Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taking a risk

I've been thinking about this post for a while but no matter what I did, the photos don't seem to represent the ideas well. I'm trying hard, bear with me!

Several folks mentioned that my last post was a good one. For those nice comments, I thank you! My dad particularly wanted to point out though that the first photo of Sally the dog looks like a black swan. I only saw a black dog in my snowy backyard, but heck, we always need other people to point out new ways of seeing things, whether it is the value of relationships or our photographs!

That leads me to this post. The professor and I are remarkably dependable "first" children. We are very duty bound. If family or friends ask us to do something (teach, help, whatever), we do what we say we are going to, with few exceptions. That said, both of us also seem willing to do more risk taking than many people I know. We take big trips overseas, move to other countries, experiment in weird ways in our work lives, and we try to reach out to new people--friends that are perhaps unlikely choices.

One reason I feel confident in experimenting in fiber arts is because I know the dependable parts of things...what is the worst thing that could happen? (Not much, actually, because it is just wool! Far worse things have happened to us during big moves or our travels!) Last summer, in the midst of teaching, entertaining, and running around like a chicken with my head cut off, I started a project. I used polar weight wool rug yarn I got for free on a challenging day. Using enormous needles, I doubled the yarn and knit it into a long flat rectangle. I planned to make it into a cushion, but when I got "done" (tired of it), it didn't look cushion-like.

Using an enormous tapestry needle, I stitched up one short side of the rectangle and pulled the stitches tight like a draw string. I stitched up the "open" end of the rectangle, and I made something that looked like a very floppy and deep bowl or hat. It still didn't look like anything.

I threw it aside and ruminated on the situation. One day, the professor was doing laundry...and I asked him to throw this "thingee" into the washing machine with a hot water wash. I imagined a hard felted bowl shaped thing would emerge. What came out surprised us both.

The washing fulled the wool (but hadn't quite felted it) and the bottom of the tube folded up on itself. It emerged all on its own as a rather sturdy looking hat. The shape reminds me of a Russian style hat, or the sheepskin trooper hat I bought for the professor. (He hardly wears it and says it is "too warm" to wear it most of the time. Note, it is -4F or-20C outdoors at the moment.)

The new "hat" is a bit too large for my head, but I think it might fit our resident student, who is coming back for a week or two this January to experience winter in Manitoba. She might just need a warm hat.

If that doesn't work out, it's not a bad felted bowl, either. Full of balls of yarn or a knitting project, I imagine there will always be another use for another yarn containment basket!

While I was getting ready to post about this experiment (a good metaphor for the much bigger risks we all should consider taking in 2011...), the phone rang. A local friend called, asking for coaching in replacing a zipper. It wasn't just any zipper though, it was a tallit (prayer shawl) bag used by his father. So, it was an old textile and a sentimentally meaningful one--this was something his father used for prayer, and now he uses, on a daily basis.

I could not believe the serendipity. I guess maybe I became known for taking risks in 2010.

That said, I coached our friend on the phone rather than in person, because the professor has a bad cold. I don't want our friend to get sick--and there is such a thing as too much risk taking for people like us (dutiful eldest children who worry about others)!

May you take risks in whatever makes you happy--safe risks only, please--in 2011, to discover new and wonderful things! Happy New Year!

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Friday, December 24, 2010

The underappreciated

While most of those around us are concentrating on a seriously big holiday, for us, this is generally a quiet time since it isn't our holiday. The professor took me out to lunch today and we watched everyone else rushing around. It's actually a relief not to have to engage in the hoopla of many people appear very stressed by it. (We do, after all, have our own hoopla several times a year--for instance, getting ready for Passover each spring or the High Holy Days in the Fall)

Early this evening, we may go out to a movie with some friends. Tomorrow we might go to services at synagogue since it's a Saturday. Anyhow, this time when things slow down for us makes me think about how people perceive "value."

The professor and I value quality time--with friends, with family, and with each other. A really stellar evening is one where we have a good meal with friends. Another kind of fantastic time is just a week night, where we sit on the couch, each busy near one another with his/her own task. The professor is often working on research or answering student email. I am often knitting. We take time to pet dogs.

