So I had this weird dream

So I had this weird dream the night before last, maybe not any weirder than my usual dreams, but this one in particular had some very strange imagery going on. I was at my parents’ house in their bathroom looking for a spare toothbrush (which happens, because I forget mine), and in walked my dad sporting his usual haircut (bald, shaven) with the addition of a single bean plant sprouting from the back of his head like an antenna. I tried to ignore it because I didn’t want to make him feel awkward, but finally I said, “Dad, you’ve got a bean plant sprouting from the back of your head.” He turned around. “Really? Where?” At that point Alvaro came in and also noticed the bean sprout, and together we managed to dislodge it, which was not gory as you might imagine. It just kind of came out.

That image has stayed with me and yesterday I tried drawing it, but my people drawing skills pretty much stopped at around the eighth grade. Then this evening I did what people do nowadays and started looking around for images to photoshop. I chose the following photo for my dad, because he’s heard from several people that he looks just like Patrick Stewart (“must be the hairline,” he says):

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And then I started looking around for bean sprout photos, such as this one:

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And then I came across this:

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And with this I felt no need to go any further. FYI the article that went along with the photo explains:

People in Beijing have found new usage for bean sprouts, a healthy vegetable packed with plenty of vitamins and proteins. Dubbed #Sproutcore, people have started wearing bean sprouts in their hair. The trend is reportedly popular amongst people of all ages, ranging from young children, men, and, according to bloggers, grandmothers too.

This still left me with the question of: what does it all mean? Until just a few minutes ago I wasn’t sure, but then I got an email + photos from my dad showing the solar panels they just got installed on their roof (front and back). He’s been very keen on this initiative for several years and is excited that it’s finally happened. My dad is not a crunchy vegan earth father who spends his nights reading permaculture manuals. He’s retired military and Republican (economically, not socially, he’ll point out, and he’s very clear that he’s hell no not voting for Trump). But be careful of your stereotypes: he is also fuel efficient, adamant about buying eggs from the farm down the road because they leave their chickens to frolic in the fields, believes in climate change, and now solar panels. So maybe the bean sprout in the dream symbolizes the sprouting of green ideas? Or is that too easy an interpretation?

Leave me alone in my tree house

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I’ve got an idea for a tree house. It’s going to take a while to complete it, but I have a while because I’ve decided to grow the tree from seed. That decision came about because I’ve built two tree houses in recent years, both of them in a bit of a deadline rush, feeling stressed to perform and produce. Therefore, I figure that if I set about to build a tree house in a tree that is at the time of this writing (August 9, 2016, early morning) only 15.4 inches high, no one for the next thirty years is going to ask me if I’m done with the tree house yet, and thus I will be free to go about the planning and building of it as leisurely as I please.

I will baptize this tree house the “Leave Me Alone Tree House.” I know already that this is not going to be a very popular name. I feel as though I should be relentlessly big on collaborating, being social, forming alliances and collectives instead of working by myself, removing my name from the authorship of a project, etc. But I do plenty of all of that already, and so in this project I am giving myself two prerogatives that I don’t generally allow in my work: I want to build this tree house all by myself, and I want you to leave me alone in it.

I have memories of needing to be left alone stretching back to the very beginning of my memories, and so we can only assume that this need accompanied me into the world the moment I was born. As a toddler I dabbled in being left alone in my everyday life – for instance, by building mini abodes of boxes and bed sheets inspired by medieval castles, like the one David Macaulay drew in his book Castle, where the outer and inner gates don’t line up and so the enemy is forced to run around inside the castle walls directly in the cross hairs of the royal archers. I always built my castles inside closets, which provided an extra layer of protection because my mother first had to guess which closet to search before getting down to the work of unearthing me from beneath my multilayered construction if she wanted to have a talk. My brother had the much simpler tactic of spontaneously falling asleep whenever he wanted to be alone, but I’ve been a fairly difficult sleeper my whole life so that never worked for me. Small-scale construction projects and hiding generally did.

Later on, in elementary school, I amused myself by drawing detailed architectural plans for my future house, and each new and progressively more outlandish plan had two common denominators with the ones that preceded it: a spiral staircase leading to a tower, and a small atelier detached from the rest of the house in which to practice my various artistic pursuits. Both of these building features say one thing: Leave me alone.

