Knitting fail + the research scarf

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Right, so it’s been one of those days. I have a fairly ridiculous to-do list this week so of course all I’ve been thinking all day is knitknitknitknit. My day has gone: work a bit, knit a bit, work a bit, knit a bit, eat lunch, knit for an hour and a half while listening to This American Life, then work a bit, then pick the knitting back up because I’m so close to finishing this hat (!), then second-guess the pattern because it seems like it’s big enough now, so I start decreasing, and I finish, and I’m so pleased, and I rush to the mirror in the hallway to try it on (it’s for Alvaro, not me, but we both have big heads) and I discover with horror:

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TOO SHORT.

Am I right? I think we can objectively say that this hat is too short. A winter hat that doesn’t even reach the top of one’s ears is no winter hat. It’s a beanie. For a puppet. Or something… a learning experience, maybe.

The yarn’s been cut and woven in so there’s no going back. I’m frustrated. I shouldn’t have second-guessed the pattern. Now I have to go find someone with a very short head.

Luckily I didn’t spend weeks or months of my life on this. I only started last Wednesday so there wasn’t so much time investment “lost,” but in fact that’s one of the things I liked about this hat, that it was a quickie, and my still fairly impatient self was pleased to be capable of churning out a knitting project in under a week. With this project I also learned a couple of new skills: knitting in the round from the bottom up, and decreasing in the round. All was not lost, then, but still I’m disappointed that even a week’s worth of work went into something that I messed up at the end because I was impatient and too big for my britches.

As I don’t want the hat to go to waste and can’t think of anyone who could wear it instead, I’m going to figure out a way to hook it onto the research scarf I’m making for Mas. The research scarf came from a dream I had about a year and a half ago, in which I was in elementary school and had been invited to the birthday party of a girl in my class, Meghan. My dream self was my adult self trapped in an eight-year-old’s body, and so upon receiving the invitation to Meghan’s party dream me decided that I would not gift her some mass market crap, something that would do nothing more than offer a moment’s whimsical distraction and then get relegated to a hall closet as yet another throw-away toy. I was no mindless consumer, no buyer of objects programmed to become functionally or fashionably obsolete. No, I decided, instead of giving Meghan a toy, I would do research on a subject of my choosing and present her with the archive of this research. So I did research on humpback whales, which oddly enough is historically accurate, since I was obsessed with humpback whales at age eight. At the birthday party I proudly presented Meghan with a fat binder full of photos, notes, and printed articles, but she was confused, seemed entirely unimpressed by all my hard work, and quickly set aside the binder in order to open up yet another package from Toys R Us. I didn’t confront her in the dream (it was her birthday after all, and even in dreams I’m polite in social situations), but in my dream thoughts I said to myself: “This girl sucks. That’s the best present ever.”

I told all of this to Mas and she thought it was hilarious. “It is the best present ever!” And so with that we decided that from here on out when we wanted to give a gift to each other, for a birthday or some other occasion, we would give each other research. This was the plan but it hasn’t entirely gotten off the ground because we’re already deep into other research projects, and also very forgiving of each other. She is the type of friend who, if we have a date to meet up and either one of us calls an hour before and says, “Listen, I hate humanity today and cannot bring myself to go out in public,” the one who has just been stood up understands entirely and is not annoyed.

I did actually do a lot of research on 18th century man-eating cryptids (see for example the Beast of Gévaudan) and wrote a pretty lengthy short story as my chosen mode of research presentation, and then my computer died a few weeks before Mas’s birthday last December, taking the story and all digital archive artifacts with it. It was an unspectacular death — it just froze, and so I turned it off, and when I turned it back on it got stuck on a pixelated start screen. I brought it into a computer repair shop and the guy just chuckled, tickled by the sight of such an antique. He said it was possible, maybe, to try to recuperate some of the data and put it on an external hard drive, so I said okay, and then, well, time flies, life gets the best of you, and here I am eight months later and I still haven’t gone back to see about saving my hard drive. My computer is Schrödinger’s cat in the many-worlds interpretation: so long as I don’t take it back to the repair shop, my files are both lost and not lost. I feel pretty pessimistic about this and am convinced they’re lost, and so I prefer to continue not knowing for now so they can stay half-not lost. Anyway, none of this really has anything to do with the subject at hand, which is the research scarf.

The research scarf is something I started developing when I first started knitting. I hadn’t picked up knitting needles in years, and had never been any good at it anyway, so I needed some practice first to get going on real projects. But I didn’t like the idea of having practice swatches that served no other purpose than being practice swatches. I decided then that in the process of learning to knit I would first try things out on the same practice “swatch,” which over time would become a long length of yarn of different colors, fibers, weights, and stitches, full of practice button holes and first-timer’s cables. In short, it would be a log of me learning how to knit, like a learner’s notebook written in yarn. Mas liked the idea, so eventually she’ll be receiving it, but not for a while. I’d first imagined working on it over the course of a year, but I quickly realized that this was a bit hasty on my part. It’s going to take a lot longer than a year for me to learn to knit — actually it’ll take a lifetime, because I don’t want to ever stop learning, and I don’t believe that in any skill we get to a point where we’ve learned everything there is to learn. Still, I have to cut myself off at some point and just give her the scarf as research in progress, so I told her the other day to expect it around her 40th birthday. (She’s turning 30 this year.) I’m a slow knitter.