All this means that we don't necessarily value big expensive things. Rather, we tend to value ideas, handmade things, and special experiences like travel. As a result, I save money elsewhere. I often buy things as a 'good deal'- for instance, yarn that others consider discards or leftovers.
Last summer, when I was teaching a lot and we had our resident student living with us, (she's a knitter, btw), we saw that there was an amazing deal online. A yarn company had some yarn they considered a mistake. They called it "overspun yarn." They sold this wool sport weight yarn online in big bags of 10 skeins for a dollar a skein and said it knit up at 6 stitches to an inch.. I could barely contain my excitement.

This first photo is only a small portion of the yarn I bought. (It got a bit out of hand...) I've since used some of this yarn for weaving a scarf. Lately I've been knitting a skein of it into a sock. It turns out that I LOVE to knit with this yarn. The yarn's hand is firm and the resulting fabric (at 7 stitches to an inch) is a delight. I cannot wait to see how it will wear over time...but so far, I see no fear of biasing or other problems that were predicted. Sometimes, a handspinner's knowledge of yarn construction is a valuable thing! If the socks wear well, I can imagine knitting whole sweaters out of this yarn sometime in the future, either at this fingering weight or doubling it for a firm textured thicker yarn.

This is what it looks like up close in the skein.

When I encounter yarns like this, I can only use them for my own personal projects. Since these "deal" yarns are a one time offer, discontinued, unavailable, or otherwise hard to find, I can't really sell a knitting pattern using this yarn since other knitters will want to knit the pattern in the same yarn as I used. Instead, I find I brainstorm ideas. Sometimes I reknit a whole project for a design in a more widely available yarn later, but the first project usually gets worn at home instead.

I'm also including Sally the dog in my post about the "underappreciated." Sally sometimes scares people who come to visit us because she immediately does an alarm bark and tries to protect me. She is a nervous, high strung kind of girl. Some of that is the Pointer in her. She's definitely a mixed breed dog, but if you look at her body and her behaviors, she might also have some coonhound in her...which wouldn't be a surprise since we got her from the pound in Kentucky, where there are a lot of hunting dogs.

She is a fast runner and an amazing hunter...even though we really don't hunt. (need a rabbit, squirrel or snake? Just ask Sally!) Sally is also very intelligent and practically trains herself to do all sorts of things. She taught herself to retrieve by watching Harry do it--and it took a while to teach Harry this skill! She is a wonderful nursemaid and will spend hours with me in bed if I am not feeling well. She brings me lots of squeaky dog toys and makes a nest for us!

Sally can sense if a new person is nervous around her. She doesn't like loud voices or quick movements. That said, once Sally makes a friend, you're really part of her pack for life. Certain friends and relatives who are either very calm or dog people have been rewarded with Sally's love. It is truly delicious, but not everyone has the patience or the right kind of calm nature to see it.

The professor is finishing up grading his final exam. He sits on the couch and either Harry or Sally "helps" him. Here is Sally, dropping by for a visit. She will paw at one of us gently until we pet her the way she likes. She knows that if she paws me twice, she gets 2 "pets!" Three times? Three pets...she is clever.
I think we all have a tendency to fall for the dog who is immediately affectionate (Harry comes to mind, if you've met him!), the super soft knitting yarn, or the things that are easy and/or expensive. Sometimes, it is a discarded yarn, an abandoned and skittish dog, or a conversation with a friend that can be really valuable in the longterm. I am counting up the things I value--and sometimes, it can be more work to see how truly incredible that overspun yarn, that anxious dog, or a complicated friendship can be. For me, this effort is truly worthwhile. Sally, and the lessons she teaches, are really blessings.

If you celebrate a holiday around now, I hope it is a joyous and meaningful one! If you don't, please come by (via the comments?) and visit with us over here on the couch...

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

fiery Sunday

On Sunday morning, we heard there had been a fire overnight, just a block away. (I guess I've been sleeping pretty soundly lately!) The professor walked up to take a photo of what it looked like and shot a photo. The house was vacant and a block from ours. Here's a news article about this story.

Later in the afternoon, I settled down on the sofa to listen to my audiobook and do some knitting. I looked out the front window of my house. I saw an enormous plume of smoke and fire trucks rushing to the scene...the house caught fire a second time.
The professor went out to see what was going on, along with about half the neighborhood...(bear in mind that the temperature was maybe about 10F, tops)

During the first fire, the firefighters had used nearby hydrants, which had then frozen over. (these are apparently steam cleaned later to keep them safe for use during the winter, but it was a weekend.)