My desire to be left alone on occasion doesn’t mean I’m a misanthrope. Despite what you may be thinking right now as you read this, I am a very social person. My default attitude toward the rest of the human species is a feeling of like or love, depending on the person, with very few exceptions. I love my family and friends in particular. In fact, I might even invite you to the Leave Me Alone Tree House if you ask, although I’m wary that bending the rules this early on could lead very quickly to that private space becoming the headquarters for my friends. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, for example, ostensibly built so that he could get away from people, was actually a bit of a social hub. (As a side note, Walden was published 162 years ago today. Happy birthday Walden!) In addition to only being about two miles outside of Concord, Mass., Thoreau also had plenty of friends over on a regular basis, reportedly dozens at a time. I’ve never been able to figure that one out, because this is what the cabin (in its reconstructed version) looks like on the inside:

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It seems cozy and the winters in Concord do get cold, but it seems like that would be a bit cramped for two dozen people by anyone’s definition. I may consider building a second tree house to accommodate my social circle. But then again, everyone’s probably still going to want into the LMATH because people are like cats in that respect: they always want to get into spaces that clearly say Do Not Enter, like your cat who scratches at the bathroom door while you pee.

Part of my wish to be alone sometimes is because one of my favorite pastimes is to sit or walk quietly with nothing but my thoughts as company, and this can be difficult to do when you’re with other people. It is also seemingly a pastime that is not universally appreciated: a University of Virginia study published in 2014 in the journal Science reported that many of its subjects preferred to self-administer an electric shock rather than be left alone with their thoughts.[1] During a 15-minute period of alone time with nothing to occupy them but their minds, 12 out of 18 male subjects and 6 out of 24 female subjects opted to give themselves mild shocks with the push of a button that had been made available for that purpose. The boredom had gotten to them, and they looked for stimulation anywhere they could get it. I was surprised when I read this. Did these subjects not realize the value of boredom, the value of sitting down on a riverbank and listening for “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience” (says Walter Benjamin)?

Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out. Alas, laid on the grass, how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. … But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the myterious property of its kind — put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, sent up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.[2]

This is how my thinking will go, alone, in my tree house.

I will of course have neighbors in my tree house, and that’s fine. I don’t believe that the peace that comes from voluntary isolation demands an isolation that is physically far-removed from others. It could just be a door with a lock, like Virginia Woolf said. Or not even that: for instance, I am at this moment alone in my apartment, closed off from the world by a door with a weak lock that could easily be picked. On the other side of our apartments’ adjoining wall there is my neighbor. He’s playing FIFA World Cup for Playstation; I can hear the announcer. And yet, I feel quite isolated. Sometimes I think and write at the dining room table while my husband is noodling around with a project or talking to his sister on the phone. Sometimes I’ll even think and write in full view of a television, and I still somehow manage to feel isolated. I’m not someone who needs to have all my ducks in a row in order to think and write, so my plans for the LMATH should not be read as a complaint that I can’t get anything done with all these people around, nor as an excuse for waiting for the perfect moment to get down to thinking and writing. I can think and write just about anywhere, zone out into my private world no matter where I am. My desire to build a tree house and be left alone in it comes from a lifetime of thinking and writing in the midst of it all and occasionally looking up to see what’s going on and being surprised that I am not in fact in my story world, but rather in my real world. I like my real world quite a lot, but passing from one to the other is jarring, and sometimes annoying. In those moments I feel like a toddler asleep in her car seat who wakes up to find that she’s suddenly at grandma’s house 300 miles away; she likes grandma’s house, but is irritated at having been moved without her consent. Since I can’t inhabit my story world, the next best thing I can do is to inhabit a tree.

One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. In it, a twelve-year-old boy named Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo bolts from the family lunch table in the garden and climbs up a tree, declaring with prepubescent anger that he would never again set foot on the ground as long as he lived. He keeps this promise, living out the rest of his days hopping like a squirrel from branch to branch, navigating from one tree to the next all throughout the forests of Italy’s Ligurian Coast. He had plenty of company despite his lifestyle choice. Throughout the book, he runs with a band of child thieves, fights pirates, has love affairs, helps his ground dwelling neighbors with their farming, pens a treatise on political theory (which he never manages to get published, but not for lack of trying), and later on gets involved in local government. Calvino calls a person like this a “solitary who does not avoid people.”

Personally, I don’t care to go to Cosimo’s extreme lengths, though I admire the stubbornness and ingenuity he shows in constructing his alternative existence. For me, though, it would be enough to just have my Leave Me Alone Tree House, secluded in a shady grove of fig trees – fig, because that’s my favorite tree – and have that be my own personal space that I could retreat to as needed.

To date, the LMATH’s blueprints are mere outlines – really more of a wish list than an actual blueprint at this point. I know with certainty, however, that it will feature a rope ladder, trap door, zip line (to where? I haven’t yet decided), a bookshelf in the Cosimo style (“sheltered as best he could from the rain and nibbling mouths”[3]), and a solar powered hot plate so I can heat water for tea and coffee.

1. Fariss Samarrai, “Doing Something is Better Than Doing Nothing for Most People, Study Shows,” UVAToday, 3 July 2014, https://news.virginia.edu/content/doing-something-better-doing-nothing-most-people-study-shows.

2. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/frankfurt/storyteller.pdf.

3. “But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered his books as rather like birds and it saddened him to see them caged or still.” Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees.

A knitting project that is possibly doomed to failure + two finished projects that I like

I started a new knitting project yesterday after finishing up the last bits on a pair of gloves (photos of that and another recent project at the bottom of this post). Never mind that I still haven’t finished my retro sweater — though it is almost done. I finished knitting all the pieces and blocked them (for non-knitters, that’s when you soak and then lay out your your project to dry flat, stretched with pins so as to “iron” everything out and make it hang more nicely). I’ve sewn up the side seams. All that’s left is to sew on the sleeves, and that’s where I’m stalling because my one attempt failed miserably and I haven’t yet mustered up the courage to have another go. I will get it done before fall weather hits but for now I’m owning my procrasination by starting in on another sweater.

The yarn for it comes from my mother in law, who started knitting a sweater for my niece and got as far as completing the entire front and back but froze when she got to the sleeves. She showed it to me when we were visiting in June/July and explained that she couldn’t for the life of her remember how to do sleeves so she’d decided to abandon it. “You’re not using a pattern?” I asked. I was impressed. No, she said, just winging it. I said, you know there are loads of video tutorials on YouTube, that’s how I’ve learned most of my knitting, but she waved me off. She’s a woman who can’t be bothered with online tutorials, and I have to say that I both like that in her and am also kind of frustrated by it — because she was so close, does she realize how easy it would have been to finish her almost-finished sweater just by watching a ten minute video explanation?

Her solution to the matter was to hand off the partially finished sweater and the rest of the yarn to me. I resisted at first, both because I really wanted to try to convince her to soldier through it, and … also because I think the yarn is kind of ugly. It’s fine for a little girl, but I’m turning it into an adult-sized sweater and I already having some misgivings about that course of action. This is an overhead shot of me frogging it (non-knitters: frogging is unraveling yarn from something that’s been knit so as to reuse the yarn):

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(She had also begun a gigantic scarf with it, which is what I’m undoing here.)

So what do we think about the yarn? I of course couldn’t ask her to verify my theory that the real reason she backed off from finishing anything with it was because this yarn is too ugly to live. I don’t like straight garter stitch in general, and I especially don’t like it here because I think it only increases the early 90s vibe of the yarn, and I for one am wholeheartedly against the apparent resurgence of 90s fashion that I’ve been seeing around town. My mother said the exact same thing about the 70s when I started wearing bell bottoms and polyester and platforms in the 90s, so this is perhaps just one of life’s milestone that I must tick off, hating on a younger generation’s clothing choices, but I stand by my statement.

Anyway. I’ve started knitting this sweater and I think the yarn looks slighty better in stockinette stitch, but you decide:

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I also think the pattern I’m using is pretty horrendous, but honestly I don’t know what pattern could possibly make this yarn look like it was not initially destined for a five-year-old girl. I just went with a pattern that I estimated would use about the quantity of yarn I had on hand (truth be told, I have no idea what yardage I’m working with here, so it’s just a guess based on volume) and called for the appropriate needle size. We’ll see how this goes.

I’ve asked myself a couple of times why I’m using this yarn to make something for myself, rather than making a sweater for my niece like my mother in law had planned. My response is that I’m wary of arriving for our next visit at the end of the year with a completed sweater that could run the risk of making my mother in law feel like she’s being shown up. She and I have a very good relationship. I really enjoy her company and I think she enjoys mine. She’s not a particularly touchy feely person, and yet the last time she visited she gave me a spontaneous bear hug one day, and I took that to mean that she officially likes me. Still, I feel like completing the sweater that she abandoned is entering into trecherous waters and could be taken the wrong way. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.

I also briefly considered making a sweater for the other little girl in my life, but she currently lives in Alabama and therefore I doubt she would have much use for woolens.

The other reason that I’m making this sweater for myself is that I am in a sort of patch of me-centered making. I’m still fairly new to knitting, having only really gotten deep into it about two and a half years ago. It took me a full year or more to start making things for myself; prior to that I was all about random gifts of mittens and hats to my friends. It felt a little greedy to spend hours upon hours making something for myself — am I worth it? I suppose I’m over that now, especially since I’ve realized that I can make actual clothing, not just accessories, and that’s exciting, isn’t it, when you first realize that? I’m trying to keep my me-centeredness in check, though, because half the fun of knowing how to do this stuff is sharing it with other people.

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Other knitting of late:

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Above: The pattern is Spiralini Hat, which you can find as a free download on Ravelry.

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Above: the gloves I finished yesterday. The pattern is called Cafe au Lait Mitts, also a free Ravelry download.