Instructions, Details, and the Uterus

This is like one of those Pinterest #nailedit fails.

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When I wrote about crochet a while back, I listed a number different things that I could do, and their limits. I had some folks kindly suggest I was being too hard on myself, enumerating the “…buts”. I promise you, however, that the opposite is more the problem. When I make quilts, or sew an eight foot stuffed squid with beanbag arms, or crochet little doilies, or hand-off the random granny squares I make to my kids’ friends, people are usually impressed. And in general I am pretty pleased with myself. If someone says, “Wow, I have no idea how to do that! That’s really cool!” that feels good and I am happy to bask in that feeling. Making stuff both amuses and gratifies me because not only do I like doing it, I like that other people think it’s nifty and something they couldn’t do (although I usually think they could).

Mostly creativity is a self-reinforcing cycle and since I don’t actually need to do any of this for a concrete, externally driven purpose (grades, money, marketing), why stress? It’s great in fact, because I need to please no one except myself (mostly) and if I had to make stuff, it would likely suck the joy out of the task. Not to mention most creative work is shockingly unremunerative, even for the people who have dedicated years to professional advancement, training, and marketing themselves in their craft.

None of this means I shouldn’t exercise self-critique on my habits and abilities. With crochet, I can watch myself treading a familiar lane. The “I could do that” instinct gets me through picking up yarn and hook, holding the hook (but not necessarily the yarn) correctly, and making a number of basic elements. So far I have made:

My sister modeling the shawl

My sister modeling the shawl

  • a bunch of doilies, some of which I used to ornament a hat
  • a bunch of hexagons
  • 2 short chunks of single stitch crocheted fabric
  • a couple of leaves
  • at least 4 different shapes of flower
  • a large shawl
  • 3 or 4 small afghans
  • 2 owls
  • a lady bug
  • several granny squares
  • 2 scarves, one with pinwheel ends
  • an (inadvertent) “poo emoji”
  • a small shawl-type thing, described more particularly below (after the poo).

I swear I was not trying to make a poo #emoji 💩 #crochet #crochetfail

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Things I have not done include:

  • figure out “gauge”, nor even tried.
  • follow a complete written instruction for any single project, nor even made the effort to match hook and yarn size.
  • forced myself to learn “increase” or “decrease”
  • followed any formal method of joining elements
  • attempted a project that requires precisely shaped pieces (e.g. garments, or those popular little amigarumi stuffed animals)
  • learned to read a pattern that doesn’t come with a line drawing. (“3dc, ch5, dc in next WHAT…?)
  • done a project that would require me to purchase a specific amount of a particular weight of yarn.

The first two of these would be good for me, the next three probably would as well. They would make me better for going through the exercise, because I can feel the objective. I know the slight increase in effort and tedium of doing something repetitive would result in my understanding some aspect of the process better, instead of forcing it. But I haven’t made the jump. Instead I do more doilies, because they are easy and fun. Apparently they’re called “motifs” in the lingo of the craft. I actually got a book showing all kinds of circles, squares, and hexagons. I use up my heterogeneous scraps of yarn on strange mongrel Frankenstein creations. This hasn’t gone entirely badly.

For example, I posted a work in progress on Facebook and one guy (my kids’ former pre-school teacher) said “looks like a uterus” and another (a high school classmate) said “needs more fallopian tubes.” I looked at it more closely and concluded they were both right. I had started out simply by trying to duplicate a scrap of antique lace, using some very strange metallic thread that I had in a bunch of different colors (mostly gold, but some silver, red, and pastel as well). After the crowd-sourced uterus feedback, I decided to run with it, adding heavy black border to set off the red endometrium.

Trying to recreate an old piece of lace #crochet #learningcurve

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I couldn’t figure out fallopian tubes (or didn’t want to), but I incorporated a couple of previously-made doilies as abstract ovaries. I also had some flowers on hand to represent the progress of the developing ovum and implanted zygote.

#Crochet detail.

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Finished, it looked quite a bit like the drawings of the egg cycle in educational materials about the menstrual cycle. But it could also pass as a rather bohemian little shawl/scarf (although the metallic thread is scratchy and annoying). My physician sister-in-law said she thought the lighter parts of the uterus, which I conceived of as symbolic of mystical female power (or something), looked just like uterine fibroids. My various teenage nieces looked at it with some skepticism but seemed to find my explanation plausible.

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One Square Mile

 

I grew up on a one way, one block street called Hamilton Place, in the middle of downtown Ann Arbor. There were few families with children, but it was a student rooming house neighborhood, so sometimes we played with the hippies who lived in the co-ops. The public library was across the street, the YMCA was in the next block. We attended the old German Congregational Church on Fifth Avenue, that we reached by walking through the driveways and backyards on our block and crossing the street. The University of Michigan main campus was five blocks east. My father taught tai qi at Regent’s Plaza on campus, and my brother and sisters and I would leap along the concrete barriers or sit with our noses pressed against the windows of the U of M administration building watching the elevators open and close. Or we might dip our feet in the fountain by the student union while our parents did the tai qi form. From the fountain I could see the gothic details of the Law Quadrangle buildings, fascinating and elegant.

