Vegetables, yarn, and yarns: all of my passions all in one place.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Very Merry

Hello, all my readers! And a happy holidays to you.

(This would be all of our christmas tree ornaments:
a combo of mine, his, the boy's and the ones my mom didn't want anymore.)

My time has been precious lately, between the sudden rush of busy-ness at work through to the decorating of the tree and the required apartment organization that goes with it (because where the tree goes is where I usually keep the bicycles and getting to the tree in our one big closet is a task all its own). It took an extra week after the tree decorating to even find the stockings.

That being said, my novel research/reading has been a little slow. I have made no character sketch developments. My one big advance is I'm fairly certain I've picked what locale's folklore I'll be basing my supernatural elements on, which has resulted in a slew of new books I need to read in order to bulk up the holes in my Celtic myth knowledge and how those myths translate to American descendants. Should be fun.

In short, I'm adding to the research list more than I'm subtracting at this point, which is okay. Even though I spent part of last night raving about how I feel like I'm not accomplishing enough, I'm cutting myself some holiday slack. There's enough to do with the wrapping and the planning and the purchasing without adding in a set amount of book research that needs to be done before the new year. It will keep.

I did "finish" the Golden Bough, however. Not useful at all. I skimmed most of it in a half hour, becuase I got frustrated by its continued lack of relevance.

I also received my third personalized rejection letter in as many months. "We really like your stuff but not this time. Send us more later!" I know it's a good thing that almost all of the literary magazine submissions I make result in this sort of letter, but I'm really starting to develop a complex about being good but not quite good enough.

Enjoy your holidays. I'm about to enter into a little over a week of vacation from work. I plan on getting a lot done... but not until after the holiday. I wish you much pie and good cheer.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's a Racing Snail

The comfort hat delivered, I still had some Caron Soft paints in Oceana left. It was sitting there on my desk staring at me when I remembered why I originally purchased that particular skein of yarn. It was a Christmas present two years ago. I had just purchased Amigurumi Knits by Hansi Singh and I did not yet have a yarn stash at all if you can believe it. As you may recall, I used the first section of this book, which provides patterns for knitted vegetables, to learn knitting amigurumi and gave them to my nephew for a birthday present.

The yarn for those vegetables, and for all the other amigurumi in Singh's book where purchased for me by my husband. Essentially, I walked through the worsted weight yarn area at the local Joanne's and grabbed a skein for each color I would need. The bulk of my accumulated acrylic worsted weight stash comes from this venture. Oceana was meant to be the top color of a star fish (somewhat lackluster comparted to the other patterns in the book), but more importantly, for the shells of both the hermit crab and the garden snail. Of course, after I finished the veggies in the book, I needed a long break from amigurumi and its fiddly nature, the stash accumulated, and the reasons for why I bought certain skeins of it got a bit muddled.

Figure One

The leftovers from the skein I used on the hat seemed enough to make both shells. At the very least, I thought I'd start in on the garden snail shell and see what was left at the end.

(In case you were wondering how snail won over crab, snails play a fairly important role in the plot of my first novel, completely inadvertently. I now inherently steer toward snails. They are creatures connected to my creative energy come to fruition.)

Figure Two

Over the course of a few days, I took that leftover yarn and I made a snail shell. It required much short rowing and a fair amount of dexterity to get at those stitches near the tail end of the shell (the ones nearest the tip of the spiral.

Essentially, you make a narrowing strip of knitting (pictured in what I've fondly labeled "Figure One"). Then you pick up stitches at the cast on edge and create a mirror image of the first strip so that their cast on edges meet in the middle, like a butterfly's wings. Then, you graft the live stitches from the first strip to the live stitches of the second strip with the knit side facing out, as in what I have fondly labeled "Figure Two."

By the end of the madness, you have magically created a spiraling snail shell. It's tedious and time consuming and potentially tear-inducing, but man, does it look nifty.

Next up on the snail agenda is the slug-like body, which the shell will ultimately be sewn into. There is some confusion on the hansigurumi group discussion board on ravelry as to how to go about creating this body, called a "foot" scientifically and a "mantle" in the pattern.The consensus, however, is that it's not easy and some reading and interpreting of errata is involved.

In the interum, I'm about to move forward on the stained glass michigan blanket by swatching the yarn for gauge and creating the necessary charts. I hope to have a solid plan in place by Christmas.

And speaking of Christmas, I nearly forgot about my son's teacher needing a proper present. I considered repeating the gift of an apple sock to protect her fruit en route to school, but then I remembered the mother bear project has sponsorships. I donated the sponsorhsip of a bear to my son's teacher by going here: and hitting the donate button. They have it all linked up with paypal and make it very simple. Then, I emailed the project to let them know who I was sponsoring and what her contact info was (name, address, reason for donation, person donating on their behalf). They send a lovely card to the recipient of the sponsorship and name one of the unclaimed mother bear's in the recipient's honor. That bear then gets sent to Africa (or other continent/location where children go without) and given to a child whose life has been affected by AIDS, abandonment, tragedy, disease, orphanages, or all of the above. What's more, Africa sends back a picture of the child happily holding their new bear companion.

