Thursday, December 29, 2005

Too Much of a Good Thing Is Wonderful

I'm the one on the left.

When I taught Susan to knit, during the last 30 minutes of her visit to Chicago in July, I wrote the following in a blog entry:
I won't be heartsick if she doesn't keep up with it, but I sure hope she does. Between her first row and her final row there was a decided increase in speed and agility, and I swear she got that look in her eye. You know the one I mean.
For once, I was right.

Yarn Crawl, Part Two

We turned my Christmas visit, which was wonderful in many ways, into an extended yarn crawl. In addition to these three, the day after Christmas our mother joined us for a trip to:
  • Korner Knitters (2 Fort Hill Road, Standish). Extremely friendly service. A really good selection of mid-price and luxury yarns at (mostly) 10% below suggested retail. And they have what they call the Kloseout Kitchen. What sort of stuff do you find in the Kloseout Kitchen? How about enough Jo Sharp Silk Road Aran to make a sweater, for under 50 bucks. How does that sound to you? Sound good? Yeah, I thought so.
The day after that, we signed Susan up for the Maine Stitch 'n' Bitch Yahoo group. And we saw a notice of a new yarn store opening. Susan said we needed to go. So we visited:
  • Knit One Fiber Artistry (91 Tandberg Trail, Unit 6, Windham). If you like the yarns of Knit One, Crochet Too, you probably know they moved from California to Maine in the mid-90s. They just (in November) opened up a retail shop in front of their headquarters. Driving by, you might miss it. It doesn't look like much - a small storefront on an industrial building. Inside, the picture brightens considerably.

    The main room has a knitting area with sofas, and shelves with (it seems) the whole line of Knit One, Crochet Too yarns. I knew about Parfait, thanks to Jon, but Susan and I also liked the looks (and feel) of Paint Box and Douceur et Soie. They've got a large selection of reduced yarns–samples, odd-sized skeins, and discontinued stuff.

    They sell patterns, too, many of them designed by the firm's current owner, Hélène Rush. I don't know much about Ms. Rush, but I like her designs. This is the first yarn shop I've seen in which almost all the knitted samples on display looked like something I would knit. No little praise, since I'm finding I seldom seem to be able to stick to somebody else's pattern.

    The service here was, once again, splendid. The saleswoman (whose name I regret I forgot to ask) was enthusiastic and helpful without being pushy.
That's five (great) yarn stores in five (great) days. I'm still winded.

Purl of Mother

Mom has been reading both our blogs for ages, and indicated that she, too, might like to knit. She learned a long time ago, she said. I couldn't remember her ever using knitting needles, so I figured it must have been a very long time ago.

As one of her Christmas presents, we got her set up with a pair of bamboo needles and a ball of Lorna's Laces Shepherd's Worsted. We had a short introduction to casting on, and then suddenly she was knitting. English style.

I learned to knit Continental, and that's how I taught Susan. And now it turns out our own mother is English. It's rather like the owl that hatched the cuckoo, only in reverse.

Before we knew what was happening she'd done about five inches of a ribbed scarf.

This means the knitters in my immediate family now outnumber the non-knitters three to two. I wonder if we could interest my father in sheep herding?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Viva Ruana

The ruana, now that it is finished, is officially a favorite. A favorite of mine, and a favorite of the person for whom it was knit.

Pattern Source: Folk Shawls by Cheryl Oberle (Interweave)

Yarns Used: Jo Sharp DK Aran, 3 colors (don't ask me which) - slightly less than 26 balls

Needles: Addi Turbo, US7, 24" circular

Gauge: 7 stitches/8 rows to the inch

Alterations: Made smaller than the model in the book using Cheryl Oberle's own formula, which worked perfectly. Used fewer colors than suggested, and only one weight of yarn. Fringes cut to six inches, and not tied (except for initial overhand knot used to connect new strand of yarn).

Notes: Thanks to Colorado Jon who alerted me to the pattern in the first place, and to Cheryl Oberle who pointed out that it was suited to alterations in size. Love ya.