The bell tower carillon is chiming #burtontower #carillon #annarbor #goinghome

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Bach Elementary School was nine blocks west in the quiet Old West Side, with its streets full of tall trees. Nine blocks down a big hill, over railroad tracks and past an auto parts factory seemed impossibly long and scary when I first started walking them at the age of seven. Slauson Junior High School (Grades 7-9 in those days) might have been a mile from the house, in the same direction. Dad was often willing to give me a ride to junior high school.

In high school, most of my time was spent in less than a square mile. Community High School was seven blocks north, across from Kerrytown Market. The blocks weren’t as long and scary as the ones to Bach, but they could be cold and windy in the winter, carrying my viola case, with no gloves. For a few years my father had a restaurant in Braun Court, on the other side of Kerrytown from the high school. I worked there on weekends and some evenings, and I could run over and get pot stickers at lunch, if I wanted. I usually didn’t want to though. It was the age when I was separating myself from my family by rejecting potstickers in favor of sour dough rolls or bagels, and studying aikido instead of my father’s tai qi. The aikido school was two blocks from the restaurant.

 

I moved away gradually, spending a little time away in high school, coming home every spring, summer and winter from college on the East Coast to stay in the house on Hamilton Place. The family restaurant didn’t survive my high school years, so when I came home I worked at Zingerman’s deli, which was next to the high school parking lot. A lot of the Commie kids worked there. Eventually my brother and both of my sisters worked there too. My brother met his wife when they both worked behind the sandwich counter at Zingerman’s. My youngest sister, after a brief seasonal job at the deli, started working at the flower shop in Kerrytown.

 

After college I lived for a year in a rental house near the athletic campus (perhaps a whole mile from the house on Hamilton), then for two years in Ypsilanti, while I commuted to Detroit for work. In law school I moved back to Hamilton, with my sisters, who had graduated from college and high school respectively. We called ourselves the International House of Babes. One sister worked as a cook at Zingerman’s, the younger was still in the flower business. I walked to classes on the gothic campus that had so fascinated me as a child. My aikido school relocated and I helped move it to a new location on Fourth Avenue, two blocks from the house on Hamilton.

When the time came to start my career, I moved with considerable reluctance three hours away, to Cleveland, and found myself coming back once a month. After five years I mused to an acquaintance that perhaps I was preventing myself from putting down roots in Cleveland. His immediate and unvarnished agreement wasn’t gracious, but he knew enough about me to know why.

In 2004 I married my husband in the church around the block from the house where I grew up. My sister and two partners had purchased the flower shop she worked during high school and she did the flowers. The rehearsal dinner was at Cottage Inn, the campus pizza restaurant that had expanded from a hole in the wall to a city wide franchise. The reception was at a now-defunct restaurant on Liberty Street, not far from Bach Elementary. When I was in junior high, it had been a fancy French restaurant. My French class had an end of year field trip there.

In 2006 I moved across the country, finally far enough away that I couldn’t get back easily. I still made it back once a year. My mother sold the house on Hamilton Place and moved to a house next door to Zingerman’s. My sister’s flower shop was on the first floor and if I ordered a bagel from the deli, I could take the plate with me, eat it in her kitchen and take it back to the bus bucket in the deli. Condos sprang up all over downtown, including in the auto parts factory. The old Victorian clap board rooming houses on the back of our block were torn down and apartments went up over the short cut to church. I lost my job about three years ago and over two years went by before I went back to Ann Arbor. It was the longest I had been away since moving there when I was three months old.

It was the office supply shop when I was a kid #annarbor #gentrification #goinghome

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When I went back briefly last year, I took my children to some of my old haunts: The Natural History Museum, Nickels Arcade. I found myself focusing on what had changed. The campus keeps ballooning out of its confines and absorbing more of the surrounding blocks, including parts of Division Street, the next street over from Hamilton. The student flop house neighborhood where I grew up looks bedraggled and worn rather than just bohemian, while everything else downtown is shinier and fancier. The YMCA where I took dance classes and learned to be terrified of swimming is a parking lot and the new YMCA is built a few blocks farther west, where an old factory building once stood, housing the Performance Network community theater and the Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce operation. In the parking lot of the credit union that went up on William Street when I was a kid, the asphalt is heaved, faded, and battered. Forty years of my life crowded into my head as I walked the streets. The ghosts of what had been in each spot before layered on top of each building and street corner. A little of what I saw comes through in this piece I wrote for Public Streets.