I can't think of a better gift for a teacher (who usually really don't want another cute piece of #1 teacher paraphernalia) than the knowledge that he or she has aided in bringing a smile and a sense of love and comfort to a child with very few reasons to smile. If you don't donate for a teacher, donate for yourself or a relative. If you know how to knit and crochet, you can also purchase a pattern to make a bear yourself  for the project to send to Africa. Two of my favorite podcasts, Cogknitive and the 2 Knit Lit Chicks, each run an annual knit/crochet-a-long to inspire bear creation. I plan on participating this year, and the next one runs from January to February. I'm sure I'll talk more about mother bears then too, but in the spirit of the holidays and the season of giving, I wanted to mention it now. Teachers are hard to buy for and it's such a worthy cause.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Polenta and Cuban Bean Patties (sort of)

We've been meaning to try polenta, and this past week, the husband nabbed some pre-packaged on sale. Due to this find, we had some difficulty in the kitchen. It started when I couldn't decide what to eat with polenta. I even googled something along the lines of "What to eat with polenta?" that led me to and a bunch of strangers instructing me that crusty bread is the ticket. Excuse me if I didn't get on board to eating my carbs with a carb.

In the end, I went with what I know: black beans go with cornbread. I found a recipe to adapt heavily for some black bean veggie burgers and set up shop to fried up some polenta.

To make polenta the easy way, go to the store and buy a hamburger-like tube of the stuff. 

Then, just slice it into 1/2 inch rounds and fry it in a big skillet. Instant mushy cornbread. Of course, it doesn't fry up like a patty of anything. It fries up like a lump of dough, which is essentially what polenta is. This makes them hard to flip and impossible to salvage the outer layers that, inevitably, end up adhered to the bottom of the pan. Even so, at the end of the kitchen mayhem, there was polenta.

Of course, eating polenta by itself wouldn't be a very well-rounded meal. For that, you need protein and veggies. Thus, I became work on the black bean burger side dish.

Cuban Black Bean Burgers
What you need:
2 cups (1 can) black beans, drained1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon salt 
1 large egg white 

  • 1/2 cup shredded mexican mix cheese (or whatever your cheese preference) 
  • 1/4 cup shredded carrot 
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal 
  • olive oil 
  • 1/4 cup reduced-fat sour cream

  • 1. Mash beans, garlic powder , onion powder, cumin, and salt in a bowl with a fork. Place 1/2 cup of the beans and the egg white in a food processor and process for about 30 seconds. 
  • 2. Add bean puree and the cheese to mashed beans in the bowl and stir until combined. Divide into four equal portions, shaping each into a 1/2-inch-thick patty. 
  • 3. Put cornmeal in a separate shallow bowl. Coat both sides of the bean patties in the cornmeal.
  • 4. Heat pan over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add patties and cook 3 minutes on each side until they are browned.
  • Of course, these instructions only work if you remember to drain the beans. If you don't drain the beans, they will be too watery, even after you add the cornmeal directly to them, to fry into burgers. They will cook but remain fairly nebulous.
  • To construct the final meal, I put three slices of the polenta on a bed of lettuce. Then, I plopped a bean non-patty (thanks to the non-draining thing) on top of it. Then I topped the whole in sour cream, because sour cream makes everything better. (See image above recipe).

Of course, they make good tacos too, which is what my husband and our son did for their supper.

And for dessert:

Godiva hot chocolate made with almond milk,
topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.

Because what sour cream can't make better, Godiva and whipped cream always can.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Writing, or lack thereof, While Researching a Novel

I'm in the midst of novel research. This consists mostly of reading haunted house stories and the nonficitonal tome the Golden Bough. So far, I've finished Richard Matheson's Hell House, started in on Shirley Jackson's The House on Haunted Hill, as well as the first few chapters of Bough, which doesn't even begin to put a dent in this encyclopedic book.

I haven't restricted my education to books either. I've watched and rewatched Del Toro's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which is where the inspiration for the book sprouted from in the first place. This past weekend, I took in a Netflix-sponsored viewing of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, as well as innumerable episodes of Ghost Hunters International, which has already filled my head with potential hauting phenomena.

Yes, all of these things are, in my case, legitimate work-related activities. This is one of the reasons I love being a writer, even on the occasions that the act of writing makes me want to hurl my pricey macbook across the living room.

As I accumulate ideas, reading and reading, I have not done much at all of writing. This is to be expected, but it still feels as though I'm not accomplishing anything. By that token, I thought perhaps it might be time to begin some character sketches on those people I know will be occupying my novel. As of yet, I know some aspects about them, but not one yet has a name to call his or her own.

