Sunday, November 25, 2007

Knit On, Gail

It's the end of Thanksgiving week, and, in the blogging community, it has become customary, among those of us who post our thoughts for the world to read, to make a public account of the things we're glad for.




I am glad to have known Gail McHugh. And I am so deeply sorry that I never got to meet her in person. It's amazing and wonderful that through this astounding thing called the Internet, people can make friends in far-flung places, friendships as solid as the face-to-face ones we value at home. Gail was one of those friendships.

Gail McHugh was the internet moderator for KnitU, a service of Knitter's Magazine to provide an online community for knitters everywhere. It was her job each day to preview massive amounts of e-mail, perform magic with HTML, and manage a huge and highly interactive list of enthusiastic cross-commenters on KnitU. Each day, she turned a friendly swarm of e-mails into a list which thousands of KnitU subscribers all over the world read along with their morning coffee or tea. The daily posts on every conceivable knitting topic -- from the latest technique debate to the most pressing charitable need -- were interspersed with Gail's wise and witty editorial commentary.

This was a job she performed with diligence and good humor year after year, and she did it exceptionally well.

Gail was a master knitter, but she did not knit socks, particularly yellow ones. When she was a very small child, an adult handed her double-pointed needles and fine yellow yarn, and tried to teach her to knit and make socks in the same go. For reasons that will never be understood by anyone except Gail herself, the knitting part firmly took hold, but fumbling with sock needles at an early age scarred her for life, so she forever avoided making -- even wearing -- socks. In fact, she avoided socks at all costs.

She did not avoid the Red Sox, however, and was a loyal and enthusiastic fan.

I'm so glad she got to see Boston win the World Series this year.

When I stopped hearing from Gail off-list around that time, I figured she was caught up with managing KnitU and keeping up with the World Series. I had no idea her health was crashing. She was burdened with chronic ailments, and her doctors had been juggling her medications, but there was no indication of terminal illness, so her death took everyone quite by surprise.

I also suspected that she was busy with her current charitable cause -- rounding up donations of knitted items for Covenant House in New Orleans, a well-established community service providing shelter, care and couseling for homeless teens and kids in New Orleans. Gail was one of the first people to step up to the plate after Katrina to realize that, even though no one was freezing to death in the immediate aftermath of the storm, that there would be a need for warm garments during the damp, chilly and windy winter months yet to come.

Between Gail, Ray Whiting of Knitivity, Joan Hamer of JoanKnits, and a few other knitters, a hat drive began in 2005 to "bundle up New Orleans." Gail's prescience was right on the mark -- New Orleans and Gulf Coast aid services were overwhelmed with donations of clothing for warm weather, but as winter approached, there were shortages of warm things. Not only were homeless people in need, but so were thousands of citizens camping out in damaged homes or living in drafty FEMA trailers. Gail's was an enthusiastic voice reminding people that even though New Orleans is in the South, it's not Hawaii, and while 36 degrees and rain might be welcome in Michigan ... to someone in New Orleans, that's cold, baby, and we don't wear shorts in that kind of weather, we bundle up in warm things. Pass the woolies, please!

Gail continued to remind people of the ongoing need in 2006 and into 2007. Even in her last few weeks on this little blue planet, her thoughts were focused on that ongoing need, and she raised a challenge to the KnitU community once again to round up hats and scarves for New Orleans.

Elizabeth Zimmermann used to say, "Knit on, through all crises." So that's what I'm going to do. I'll miss Gail terribly, but I know she's somewhere out there, sitting next to Elizabeth, casting on.

If you'd like to make a hat or other garment to warm a homeless teen in Gail's memory, there's still time to get it there before the holidays. Send a hat, scarf or other warm garment made of superwash wool, a machine washable wool blend, or acrylic yarn to:

Covenant House -- 611 North Rampart Street -- New Orleans, LA -- 70112 -- USA

Remember that teens come in all shapes and sizes, in both sexes. And also don't forget that, stunningly, some of these teens are homeless with a baby or toddler in tow. Please include a note to Covenant House that the donation is in memory of Gail McHugh. And if you make a comment here stating what you sent, I'll add your donation to the totals. We're hoping to round up one thousand items by the holidays.