#architecturaldetail #annarbor @ummnh_museum

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This year I went back again, for a few days longer, with one of my children. We shopped at Kerrytown, we bought bagels and scones from Zingerman’s, which has expanded yet again. I took my child to the Natural History Museum, where she sat on the puma statues out front and gawked at the same mastodon skeleton that I visited as a child. We admired the ceramic animals at Caravan in Nickel’s Arcade, although the store is smaller than it once was. We got Chinese take out from TK Wu, whose head chef once worked with my dad at the restaurant in Braun Court. The bulletin board at my sister’s flower shop has a flier advertising the tai qi school where one of my father’s last students now teaches.

The new generation of Commie High murals. #annarbor #goinghome #communityhighschool

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One of my nieces goes to Community High School. She has an even shorter walk than I did, a grueling commute across the parking lot. Another of my nieces is still at Bach Elementary. I went to the year-end ice cream social. There was Little Caesar’s pizza (not Cottage Inn, but still a Michigan-based chain) and ice cream from Washtenaw Dairy. I saw an old friend, who has fifth and third graders at Bach. We took a picture of our youngest children together and noted that it had been over twenty years since I attended her wedding, and nearly twelve since she attended mine. The acquaintance who had once commented slightingly on my attachment to my home town was there as well. Bach is his two children’s elementary school. I even bumped into a woman who I went to third and fourth grade with. Her children are at Bach now. We stood together for a moment on our elementary school playground, with our young children clinging to our legs, stared at the new addition on the back of the auditorium, and agreed that it was very strange.

 

Perhaps strangest of all was the band. They didn’t have ice cream socials or bands at Bach when I was there, but there’s a rock and roll school in town now and the proprietor is a townie. I went to high school with him, in fact. He was a bit of big man on campus when I started at Commie High (if a school like Commie could have BMOCs, they were 80s rocker boys, with their hair and guitars). In 1986 I heard him and his band play, at Performance Network, in the old factory on Washington. So there I was, hanging out at my elementary school, watching that same fellow rock out with his electric guitar. His hair is still long and splendid, if grayer. The other musicians are 10 and 12 year olds instead of 18 year olds. I told my oldest niece that thirty years ago, when I was just about exactly her age, I heard him play, and while she didn’t have to believe me, he was very beautiful to look upon, back in the day. She and her boyfriend gave me a funny look.

This time it was the little things I remembered, hidden among all the new are the bits and pieces of my childhood. I took my kid to Peaceable Kingdom on Main Street and she rummaged in the long table of wind up toys and figurines while I ogled the earrings. The antique wooden counter is still there. When we walked to the Museum, we passed the brick houses I used to walk past on the way to high school. I drove her past the house on Hamilton and told her it was the house I lived in when I was her age. She asked, “That one? The one with the gray shingles?” And they are indeed the same gray shingles, although the giant cutout of Prince in the front window is new.

Division Street Historic Homes #annarbor #historichome #goinghome

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Over the years the urge to seek out old connections when I go to Ann Arbor has gradually faded. I don’t have quite the same desire to stare the past in the face and prove that I am prospering, that my children are lovely, or my life is something to be proud of. Except for my family and the people I met by chance, I sought out only one old friend. We had lunch at Jerusalem Garden (new location, but still a block from the house on Hamilton), compared notes on our fates, and revisited threads of conversation we have had over the course of 21+ years of often challenging connection.

I have often noticed that other people don’t look backwards so much on their lives as I do. I’m basically a psychic hoarder, remembering the places where my friends lived in 1987 or 1992, noting what I ate where, who I was with, whose birthday it was. I wonder if I should look over my shoulders less, be less wound up in my memories. But this time I felt like I got it right. I could remember who I was and the places that made me, without being pulled too far back into longing for what came before. A hard friendship pays off in long understanding. The places of my childhood and youth were nourishing and familiar, but they are not my only home.

The old Frieze building, imbedded in the new gothic tower #architecturaldetails #annarbor

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Hook, Line, and Torte

Learning some stuff #crochet #hidingout

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Things that I can do:

  • Bake bread (although it turns out differently every time, and my cake results are even more irregular)
  • Make clothes and patchwork quilts (clothes are usually from the scraps of other clothes, and I leave a lot of woggly seams and threads hanging out)
  • Make encaustic, multi-media collages (but no one has ever wanted to pay money for one)
  • Write short stories and novels (but I can’t sell them)
  • Draw a passable free hand caricature of a pig (but not consistently)
  • Cook variations of Chinese, Appalachian American, Italian, Indian, Tex-Mex, and Hippie American food (but not necessarily consistently)
  • Read music (but I can’t play or sing worth a damn)
  • Use most hand tools and small power tools (but I’ve only ever built things out of 2x4s and plywood, and even then they didn’t always sit level).
  • Bead necklaces (but they tend to fall apart because I use the wrong thread)
  • Grow kale (but not dill, apparently) and keep a rose bush (but not houseplants) alive.
  • Braid a rag basket (but I can’t control the shape or size at all well).
  • Dye my hair (but not all of it, and I always stain my fingers)
  • Polish my nails (but I can’t color inside the lines)
  • Cut my kids’ hair (but not evenly)
  • Needlepoint (but I get bored, even when I improvise the design)
  • Hammer a copper ring brooch (but I don’t how to replicate it)
  • Carve an owl from a cedar scrap (but I can’t replicate that either)
  • Float and swim on my back (but I can’t side breathe, so I can’t actually swim effectively)
  • Design and sew large stuffed animals (but their eyes come off and their seams fail)
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Brooch made of piece of salvaged utility wire from the pantry closet.