The piece looked absolutely horrible until the final bit of finishing, at which point it became an object of lust and envy for every woman in my office (I trimmed the fringes on the large table in the dining room of the house I work in).

The collar shaping is the genius bit - it turns a garment that would otherwise be awkward to wear into something that fits like a glove, keeps the neck warm, and drapes like a dream.

And it's reversible.

A highly rewarding project. I would recommend, however, that it be approached as a long-term undertaking. Since there is no shaping until the collar, and it's all garter stitch, working on it for long stretches can be monotonous. And at a gauge of eight rows to the inch, knitting to a width of 46 inches feels a little like bailing out the Atlantic Ocean with a teacup.

But oh, when it's finished...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Yaaarrrrrrn Craaaaaaaawl

Where I'm Writing From

I'm in southern Maine, where the landscape is so freakin' appropriate to a family Christmas that the mind reels. My sister lives in a little town outside Portland in one of the newer houses on the street, built in 1909. The neighbors were built in 1853. Well, the house was, I mean. I believe the neighbors themselves are somewhat younger.

Those of you in the UK and Europe may think this isn't terribly notable, but in the United States a house from the 1920s is still considered to be roughly of the same vintage as the palace at Persepolis. My own city of Chicago, in the 1850s, was nothing but a rancid-smelling, pestilential mud flat. (On bad days, I feel not much has changed).

Maine makes a nice change once a year. They got hills here.

Madness Runs in the Family

When Susan spent the weekend in Chicago during the summer, literally the last thing we did before she headed to the airport was having a knitting lesson. She caught the bug, and the disease has steadily progressed from a garter stitch swatch to a bunny, a kerchief, a scarf, a couple hats, and now she's well into a baby blanket, so there's no hope of recovery.

While my parents (who are also here) did some last minute shopping yesterday, we took off on our own to do a little yarn hunting.

First stop: Spin Me a Yarn (163A State Street, Gorham) This place is just about in Susan's backyard, so it's her LYS.

And such an LYS. Heather Flanders, the owner, met us as we arrived with an open door and a genuine smile. She has been in business since August and her monthly knit nights are already drawing a group of regulars.

We arrived at an auspicious moment: Heather was just finishing her own holiday knitting. Way to go, girl.

In a small space, she has a good range of notions, books, supplies, and of course yarn. There's Opal and Trekking for socks, Peace Fleece (a local favorite, from Porter), Blue Sky Alpaca, and lots of other good stuff and fair prices. Heather will also set up a wish list for you so that friends-and-relations shopping for you will do the Right Thing.

And the shop...Well, let me tell you something. If you're in the Portland area and in the mood for yarn, you have to visit. Because Heather has created what must be one of the most beautiful yarn shops in the United States. Think I'm exaggerating? Check this out.

Tucked into the corner of a little barn is this: the sort of room most of us would love to have in our homes to knit in. Yarn all around, attractively displayed. A beamed ceiling. A gorgeous wide-planked floor. A fireplace. Natural light. And a pair of cozy wing chairs.

If you're a good knitter and go to heaven, this is what the yarn shops look like once you get there.

One ball of Opal sock yarn later, we were back on the road and heading for Bath. (The town, not the room with the tub in it.)

Bath is the home of Halcyon Yarn (12 School Street). Talk about a change in scale. Spin Me a Yarn is tiny and cute, Halcyon Yarn is huge (for a yarn store) and slightly dizzy-making.

I think the look on Susan's face, which I have magnified for ease of viewing, says it all for both of us.

What do they have at Halcyon?

What don't they have?

I'd heard from Marilyn that this place was a favorite of hers ("If it's fiber-related, they do it.") And yeah, she wasn't kidding. Spinning stuff. Knitting stuff. Weaving stuff. Notions. Books. Shelves of yarn that go up to the high (think cathedral) ceiling.

Susan bought Malabrigo for a hat for my brother-in-law. I bought a copy of Beth Brown-Reinsel's Knitting Ganseys and a chibi for Susan.