So long, Gail. I am proud to have known you, and I'll miss you.





And speaking of New Orleans, get yourself over to Knitivity and spend some money.

Look: pretty wool. Ray dyes this himself:





The above, and the other yarn photos in this post, are Ray's yarn. There's lots more. Go and see.

I started to be all coy about writing this part. I was going to post pictures of my works-in-progress using Knitivity yarn, and I was going to coo and purr about how lovely and soft it is, and how you should go check it out, but my Capricorn nature won out, so I'll cut straight to the point:


Not only is Ray Whiting the key person in starting up the drive for hats for New Orleans, he is a fantastic yarn-dyeing entrepreneur as well, and at the moment he can use some business at his website. Ray puts out some amazing dyework, and he is trying to make a success of his business on a shoestring. After riding out Hurricane Katrina in his New Orleans home, he relocated to Houston and is trying to sustain his yarn-dyeing business on his own. Like any small business, the first couple of years are hard.

And, like all retailers, Ray counts on the holidays to make ends meet, and holiday-season sales truly are a make-it-or-break-it deal for a one-person operation.

Ray provides stunning dyework on excellent base yarns that wash and wear beautifully, he offers generous yardage for the price, he provides outstanding customer service, and he's a really nice guy who is community-oriented and who deserves your yarn money.

Also? You can order your yarn in hanks or pre-wound. You can even order custom dye jobs.. Ray has an impressive selection of colors and he is also selling handknit Christmas stockings and his shop model hats at the moment.

Bonus: if you buy yarn from Knitivity to make your hat for Covenant House, you'll double your Karma points: warming up a kid in need and helping a deserving artist succeed in his business.

Enough reasons to go have a look at his site? Good. This is "Glacier Lake," my personal favorite Knitivity colorway:

I'm also thankful that I got to see my family and my husband's over the holiday. I'm proud for the bravery with which no fewer than three of my own relatives are facing cancer treatment right now, and I'm happy for the way the rest of my family has pulled together to support them.

I'm glad for the good cheer provided by my husband's family. Let's say that it's after dinner on Thanksgiving, and you have about fourteen people crammed into the kitchen drinking wine and coffee and helping put away the dishes and the leftovers, and they all get into a good-natured debate about which is the best kind of knife and how to sharpen it, and then, to underscore his point, your nephew-in-law goes out to his car to fetch his knife roll (he's a chef), and he unfurls it on the kitchen table, and there are enough knives in there to make a Stephen Segal movie ... and no one thinks this is the least bit odd? Chances are, you are among my kin.

We cook.

I'm glad for the readers I have, and for the yarn friends I have made on the Internet. I know this sounds all mushy and smarmy, but I still think it's magical that I have a box with a screen that lights up and connects me to people all over the world -- good, solid, real people with whom I can connect at the touch of a button.

Thanks to all of you for reading my offerings, and thank you for your comments. Wherever you were this past week -- sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S., knitting in Australia, or spinning yarn in Ireland, I hope Thanksgiving week was good to you and yours.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Whupped




I am whupped.




I've just done two things I absolutely hate doing:



1. Going to the mall


2. Buying bras




So, in a little while I need to spin this...










...to take the edge off.

But in the meantime I will tell you about my Saturday morning.



I really hate the mall, but buying a good bra presents a dilemma. It's one thing to pop yourself into a racer-back spandex sports bra from Target before you throw on a tank top or a T-shirt, but when you need a proper bra, so you look pulled-together with a nice sweater or the kind of clothes you wear to a meeting, then you need to go to a well-established department store where there is a Professional Bra Lady available.

And the only place locally where there is a venerable department store is the mall.

(Did I say I hate the mall?)

I also hate buying bras in self-serve places. It's embarrassing, standing around in public holding your future underwear in front of teenage boys and Gawd knows who. And while self-serve underwear stores do have sales clerks, they tend not to have the kind of sales clerks who have decades of experience with the vagaries of the adult female body. Self-serve stores have nice, polite, pretty young sale clerks whose main job is to run the cash register, but who will also show you the bras they think are cute, when what you really want is a bra constructed in such a manner that maybe levee engineers should seriously study the design.

