

3. Best food I'd never tried before: Croquets at Van Dobbe in Amsterdam.

4. Biggest disappointment: Bruges. (Crowded, commercial, largely fake.)

5. Biggest pleasant surprise: Dutch windmills. (Really quite startlingly pretty.)

6. Biggest unpleasant surprise: Dutch wind. (Now understand popularity of windmills.)

7. Worst-behaved tourist children: French.

8. Worst-behaved tourist teenagers: German.

9. Hottest cops: Belgian. (Yowza.)

10. Favorite city: Amsterdam. (Would like to live there. Seriously.)

11. Least favorite city: Rotterdam.

12. Sublime moment: In the Mauritshuis in The Hague, face-to-face with Vermeer's "View of Delft" at last.

13. Scary moment: Our ship hitting a bridge on the way to Kampen.

14. Miracle moment: Arriving at entrance to Anne Frank House, notorious for long lines, at noon, and finding no line at all - then looking back over shoulder to see a line of 100 people had materialized behind me.

15. Weepy moment: First time a Dutch guy introduced me to his 'husband' and I realized it was true in every sense - including the legal one.

16. The Dutch and Belgians do it so much better than we do: fried potatoes. (And they don't talk about fat grams or carbs or any nonsense like that.)

17. Didn't buy any: Belgian lace.

18. Bought in quantity: Belgian chocolate.

19. Salivated over but did not buy: Delft porcelain flower holder.

20. Yarn shops visited: one (review forthcoming).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Tulip Time

I'm off to the airport in a few minutes, taking some time to reflect before I go.

The bags are packed. I tried to get away with only carrying on my camera case, but I'm simply not the sort of person who can deal with an 8-hour flight without stuff to read and play with.

And yes, I do have a little bit of knitting in there. I'm not going to say what. Lets consider it my MUFO - Mysterious Unfinished Object.

Chris and I worked out this morning after breakfast and before a gratifyingly long good-bye kiss. Golly gosh, he's such a sweetheart. It was a good way to begin the trip.

I don't see myself blogging much from Europe, so this is the utmost of my report until somewhere around the middle of the month. Amsterdam has Internet cafés, of course, but I don't plan on sitting still in front of a computer screen when there are things to see. And once I'm on the ship, no Internet, and no phone (unless I feel like paying US$7 a minute for calls).

Yes, the ship. The bulk of this trip is me and a lot of alumni of the university I work for, sailing around Holland and Belgium. Me, and about 100 elderly people who mostly start drinking at 9 a.m. and pass out around 7 p.m. What the hell. It's free. It'll be interesting, I'm sure.

Although I imagine the three days alone in Amsterdam - my first trip completely solo anywhere, ever - is going to be more interesting.

Time to go.

Friday, April 01, 2005

100 Things About Me, Finale

76. I have never seen any of the Star Wars movies even once. I hear they're swell.

77. I owned two Star Wars action figures, both of which were presents from people who obviously didn’t know me very well. I traded C3PO to a friend of mine for a Paddington Bear book, and I think just threw Yoda away.

78. I agree with Mr. Sondheim that the only two things worth leaving behind you when you die are children and art. However, if I’m your beneficiary, I’d rather have your Rembrandt etchings than your kids.

79. I hate Monet’s paintings. I really do. I consider him the easy listening or iceberg lettuce of the art world. Except I sort of like iceberg lettuce. (Please don't write to me about this one. I have studied art history since my pre-teen years and majored in it in college. I've seen it all and read all the rhapsodies. I am not going to change my mind. If you like the fucking haystacks, great, just don't bother me about it.)

80. Two books I feel every home should have on hand: The Joy of Cooking (the old one by Mrs. Rombauer and her descendants, not the pretentious new impostor published under the same title) and a good guide to general etiquette (Emily Post is still your best bet, though Miss Manners beats all as fun to read and up-to-date).

81. Fictional characters I used to pretend to be as a child: Encyclopedia Brown, Bilbo Baggins, Evinrude the Dragonfly from The Rescuers, Willy Wonka, the boy kid from Return to Witch Mountain.

82. Non-fictional characters I used to pretend to be as a child: St. Dominic Savio, St. Francis of Assisi, Mozart, and Queen Victoria’s Highland servant, John Brown.

83. Often, as a child, I played alone. (Go figure.)

84. Three things I feel are overrated: Moe, Larry, and Curly.

85. I have always loved Roald Dahl’s books because I think they give a pretty true picture of the way most adults (especially teachers) react to any little kid who demonstrates creativity, ambition or unusual intelligence. (They will lie, cheat, and bully in order to make said kid conform to the norm.)

86. Out of all the teachers I had in primary, middle, and high school, there are four I think I actually learned something from, two I wish I were still in touch with, and one I have reason to think of every single day.

87. I like seeing the inner workings of things. Given the choice to see (for example) Avenue Q from the front row or the wings, I’d pick the wings. Especially if they let me take pictures.