To learn about my characters, I find the exercises focused on characterization in the Fiction Writers Workshop and What If? come in handy as long as I adapt them for the situation at hand rather than using their scenarios verbatim. For literary fiction, the characters are key, because without character, you have no real conflict. That means it's just as vital to research them as it is to research my subject matter.

Additionally here are a few character sketch templates free online:

And for general writerly inspiration when I feel like giving up, Word Work has some sage advice for the weary writer and the importance of avoiding procrastination.

I'm anxious to start putting my fingers to the keys and getting chapters banged out, but I know that nothing salvagable will result until I have a basic plan, not a play-by-pay, mind you. What I do need is a little bit more than I have now, an expert knowledge of the characters, their motivations, backstories, thoughts. I need a deeper foundation of the tropes of the haunted house novel and legends on a certain type of folkloric creature (which I'm hoping the Bough provides), both of which require more reading and notetaking. It might be a while yet before I can really start in on page one.

In the meantime, I'll have to satisfy myself by sketching house blueprints and characters, scenery descriptions and notes on potential plot arcs. It's a matter of slowing down and letting the story come to me.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Return of the Hat

In my universe, there are essentially two ways to comfort someone who is going through a rough time: wool or baked goods. That's why when my coworker's father passed away earlier last week, my first inclination was to knit her something. Admittedly, I might have thought of baking cookies first, but she's gluten free and I've been out of rice flour since late 2010 I do believe.

When those around a knitter suffer sorrow, it is a common practice for said knitter (or knitters) to create a prayer shawl. This shawl could then be used to drape the exposed shoulders for the grieved or serve as a lap blanket as the depressed rest on the couch, just not ready to move yet. In addition, as the shawl becomes knit into existence, the knitter encloses a prayer of well-being into each stitch.

I'm not big into prayer for prayer's sake. I don't think of myself as a prayer. Though I do wish for things for myself and others (happiness, health, good fortune, strength, life), I never ask a deity to bestow these things and when I have at any point in the past, I have felt like a fraud doing it. For this reason, I'm not sure the prayer shawl is the way for me to go, now or in the future. However, there is one thing I do know about this particular co-worker. She is a fan of the hat in all its forms.

The solution seemed obvious. She needed a hat. I had a single skein of caron paints in the Oceana colorway and a near-memorized and decidedly familiar beanie pattern at my disposal, as well as the gift of time in the form of two lengthy car rides to and from a business trip on thursday afternoon and friday evening.

By friday night, I had finished the bind off, and the hat was finished.

I adapted the pattern to make the decreases look "prettier" than in the original. This worked, though it also created a slightly more squarish shape in the hat itself. This boxiness does not show up when the hat is on a head.

I completed a second hat too in the last week, but this second one you'll have to wait to see. It's a gift that I'll post as soon as it reaches its owner. In other Christmas knitting news, I may have a plan of attack for that Michigan stained glass afghan that adapts the Mason Dixon Knitting Moderne Log Cabin Blanket. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tuna and Egg Rice Bowls

I go on a business trip to the main office on thursday morning and I don't get back until friday night. This has put some upheaval to the meal planning, because we don't want too many leftovers and we don't want a lot of food hassle to cut into the small amount of family time this week gives me. I also wanted to take on some of the food burden at the beginning of the week, as the spouse will have to go it alone at the end of the week.

I opened the recipe box and found an untested recipe from the Japanese Women Don't Get Fat cookbook. (We won't quibble now over the book's unfortunate title.) It looked simple and best of all, quick. When I got home from work today, this is what I made, a one pot (plus rice cooker) meal with all the essentials.

Rice with Kale, Egg, and Tuna
(adapted from Japanese Women Don't Get Fat)

What you need:
2 c brown rice
1 c water
1 can tuna
1/2 t better than bouillon
at least 5 large leaves of kale, stemmed
1/2 T soy sauce
1/2 T sugar
3 eggs

1. Cook the rice in your rice cooker using the directions for sticky rice. (For us, it involves using extra water and leaving the rice to soak in there for a bit before turning the cooker on.

2. Boil the water and the better than bouillon. Stir until blended. Then, add the kale and cook another minute or so. Add the tuna, soy sauce, and sugar and simmer for 2 minutes.

3. Scoop rice into bowls (we served three equal portions and still had some rice left over) and cover the rice with the broth from the pan, making sure to leave the tuna and kale in pan as you do so.

4. Beat the eggs and add to the pan. Put back on the stove over med-high heat. Cover and cook for 3 minutes.

5. Top the rice with the egg, kale, and tuna in equal portions (again, we divided it by three).

The little bit of sugar really helps the veggie broth go a long way, making for a deceptively flavorful dish. My son proclaimed it his favorite, so moms, let your picky eaters give this one a try. Substitute a veggie they will eat in for the kale if greens are their childhood kryptonite. So simple but so good. Definitely one I'm going to add to our normal meal routine.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

You Don't Choose When Inspiration Strikes

It was a half hour past my strict ten o' clock worknight bedtime, and I was not asleep. In fact, I didn't even feel tired. I blamed this mostly on the fact that I put too much coffee in my coffee slightly before noon that day and thus, spent the majority of the day in a perpetual state of jitteriness that left me without control of my shaky limbs, though staying up a little to finish watching "Hysteria" (great movie by the way) right before bed probably didn't help matters any.