The service was excellent, and the woman at the cash desk told us about being on the retail end of things during the Great Pink Chibi Panic that happened a couple years ago.

We had one more shop to go, but our stomachs were growling after all the exertion. And so to Portland, and lunch.

We highly recommend Tandoor, at 88 Exchange Street. Good Indian food, reasonable prices, and nice and quiet so you can talk about yarn.

Which we did.

Sometimes, you know, life is good.

And then to our final destination, Central Yarn Shop (569 Congress Street, Portland). It rounded out the day nicely.

Spin Me a Yarn is adorable, Halcyon Yarn is majestic, and Central Yarn Shop is...well, I'd describe it as an Old Reliable sort of yarn shop. Not sexy, but absolutely serviceable.

They got Cascade, they got Classic Elite, they got Brown Sheep and Plymouth and all their kin. They have a big button section, and racks of notions.

If you hunt around, they also have surprises like Manos del Uruguay for $11.95 a skein. (I almost went into cardiac arrest.)

It was here that we encountered a moment of drama, as a woman holding half a scarf came running in to buy another skein of yarn to finish it. You can well imagine the look on her face when she was informed that the next shipment of that yarn would arrive on Tuesday.

Poor thing. I think she may be a brand-new knitter and this may well have been her first knitted gift. If you're reading this, my dear, a few heartfelt suggestions for the future:
  1. Next time, buy the extra ball.
  2. When you're told the next shipment of the yarn you need for Christmas will probably arrive on December 23, begin considering other options immediately.
  3. It's not the end of the world - give the gift "on the needles."
  4. Perhaps what you have is one-half of a two-tone scarf, with the second half being made of a different but complementary yarn.
  5. Yelling at the yarn store lady and storming out in a huff is not the answer. Yarn store employees have long memories. And sometimes blogs.

Okay - finally. The coast is clear. I'm all alone in the house. Have to go wrap the ruana. This is going to take some time (and a lot of paper).

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Pre-Flight Checklist

I'm off to Maine tomorrow for a little holiday cheer with my family. As this involves airplane travel, in a few minutes I plan to crawl under my desk and sob quietly.

Before that, a few loose ends to tie up.

Scribble, Scribble

Another weird leaf from the sketchbook.

New(ish) Blog

I have been extremely remiss in not mentioning a new blog that I quite like. Celtic Knitter is funny and smart and knits beautiful, creative pieces. He is also the only blogger I know whose profile picture includes a harp.

I always thought it would be so cool to play the harp. The first one I ever saw in person was owned and operated by Miss Seymour, the lady who conducted the first and only orchestra in which I ever played. This harp had flowers carved around the top. Lilies, as I recall. Very pre-Raphaelite.

I was maybe eight or nine, and I was in the violin section. Eighth chair out of eight. I mostly wanted to play the violin because I wanted to own one. Violins make great decorative accents. I used to take mine out of the case and arrange it on my desk in the sunlight, with my handsomest books and a couple of dried flowers, as a vignette.

I was no good at playing it. Screech. The only piece of music suited to my tone would have been the "Duo miaulé" (a duet for two cats) in Ravel's opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges.

I remember thinking it funny that Miss Seymour was very long and skinny and taut-looking, like a harp string. I also remember her nose, which was distinctive. When I went to see The Hours and saw Nicole Kidman's prosthetic, I felt a shock of recognition.

Miss Seymour told us that if we touched the horsehair on our bows that our eyebrows would fall out. I can't recall anything else she ever said. No, not true. She would scream "You are not attending!" at anybody who wasn't looking at her while she was speaking. Of course, I thought she was so freaky looking I couldn't take my eyes off her.

What I mean to say is, do go have a look at Celtic's blog.

Vox Franklini

In the next episode of Cast On, I'll be whining about last-minute knitting and why, for me anyhow, it's definitely a Guy Thing. If you're one of those who took the time (thank you so much) to write and tell me how much you hated my first piece, I can promise you that you'll hate this one even more. I am nothing if not consistent.