I’ve tried about half of these things for the first time in the past two years. I always learn something, but the main thing I’ve learned in the aggregate is how little tolerance I have for my own errors. When I make mistakes, I tend to just tie a bigger knot, add more glue, skip to the next step, drive in another nail, fold it and seam over it, and if none of those things works, I walk away. I lack the patience or discipline to make repetitive errors and do boring shit on my way to the end product I envision. Nor am I willing to do any single thing long enough to get good at it.

What the hell?

My father was a bit like this. He may possibly have had a better success to effort ratio, but it’s hard to tell. My father could:

  • Grow a vegetable garden
  • Cook just about any Chinese cuisine he had ever seen or attempted, good enough to support a family
  • Practice, teach, and lecture on tai qi and qi gong
  • Sing baritone and bass voice parts (and claimed he could once sing tenor, but broke his voice shouting at people as a drill sergeant in the army)
  • Provide simultaneous translation for spoken Chinese to English and vice versa
  • Raise animals (although he wasn’t particularly fond of any of them, individually or in the aggregate)
  • Write classical Chinese poetry and calligraphy
  • Compose music (although I don’t know if anyone besides him thought it was any good)
  • Build furniture (although the only thing I ever saw him finish was a footstool, for someone who was not a member of our family)
  • Make clothes (I once saw a pair of swim trunks that he knitted, when he was in a Taiwanese prison in the 50s)
  • Butcher a chicken
  • Catch catfish and crayfish with his bare hands.
  • Make miscellaneous household objects (walking sticks, baskets, brushes, cooking implements) out of other items.
  • Make fruit liquors (although they did occasionally explode and stain the ceiling)

I only knew my father between the ages of 50 and 80 (roughly), but according to his own telling, he had at various times in his life been a star athlete, admired vocal music soloist, successful army officer, and intellectual of note. From what I could observe, there was probably some truth to most of what he believed about himself, but I also knew he had a peculiar relationship to reality and a irregular relationship with patience. He had a good faith belief that he could do anything, and he was successful enough, enough of the time that he didn’t come off as outright crazy.

One of the things that my father flat out could not do was make an apple-nut cake. My mom had an apple nut cake recipe that she made every year for her birthday. My mom followed recipes. She used the exact steps and ingredients, measured eggs by volume, and used a knife to level measuring spoons of baking powder. My father was pretty confident that anything anyone could do in a kitchen, he could do better, and if he couldn’t it wasn’t worth trying. One year he made the apple nut cake. Actually he made it twice, with different processes, or ingredients, or both. And both cakes sucked. We sat around and thought up descriptions for how bad they were (“The flavor is like the smell of a burnt vacuum cleaner belt!”). My mom told him he should have followed the recipe and he said something dismissive of recipes in general and this one in particular.

There was one recipe that I knew him to follow. The woman across the street made a

Random picture of a kirschtorte from the internet that looked a bit like Dad's - kochbar.de

Random picture of a kirschtorte from the internet that looked a bit like Dad’s – kochbar.de

Black Forest kirsch torte and he thought that cake was magic. He got the recipe from her and wrote it down, with measurements, in English, annotated in Chinese. He bought special ingredients that he didn’t use for anything else and were never in our house for any other purpose (Swan Cake Flour, bittersweet chocolate and canned cherries). He followed the recipe the same way every time, making the cake in the cake pans, layering it with whip cream, lining up the cherries one at a time, and frosting it with more whip cream, flavored with kirschwasser (also bought special). It was a beautiful and delicious cake and I asked for it for my birthday just about every year between the ages of 10 and 20.

Whatever it was about that cake made my dad not only want to follow a recipe, but set aside whatever quirks and ego he had invested in being anti-process. And the return on investment for following the steps was worth it to him.

I have not been consciously looking for my own kirsch torte, but I am well aware of my Chin-of-All-Trades, Master of None tendencies, and I know from whence they come. I have no difficulty telling the difference between the craft product I can turn out and what my sister can make (her blog is mostly food, but trust me, she can make chain mail jewelry, oil paintings, and precisely sewn, couture confections) or even what I see at most craft fairs around town.

