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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

...and World Peace

The baby bonnet I'm knitting progresses slowly. I've had to frog rows on different occasions because of idiotic errors for which I can blame no one but myself. I do partially blame it on the weather and a lingering chest cold I can't seem to shake. I also had the interesting experience of giving a great hayfevery sneeze one morning last week, and when I went to lift my head back to its upright position so that I might continue readying myself of work, alas, my neck protested with immense pain. Yes, I managed to severely strain the muscles in the right side of my neck with a single sneeze.

One doctor's visit and two prescriptions (for muscle relaxers and horse-tranquilizer-sized Ibuprofen) later, my neck still made it too difficult to attempt knitting. I got some writing done but looking down at lace-knitting was just beyond me and took a few days out of my knitting schedule.

Despite this setback, I finished the back of the beloved baby bonnet from the latest edition of Jane Austen Knits and have 17 rows done out of 54 on the main portion. This bonnet has a trick to it that made me feel quite clever while knitting it. The brim of the bonnet, which appears to be a picot edge, is actually the other edge of a provisional cast on, folded over and joined with the working yarn 12 rows down. This leaves the row in the middle of the cast on and 12 rows down, done in an over-other-stitch eyelet pattern, exposed at the top. The eyelets create the picot affect.

Provisional Cast On: 
Extra stitches get cast on to a piece of scrap yarn while the rest get cast on to the needle

The lace pattern is easy enough to memorize and so long as you keep a row counter handy and pay attention to your stitches, you can get away with skipping stitch marker use. I really dislike stitch markers, though I suppose this may be because I've never used the right kind. I've been using the little knitting time I've managed to acquire watching episodes of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple on Netflix. There's just something amusing about stitching up a bonnet while watching an old biddy solve crime by visiting the lys (local yarn shop for the fiber-uninitiated) in the area.

Despite the entertainment inherent in my current project, I'm developing a heavy dose of startitis I have thus far managed to hold at bay. Apparently, I am not alone in this. My favorite podcaster, Hoxton Handmade, explained the link between approaching cold weather and the need for knitters to "knit all the things" in her latest installment of Electric Sheep. I've discovered a number of pretty stellar podcasts in the last few months, the Sheep and Hoxton as well as Knit 1 Geek 2, 2 Knit Lit Chicks, and the Cogknitive Podcast. I've also listened to an episode of Craft Lit, which blends fiber discussion with audiobooks of classic literature. The particular episode I partook of reacquainted me with the first few chapters of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Through 2 Knit Lit Chicks and Dr Gemma of the Cogknitive Podcast, I learned of the thing that has me so itching to cast on before bonnet completion: the Mother Bear Project. Mother Bear is a lovely woman who read an article about the hardships of children affected by AIDS in Africa (most of them orphans) and decided to show those kids a bit of love. To do this, she repurposed a teddy bear pattern from World War II. She started a charity that donates these knitted bears to children in need. For five dollars, you can purchase a mother bear pattern in knit or crochet, flat or in the round. The pattern also comes with a name tag on which the knitter (or crocheter) should write her name. The tag then gets attached to the finished bear, so the child who receives it will know it was made by someone who cares. It doesn't seem like a lot but there are stories of kids who risk being swept away in a flash flood rather than leave their mother bear behind. Often, the bear will become this kid's only possession. More than that, they see it as proof that they are loved by someone somewhere in the world. Heartbreaking, no?

I learned that the mother bear pattern also exists in a book called Knitting for Peace, so I checked it out of the library, just to make sure it was a pattern I wanted to undertake. Sometimes, as much as I love the outcome of a pattern, I just don't want to tackle it. This pattern looks easy to follow though, so I'm going to be sending in my five bucks (proceeds benefit the charity). I might send a ten and get the crochet pattern too. It's for a good cause. Obviously, I want to make a mother bear, like last week, but more than that, this book is full of patterns and charities that will distribute items if you knit them up for the less fortunate: lap blankets for seniors, security blankets for children suffering trauma, chemo caps for cancer patients, tiny knitted apparel for preemies. There's even a charity that collects small blankets for animal shelters. (Apparently, an animal is more likely to be adopted if it has a blanket in its cage. No one knows why.)

