Archive for the ‘Projects’ Category

When I was pregnant with my second son, I spent many hours alone with my first son, reading boring baby books and playing repetitive baby games, and feeling deep ambivalence about doing it all over again. I wanted two kids, but in an abstract sense; I envisioned a future with two kids in it. But the thought of raising a second baby, that often led me into deep despondency. Now, I live in the early years of that shining future I had envisioned. My two boys play together for hours at a stretch, with no intervention from me. I read to them, usually at least an hour each day, but beyond that, they play with each other and away from me, and that is a very great wonder indeed.

This semester, my teaching schedule worked out that I have no classes on Fridays. To save money, we pulled my younger son, Simon, out of preschool that day as well, so he and I are on our own a full day each week. Sometimes, I take him on little enriching experiences to the library or the art museum. Other times, he watches two and a half movies back to back while I do other things. Sometimes he plays on his own, punctuated by occasional games of Guess Who? or Candyland with me, under duress.

Caring for young children is about the most boring job I can imagine, so when I’m playing Candyland, I am often thinking of how lovely it would be to be vacuuming or folding laundry, able to think my thoughts without being interrupted by indignant shouts of, “Mom! Did you hear me? I said, ‘I got Princess Frostine!” The other day, I mentioned to someone that I often fantasize about just disappearing. Driving off without a word to anyone. “Oh,” she said, “Me too. Like to the Caribbean? Or Costa Rica? And lie on the beach and get away from the cold…” I looked at her in a mild state of confusion. The cold? The cold isn’t even on my radar of things to flee. My escape fantasies rarely take me farther than a meagerly furnished room on the outer reaches of the Cape, or a cabin in the wooded border between Maine and Canada. It’s not the cold, it’s the need I dream of leaving sometimes.

_MG_8257Coming home after work, or being home on the weekends is not unpleasant, and I have no babies anymore, so the intensity of my children’s needs is thankfully more bearable now. But there is still never a day where I am responsible only for brushing my own teeth, or finding my own socks or feeding my own self. I don’t need a warm beach, and I’m not looking to do nothing. I’m just looking to be able to choose vacuuming, or tooth-brushing, or laundry folding on my own time, and without interruption.

On our most recent Friday together, Simon was playing by himself while I stitched a hem onto some curtains I was making as a wedding present for my sister. It was, for a short span, quiet, aside from intermittent sounds he was making as his action figures crashed into things or were dissolved in a river of lava. For a moment, I was choosing to sew. Then Simon came in and asked me to play something with him. Feeling put upon, I sighed and told him to wait. “Just let me do this line.” I said to him. “Of stitches,” I said in my head. I’m doing a line of stitches. And suddenly I was feeling much better. Some days he may watch too much tv or play computer games too long before I remember to stop him. But sometimes I take him to the museum, and we read a long time everyday, and I feed him good food. And above all, I’m not snorting coke.

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When last we saw Bad Blue, the roadside chair, he was lying on my basement floor flayed and partially eviscerated. Actually, that’s when you last saw Bad Blue. I have been looking at Bad Blue, lying there reproachfully, almost every day for the past year when I go to do laundry or run on the treadmill.

After months of inaction, I was having a bad day generally and decided that pulling staples from a dusty old chair was just the thing. The Bad Blue project began afresh.

The pace of work accelerated, and a couple weeks ago it was time to visit my favorite ramshackle fabric store on their $6/yard discount day. Forty two dollars later, I had Bad Blue’s new skin:



I have this fantasy where I take Bad Blue back to the house where I found him, and I walk with him up the driveway and up to the house. Bad Blue is nervous, but we knock on the door, and when the people open it, they don’t recognize their long-lost castoff at first, but then the light of recognition comes into their eyes, and they grip Bad Blue by his wings and hold him out to get a good look and make exclamations of disbelief. It’s just like Pygmalion. And then Bad Blue and I walk back down to the car while his old owners stand in the doorway smiling wistfully.

But then, what if they weren’t pleased? What if Bad Blue walked his stiff-legged walk up to their door and their guilt and shame at throwing him over were so great that they slammed the door in his face? I can’t subject him to that. So instead, I’m going to put on the finishing touches, and sell him. But I’ll slow down a bit when I drive by that house on the way to the shop.

