Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Satan's Knitting Needles

          I was going through my knitting needles the other day and I ran across this pair:

The family heirloom knitting needles. There is a hint of…brimstone…about them.

          My grandpa made this pair of needles for my grandma. When she died, I inherited them.

          Grandma was a smart, resourceful, strong woman. She also had bipolar disorder that was undiagnosed until she was in her 80s. Any interaction with her was…fraught, but I have a few happy childhood memories of knitting with her as she talked incessantly*.

           Knitting was about the only thing she and I had in common, and her mental illness made it very difficult to have a general conversation with her, so when I visited her, I tried to keep the topic to our shared interest, with mixed results. Once, when my mother and I were visiting her, I asked what she was knitting. She showed me, explained the pattern in minute detail—including how she color-coded and annotated the instructions for maximum understandability (to her only; all the colors and the arrows going every which way rendered them incomprehensible to me**), showed me where she stored the project when she wasn't working on it, gave a very long shout-out to ziplok bags for storing small knitting projects, complained at length about how the one drawback was that the needles poked holes in them (who knew), showed me all the solutions she'd come up with to work around this problem (including an extensive paean to duct tape, which she'd just discovered), and then explained that she was knitting the current project because she was unable to knit the project she actually wanted to knit because, and this is a direct quote: "Satan hides my knitting needles."

          Mom snorted, because this wasn't the first time she'd heard about Satan's penchant for hiding things from Grandma. Apparently, though, he was especially fond of hiding her knitting needles, necessitating, on her part, complicated maneuvers, decoy projects, and the occasional stern lecture directed at the old devil. Which Grandma explained to us in rather more than full detail. With color coding and arrowed annotations.
          So every time I see these charming, emotionally resonant knitting needles, my first thought is, "Oh look; Satan's knitting needles."

Satan considers where to hide the knitting needles.

*Logorrhea is one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder.
**This is a pretty accurate visual of how it felt to have a conversation with her. 


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Snow Day

          You may have seen on the news the other day that we got a lot of snow here in the middle of the country Wednesday and Thursday. The dogs and I were out for our usual walk as the storm started, and I got some very pretty photos of our local park in the midst of the storm.

Visibility decreased so rapidly that we cut our walk short.

All the geese had coats of snow on their backs. So did the dogs and I.

A good snowstorm really shows off the structure of trees.

Holes in a manhole cover provide the only contrast in a grey-white world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I Was a Pint-sized Communist

          Way back in the Dim Mists of Time, when I was in sixth grade, our elementary school music teacher, in a fit of expansiveness that she later came to regret deeply, proclaimed every Friday a "Bring Your Own Music" day.
          "Woo hoo!" we said, and brought in Jimmy Osmond's "Killer Joe."

          (I still have nightmares about this one.)

          And then we brought in "The Loco-Motion." But not the Little Eva version. This was the Rockin'! 70s! and so we brought in the Grand Funk Railroad cover.*

          We also brought in enough Sonny and Cher to violate the Geneva Conventions on torture.

          Mrs. B, who thought Lawrence Welk was The Greatest Musician Living, was horrified, but she knew that if she abolished Bring Your Own Music Fridays, she'd have a rebellion on her hands. So Friday after Friday she listened to the schlockiest music 1973 had to offer and repented fully of ever, ever wanting to be a "cool" teacher** and make music "relevant" to us.

          We had reached the point in the term when Sonny and Cher were in heavy rotation with Grand Funk Railroad and Hot Butter***, and Mrs. B was looking like she was a very short walk from a breakdown, when I brought in a record—my first offering. Because I couldn't stand to listen to "Half-Breed" one more time.

          When I handed her the album (Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits), Mrs. B shot me a look of pure gratitude. She didn't know who Pete Seeger was, but the album cover just had a simple picture of a normal-looking guy with a banjo sitting in a chair. No scary guys in tight pants and huge hair, no Sonny and Cher, no weird psychedelic illustrations. I told her I wanted to play "Talking Union," and she dropped the needle on the track.

