History Buff

When I was in tenth grade, I damned near flunked a World History class. Might sound strange to someone who has anything more than a nodding acquaintance with me, as I’m a pretty serious history buff. But yes, I did get a D for the year in World History in the tenth grade.

The teacher told my mother that she thought I had problems reading, and that was why I was doing so poorly. Mom laughed at her, and I don’t think the teacher ever did figure out that the reason I was doing poorly was that I didn’t want to do what I considered busywork, not because I did not know the material. (I ignored the teacher in class and just read the textbook, which was interesting)

Towards the end of the year, when we were to sign up for classes, I noticed that there was an Advanced Placement American History class available. You had to apply, you had to have an interview, and you had to provide a writing sample.

I applied, pretty sure I wasn’t going to get it, as my World History teacher was going to tell the committee that I was an unmotivated moron. But, hey. I really am a history buff, and I wanted to try and see if I could get into the class anyway.

I don’t remember all of the questions on the application, but I do remember being asked to estimate how many books I’d read in the last three months (~100. I read a lot fewer books a week than I did then) and to list some of titles. I forget all of the titles I put down, but Shogun and Gone with the Wind were on the list alongside I,Robot, Dune, and a fictional biography of Anne Bonny called Sea Star. I did not list the Johanna Lindsay romances. I felt like they wouldn’t help. Though looking back, I suppose it would have been blisteringly obvious that anyone reading over a book a day probably isn’t only reading Great Literature.

The writing sample? No, I didn’t write an essay. I felt like I should have, but there was this ghost story I’d read about the Tower of London and the ghost of headless queen. I decided to write the only historical fiction I’ve ever written to date and did this short story of Anne Boleyn’s last night in the Tower.

Now, Tudor history was something that was not taught in Stafford County history classes at the time. We went straight from Columbus to Sir Walter Raleigh. So, this was clearly something I’d learned about on my own, and was interested enough in to use as a writing subject to try to get into the class.

Yes, I did get in. I think it was less on the reading claims (which I suspect were not entirely believed) and more on that short story. As much as I’d cringe at my sixteen year old self’s writing, ya know, I wish I still had a copy of that story!

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You’re so talented

I wince whenever someone says, “You’re so talented!” to me.  I feel like a jerk a milisecond later, of course, because I’ve only heard it whenever someone was intending to give me a compliment, and to be kind.

Even so, when it is said to me, I still wince.

To me, talent means an innate ability to do something.  When I get that as a compliment for something for which I have no innate ability, I feel like it shows a kind of lazy cultural attitude.

Sewing is a great example of this. Do I sew well?  While not a professional, I can make garments for myself that live up to my own criteria for a good garment.  So yes, by any objective standard, I can do a good job of it.

Lemme tell you what, though.  I am not naturally neat-handed.  I was never one of those girls who turned in the report with the beautiful round handwriting and the decorative report cover.  My pies do not have professional-looking crusts, and when we cut out the oilcloth to make sit-upons in Girl Scouts, my squares really weren’t… Square, I mean.  And the edges were all ragged. I’ve never been able to keep my hands steady enough to decorate a cake well.

I had to overcome this to be able to sew, and it took a long time.  This is a skill, after all, that I’ve been practicing for twenty years. 

Which brings me to the lazy cultural attitude.  The reality is that no-one, and I mean no-one, gets good at something without endless practice.   The activity may be fun enough that the practice isn’t particularly tedious, but the practice still happens.  Anyone who knows me even a little would say I am talented with words.  Okay, granted.  I do love to write, but the reality is that I if I have any skill at all as a writer it is because I write, quite literally, thousands of words a day.  I went through a period in my life recently where I did not, and I can tell a significant difference.   I’m still working to get back up to speed on that!

Yet,  we have this idea that people who are good at things are naturally good at it.  Me?  I’m beginning to get the idea that we become skilled at whatever we work on constantly.  So, to me, I think it may be less about talent and a lot more about what we really love to work on.

I Eats Me Spinach

I’ve gone back to eating low-carb because of Reasons. Okay, I have real reasons, but it tends to work for me. I eat less, after the first week just plain don’t crave sweets all that much, and tend to feel better. I’m not sleepy after meals, I don’t get that shaky feeling when I don’t eat every few hours, and I like meat, so it works for me. It doesn’t work for everyone, so don’t think I’m proselyting. You should eat as suits you.

Sometimes, in talking about the matter, though, I’ll get questions. Some I consider quite valid, and others kind of make me step back in shock.

The one I get the most is, “How do can you stay healthy without eating your vegetables?”

Well… I have no idea how one does that. I… well, I kinda eat veggies, so I’m no roadmap there.

