I started knitting my first sweater back in March, a sweater pattern whose very name indicated that it would take three hours to make, and here we are approaching mid September and it’s still not done. I can’t blame this state of affairs on the pattern’s dishonesty; I’m a pretty slow knitter to begin with, so there’s that, but more importantly I stalled on the project when it came to sewing it together. I waited until a visit to my parents in June for the blocking and stitching, but that was really just procrastination because I already know how to block things, and I could have looked up sweater sewing tutorials online, though I did prefer the idea of asking my mom to show me. On that visit I managed to get the sides sewn up, but one attempt to attach the raglan sleeves failed miserably. Good job actually that I had decided to opt for a mom tutorial rather than YouTube, because as helpful as YouTube tutorials are, they cannot actually fix your project for you when you make a massive mistake.
Mom managed to undo the wrongs I had done, and luckily because it was just about sewing on the sleeves the mistake could be removed without permanent damage to the rest of the sweater. So she did that, and then I think we watched The Daily Show, and since then (late June) I haven’t managed to summon the courage to try again.
Live blog is closed, thanks for reading! I’ll be back soon with exciting updates on my other projects.
7:56 p.m. Finished!
6:51 p.m. I am back, plate of grapes and cheese at my side, sweater in my lap, about to continue the saga of weaving in ends + Richard’s battle with Hooli over intellectual property rights.
6:04 p.m. Alvaro asked if I wanted to accompany him to the grocery store, and I’ve decided that this would be a good idea because I’ve been at this for five hours now and need a break, plus I can pick out my snacks of preference for the home stretch.
5:45 p.m. Still weaving in ends. Now watching an episode of Silicon Valley to keep me company while I weave away.
5:14 p.m. Newsflash: weaving in ends is very tedious.
4:30 p.m. Sleeve #2 done.
Commence weaving in loose ends.
3:55 p.m. Issue resolved.
3:40 p.m. Never mind about the walk. I am starting to doubt my abilities to finish this before nightfall. Just realized in pinning the front side of the second sleeve that I misaligned the pinning on the back side so now nothing’s lining up. Not sure how I managed to do that. Shall commence unpinning now and will pull out the stitching on the back side of sleeve #2.
3:29 p.m. The second sleeve is finished down to the armpit seam. Moving a little bit slowly maybe, because it’s a beautiful day outside and I have a nice view of the mountains from my desk so I keep stopping to look out the window. I’ve decided to go for a walk after I finish seaming.
2:48 p.m. Finished the first sleeve!
2:11 p.m. I have reached the first armpit with no incident of note, and the seams line up. This calls for a lunch break.
1:35 p.m. Well, I made it up to my first pin:
I think I’ll take a break now to ponder the meaning of it all.
Last Sunday I went rock climbing for the first time. It was at an indoor climbing gym, a fact which did nothing to lower the terror level in my parents when I told them about it.
I have a tendency to get a little dizzy at certain heights, but I wouldn’t say that I have a full-on fear, and I was thus completely caught off guard by the near hysteria I felt when I turned around halfway up the wall and saw how far away the ground was, how far away Alvaro was, holding the other end of the rope that was keeping me from certain death. When I would look down to check on my footing and saw that he was looking the other way for a second to relieve the strain in his neck from looking up all the time, I would bug out and yell down to him to keep his eyes on me (please!), even though I knew logically that I was not going to fall because I was roped in with a secure knot, and he could feel the tension in the cord and knew without having to look up whether he needed to pull it tighter. Plus, there were five-year-olds climbing the same wall as me. Still, I felt like I was hanging in an empty void, and had to battle with my inner voices that told me I was going to fall. It took me the entire four-hour session to even start to trust that I was not going to fall, and if I did I would be suspended by a cord, and so therefore I could reach out for a hand hold without fear. Every time I got to the top of a route I couldn’t believe it, that the voices had been wrong. The adrenaline rush for me came from this.
I’ve been going on and on about this to whoever will listen, and all listeners have nodded a bit but at some point have teased me for taking a Sunday afternoon at a rock climbing gym as such a profound personal experience. I’m telling you, though, it was. And I give you full permission to mock me for thinking that sewing up these sleeves is starting to feel like the same sort of experience.
1:17 p.m. I’m going with the following video:
I like how she’s making a sweater with the same ugly yarn that I’m using for sweater #2.
So here we go.
1:06 p.m. This video is not at all helpful. I scanned through to the end and realized that it’s just diagramming how the pieces go together, which even to me seems pretty obvious. I need stitch instruction, not diagrams lady! Also, confirmed, I should have sewed the sleeves before the sides.
1:00 p.m. I’m only 2:57 through this video and already I’m pretty sure that I went about this the wrong way from the get go (ie, sewed up the sides first). GAHHHH!
12:49 p.m. I know that I will definitely not be watching the video tutorial whose blurb reads: “So you’ve just finished your knitted sweater — now what? Now comes the fun part: You get to do the finishing!” Or maybe that’s sarcastic, in which case I like the tutorial maker’s sense of humor, so I probably will watch the video.
In late November 2013, I decided to learn how to crochet because it was cold and blustery and getting dark at 5 p.m., and I was getting bored in the evenings. One night I thought, enough is enough, and began brainstorming ways to amuse myself that wouldn’t annoy the neighbors or my living companions. You might say, well, read a damn book, but I spend most of my days reading on screen or in print, and there comes a point in the day when your eyes start to cross and your brain reaches maximum capacity, and you just need to do something with your hands. I also wanted to find an activity that I could do around other people, so as not to be anti-social, and something that entailed learning a new skill. Crochet it was.
By spring 2014 I had already switched to knitting because knitting patterns are more abundant and because knitting takes up 1/3 of the yarn that crochet does, and I do have a craft budget after all.
Now, after nearly three years of making things with yarn, mostly knitting, I’ve found myself with loads of little odds and ends from finished projects — balls of yarn too small to make much of anything, but too big to chuck into my gardening bag to use for tomato ties. I’ve been hanging on to it all with the idea of someday making a big, crazy blanket with it. Friends, that day has arrived! And I’m back to crochet for it.
