Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Ireland Project

As I get ready for my trip to Ireland in early May, I've decided to embark upon a crash course in contemporary Irish literature. (Because that's just what I need, another reason to buy books. And clearly, my idea of fun is just whacked.)

You have to love the internet, though, because within the span of about 5 minutes I had turned up several syllabi from different college courses and had a good list of authors. I trotted over to the bookstore and found two to start with. One is "The Gathering" by Anne Enright, and the other is a collection of short stories called "Cheating At Canasta" by William Trevor (which includes an essay of his published in the New Yorker a few years ago, which you can read here if you are so inclined).

I haven't been reading a whole lot of fiction in the past few years, so I'm interested to see how I like these works. It's not that I don't enjoy fiction, I just have a bad habit of getting so engrossed that I wind up reading until 4 am, or forgetting to get off the train, or deciding to take a ten-minute break at my desk and discover an hour has passed. Avoiding fiction for me is a kind of we'll see how this goes. I know that a purist would delve into Joyce, but I decided I needed to work my way up to, I'm more interested in current literature anyway.

The other thing I'm working on is downloading music for the trip. I have plenty of Snow Patrol, Glen Hansard, and Damien Rice, and a little bit of Van Morrison and U2, but I need some girl music in there. Lisa Hannigan is on my list for sure, but I need to do some more digging.

I'm also stocking up on rain gear, because I figure that the best way to ensure that we see the sun is for me to buy a new coat, hat, umbrella, and boots. And I've bought a map of downtown Dublin, and have marked out the route from our hotel to a yarn store. I know that most Irish yarn is produced with imported wool, but I'll be happy with a skein or two that was spun in country!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fifteen (Not Entirely) Impossible Things

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

(Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)

This morning I woke up thinking, for some inexplicable reason, that what I REALLY needed to do was go get a PhD in feminist theory. Then I walked out into the living room and saw the cat rolling around on the floor in the remnants of my latest quilt project, the couch covered in yarn, drafts of a few writing projects strewn across the table, and my guitar sitting there reminding me there is a song to learn before Saturday’s lesson. Meanwhile, the cat has been busy removing books from the bookcase again, the recycling is piled up, and my bedroom looks like a bomb of clothes went off everywhere. I haven’t been to the gym in a month, and have been subsisting mostly on Luna bars, Cadbury eggs and diet Coke. (After 20 years, diet Pepsi has finally started tasting weird to me. Go figure.)

Sometimes, I think there is a fine line between creativity and mental illness.

But it actually gets worse, because I sat down at lunch today and made a list of the things I daydream about, thinking I will accomplish in the next 30 years or so (in no particular order):

1) Getting a PhD in feminist theory. (Some days it’s public policy.)
2) Getting an MFA in creative nonfiction. (Because apparently one master’s degree is not enough for me.)
3) Writing a book. (Some days it’s fiction, some days it’s essays about growing up in rural Maine. Other days it’s a coffee table book of photos of downtowns in Maine, an idea that was roundly trounced by three publishers when I tried to do it as a fundraiser several years ago.)
4) Starting my own business making quilts. (Partly because the idea of spending all day in pajamas sewing patchwork really resonates with me.)
5) Moving to Ireland for a year. (A place I’ve YET TO ACTUALLY STEP FOOT IN, though that will change soon enough.)
6) Going on some sort of meditation retreat. (Despite the fact that every time I meditate I fall asleep.)
7) Learning yoga. (Despite the fact that every time I try, I fall over and hurt myself.)
8) Becoming a vegetarian. (The most laughable one of all, since I hate vegetables and require one cheeseburger per week to function properly.)
9) Falling madly in love. (In my head he’s smart, funny, kind and creative. He doesn’t get angry when he finds pins in the carpet or knitting needles buried in the sofa cushions. And he will let my cat sleep on the pillow next to his head. Did I mention he adores me?)
10) Being able to play a guitar and sing at the same time, in the same key. (My neighbors would like this too.)
11) Having a house in the woods with a porch and a small garden and a sunny room with lots of windows that I can use for a studio, with quilts on the beds for when my nieces come to visit. There are lilac trees and a cat or two and maybe a dog and maybe even some chickens. (Oh, and raspberry bushes.)
12) Running for political office. (Usually this fantasy is me being Governor of Maine; given the current guy in office, this obsession has recently become infinitely less outlandish. And the fact that I no longer live in Maine is apparently no deterrent whatsoever to my imagination.)
13) Winning Powerball and moving back home to Maine where I would buy the old Opera House and rehab it into a community arts space. (I rarely buy lottery tickets, and usually when I do it’s because I’m at the gas station and need to break a $20 and I’m trying to cut down on the M&Ms in my life.) And then setting up a foundation where I give money away to artists and women’s organizations.
14) Going to law school, not because I want to practice law but because I loved constitutional law as an undergrad and still have this odd obsession with Supreme Court decisions. Or divinity school, not because I want to be a minister (or even go to church for that matter) but because I have an odd obsession with religion.
15) Becoming fluent in another language (despite six years of French, I can barely muster Je m’appelle Lori).

[And this doesn’t even include stuff like learning how to dye fabric, crochet, make those nuno felted scarves, or explore mixed-media collage. Thank God I have utterly no interest in learning how to spin yarn.]

All of these things are possible. Highly unlikely, in some cases, but possible, to one extent or another. Somehow, though, that just makes it worse. I can totally understand people who have a passion for something and pursue it…but what happens when you want to do a bunch of conflicting things all at once? While simultaneously holding down a day job – one which I actually really like – and spending 2+ hours a day commuting? And making sure you are the best aunt possible to three amazing kids? And, y’know, not made of money?

It kind of makes my head spin just thinking about it. I think I need to go lie down and knit.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Where I Revisit the Patchwork Basket

My quilt guild is a nonprofit organization, and this week was our annual auction fundraiser. Everyone contributes something handmade, and things are auctioned off to the other members with the proceeds going back to the guild. When I first heard about this, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach: these ladies are quite talented, and I was concerned that whatever I made might not be quite up to their standards. And it would be a tough crowd anyway, since pretty much anything I made, these women could make themselves. (Probably faster and better.)

Ultimately I figured, well, if you can’t compete on technique, kill them with cuteness. And so I did. A quilted fabric basket, with three pairs of booties and a little striped hat, in muted shades of sage green, tan and pale yellow, size newborn. (Basket pattern from here*.) And no, the cat was not part of the deal; she just likes to help.

It turned out to be a pretty good calculation on my part – many of the women in the guild are retired and have grandbabies, or are about to have grandbabies, so there was actually some bidding going on. HUGE relief.

**Just in case you were questioning my judgment here, the creator of the basket pattern gives explicit consent on her blog that her patterns can be used for charitable purposes – see here.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Knitting Book Recommendations

I have to admit, I was a little surprised when Borders declared bankruptcy, given my penchant for buying books. In fact, my bookcase bears a strong resemblance to their knitting and quilting section; they keep sending those 40% off coupons, and I keep buying craft books. Today, in fact, I bought New England Knits, mainly because there is a pattern in it for a really neat hat that my LYS has as a sample that I covet (they were out of the book themselves, and yes, the irony of me posting an Amazon link in a post that begins with Borders declaring bankruptcy is not lost on me).

Generally for me to buy a knitting book there has to be at least three projects that I like and think I will actually knit in this lifetime. Despite this criteria, I've noticed that certain books get used much more than others; in fact, some have been life savers and some have been complete wastes of money. So, I thought that in the event anyone out there is trying to build up a knitting library, it might be helpful to know what I've found worth the purchase price. I'd say I'm an advanced beginner to intermediate knitter, and most of these books fall in that range, though a few might be worthwhile for the experts.

1. Knitting Rules by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. While I was already a fairly practiced knitter when I first purchased this book, I think it's probably the best one out there for a beginner knitter. It's a great combination of love and enthusiasm for the craft mixed with very practical advice and technical knowledge. Many of my socks have been knit using the instructions in this book, and I frequently consult it when I get stuck when using other patterns.

2. Simple Knits for Cherished Babies by Erika Knight. I love knitting for babies - partly for the cuteness factor and partly because the projects get done before I get bored with them. This book has just lovely, simple patterns that are fairly straightforward to knit. She uses some high-end yarns in the book (eg, cashmere), but I've used bamboo, cotton, and merino wool with excellent results.

3. One Skein Wonders by Judith Durant. This is the first in the "One Skein" series. To be totally honest, I own some of the other books and have never knit anything from them; I flip through them from time to time but as of yet nothing has grabbed hold of me. But this first one has some pretty easy patterns that I've knit a number of times, including several scarves. However - fair warning: I have always found I needed one and a half to two skeins of yarn for the scarf patterns because I'm on the taller side (5'7") and I prefer longer scarves that I can wrap around my neck. This book also has a couple of patterns that can be used for American Girl dolls, should you have nieces or other little girls in your life who think their dolls need sparkly purple knitted things.

4. 60 Quick Knits (Cascade 220). I've knit a bunch of hats and mittens from this book, and not one of them with Cascade 220 yarn (for no other reason than I just never seem to find it on the shelves at the yarn stores I go to; one doesn't carry it and one sells out of it very quickly). There is a wide range of patterns for different skill ranges, and while it's mostly for adult women there are a few really cute patterns for kids too. I think anyone living in a state where it gets cold and snows a lot, and has a tendency (like someone else I know...) to lose their winter stuff on commuter trains, would find this book quite useful.

5. Favorite Socks (Interweave). There had to be ONE sock book on my list! I will say this is probably not a beginner book; in fact, I've only knit a couple of the patterns (but I've knit those patterns a number of times each). My brain learned how to knit socks top down on dpns, and simply cannot wrap itself around the idea of doing it any other way (like toe-up or with two circulars)- but if you are a flexible sock knitter you will love this book.