I tossed and turned, taking some care to avoid completely disheveling my hair, while my mind failed to deactivate into slumber. That's when it happened. Something clicked and suddenly, images of the novel I am next going to write invaded my night. I tried to turn them off, fearing a groggy morning at work that required yet more coffee, thus perpetuating the cycle. My inner muse took no notice of my grumbling and, begrudgingly aware that I should not pass up such a gift horse, I got out of bed, grabbed my notebook and a pen, and put the kettle on for some required sleep-inducing chamomile tea for when the madness was over. Then, sipping my tea, I began scribbling.

On the page, there it was, everything I needed to get started: main character, minor characters, basic precise, major plot points, setting, situation, motive. Then, I set the paper and writing impement beside the bed, gulped the dregs of my tea, and flopped my head down on the pillow. I hit the snooze button three times come morning, but I'm ready for novel two. All the waiting, the wondering, the worrying that maybe I only have one novel in me, it collapses into this livid late night deluge of prewriting and suddenly, I'm back.

Since that night, I have been compiling a list of required reading for my next book. That list I include below as the first real hint of what I have planned:

The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Bad Things by Tamara Thorne
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Hell House by Richard Matheson
Reread "Stone Animals" by Kelly Link
Reread The Princess and the Goblin

American Hightmares by Dale Dailey
The Golden Bough by James George Frazer

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stained Glass

In my immediate future, there was going to be a house, and not just any house but a house that is so perfect that if I won the lottery, I would keep it as my primary residence. Admittedly, if I won the lottery, I would probably invest in a second residence with a lake-front view, a private beach, and hand-carved banisters like those found at the mansion in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" but I digress. Yes, I have been house hunting for so many months now that I've lost count, but we didn't find the right house until this house.

This house has stained glass windows in almost every room, hand-crafted by the previous owner, who was, obviously, a stained-glass artist. It has a a wood-adorned walk-out basement with a functioning wood fireplace that has a full-scale stone mantel. It has a farm house, this-is-your-grandma's kitchen complete with pantry large enough for a built-in pot rack. The basement floor of the back of the house is adorned with glass-tile mosiac. the two car garage has a giant bonus room behind it that has a seperate entrance and a stain-glass light hanging from the ceiling. There's a stocked fish pond next to the creek out back that borders the almost acre of land in the downtown area of a small rural village. I loved this house.

Of course, then we found out that this house also has a defective electrical box, a crumbling cement ceiling in the basement workroom, a sinking foundation on the addition, faulty wiring, a bonus room not connected to the heating system, and poor roof construction that depletes the life of shingles by a good 20 years at least. Then, we found out there was a slight radon problem and that in our haste to purchase the perfect house, we overpaid by a good 10 thousand. In light of all of this, sadly, I gave up the house.

Because the previous owner, whose husband created all that stained glass, experienced quite a bit of emotional hardship in deciding to sell us the house, I made a plan to take a close-up photo of one of the windows in the house. From that photo, I wanted create a pattern for a lap blanket that I could finish and give to the previous owner of the house at closing. However, as we aren't buying the house, that is no longer necessary.

Even so, the glass that dazzled me, made me consider months of house construction, stays with me now and I wonder, how beautiful would a handknit inspired by stained glass be? I might just give this a try.

With that thought in mind, I do have a blanket I'm supposed to complete. My brother has been whining for a blanket since I gifted him a knitted beanie for Christmas. I want to give him the promise of that blanket as part of his Christmas present (but don't tell). It will be U of M inspired, but I'm now thinking perhaps it should be stained glass inspired as well. Either way, I'm definitely using this stained glass theme on at least one future knitted creation. If not the Michigan blanket, something.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

For the Love of Baking and Breaking in the New Apron

Last Sunday, I rolled up my sleeves and test drove my new Williams Sonoma apron (which is a nice thick fabric that almost makes it worth its price point). Yes, I got down the white whole wheat flour, the baking powder, the soda, the oil and sugar. I got down the salt and vanilla, the measuring cups and spoons, and I baked the heck out of all of it. My goal: New York Black and Whites.

You see, one of my coworkers gave me his old tablet for drawing illustrations into photoshop. He said he wasn't using it anymore anyway, but it was such a thoughtful present that I announced baked goods were in order. The most complicated cookie recipe I own is for NYC Black and Whites, so I figured he'd earned them.

I started right after we got back from church at noon and I didn't leave that kitchen until past 5 at night. To make black and whites, you first have to zest a lemon and an orange, which my nine-year-old was willing to do for me in exchange for video game playing time. Then, you make the liquid part of the batter, then the solid, and you mix them together. Then you bake the cookies for 20 minutes. Then, you let them cool. Then, you make the white frosting, after which you frosten the whole cookie. Then, you have to melt chocolate chips and you make a huge mess and it looks a lot like someone let loose a hose that squirts melted chocolate all over your kitchen. Then, you take that chocolate and make the chocolate frosting and frosten half of the cookies with that.

(The picture quality is not the best, but before I remembered to photograph the cookies 
this unattractive one was the only one left.)

I made two batches, one for work and one for home. It was a long arduous process and I had so much fun doing it. I haven't been able to set aside time to bake in so long, I forgot how much I like doing it.
Added bonus? Giant bakery-sized cookies for dessert all last week. Made from whole white wheat flour. Yum.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Nanowrimo, or how I will never write a novel in one month

Nanowrimo is one of those buzzwords I hear every year. I'm not sure when it was exactly that the nation decided as a whole it needed a month dedicated to writing novels, but by this point, it's a fairly common term that anyone with a net connection understands. In fact, one of my close friends in college was a Nano diehard. She committed, she wrote, and she completed. It was all very impressive from the vantage point of my 20-year-old self, trying like mad to finish my thesis for my BA in Creative Writing. I couldn't fathom how anyone could pump out a decent novel in a month when I had a hard time getting a chapter done in that same amount of time.

This is my gripe with Nanowrimo, because the answer to that question (How can anyone pump out a decent novel in a month?) is "They can't."

The process of writing a novel takes time, not only to prewrite, write, and revise, but also just the sheer need to gather information and experiences out of life. The act of writing, at least in my mind, is the practice by which the experiences that the writer lives, reads about, and sees happen to others is melded together in the brain and then extracted by osmosis from the writer's fingertips. There is value in writing every day, but there is also value is sitting with an idea and working through it without ever bringing thought to paper. Some of my best paragraphs were mulled over several weeks while I worked over the nuances, the hidden agendas, the interpretations. Not all of writing happens on the page, so rushing through for a deadline so loomingly close is only going to produce what all procrastination produces: something that, though it might even have merit and good ideas, is not going to fulfill the potential for what it could have been if someone had taken more time and care to produce it.

I'm not going to say Nanowrimo is evil or that no one should do it. If that's how you get your kicks or motivation, feel free, but realize that most of the high-quality writing existing in our world today is the labor of years, not days. If you really want to work on your craft and become a novelist, don't expect to get far if you cram all your writing time into one month of the year. Writing is every day of the year. It's what occupies the mind of a writer while s/he iswaiting for a green light during the morning commute. It is what happens when a writer considers the connection between a newscast from when s/he was twelve and the old man holding a political sign on the corner last tuesday and discovers a book hidden there.

I considered taking the nanowrimo leap this year, but the ridiculousness of it hit me full on. That's not the way I want to write my next novel, all rushed and sloppy-sentenced. For those dedicated every- month-of-the-year writers, I propose this. Let the amateurs have their novel-in-a-month fun and we'll continue working at our same dogged pace and finish our masterpeices in our own good time.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Knitting Post-Production

My first mother bear is has reached completion.

If you are wondering why its legs are stubby, the reason is that I missed a line in the pattern that would have added an additional 14 rows to both legs. I sort of love the stubby legged version of a mother bear, and I have it confirmed by the mother bear organization that they are okay with the change. Still, this may be the only dwarf-sized bear I make, if only because it was created due to mishap rather than intention. The pattern itself is simple (barring missing entire lines of instruction), but it does necessitate a lot of finishing, namely grafting or faux grafting, picking up stitches, a running stitch along the neck, “pinching” the ears, and embroidering the face, as well as stuffing the bear through its head opening before the rest of finishing can proceed.


There are books out there about the gloriousness of finishing, and I’m half convinced the authors of those books are on psychotropic medication. I don’t see how else they could think finishing is anything but a necessary evil.

Finishing is something I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about when knitting. Generally, I despise seaming, picking up stitches (though not as much as I hate seaming), and blocking. Essentially, the only part of knitting that I actively enjoy is the actual knitting. I also love seeing a finished object I have cared enough about to go through the tedium and time-consuming task of finishing. Oddly, I have a fondness for embroidery and duplicate stitch, nonetheless.

Even so, finishing is just as important as the knitting itself. I have botched more than enough instances of grafting to know that no matter how lovely your stitch definition is, your sweater will look plain bad if you don’t have patience in the sewing up and picking up at seams and collars. I’ve had to frog many a hasty arm hole sleeve starts due to speedy negligence. I cringe to think how my sweaters would have turned out if I had simply went with the first finishing attempt.

Here’s the right way to do it: Knit all the pieces, and then, do not sew them up right after you get done. Wait a day and start the task with a fresh rather than frantic mind. Learn the technique required, and if you miss up, rip it out and start again.

Have a rough idea of crab stitch and plan to make your best guess? Back off. Instead, research the technique until you understand it thoroughly. Take the time to practice if it has the potential to ruin all your hard work if you do it wrong the first time.