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I shop almost exclusively at thrift stores. Aside from running clothes, I cannot remember the last time I bought an item of clothing new. Likewise for home decor. All from thrift stores, yard sales and second hand shops. When one frequents thrift stores, one notes certain immutable laws like “the shoes will all be trashed, but a lot of the clothes still have tags on them or are barely worn.” After a while musing about this, I figured out why. It’s partly that shoes are a bit more basic, less faddish than clothes can be. But it’s mostly that, no matter how much your weight wildly vacillates, your shoes will probably still fit, with the notable exception of pre- versus post-pregnancy. I became a half size larger and the bones of my toes spread into froggish paddles, a state from which they will never recover. More delights of motherhood.

Other than that, your shoes will usually stay with you for years, until they have holes in them and are water-stained and completely dated, at which point they finally appear at the thrift store. Most other things at thrift stores tend to be less threadbare. The clothes, especially, speak of other, imagined lives. The dress bought in the hopes of fitting into it after losing a few pounds and finally relinquished in a bout of despair. The slouchy, silky tunic bought in a misguided vision of oneself, cocktail in hand, tossing one’s graceful head back on its willowy neck in elegant mirth, only to realize, months or years later that one is 5’1″ and will never be either willowy or particularly elegant. And that the silky tunic actually makes one look like an adolescent boy in a fancy feed sack.

Can you imagine my thrill at finding this for two dollars?!

Can you imagine my thrill at finding this for two dollars?!

One of my favorite sections of thrift stores are the dusty and mostly ignored craft bins. Yarn and needles bought in an optimistic moment, embroidery kits one quarter finished, quilts partially pieced: these discarded projects used to depress me. They made me think of people dejectedly abandoning their dreams of being self-sufficient, crafty folk who delight in handmade goods and a world where people still knew how to do things. But as I have scooped up half-finished blankets, and crewelwork on linen, and this time, a completely untouched kit for making a pillow in the shape of a pheasant (!), I have come to see it differently. All these projects in these bins, they now seem to me evidence of liberation.

The people who donated these items critically evaluated them, there at the back of the closet and decided, “I will never finish this. Perhaps someone else will.” Whether they would like to finish it, but have decided they don’t wish to spend the time, or whether they’ve realized they don’t actually enjoy crewelwork on linen, or making pheasant pillows, these people have freed themselves from the reproachful presence at the back of the closet. I think most of these people are women, and anytime a woman can realistically assess her days and decide what’s worth doing and what isn’t, I applaud her. I know a lot of women who feel a great pressure to be the right kind of woman or the right kind of mom; one who cooks her own farm-to-table meals, and crochets her kids little animals just for fun, and sews whimsical clothes for them.  I get a lot of sighs and raised eyebrows when fellow moms learn that, yes, I did make that cable-knit sweater my son is wearing. But I find making things like that fun. I do not, however, find cooking fun. Which is unfortunate, because we do have to eat. But still, I try to limit my cooking to under 30 minutes three times a week. I hate it. If I could leave cooking in the unfinished project bin at the thrift store, I would.

So let us all be gentle with each other. For though I may have made that pheasant pillow myself, tonight we will probably be eating frozen waffles and a can of refried beans. Every woman according to her ability, and her wish.

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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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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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One of many hand-knit items for sale in our shop. Don’t worry, it’s only a little pot! HA!

My mother and I have started a tiny business. Sarobi Interiors, which will one day be a thriving, full service home decorating firm, is, for now, a booth of goods in a corner of the Mill 77 Trading Company in Amesbury, MA.

Why did we decide to embark on this when my mother is a full time R.N./Nursing Supervisor and I have two jobs already plus two kids under the age of six? It’s been a dream of ours for some time now. Both being design enthusiasts and avid amateur decorators, we elected to take the plunge and hopefully parlay our booth into something more.

But secretly, I was driven by a deeper purpose: the fear that I was about to be evicted from the United States for being a hippe-pinko-socialist. “Love it or leave it!” an angry mob would cry as they wrapped me in a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and dumped me into Boston Harbor. And who could blame them? A vegan atheist who made her own Obama banner and drives a Prius bearing the bumper sticker “Got science?” Man, I was one composting toilet away from a one way ticket to Sweden. But no more! Now, I can be venerated as the heart and soul of this nation, a driver of the economy, an All-American striver for life liberty and money.