About two months ago, I took one of my kids to get a knitting lesson from a friend of mine who is a Very Good Knitter. My town abounds with good knitters. There are yarn shops, knitting hours at coffee and wine shops, craft fairs, and a regional Fleece and Fiber festival where you can see spinning, sheep and alpaca on the hoof, and all the beautiful skeins and accessories you could imagine. My sister is a Very Good Knitter. My mother taught me how to knit (sort of), when I was about 8. I’ve tried it once or twice since and it absolutely doesn’t speak to me. But for some reason crochet does. So when I saw a crochet handbook among my friend’s many knitting tomes, I asked to borrow it.

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hour glass shaped sampler, turned into a necklet

I studied (studying is one thing I’ve done a lot of in my life, and has historically been pretty easy for me). I watched YouTube video. I re-watched YouTube video. I figured out how to do a straight row of single crochet. I learned how to make flowers. I repeatedly watched one particular woman (who I think is English, although possibly Australian) reciting and demonstrating a doily coaster. And when I made a mistake, I actually tried to re-do it. On the doilies anyway. The pieces of fabric I made turned hour-glass shaped because I can’t count stitches and turn rows consistently.

 

I shortly accumulated about six hooks, three left behind at my house by sister and three from Scrap, the craft material rummage shop. When my kid expressed an interest in knitting, I grabbed a couple of sacks of remnant yarn from the goodwill, so I had multiple weights and fibers: gross, scratchy, gaudy acrylic, natural wool that still reeked of lanolin, single balls of expensive cotton and silk blends that retail for $10.00 a piece, shiny thread and fluffy chenille.IMG_1593

I started carrying yarn and hooks with me everywhere, crocheting in meetings and on the playground at school. One of the other moms asked me about it and I explained that I had found something that I could stand to tear apart and re-do. Whatever is in me that makes me unwilling to correct my mistakes, or do boring, repetitive small pieces seems less prominent in the process. Something about the single hook and the physical mechanics of the loops works for me and I can make myself do the mental investment to get past the basics.

First, the mock up. #crochet #learningcurve

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After listening to me for a bit my friend said, “So basically you’re looking for a hobby that induces just the right amount of self hate.”

Bingo.

“Self hate” seems like a strong word, but it sounded perfect in the moment. It’s the balance between frustration and incentive that makes me want to do it right, while actually being enable to envision the steps to getting something right. Most of my life I have approached things with the attitude that I can do them, because that’s what people do. It’s what my Dad did. You see a thing (a shirt, a cake, a shoe rack, a role in a play) and you do a thing. But when it doesn’t immediately turn out well enough for your own standards and aesthetic sensibility what do you do?

In my case, it usually means acknowledging (quietly or not) that I Have Embarrassed Myself and trying something else. Because there’s always something else to try and if something doesn’t come naturally, I wasn’t meant to do it, right? The self loathing and self scrutiny kicks in, collides with the ego that tells me I can do anything and I cannot make myself do it poorly (or worse, mediocrely) over and over and over. One of the only times I’ve been able to change that pattern is aikido, where the incentive structure was much more complex (involving relationships with other people, as well as sense of self). For twenty years I was able to do repetitive basics, with the hope and expectation that I might one day get better. Improvisation by beginners is discouraged and can be acutely unrewarding. Of course with aikido there is much less in the way of concrete product than there is with fiber craft or cooking. There is rank, but promotion is infrequent and the skills themselves are somewhat intangible.

Figures out how to follow #crochet instructions that aren't a video #followinginstructions #learningcurve #anemone

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I haven’t figured out yet if crochet is more like the kirsch torte or the aikido. Or both, or neither. I can see myself struggling to deviate or imposing obstacles. I made an owl, but I got stymied with the beak because the instructions called for sewing on felt and for some reason I couldn’t bear the idea of getting out anything except a crochet needle. So I tried to crochet a beak and it looked terrible. The owl sat neglected for some days, but not as long as my last three interrupted sewing projects. I tried to join a bunch of crocheted hexagons together, using the principles I’d learned, but not any actual pattern. It worked, after a fashion, but it looked like arse. I still can’t read a written pattern at all well and I know that I can’t attempt a garment. Nor am I sure that I will ever be able to. But I have a stack of doilies of varying sizes and materials. And I haven’t run out of steam. Yet.

First I made some flowers. #crochet #beginner

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In Which I Cook from the Internet

And it works, essentially as advertised.

A friend of mine shared one of those time-lapse cooking videos on social media this week. It was called “Fajita Pizza Twists”. Here’s the original link. It originates from a site featuring a whole bunch of stuff that looks like it’s taken from the Cheesecake Factory or Applebee’s. That’s not my usual venue for culinary inspiration, but hey… The geometry of it appealed to me. It was wheel-like. And twisty. And had melty cheese. (I do like fried cheese. Or baked cheese. Or soft cheese.)