And by Thor, if there is a noticeable mistake you can’t live with, go back and redo that bit before finishing. You can’t go back after, and you will never forgive yourself later, no matter how much you want to hold a finished object in your grasp.

As for my mother bear, I stuffed it and I sewed up the head. I threaded thin strands of black yarn on a sharp tapestry needle and I used satin stitch to embroider pupils and nose and backstitch to do the outline of the eyes and the smile. I loved the stubby legs so I didn’t worry about my bear’s dwarfism. Every bear’s unique, after all, just like every person is.

Then, I rushed the ears. I didn’t sit and really get what was implied in “pinching” them, despite my prep work before I started in on the bear pattern in the first place. I admit that they didn’t turn out like a lot of the ears I see in the mother bear website pictures, but they do look like ears. Plus, I have learned a valuable ear-making lesson for when I start in on my second bear.

Even so, I’m happy I didn’t rush the finishing on the Austen baby bonnet. It is all finished now, right down to the string that ties at the baby’s chin. I sat on the instructions for making that string and just thought it out until I got it. Then, it hit me. I was trying to figure out how to attach the string to the base of the bonnet, near the neckline, but the instructions clearly say it goes at the cast-on edge. You may recall, as I did then, that the main section of the bonnet was done top down, starting with the faux-picot edge eyelet trim. I twisted three sections of the yarn until they plied together, then I knotted them together at both ends and slipped the whole string through the empty space between the eyelets and the caston edge. That cast on was made for that string to fit right in, like the string in a sweatshirt hood. To the very end, I was thrilled with the level of genius incorporated into that hat.

Finshing: I may not like it, but I like the look of a finished object when it's done right.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Oatmeal. OATMEAL!? (Insta and Burgerized)

(Points if you too noted that the title is a shoutout to Frosty the Snowman.)
With sadness I convey the reality of my cooking dejection. I only have these two small endeavors to report: homemade instead oatmeal and from-scratch vegetarian oat and bean burgers. While they are healthy and not from a box, their existence strikes me as lacking in luster blog-wise. You see, I have blogged of from-scratch whole-oat oatmeal and veggie burgers before. Nonetheless, this is what I’ve been making.
I have come to a cross-roads with my desk job. It is lovely to go there and work my time and then go home and not take my work with me. However, sitting in a desk does have its downsides, namely on the volume of my hind quarters and thighs. My solution: oatmeal. I am on the oatmeal-for-lunch diet. for the moment, until I can think of a better cource of action that isn't diety in nature. Oatmeal is filling and fiber-filled, and it means that I eat its small portion and am sated until two thirty, when I have my usual snack of Greek yogurt. It means that I don’t overeat out of boredom while sitting at a desk all day, only to go home and feast on dinner-portions. It means I stand some chance of maintaining my figure.
Instant Cinnamon-Raison Oatmeal
1 48 oz canister instant oats
¼ c raw sugar
¼ c brown sugar
1 T cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
a few shakes of salt
flax seeds (as much or as little as you want. I eyeballed it)
1 c raisins
14 snack-sized plastic bags (feel free to reuse repeatedly after a good rinsing)

Mix all the ingredients well in a large bowl and divide the whole into ½ c portions into the 14 plastic snackbags. Of course, feel free to make substitutions for the fruits, seeds, spices, etc.
This works rather well as a filling but light lunch. And one batch makes enough for two weeks. Moreover, making the mix from scratch costs less and gives you complete control over the ingredients list. No extra sugar. Flax seeds for Omega 3s. No preservatives. Not too shabby.
Oat and Bean Burgers
These babies were made using the Vegetarian Lunchbox burger recipe. This was the second time I used it and didn't turn out as well as the first. It calls for way too many seeds. Next time, I will cut them by at last half. Those burgers were drowning in flax seeds.

I mixed all the ingredients together, rice, oats, beans, carrots, flaxseeds, spices. Then I smashed them into eight patties and baked them.

They were still tasty, though a little bland and overloaded with tiny seeds. But heck, a burger's a burger. You slap it between bread, add cheese, and it's a meal.

Hopefully, I can get into the habit of making several meals on the weekend and then put then in the fridge to reheat during the rest of the week. I'd rather be wowed by dinner than plop a lackluster oat burger in a bun.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Re-vision Surprise

There seems to be a consensus among writers that one surefire way to write an interesting story is to make sure that the writer surprises himself/herself. The idea behind this is that if the writer already knows how the story goes from start to finish, that writer won’t add the same type of energy into it. It will simply be a retelling, and everyone knows that the more times a person retells the same word-for-word story, the duller it sounds. The storyteller loses interest. Everything has already been said and it just becomes a chore.