Normally, I eat salads and I don’t give a lot of thought to measurements. Salads=vegetables and I don’t sweat the portion sizes all that much on them, other than try to not make it so big I can’t finish it.

However, because I bought some new lunch containers (stop laughing at me. It’s not nice to make fun of people who can’t help it) it really hit home. The containers are very specific to portion sizes, you see.

For instance, take a look at that small container. That’s a half-cup container. For most non-leafy vegetables, a half cup is considered a serving. See the rectangular container? That’s a cup. So, three servings of veggies right there.

Now we get down to the lower portion of the container. Yes, it’s full of chicken (low-carb, remember?) It’s also on a bed of spinach. I didn’t have a salad for lunch today because we ran out of greens, but that’s about half a cup of spinach as well. So, half a serving.

That puts lunch at under 6 carbs (minus fiber), for pity’s sake, with three and a half servings of vegetables. Most of my meals are comparable to this. I’ll probably have an artichoke tonight with dinner. So, yeah, veggies. I eat low carb, but yeah, I eats me spinach.

Not Quite Rags

I don’t use paper towels to clean up anything but mess from a pet. While yes, you could call it an environmental thing, I use cloth for cleaning the same as I use cloth napkins for everyday.

I find buying stuff specifically to throw away a waste of money. If you can safely wash it and reuse it for cleaning purposes, it’s cheaper to do so. You can find all kinds of cleaning cloths out there that’ll last years.

I don’t find most commercial cleaning cloths sturdy enough for my liking, so I make my own out of worn-out towels. I have a couple of sets that have been getting frayed around the edges and have ample newer ones, so it’s time to make a cleaning cloth.

I got the idea from Is There Life After Housework? by Don Aslett. You take a rectangular piece of cloth – preferably something strong and absorbent. Old cotton towels are great for this, and so are old diapers.

The cool part is that instead of rags, you make a tube out of the cloth. By folding, you get a pretty sturdy cleaning surface, and when it gets a bit dirty, you can refold and turn it inside out for fresher cleaning surfaces. When you’re done, toss in the wash, no biggie.

Since I use towels for this, I’ll show you how I do it.

So by folding a towel in half widthwise, cutting then doing the same again to the two halves you’ve generated, then cutting those four pieces in half again, you can get eight pieces of cloth out of your old towel.

And there’s no reason in the world not to go ahead and use them as cleaning rags right then, of course. If that’s your thing, go for it.

I like the tubes, so I go a little further and sew up these babies.

I do use a zig-zag stitch along the long edge, or use a serger to finish what will be the open edges of the tubes. It makes them last longer instead of falling apart from fraying and leaving fluff everywhere. Notice I used black thread on the old pink towels I used. I confess this was not done for contrast and an example, but out of sheer laziness because I didn’t feel like bothering to match the thread for cleaning supplies. You want yours to look pretty, go ahead and show me up. J

After I’ve finished the long edges, I go ahead and sew them into tubes using a zig-zag stitch. I do this for strong seam with a bit of self-finishing on one go. They’re meant or cleaning, so I don’t feel like it’s necessary to spend an extraordinary amount of time on them. Eight in a half hour is plenty enough time to spend.

These cloths also make great potholders. The double layer of thick cotton cloth is pretty good at protecting from heat.

As long as it’s not damp.

Here’s the set I made today. Did it because most of the old ones I made ten years ago have frayed apart from heavy use and I’m on a spring cleaning spree.

Fifth Grade Reading

I’ve been reading a biography of Lillian Moller Gilbreth, industrial psychologist and efficiency engineer, and thinking of a book two of her children wrote about their family, Cheaper by the Dozen.

I first encountered the Gilbreths in the fifth grade because my teacher, Sharon McKenna, read to the class for about a half an hour a day after lunch. Now, my readers know that for all I love to read, there are few pleasures I enjoy more than being read to.

“Read to kids in the fifth grade?” I hear you cry indignantly. “Shouldn’t the lazy little monsters read for themselves?”

Nonsense! It was a brilliant idea. No-one had to convince me to read. The trouble was prying books out of my hands long enough to do other things. No, it was the brilliance of having the teacher pick some books and read them aloud. Captive as I was in school anyway, it exposed me to books I might not otherwise have read. While my fondness for science fiction ensured that I’d pick up A Wrinkle in Time at some point, my general tastes would never have pushed me to get a book about a boy and his dogs like Where the Red Fern Grows, nor is there any way I would have picked up what I would have seen as essentially a fluff nostalgia piece like Cheaper by the Dozen.

Yet these books remain among my favorites to this day.

I learned more than I realized. A fifth-grader doesn’t have the sophistication to read between the lines and figure out that “Mother” in Cheaper by the Dozen was essentially a simply drawn foil for the over-exuberant “Dad.” But, the charm of the book stuck with me and led me to investigate the actual lives and professions of Dr. and Mr. Gilbreth many years later.