          My classmates knew better than to expect coolness from me, so they weren't entirely unprepared to hear a guy start picking his banjo**** and rapping, "Now you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do. You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you."

          It's a very appealing little song about workers banding together and organizing a union so that they can have a living wage, better working conditions, yearly vacations—you know, the American Dream. It had simply not occurred to me that anyone would think that workers shouldn't unionize in order to insure that they got those things. Especially anyone who belonged to the National Education Association (a teachers' union), but alas, this was the case with Mrs. B. She was also anti-communist and anti-swearing, as I learned some two minutes and change later, when Pete sang:

Now, boy, you've come to the hardest time;
The boss will try to bust your picket line.
He'll call out the police, the National Guard;
They'll tell you it's a crime to have a union card.
They'll raid your meeting, hit you on the head.
Call every one of you a goddamn Red -
Unpatriotic - Moscow agents -
Bomb throwers, even the kids.

          I don't know whether it was a cumulative thing—listening to a song that told a bunch of sixth-graders how to unionize—or whether it was the reference to Communism or the naughty word that broke the camel's back, but I do know that it was at that point in the song when Mrs. B snatched the needle off the record and yelled at me for bringing Communism and profanity and unions into her classroom.

          And, seizing her chance, she killed Bring Your Own Record Fridays. "You ruined it for everyone," she yelled at me. "I can't allow anyone to bring in records if this is what's going to happen."

          It truly wasn't my intention to ruin it for everyone. I barely knew what a union was. I just thought it was a cool song with a catchy banjo line. I liked banjos. And I was really sick of listening to "Half-Breed."

          The funny thing is, even though I killed Bring Your Own Record Fridays, no one held it against me. I had brought in a record with a naughty word on it! I had promulgated Communism in the very heart of America! I had given a teacher an apoplectic fit! I was a folk hero.

          Just like Pete Seeger.

*Please feel free not to listen to these two songs. I have included them only for the horror factor.
 **Here's a tip, Mrs. B: If you're trying to be cool, you are by definition never going to be cool. 
***Oh, don't say you don't remember the unfortunately hooky "Popcorn." I've been trying to get it out of my head for almost 40 years.
****The version I was able to find on YouTube uses a guitar for accompaniment. I'm sorry that I couldn't find the banjo version, which is delightful.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

I Love a Good Billboard

          Back in the days when I was a working graphic designer, slaving over a hot computer, staring at squares and rectangles all day long trying to figure out how to fill them with copy, images, and logos in novel and exciting ways, I used to long to break out of the frame. To bust through even one edge of the bounding box, just for a little change.
          Alas, advertisers do not generally want you to think outside the box. What they want is for you to cram a pixellated photograph of an unidentifiable product, a page and a half of text, and their logo into a one-sixth ad (roughly the size of a business card).
          Invariably, they want the copy set at at least 24 points, even though that will only allow you to get in four words of the copy that absolutely! positively! must all be included in the ad. And the logo? Make it bigger. Never mind that you cannot make it bigger without losing the photo that absolutely! positively! must be included in the ad.*
          So I do love it when designers get to break the picture frame. And when they don't have to fit a novel's worth of copy into a space much smaller than a novel. And when they get keen images to work with. And when nobody screams, "Make the logo bigger!" Because what happens then is brilliance, as the following two billboards attest:

This is the first billboard you see. Notice how the pitcher's body breaks
out of the frame? See what a great action shot it is? Notice how there's
no unnecessary headline or copy to distract you from the exciting image?

This is the billboard you see a couple of blocks later. Not only does the catcher's
head break the frame, but the clever design team has actually ripped the billboard
canvas right down to the frame to make it appear that the pitcher's fastball
tore up the billboard. And still no words. Because everyone here in KC knows
what a Royals uniform looks like. For the story as it appeared in the local
paper, click here.