My chosen pattern is the humble granny square, which is one of the few crochet patterns I like the looks of. And my grandmother made granny squares so I’m considering this an hommage to her. (I’m realizing now that I talk a lot about the grandmas on this blog. For future reference, Kay = mom’s mom, chemist and conspiracy theorist, and Roses = dad’s mom, superstar athlete and binge reader of Harlequin romances.) Grandma Kay was a granny square making machine. She made big blankets, lap blankets, baby blankets, drink coasters, and dozens of doorstops made out of bricks covered in stitched-together granny squares that are now a thing in our family, scattered throughout the homes of her children and grandchildren.
This project isn’t exactly going to be breaking new ground in design, but that’s not the point. I’m excited about it, because in addition to serving as an excuse to procrastinate on the stitching together of two nearly finished sweaters, this blanket is a refresher course for everything I forgot how to do in crochet (pretty much everything). With seven different stitches to learn/re-learn, it’s a complete package.
I picked a starburst design that looks like the one Grandma Kay always used, the tutorial for which can be found here. Warning: this video tutorial moves extremely quickly. If you’re new or just getting back to this like me, you’ll probably have to pause and go back several times while working through your first few squares. That said, it’s a great tutorial with easy-to-understand instructions and clear shots of the stitches.
Nevertheless, despite following Miss simplydaisy of YouTube’s excellent instructions, my first square turned out like this because that’s how learning works:
My fault, my stitches were messy and I was off on the counting right from the start; as a result, when I finished the circle portion and moved on to the square, nothing lined up and I wound up having to squeeze several stitches into the same loop in order for it to finish up in a square shape. In the end, wonky as it is, it’s a quadrilateral, so close enough for jazz as they say.
Square number two came out better, still has a few little mistakes, but it’s an improvement:
The blue yarn in both squares is left over from a tobacco pouch I made for my friend Lucas, and the red is from a Steve Zissou hat that I made for Alvaro last winter. I hadn’t meant for it to be a Zissou hat, that’s just how it turned out. Alvaro loved it so I pretended it was on purpose.
In addition to the crochet re-skilling and the grandma hommage, reminiscing over scraps is the third reason why I’m into this project — it’ll be a record of all the things I’ve knitted for myself and the people I love. Sort of like the college graduation quilt my mother made me, a kaleidoscope of triangles cut from my old Little League and summer job uniforms, Beatles t-shirts, high school graduation robe, the red velvet dress I wore in the role of Mrs. Claus in my first grade Christmas play Wake Up Santa!, the rainbow bed sheets I had in elementary school, the t-shirt I got at my first ever stadium concert (Diana Ross, I was ten years old, and she called me up solo to dance with her on stage, and the only dance move I knew was the Roger Rabbit so that’s what I busted out, and Ms. Ross, bless her, was just like well, okay! and started doing the Roger Rabbit right along with me)… I love this quilt because it’s a record of my childhood, and also a symbol of intense motherly love because my mother had been secretly stashing away all of the above with the idea of one day learning how to quilt so that she could make me a t-shirt quilt when I graduated from college. Pause on that for a moment, and digest it, and consider the foresight it demanded. I think Mom’s t-shirt quilt far surpasses my granny squares in nostalgic poignancy (I cried when she gave it to me), but I’m using it as a reference for this record of the hats and scarves and gloves and little bags and socks and sweaters that I’ve squinted at, sworn at, hunched over, sweated over, and finally finished and worn proudly or offered as a present to the special people in my life.
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):
And then I started looking around for bean sprout photos, such as this one:
And then I came across this:
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?
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:
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. 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.
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”), 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.
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):
(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:
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.
* * *
Other knitting of late:
Above: The pattern is Spiralini Hat, which you can find as a free download on Ravelry.
Above: the gloves I finished yesterday. The pattern is called Cafe au Lait Mitts, also a free Ravelry download.
Ever since Alvaro’s and my trip back to my hometown in June, my friend-since-middle-school Jane (she of the jelly bean tights) and I have been exchanging emails with links to articles on “minimalism.” It’s the continuation of a conversation we had about Marie Kondo over a bottle of wine and chips and hummus on my parents’ deck one evening. That conversation started because I was talking about how each time I’m back home to visit and occasionally during our weekly Skype calls, my father brings up the record player in the basement.
The record player is a circa 1960s console that looks something like this:
and it has been sitting in my parents’ basement since 2003. I picked it up on a spontaneous road trip to Schenectady that I took with my college roommate the summer before our senior year. We got ice cream and sunburned by the lake before aimlessly walking around town. We discovered a yard sale and stopped to browse, of course, because we liked yard sales, and amid all the random household stuff spread out on the lawn there was a pile of records. Neither of us owned a record player but we decided to stock up for the day that we would. When I mentioned our lack of record player to the guy who took our crumpled dollar bills, he gestured over to the piece of furniture upon which we’d found the records, the furniture that I had thought was a chest of drawers or something, and informed us that it was a record player and that we could take it away for free. For free! We ran off to find my car and were delighted to discover that the record player was just the right size to be squeezed into the back seat. When we thanked the man and got ready to haul our treasure away, he added that there was a second record player, the same size only in white, inside the garage, and it was also free for the taking. Magin and I looked at each other, then at the man, and said, “we’ll be back.” We drove all the way back to Syracuse, left the first record player on our front porch, and then drove all the way back to Schenectady to pick up the second. I should mention also that we lived on a fourth floor walk-up with narrow stairs and no landings, but nevertheless managed to haul our new toys up to their new home.
We considered this to be the find of the century. With shaking hands we plugged in one of the record players and selected our first album. And it still worked! The speakers were shot so the sound was scratchy and muted, but we liked it that way because it sounded like the background music to a scene in a period film. It took up a quarter of the living room but we didn’t care. It was charming and retro.
When I finished college, I took the lacquered fake wood record player back to my parents’ house. Magin left the white one in Syracuse, which at the time I thought was insane. My dad, on the other hand, thought that I was the insane one. “You know you can buy those things for 30 dollars, right?” he said. That only confirmed to me that this had been a find, because this one was free. When I moved to New York City in the fall, the record player stayed in my parents’ basement, because my New York apartments were even smaller than my college apartment was. Three years later I moved to Switzerland, and later on to France, and the record player has remained in the basement because to date there has been no affordable way to move such a heavy lump of furniture overseas. Thus, for the past 13 years, I have had the same conversation on Skype with my father on a bi-monthly basis, and face to face when I’m home visiting, which goes something like this:
Him: “So… you know that record player in the basement?”
Him: “You know that you’re never going to use it again. What do you say we give it to the Salvation Army?”
I answer with vows that I will use it again, some day, and in the meantime don’t you dare throw it away the way you threw away all my childhood stuffed animals who had been my best friends from ages four to seven (to which my mother interjects that they were moldy), and then I wax poetic on that beautiful day in Schenectady and all the good memories soaked into the very molecules of the record player’s plywood frame, etc. In recent years this conversation has gotten much shorter: Dad asks when he can get rid of the record player. I say “never.”
On this last visit I was dealt a surprise ace card when Dad brought up the record player, pointing out that it’s not even wired for French outlets. I turned to Alvaro, who is an electrician. “Do you think you could rewire it?” I asked. “Of course,” he said, unwittingly stepping into a decade-long family argument. “That’s easy, it would take me all of ten minutes.” Ha! I turned to my Dad, who threw up his hands in defeat.
All of this came up in my conversation with Jane, because apparently the KonMari thing is about only keeping things that “spark joy,” and this record player, despite being located 3,000 miles away from where I actually live, certainly sparks joy for me. But then we got to talking about all the things wrong with KonMari, including the reality that many people of our generation can get away with capsule wardrobes and pared-down book collections because we secretly have all the rest of our crap stored in our parents’ basements. Jane later sent me a link to an article on Slate that claimed the anti-stuff (and pro-experience) thing was inherently sexist. I can’t say that I buy that; just because the stereotypical domain of women is the home vs the open road for men, I can’t equate calls to pare down our worldly affairs with an attack on womanhood.
Still, despite not agreeing that experiences > stuff is sexist, the idea of radical minimalism is not to my liking, and has bothered me for reasons that I’m now starting to pinpoint after reading the latest article Jane sent my way. In “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism,'” (New York Times, 26 July 2016), Kyle Chayka writes that today’s minimalism “comes with an inherent pressure to conform to its precepts. Whiteness, in a literal sense, is good. Mess, heterogeneity, is bad — the opposite impulse of artistic minimalism. It is anxiety-inducing in a manner indistinguishable from other forms of consumerism, not revolutionary at all. Do I own the right things? Have I jettisoned enough of the wrong ones?” Minimalism, he continues, “is now conflated with self-optimization,” and its proponents “present it as a logical end to lifestyle, culture and even morality: If we attain only the right things, the perfect things, and forsake all else, then we will be free from the tyranny of our desires. But time often proves aesthetic permanence, as well as moral high ground, to be illusory.” He continues:
Writing in The Atlantic in March, Arielle Bernstein described minimalism’s ban on clutter as a “privilege” that runs counter to the value ascribed to an abundance of objects by those who have suffered from a lack of them — less-empowered people like refugees or immigrants. The movement, such as it is, is led in large part by a group of men who gleefully ditch their possessions as if to disavow the advantages by which they obtained them. But it takes a lot to be minimalist: social capital, a safety net and access to the internet. The technology we call minimalist might fit in our pockets, but it depends on a vast infrastructure of grim, air-conditioned server farms and even grimmer Chinese factories.
Arielle Bernstein, in the article linked to above, furthermore points out that “in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust.” She relates her assertions to her own family history, of immigrant grandparents fleeing Poland just prior to the Holocaust, grandparents who would later go on to become great accumulators of stuff. Her story reminded me of my own grandparents, who grew up during the Great Depression and who also went on to become great accumulators of stuff. In the house where my mother grew up, there were enough canned and dry foods stocked to last their family of seven for a year should a nuclear third world war come to pass. That is not an exaggeration: four refrigerators, one old-school stand-alone freezer (at the bottom of which was undoubtedly a freezer burned collection of hamburger patties from 1959), and an entire basement room with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves stocked with home-canned produce. This was not done as a direct response to the Cold War, but rather out of pure practicality, because you never know what tomorrow might bring. When my grandparents moved to my hometown from the West Coast in 2002, my mother discovered in one of the moving boxes a single lightbulb that had been painstakingly wrapped in several layers of newspaper. When my grandmother died in 2011 and my grandfather moved into an assisted-living home, among the discoveries in cleaning out their house was an entire cabinet in the garage filled with discount chocolate bars coated in white film and a kitchen drawer containing travelers checks printed with the date “Month ____ Day ____ , 19____.” In short, my Greatest Generation grandparents did not throw anything away, ever.
Now, what do we do? Thread-bare socks? Trash. A dull dress that I only wore once and had only bought because it was on sale and I hadn’t done laundry in three weeks? Into the donation bin. Items of nostalgia? Who needs them if you have a functioning limbic system?
A few years ago I embarked on an attempt to streamline my wardrobe. It’s never really been out of control, but I decided one day that it could be better. It could be the ideal wardrobe in which everything would be worn regularly yet still remain in pristine condition, in which everything coordinated with everything else so as to minimize choices in the morning, and which would contain all of the so-called essentials. Following wardrobe purge instructions on some blog, I pulled everything in my closet, laid it out on the living room floor, and spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon regarding each item with a critical eye (hours of life spent that I can never get back). When I had separated out everything that was ill-fitting, or that I was tired of wearing all the time, or that had any tears, or tiny stains that only I knew existed, I was left with relatively very little. Per the blog that was guiding me, I should have gotten rid of everything that was less than my ideal, but then what would I do? With so little clothing left that sparked joy, a massive shopping trip would be in order. Despite the fact that I quite simply couldn’t afford to do that, the idea of purging my clothing and then turning around and buying all new stuff seemed absurd. I picked out a few items for donation, set aside some others for minor repairs, and hung the rest back up in my closet.