Reader Questions

Helen asked for the link to the New Yorker's archival posting of the short story "Brokeback Mountain." As far as I can tell, it has just been taken down. The story was published outside the magazine in an Annie Proulx collection called That Old Ace in the Hole. But it has just been issued by itself, in a slim volume with the film poster on the cover, under its own title. (C bought it for me for Christmas. Yay!)

Marie in Texas wants to know what the other three books were that I threw away after trying to read them (the first being Annie Proulx's The Shipping News).

They were Cry to Heaven by Anne Rice, The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein, and Rabbit, Run by John Updike.

State of the Ruana

Finished. Pictures will be taken of the garment on the recipient. Unless she throws up on it when she sees it, as happened in my nightmare a few weeks back.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Thank Ya Kindly, Mr. Lee

On Saturday night, C took me to see the movie I never thought would be made in my lifetime: Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain.

When first heard about this project I had no intention of going to see it. Why?
  1. I considered Heath Ledger, as an actor, to be on par with Hilary Duff and the the Olsen twins.

  2. I had tried to read Annie Proulx's The Shipping News and threw it away–one of four times in my life I've found a book so unreadable I disposed of it. I couldn't imagine that she could write beautifully or accurately about gay men, let alone about gay cowboys.

  3. I cynically assumed that the film would be disembowled before release. And sure enough, rumors circulated that Lee was being told to cut the "gay content" out of a gay love story and keep the central relationship ambiguous.

  4. Synopses of the story all made it sound like a throwback to Hollywood's traditional treatment of gay relationships: an unhappy affair between two men, one of whom is not really gay, ending with death, pain, and alienation. No, thanks.
Then my friend John in Dallas, who knows from cowboys, sent me the link to the original story which can be read in the New Yorker's archives. I devoured it. Proulx pulled off a miracle - she fit an epic story into a short space, without ever seeming to stint on detail or cut corners.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast. When C suggested we go see the show, I decided to take the chance.

And how was it?
  1. The acting was outstanding. All of it. Heath Ledger, in particular, pulls off the sort of chameleon act I normally expect from Daniel Day Lewis. Raw, stunning.

  2. The screenplay (by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) is brilliant. He expands the story without every messing up Proulx's narrative. A line from the story becomes a scene in the film. And (as you would expect from the guy who wrote Lonesome Dove) he gets the details right.

  3. The cinematography is breathtaking. I've seen all the Star Wars films now, and nothing Lucas and his thousands of oompa-loompas did with CGI compares to what this crew did with actual mountains and thousands of sheep. The town scenes and indoor shots are like frames by Walker Evans and Diane Arbus.

  4. The directing and editing are basically, and I do not use this word easily, perfect. The gay sex is there, sensitively shot. More importantly, the gay love is there, truthfully handled. Even Maurice, which aimed to be honest, ultimately fell short in this respect.

  5. And in spite of everything, the story has an ending that, if not conventionally happy, is ultimately uplifting and hopeful.
I expected to cry my eyes out. There was quite a bit of sobbing in the theater (which was sold out, for the fourth show in a row). But I didn't let go until that night, when we were home and the full force of it hit me. I'm still haunted by it.

If this sounds melodramatic, please consider that I've waited my whole life to see gay relationships handled on screen without being hampered by bad acting, low-budget production values, soft-porn styling, underlying homophobia, or compromise of any kind. As far as I'm concerned, the true gay experience has been absent from mainstream film...until now.

Ang Lee, you done good by us. And I'm much obliged.

Friday, December 16, 2005


I found out about two years ago something I'd never known: I was a breech birth. Instead of arriving in the world head first, which is the usual procedure, the first glimpse anybody got of me was the other end. And I've been doing things ass-backwards ever since.

For example, sending Christmas cards. Did you get my card yet? No? Here's why.

Unlike many people, I unabashedly love Christmas. Except for those few dark years with Mr. Ex, it has never been a source of stress. I don't fuss about finding the Perfect Gift or run madly from party to party forcing myself to be cheerful. I am cheerful. I don't find myself wishing for the holidays to be over so we can get back to normal. The normal part of winter in Chicago is like the grimmest part of a Bergman film run in an endless loop. Feh.