          I love these billboards. Their idea is so strong that they don't need words. The message is immediate and striking (you should overlook the pun there). They capture the excitement of a good game visually—which is perfectly suited for billboards that you're driving by at highway speed.  The entire design team deserves a large cake with extra frosting for this spectacular effort.

*The first rule you learn in design school is that, even if you make it large enough to be seen from space, you will never be able to make the logo big enough to satisfy the client.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Most Important News Event of the Week…

          …it turns out, is not North Korea's nuclear test.

          It is Helen Mirren's hair.

This photo came Here's the link:
          Pink. It looks fab on her.

          Now, I don't want to take anything away from the beautiful and stylish Ms. Mirren, but I would like to point out that I have the world's most amazing hairdresser, and so I've been rocking pink hair for years now.

        Also purple, orange, yellow, blue, and—my personal fave—"Girl on Fire." But this month it happens to be pink. Welcome to the club, Helen.

When I am completely grey I shall go
completely pink. Or maybe "Girl on Fire."

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Apocalypto-Millennialist Vacuuming Free Pass

          I had a very scary dream a week ago. It was set in a remote Ozarks apocalypto-millennialist compound and contained, in addition to the apocalypto-millennialists, a cannibal, zombies, four dim teenagers of the sort who always end up dying horribly in these scenarios, and me (obviously slated for Horrible Death no. 5).  I'm pretty sure George Romero is thinking about optioning it.

There were fewer horses in my dream, but otherwise, this is a very accurate representation of the
general level of screaming, panic, and bloodshed. Notice that nobody is even attempting to vacuum.
Woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

          It frightened me awake, this dream did, and then I had to get up and check to make sure all the doors were locked.*

          When I went back to bed, I was in no hurry to get to sleep, on the chance that this dream was still lurking in my subconscious, waiting to spring the blood-soaked second act on me the minute my eyes closed. So I tried to keep myself awake by going over my chore list for the following day.

          It happened that my chore list included a fair amount of vacuuming. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that vacuuming is The Housework That Dare Not Speak Its Name around me. I hate vacuuming more than congress hates the president. I hate it more than Manolo Blahnik hates Birkenstocks. More than the Wicked Witch of the West hated water.

          And I found myself thinking as I lay there avoiding sleep, "You know, if I were being chased by apocalypto-millennialists, zombies, a cannibal, and perhaps George Romero, I wouldn't have to vacuum tomorrow." And it is a measure of my hatred for The Housework That Dare Not Speak Its Name that I began to build a scenario in which the bare possibility of apocalypto-millennialists, zombies, a cannibal, and George Romero released me permanently from vacuuming duty. Because if you're potentially going to be Dead Person no. 5 at any moment, with the attendant gore and carpet destruction, what, really, in the grand scheme of things, is the point of vacuuming at all ever?

          And on this cheerful thought, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

*When I told him this, K accused me of not being a good Missourian. A good Missourian, he pointed out, would have gotten out her AmbushMaster 3000 Suburban Assault Rifle ("Now in pink!!! For the Ladies!!!") and squeezed off a few hundred rounds at random shadows, in addition to checking the doors. I'll be sure to do that next time.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Here Be Dragons

          At some point in my education I was told, in order to illustrate how ignorant and superstitious our ancestors were,* that the cartographers of bygone eras would write, "Beyond here there be dragons"** once they'd reached the limits of their geographic knowledge (which, it was always implied if not actually claimed outright, was approximately 93 miles from where they were currently sitting).

          Look how benighted our ancestors were, was the refrain. They didn't know anything about anything, made goofy-looking maps, and believed that there were dragons on down the road.

          I'm not necessarily claiming our ancestors were any brighter than we are today, I'm simply observing that just because we*** invented the Google Earth doesn't mean we should trash-talk the old cartographers with their parchment and quill pens. They got out some very respectable maps for not having satellites to help them.

Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1503-07, As illustrated in the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, 9th edition, Volume X, 1874, Fig.2. This image can be found here

           The globe depicted above is, according to Wikipedia, the only known surviving map where the phrase "here are dragons" is actually used. If you spend a little time looking at it, you'll be impressed that, aside from the fact that it's missing North America (South America's there, though), it's a pretty good depiction of the world. Score one for ignorant, superstitious medieval cartographers.
          I would also like to add that they were right about the dragons. For I have traveled and encountered dragons in strange lands, and I have the photos to prove it:

St. George's Dragon, England

Dragons in Paris

Dragon making itself useful in Rome

Dragon in Kyoto

Cheerful dragon in Salzburg

          I use Google Earth and Google Maps a fair bit, and even though they will helpfully find you nearby pizza joints or gas stations or tattoo parlors wherever you are, according to your interests, they are curiously silent on the subject of dragons—which, as the photos above attest, are not as uncommon as you might think. I believe this a bug, and I wish Google would please fix it right away.

*Ignoring the fact that today, according to a Gallup poll, 24% of us admit that we are somewhat superstitious, 44% of us believe in ghosts, and 77% of us believe in angels. Meanwhile, a majority of us still believe politicians when they promise not to raise taxes while balancing the federal budget.

**The actual phrase, it turns out, is, "Here are dragons." ("Hic sunt dracones.")

***And by "we" I don't mean all of us, but rather a few exceptionally math-enabled geography geek engineer types at Google.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Whole Lotta Coppicing Goin' On

          In the world I inhabit in my head, which is unfortunately nothing like the one I actually live in, the people who read this blog (that's you, Dear Readers) are clamoring, in their veritable tens, for more posts on pruning.

          And even though in the actual world, "pruning" is not a word that is going to launch a hundred-thousand Google searches, in my world I am going to pretend it's important enough to write yet another post on Pruning Techniques That Are Also Fun Words To Say And, In Addition, Typeset Like A Million Bucks.

           The word of the day, Dear Readers, is "coppicing." Coppicing is similar to pollarding, except that coppiced trees are cut to the stumps on a regular cycle (as few as 3-4 years for birch; as many as 50 years for oak in the U.K., where it is still practiced). The idea is to provide a constant, manageable, renewable supply of wood, traditionally for firewood and charcoal. This site gives you more information on the practice, in the highly unlikely event that you are as fascinated by forestry practices as I am.

          The practice of coppicing also gives us this lovely word which is far more widely known:

          Meaning, of course, a place where coppicing is practiced—a small wooded area.*

          I asked myself this morning why the idea of a coppiced wood is such a compelling one to me, and I decided that it was because the practice of coppicing demonstrates that we are capable of reasoned management of a resource, instead of wanton exploitation, and indeed that we were capable of reasoned management of a resource as far back as the Middle Ages.

          There seems to be a popular modern idea that humans are incapable of sensible resource management, that we squander every resource we have or have ever had—that we have never been, are not now, and will never be, able to understand the consequences of our resource use. I grant you, some bleak mornings this doesn't seem so far off the mark. 
          However, it also turns out to be a most useful cop-out. For if we've never been able to manage resources sensibly, and we can't manage them sensibly now, then why bother even trying? That makes it easy, doesn't it? We're just ignorant, resource-wasting idiots; we always have been and always will be, so why even worry about sensible management? We simply can't do it, so we don't even have to try. Easy schmeasy.

          Except that we aren't necessarily ignorant, resource-wasting idiots, and we can manage resources sensibly. It's just harder than saying we're bums and throwing up our hands in defeat. But something like coppicing testifies against the easy out. Coppiced forests were managed for centuries to provide a steady, reliable source of firewood or wood for charcoal, and indeed, for centuries that's just what they've done.

          Coppicing is one of those things that forces us to face the fact that we're capable of sensible, useful solutions to the problems that go along with resource use. We always have been. We always will be. We need to pull up our socks and start making an effort.

*And not as I originally thought, upon making the acquaintance of the word for the first time at a young age and not reading it very carefully, a dead body. Imagine my shock and horror when the hero of the tale I was reading went tramping through the copse—which I misread as "corpse." Put me right off fairy tales for a while, I can tell you.