Our business is a small one to be sure. So exceedingly small that it can fit in a 15′ x 5′ half room we rent from someone else. But we’ve got pluck. And dedication. And a naysaying in-house lawyer/husband/son-in-law who sternly advises things like LLC status and a close read of the Massachusetts income tax statutes. Killjoy.

So if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and check the place out. Even better, buy something! It’s salvaged, repurposed, and retrofitted goods, so we’re green friendly (hippie-pinko-socialist tendencies die hard), but capitalist all the way! So support our small business this holiday season, and wish us luck, dear readers! To find our booth, take a right upon entering Mill 77 on Route 110 in Amesbury, and look for the last room on the right. Our tags bear the dealer code DBPEA. Let us know what you think if you do stop by!

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Last summer, Malcolm picked up a very beat up blue Sesame Street plastic lunchbox circa 1987 with someone else’s name on it at a thrift store. He used it as it was all year long, and now, with kindergarten looming in the fall, it seemed time to give this thing a makeover. We’ve used the insulated types of lunchbox, but the lining always peels away and you can never really get them to stop smelling like rotten broccoli and cheese. But these old school, simple, uninsulated lunch boxes are easily cleaned and clearly very durable, so we were willing to invest a little time in bringing this one back.

Sesame Street appears to be suffering some urban blight on this lunchbox.

Sometime in 2009, I tore a few pages out of one of my Audubon magazines and saved them for an unknown future project. The images were of dozens and dozens of different beetle species arrayed against a white background. (The photographer, Christopher Marley, does amazing things with beetles, and you should check out his article and photos.) I dug these beetle pics out of my desk, and set to work on the lunchbox.

I intended this post to be more of a how-to, and less of a gloaty, show-offy before and after, but I forgot to take pictures in the middle. Still, it’s a very simple project that anyone can do. First, you peel off whatever’s left of the old picture on the lunchbox, and clean the surface with soap and water. Let it dry. Then, cut out a picture, or make a whole collage if you like, to fit in the rectangular depression on the front of the lunchbox. I used Mod Podge to affix the magazine pages. The key is to smooth out the pictures so that no bubbles or folds remain. If you use thick paper, you can use a ruler to smooth the surface. If you’re using something thin, like magazine pages, be a bit more delicate in your handling. I used my fingers to smooth out the pictures.

Once everything is stuck in place, let it dry completely. I added a “The Beetles” logo I printed off the interwebs. If you do this, make sure the ink is totally dry before you glue it in place or you will get a smeary mess. After it’s all dried, you can use the rectangular depression to your advantage: I poured a whole bunch of Mod Podge right on top of the picture and just smeared it around like cake frosting (or what I imagine cake frosting would be like if I had EVER made a cake.) Then, let it dry. It starts out alarmingly opaque, and will take several hours to fully dry to a translucent finish (at least it did in the swampy humidity here in New England that makes me want to die.)

Then, voila! A brand new, kinda hipster, kinda cute, revamped 80s lunchbox for your 2000s kid! Or for you. I confess to coveting this thing. The Mod Podge is a pretty durable finish too, so you can wash the lunchbox thoroughly. I wouldn’t recommend the dishwasher, but that’s a small price to pay for a one of a kind item like this one.

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Reality of a boys’ room.

Cleaned up reality, after strenuous exertions. Duration: 3 minutes.

One of my very most favorite design blogs is Style Carrot, written by Boston-based Marni Katz. Her curatorial eye and design sense make her posts invariably interesting. I especially like her oddly specific montages: 40 painted built-in bookshelves; 54 living rooms with gray sofas; 64 rooms with black and white art. One of the latest was 27 little boys’ bedrooms. As a design enthusiast and mother of little boys, how could I be but drawn in?

As with all good design, the best kids’ bedrooms should be aesthetically appealing, functional, and comfortable. The trouble is, to put it in business degree speak, who are the stakeholders? Most of the time, one designs for oneself or for other adults. Even if an adult client can’t figure out how to make a room look good, he or she can usually appreciate a beautiful room. Little boys cannot. Little boys have no taste whatsoever. They love gaudy plastic toys, and promotional pamphlet maps of Water Country, and polyester Iron Man bedding sets. They do not love muted old-timey camp blankets, or wooden toys with a light wash of vegetable dyes, or tidiness.