My cooking process goes something like this: if I have time to think about making something moderately unusual (meaning not pasta, burritos or stirfry), I consider what’s in the house. I consider whether my kids will actually eat it. That’s not dispositive because if it’s not burritos or pasta (or white rice with soy sauce) their preferences are highly erratic. For example, as I was explaining to my mom the other day, at any given time, 2 of the 3 of them will eat beans. One of them will be like “Beans?! Outrageous, I despise beans! You’re trying to kill me.” The next times beans are served, that one will say, “No beans for me? You hate me!” and another will be affronted. We do actually tell the kids that they’re lucky to have food and explain about food insecurity and famine. But as one might suppose, I frequently try stuff without really caring whether the kids will like it.

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The things I had in the house yesterday included: leftover breakfast sausage, leftover sauteed kale, Frozen kale (the last of the winter crop), leftover ground beef and roast peppers served with the last round of pasta. I’ll leave it to your imagination how long any of these had been sitting on the table.  I was pretty confident I had cheese in the fridge and at least part of a jar of pasta sauce. And I almost always have flour.

I made dough. This generally involves putting some sugar in hot water in the stand mixer bowl, hopefully not forgetting to add yeast before it cools completely, then adding flour and liquids in an irregular ratio at irregular intervals. Yesterday that meant wandering in from doing yard work and poking and mixing it, and adding more flour until it looked alright. Oh, and I had about a pat of butter and a cup of sweet soy milk that had curdled in the cartoon. (You think I’m joking? It’s vegan buttermilk, basically)

Along about the time I had a good lump of risen dough and reheated greens and meat, IMG_1423my kids got home. This meant the youngest was seized with an implacable mandate to help cook. That means when I omit her from any step, she screams. When I include her, she dips her sleeves in the food, picks her nose and spills things. Did I mention that I preheated the oven to 400?

When I make pizza, I usually bake the crust a bit first, but this time, because the crust was going to be super thin, I decided not to. I managed to get it rolled completely round, and put it on a silicon sheet, on top of a perforated baking pan that I inherited from my father. It is very robust. I think he used it for gardening, in the 70s. Then I followed the steps from the video: distribute ingredients in a ring, add second layer of pasta, cut wedges, and twist. The twisting actually worked! Nothing fell apart. There is a bit of tugging and expanding you have to do.

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The original, with the Fajita flavor/theme, contemplates putting sour cream and salsa in the center, so leaves a blank spot, using a glass as a placeholder. (who are are these people, that they don’t include guacamole?) I wasn’t planning to do that, but the extra dough in the center helps it hang together.

Bake at 400 for 20-25 minutes. Lots of kale, enough sausage that there’s some in every piece, mozzarella cheese. A bit of canned spaghetti sauce. And the kids ate it!

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Price and Place

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There’s a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in our part of town called Proper Eats. It has a small grocery selling bulk grains and spices, produce and natural foods. When I walk past the open door it smells like my home town did when I was growing up: yeast bread, tempeh, soy sauce and sugar. We don’t eat there all that often, but they have great nachos and tempeh reubens. The business is roughly the same age as my oldest kid and I’ve watched them grow up in parallel.

Like a lot of cafes around town, Proper Eats lets a rotating cast of local artists show work on theIMG_0335 dining room walls. Last fall I emailed the owner and asked if I could show my work and he said yes, but it was probably four or five months ago. I had a burst of activity putting what I hoped were improved edges on my work (I had noticed that people whose work is up and looking professional have finished edges on things). My sister told me to use washi tape. I did that, and I also used some gold metal pigment she gave me fifteen years ago, that has been floating around with me ever since. Then my work in progress sat on the porch for several months, as I am wont to do.

A week or so ago, I realized that February was upon me and February was when I was putting up work. So I went through and took an inventory, finished one series I had been working on, using triangles of plywood cut for one of my spouse’s projects years ago, plus recycled curtains. And I put together three pieces using a remarkable and horrible book called “A Short History of Woman” that I found at the good will of bins. The vintage, dried out paper works really well with gluey gunk. Then I had to put on price tags.

I’ve put price tags on before, when I put up the stuff in art show at my kids school, but I’m highly unscientific about it, which is okay, because I haven’t sold a piece yet. If I sell some, I’ll put more thought into the economics. There’s a lot of interesting writing and discussion about the value assigned to creative work and the sustainability of creative work, but at this point anyway, my collages are a form of self expression that I can’t yet associate, even at a conceptual level, with meaningful revenue. But I’ll ask for and take the price I put on each piece.