Of course, few writers know how a story should progress from start to finish, so surprise just happens. Say, like me, the writer usually knows the end and the beginning. Well, that means the middle is just a surprise waiting to happen. In the novel “The Good Thief,” Hannah Tinti had a vision of a scene in the middle of the novel. That means everything leading up to that point and everything that comes after it were a surprise to some extent. That’s how surprising yourself when you write works.

Likewise, most writers will talk about the importance of revision, but not many writers talk about the process of revision. More to the point, how they keep that sense of surprise in the writing. There are a lot of post-MFA student writers out there who get criticized for lifeless and/or boring MFA-style stories. The idea is that the MFA teaches a certain kind of writing that tends to be lifeless and boring. That may well be, but I think the larger issue is that an MFA shows you how to write and better ways and techniques of writing, not how to revise to retain that initial spark that made the writer want to write the story in the first place. This spark, inevitably, will always be that the writer has an idea for a character or a scene or a beginning, and that writer is curious to see where it all goes.

Revision lacks that curiosity. The story is more or less laid out, so when an MFA story gets criticized for being an MFA story, chances are that means it has been over-revised with no sense of surprise. Often, the aspects of my writing that surprise me are the things I fall in love with. That means, I find ways to retain them and this, I think, helps keep some of that surprise in the mix. (Others, of course, might disagree. And if so, I apologize for my MFA stories, but I did just get an MFA.)

I am not a proponent of the “Murder Your Darlings” School of Writing, as my darlings are one of the joys that keep me writing. Take, for example, my revision yesterday of one of the stories in my novel called “Sandwich Earl.” It was one of the stories more peripherally connected and I’d been struggling to make it work with the rest of the book. The entire story itself was a darling whose first person narrator just started talking to me one day and wouldn’t stop until I’d finished his story, and it did connect to the rest of the novel in a very definite, if more remote way. I was tasked to increase the level of that connection, perhaps by changing narrative points of view (one advisee suggested adding the element of “It’s a Wonderful Life” style omniscience), or perhaps by extending the duration of its narrative. I didn’t like either of these ideas. The story felt done when it ended and I just love the voice of the narrator, bright but colloquial.

I had no idea how to fix this problem. It was unplanned when I sat done to work on it and then, I got an idea. I could sandwich “Sandwich” in an omniscient third point of view. This would broaden out the perspective to fit better with the rest of the book but also retain that voice I so enjoyed crafting. Of course, the real surprise came when I started writing that third person scene, in which the reader sees the first person narrator from an outside perspective. It’s all of about five sentences, so it wasn’t a lengthy revision. It didn’t change much of anything to the rest of the story, and yet, I felt like I’d really added depth to the story with the suggested revision, like I’d made that revision work for me. Moreover, I’m fairly sure it happened because I didn’t know what would happen. That, and I allowed myself to consider outside advice about a movie made in the 1940s.

What I’m saying here for other new writers like myself, especially if you come with an MFA background, is this: Don’t plan it all out. Allow the happy accidents even when you feel like the story is “done.” Open yourself up to the possibility that there is more to say, another piece to the puzzle that you didn’t even know existed.

I’m as guilty of thinking my work was beyond reproach as much as the next writer, but listening to new ideas, trying out outside suggestions, pushing  your “finished” story just a little bit farther than you thought it could go. These are the risks that, when taken, just might make your story beyond MFA-style and become your style. Revision isn’t just about cutting pages and chopping sentences and rewriting sentences to reduce syntactical confusion. It’s about being willing to see your story from a new angle.

Suggested reads that come from unique POVS (i.e. new angles) that I’ve been reading lately: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (not the best writing style wise but some interesting true-story psychological accounts nonetheless) and God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens (insightful view on how religion negatively affects our culture and our lives). I’m also a chapter or two into Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, the first in the lengthy saga of the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. So far, I’m loving it. Interestingly enough, it is a book told in a combination of first and third POVs.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Preparing to Knit: the Simple Steps to Take Before You Ever Cast On

The Beloved Baby Bonnet is just about at its end. All that’s left is the blocking and the drawstring. The blocking is supposed to come first, but I’ve been putting it off because I need to have a place set up for it to dry properly, not an easy task in my apartment. The drawstring, I’m actively avoiding because I don’t quite understand what the pattern is saying in regard to its existence as an attached piece on the hat.

(Bonnet modeled by angry Red Wings Octopus Pillow Pet)

This is what I get for not pre-reading the finishing paragraph. I did not read this paragraph for two reasons.
1.      I’m not a fan of finishing.
2.     It usually has no real bearing on how the pattern itself is knit so why preread? (Answer: To make sure it’s understandable, so you don’t spend a month knitting a hat only to get stumped with the finishing.)
This brings up two key but often overlooked aspects of knitting that don’t get talked about enough: prepping and finishing. Finishing, I’ll address in the next knitting blog, so stay tuned.