Now, then, back to the short hat. There has to be some way to attach it to the scarf. It couldn’t really be used to make a hooded scarf, because thus far there’s only about a foot of scarf research, and I want to do things chronologically so I need to add the hat before I add anything else, which will make for a very asymmetrical design. Or do we care? I’m looking at it now and I’m not immediately seeing how to attach it in a non-awkward way. Will ponder this engineering puzzle and report back. In the meantime I need to go do some actual work.


New bread toy

Pretty much any sourdough bread baking guru or cookbook writer I can track down from at least the past five years or so talks about a Dutch oven as an essential piece of equipment for those of us stuck with electric home ovens. Even with the ventilator shut off, an electric oven will send steam out its vents so the humidity inside is way lower than what you’d get in a wood-fired one. And high humidity is part of the reason why loaves baked in a wood-fired oven will always, in my opinion, come out way better than electric oven-baked loaves. (“Better” is subjective of course, but I’m using it anyway here, in reference to the general qualities that bread geeks consider when sizing up a bread success or failure: towering oven spring, crisp crust, chewy interior, lots of air pockets. There are others, but those are the ones that I understand are affected by oven temps and humidity.)

When I first learned about this Dutch oven thing I went immediately on the hunt for one, but it seems that Dutch ovens of the sort I was looking for — cast iron with a frying pan for a lid — are not a thing in France/Switzerland, where I live. All the ones I found had deep bottoms and lids with handles, which I knew would make removing loaves difficult, or else they were Le Creuset and I’m not paying 400 euros for a pot, thanks. So I just sort of gave up on the Dutch oven thing and tried other methods: altering oven temperatures, pouring water in a tray at the bottom of the oven, but my bread was still coming out looking fairly sketchy 50% of the time, at least. I was getting very little oven spring, also because I work almost exclusively with whole grain flour and I’ve been trying to move towards wetter doughs, all of which leads to loaves that spread out during the final rise and wind up looking like pancakes. They taste good but are absolutely useless for making sandwiches.

Then this past Saturday I did my usual farmer’s market run, and there was a couple there selling kitchen wares. Either I was blind to them before or else they’re new (I think it’s the latter), but anyway, they had what they called Roman casseroles (cocotte romaine), which are basically terra cotta Dutch ovens with a base and cover of equal size. Yes! So I bought one, came home and got a sourdough sponge started, later made into dough; all told it was a never-ending wait of 36 hours until I had a dough ready to put in my new toy.

I didn’t get to baking it until late last night, because first we made pizza for dinner. It would have made sense to warm up the casserole while the oven was warming up for the pizza — you apparently have to put this thing in a cold oven and then turn it on, so the clay heats up gradually along with the oven — and then bake the bread directly after the pizza. But I timed things poorly and so was still pre-soaking the casserole at the time the oven had to be turned on for the pizza, and we were very hungry so pizza got priority. This meant that after the pizza was done I had to turn off the oven and leave the door open to let it cool down entirely, and then once cool put the casserole back in and — whatever, suffice it to say the bread didn’t get in until very late, and I was feeling very guilty about all the electricity I was wasting.

Once everything was preheated I took the casserole out of the oven, slid in the bread dough, covered it, and put it back into the oven to bake. After about 30 minutes at 375 F (this was all guess work) I removed the top cover. In retrospect I really should have either bought the bigger casserole, or else divided the dough I was baking into two, because I’d overfilled the dish. It wasn’t overflowing or anything, but there was definitely not a whole lot of wiggle space and so I knew already by this point that the bread would be hell to get out of the dish. But I soldiered on, i.e., shrugged it off and went back to the couch to pass out till the entire cooking time was up.

The bread baked in total for about 50 minutes. It sprung a decent amount, but not as much as I’d hoped. Next time I’m going to try a higher oven temperature. Also the crust was disappointing. I prefer really crispy crusts, and this one was pretty soft. So next time I’m taking the lid off sooner.

I left it in the pan overnight because I was tired and it was late. This morning, as expected, it was hell to get out.

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But I did. (After coffee.)

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Ta da. Left some behind in the casserole but I scraped that out and had it for breakfast. Waste not.

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Not bad at all really. I would say one of my better loaves, so I think I’m heading in the right direction. Next time, as I said, I’ll try a hotter oven and take the lid off sooner and see what comes out. But for now it’s perfectly good for sandwiches.


Time log of a highly productive day

On Wednesday Mas and I met up at Utopiana to catch up, which is an odd thing for me to say because normally we see each other all the time, but by fault of various circumstances we somehow managed to go an entire month without seeing each other, nor even really having much in the way of contact aside from a couple of brief emails. (She had also lost her cell phone and hasn’t yet gotten a new one.) At long last we were reunited then, and before we knew it we’d been talking for 10 hours straight. It was nearly 2 a.m. and we were both too exhausted to make our ways home, so we slept in the residency house. The next day was Thursday, which would prove to be a highly productive day.