Then I had to hang the stuff up in the gallery, which required wire. I showed up with all the bits and pieces and put them on a table in the dining room. One of the guys working there said it reminded him of a woman that used to have a Church of Elvis down off of Burnside. “It was the same kind of stuff, you know, kitschy.” A legitimate description of my work, even if his and my understanding of the term may not be the same. The owner came buy and looked at it and said. “It’s very…collagey…”

 

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I scrambled around on the ladder for a while. Dropped at least one of my pieces and broke it, worried about the pieces pulling off the wall hurting someone, then bought a piece of vegan lavender lemon cheesecake, and sat and recovered. It was really good. Expensive, but not much different than a dessert at most restaurants around town. I came back with my youngest, after dinner, to finish putting tags and such on everything. She was very excited, “We made those! And it’s hanging on the walls!” I kind of feel that way myself.

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Patchwork ROI

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I have a complicated relationship with quilts. They’re one of the few things I can reliably and consistently sew. They are a significant part of my maternal family culture. My great grandmother, great aunts, and several of my aunts have quilted out of necessity and for fun. I’ve spent many hours pondering quilt squares: squares in family quilts, made from dress scraps and feed sacks, crazy quilts with elaborate embroidery stitches, and quilts I’ve pieced myself. I’ve embroidered flowers and lettering on quilts, I’ve sat at a quilting frame and hand quilted (which is no damn fun at all), and I’ve sewed hundreds of quilt pieces together on at least four different sewing machines.

I’ve also put dozens, perhaps even hundreds of hours into making quilts for people who almost certainly didn’t deserve it. By “deserve” I mean that their and my relationship or connection was not sufficiently close or reciprocal to warrant the investment of my time and resources in a handmade quilt, and/or they might not even appreciate it. But for whatever reason, because I got some validation at some point for my ability to make quilts, I decided to keep making them, hoping that if I invested the effort, I would get something in return.

Henry is 18 now.

Henry is 18 now.

I started in about 1998 (not counting a sampler that I began hand-sewing as kid, which is probably still in a bureau drawer some place in custody of my mother). At least, I think that’s the first time I made a quilt for a baby. I’ve only made three “adult” sized quilts and two of them were among the worst emotional ROI of any tangible thing I’ve ever done. I continued as all my family and peers began having babies. I made quilts for colleagues for office baby showers, at two separate law firms. I made quilts for friends whose baby showers I also helped to host. I made quilts for babies born in my ex-lover’s family because I couldn’t bear to let the family go, even when I had been. Between my siblings and cousins, there were babies born in my family in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 (x2), 2005, 2006 (x3), 2008 (x2) and 2010.

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Baby Shower in Cleveland (2001); Cousin’s baby in Virginia (1999)

I spent one afternoon sewing two quilts for colleagues, while I waited for a man to show up. He was in no hurry, although he was at dinner at his parents’ house a few blocks away. One of those quilts was for a colleague who had been trying with his wife for a long time to have children and were adopting a little girl from China. He and I weren’t close, but I felt pain associated with wanting a child, so I wanted to celebrate his being able to start a family. He took the quilt from me in the hall at the office, said a gruff thank you, walking away with it in his hand. I never received a note, although I suspect that his wife would be embarrassed by that lack. The other was for someone with whom I was actually quite close. She was one of two people who ever made a quilt for any of my babies, not that I expected any, since it’s not a particularly common thing to do. The other was from the wife of a man my husband worked with. I never met the maker, but the quilt exercised such a soporific effect on our youngest that we called it The Magic Blanket.

quilt for one of my nieces. At the time I did not realize would one become my niece.

quilt for one of my nieces, who at the time I did not realize was going to become my niece

Here’s the thing, I really like making quilts, whatever my other motivations may be. I like picking the fabrics and laying out the colors. I bought fabrics at the big fabric chains, in specialty fabric boutiques, at shows, and at School House Fabrics in Floyd, Virginia. I got souvenir “fat quarters” from stores in Alaska and New York. I fitted the colors together in rainbows and whenever I could, I tried to make sure that each quilt contained pieces of old fabric and patterns that that I was using for the first time. I developed particular favorites: a strange piece of flannel with embroidered horses, a piece with brightly colored planets that I think I picked up at Walmart in North Carolina, patterns of arrow poison frogs and tropical fish, and Asian-inspired motifs with metallic accents. By trial and error I figured out the best techniques for finishing and stitching. (I suck at binding. Batting is unnecessary. Surplus flannel sheets make the best backing if you can’t afford posh flannel. Yes, you do have to use an iron.)