And these nice, polite, pretty young sales clerks have yet to realize that there are three distinct types of bras: sports bras in which to run errands and go to the gym, bras intended to display the body when your clothes are off, and bras intended to make you look good when your clothes are on.

It's not their fault, really. They grew up in the post-Madonna, Britney Spears era, in a world where a bra is also a shirt and where a necktie can be a skirt, and maybe a shoe is a hat.

They are confused.

And that is exactly why I needed to drag myself to the Real Department Store. Because I am forty-six, and my clothes are on almost all the time.



It's not that I mind being middle aged. In fact, I rather like it. Except for a few things, like 20 pounds I don't really need and screwed-up knees, I genuinely love the fact that I can be exactly who I am and not try to be anything but my 100% genuine self, and not berate myself when I fail to be glamorous, hip, ridiculously successful, or otherwise perfect in some utterly unattainable, societally imposed way. And if I do lose 20 pounds and exercise more vigorously, it will be because I want me to feel better and have stronger knees, not because I think life will be magical or I will be Truly Happy or reach some zenith of perfection if only I was in a size 8 again instead of a size 12.

It's blasphemous in America -- it may even be a felony -- to say that you like being middle aged, but I do. I can say exactly and precisely what I think without worrying about what people will think about what I think. This does not mean that I am rude or crass -- okay, maybe on the rarest occasion, if it is richly deserved -- but after all, I am Southern, and the second most important social skill a Southern woman can have is to skin somebody alive with a sweet-tea smile on your face.


Of course, the first most important social skill you can have is to be nice and mean it.
This business of saying exactly what I think is helpful in situations in which, for example, you need to buy a new bra, because maybe you weigh a little more than you did the last time you bought a good-quality, non-sports bra from someplace besides Target.

If you are twenty-four, and you need a bra upgrade because you've had a sit-down job for six years and you have 15 pounds that won't go away and all your bras are screaming for mercy and about to go "sproing..."

Well, if you are twenty-four and that is what's happening, most likely you will walk into the bra department and lurk around for awhile looking at all the little wispy centerfold bras and then when the sales clerk comes up and says, "May I help you...?" The first thing you do is apologize for gaining weight, and the next thing you do is let yourself get talked into a bra you don't want, but the skinny 19-year-old clerk thinks it would be cute on you, and you are too polite to say that you think you would have a bad case of boobular fallout in that particular little piece of gift wrap, or that maybe it would hurt, so you smile and buy it anyway, and you bring it home and hate it.

But if you are forty-six and you need a bra upgrade because you've packed on some winter insulation, you can actually walk up to the 19-year old girl in the bra department and say, "Hon, can you please find me a grown-up lady with a tape measure, and some little glasses on her nose, someone who is preferably named Gloria or Kate or Cynthia, who knows to fit a bra properly and who can direct me to something supportive that will look flattering when my clothes are on, which is most of the time?" And you can say this in such a way that this sweet, skinny little college girl named Heathyr doesn't get offended at all, and actually goes off and produces a certified grownup named Coretta, with +1.5 readers on her nose and a tape measure around her neck. Yes.

And then when Coretta asks you what you need, you can tell her you've packed on a dress size since you last bought a really good bra, and all your bras are so ill-fitting and worn out that you're ashamed to let either your mother or your husband see you change your clothes, and you need a bigger bra please, and maybe a couple because they are on sale, but you need to know exactly how much bigger, because you don't know if you gained weight in the chestal area, the breastal area, or both.


So, Coretta makes you turn around, and scrutinizes you in the exact same way that an insurance assessor looks at a dented car, and she whips her tape measure around you in three or four different directions, then she kindly informs you that you have gained weight only in the breastal area, and to make you feel bettter she adds that maybe you gained some unwanted weight, but you also got something that other women paid a lot of money for, and all you had to do was eat spaghetti and fried chicken.

And you can say, "On the other hand, women who pay a lot of money to go up a bra size probably don't ask the plastic surgeon to ramp them up a pants size or two while they're at it."

You can say that, and it's just a statement of fact, and you don't have to apologize for being a little chubby.

Now don't get me wrong. I love my college-aged readers, and y'all are very smart, or else you wouldn't be knitting, and you are good at lots of other things as well, and you are better than I am at a great deal of things, like doing HTML, and making the line spacing on Blogger behave, and programming your your cell phone to walk the dog and start the dishwasher.

