Saturday, February 28, 2009

A knotty situation

Well, I tried.

For the last two years, I've been trying to teach myself to knit, with little success: I've made a bunch of scarves, some better-looking than others, but can't seem to get any further than that.

In the fall of 2007, I bought two skeins of gorgeous hand-spun, hand-dyed wool at the Mountaineer Week craft show, with the hope that it would inspire me to work toward the next level. The skeins were dyed in beautiful shades of green and lavender--one smooth and the other an amazing loopy light mohair. I decided I'd combine the two strands and knit them together to have both weight and texture.

I started with a scarf, which turned out pretty well; Tom's actually adopted it as his go-to scarf this winter, so at least it's getting some good use.

With the rest, I decided I'd try to make a hat. Bought myself some circular needles, found an "easy" pattern online (Oh, how I have learned to distrust such descriptors), and went to town.

First attempt: made a woolly Mobius strip. Seriously--the thing got twisted around the circular needles in a perfect, infinite loop. So, I ripped it all out and started again.

Second attempt: made what a friend referred to as a woolen tube top. Pretty accurate. My attempts to decrease worked poorly, if at all, and then I ran out of the regular yarn and only had the fine, loopy mohair left, which was hard to work with on its own.

But damned if I was going to rip it all out again. So, I pulled it all off the needles, folded the top together in quarters, and sewed it up. Here's the result.

Tom's first reaction: "It's probably a little more granola than I think you had in mind."

Second reaction: "I think you need to spend about a month knitting with Don."

At which point I offered that I might just give up knitting entirely, since I seemed to have no facility for it, and found the more intermediate stuff frustrating and discouraging rather than relaxing in a Zen-like way, which is why I picked it up in the first place.

Oh well. At least the cat might like this. Our calico kitten has recently shown a proclivity to be a rug muncher, literally: she's been obsessively chewing up the wool rug in my office, to the point where she's pretty much unraveled a whole corner of it.

Who knew that cats could develop a form of OCD that focuses on wool-chewing? Let's hope that it's just a phase that she outgrows. Tom and I have been trying in vain to find a chewing substitute that she might go for: tiny dog chew toys rubbed with fish oil and catnip (a pungent combo), rubber balls, straws...but apparently, this is really a very specific fetish for wool.

So, the hat might soon be Pip's. At least I know she'll love it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This is my letter to the world that wrote volumes to me*

Regular readers of this blog know about our love of ephemera, and may recall my describing the wonder of re-reading myself through the letters I wrote to my friend Christina in college, which she returned to me a year or so ago.

Christina, Kristin, and I have our annual meetup scheduled for this coming weekend, and I decided I wanted the two of them to have the letters they'd written to me during during college. So, I dragged out the boxes full of old cards and letters that I've now moved across the country twice, and started sorting through them to find the ones from Christina and Kyer.

There are hundreds of letters in these boxes, as you can see, going all the way back to my high-school days. It amazes me how much time we all seemed to have 25 years or so ago to write, longhand, such lengthy and detailed letters, and so regularly! And in fact, it's the ones from exactly 25 years ago (or a little more) that particularly struck me as I sorted through the stacks.

My freshman year was not a good one. My mother was recovering from cancer that she had the spring that I graduated from high school, my sister had just had a baby and was having trouble with her (now ex) husband, and I'd never lived anywhere other than Columbus, Ohio when I went off to Wellesley College in the fall of 1983. But it was my "dream school," so I figured that once I got there, all the magic fairy dust that I perceived floating around the place would make any difficulties disappear.

No such luck: I slipped into my first profound depression that fall, which reached its nadir when I went back after Thanksgiving and just fell apart. Over the holiday break, I decided not to go back, and felt immediately relieved...though also guilty, ashamed, weak, and pathetic. Needless to say, the depression continued, on a different plane, and didn't really lift until early in 1985, when I really got settled in at Ohio State, which had become my "not-so-dreamy" but comfortable school of choice.

In hindsight, it all worked out fine. But still, it's often felt like the "lost year" of my life.

Until now. I couldn't believe the sheer quantity of mail I discovered that had been sent to me that fall at Wellesley--as well as the many letters the friends I'd made there sent to me throughout the following spring. Nor could I believe the amount of love and support and empathy that poured out of those envelopes--from my parents, friends, friends-of-parents, siblings, neighbors, teachers...seriously, I think there's at least one letter in there from everyone I knew at that point in my young life. I was blown away to see and feel, literally, the amount of concern people felt for me--concern I don't recall registering or remarking on at the time.