0827 –  I woke up, much later than I normally wake up, but we’d been up late. I showered and dressed and was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee by 0900.

0910 – Mas and I are sitting at the table on the garden terrace, drinking our coffee and enjoying the still of the morning. I’m working on my latest knitting project. The still was interrupted when the birds arrived to feast on the grape arbor hanging over our heads. “I’ve had enough of their gluttony,” I said. “I’m fine with them eating some of the grapes but last year they ate everything. Let’s pick everything that’s ripe and make wine.” Mas said, “Right,” and got her laptop to start looking up how to go about such business, because neither of us had ever done it before. I got a pair of scissors from the kitchen and stood on a rickety wooden chair cutting down bunches of grapes and loading them into a plastic bag hooked on my elbow. I picked a huge pile, something like six or seven kilos I’d say, and then returned to my seat to continue knitting while Mas read aloud to me instructions she was finding online for how to make wine.

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1030 – After we found instructions that we felt capable of following, we turned to other important subjects and discussed those: gardening and Plantopic projects. I continued to knit. After a while Mas got up to go read in the sun, and I continued to knit and write a story in my head.

1130 – I decided to see what I could do as far as lunch preparation. There was very little in the house, but I knew there was at least one egg, half a bag of flour, and a bottle of olive oil, plus we have a garden, so I decided to make fresh pasta with pesto. Hunting around a little further in the kitchen, I found the tail end of a bag of frozen broccoli in the freezer and also a small piece of hard cheese, two cloves of garlic, and approximately 17 pine nuts. In the garden I picked two big handfuls of basil and managed to uncover some green beans that I’d missed harvesting the day before. (I love picking green beans. I love how you go to pick them, thinking there are only a few because the beans and the stems blend together at first glance, but the more you look the more you find.) Without a food processor or mortar and pestle, I just chopped the ingredients for the pesto as finely as I could and mixed them all together with olive oil. While that marinated I got to work on the pasta, pouring a small hill of flour on the table and making a well in it, into which went the lone egg, a few pinches of salt, and a tiny pour each of water and olive oil. Mixed together, then kneaded, then left to rest while I cleaned up a little.

1200 – I roll out the pasta, fold it, flour it, and start to cut it into strips. I pause for a second to post a photo of it to Instagram. I tag Valerio. Meanwhile Mas puts some water on to boil, sautes the broccoli and green beans, and goes to pick a handful of edible flowers for a garnish.

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1230 – We sit down to eat, and it’s very good. “I have a confession to make,” I told Mas. “This is the first time I’ve ever made pasta. Well, noodle-type pasta like this. I tried making ravioli once and it was an utter failure. It took me I think three hours, I was starving by the time it was done, and I hadn’t managed to roll it out thinly enough so it was too thick. And afterwards I looked up hand-rolled pasta tutorials on YouTube and memorized it for the next time I would make pasta, which, it turns out, was six years later.” She laughed. “You know, I think all this DIY stuff you’re doing, you’re not just making things, but also having as a side effect the loss of fear of trying new things and possibly failing,” she said. I agreed. It would have been entirely possible for our lunch to fail and for us to have to go across the road to buy sandwiches, but I had just sort of nonchalantly decided to take on this pasta-making endeavor as though hand-rolling and cutting fresh pasta is something I do on a regular basis, like making sourdough bread (which, it must be recalled, was once something I had never done).

I think another side effect of my DIY adventures is the fact that I even confessed at all to Mas that I’d never before made fresh linguine. I felt no need to pretend to be an expert — which is something I very definitely did when I was younger and thought I had something to prove to the world. I remember when I was in college and did a brief stint as a volunteer at the local Ronald McDonald House (a house where parents of hospitalized children can stay for free while their kids are receiving treatment) and I decided one day I would bake bread. I had, at that point, baked possibly four loaves of bread in my entire life, with varying success, but I did not tell this to my fellow volunteers. I memorized a recipe for Irish soda bread before going in for the day and set to work on it as though making Irish soda bread were my daily ritual. My fellow volunteers were impressed; and I, for my part, was relieved that the bread came out well and my fraud was not revealed. I’m embarrassed to tell this story, but I think it’s something that most people have probably done — pretend to be old hacks at something they’re really just doing for the first or second time. It’s not quite lying — I’d call it posturing, and I think we do it because beginners are not valued as much as someone who has been doing something for a very long time and has mastered it. Why is that? Being a beginner takes an enormous amount of courage and risk tolerance. Shouldn’t that be held in high esteem as much as the patience and perseverance it takes to become really good at something?

1315 – We’re done eating. I pick up my knitting again and we start to discuss agenda items for the Plantopic meeting scheduled for 1400. I’m really moving along on this hat.

1400 – Anna and Lucas arrive. Mas and I, in the course of talking, had begun pulling the grapes off their stems and putting them in a large, nonreactive metal pot. Anna joins in and Lucas picks more grapes. We discuss future workshops and to-dos while doing this.

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All in all it’s a productive meeting. We address a lot of issues and come up with plans to deal with them. The repetitive manual work is meditative and we find focus in our conversations. Mas, whose hands are for the most part clean, sends off a few necessary emails.