This doesn't mean I'm one of those people who merrily get the shopping wrapped up before the frost is on the pumpkin. Heavens, no. The extra demands of the Christmas season deal a knock-down blow to my already faltering grip on organization. I gave up sending cards years ago because I knew perfectly well there was no way I'd get them all addressed and stamped and to the mailbox on time.

Organizationally, I'm an unqualified mess in December. I just don't get stressed out about it.

When I grow up, though, I would like to be like James. Have you read James's excellent blog? Probably you have. He's a popular fellow, and deservedly so.

If you haven't, I'll give you the synopsis. Handsome James writes about his knitting, which displays a sense of color and pattern unlike anyone else's; and his domestic projects, which are often enough to make Martha Stewart sink down into an armchair and call for a double vodka.

James is not a man who requires the administration of sal volatile after writing a note to the paper boy. Oh, no. James is a man who managed to get an adorable bundle of New Zealand-related goodies from his part of Oceania to my part of the Great Lakes before I made my first trip to by Frango mints from Marshall Field's. And he wrapped the goodies in knitted fair isle gift wrap with a knitted bow.

James, you're a wonderful guy. And I wish you a Merry, Merry Christmas. And I wish you would knock it off for a little while because you're making the rest of us tired just watching you.

Also in the overachiever category we have Ted, a new blogger and masterful knitter and spinner. Ted, who apparently feels I don't have enough to do with my free time, has sent me Charlene Schurch's Sensational Knitted Socks, which had the intended effect of reviving my interest in sock knitting. I didn't know about this book, had never seen it, and it turned out to be the sock book I'd been hoping to find. Clear, concise, attractive, and not shaped like a sock. Now I have to go buy sock yarn. Great.

Ted also sent along a CD called Joyous Light featuring a soprano, Isabel Bayrakdarian, who had somehow managed to fly under my radar. I rather like this album, which is a to say that since it arrived I have been unable to stop listening to it. Now I have to go out and buy absolutely everything else ever recorded by Ms. Bayrakdarian.

Ted, honey, thank you so much. And thanks, also, from the yarn and music retailers who will now be claiming a larger portion of my monthly paycheck.

Ted, I should mention, is Canadian. James is a Kiwi. And splendidly rounding out a British Commonwealth trifecta of holiday giving is Judith.

Judith doesn't have a blog, but she reads this one. I would venture to say that she and I are possibly among the greatest living fans of Mary Thomas, the fascinating and elusive journalist who wrote Mary Thomas's Knitting Book and Mary Thomas's Book of Knitting Patterns, et al.

Judith, who lives in England, dropped me a note after I mentioned an interest in Mrs. Thomas and has become a regular correspondent via e-mail. Her letters are so lovely that I don't read them online - I print them out to savor later on.

And into my mailbox fell a package from Judith, from an address so charmingly British that when I opened the envelope I swear I smelled crumpets.

In a bookshop in her town, Judith had found a vintage, hardbound edition of one of Mary Thomas's books on embroidery (my first love, pre-dating knitting) and sent it across the pond to me. I'd tried to find a good copy of this in the U.S. at a decent price, and even the online dealers who generally hook me up with the good stuff couldn't help. But Judith did.

Judith, dear - I hope you find something really nice in the plum pudding this year. Like tickets to Italy. Or a tiara.

Santa is probably still sitting in an FAA briefing about revised no-fly zones, but I feel like he's already landed at my apartment. I'm touched, I'm grateful. I'm put to shame. And all I can say is, thank you.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Out of the Sketchbook

I was working on illustrations for Marilyn last night and ran across this doodle. I don't have time to re-work it into a finished state but maybe it'll give you a giggle.

State of the Ruana

It's on schedule and approaching completion. And I like it. The first real try-on took place yesterday at the office, thanks to a coworker who is the same size as Susan. It drapes like a dream. God bless the dear, clever people at Jo Sharp, and all their descendants, and all their sheep.

Two nice things about this design:
  1. The fringe is integral. Every row is knitted with a new piece of yarn, with 10-inch ends left hanging at the beginning and end. So I don't have a fringe to attach, but I do have to trim and knot these when the knitting is done. Generally speaking, I'm not a fringe-loving man, but on this piece it both ensures a proper drape and it looks appropriate.

  2. Because every row uses a new piece of yarn, I have almost no ends to weave in.
Some of you suggested that Susan must be a rather special sister deserve 17 acres of unrelieved garter stitch. You are correct.

The funniest thing is that when she asked for this wrap, she wasn't a knitter. And now she is. There's proof (and cute dogs) on her blog.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

For All Those on Holiday Knitting Deadlines

Remember: each completed 210 stitch row brings you 1/8 of an inch closer to completion!

Shouldn't you be knitting right now? What are you doing reading blogs?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Sic Transit

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you're a knitter living in a major metropolitan area.

Let's also say that you typically spend 90 minutes each week day commuting on the city's public transit system.

Ninety minutes per day, five days each week adds up to 450 minutes. Seven-and-a-half hours.

Some things a person could do in a week, spending that amount of time on a subway train:
  1. Burn 4,590 calories by jogging in place.
  2. Read The Da Vinci Codes from start to finish twice.
  3. Brush up on the Latin subjunctive.
  4. Write seven long or 14 short letters to Grandma.
  5. Learn basic Spanish from bilingual posters for train safety, international long distance, Target, and public service announcements.
What the knitter in question will do instead, faced with a deadline-driven project that involves creating a heavy, solid garter-stitch rectangle measuring 54 inches by 46 inches, using worsted-weight yarn and a size 7 needle:
  1. Knit.
Here are good things about knitting a gigantic woolen rectangle while transitting publicly:
  1. If the heat in the train car ceases to function, the project will keep your legs warm.
  2. You will be a source of amusement to other passengers, who will often ask you friendly questions and wish you well.
  3. You will not have to read The Da Vinci Codes.
Here are less fortunate things about knitting a gigantic woolen rectangle en train.
  1. A gust of wind in mid-stitch may send your ball of yarn flying down the platform, requiring that you chase after it.
  2. While pursuing the errant wool, your knitting bag (which now weighs as much as a small hippo) may knock a fellow commuter flat on her caboose.
  3. You may then miss the incoming train.
  4. Having caught the next train, you may be spotted by an enthusiastic member of the Nation of Islam (dude–cute bow tie), who will decide you are the perfect subject for an impromptu sermonette on the evils of homosexuality and the proper roles of men and women.*
  5. As you exit the train, your tape measure may get caught in the door, leaving you no choice but to wave goodbye as it continues north without you.
And finally:
6. All this may happen on the same @$%#! morning.
Happy Monday.

*Second time this has happened. Second.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

In Your Ear

Word from Wales: Brenda Dayne, doyenne of "Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters," tells me that my piece will be included in the next episode, this weekend.

I'm proud to be part of what she's doing, because the first episodes have been good, solid work. Marilyn is also writing for her, so I'm in heady company.

By the way, Brenda's "half episode," number 1.5, is a simple, poetic description of a rare snow day in her valley* in Wales. It's as beautiful a recorded piece as I've ever heard, on par with any NPR commentary, and it's matched perfectly with Alison Crowe's gentle, soulful take on "In the Bleak Midwinter." Give yourself a holiday present and check it out.

You don't have to have an iPod, or even an mp3 player, to tune in. If you visit the Web site and click on the "Listen to..." links for each episode, most Internet browsers will download the file and start playing it right over your computer.

Bring In Da Noise

I recorded my essay at home, on my Mac, using a little Logitech microphone I bought at the Apple store on Michigan Avenue even though the salespeople didn't really seem to want to sell it to me. I love Macs, but I hate the sales staff at that store. If you're not buying an iPod or a complete G5 set-up, or don't look sufficiently cool (i.e., you have washed your hair that week) they simply don't want to speak to you.

I once needed a new copy of Photoshop - a program that runs many hundreds of dollars - but had a question about the version on the shelf. Before I could get anybody's attention I had to stand in the middle of the sales floor and shout "Attention: I'm looking to spend a whole lot of money right now!"

But I got my microphone, and I plugged it into my beloved little iMac and prepared myself to emote, and elocute, and enunciate. My desk faces a window wall that looks out on Lake Michigan. Light snow was falling, and lights in the neighboring apartment buildings were beginning to glow. All was hushed. Perfect.

I took a breath, and clicked "record."

"It is a truth," I said. And then one of my neighbors, whose car horn plays "La Cucaracha," decided to announce his arrival at home in song. Four times.



"It is a truth universally-"

And the Irving Park bus ran into a parked car directly in front of my building. Screeeeeeee! Wham! Crunch! Yelling. The evening commute honked its collective displeasure for ten minutes.



"It is-"

Fire alarm in the building next door. Four engines (I counted), a ladder truck, an ambulance, and two police cars with sirens wailing. Twenty minutes.

Darkness had fallen.

Erase. Click.


American Airlines Flight 345 from Frostbite Falls International passed by on its way to O'Hare. I waved to the pilot, who waved back.

Erase. Click.

On this attempt, I made it to the last 20 seconds of the piece and then my phone, which I had put into "silent" mode, started playing music at full volume to announce a new voice message. (Apparently the design geniuses at Samsung assume that when you tell the phone to be silent, you don't mean completely silent.)

Erase erase erase erase.

I decided that the next take would be the final take, even if the apartment suffered an invasion of angry chickens or the people upstairs decided to throw a rhumba party or the gigantic chow down the hall finally decided to answer my prayers and noisily devour the guy who owns him.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged..."

I read through the entire piece in one shot with style, with grace, with magnificent diction and flawless timing. The city held its collective breath, waiting until the final full stop.

And then I realized I'd forgotten to click "record."

*Does everybody in Wales live in a valley? All the people I ever recall hearing about who live in Wales live in valleys, usually green ones. There are plenty of them, I'm sure, but the presence of so many valleys suggests a proximity to hills. Are the hilltops totally inhospitable? Or merely unfashionable?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christmas Past: Music

Last night C made dinner at his apartment, and while he was cooking he played Christmas music recorded by an artist named Sufjan Stephens. It’s a toss-up whether you’ve heard of the guy or not. He’s young, alternative, and writes interesting songs with titles that sound like lines from Walt Whitman. His current project is a series of albums commemorating the fifty states, one at a time.

Sufjan's holiday songs were a mix of traditional and original, and when he launched into "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" I started thinking about how important the muscial aspect of Christmas has always been to me.

As with so much else, I get it from my parents. Our stereo was played year-round, but Christmas music (even secular stuff by Bing Crosby) was a specialty only available from December 1 to Epiphany. Having to wait for it made it that much sweeter.

To this day, I cannot bring myself to play an album of carols at any other time of year, and the sound of “Silver Bells” coming over department store muzak in early November makes me cringe.

(In her own blog, my sister wrote that she broke the embargo early this year. I fear for her soul.)

I’ve written repeatedly what a weird child I was, and my taste in Christmas music was no exception. According to David Sedaris in “The Santaland Diaries,” most of the little kids who were asked to name a favorite Christmas song chose “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Not me. I eagerly awaited Rudolph’s annual animated special on television, but I didn’t like the title song. Too folksy. It pandered to the peanut gallery.

In first grade, preparing for a school Christmas pageant, I got into trouble for refusing to sing it. The music teacher took me aside and admonished me for folding my arms and pursing my lips instead of shouting “Like a lightbulb!” with proper enthusiasm and correct hand gestures. I told her it made me feel silly. She told me it wouldn’t kill me to act like a normal boy for three minutes.

We finally compromised on shouting, with no hand gestures, but only after she threatened to report me to Santa Claus. Bitch.