I too want to knit all the things. I love the idea of my hobby contributing to the comfort of the people who need it most. Now, that doesn't mean that I'm totally selfish in my startitis over here. I still have merino waiting to become an ice skating cape and several skeins of sock yarn that have yet to become socks. All in good time, I say, but first, I need to finish this baby bonnet and then make a mother bear 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pot Pie But Tiny

Macy's had a useless kitchen appliances clearance a few months back, and on the tables of stuff were several of what looked like little pot-pie makers. My now mother-in-law, seeing my excitement, decided that I should get one for the wedding. In fact, little pot-pie makers are exactly what they were. Tiny tiny pot pie makers. One maker can make up to four pies at once, just make the dough, cut it out, and add a dollop of your favorite filling.

Well, I took that pie maker home and in the hubhub, there it sat off to the side on my kitchen floor, still in its box. That just wouldn't do, so when I finally found the time (and a temperature low enough that made cooking in the kitchen comfortable), I made up a batch of chickpea stew, sans the dumplings. The stew went straight into pyrex and got shoved into the fridge for later pie-making use.

TIny Pot Pies a la Useless Kitchen Appliance Pie Maker

For the crust, I used the family recipe, that involves combining flour, water, and Crisco, among other things, in a (washed and empty) sealed ice cream tub and shaking them into a ball. The idea behind the recipe is fairly brilliant. However, the concept does not extend so well to square-shaped containers. I know this well now, because I had no ice cream tubs handy. The only big, lidded tub we had was a rectangular prism. The binding agents in the mix cling to the corners and the whole thing just never balled. I had to open it up and mix by hand, but it never really recovered. I had to finagle that dough into shape and then doctor it when it kept cracking.

Consequently, if you want a pie maker of your very own, it recommends just buying some pre-made crust and to heck with it. I admit to feeling temptation for this method of pie crust creation.

Anyway, the pie maker comes with cutters to cut your dough to just the right size circle. Then the filling goes in and you close the maker until the pies are done. That's it. And you have pie. Each one only has about a five inch diameter but hey, easy pie is easy pie.

With the extra pie dough, I made a piggy roll. I'm not sure if this is a real thing or something my grandmother made up at some point. Either way, it's a family tradition that all dough already rolled but not baked in a pie should be turned into a piggy roll.

Piggy Roll

1. Put all the dough scraps into a new ball of dough and roll it out thin.
2. Slather the top in butter, spread sugar across the whole of it, and sprinkle cinnamon over that.
3. Roll it up into a long tube.

4. Pop it in the oven at 350 until starts to brown at the edges.
5. Cut it up and eat, but do yourself a favor and let it cool first.

It makes a simple but tasty dessert.

Friday, August 10, 2012

That Moment Where Things Come Together

Novel writing is not an easy business. In fact, for most writers, myself included, most of it isn't even a fun business. It's something to contemplate, power through, and struggle over. Every word becomes an act of second-guessing. Should it be "contemplate" or "ruminate on"? Is this character blonde or brunette? Sometimes, it takes everything you have to keep going.

I'm made it no secret that I've been having a hard time with this writing thing post MFA graduation. I felt deflated. My time to write got so condensed down that I started pretending it didn't exist at all and watching reruns of TV shows on Netflix instead. I got really into my knitting, focused on that, because I'll be darned if I was making any progress on this whole writing thing. A small voice inside my brain started suggesting that perhaps I chose the wrong calling. Maybe I was meant to be a knitwear designer or a piano bar singer or a stay-at-home mom.

I'd wager that this second-guessing is part of the process of becoming a Writer rather than just being a person who writes.

The big problem for me is that I tend to write a lot of my stuff subconsciously. I'll sit in the car staring blankly out the window and it will look much like I'm zonked and dreaming. That's when I'm writing. I'm writing in the kitchen when I make dinner. I'm writing when I clean. I'm writing when I walk down the street. I'm writing when I'm sitting in my office chair, tapping my pencil to the beat of "Semi-Charmed Life." Still, the writing I do in my head doesn't always translate well to the page at first. I have to sit on an idea for months sometimes before I get the beginning right, and I can't keep going until I have somewhere to start.

A few days ago, though, something happened. I found that place to start for one of my new story-chapters. I've been thinking about the main character, a woman older than me going through something I can't begin to fully understand. I've been writing scenes of her in my frontal lobe… or wherever the words go before I write them down, but I haven't been able to get at the core of her. Not until that day. I wrote a first sentence on that spiral-bound, lined paper and I just knew instinctively that it was the right first sentence,  that this was the sentence that would take me on to everything that comes after this first sentence.

Then I wrote a second sentence and a third. I could hear dialogue in my head. It all started coming together, and in this moment, maybe 30 seconds long, maybe less, I felt it, that joy, that exhilaration, the thing I feel that makes me sure once every month or so (if I'm lucky) that I was meant to write and write often.