Here are a few examples. A card from my sardonic high-school biology teacher, Mr. Logsdon, in which he asks, "Is the food edible? Bring a sample back for analysis if you have questions," and advises me to "stay away from the men and the bars--school comes first."

A postcard from my friend Jay, announcing that he's coming to visit (which was truly a high point of the semester).

A postcard my mother sent, explaining that "Mary Baxter [a colleague of my mother's] sends you this. She has had it in her office window and thinks it should be yours now."

A note (not pictured) that my favorite professor from that first semester, Kathryn Lynch, sent after she wrote a recommendation letter for me. The 1983-84 academic year had been her first year teaching at Wellesley. Toward the end of the note, she writes about her own difficulties transitioning to Boston from California, writing that "Freshman years are difficult in general, even when you're as old as I am." Only now, having survived two first semesters in new academic jobs, can I appreciate the feeling and empathy behind those words.

And finally, a letter from one of my hallmates, Susan D., who was a loyal correspondent right through college. Honestly, I'd forgotten that until I discovered many letters from her from December of 1983 through the the spring of 1987, when she graduated from Wellesley. At the beginning of that year, she sent the following, asking questions that seem particularly poignant to me now:

Dream and nightmare both, at that time. Bittersweet and undoubtedly distorted memory now.

I was so moved to see just how many letters I got from my former Beebe Hall dorm-mates in the first months of 1984. To me it seemed that the Wellesley door was hermetically sealed when I packed my stuff and drove away from the empty campus before spring semester 1984 started. But apparently it was part of my life--and vice-versa--for some time afterward. Looking back at those letters now feels a bit George-Bailey-esque: here's what this world looked like without you.

Last summer, via Facebook, I reconnected with one of those remarkable women (Jane over at Leaf - Stitch - Word), and through her, learned of the whereabouts of several others. It felt as if my life had come full circle: my present self meeting my past self and both knowing her and feeling as if she lived on a different planet than the one I now occupy. That experience, combined with these letters, go a long way toward patching the pothole that seemed to open up in my life in the fall of 1983 and the winter of 1984.

My life was, and is, contiguous, assembled haphazardly from scraps of paper layered over time until the compiler finally thinks to step back, and sees the form that's emerged, unbidden. I feel blessed to have received and to still have these remarkable scraps, and--after the better part of three decades--to finally be able to read their messages.

[*with apologies to Emily Dickinson]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ephemera: The Valentine's Day edition

Our ephemera collection began with old Valentines, which I have always found irresistible. There's something kind of sweet and forlorn about finding a stack of them at a antique shop or flea market. The original recipients must've cared enough to keep them, and once those folks were gone, someone else couldn't bear to throw them away.

We'll skip over the step when someone else, aka a dealer, sweeps them up and sells them for cold, hard cash. It's never much cold, hard cash, though--I don't think we've ever paid more than ten bucks for a single card--and as our collection has grown, it's been fascinating to see how the motifs and sentiments have changed over the years.

As the photo at the top suggests, we have a lot of these things, so I'm only posting a selection here. First, this group of "insult" valentines from, I imagine, the 1920s:

Here's a card from the 1930s that I always find a little sad, since the message seems to imply that a shy gentleman might use it as the prelude to a proposal, if not as a proposal itself...and yet, there's no signature inside, and it appears never to have been used:

Planes (and Zeppelins, apparently) were popular greeting-card motifs in the early 20th century:

And finally--WAY better than any Spongebob Squarepants Valentine-making kit you might buy at CVS, this adorable Art-Deco one:

We have lots more...enough for Valentine's Day ephemera blogs for years to come! Have a happy one, dear readers.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The aesthetics of "random"

A friend (or should I say "friend") posted a link to this video on Facebook the other day. I have to admit, I found it pretty damn amusing, if a little disturbing--I'm not sure I buy the dad's claim that he shot it because his son was scared about going to the dentist, and he wanted to have a "before" and "after" tape to convince the kid that everything was fine.

Anyway, the ethical discussion is for another day. What interested me is that the very next day, a blog I occasionally read posted the video below, which synchs some of the audio from the "original" to...a 1970s picture book about kittens.