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Top: Niece in Oregon (2005); Friend in Michigan (2002 – a baby who would not be a nephew) – Bottom: Friend in Ohio (2003); Friend in New Mexico (2002)
Child No. 1 quilt - Note creature in margin

Child No. 1 quilt – Note creature in margin

Eventually I managed to have a baby of my own. Because I’m superstitious, I didn’t make a quilt until after the baby was out of my body and had a name. I think I made it while I was home on parental leave. I believe I managed the same with my second baby. With my third baby I did not even conceive of a quilt until my baby was nearly a year old. When that child was two, I took a brief leave from work. I made a desultory start to the quilt, laying it out, and sewing a few pieces of it, but like everything in that point of my life, I found it overwhelming. It was an experimental new design that required more patience than I had. So I folded it into a rolled sheet and left it in one of my closets for over two years. When I thought of my quilts at all, it was with a feeling of resentment, blaming others for my miscalculations. I read on the news of a public official in the Midwest who was indicted for corruption. A vendor had deposited money in the account of “her twin grandsons in Cleveland”. I had once made quilts for those twin grandsons. I wondered what happened to them. Were they, or any others I had made, sitting in a drawer, or given to a Goodwill? Could I call them back?

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Ohio (2003)

When my last child was turning five, I took her with me to a fabric store because her grandparents were in town and my mother-in-law expressed an interest in getting a length of oil cloth. My kid did the chaotic and exhausting routine of a child in a store of that sort: touching everything and trying to clamber on stuff. Then she found the Minkie. Minkie™ was invented, or at least came into fashion, since my oldest kid was born. It’s this bizarrely soft fabric frequently used for baby blankets. Sometimes it has a contoured nap to give it a special nubby texture. My kid wanted some minkie. I decided the time had come to finish the quilt, and I got minkie for the backing.

Child No.2's quilt.

Child No.2’s quilt.

I hadn’t made a quilt, except for my kids’ school auction, in perhaps seven years. I unrolled it and looked at the pieces, got out my iron and my sewing machine and began to put it together. It was easy again. The burden I remember from staring at it two years before and thinking I could not possibly manage it, was gone. The pieces came together in a few afternoons. The calculus of creation — the joy I had in putting black next to purple, or deciding which flowers blended best — was balanced again. It was still hard work. The finishing, after the fun of layout, is still annoying. And I know I’ll eventually need validation for my creation again, and I will probably look for it in the wrong places. But this time I got it right.

I finished almost exactly two years after my job ended and five years after my youngest was born. The weird mint green minkie made a nice backing, along with some fancy flannel. I had a small extra length of minkie that I fashioned into a pillow. The kid demanded button eyes for the pillow. Because everyone wants their pillow to stare at them, you know, in the dark…

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Child No. 3’s finished quilt and pillow (resting on a quilt my Great-Granny Trudy made)

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Child No. 3 with pillow & quilt; oldest niece with her quilt in 2001.
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Hot Buttered Nonsense

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Three days before Christmas, my friend Allison posted the following on Facebook.

Hot Buttered Rum
1 lb butter, softened
1 lb light brown sugar
1 lb powdered sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground nutmeg (probably less if it’s fresh I’d think)
1 qt vanilla ice cream, softened12369111_10153805277679464_7937377661660870496_n
Whipped cream and cinnamon stick garnish
Light rum to taste

Combine butter, sugar, and spices; beat until light and fluffy. Add ice cream, stirring until well blended. Spoon into a 2 qt freezer container; freeze.

To serve, thaw slightly. Place 3 tablespoons mixture and 1 jigger rum in large mug; fill with boiling water (or hot apple juice!) Stir well. Top with whipped cream, and serve with cinnamon stick stirrers.

She provided the accompanying photograph of an old magazine cover, which I assume is the source of the recipe, found at her mother-in-law’s house.

In all honesty, my initial reaction unease bordering on revulsion. I’m not an ascetic by a long shot. I can be plenty self indulgent and I like sweets, but certain levels of decadence and consumption make me uneasy. Something about the quantity or volume of butter and sugar described made me anxious. But, on the other hand, I’ve always wondered what hot buttered rum actually was. In theory it sounds good. And Allison says “everybody needs some of this.”

IMG_0858So I tried it. But I just couldn’t bear to put in a quart of vanilla ice cream. Instead I put in some vanilla extract and whipping cream. And maybe a few tablespoons of marscarpone (I don’t remember). I whipped it all up in my ancient kitchen aid, froze it and gave some to my siblings for Christmas. I haven’t tried the apple juice variation, nor do I add whip cream (I don’t usually have any around), but the cinnamon stick works well. And now I know what hot buttered rum tastes like. Pretty good, actually.

Instead of rum I have also used the ubiquitous eau de vie, and some really, really ancient coffee liqueur (how ancient. My father made it, that’s how ancient). But so far my favorite variant is putting in a slice of baked lemon (when using the traditional rum additive. Coffee and lemon is not an experiment I’m hankering to tIMG_0896ry). The baked lemon is from a very nice lemon my spouse picked off a tree next to hotel in Tucson several months ago. I sliced it thin and baked it with some confectioners sugar, on low heat. It’s sticky and bitter, but the sharpness balances the butter nicely.

Also, bubble tea boba work okay, if you don’t mind some eyes staring out of your buttered rum. And the kids like it. They ask for hot buttered rum, but they don’t get the actual rum.

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