What was the key to this beginning place? It's always hard to pinpoint inspiration and impossible to recreate it when you're alone with a blank page and you just need to write something. I knew bits and pieces of her, this elusive main character, but the thing that finally clicked it all into place for me was in that first sentence, and she didn't become real until she spoke to her son. This is a woman whose son calls her first. Not dad, not best friend, not girlfriend, but mom. When the crap hits the fan, he calls her. That bond, I didn't quite see it before, but that's what I'll need to write the rest of the story. That's the one thing that will take me through to the end. I also have an end point, one paragraph I scrabbled through that is giving me a direction. Now all I have to do is fill in the middle.

I haven't made extensive progress word-count wise (a couple pages as of yet), but I've been taking note. I've been reading the right things. I've been quiet. I have a beginning and I have a place to end. Lately, I've been feeling like a Writer, and it's days like these that keep me sustained through all the not-fun that I know is coming to get this story from thought to final draft.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Not Yet, I Want to Knit Like Jane Austen

What happened to Not Yet a Circus Scarf?, you might ask. Well, there was this yarn clearance and there was yarn with wooly fiber content that was bright and cheery, and my son proclaimed that this bright, cheery yarn must become a big fluffy scarf to keep him warm this winter. I love my son. My son is this tiny, growing person who has ideas and dreams. He's so smart and fragile, and I want to be able to protect him all the time, even though I know it's impossible. What better way to attempt the impossible than with this scarf he wants so much?

The problem is two-fold.

  1. I really don't like the cheery yarn. It's loud and vibrant and it makes me wish my horrible nearsightedness didn't restrict my ability to wear sunglasses and see more than two feet in front of me at the same time. I hate this yarn. I want to throw this yarn in the dumpster out back and never look at it again. However, I can't do that, because my son loves this yarn and is expecting a bright, cheery scarf to unintentionally lose on the playground after the first snowfall.
  2. It's been a ridiculously hot summer, and sitting on the couch with an extra-wide wool scarf draped across my lap is not going to help me not get heat stroke.
What this amounts to: I've put the scarf in a time-out. It's in its project bag with its required needles and all the remaining balls of yarn necessary to complete it. That bag will not be opened until the weather drops to consistently below 80 degrees, and I'm not going to apologize for it. Oh, I'll finish it and my son will either wrap it proudly around his neck or refuse to wear it's hated, hideous uncoolness. Just not now.

While I'm not working on said scarf, however, I do need a project to work on. Lately, that's been the multigenerational blanket. As I've been doing an extensive amount of lace knitting lately, it was a pleasant change of pace to mindlessly double crochet, with a slight pattern change every row. The pattern involves a four row repeat.

Row 1: Double crochet into every other chain, with a chain one in between each double crochet.
Row 2: Double crochet into every chain for seven chains, chain one, skip one chain, and repeat.
Row 3: Double crochet into every chain for three chains, chain one, skip one chain, and repeat.
Row 4: Double crochet into every chain for seven chains, chain one, skip one chain, and repeat.

I've just about finished up one of the two balls of yarn that were in the bag with the start of this blanket. After one ball is gone, I'll measure the length of the blanket thus far to determine if the one other ball will get it long enough. If not, I'll have to add a stripe of another color to the center.

That will not necessary be the next yarny endeavor I tackle, however. I don't count this blanket as my work in progress. It's someone else's and I'm just finishing it up for her when I have the time. The next project I'm planning is for the baby one of my coworkers is in the process of adopting. I'm thinking about the Beloved Baby Bonnet from the Jane Austen Knits Summer 2012 issue.

Jane Austen Knits, by the way, is a knitting English major's dream. This issue combines articles about the life and times of the late, great Jane Austen with knitting patterns inspired by the time period in which she wrote. There are bonnets, reticules, all manner of Victorian finery, all for your knitting pleasure. In particular, I'm taken with the Margaret Dashwood Shawl, the Middleton WaistcoatMiss Jane's Hat, and the far more impractical A Book Cover for Edmund. If they just allowed yearly subscriptions to this particular publication, my order would already be in the mail. I want to make everything. I know this is a really unrealistic want.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday. (And Hello.)

As a veggie, I have a hard time coming up with restaurant food options. American restaurant fare is just not kind to the non-meat-eaters. However, there is one American-style cuisine restaurant where I always have something to eat: Ruby Tuesday.