It’s not that, when designing a kid’s room, one must throw out all hope of a good aesthetic result, but expectations must be adjusted. We can design the shell, the scaffold, but they will people it. We can wallpaper, but they will tack up Marvel comics posters. We can layer a worn kilim over a jute rug, but they will leave Star Wars underwear and battery powered Cars 2 merchandise all over it and never pick it up.

This one’s pretty believable. Though very tidy.

The 27 boys’ rooms in Style Carrot’s post run the gamut from excellent to absurdly, laughably unrealistic. Some of the most unrealistic can still be viewed as aspirational, or as simple inspiration for something with real-world applicability. Something like watching a haute couture fashion show and then hitting T.J. Maxx. We all need inspiration. But let the boys have some too. It can be tough; I am a neat freak, organization fiend, and design geek. There are rooms in my home that I am doggedly determined will remain kid free. My bedroom and the living room, for instance. Then there are rooms given wholly over to the boys. A dark corner of the basement and their jointly held bedroom, for instance. The rest of the house is a constantly shifting battlefield or DMZ, depending on the day. They make incursions with lego men, catapults, and giant green Hulk hands. I fight back with mossy terraria, stacks of field guides and jars of ferns.

Unreality. While pleasing to the adult eye, this is a cold, gray cell to an actual little boy.

I don’t like to wallow in nostalgia, but I do recognize how short this span of their boyhood is. So I give them their room, and I let them revel in it. And secretly, as I pick my way over the Power Rangers, robots and talking puzzles in the dark to turn off their spinning Superman nightlight, I revel in it too.

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The other day I finally borrowed a big ladder from my dad to finish painting the trim on the high sections of the house (the lower regions have been done for over a year.) I managed to complete one side of the house with the big ladder, though it was not without peril. A Cape is a very adorable style of house, I think, until one contemplates painting all those dormers and odd angles. To paint the trim on the dormer, I had two options: crouch on a fairly terrifying ledge of pitched roof about a foot and a half wide, or brace my legs against the top rung of the ladder and lean out at an ill-advised angle and flail at the trim with a dripping brush. Five times I climbed the ladder and stood at the top, horrified by both prospects. The ladder clattering with my shaking legs, I five times climbed back down deciding that the trim really didn’t need to be “Spice Delight” after all. Finally, I elected to adopt the harrowing, lean-over-the-ladder technique, and was stabbing at a corner just out of reach… when the wasps came. As I stood frozen atop the ladder, and the wasps brushed against my arms and face on their way to scout nest sites, the smell of baking came wafting out of a downstairs window and up to my nose. Christophe was making bread.

Finally finished this side of the house. The harrowing bit is at the top right.

Although I feared for my life up there, and was suffering adrenal burnout from the prolonged stress of ladder top clinging, I was awash in gratitude to be painting a treacherous dormer while under siege by wasps instead of baking. Christophe had already made hummus and fried chick peas, and would go on to make a strawberry banana cake while I was out painting simply because the boys asked. When the boys ask me to bake, I usually point at something behind them and say, “Look! A Power Ranger!” and then run away. It interests me not at all, just like shopping for clothes or going to Target, or having a mani-pedi, or watching romantic comedies, or reading 50 Shades of Gray. I would much rather be almost dying while painting the house, or doing a bit of light plumbing, or hanging drywall.

My whole adult life, people have assumed I’m gay. Usually until they meet Christophe, but sometimes, it persists beyond that into a belief that I am just closeted and trying to pass for straight. This does not bother me, but it does puzzle me. Yes, I have very short hair, wear makeup not ever, care very little about what I’m wearing, and own fewer pairs of shoes than my husband. But how could that be it? None of that has any bearing on to whom I’m attracted, but merely on how I choose to present myself. I’ve been a tomboy nearly since birth. Any photos of me in a dress show me defeated, with red-rimmed eyes and a heavy pout. I only played with He-Man and Skeletor and Match-Box cars. If you meet a girl like that today, her mom is probably blogging about how her daughter will end up transgendered one day. And sure, it could be true, but it’s probably not. For a while, it looked like we were making long strides toward real gender equality, towards a day when the repair men would stop saying to me, “Now, when your husband comes home, you have him check this, ok?” Yeah, ok dude. But I own the tools in this house and my husband will be no help, I assure you. He’s the computer man. Not the home improvement man.

1981: When you were a kid first and a girl later. If you even thought about it.

I am grateful not to live in the 1950s, where I would have been a hopeless misfit. And I’m grateful that I can go paint while Christophe bakes the bread and the worst thing anyone says about it is “that’s weird.” But I wonder what would have happened to a girl like me if I’d had to grow up today. Inundated by pink Barbie makeup kits by age 3, helpless pretty pretty princess stories while still in utero, and impractical shoes ill equipped for tree climbing and swamp stomping before I could walk. I have no daughters, and sometimes I’m grateful for that–not having to try to swim against the pink tide. But I’ve got to raise my boys in this same world, and I’m hoping that when they see mom on a ladder and dad in the kitchen, they’ll remember it when someone tries to tell them girls are just for show.

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The neutral toned life

I like to think that the things I like are original! Unique! Things I thought of myself! Like most people, I do not enjoy the feeling of being a late adopter of a trend. But, let us face facts. I wear the same black plastic eyeglass frames as every other mildly hipster 30-something white woman. Additionally, I drive a Prius. And I enjoy running long distances. When I read the lists on Stuff White People Like, I think to myself, “My GOD. How does he KNOW me?” Still, I like to think I’m maybe midway along the continuum between insufferable yuppie douchebag and crazy hermit living off the grid.

There is no denying, however, that I like a lot of things that other middle-class liberal east coast ladies like. In particular, neutral toned homespun goods. The other day, I was perusing one of my very favorite blogs, Design*Sponge, and I happened upon this rhapsody of grays and browns in the nursery of a Tribeca baby named Gabriel. Simultaneously drawn to the aesthetic pleasure of this photo, and scoffing at its stagy preciousness, I began to contemplate the origins of my ambivalence.

It happened that the very next day, Christophe had me listen to a Open Yale courses history lecture on the Northern economy and the Civil War. The image of the Yankee Pedlar, going door to door selling northern ladies finished cloth made from southern cotton stuck with me. Those northern ladies were thrilled not to have to make their own cloth anymore! It occurred to me that all the current fascination with suburban homesteading, and making sweaters for your kids, and canning your own tomatoes is something of a faux nostalgia for the pre-Industrial Revolution era. I have many friends for whom even knitting is not enough–they want to shear the sheep themselves, card the wool, spin the yarn and dye it too, just as our colonial ancestors did in 1738 before the advent of cheap, factory made cloth. Here’s the difference though: we can do all that, and make one, precious, lovely thing, and then we can swing by Target and get the kids 5 shirts and 3 pairs of pants and a Starbucks on the way out. In reality, we don’t want to have to make every stitch of our own clothing, because it would grow tedious and we would have only one pair of pants and two shirts each. And the ethereal muslin dresses with raw hems that make us think of a “simpler time” are really maximally charming when we have a closet of baby sized down vests and tweed coats to pair it with. The closet of Baby Gabriel in Tribeca seems to nag at me because there is so much in it. Five neutral toned coats? Fifteen earth toned sweater suits? and so on.

I love to make neutral toned handknits

even though my kids actually wear things like this.

I have nothing against handmade, neutral toned sweaters for babies. I started this post partly because I just finished a handmade, earth toned baby sweater myself. But let us be honest with ourselves. We like growing swiss chard and tomatoes in the backyard because there’s no anxiety in it. If all the plants die, it’ll be a bummer, but we’ll just go buy some at the store. And if it takes me several weeks to make a baby sweater (and it does), that’s fine because my kids get their actual clothes from thrift stores. Let’s face the fact that a lot of the stuff white people like is stuff we can dabble in as a mere hobby, because the stakes are low. I suspect that migrant fruit pickers do not spend their fall weekends at an orchard picking their own apples. We like doing that because we don’t have to do it to survive. It’s a novelty. So, by all means, plant a garden, make a sweater (or buy the one I made on etsy), and learn to sew your own throw pillows. I genuinely love doing all those things. But I try to remember what the desire to do them means; I am so blessed with such incredible wealth that I can make a hobby of a prior generation’s subsistence.

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