Those are definitely the books that get the most use around here. There are also a couple ofother books worth mentioning that I have and will never part with, despite the fact that I have not and may never actually knit anything from them. Mostly these contain either pretty advanced projects or a lot of sweaters, something that I haven't really tackled yet (or rather, I have yet to finish the one sweater I started 3 years ago...). I think you'd have to be a seriously swift and experienced knitter to tackle these, or at least have a goodly amount of time and patience on your hands...but the projects are quite fun to dream about knitting:

1. Knitting Nature by Norah Gaughan. This book is so beautiful that it's kind of like a knitter's coffee table book; it's something I pull out every once and awhile to ooh and aah over. And, because despite being terrible at math I kind of like it conceptually, it is interesting to read about and ponder these designs that are recurring in nature that have geometric properties. Alas, most of the patterns are beyond my knitting skill right now, and I've read that the patterns in the book are riddled with errors and one should do some Googling before knitting anything from the book. But it really is stunning, and great for inspiration.

2. A Fine Fleece by Lisa Lloyd. Also a beautiful book, with gorgeous patterns - many with Celtic-inspired motifs. There are a lot of sweaters in here, but a few socks and scarves as well. It features handspun yarns, and while I'm not a spinner I found the introductury text really interesting as it discusses handspinning and describes some of the different types of sheep and wool. Some commenters on Amazon were unhappy with the photos in the book, but I actually love them (perhaps it's because I haven't tried to knit anything from the book yet?).

What knitting books have you found helpful? What criteria do you use in choosing to buy them? Or do you stick with project patterns from Ravelry or your LYS?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A New Obsession

Oh, dear me.

I've spent the past two weeks knitting (mostly while catching up on The Daily Show. God I love Jon Stewart). Mostly I was knitting baby booties, because my cousins keep reproducing and I’m the sort of person who finds it unthinkable for babies to not have something handmade, even if they are destined to puke all over it. However, as I was knitting I was also scheming about a free-form log-cabin type of blanket. You see, I recently learned about the blog Cauchy (in fact, I was up Very Late one night recently watching her Flickr stream on slideshow, my jealous rage increasing by the nanosecond). I love, love, love this woman’s work, so much so that my Inner Critic kicks in and starts whining something fierce. *I* want to make stuff like that, dammit!!! Honestly, it was all I could do not to raid my savings account and go blow it on yarn and fabric, but I refrained. (Instead, I stomped off to the grocery store where I was confronted with EASTER CANDY of the CADBURY KIND, despite the fact that Easter is two whole months away. *sigh*)

The other contributing factor to my blanket scheme was that I finally got my hands on the first Mason-Dixon knitting book (now in paperback!), which has some basic instructions about how to get going on a log cabin type blanket. It ain’t, as they say, rocket science, but the book provided excellent inspiration.

I finally got to the point where I couldn’t face one more bootie so I fished out some yarn and started a log cabin square and honestly, it’s the sort of knitting that is about as addicting as that Cadbury stuff. I don’t even *like* garter stitch, but this is satisfying knitting. For one thing, it’s quick. And the resulting fabric feels like a good wool blanket should feel – it has a little weight to it, but not so heavy as to be stifling. And there’s no measuring; you basically knit with one color until you are sick of it or you run out of yarn. It doesn’t have to be precise (though it could be, if that’s how you roll). It’s perfect tv/dvd/conversation knitting, because you don’t really have to pay much attention. And I’m telling you, it’s also weirdly meditative: this sort of knitting seems to soothe some particular part of my brain (though not, alas, the part that craves Cadbury).

But here's the problem:

I have a yarn stash. It’s basically one large basket that sits next to my couch, which not only holds yarn but a number of unfinished projects in various stages of completion. It’s big enough so that any non-knitters (ie, my mother) see it and say incredulously, “Whoa, you have a lot of yarn in there!” – but it’s small enough so that most knitters look at it and say, equally incredulously, “Wait, that’s all the yarn you have???” Regardless of the viewpoint, the bulk of the stash is sock yarn or some hand-dyed treasure that will eventually be turned into…well, I don’t know. Something. It’s not that I couldn’t make a blanket with that sort of yarn, it’s just not what that yarn wants to be. And also? For whatever reason, my yarn stash is a lot like my fabric stash: almost completely devoid of any solid colors, which I need if I want to channel something like this.

What I'm saying is, the idea of using up yarn I already have isn’t going to work for this project. So I was FORCED, I tell you, FORCED to amble on over to Windsor Button (my LYS while I'm at work), where after much pacing of the floor and squishing of the yarn I settled on a small skein of Rowan Purelife wool in a lovely (undyed) shade of brown. It was only $7.50, so if it works great; if not, well, it’s not the end of the world. It won’t be enough to finish the blanket, not by a long stretch, but it will keep me going a bit. But now after seeing all that yarn, there are so many possibilities in my head…particularly a vision of a blanket full of blue and white blocks. And a pink and purple one for my niece. And then a riot of color one like I initially had in mind.

And just like that, I’m officially obsessed.

*photos to follow if and when I ever locate my camera cord*