So, this is how I feel about my stuff: I could, for example, go the route of donating my entire book collection to the library and then go out and buy an e-reader, or else I could decide to stop surfing used book stores and buying a first edition of The Little Prince just because it’s a first edition, and perhaps maybe just read the books I already own, half of which I’ve never even cracked open. I think the second option makes more sense. If I take the hard-line on my book collection just because it takes up physical space, but then go out and buy some techy apparatus filled with minerals mined in the Congo river basin and assembled in a Chinese factory, how is that being minimal? Or should I just get rid of all my books and vow to never read again, except on the computer that I already own, which is also filled with minerals mined in the Congo river basin and assembled in a Chinese factory?
In researching the thrift propaganda that came out of the Allied countries during World War II, I’ve come across many posters like the above with its motto “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do,” which is often followed by the PS “Or do without.” That’s kind of where I am these days, and that’s what I think is missing from all the books and blog posts and manifestos for streamlining our collective crap. They skip over the fact that people who are dealing with decades of accumulation are not newborn babes with a fresh start in life. We have literal baggage to deal with, and the quest for the perfectly curated wardrobe and the spartan living room with its single e-reader posed on a reclaimed wood coffee table next to a succulent fails to take into consideration that arriving at Point B from Point A involves sending truckloads of our pre-minimalist life into landfills, where someone else has to deal with it. And we then wash our hands of our past filled with stuff and post a triumphant photo of our capsule wardrobe to Instagram.
That’s not the kind of life I want. I like my books, my grandmothers’ tea cups, my flea market typewriter that I never really use. As people who also make stuff, Alvaro and I have a side room filled with things for making clothes, furniture, lamps, and random stuff we find in the street that one day we’ll repurpose and reuse (we swear!). I prefer to hang on to my photo albums from high school and college, though I rarely look at them, because they’re part of my past. When I decide that I no longer care for a particular item of clothing, I set it aside to refashion it into something else, or maybe I just store it away out of sight, figuring (rightly, usually) that in two years I’ll rediscover why I once liked it.
In the end, I’m all for cleaning house, but I think this x-treme purge thing is just the latest incarnation of an ancient desire for purity, for detox, for re-invention into an aestheticized version of one’s self, sweeping all deritus under the rug and proclaiming ourselves clean.
We had an exciting day yesterday. Among the incidents of note was the mud wasp nest we found in one of the bookshelves in the living room:
We’ve had a bit of a wasp issue this summer and can’t really figure out the source. We even climbed up on the roof of our building to see if there was a nest above our living room window (we live on the top floor) but there was nothing, and so we haven’t been able to do anything to rectify the problem and have just had to deal with the half dozen wasps that meander into our apartment on a daily basis. Last night we were sitting at the table eating dinner, minding our own business, when Alvaro remarked that he thought there was a wasp stuck behind one of the paintings on the wall next to us. “I’ve been hearing buzzing from around there all evening,” he said, and I agreed. He got up and listened around the paintings, then moved toward the bookshelf and declared it was coming from there. “What do we do??” He stepped away (insect phobia). Just shove the books toward the back of the shelf, I said, it’ll either get smashed or fly out. He wasn’t keen to do it, so I did it myself, and out flew a wasp. It flew straight out the window and I felt quite accomplished, until Alvaro cried “Holy shit, there’s a nest!” A nest, what are you talking about, I said, and moved the horizontal books to one side to see, and yes, there was a nest. It looked like all but two larvae had already hatched so we scraped everything off into a trash bag while screaming and hopping from one foot to the other. That was the end of dinner. Life lesson learned: we need to dust/move our books around more often.
Another exciting thing was that I had a spectacularly messy bread failure yesterday. I haven’t been doing much sourdough lately because it’s been too damn hot to bake anything, and also I’ve been a bit of a lazy baker so when I’ve felt like bread I’ve been doing Irish soda bread (which is a quick bread, no yeast). The day before yesterday I suddenly felt motivated to prep the starter for baking, and then yesterday morning made the dough. I recently saw a video of a guy shaping dough no thicker than pancake batter — really — into perfect loaves, and even though I’m really bad at shaping wet dough I decided f it, I’m going all the way this time. I mixed my wet dough, gave it a few turns throughout the morning, and then let it rise for the rest of the day. The other half of my big bread plans was to cook it in this beauty:
… one of the random cookery items that had been stocked at my parents’ place since I moved overseas ten years ago. I thought this copper baking dish would work as a stand-in for a lidded cast iron pot, which bread blogs all over the internet swear to be the closest in-home approximation to a proper bread oven. I’ve looked for a cast iron pot but they don’t seem to be a thing here, so when I unearthed the above from the cobwebs in my parents’ basement during a visit last month I decided to bring it back with me and try using it for bread.
Only yesterday I didn’t get that far, because once I’d decided that the dough had fermented enough, I turned it out onto a floured counter and it immediately spread out and just kept going, a bubbling, liquidy mass of something that in no way resembled bread dough. I’m still pretty happy with my emotional response to this: instead of yelling and swearing at it, I stared down at the dough in mild disbelief (mild, because somewhere not so deep down I knew that this would happen) and laughed, and called Alvaro in to see my mess before I scraped the whole thing back into the bowl. I added more flour, kneaded it a bit, and let it rise for a few more hours before putting it in the fridge for the night.
This morning I baked it in the copper pot, but I won’t bother with a photo because it was nothing to write home about. It’s flat, with a dull colored crust, and I just had a piece of it and am not crazy about the high level of sourness. It’s fine, edible, but my copper pot is not magic after all so I won’t be trying that again. But what’s that self-helpy thing they say? Perfect is the enemy of good enough. And I’ve decided that this bread is good enough to bring along for sharing at the outdoor concert we’re going to with some friends tonight. These guys:
I’m anticipating a fair amount of leftover bread, but it’s fine, as I’ve come to accept my role as human garbage disposal of my sketchy kitchen concoctions.