Those hydrants were too frozen to use, so the fire trucks began to access hydrants on our block and on Corydon Avenue, which meant that 2 or 3 blocks of Stafford, a very busy street, were completely blocked off. We had been planning to over to a friend's house for our usual Sunday night discussion group. I got kind of nervous about leaving the dogs or leaving home. (This was a big fire- a block away from our house.)

Here's a photo of our house, with a fire truck right beside it...
A few phone calls later, our friends agreed to come over to our house instead...but I had to give them instructions about where to drive and park! Usually, we all bring along side dishes and dessert to go with pizza that someone has ordered. I tried to figure out how we would easily order pizza given the hoopla outside our front door. I decided to start some pizza dough--and I made pizza at home instead.

Our friends came over and we settled down to a cozy evening--with flashing light accompaniment. There was a fire truck and a police cruiser parked directly in the intersection outside our house, complete with flashing lights. The fire fighting continued. The firefighters had to chop down trees to access the house to fight the fire. It was a busy night.
Just as we were eating our (homemade)pizza at the dining room table, the doorbell rang. I rushed out to answer it, and there was a pizza delivery guy! He had our address. I double/triple checked with our friends. Had anyone ordered a pizza by mistake?
The pizza delivery guy called the unfamiliar number on the order.
"Oops!" The two young police officers said, as they rushed up to our door. "We got hungry and ordered pizza...we had to use your address! Sorry about that..." (I wish I'd known, I would have just handed them some of our homemade pizza!)

At bed time, we had to close all our blinds carefully, as the flashing lights and blocked off roadways were still an issue. Luckily, our house was closed up tight against winter wind and weather so we didn't smell too much smoke.

The next morning, the professor got up bright and early and read in the paper that a woman named Gayle (with a last name the same as the professor's surname) owned these two adjacent vacant houses (including the one that burned down) and she'd been planning to tear these down to build a condo complex--a block from our house. This was news to us, but the "news" continued.
At 7:15AM on Monday, the CBC called, asking to speak to Gayle. (No Gayle here, the professor explained, as I bolted out of bed...sure there was another emergency...)
Again later on Monday, another news gathering source called asking to speak to Gayle. Again, I had to explain, "No, Gayle doesn't live here...we don't know anyone by that name."

This is what the house looked like when we saw it on Monday. The sidewalks outside are an ice rink, and the house is pretty well destroyed.
In general, I am frustrated that people have been buying up 100 year old houses and property in our mostly residential neighborhood without maintaining or restoring them. These folks are then allowing the houses to sit vacant and deteriorate, and then hoping to turn it into commercial or multi-family development opportunities. In particular, if I ever bump into Gayle, well, I'll ask for her phone number so I can direct those early morning news hounds in her direction...!
Mostly, I'm grateful to the firefighters, who kept us and our big old wooden house safe only a block away from this enormous fire.
I'm also hoping this week will be quiet and much less eventful!

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Winter projects

I am a fan of winter and hibernation. It's been a season I have always enjoyed, and this cold season, so far, is really living up to my expectations. Snow, cold, and lots of time to cuddle up near our new gas fireplaces...

My red sweater project has now gotten so large that it is no longer very portable. I'm working on sleeves, but they aren't very photogenic. Here are some portable projects I'm also pursuing. The teddy in the picture is from a pattern, called Bubby. My version was whipped up quickly in honor of my new nephew, who was born happy and healthy on December 5th. Congrats to my youngest brother and his wife on their joint production! Bubby and I will be going to Virginia in January to see the nephews and I'll go bearing at least one handknit gift.

The sock in the photo is my own design in progress. I'm comfortable posting it here in public since there is really nothing to see at present but a brown toe-up sock, but this is probably your last viewing because it will likely become more distinct/unique as I continue!

In other projects, the professor has been practicing his winter time photography. He sends along these two shots of cedar waxwings..he somehow managed to be outside at the university campus when 30 or 40 of these birds all settled to feed on a tree at once. I love the winter time colors here, and yes, this is proof that things do live outside in Winnipeg in the winter time, even when it is -20F!