Some of the juxtapositions are funny, others not so much. When I saw this, though, the word that sprung to mind immediately was "random." Is this what them crazy kids are talkin' about these days when they describe something, positively, even joyfully, as "random"? And will I sound tiresomely middle-aged if I say that random just isn't enough for me, aesthetically?

I get the whole postmodern pastiche thing--playing with copies of copies of trivial but somehow iconic stuff, like Duchamp's 1917 "Fountain," pictured at left. But when my students describe something as "random," the pleasure seems to be in the utter meaninglessness of whatever they're talking about, its lack of a reference point.

"Random" seems to have become the aesthetic for a certain generation. But what does random mean? Is random the aesthetic that fills the vacuum when "camp," "kitsch," and all the other self-referential, post-ironic modes are exhausted? Thoughts, please!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Venerable, Honorable Tradition of Cheating in Baseball

Well, Alex Rodriguez has admitted to using some sort of banned substance while playing for the Texas Rangers, and I can't help but feel like it's time to chronicle just a few of the ways in which cheating in sports, and in baseball in particular, has a long and highly respectable history.

Now, I'm not a baseball historian, or anything like that, but I'll never forget the time that Rick Junkins had me scuff up the seams of some new baseballs before a high-school game, so he'd have a better curveball. And who hasn't heard of spitballs, Vaseline balls, and foreign-substance balls of varying descriptions?

George Brett famously used pine tar on his bat in a fashion contrary to the rules; but what most people seemed upset about is that Billy Martin waited until Brett had hit a homer before he asked that the bat be disqualified. Few people blamed Brett for using illegally-doctored equipment.

Sammy Sosa (and a handful of others) have used corked bats, and these are only the ones who were caught.  And trickery is enshrined in the game in all sorts of ways: pretending to throw the ball, then tagging someone out; trying to get a home run called a ground-rule double; letting the ump call the runner out even when you know you missed the tag.

True baseball purists, I have always believed, ought to believe in the value, even the necessity, of cheating as part of the game.  Players should take their punishment if they get caught--because it is cheating, after all--but until they're caught, it's part of the game.  A scrupulously honest game would probably be unwatchable, and hardly worth talking about.

But, supposedly, the banned substances A-Rod admits to using involve a whole other kind of cheating that cannot be tolerated, understood, and accepted like the other kinds are.  How about that.  

Friday, February 6, 2009

Calling all "snappy comeback kids"

After I changed the name of the photo embedded in this post, I find we're getting a lot less traffic from people (especially, and curiously, from Europe) looking for images of Bob Seger.

What's notable, though, is how many people seem to be trolling the internets looking for snappy retorts. Here's a sampling of some of the search phrases that have led people to our blog recently:

what do you come back with when you have a bad witty moment
my best witty comeback
witty comebacks against sexist comments
witty sexist comebacks
snappy comebacks teacher comments
snappy comeback kids

Now that the "Bob Seger bump" has been eliminated, this post about witty comebacks is the second most visited post on our blog, after Tom's post about "Jim Dandy". Apparently, bad 70s rock is a popular topic, Bob Seger aside.

I find it reassuring to know that so many people feel completely impotent in the face of an unexpected insult. Because when it happens to you, you always imagine that anyone else would have had the sense to defend themselves, and to do so instantly and elegantly. Apparently, though, the vast majority of us stand there slack-jawed, and then berate ourselves later for not having the wherewithal to say something clever in our defense.

So no wonder people turn to the web for help. If I could invent an instant retort generator that folks could carry around with them, or maybe even an implant that would feed the perfect comeback directly into one's brain when needed, I'd be a rich woman.

Barring those unlikely developments, readers, I'm turning to you for help. What advice or quick-draw options can you provide for your fellow sufferers? Are there some multipurpose comebacks that work in a variety of situations that one can keep on hand for emergencies? Or maybe you can just offer some balm to ease the wounds inflicted by unexpected insults--is there something comforting you say to yourself afterwards that neutralizes the pain?

But here's the option that interests me: are there some of you out there willing to admit to inflicting the kind of zingers that most deserve a zippy comeback? And if so, are you insightful enough, and brave enough, to tell us what your victims might say in response that would put you in your place?

Somehow, though, I suspect that those who do the insulting are too clueless to know what they've done, much less reflect on it. Which, I suppose, gives the rest of us a perverse sense of victory...


[If only the "Ass air freshners (sic)" pictured above would work to clear the air of asinine comments. Thanks to for the thought, though!|