88. I have a problem with heights from time to time. Once when I was pressed into emergency service to run a follow spot from a narrow catwalk 50 feet above the theater auditorium, I had such a terrible panic attack it took me half an hour to retreat the 15 feet back to the entrance to the catwalk.

89. Milk is still my favorite drink. As a kid, I’d go through a half-gallon a day if Mom didn’t put the breaks on me.

90. I regret that I never wrote to Charles M. Schulz to tell him how much Peanuts meant to me.

91. I wish I knew how to sew.

92. I think the Victorian ideal on continual self-improvement was a good idea and needs to be revived. There are so many people I know whose self-esteem should be far lower than it is.

93. Names for daughters I will never have: Rose, Olivia, Cordelia, Alice, Alexandra.

94. I don’t know about names for sons, because I can’t possibly imagine how I could bring up a son. I would probably call him Eustace or Galahad and he’d wind up getting murdered on the playground.

95. I really didn’t want to be a romantic any more after my relationship with Mr. Ex ended, but I’ve discovered that’s a part of me I can’t change.

96. If I am on the phone with you, please don’t interrupt me to tell me what your cat is doing. I don’t care what your cat is doing. (Note: Nobody ever cares what your cat is doing.)

97. Things I use all the time even though I hate them: cell phones and computers.

98. I’m starting to think I won’t live my whole life in the United States. I am a patriot. I love my country dearly and fiercely. But sometimes I earnestly wonder if the things I love about it are all going to disappear even if I (and many others) try to fight it.

99. I would like to try riding a bull just once before I die. Just not immediately before I die, if you see what I mean.

100. If when I die I go to heaven, I hope I get a chance to meet my paternal grandfather, who died before I was born; Queen Victoria, just because; Eleanor Roosevelt, so I can shake her hand. And then I’m going shopping with Aunt Eva.

At Knit's End: An Appreciation

Spring, Chicago, 2004
Spring, Chicago, 2004

Nota bene: I needed a writing project to act as a mental workout/stress reliever, so I wrote this - a book review of the sort I'd submit to a journal or magazine. The tone's not what I'd normally use in a blog. Heaven knows Yarn Harlot doesn't need my help selling books, nor am I any sort of expert on knit lit. However, if you haven't read it and this inspires you to check it out, I think you'll be as pleased as I was.

The act of knitting is generally quiet, and knitters themselves have long been supposed to be quiet sorts of people: solitary maiden aunts, librarians, kindly grandmothers, stoic wives. The social, vocal aspect of knitting – reborn during the present craze as the hip, urban Stitch 'n' Bitch – has been less well known to outsiders. Knitters do, as it happens, like to talk, and they especially like to talk incessantly of knitting.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, also known under the nom-de-blog The Yarn Harlot, is a knitter who not only talks, but talks exceptionally well. Or to be more precise, she writes, and she writes deliciously. Capitalizing on the success of her popular online musings about knitting and family (which she regards with equal parts love and exasperation), Storey Publishing has brought out At Knit's End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much.

It’s an astonishing piece of work, though not because of the subject matter. Pearl-McPhee ponders mostly the familiar topics of the craft: impedimenta (needles, yarn, and the many difficulties of storing them); process (making mistakes, and making the best of them); maintaining diplomatic relations with non-knitters (including children and spouses); and so forth.

What makes At Knit’s End stand out from other writing on knitting and crafts is above all the author’s clarity of vision. Never, in the course of 300-odd pages, does she allow herself to wallow in sentimentality.

This is no easy feat. Tender subjects like the passing of knitting knowledge from parent to child almost inevitably make for sticky reading. And it is true that love runs like an undercurrent through every meditation. Yet Pearl-McPhee, whose warm heart is balanced by a cool head and a wicked sense of humor, never descends to the mawkish or cute.

Therein lies the book’s other great strength. The balanced emotional writing is a foil for genuine and surprising wit. For example, if you can’t imagine the dark side of knitting, you have only to read about the author’s contemplation of adultery…with a married man who owns a yarn store. You will laugh, and probably identify.

Perhaps most happily, the obvious, self-deprecating humor that plagues so many female writers is entirely absent. And while the august shadow of Erma Bombeck looms in the background (the title recalls her At Wit’s End), Pearl-McPhee’s prose is overall more taut and confident than much of Bombeck’s early work. One hopes next to see her tackle more sustained pieces of writing–perhaps full-blown essays.

Which leaves only the title to quibble about. Or rather, the subtitle: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much. Given that Pearl-McPhee specifically lauds male knitters, urges the teaching of boys to knit, and assiduously sticks to the gender-neutral “spouse” instead of the more specific “husband,” the implied restriction of this book to women is unfortunate, the more so as the work itself is solid enough to amuse even non-knitters of either sex.

But this is minor. What counts is that a good writer has found her way into print, and produced what may well turn out to be knitting’s answer to gastronomy’s La Physiologie du Gout or fishing’s The Compleat Angler.

While she is doubtless anxious to get back to her knitting, it is impossible not to selfishly hope that Stephanie Pearl-McPhee will continue occasionally to set aside the needles in favor of the pen.