But knowing how to properly fit a bra -- and I do mean a good, proper, correct and supportive fit, a fit beyond breast-measurement-minus-chest-measurement -- that is a skill that comes with age and experience. Lots and lots of experience. And it's simply not the kind of experience you rack up at your part-time job putting undies on hangers at the mall to get you through college so you can get a real job.

Which is why I needed to talk to Coretta.

So now I have a couple of new bras and I even got away from it all through the side entrance of the store and without having to venture into the actual bowels of the mall.

Nice bras that fit. Good bras that maybe are even good enough to show off a new sweater in.

We shall see.

Off to spin.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Non-Sequitur Sunday:

A Funeral, Trains and Yarn

This has been a tiresome and disappointing week. Dave and I lost a dear old friend, Louis Jennings, father of one of our dearest friends, Simon, who is no longer with us, either. We went to the funeral on Friday. Louie was 86 years old and had been married to his high school sweetheart since right after World War Two, in which he served as a signal officer (Morse Code) before moving on to a lifelong career with the Streets Department in New Orleans. He and his wife had to move several times after Katrina and I believe the added stress took the last bit of steam out of my old friend. He will be sorely missed.

Simon was that rare sort of friend who wanted his own friends to know and love his family. That's not a very common thing. Except for a few very close friends, I am only noddingly acquainted with the parents and extended families of most people I know. I'm glad to have had the privilege to know Louis and his wife Nola, and Simon's brothers as well.

Being out of sorts from Louie's death, I'm dispirited and a bit short on blog fodder, so here's some random reportage on events from this week.

On Saturday Dave and I went to the monthly event for the Louisiana Steam Train Association, of which we are members. They had a bluegrass band playing train songs, and the organization spent the afternoon running the old SP 745 up and down the tracks in the historic railroad yard. The event was open to the public and was a fine way to spend a relaxing afternoon. Of course the train staff wears historic costume and loves to show off the steam engine. They have an open flatbed car for the "fun rides," or you can ride in the caboose if you prefer. It was a fine, cool day to sit on the open car and knit.




I have no idea who those people in the foreground are, but I wanted a shot of the green car on the adjacent track, in which the train association houses their railroad museum on wheels.

When we got home, I dabbled with a bit of KoolAid dyeing. I had an old silk tank top which had faded to a dull shade of blue-gray but was otherwise in good shape, and a sample of natural brown sheep-colored homespun I wanted to overdye with Black Cherry to see what effect I would get.

Before:








And after. The yarn came out a rich shade of mahogany and the shirt, not being quite as dye-thirsty, came out a nice shade of plum. I'm pleased with the results.

Also? It sorta makes me wonder how my hair would take to Black Cherry...







I also did a couple of bobbins full of merino, spun from dyed roving from Alpaca Direct -- 426 yards of smooth, worsted-spun, two-ply sock weight:






And, under the careful supervision of Tessie the Elder, I spun up some of Ray's hand-dyed grey Jacob's fleece, which came out to a lovely dark tweed with olives and blues. Click on the picture to enlarge it for more detail:




Because it is intend for a scarf, I spun the Jacob's fleece woolen-spun at two-ply DK weight. It's spongy, warm and soft. I made no effort to arrange the colors or match up color repeats during plying, I just let them fall randomly and then plied them randomly as well, for a somewhat tweedy effect.
Ray, I really like this colorway and I think it would be a welcome relief for the spinner/knitter who must knit for a man, Goth teen, or anyone else who only wants super-dark colors. There's enough color variety to give the knitter some interesting color changes, a rich texture and a little sense of "hey, what's coming next?" so the knitter doesn't die of Drab Solid Boredom when knitting for a color phobic family member.
So I started a scarf with it. After all, Christmas is coming. If you look closely at this picture of the scarf embryo, you can see the subtle color gradients. Again, click the picture to enlarge. I like it.




And now I'm out of things to say. I have a stack of work deadlines looming at me and I need to get out in the cool air and take some long walks to shake off the doldrums I am feeling with all the bad news coming down the pipeline the last few weeks.
Best to you and yours.

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Inmates in the Asylum since July 27, 2006: