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Archive for January, 2013

IMG_3259Last week I began and rapidly finished a knit commission. My assignment: two tiny hats for two premature baby boys. Twins, two pounds each. Such tiny hats don’t take long, maybe a couple of hours total. An episode of Downton Abbey and a couple of podcasts will do it.  Longer projects, like the Aran sweater I made for Malcolm and which has now been handed down to his brother, require little bits of several months. The knitting takes place on car rides, while watching movies, in waiting rooms and under the table in large, boring meetings. Sometimes, a piece of knitting becomes indelibly associated with a place or an event. Once it does, the association is pressed, stitch by stitch, into the memory of the piece. I finished the Aran sweater while we were on vacation on Thompson Lake in Maine. Every time I pull that sweater out of the drawer, I am transported back to that rock-strewn glacial beach.

These tiny hats had such a clear fate. I could see them on the fist-sized heads of these two boys whose future, as far as anyone can read it, lies in a plastic walled isolette in a NICU. I thought about them as I knitted round after round. The thought gets threaded into the yarn invisibly, though to me it’s as clear as a scrap of red ribbon woven into a brown bird’s nest: a bright streamer amid the dry grass.

When the hats were done, I laid them side by side to admire them for a while before I sent them off. The image of these two tiny hats, side by side, was nagging at me all the day after. As I went to package them up, I realized why. The two rounded shapes, side by side, brought to my mind a double tombstone in a churchyard a few towns over, sacred to the memory of two sons of Edward and Mary Bass. The two boys died 5 years apart, and neither was much to either side of one year old. I think of Mary Bass, and the mother of the two tiny twins, and all my troubles evaporate. I have more than I justly deserve. My two sons are above ground, and well.IMG_2028

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Christophe circa 2000. Not so different from today. We even still have those birds.

Christophe circa 2000. Not so different from today. We even still have those birds.

For a few weeks now we’ve been getting the Sunday New York Times. When we were in college, our Sunday mornings unfolded leisurely. Then came the period of law school studies, vet school studies and before vet school was even officially over, the first kid. Then, the second kid the standard two years later. What all of this meant was that our Sunday mornings with coffee and the paper went extinct for a period of years. But now, it appears, they are back. Not in entirely the same fashion of course. Our kids, no longer omni-needy, can be sent off to play for an hour or two. Sometimes this requires us to turn a blind eye to some alarming circumstances, but this is a price worth paying. Yesterday, for instance, the boys were playing while we sat downstairs with some grown up friends. There were several dull thuds and then an excruciating and prolonged scraping sound, then a final thud. Christophe looked at me quizzically, and I said one of many things I didn’t realize I would say before I had kids, “They’re out in the crawl space. That’s why the sound is amplified.” The unheated, unlit, wood plank floored crawl space. We’ve had mice there, and flying squirrels I suspect. Perhaps, I thought to myself, the boys’ presence in there will keep the rodents at bay. And I took another sip of my coffee.

Sundays are still best spent with the paper and coffee. I have noted a significant uptick in robots in recent years, however.

Sundays are still best spent with the paper and coffee. I have noted a significant uptick in robots in recent years, however.

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IMG_3223 After a frenzy of knitting for other people, with a queue sometimes 5 items long, I finally had a chance to knit something for myself. So I knitted myself what was billed as a waistcoat, but which is, I hope, vest-like enough to qualify me for residence here in New Hampshire. I grew up within a mile of the NH border, but had never really lived the northern New England lifestyle. Now, my husband is employed in Concord, the capital, and I am gradually growing accustomed to the existence of things like “dressy fleece” and “really nice moccasins” for special occasions like meeting the Governor.
The other day, I was at a Salvation Army thrift store in Portsmouth NH and I watched a women in an extremely bright green and puffy down jacket approach a mirror. She thoughtfully gazed at herself as she held a garment up to her chest. It was an extremely bright orange and puffy down jacket. These people know what they like.
A year or so ago, we went on a weekend trip to Portland, Maine. We had reservations at a pretty nice restaurant, so I brought a cute dress, black tights, and leather boots. We were seated up in a balcony overlooking the main restaurant, and it gradually dawned on me that every other patron in the place was clad in at least one fleece item, and almost universally shod in LL Bean mocs. Wasted was my attempt at dressing right. I was clearly marked as a non-local.
I won’t live that way anymore! But neither will I wear a fleece vest unless I am hiking. No matter how fancy and dressy it is. I’m hoping that knitting my own fleece vest substitute will strike the right note of vestiness and self-reliance that is New Hampshire’s flinty foundation. I’ll let you know if it gets me invited to meet the Governor.

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Welcome squash bugs!

IMG_3125Our house is moderately infested with squash bugs*. They are the stalking, brown, elongate bugs that move into heated buildings with the first frost. I know they aren’t good; they feed on plant juices and I suppose they could harm my houseplants. But they don’t seem to be doing a lot of damage, so I permit them to stay. They are capable of flying, but generally walk, plodding stoically across the floor where I often almost step on them. It’s amazing the amount of foot force they can withstand. They seem to be all in a prolonged process of dying, and they flail on their backs, or droningly fly and then thwap into the sides of things, or people’s faces. They turn up in the sink, the bathtub and on the couch. Their weird, antennaed heads crest my book while I’m reading in bed. In one macabre incident, I reached for the handle of the bathroom faucet, not seeing the bug on its underside. A surprisingly loud and rich crack sounded, and I looked down to see a bug stomping off with only five legs, a tiny, exoskeletoned drumstick under my finger.

I’m not particularly gentle with them, and they are quite satisfying to flick away. I don’t particularly try to avoid them when vacuuming, and they give up a faint smell of carrots when they’re sucked into the bag. But I don’t strive to remove them either. As I watched one make a lunatic flight into my arm and bounce into a laundry basket, I realized why. Short days, snow, the cold. They don’t keep us inside, but outside, it’s so quiet. Nothing drones and seethes like insects, and without them, it’s a quiet world. The crickets that stowed away in the basement woodpile in the fall are long dead, and only the squash bugs are with us now. I’ll take what I can get of the movement and the noise.

*entomology note: “bug” has a very specific scientific meaning, and refers to a particular kind of insect. Squash bugs and stink bugs are both true bugs. Lady bugs are not. They are beetles. I have, at various times, had squash bugs, stink bugs and lady bugs in my house. But, as my friend Michelle rightly pointed out, most of the bugs in houses around here this time of year are Western Conifer Seed Bugs. But that just doesn’t have the right sound to it, for a blog post. So I cheated a bit.

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I live two towns over from the town where I grew up. Yesterday, I decided to do my four mile run in my hometown of Amesbury, Massachusetts, rather than my present town. When I run someplace, I usually spent time plotting my route online to make sure I get to the right number of miles. When I run in my hometown, I never need to. I know that town by heart, and I know it by foot. Adults will usually measure distances by how long it takes to drive it. Things are five minutes away or 45 minutes, but who knows how many miles? Runners do. And kids do, without knowing they know it. Since I traveled every mile of Amesbury by foot or by bike as a kid, I just know how far apart things are. I know every house, and every sidewalk, so I don’t have to think about my route. This leaves time for the mind to wander. Since I’m here in my hometown almost every day, I am inured to the kind of heart piercing nostalgia that strikes when you haven’t seen a place in years. My nostalgia is less intense, and tends to hone in on particular items.

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Morning in an ex-mill town. A stop on the nostalgia running tour.