It seems like for every two things I make that I’m happy with, there’s a third that doesn’t go as planned. Let’s call those learning experiences rather than failures. This goes for everything: two breads that turn out nicely, and then the third doesn’t rise in the oven and is too sour or doesn’t have enough salt or comes off the pan in pieces. The first shirt I sewed is something that I wear constantly because I like it so much. The second is soon going to be cut up and used as dish rags. It’s a bright orange tunic that I wore a couple of times when I was still aglow with an infantile sense of pride (I made this!) but I started to feel a little silly wearing it because, truthfully, it looks like hell. I wear my third shirt, documented here, all the time. My fourth started out promising, and I used the same pattern as shirt #3, but because of the fabric and probably some sort of error that I didn’t pick up on, it didn’t turn out so well. It fits fine I suppose, but if I reach my arms forward to lean my elbows on a table or hug someone, the back doesn’t stretch with me and the whole thing feels stiff, like I’m wearing a straight jacket. No big deal. Maybe that means that shirts number 4 and 5 will be masterpieces.
Another issue that I’m having when it comes to sewing and knitting, specifically, is that when I make a mistake and realize that I have to go back and undo part of it or the whole thing, I sigh and put it aside for later because in that moment of frustration I can’t stomach ripping out seams. But then what often happens is said project will languish in a basket in the corner of my workspace, or on a hanger hooked to a door, and silently judge me for abandoning it.
This dress was a case of getting ahead of myself. It was at the time only the third item of clothing I’d attempted to sew (the first two being the good first shirt and the frumpy orange tunic). I was feeling bold one day and had just come home with a big bag full of thrifted fabric, which included many yards of this soft, light blue denim. I decided to hell with it, I was going to make myself a dress. With darts, sleeves, and a zipper. It seemed like a good idea at the time and it was, at first. The bodice and the skirt came together in an afternoon, technically, meaning that I had crafted something from cloth that could count as clothing. But it was too long and too big and the neckline made me look like I was about to run off and join a convent. (Fun fact, my grandmother ran off and joined a convent in her early 20s, and when she quit/was kicked out after six months she took the bus back to Seattle. She got off at her stop and ran into the man who would be my grandfather. And that is why I’m here today.)
I shortened the hemline and lowered the neckline, though not to indecent proportions, but I haven’t been able to solve the size issue so the thing still looks like I’m lost in an empty bag of animal feed. I tried some darts but that made the waist bunch up awkwardly, so I ripped those out, and then as I wanted to move ahead I decided to get going on the sleeves. As you can see from the above photo, there is only one sleeve because my idea for a sleeve did not work. It’s got this pointy bit that sticks out at the bottom, and the armhole is too big. In the end the only two things that have actually worked out with this dress are the zipper (which was my first, and I’m still pretty proud of the job I did with it) and the hemline, which miraculously came out straight and neat.
I’m not exactly at an impasse, just not sure where to turn next. I suppose the smart thing to do would be to admit defeat: take out the zipper, cut off the bodice, use what remains to make a skirt (which I can manage), and then do my first dress with an actual pattern instead of winging it. This uninformed foray into dressmaking was partly inspired by a sewing blog that one day featured a “tutorial” on making a dress with this same fabric. I put the word tutorial in quotes there because it really wasn’t much of a tutorial. It was a cute, Pin-able graphic of cartoon dress pieces with some arrows pointing in various directions, followed by a bulleted list of vague instructions. I suppose a seasoned sewist could take a look at that tutorial and think, hey, that’s nice, I’ll make that, and s/he would have no problem doing so. Someone in my shoes needs far more hand holding, or at least clarity, but I was swayed by the pretty photos of the finished product and didn’t let my caution get the best of me. And now I’m left with this, a partially finished dress that doesn’t fit, with a sleeve predicament that remains a mystery to me.
However, I’m not going to take it apart just yet, because in other situations I’ve found that my half-finished projects eventually stop judging me and instead start giving me answers. The Roses sweater was one of these. I started that sweater in late March, finishing the front and back in a few days, and then did one of the sleeves. Either from impatience or excitement, I shortcut the instructions and the sleeve ended up being shorter than I wanted. I could have gone along with it but I didn’t want my first sweater to be something I wouldn’t wear in the end because of a bad fit. I decided to start on the second sleeve and do it properly, rather than dealing with the first sleeve first, but even though I was following the exact same YouTube tutorials that had guided me through the first sleeve, I could not figure it out. So with one failed sleeve and a second sleeve that I could not get going on no matter how hard I tried, I tucked everything into my works-in-progress basket to wait patiently until I was motivated to pick it up again.
That day finally came this week, thanks in part to a friend who came over for lunch last Saturday. I showed her the sewing and knitting that I’d been up to and when I came across those sweater pieces I thought, oh… you. And I realized it had been two months since I’d touched the thing. I decided that I would give it another shot this week. This time I started with the too-short sleeve, and was happy to find that I only had to unravel the ribbing plus a couple of inches before it in order to fix the length issue. That was done pretty quickly. Then I started in on the second sleeve. I watched all the same YouTube videos again, and again had to fumble through the first ten rows several times until I realized that the problem was that I was knitting the second sleeve more loosely than the first, which is why it kept coming out so differently. I tightened up my stitches and all was well, and I am now pleased to announce that I have a front and back and two sleeves ready to be sewn together and blocked. We’re leaving this weekend to visit my family for a couple of weeks, so I’m going to do those final steps with an in-person tutorial (my mom).
The moral of this whole story is a common one: When you’re trying to make something, shit happens, and you’ve just got to accept it and make it work if you can. Sometimes making it work turns out differently than you’d planned (which will probably be the case with the blue dress) and sometimes making it work means taking a breather for a while and getting back to it later, only to discover that things are sometimes not as difficult as they seem.
For much of my adult life, I’ve avoided clothes shopping at all costs. In the past several years most of the clothing I’ve bought has been second-hand and occasionally I’ll duck into stores that I’d rather not enter because I want some basic things that you can’t normally find in thrift shops, and without things like that I would have a hard time pulling together outfits from a wardrobe that is otherwise filled with things like fire-engine red pleated skirts and 60s floral prints. And one day last winter I found that my one pair of pants was getting tight (I’m more of a skirt and dress person, that’s why I only had one pair) so rather than hook the waistband together with a rubber band I decided to go get a larger size. Thrift shops in Geneva are not great, so rather than spend the better part of an afternoon hunting through jeans that are either too big or too small or have rhinestone butterflies embroidered on the butt, I quickly went into a fast fashion shop, grabbed a stack of pants in various colors and sizes, chose the pair I liked best, paid for it and left. I was in and out in about fifteen minutes.
That’s how my relationship with clothes shopping has been for the past few years. It’s fine, I’m able to leave the house fully clothed on a regular basis, but it has kind of sucked the joy out of something that I once liked. Picking out pretty things to wear was once fun for me. With one of my best friends, Jane, I’d spend entire afternoons playing dress up as a teenager. Jane had a fantastic wardrobe that I loved going through. I have no idea where she got most of her stuff, but at fourteen years old she had things like a hot pink foam rubber dress with a tank bodice and bubble-shaped skirt that felt like a wetsuit when I tried it on. In middle school Jane began a project called Crazy Outfit Tuesday, which consisted in coming to school every Tuesday in a Crazy Outfit, such as a billowy mustard yellow pleated skirt, tights printed with a jelly bean graphic, an Air Force t-shirt of her dad’s, and a spiral telephone cord hooked around her neck like a necklace. She looked fabulous and, oddly enough for middle school, didn’t get made fun of for it (or if she did she took it in stride) because Jane’s brand of weirdness was one that was pretty much universally appreciated by her fellow students.
Jane was the person who inspired me to start thinking about how I actually wanted to dress, because in a mundane sea of Champion sweatshirted pre-adolescents, she stood out and had fun doing it. I was never as bold as she was, probably because I cared more than I liked to admit about what other people thought of me, but her example made me want to take my clothes more seriously and develop some semblance of a personal style. That’s what I tried doing for a number of years, but then when I started learning about where and how most of my clothing was produced, I became more and more uncomfortable with the process of shopping for clothes. Finally I all but stopped, and a few years ago I adopted the balance mentioned above, of scouting thrift shops and occasionally and furtively slipping into stores that shall not be named.
I also adopted a mild snootiness in thinking that shopping — and by extension, clothes — was superficial and thus I wanted little to no part of it. Daniel Miller in his book Stuff points out the issue with this. “On the surface is found the clothing which may represent us and may reveal a truth about ourselves, but it may also be a lie,” he writes. “It is as though if we peeled off the outer layers we would finally get to the real self within.” The problem with this, he argues, is that “we are then inclined to consider people who take clothes seriously as themselves superficial.” He continues:
Prior to feminism, newspaper cartoons had few qualms in showing women as superficial merely by portraying their desire to shop for shoes or dresses. Young black males were superficial because they wanted expensive trainers that they were not supposed to be able to afford. By contrast, we student academics at places such as Cambridge were deep and profound because frankly we looked like rubbish, and clearly didn’t much care that we did.
An additional problem for Miller, as an anthropologist, is that this equation of caring about clothing = superficiality is problematic when studying cultures in which clothing is important: “Dismissing them as superficial would represent a rather disastrous start to such an exercise.” He goes on to give the example of Trinidadians’ relationship to clothing as a case in point, and because I find it so interesting I’m going to go ahead and quote at length here:
I worked much of my time in Trinidad with squatters who had neither a water supply nor electricity in the house. Yet women living in these squatters’ camps might have a dozen or twenty pairs of shoes. A common leisure activity was to hold a fashion display, on a temporary catwalk, along one of the open spaces within the squatters’ encampment. They would beg, borrow, make or steal clothes. It wasn’t just the clothes, it was also the hair, the accessories and the way they strutted their stuff; knowing how to walk sexy and look glamorous or beguiling. Movements were based on an exaggerated self-confidence and a strong eroticism, with striding, bouncy, or dance-like displays. In local parlance there should be something hot about the clothing and something hot about the performance. On evenings I could spend three hours with them, waiting as they got themselves ready to go out and party, trying on and discarding outfits until they got it right.
This association is hardly new for the region. Early accounts of slave society in the Caribbean include references to the particular devotion of slaves to clothing. A.C. Carmichael stated in 1833: ‘Generally speaking, the coloured women have an insatiable passion for showy dresses and jewels… The highest class of females dress more showily and far more expensively than European ladies.’ Freilich, carrying out enthnographic research in an impoverished village in 1957-8, reports, ‘the wife of one of the peasants said “every new function needs new clothes. I would not wear the same dress to two functions in the same district.”‘ This desire was still more forcefully expressed during the 1970s oil boom in Trinidad when both seamstresses and their clients suggested that purchasing two new outfits a week was quite common for women in work. We do not necessarily condemn a population just because they show some devotion to stuff. Anthropologists celebrate, rather than demean, the devotion of Trobriand Islanders to canoe prows or of the Nuer to cattle. But curiously a devotion to clothing, as one can see from these descriptions by outsiders, was always viewed rather more harshly, especially for those without wealth.
As evident in the description of the local catwalk, what mostly concerned Trinidadians was not fashion — that is, the collective following of a trend, but style — that is, the individual construction of an aesthetic based not just on what you wear, but on how you wear it. There used to be a term saga boys for men who combined sartorial originality with ways of walking and talking that never let up from conspicuous display. Another local term gallerying gets it just right. Trinidad style, in turn, has two components, individualism and transience. The individual has to re-combine elements in their own way. The source of these elements is unimportant. They may be copied from the soap operas or the fashion shows which appear on television, sent from relatives abroad or purchased while abroad. They may simply re-combine local products. But the various elements should work together, be appropriate to the person who carries them off well, for ideally just one particular occassion. It didn’t matter what the clothes cost or even whether the clothes worn on the catwalk belonged to them or were borrowed for the occasion. This wasn’t about accumulation, but about transience. The stylist may learn from fashion but only as the vanguard. Then they must move on. Trinidad’s best known cultural export, Carnival, enshrines this transience. Individuals may spend weeks, if not months, creating elaborate and time-consuming costumes. But these must be discarded and re-made annually. What is celebrated is the event, the moment.