Though, no, I’ve never been able to use a tesseract.

Being Your Own Designer

As is not unusual in our Northern New England winters, I’ve been knitting a great deal. Being as it’s been a somewhat rougher winter, weather-wise, than usual, I’ve been using more than my usual amount of spare time for knitting.

I’ve got a sock and a sweater on the needles at the moment. Why? Well, socks are a portable project. They’re easy to toss in a purse and perfect to keep one distracted in waiting rooms, on buses and to relax on a lunch break. The sweater I am working on is in the bulky stage. I usually knit in the round, so sweater sleeves might be delightfully portable, but when you attach them to the body, any sweater for an adult becomes really bulky. That’s my writin’ chair project.

I’m taking a break from knitting because my hands hurt. Yes, I know, knitting too much, and I’m not sure typing an article is really the way to relieve the problem, but it’s a different motion, right?

After I finish it, though, I’m going back to review some material in Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitter’s Almanac
for my project.

When I picked it up, I really got to thinking. I’m a knitter and a reader, so I do have a pretty good knitting library. Stitch dictionaries, books about techniques, books full of patterns… I enjoy them.

But I keep going back to Mrs. Zimmerman’s books.

Why?

She taught me how to knit. No, I don’t mean basic techniques. My mother, though not into knitting to the insanity I am, did know how and taught me casting on and the garter stitch when I was a little kid. It wasn’t until several decades later that I wanted to make sweaters and stuff. I experimented with several methods before reading Knitting Without Tears. It was like the heavens opening.

Zimmerman was indeed a very clever knitting designer, but she did something I found even better. She taught the underlying concept behind the patterns, why the garment worked up the way it did, and strongly encouraged her readers to become their own designers and not worry too much about what a pattern said. I loved that.

“I knit all year, day in, day out. It is my passion, and I rarely knit the same thing twice in the same way.” Elizabeth Zimmerman, Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitter’s Almanac.

I’m similar. I’ve knit the same sweater twice exactly once – Roll Your Own Braided Yoke Sweater. That’s mostly because Mom and I have the same basic shape, so when I liked how it looked on me, I had to make one in a different color for Mom.

But for the most part, I’m always tweaking and changing and I like knitting that way better. The problem is, of course, that I can’t follow a pattern worth a damn.

The Fanfic Knitter

In a way, I’m a fanfic* knitter. I take things I like from other people’s work and make something new, concentrating on the design elements that make me happy and expanding on them.

By the way, fanfic means “Fan Fiction.” A fan of a series, or television show or whatever will take settings, characters and worldbuilding from an author’s work and expand on it, creating stories of their own. It’s a not too unusual way for people to learn to write stories. Keep that concept in mind. It’ll be important later.

So, I’m working on finishing a sweater I started back last April. It’s a seamless raglan sweater, and the sleeves are done. I cheated and used the process of making the sleeves as a gauge swatch. It worked quite well and I’m pretty comfortable that the body will fit just fine.

The front panel is going to be this lattice diamond pattern framed by a cable called “Riptide Wave” in my favorite stitch dictionary.

I’m slowly making my peace with the idea that I just never going to knit a sweater directly from a pattern. I feel weird about it, as if I don’t truly knit well if I can’t seem to do this. (Yes, I know. I knit just fine.)

It’s not that I never carefully follow a pattern. I’ve knitted a couple of sweaters from The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns (a wonderful gift from a friend when I was whining that I couldn’t find a sloper kind of pattern like you have for sewing), and learned seaming sweaters ain’t my thang. I still use it for gloves, hats and mittens.    

Then I read Knitting Without Tears and learned that the design canvas I like best for a sweater is one that is knit in the round. One of these days, I’m going to get the courage to steek a sweater to make a cardigan, honest, but that’s scary.

I’ve knit directly from patterns the We Call Them Pirates hats and gloves. That’s where I learned stranded knitting, and where I started to realize I knit like a lot of people write fanfic. Boy, howdy have I done the knitting fanfic on that design with sweaters and stockings. I’m not even done. I have a cardigan mentally planned out using it that is going to be so awesome I bounce up and down in my chair a little whenever I think about doing it.

After I learned stranded knitting, I started to knit from basic templates and add design challenges for fun and to expand my skills. To be very honest, many of my projects have one tiny little element that’s outside my comfort zone, but are mostly things that I’ve done before and feel comfortable with. To me, it seems like a good way to gain skill without driving oneself crazy. But I’m always reading about some design or technique I like, but I almost never knit the pattern. I take the design element I like and use it.

So, essentially, most of my knitting is one form of fanfic or another.