Yesterday, I was thinking about a friend of mine who said she gets a bit irritated when people ask her “when did you know you were gay?” After all, she says, no one ever asks, “when did you know you were straight?” And as I ran by my old elementary school, and by my childhood friends’ houses, Amanda’s, Jessica’s, Aaron’s, I embarked on a memory tour of men, and I realized, I knew I was straight when I was nine. I was nine and in Mr. Cassidy’s class, and I didn’t know what a crush was, but I had one on him. I never had to endure what a lot of gay kids go through–feigning straightness, risking ostracism–but I think I kind of understand it. From 4th grade on, I was feigning interest in New Kids on the Block, and in supposedly crush-worthy middle school classmates while secretly, I pined over a parade of teachers, one for each year. Running by those friends’ houses, I thought of all their fathers. The goofy, corny-joke-telling ones; the distant or mostly absent ones; the soft voiced and kind ones. I tried to recall my friends’ mothers, and they were mostly vague, blurred figures at the fringes of my mind. Christophe jokes that he’s fortunate that our marriage has survived this far, since he’s now about at the minimum age required for a man to catch my attention.

As I rounded a corner downtown, past the Catholic Church where I was an altar server, past the library that was my second home, I was jarred out of my reverie by the flat voice of my phone announcing mile 4. Having planned my route not at all, I had measured out the miles so precisely that I slowed to a walk not ten steps from my car, set to drive part of the same route I’d just run, but no longer in the company of all my ghosts. It seems they too prefer to travel on foot.

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In biology, there is an organizational technique called cladistics. Cladistics uses a bunch of characteristics to group organisms in a “cladogram”  based on whether they possess or lack each of those characteristics. To make a cladogram, you look at your list of characteristics and your list of organisms and you say things like, “Does this thing have jaws? If yes, proceed. If not, branch off into an out group spur.” Same for “lungs? yes/no” and “fur? yes/no” and so on until you get a rough family tree like this:

mammal-cladogram-the-tree-of-life-evolutio-15

In this example, the hagfish would be considered the ultimate “out group” because it lacks ANY of the characteristics used to generate the tree. The hagfish is an eel shaped creature that can tie its sinous body in a knot and will eviscerate its dead (or not quite dead) food source by squirming inside it and slurping its way out.
The innermost “in group” in this cladogram example is the mammals. Humans are mammals, and very tribal. And therefore somewhat xenophobic. Believe me, no one wants to be the slime secreting, jawless, carcass sucking hagfish.

The hagfish.

The hagfish.

And yet, when I contemplate the cladogram of social acceptability, I find myself in the hagfish slot sometimes. I call myself a vegan since it’s a quick way to get my point across. I’m not actually a vegan since I wear animal products (leather, wool, silk) and I eat honey (produced by animals). But other than that, I don’t eat any foods made by or from animals. This can be, as you might expect, socially awkward. Sometimes people hear that I’m a vegan and visibly flinch. And since no one wants to be the hagfish, I find myself qualifying and backpedaling, and otherwise trying to hurdle a few rungs over on the cladogram of Americanism, which I think works out like this:

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So, if I don’t want to be less American than Communists, I have to say things like, “Oh, no, I’m not one of those vegans who join PETA and shame other people and self-flagellate and are totally ridiculous. I’m ok, really, I’m cool, I think it’s cool that you eat meat, really! In fact, I kill animals all the time, I just don’t eat them.” Because if I don’t want to be in the ultimate outgroup, then it’s imperative to find some even outter out group. This requires making someone else seem weird and ridiculous. My vegetarian friends do it too: “Yeah, I’m a vegetarian, but don’t worry, I eat cheese. I mean, my God, who gives up cheese?” Weirdos. Vegans.

So I’m working on doing that less. Because people can ignore my food choices, or not care about them, or judge them to be patently ridiculous if they want to, but I don’t need to try to win social acceptability by mocking anyone else. That’s pitiful, pathetic, weak behavior (and yes, I hear your jokes about how I wouldn’t be so weak if I just had a steak once in a while. Believe me, whatever your joke about vegans is, I have heard it. Because they are all. the. same.)

So, I’m trying to catch myself before I throw anybody else and her diet under the bus. After all, there’s plenty to mock about my diet. I mean, even the hagfish isn’t vegan.

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