What is harder to imagine is how the professor got his camera to work at those temperatures...but I didn't ask that!
In connection with my last post, I think this one is continuing this theme of keeping intellectually active. On one hand, I see winter as a healthy period of rest and rejuvenation. On the other, I also see it as a time to foster one's inner reserves of creativity. It's a chance to create and imagine, dream and reach for new things...and I hope you too will have time to do that this season.
Now I am off, into the snow, to take a walk with the dogs...dogs around here don't take winter off!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

knowing smart people

Last year, the professor wandered across the university campus to meet with a Biomedical Engineering professor to talk about a collaborative grant proposal. They hit it off and became friends. This friend invited us to his house for a Sunday night discussion group. Originally, we based our discussions on college courses on DVD. We'd watch a lecture and then we'd discuss it. Invariably, one of us knew more than the introductory lecture. Others learned the material for the first time. This was all pretty interesting.

As time passed, we found we didn't need to start with someone else's lecture. Someone would come in with a short video clip or an idea, and we'd be off to the races, thick in discussion. Since then, things have blossomed. We make world-cuisine potluck meals (bring whatever you feel like, while respecting people's dietary issues) and we enjoy hanging out. In the summer time, we rotated houses and went to outdoor concerts. In the fall, a few folks went off to watch the bird migrations together.

Although most of us have some academic affiliation, we try not to get bogged down in "shop" talk. We are so different in some ways that conversation is inevitable. Our ages range from the mid-30s to mid-60s. The people in the group were born all over the world: Iran, Australia, Egypt, Canada, US, etc. Our religious backgrounds are really different, too. This all makes for rich conversation.

The tendency, as we get older, is to get comfortable in our peer groups. Maybe people hang out with family, friends with common interests, or people from their religious community. These habits tend to keep us from meeting amazing people who might not be just like us. For some, it's just hard to get up off the couch to try something new. The chance for intellectual growth is so great when we push ourselves to reach beyond those usual circles.

Today I was proud to know some of these people. This article about their important Alzheimer's research came out in the local paper. The researchers (my friends) were interviewed on TV news as well. In big ways, some of our friends are making a difference in the world. In small ways, we're helping each other move furniture, cope with job issues, or sharing recipes.

I don't think I could underestimate how it feels to know such clever, intellectually curious people. It's amazing...and, although I often bring my knitting on Sunday nights, sometimes I am just too immersed in stimulating conversation to knit as well. Now, that's saying something.

So, did you know that intellectual growth and activities (like knitting) help prevent Alzheimer's? What are you doing to keep mentally active?

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Hanukah and winter stimulation

Hanukah's nearly over and we've had a nice, quiet holiday. Aside from being grateful for plumbing (every night!), it turns out the professor bought the dogs a game before our drainage woes began.
We both notice that Harry and Sally become restless and bored in the winter time. Although they get a walk every day, in the winter, it is too cold for them to spend long periods playing together in the backyard. By "too cold," I don't mean below freezing. I mean, when the high temperature of the day is 9F (-13C), that is too cold to be playing outside for extended periods. It isn't unusual for it to get down to -40 (C or F, it doesn't matter) this time of year, so we need to be careful about how long we spend outdoors.

This year we splurged and bought a fancy dog toy that helps encourage mental stimulation. It requires play with dog and owner. Since there are two dogs in our household, one of us holds a dog in the sit/stay position while the other dog gets to play. The game, called "The Brick," has been perfect to play while the candles are fits exactly this relatively minor holiday's "30 minutes of fun while the candles burn" each night perfectly.

If you're interested in learning more about the game, it's called Company of Animals Nina Ottosson Dog Brick Interactive Game. We bought it from a local pet store but I'm pretty sure it's easy to buy on Amazon, too. You do have to train your dog to play with it and you can't let the dog play with it on his/her own. That said, when I go anywhere near where the game is stored, the dogs now get very excited. Obviously, this worked in terms of keeping our brains stimulated around here!

In human terms, new knitting patterns do keep our brains stimulated too! Someone from Saskatoon asked how one can buy my downloadable patterns. My full line of patterns is available for download on my website. Most of these patterns are also available for download on Ravelry as well. Of course, you need to use Paypal for most of these transactions.