Ruby Tuesday has a giant salad bar and with that salad bar, you can order something called zucchini cake minis. These slider-like sandwiches contain shredded zucchini, along with numerous other veggies. Then they are topped with a tomato and lettuce. These things are magical and when paired with the giant salad bar, sheer genius.

Of course, ideally, eating out is not a daily or even weekly occurrence, so when the zukes started coming in at the garden, I decided to find a recipe for zucchini burgers I could make at home.

Zucchini Cakes

The recipe for these babies isn't my invention, so I won't include it here. Instead, I'll give credit where it's due. Instead, here's the run-down of this particular experiment.

Such a meal would be incomplete without some tasty baked french fries.

We paired the cakes with a slice of cheese, tomato, and a whole wheat bun. They came out a bit less solid than expected, turning out less burgerlike and more falling-apart, but the taste was worth any amount of mush consistency. These cakes had a complex, tangy flavor brought on by the spices and condiments that went into the "batter".

Eating your vegetables never tasted so good.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Fortune Cookie Portent, or How to Live with Stability in the Fictional Universe

A few weeks ago, we ordered Chinese for a working lunch. My fortune cookie read: "Your life gains the stability you desire." This is the second time in my life that a cookie seemed to be more aware of my immediate future than I was. Six years ago, I dined at a Chinese buffet with a group of college friends. My fortune cookie read: "Happiness is right in front of you." Across the table from me sat my then good-friend and current husband.

What does this mean other than the fact that I am continually afraid of the sixth sense inherent in Asian-inspired baked goods?

It means that last Friday I signed a contract and Monday, it became official. I have an agent. I am a represented writer. Do I feel a little more stable? Yes I do.

It also means I'll be re-revising a novel I had, in the core of my being, proclaimed "finished." Now, it is not-so-finished, and I have some new chapters to write and some old ones to revise and at least one that gets the giant delete button (well, the cut/paste button anyway, as it will stand on its own perfectly well for literary magazine submission purposes).

What I have here is the stress of my thesis-due-in-a-month days but multiplied by fifteen. Maybe twenty. There's a lot at stake here, whereas before, if I didn't gethergone, it just meant paying for another thesis credit and graduating in the summer instead of the spring. I mean, think about this. When I finish revising this book, I have an agent who will be showing it to publishers. Editors will hear about and/or read some of my book and decide its fate. I'm trying not to let this impact my productivity, but really, it makes me want to sit down and cry. This is a lot. Then again, it does make me feel like a writer (agent + crying= writer?), because someone wants my book. Someone thinks it's good enough. Someone was willing to take a chance on it without the revisions even being done yet, and that's pretty amazing.

All I need to do is get beyond this feeling of being completely overwhelmed. I have a lot that needs written. I have research to do and reading to do that I think will inspire me for this particular project. I need a plan. Once I have that, I just know the ground will feel stable beneath me, and it will only get better from here. On the writing front, I've begun some preliminary character sketches, so I can start living in these new stories.

On the reading/research front, books on the to-read soon list include: Winesburg, OH and re-examining Olive Kitteridge. Maybe Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips (she always inspires me). The list will grow.

Just slashed off the list: the entire Charles Yu Oeuvre. I picked up Charles Yu from the library after reading a story about him in the last Poets and Writers. The article was enchanting, intriguing, and written in the second person (I have new respect for Kevin Nance). The approach seemed to be an attempt to mimic the work of Yu himself, and I wanted to know what it was all about. The first book spine I cracked was the short story collection Third Class Superhero. The first story had an interesting premise, but in the end, didn't really say a lot. I am not much for the hip style-based, angst-filled first person antihero tales, except when I am. The rest of the stories were equally uninteresting to me, so I put it down and picked up How to Live Safety in a Science Fictional Universe. This book had the style and the substance. It said a lot about humanity, regret, living in the past (in a very literal sense), and the relationships of fathers and sons. Of course, with its science fiction meta-fictional bent, I had a huge crush on this book throughout.

With renewed faith in the Yu, I'm about halfway through Sorry Please Thank You. Though I did skip a story so far (for which I will flog myself later), these stories feel more substantive somehow, with a more relatable emotional core. There's one story about characters in a fantasy online RPG that I got a kick out of for personal reasons. It even had a nice twist, in which it's made clear that maybe the protagonist just might be heroic, unlike the first tale from Third Class Superhero. Despite this, I'm going out on a limb and saying I'm more of a Yu novel fan. What about you?