When allowed to choose my own music, I gravitated to stuff that sent chills up my spine. This generally meant ancient carols, usually in minor keys, sung by choirs. “The Holly and the Ivy,” in other words, instead of “Frosty the Snowman.”

Half the time I didn’t even understand all the words of the songs, I just liked how they sounded, and felt in my mouth when I sang along. I loved lying on the living room rug, on my back, with my eyes closed, head under the Christmas tree, floating away on the music.

The first carol that I can remember listening to ad nauseam was the “Coventry Carol,” which we had in two versions: a choir whose name I don’t know, on one of those gigantic multi-LP collections one used to be able to buy; and John Denver on his Rocky Mountain Christmas album.
Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day,
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Nobody I knew in Tucson, Arizona in the early 70s used words like "youngling." Maybe that’s why I liked it. And I remember thinking it sounded like music you would really sing to a baby to put it to sleep, holding it in your arms and swinging it gently back and forth. I sang it to Raggedy Ann. I sang it to my baby sister. Both fell asleep.

I read the liner notes of the albums to try to find out more about it, but there was nothing but a title. I finally decided that it was so old that maybe Mary had actually sung it to Jesus in the stable when the mooing from the cows was keeping him awake.

When I finally realized the last verses were about Herod killing the innocent children, I decided she added that bit later, when they were living in Egypt.

I had no evidence that this was so, but the idea was pretty so for many years I chose to believe it. (And there, in one sentence, you have the story of my life.)

We also had a choral recording of “I saw three ships come sailing in,” which I loved for the melody, and for the lines that always sent chills up my spine:
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day.
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas Day in the morning.
You must remember that I was perhaps six years old, and living in mid-1970s America. Christmas, to me, was a universal phenomenon; so I took this line literally. In my own family, Christmastime was so wonderful that I assumed it must be so for everyone. I knew there was poverty, and suffering, and war, but I truly thought that on Christmas Day it all stopped for twenty-four hours. And I was certain that on the morning of that day, bell ringers would go into churches all over the world and ring the bells.

I liked that idea, of everybody being happy together for at least one day.

I still like it, actually. I’m just far less certain of it ever being achieved.
Then peal the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Blog Burp

I don't know how the hell it happened, but my employer's notoriously awful football team is going to bowl game. The atmosphere at work is akin to the last four minutes of the Lusitania.

This has diverted my attention from many far more pleasant things, like y'all. Hence this paltry short post.

As I was saying to Laura Bush the other day, don't you just absolutely detest real life sometimes? (The poor dear had no idea what I was talking about.)

Weather Report

It's so cold in Chicago right now that I just saw a chicken crossing the road with a capon. Hah!

Ruana Report

A woman on the subway offered to buy Susan's in-progress ruana right off my needles. I didn't sell it to her, needless to say, but decided to take this as a good sign that the colors and such are working. The drape of the fabric is the best of anything I've ever knitted.

Holiday Shopping Guide

I had a couple requests by e-mail for Christmas stuff, and I thought okay, fine, it would be fun to put a holiday design in the shop.

So here he is, Franklin's 2005 elf. I told my friend John in Dallas about this drawing ("a little elf with a great big ball of yarn"), and he asked if it was autobiographical. I would just like to say for the record that I am not quite that small.

[Insert your own joke here about the size of the ball. I know you will anyway.]

Dude is available on an ornament and a card. I will be perfectly honest and say I'm not fully pleased with either. Café Press doesn't allow for two-sided ornaments, and I find their prices for cards to be outrageous. But until I become a real company, they're all I've got.

Like E.M. Delafield's immortal Provincial Lady, I reflect that Life is often Like That.

I wanted to do something more ecumenical, since not everybody celebrates Christmas. This is the best I can do this year. Maybe by next year I'll have expanded into a full line with offerings for Solstice, Diwali, Channukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, and Gordon Lightfoot's birthday.

For now, I wish you a festive or holy sacred or secular winter-identified holiday of your choosing.