I don't make these patterns available to stores. That is because it costs a lot to print, mail, and stock paper patterns...and it increases the carbon footprint of each pattern. It's just not cost effective if I want to keep the pattern price low. I made this decision back in 2005, and I've chosen to stick by it. For most people, it works.

If you want to buy a pattern but cannot download it yourself for some reason, you have these options:
1) Ask a friend with a computer/printer/Paypal account to help.
2) Contact me via my email address or Ravelry personal message to make other arrangements. On rare occasions, folks send checks through the mail--and if you do this, please add $1 US to the price of the pattern to cover postage, etc.

Unfortunately, I can't do business through my blog. It's very hard to track people's contact information down this way!

I hope everyone's staying stimulated mentally, physically, and socially this winter. I am off to take some homemade meringues out of the oven to enjoy some treats that look just like snow!

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Why plumbing is great...

I am sorry I haven't updated you on the drainage pipe excitement around's an interesting tale. (For the sake of your stomachs, I'm avoiding any photos in this post. There wasn't anything too disturbing, but still...)

I'll preface this by saying that for the most part, we had access to reasonable plumbing last week. We could flush, we could shower, etc. We knew that the broken pipe wasn't allowing full drainage, so everything was just done very gently!

In the middle of last week, the nice tradesmen who do evacavating started dropping by. The first guy said--"let me see your basement" and "let me see this broken pipe dvd." Then he said something that was actually quite wonderful. He suggested we call our regular plumber back. He said he thought the broken pipe was actually "inside" the house, in our basement. This meant we wouldn't need a backhoe to dig up our outdoor pipes. It was a smaller problem than we'd feared.
(Think $2000 total and not, say, a potential $8 to 10 grand)

Our regular plumbing company -who are now like relatives- came along on Thursday and started fixing things. That involved:
-Cutting up the plywood false floor in our basement
-Hammering out not one but two concrete floors, complete with rubble in between them. The rubble included old lathe and plaster walls, so we know why concrete floor number 2 was unstable and the wooden floor was built. (laying a new concrete floor on top of uneven rubble is not a recipe for a stable new floor!)
-Digging down to wherever the broken pipe was.

When the plumber hit the broken pipe, the issues were obvious. A few owners ago, our house was "fixed up" by someone who lived here or somebody they hired. This person was a reasonable carpenter, an ok electrician and his plumbing left something to be desired. We knew this already--my professor has fixed nearly every plumbing fixture in the house, and we've also gotten to hire a professional plumber on multiple occasions already.

The short version? One PVC pipe forced into another pipe--without being glued together--had flexed over the years of freezing and thawing. The flexing pipe had carefully dumped out a lot of water drained from our washer over the years as someone washed clothes. This eroded all the dirt around it, and eventually, with no glue holding the pipes together and dirt holding the pipes in place, we had our little collapse this last week.

I felt so reassured on Thursday afternoon by the mere idea that the plumber was taking care of the problem that I fell asleep on the couch in the living room (just above the basement) while he worked. I slept through someone jackhammering concrete. Really.

By Thursday evening, the new pipes were glued in place. By Friday morning, the problem was nearly entirely solved, right down to a new concrete floor. We probably need to rebuild the false wooden floor above it, but that's minor in the great scheme of things. Our basement is not finished and we don't do a lot of entertaining down there!

We were reminded, over and over again this week, how amazing plumbing is and how bad it is when something goes wrong. Something good happened to us. We remembered to be grateful for one of the basics of modern life. Plumbing is an outstanding thing that really improves the quality of our lives and our basic health!

Now the professor is on to other things. Today he's trying out some new paint colors--doing a small sample paint job for our bedroom. This will be the project for winter break. The color when we got here? A very unpleasant yellowish brown with lot of sloppy paint mess ups. We're hoping for a light blue when all is done.

One last thought--we know all this is happening in part because our charming old house wasn't always maintained well...but we also know that things just happen. We know people with brand new houses who have had serious problems. Houses (like bodies) require upkeep! It's been a week where I've reflected (a lot) on how much we take for granted. If you're warm and dry, if you have a home and all the electricity, plumbing and heat work, it is a great thing. It's ok to say a little thank you about that, to whomever you thank. (The Almighty, the local House God, whoever!)

And yeah, if your body is mostly working right? That might be a great thing too. It's amazing when everything works right. A thing of wonder to behold...

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