(…) [I]nstead of trying to ask where such a relationship to style comes from, instead of seeing it as a problem that requires explanation, we can turn the lens back onto ourselves. Why do we think that a devotion to clothing is a problem anyway? Why do we see it as a sign of superficiality and what does the very term superficiality imply? The problem with (…) treating clothing as superficial is that we presume a certain relationship between the interior and the exterior. We possess what could be called a depth ontology. The assumption is that being –what we truly are — is located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition to the surface. A clothes shopper is shallow because a philosopher or a saint is deep. The true core to the self is relatively constant and unchanging and also unresponsive to mere circumstance. We have to look deep inside ourselves to find ourselves. But these are all metaphors. Deep inside ourselves is blood and bile, not philosophical certainty. We won’t find a soul by cutting deep into someone, though I suppose we might accidentally release it. My point is that there is simply no reason on earth why another population should see things this same way. No reason at all why they should consider our real being to be deep inside and falsity on the outside. The argument here is that Trinidadians by and large don’t.
Most Trinidadians would certainly assert humour and wit as central to their self-definition and would see it as contributing to their sense of cool and style. (…) This keeping of things on the surface also means the freedom to construct oneself and not be categorized by circumstance. In London when two middle-class people meet they tend to ask each other ‘and what do you do?’ — meaning their employment. But most Trinidadians consider this highly inappropriate. One works simply because one needs to earn money, so this is entirely the wrong source of self-definition. Asking what work someone does tells you nothing significant about them. It is the things one chooses freely to do that should define you, not the things you have to do. Freedom in self-construction seems central.
It is again at Carnival that one comes to appreciate the further implications of not seeing the essential nature or truth of a person as a property located deep within. One of the main themes of Carnival is the revelation of truth. Carnival starts at night with a festival called Jouvert derived from the French jour d’ouvert or the opening of the day. People dress as creatures of the night, such as devils, or come out covered in mud. (…) Sometimes they carry placards with scandals and accusations. Gradually they move toward the centre of town where they are revealed by the dawn. In 1988, one of the most striking costumes represented a current calypso and was called Bacchanal Woman. A huge figure wore a dress festooned with eyes. Bacchanal is the disorder that follows scandalous revelation. (…) People try constantly not to reveal the truth about themselves but Carnival brings the things of the night into the light of revelation.
The point all this makes about lies is that people are constantly trying to hide them. And where is the obvious place to hide things? Well, deep inside where other people can’t see them. (…) For Trinidadians it is entirely obvious that truth resides on the surface where other people can easily see it and attest to it, while lies are to be found in the hidden recesses deep within. A person’s real being, then, is also on the surface, and evident. The deep person, who keeps things stored close to himself or herself and out of view, is viewed as just dishonest. The point, of course, is that truth is neither intrinsically deep nor on the surface. Neither set of metaphors can be judged as right or wrong. It is simply that there is no reason why any other population should have a concept of superficiality which sees the deep inside as true and significant and the surface as false and insignificant.
(…)[W]e have this very peculiar ideal about looking natural, which tends to imply that putting on make-up and clothes is false and superficial. But why should we assume this? Why should the fact that one person has freckles tell us who they are? Or that one person is born uglier than another person, and so can portray evil or a debased character on the stage? We see the natural just like the deep as being about the truth of a person. The Trinidadian conception, by contrast, is that who we are is not at all given by the happenstance of physiognomy — our face when we wake up in the morning. Why on earth should the natural look of a person be a guide to who that person is? By contrast, a person who spends time, money, taste and attention in creating a look, where the final look is the direct result of all that activity and effort, can properly be discovered in their appearance. Because now one is judging what they have done, not what they happen to look like originally. We are judging them by their labour, not their birth. One aspires to the act of self-cultivation.
When I first read this, I think what I found so interesting about it was the affront that it was to my own idea that the surface is superficial and the true self lies inside. That is something that I have absorbed over the course of my life thus far to define for me what is reality, and it’s been backed up by personal experience. I’m someone who has one of those faces that, if I’m not smiling, looks deadly serious or angry about something. Once as a teenager I was on a bus with some friends going downtown (to do what I don’t know, loitering or looking for additions to our classic rock cassette collections) and an older man sitting across from us stared at my friend Linda and me for a while before announcing to Linda that she looked “nice” whereas I looked “mean.” I still remember that twenty years later because it hurt — I’m not a mean person (maybe sometimes, but not on purpose) and here this guy was judging me from my stony-faced exterior and deciding who I was and what I was like based on that. Women get this all the time: I know I’m not the only one who has had to endure countless observations from strangers on the street that I’m not smiling, and why don’t I smile, and encouragements to “hey, smile!” In addition to wanting to scream at them that my purpose in life is not to walk around sunnily smiling at men for whatever purpose that would serve — I’ve never quite figured that one out — I’ve also always been confused because more often than not I’m not smiling because I’m lost in thought, thinking about happy things or sad things or whatever sort of thing that just happens to not show up on my face. They can’t see what’s going on in my head because the surface manifestation doesn’t match it. The real me is inside, whereas the surface me is (apparently) going around scowling at everyone.
So based on a lifetime of empirical data I eventually arrived at the conclusion that the real me was somewhere deep inside, and my physical self was just a source of transportation to get my real self around to work and school and social events and Walter Benjamin reading groups. And clothes — in addition to being produced by sweatshop labor and fossil fuels — were just a means to avoid getting arrested for public nudity during the course of those commutes.
The problem with believing this is that it ran into head-on conflict with a reality that I was trying to deny, and which I’ve only recently stopped denying: I like clothes. I love beautiful fabric and bright colors, the feel of something that drapes perfectly and moves with me, and, yes, the sense that what I wear is somehow a projection of what exists in my head, the feeling that it’s somehow a reflection of my individual self. The latter is probably part of why I love shopping in second-hand shops. It feels like I’m on a treasure hunt looking for myself, and when I find something that seems like me I’m also excited by the idea that I’m going to be the only one in the entire world wearing it. (Because all other copies of a particular dress were burned, and this is the only one remaining? That’s what it feels like anyway.)