By this, I mean finding all the required materials (or appropriate substitutes), swatching, and pre-reading the pattern. These are the types of things that really help avoid your knitting biting you in the butt later. I’m not good with the swatching usually. I don’t have a washing machine or dryer at my disposal that a. works 100% of the time and b. doesn’t require inserting a quarter. This means I have never washed a swatch. Not ever. I’m also fairly cheap and don’t want to buy extra yarn unless I have to. Instead, I’ll knit a swatch, unravel it after measurement, and reknit it as the start of the project. This is terrible, terrible practice and I’m lucky I have yet to end up with a sweater than would clothe only a small boat or a mouse, depending on the direction of mathematical error. What you should do: Knit the swatch, wash the swatch, and keep swatching until you get gage. Period. Will I ever do this? All I can say is maybe one day I too will own a washing machine. (I’ll ignore that I could easily have at least hand washed my swatches, because that wouldn’t give me my needed excuse.)

Finding all the materials ahead of time and pre-reading the pattern is something I’m usually very good about, baby bonnet incident aside. I have a feeling this has more to do with my hatred of the act of casting on more than it does my dedication to preparedness. Much as I love knitting, I despise casting on and this might partially explain how I manage to avoid accumulating five hundred half-finished projects due to startitis. Lord knows there’s enough patterns I plan to knit eventually.

Gathering the materials is easy enough as long as you do it. When the pattern says to have two half-inch buttons, you should have those half inch buttons before you cast on and you should have them in one location with all the other required materials for the project at hand. If you don’t have any half-inch buttons, you should go buy some and put them in that same said location (probably a bag dedicated to the project at hand) before you start knitting. That way, you don’t get all done, get ready to finish things up, and realize you’ll have to wait a week before you have the free time to run out to the store to buy buttons. And inevitably, the store will have no half-inch buttons and you’ll have to wait another two weeks for the buttons you purchase online to arrive in the mail. This waiting will not help anyone, least of all the project, especially if you have a babyshower deadline in three days.

As for pre-reading the pattern, the importance of this cannot be overstated. Not all patterns are created equal. Not all patterns are even necessarily legible as a pattern. The only way to know you have a good one is to read it, start to finish. You get the added benefit of learning if the pattern requires learning a technique you don’t know. Even better if you know you never want to learn it, because then you know to pick another pattern before heartache has been inflicted upon you and/or your knitting. What I like to do is take the pattern, which is often written in a longer format that might be necessary to explain techniques and stitches, and rewrite it in a spiral-bound notebook. Once you know the spiel, though, you don’t need to carry six pages of techniques around, so it condenses things to a more manageable size. What’s more, it is contained in a convenient carrying case that will protect it and provide it some excess weight so it doesn’t blow off your lap on a windy day at the park. Usually, with my own form of notation, I can cull a six page pattern down to two pages. If I get tripped up, there’s no rule that says I can’t go back and look at the original pattern, but most of the time, it’s not necessary.

I followed all these steps (except for the swatching) right after I received my mother bear patterns in the mail. I purchased the knit-in-the-round and the seamless crochet versions, though I will accustom myself to the process first with the knit pattern. I gathered my yarn, a sweet ducky yellow acrylic of indeterminate origin that I inherited from my grandmother-in-law. I found the needles. I contemplated what would work best for embroidering the eyes and made sure I still had enough of it left. I double checked that I still have seventy zillion tapestry needles (most of which were also inherited). Then, I rewrote the two-page pattern onto one page of my notebook and spent some time contemplating some of the odd finishing techniques (what exactly is entailed in “pinching” ears into existence? Not much by the look of the many youtube tutorials available). As of today, I have finished ten rows of my first mother bear.  This first one I’m doing all in one color, but it will be a happy yellow so I don’t think the recipient will mind.

To finish up some old business, we finally got all our wedding pics a few weeks ago and here is an at-the-event shot of the veil:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Magical Fruit in a Bag

This bag of dry beans has been in the cupboard from a good two years. I kept meaning to make something bean-filled using from-scratch beans, where you soak them overnight and no BPA is introduced into the system. Then, we got busy and stopped creating weekly meal plans. When you have to soak the food for eight hours before using it to make dinner, it sort of requires a plan. The beans were forgotten until my husband discovered them while reorganizing the kitchen.

The time was long past to create an uncanned bean dish. Enter this soup:

Bag of Miscellaneous Bean Soup

1 bag misc beans
3 chopped potatoes
3 chopped celery stalks
4 chopped carrots
7 cups water
5 tsp better-than bouillion (vegetable)
3 bay leaves
Onion and garlic powder to taste
Pinch cayenne pepper

1.      Soak the beans overnight in water, rinse and drain.
2.     Throw everything into a pot and let it simmer until the veggies are tender.

Add cheese if desired for a pseudo potato-cheese soup taste.

This was a simple recipe. One we should have made a long time ago, but every time I thought about making bean soup from dried beans, it was too late to soak the beans. This type of meal has to be planned ahead of time, but it’s worth the time and effort. Just good simple tastes for a tasty meal. We immediately purchased more bags of beans. Hopefully, we use them in a short time-frame that the last bag.