1445 – When the grapes are all picked off the stems we begin crushing them with our hands, while continuing to talk business. This was extreme fun.

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1515 – We cover the pot of crushed grapes with a clean towel, tied with a piece of string.

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We continued with the meeting, and Lucas and I begin removing black radish seeds from their pods. Mas and I had left a black radish to flower and go to seed, and this week I saw that the seed pods were ready to be picked. It was tedious work but we finished pretty quickly.

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1530 – Meeting’s over. Anna and Lucas leave; Mas goes to read some more. I’m feeling pretty wiped out, having not slept my usual number of hours the night before, so I decide to go take a short nap. I fall asleep astonishingly quickly and am asleep for a half an hour when my alarm goes off. Mas is on her way out and says goodbye, and I hit the snooze button once. When I wake up the second time I’m a little bit groggy but feel my energy is coming back. I don’t understand why naptime is not common practice in this world. We get so much more done if we’re just allowed to rest a little when we need to.

1627 – I get on my bike and head home. Perhaps emboldened by the earlier pasta success, I decide to take another risk and attempt to find a new route home. When I have children someday I will tell them that when I was their age I had to ride my bike uphill both ways to and from my Walter Benjamin reading group, and they will think I’m being grouchy or lying, but I will in fact be telling the truth. The normal route I take between my apartment and Utopiana brings me up, over, and down a very big hill, which I find hugely annoying because my apartment and Utopiana are at about the same altitude so in theory I should be able to get to and from both places without finishing drenched in sweat. To make it worse, I have to cross this small mountain on a busy road with no bike lane, and people are always in such a damn hurry. I’ve had no near-death experiences but I feel that it’s only a matter of time. I’ve tried to find another route several times but with no luck; I always wind up in industrial zones with even worse traffic, or else the experimental route takes twice as long as my usual one.

Never mind. I decided I would try again, and by some miracle I stumbled upon the alternative route that I knew existed but had just never found. There was no annoying hill to cross, I was on either a protected bike lane or else an entirely separate bike path for almost the entire way, and plus a good portion of it was through pretty neighborhoods. And it took me more or less as much time as my old route.

1705 – I support the local economy by stopping off at the grocery store to pick up a bag of peaches and one very large tomato.

1715 – Alvaro is home, as is our roommate. I ask them if they want pasta for dinner, because I’ve decided that I liked making the pasta at lunch and wanted to try it again as soon as possible. They both said yes, so I got to work making a ratatouille and then made and began rolling out pasta dough. Alvaro jumped up to help so we were very efficient in getting it done.

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1900 – We eat. The pasta is okay but definitely not as good as the lunch pasta, and I overcooked it so it was a bit soggy. I will have to research this to figure out what went wrong. (I sense a new obsession forming.) The pasta I made at lunch was made with commercial white flour, and our dinner pasta was a combo of whole wheat/semi-whole wheat flours, so I’m guessing therein lies the difference.

2000 – I pick up my book of the moment, A Guide for the Perplexed, which I read part of a few years ago. I decided recently that I wanted to read the whole thing, so I picked it up again. I’m finding it pretty frustrating and I’m disagreeing with a lot of things that only a couple of years ago I apparently glided over without much of a reaction. But it’s a nice change from my habitual reading choices. I often agree with the books I read, and there’s no challenge in a life led like that.

Between 2000 and when I started nodding off around 2300 I alternated reading, knitting, and occasionally watching the movie that the boys were watching. I don’t know the title of the movie but it was something period and involved the British.

So to recap: On Thursday I began learning a new skill (making pasta), advanced quite a bit in the production of a knitted garment, began a project that I’ve been wanting to try for years but had never gotten to (making wine, which also qualifies as new-skill learning), had meaningful discussions and made progress in planning projects and activities with Plantopic, saved for the future (black radish seeds), took a risk that will pay out both immediate and long-term dividends (found a new bike route), and challenged my comfort zone by reading something that I kind of agree with but also disagree with in many ways. I find that all in all this day was an extremely successful one.


The guerrilla architect


Doris Lessing takes on … pretty much everything and everyone, and also offers the best reading advice ever given

DORISnochris

I was talking with someone the other day, I can’t remember with whom, and we were talking about mainstream education, standardization, norms, etc. And I was reminded of something Doris Lessing wrote in the introduction to The Golden Notebook, talking about critics and their inability to write what they really think and to consider works of literature in any other way than as in comparison to other works of literature. She expands what she says into a deeper criticism of the factory model of education and the competition and value judgments it encourages. She writes:

It is not possible for reviewers and critics to provide what they purport to provide — and for which writers so ridiculously and childishly yearn.

This is because critics are not educated for it; their training is in the opposite direction.

It starts when the child is as young as five or six, when he arrives at school. It starts with marks, rewards, “places,” streams,” stars — and still in many places, stripes. This horserace mentality, the victor and loser way of thinking, leads to “Writer X is, is not, a few paces ahead of Writer Y. Writer Y has fallen behind. In his last book Writer Z has shown himself to be a better writer than Writer A.” From the very beginning the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure. It is a weeding-out system; the weaker get discourages and fall out; a system designed to produce a few winners who are always in competition with each other. It is my belief — though this is not the place to develop this — that the talents every child has, regardless of his official “IQ,” could stay with him through life, to enrich him and everybody else, if these talents were not regarded as commodities with a value in the success-stakes.

The other thing taught from the start is to distrust one’s own judgement. Children are taught submission to authority, how to search for other people’s opinions and decisions, and how to quote and comply.

As in the political sphere, the child is taught that he is free, a democrat, with a free will and a free mind, lives in a free country, makes his own decisions. At the same time he is a prisoner of the assumptions and dogmas of his time, which he does not question, because he has never been told they exist. By the time a young person has reached the age when he has to choose (we still take it for granted that a choice is inevitable) between the arts and sciences, he often chooses the arts because he feels that here is humanity, freedom, choice. He does not know that he is already moulded by a system: he does not know that the choice itself is the result of a false dichotomy rooted in the heart of our culture. Those who do sense this, and who don’t wish to subject themselves to further moulding, tend to leave, in a half-conscious, instinctive attempt to find work where they won’t be divided against themselves. With all our institutions, from the police force to academia, from medicine to politics, we give little attention to the people who leave — that process of elimination that goes on all the time and which excludes, very early, those likely to be original and reforming, leaving those attracted to a thing because that is what they are already like. A young policeman leaves the Force saying he doesn’t like what he has to do. A young teacher leaves teaching, her idealism snubbed. This social mechanism goes almost unnoticed — yet it is as powerful as any in keeping our institutions rigid and oppressive.

These children who have spent years inside the training system become critics and reviewers, and cannot give what the author, the artist, so foolishly looks for — imaginative and original judgement. What they can do, and what they do very well, is to tell the writer how the book or play accords with current patterns of feeling and thinking — the climate of opinion. They are like litmus paper. They are wind gauges — invaluable. They are the most sensitive of barometers of public opinion. You can see changes of mood and opinion here sooner than anywhere except in the political field — it is because these are people whose whole education has been just that — to look outside themselves for their opinions, to adapt themselves to authority figures, to “received opinion” — a marvellously revealing phrase.

It may be that there is no other way of educating people. Possibly, but I don’t believe it. In the meantime it would be a help at least to describe things properly, to call things by their right names. Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this:

“You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgment. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”

Like every other writer I get letters all the time from young people who are about to write theses and essays about my books in various countries — but particularly in the United States. They all say: “Please give me a list of the articles about your work, the critics who have written about you, the authorities.” They also ask for a thousand details of total irrelevance, but which they have been taught to consider important, amounting to a dossier, like an immigration department’s.

These requests I answer as follows: “Dear Student. You are mad. Why spend months and years writing thousands of words about one book, or even one writer, when there are hundreds of books waiting to be read. You don’t see that you are the victim of a pernicious system. And if you have yourself chosen my work as your subject, and if you do have to write a thesis — and believe me I am very grateful that what I’ve written is being found useful by you — they why don’t you read what I have written and make up your own mind about what you think, testing it against your own life, your own experience. Never mind about Professors White and Black.”

“Dear Writer” — they reply. “But I have to know what the authorities say, because if I don’t quote them, my professor won’t give me any marks.”

This is an international system, absolutely identical from the Urals to Yugoslavia, from Minnesota to Manchester.

The point is, we are all so used to it, we no longer see how bad it is.

I am not used to it, because I left school when I was fourteen. There was a time I was sorry about this, and believed I had missed out on something valuable. Now I am grateful for a lucky escape. After the publication of The Golden Notebook, I made it my business to find out something about the literary machinery, to examine the process which made a critic, or a reviewer. I looked at innumerable examination papers — and couldn’t believe my eyes; sat in on classes for teaching literature, and couldn’t believe my ears.

You might be saying: That is an exaggerated reaction, and you have no right to it, because you say you have never been part of the system. But I think it is not at all exaggerated, and that the reaction of someone from outside is valuable simply because it is fresh and not biased by allegiance to a particular education.

But after this investigation, I had no difficulty in answering my own questions: Why are they so parochial, so personal, so small-minded? Why do they always atomize, and belittle, why are they so fascinated by detail, and uninterested in the whole? Why is their interpretation of the word critic always to find fault? Why are they always seeing writers as in conflict with each other, rather than complementing each other … simply, this is how they are trained to think. That valuable person who understands what you are doing, what you are aiming for, and can give you advice and real criticism, is nearly always someone right outside the literary machine, even outside the university system; it may be a student just beginning, and still in love with literature, or perhaps it may be a thoughtful person who reads a great deal, following his own instinct.

I say to these students who have to spend a year, two years, writing theses about one book: “There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty — and vice-versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. Remember that for all the books we have in print, are as many that have never reached print, have never been written down — even now, in this age of compulsive reverence for the written word, history, even social ethic, are taught by means of stories, and the people who have been conditioned into thinking only in terms of what is written — and unfortunately nearly all the products of our educational system can do no more than this — are missing what is before their eyes. For instance, the real history of Africa is still in the custody of black storytellers and wise men, black historians, medicine men: it is a verbal history, still kept safe from the white man and his predations. Everywhere, if you keep your mind open, you will find truth in words not written down. So never let the printed page be your master. Above all, you should know that the fact that you have to spend one year, or two years, on one book, or one author means that you are badly taught — you should have been taught to read your way from one sympathy to another, you should be learning to follow your own intuitive feeling about what you need: that is what you should have been developing, not the way to quote from other people.

But unfortunately it is nearly always too late.

It did look for a while as if the recent student rebellions might change things, as if their impatience with the dead stuff they are taught might be strong enough to substitute something more fresh and useful. But it seems as if the rebellion is over. Sad. During the lively time in the States, I had letters with accounts of how classes of students had refused their syllabuses, and were bringing to class their own choice of books, those that they had found relevant to their lives. The classes were emotional, sometimes violent, angry, exciting, sizzling with life. Of course this only happened with teachers who were sympathetic, and prepared to stand with the students against authority — prepared for the consequences. There are teachers who know that the way they have to teach is bad and boring — luckily there are still enough, with a bit of luck, to overthrow what is wrong, even if the students themselves have lost impetus.

Meanwhile there is a country where …

Thirty or forty years ago, a critic made a private list of writers and poets which he, personally, considered made up what was valuable in literature, dismissing all others. This list he defended lengthily in print, for The List instantly became a subject for much debate. Millions of words were written for and against — schools and sects, for and against, came into being. The argument, all these years later, still continues … no one finds this state of affairs sad or ridiculous…

Where there are critical books of immense complexity and learning, dealing, but often at second or third hand, with original work — novels, play stories. The people who write these books form a stratum in universities across the world — they are an international phenomenon, the top layer of literary academia. Their lives are spent in criticizing, and in criticizing each other’s criticism. They at least regard this activity as more important that the original work. It is possible for literary students to spend more time reading criticism and criticism of criticism that they spend reading poetry, novels, biography, stories. A great many people regard this state of affairs as quite normal, and not sad and ridiculous…

Where I recently read an essay about Antony and Cleopatra by a boy shortly to take A levels. It was full of originality and excitement about the play, the feeling that any real teaching about literature aims to produce. The essay was returned by the teacher like this: I cannot mark this essay, you haven’t quoted from the authorities. Few teachers would regard this as sad and ridiculous…

Where people who consider themselves to be educated, and indeed as superior to and more refined than ordinary non-reading people, will come up to a writer and congratulate him or her on getting a good review somewhere — but will not consider it necessary to read the book in question, or ever to think that what they are interested in is success…

Where when a book comes out on a certain subject, let’s say star-gazing, instantly a dozen colleges, societies, television programmes, write to the author asking him to come and speak about star-gazing. The last thing it occurs to them to do is to read the book. This behaviour is considered quite normal and not ridiculous at all…

Where a young man or woman, reviewer or critic, who has not read more of a writer’s work than the book in front of him, will write patronizingly, or as if rather bored with the whole business, or as if considering how many marks to give an essay, about the writer in question — who might have written fifteen books, and have been writing for twenty or thirty years — giving the said writer instructions on what to write next, and how. No one thinks this is absurd, certainly not the young person, critic or reviewer, who has been taught to patronize and itemize everyone for years, from Shakespeare downwards.

Where a Professor of Archaeology can write of a South American tribe which has advanced knowledge of plants, and of medicine and of psychological methods: “The astonishing thing is that these people have no written language…” And no one thinks him absurd.

Where, on the occasion of a centenary of Shelley, in the same week and in three different literary periodicals, three young men, of identical education, from our identical universities, can write critical pieces about Shelley, damning him with the faintest possible praise and in identically the same tone, as if they were doing Shelley a great favour to mention him at all — and no one seems to think that such a thing can indicate that there is something seriously wrong with our literary system.

Finally … this novel [The Golden Notebook] continues to be, for its author, a most instructive experience. For instance. Ten years after I wrote it, I can get in one week, three letters about it, from three intelligent, well-informed, concerned people, who have taken the trouble to sit down and write to me. One might be in Johannesburg, one in San Francisco, one in Budapest. And here I sit, in London, reading them, at the same time, or one after another — as always, grateful to the writers, and delighted that what I’ve written can stimulate, illuminate — or even annoy. But one letter is entirely about the sex war, about man’s inhumanity to woman, and woman’s inhumanity to man, and the writer has produced pages and pages all about nothing else for she — but not always a she — can’t see anything else in the book.

The second is about politics, probably from an old Red like myself, and he or she writes many pages about politics, and never mentions any other theme.

These two letters used, when the book was as it were young, to be the most common.

The third letter, once rare but not catching up on the others, is written by a man or a woman who can see nothing in it but the theme of mental illness.

But it is the same book.

And naturally these incidents bring up again questions of what people see when they read a book, and why one person sees one pattern and nothing at all of another pattern, and how odd it is to have, as an author, such a clear picture of a book, that is seen so very differently by its readers.

And from this kind of thought has emerged a new conclusion: which is that it is not only childish of a writer to want readers to see what he sees, to understand the shape and aim of a novel as he sees it — his wanting this means that he has not understood a most fundamental point. Which is that the book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn’t anything more to be got out of it.

And when a book’s pattern and the shape of its inner life is as plain to the reader as it is to the author — then perhaps it is time to throw the book aside, as having had its day, and start again on something new.

Doris Lessing

June 1971


Mediocre yarn for a mediocre knitting project

There’s a lady who sells yarn at our farmer’s market and I normally pass by her, but this past Saturday I stopped at her stand, and not just to browse aimlessly. Before I’d even turned the corner on the market street I had already decided to buy yarn from her, because Friday night on the train back from the bake party I finished Jonah’s hat, and so Saturday when I went on my market run I was still jacked up from having completed a project, caught in the momentum of production excitement, and wanting to jump right into the next one.

This lady is not my preferred yarn lady. I have my favorite shop that I always go to, but the main reason I’ve never bought from the market lady is because she doesn’t have particularly interesting yarn. It’s all wool-acrylic blends or 100% acrylic in mundane colors, plus several baskets of ugly, sparkly yarn that looks like Christmas tree tinsel. This past Saturday was no different, but like I said, I was in a yarn-buying mood that would not be put off till Monday. So I stopped to look for something for a hat for Alvaro, and also something for me, because until now I’ve been knitting things for other people but never for myself, and I’ve decided I want to knit something for myself. I picked out some forest green wool for him, and when it came to me I was looking for a quantity of something pretty for an infinity scarf. I decided on this:

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I felt like very much the seasoned knitter, buying in bulk like that. When I got home I realized that I didn’t have the right size of circular needles to do the infinity scarf, and I wanted to get going on a new project right away so I picked out a different scarf on my Ravelry queue, one that’s worked flat. I got to work on it without being sure if I’d keep it for myself or give it to someone else. But never mind, I just wanted to knit, with no big plans in mind, just knit for joy. Alvaro said he’d wear it, and so for a short while he was the scarf’s intended recipient — until I got 14 rows in and decided I hated the yarn.

Seriously, I hate this yarn. That first touch through the tiny opening at the top of the bargain bin bag was deceivingly soft and cuddly. I’m this far in:

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and … I just can’t continue. I am very much a process knitter because, after all, time spent knitting is time that comes from my finite allotment of life years, so I want it to be enjoyable. Knitting with this yarn feels like I’m knitting with plastic. Because I am knitting with plastic. There is surely 100% acrylic yarn in existence in the world that feels nice, I’m sure, but this doesn’t. There’s no softness, there’s no glide. The small part I’ve gotten done feels like hatred. I do not want hatred around my husband’s neck. I told this to Alvaro and he scoffed. “It feels fine!” he said. Not to me. I told him I was taking it apart but I would go out to get some nice yarn, because he deserves nice yarn (aw), and I really like this pattern so I want to do it in something soft and warm and not made of chemicals. He said okay, and requested red. Red it is, my love.

Now, however, I’m left with the conundrum of what to do with all this stupid yarn: 1,700 meters of it, to be exact. Nearly two kilometers. Jesus. I don’t have the nerve to return it to the market lady, but neither do I want to knit with it. I suppose I could make piles of knitted mice for my parents’ cat, because I kind of hate my parents’ cat so I wouldn’t feel bad about giving her mice made from crappy yarn. Or else I could make non-wearables, because I feel it’s somehow less offensive to offer someone a non-wearable knitted object made from crappy yarn than it is to offer him or her something made from crappy yarn that will brush against bare skin.

I could also — and here I think I’ve answered my question — keep the yarn for the day when I’m feeling bold enough to knit my first sweater. Since first sweaters run a very high risk of being embarrassing for the recipient, I would want to knit my first sweater for myself and to have it be my everyday gardening sweater so that all the mistaken stitches and wonky seam lines wouldn’t matter, fashion-speaking, and I would take full responsibility upon my shoulders for any ugliness I create. Yarn for a mucking-about sweater of this sort should really just be any sort of cheap, possibly ugly yarn you find in the bargain bin, no? And so what? Why should knitting be only about making beautiful things? Shouldn’t it also be for making simple, strictly utilitarian things we need in our lives? I’m for a combination of the two — beautiful and useful — but in the case of my future hypothetical gardening sweater I’d be wearing it to shovel compost and smash slugs, so I wouldn’t want it to be dainty and soft, made from the wool of Bluefaced Leicester sheep raised by a mountain women’s cooperative and dyed with boiled mulberries. I’ll save that yarn for pretty accessories (and anyway, I’d only have the budget for two skeins of such a yarn, not enough to make a sweater). Oddly, just imagining this future knitting project and its everydayness is making me like this blue yarn. I don’t mind its cheapness when I imagine it in the humble role of gardening sweater. It does its job.

 

 


The 400-year-old oven

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Last Friday I went to a bread baking party on a rural hillside outside Bern, which began with a speech by a historic building preservationist about what I had already assumed was a pretty old oven that we would be using. He was speaking in Swiss German dialect, and I was understanding every eighth word plus getting occasional whispered translations from a woman next to me named Katrine, so I was only following about half of what he was saying. Then I thought I heard him say something like “the year 1650.” I turned to Katrine: “Did he just say the oven was built in the 1650s?” Yes, Katrine replied. This is when I understood that I would be baking bread in what was, indeed, a pretty old oven.

I’ve discovered in writing this blog — for coming up on a year now — that sometimes the greatest experiences I have in my research are very hard to write about, because they’re so exciting and I’m so excitable that I get jumpy just thinking about whatever the experience was, and I start fidgeting in my chair, unable to write coherent sentences. This is what I’m finding now, sitting here and thinking about Friday. I baked bread in a 17th-century oven. Really, think about that. Do you realize how much bread has been baked in that oven? Whose hands have touched it? How much the world around it has changed? That oven is nearly 400 years old. 400 YEARS OLD. And I touched it, baked bread in it. Perhaps you think I’m being a bit dramatic, and you know what? I don’t care. Because I baked bread in a 400-year-old oven. Write it on my tombstone.

This was all thanks to Erica, whom I met when she came to a workshop Mas and I did back in March. About a month ago I got an e-mail from her asking if I’d like to come by the farm where she lives for a bake party. We have an outdoor wood-fired oven, she wrote. Of course I wanted to go. I’d never baked bread in a wood-fired oven before. It was sure to be pretty neat. (And then I got there and realized …. the oven … was … 400.YEARS.OLD!)

The bake party was Bring Your Own Dough. I made mine: sourdough, part whole wheat and part locally grown rye from a farm I visited the other week. I trucked the fermenting dough along with me on the two-hour train ride to Erica’s home in the hills, and then shaped the loaves on her kitchen table

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while we talked bread, knitting, wool, and weaving. (Erica is a weaver, knitter, and wool dyer.) When 5 o’clock came around we walked over to the neighboring farm to pick up a pail of fresh, raw milk. I attempted to pet a pair of timid calves, checked out the pig pen, and played with the dog before heading back to her place for milk and cookies. (Happy hippie vibes reaching their peak around this point.) And then we baked bread in a very old oven.

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The bake house: The 17th-century part of it is the oven itself (inside) and the sandstone exterior walls, which have been cleaned up and repaired of course but are still the originals. The restoration work was done about three years ago and took a year to complete; most of the work entailed restoring the roof to what would have been its original design. Sometime in the 18th century the owners at the time added a chimney, and this was removed in the restoration work — the smoke from the oven now floats out the ventilated facade.

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The oven

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Loading the oven. We started with pizza before moving on to bread … and Erica’s ill-fated cookies, seen in the lower right above. I felt bad because she’d spent quite a while painstakingly cutting out those G clefs with a cookie cutter, and we told the guy manning the oven that it was surely too hot to bake cookies right then, but he waved off our worries and said he’d only keep them in for a couple of minutes. For four hot minutes a palpable excitement over the promise of cookies grew and grew among the dozen or so kids at the bake party, and so when Erica ran out of the bake house with a tray in her hands a hungry young mob swarmed her. When she plopped the tray of scorched cookies on the ground there was a short silence and then a collective “… Ohh…” Their little faces fell as they gathered around in quiet disappointment. It was very sad.

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My bread went into the oven shortly afterward but luckily it didn’t burn, and I have no idea how because I had no clue how hot the oven was at that point, and the oven jockeys weren’t expert bakers so it was more or less guesswork and occasional progress checks.

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The bread came out and my excitement over what appeared to be a bread success was only outmatched by the excitement over the fact that it had been baked in a very old oven.

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(I’m smelling it, not kissing it FYI.)

I gave one of the loaves to Erica and took the other one home for personal consumption, and somehow held off on digging into it on the train ride home because I wanted to wait for Alvaro. It smelled up the entire car I was in, and reminded me of this one time when I was living in New York and baked some Irish soda bread for a brunch I was going to. Running late, the bread came out of the oven 30 seconds before I had to jump on the cross-town bus so I just wrapped it in a tea towel and ran out the door. I hopped on the bus and sat down. Little by little heads started turning and, long story short, I finally had to elbow my way through a ravenous gauntlet of NYC transit customers grasping at me like so many zombies, and exited the bus two stops early to avoid being robbed of my soda bread. How starved the modern consumer is for good bread. Either Swiss transit customers are more discrete than New York ones, or else the warm scent of my fresh rye bread on its trip back home was outdone by the outputs of the farting contest being had by a group of Boy Scouts a few seat rows away. (True story.)

I didn’t cut into the bread until the next day. Feast your eyes:

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This was magical bread. It was earthy tasting, a little bit sour but not too sour, soft on the inside and with a moderately hard crust. I kind of can’t really believe I made this bread. I’m chalking up its success to the fact that it was baked in an oven full of the ghosts of past bread successes. (I’ve been having a lot of failures lately, I should say, so my ego needed this.) Now I’m trying to figure out some way to mimic the same wood-fired oven environment in our old-but-not-old-enough-to-be-charming electric oven. I’m thinking a clay Dutch oven, but it’ll have to be one dug up from an archaeological dig if it’s to inspire the same level of awe as the aforementioned very old oven.

Erica did send me a text message when I was on my way home, saying that her neighbor/landlady (the oven’s owner) said I could come back and bake bread whenever I want. “Please thank your neighbor for me,” I texted back, “It was really cool to get to use the oven. I’ll be back once a week from now on ;)” That may or may not have been a joke.


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