This is, in the end, why I’ve taken up sewing this year. I recognize that I could very well go out in the world wearing the exact same thing every day. I would continue to live and breathe, no problem. A full wardrobe is not necessary to the continuation of basic biological functions. But I don’t want to go out in the world every day wearing the exact same thing. Having a full wardrobe is not a question of survival, it’s a question of desire, and of fun. Why else do so many people have more than two outfits on rotation? And why should we limit ourselves to that if we don’t want to?
This gets me back to the issue of where fast fashion comes from, what it’s made of, and who makes it. Since I still can’t stomach forking over my money to support that industry, I decided to start filling in my wardrobe with things I make myself. This of course brings up a whole load of other issues, such as the fact that fabric is still made somewhere by someone else (though you can check the tag, which will usually state the country of origin) and also the fact that it takes an immense amount of time to make something that seems so simple. I submit to you the following example, the shirt I made this weekend. It was the first time I ever sewed something using a pattern and I’m really very happy with how it turned out:
(Note: the color coordination of the shirt with the circa 1982 linoleum in our hallway was unintentional.)
Simple, right? A basic v-neck tank, no sleeves to mess with. The trickiest part about it was that it’s cut on the bias. But even so, it took me nine and a half hours to make it. (I timed the process.) The fabric was 30-something Swiss francs, and add the cost of labor to that and you can best bet that I will not be tossing this tank top into the wash with my sweaty running clothes. This is haute couture that I sweated and cursed over for a few hours Saturday afternoon and the better part of Sunday. The very fact that I had the available time to do so is privilege in itself, not to mention the privilege of spending money on a sewing machine and untold hours learning how to use it. But in the end, money-wise, this is cheap because nowhere on Earth will you find a shirt made of Italian fabric with hand-stitched interior seams for less than your monthly rent. Odd to think about how making your own clothes is both cheaper (when compared to store items of similar quality I mean) and also a thing people can do only if they’re relatively privileged (meaning they have the time to do it).
Anyway, this is how I’ve decided to reconcile my love of clothes with my hatred of shopping for them. It’s funny, because when my mom was growing up she made a lot of her own clothes because that was the only means she had to accumulate a wardrobe. Shop-bought clothes were expensive and there wasn’t the money for it, so she went to school in her handmade kilts, mortally embarassed at her homespun-ness, and vowing from a young age that she would ensure that her future children would have the privilege of buying their clothes in shops. Now in her late 60s, she’s done a complete 180 and despises the very industry that she once wanted to buy into. But she still likes pretty things, so she’s taken to making them. About once a week, Mom emails me photos of her latest masterful knitting projects, and I email her back photos of whatever I’m knitting or sewing at the moment, and we respond to each other with mutual praise of how fantastic we look.
I took a hiatus from this blog for much of last year — no big reason, just I wasn’t really in writing mode, more in making mode, so I let things hang out here while I was busy in the garden, the kitchen, and my knitting and sewing den. However, I wanted to share a little project I did in October when I was faced with pounds and pounds of tomatoes on the vine that were still green and, given that we were well into fall, would have had no chance to turn red.
I’ve learned that there are plenty of things you can do with green tomatoes, but at first all I could think of was fried green tomatoes. We ate those for a while, but really a person can only eat so many fried green tomatoes before she starts looking around for something else to do with them. Those something elses turned out to be two canning projects that I’m really happy with, not only because they taste good, but because they were made entirely with garden produce and featured all those green tomatoes that were tired of being battered and fried.
First up was this hot sauce, which I altered slightly (see below) in ways that wouldn’t mess with its acidity (no botulism here). Making garden hot sauce was actually my big goal for the season. I had bought a bunch of habanero and cayenne pepper plants in the spring with plans to make hot sauce for my brother, who is something of a hot sauce expert. I thought that even if everything else in the garden failed that year, if I managed to get one jar of hot sauce for my brother out of it, I would consider the year a success. As it was, last year’s garden was the most productive one yet, and I got not one but five jars of hot sauce out of our hot pepper plants. This hot sauce isn’t overwhelmingly spicy and has a slight sweetness to it from the apple cider vinegar.
After the hot sauce I went searching for a way to use up the rest of the green tomatoes. I was thinking some kind of chutney or relish, and finally settled on one that was very sweet and very sour and went nicely with some bread and a sharp cheese like cheddar or gruyere. I unfortunately can’t locate the recipe (should’ve posted about it when I made it!) but there are dozens available online that are very close to what I made as far as their ingredients.
The last of the fall canning was the spiced apple sauce from Canning for a New Generation. I only got one jar out of it, using apples that had fallen from the trees in the garden, so I had to do some high school level math to figure out quantities. (An aside: I’m finding that high school math has been coming in handy these past few years — algebra for canning, geometry for sewing. I’m still waiting to find out if calculus and trigonometry are useful.) The spiced apple sauce is also a nice recipe. If you’re into canning and don’t have that book, I’d recommend it. Full of good things.
These were by far my favorite canning projects so far, not because they tasted the best (I think that would be strawberry-lemon preserves, also from Canning for a New Generation), but rather because they were nearly “free” in the sense that I paid very little money to make them aside from a couple bottles of vinegar and the canning jars. (And of course the plants and seeds back in the spring, but that’s much cheaper than buying the resultant fruit and veg.)
Medium term investment planning
Return on investment
The spices and salt I already had on had, so this was preserving for necessity, preserving to prevent waste. For other canning I’ve done, I’ve used crates of produce that I picked up at my town’s farmer’s market. I get a good price when I do that because I buy by the crate from my regular vendors, but I’m still shelling out money, so those are fun projects rather than necessities to prevent perfectly good produce from going into the compost bin. In canning this hot sauce, relish, and apple sauce, I was working with a surplus, the first time the garden presented me with such a predicament. I was being thrifty. It was a nice feeling.
The hot sauce recipe:
GREEN TOMATO HOT SAUCE
8 cups chopped green tomatoes
1 cup combined cayenne and habanero peppers
1 cup chopped onion
4 cups apple cider vinegar, 5% acidity (<– the acidity level of the vinegar is important, so be sure to check)
2 teaspoons salt
a tea ball filled with peppercorns and coriander seeds, in about a 2 to 1 ratio
2 cinnamon sticks & 3 bay leaves
For cooking and water bath canning instructions, see the original recipe here.