Archive for April, 2009

When I was a child, we drank a lot of Ribena, a blackcurrant cordial, or “squash”. It’s funny, perhaps a marker of social change, or of a gradual drift across class markers, I’m not sure exactly – perhaps no more than the flow of fashions in parenting – but I never give my children squash. Or even very much juice. In that I may be more unusual, but it feels as though all my little half-human/half-fruit-bat morphs don’t need it for the vitamins, and why give them a vehicle of sugars and acid with all the fiber stripped out. Sugar in a rush? Not my idea of ideal child fodder, but as I said, perhaps I’m odd about that.

However, when we were little, we had Ribena (which, incidentally, I loved, and my parents were most amused that my stab at the word was, “beer”). From very early on in my reading life, I remember reading the label and being mystified by the instruction, “dilute to taste”. Being a good manipulator of language and meaning, even then, I eventually came up with a gloss for this along the lines: “it is so concentrated that unless diluted, it is impossible to comprehend the flavor due to its intensity. Dilution is necessary to produce a concentration level at which the human taste buds are able to adapt and process the information meaningfully.” I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but that’s what I thought it meant. I thought that for years. It may only have been as an adult, reading an equivalent French label that I had the shocking realization that it had always meant “according to” rather than “in order to” taste. I still like my explanation, but I’m astonished at how much more complex it is than the correct reading. How perfectly I was suited to my literature degree, where I found practical criticism -the ability to conjure elaborate layers of meaning from any ‘text’  – was my especial strength.

But English has always been blessed by its grammar with a richness of double-meanings. Yesterday, as I corralled the little ones and the girl next door along the road, I was struck by another one, in the jeweler’s window: “Watch batteries changed while you wait”. If I hadn’t had so many children to keep from running into the road I’d have gone in and protested. I’ve been in there several times, and I’ve never been given a battery-changing show to keep me occupied and amused while I wait. Hell, even when I go in with a watch battery, they take it into the back room to minister to it.

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One evening last week I went to a parents’ evening at Child One’s school. I will freely admit that I did this largely because I expected them to say many wonderful things about her, and to a much lesser extent to be reassured that there were no unnoticed hiccups in the transition to secondary school. Also I think it marginally handy to show your face when all is well, as you give yourself a little credit to play with if you ever need to go storming down there in a strop.

I am also a prudent and forward-planning person so I did what no other parent in the place seemed to do: I armed myself with four pointed sticks and a ball of wool. Knitters are smart. Boy, are they ever smart. There are definitely places and times where (much as I adore reading) a book just won’t work. You know: it’s noisy; you have stupidly tiny amounts of time that are barely sufficient to find your place on the right page never mind actually read anything; you have to keep your eye on the rate at which the parents in front of you are vacating the teacher’s chair…

So picture if if you will: all the other parents are there, in fretful state, looking at their watches and mumbling, and I’m sitting (or standing as often as not, as room layout dictates), and I’m perfectly serene, because I have my socks with me. Also, granted, I’m serene because I’m hearing wall-to-wall “what a delightful girl; what a pleasure to teach; how clever she is; top of the class in this, that and the other…” Nachas, and knitting. What could be better?

I know there are people out there – even knitters – who eschew socks. But this is their true forte (apart from when they are completed, and snugly traveling the world, fitted perfectly aboard your feet): they have genius levels of portabilty. I put it to you, what could be better? The needles are short (I defy you to be carrying a bag too small for them to fit into), and it is almost impossible for the entire project to weight more than four ounces. Quite plausibly, only two. Also I should add that apparently nothing is going to be quite as fascinating to the general non-knitting public. I might as well have been giving a fire-eating demonstration. (For this part, I think DPN’s have the edge over circular needles: they look weirder).

All evening the grim-faced were sidling over and having variants on the same conversation. “Good idea,” they’d say. “What’s that: knitting?” (Yup, knitting). “What y’knitting, then? Oh, OK. Big project, I hope? You’ll have finished by the time this ends.” Mercifully, it was a context where no-one informed me that they came cheaper at Tesco’s, because it was patently obvious to even the dimmest that this was a whole lot more fun than going to Tesco’s would be, and co-taskable (?) with parent’s evening. Generally they’d say something like, “what a good idea. I wish I had something to do” and I’d reply breezily, “It’s tupperware for time.”

And so it is. You can use up all all those tiny bits of time that are too small for anything else. I keep my knitting on the kitchen counter (although it’s shocking, and to my eternal shame, that I get very unhappy if anyone else clutters up ‘my’ kitchen with anything). I knit while I wait for the kettle to boil, or the pasta to cook, or the sauce to reach a nice simmer… It’s amazing how many quick rows of this or that can be accomplished in those oddment-minutes (and equally amazing how many oddment-minutes can be created, in which it turns out not to be worth starting some more time-consuming or urgent task elsewhere).

It works at the hairdresser’s too. Last time I went I knit there, and that was an absolute revelation. No longer an afternoon entirely sacrificed on the altar of personal vanity. Socks- bless ’em – to the rescue. I do did have problems with the hairdresser’s. I find the unpleasant music too distracting to read a real book, and their magazines are invariably crap on steroids. If I can find one to hand, my previous solution has been to take an ancient, stray New Yorker (rather terrifyingly we are still reading through a subscription from two years ago. We used to read it religiously, cover to cover, every week, but then life intervened, and we became thoroughly ‘lapsed’, and are creeping through our remaining issues like beleaguered Antarctic explorers trapped in the dark fastnesses of  winter pack ice with nothing but two copies of Blackwood’s magazine, c. 1913). Also it’s rude to read while the girl is actually doing things to your hair, and it can be tiring to find continual interaction (though in my case, I quite like to hear the tales of the trainee merchant sailor boyfriend I refer to as the ‘sea captain’, if I can drag them out of her). Yet it transpires that I can knit comfortably, and without rudeness, and no more than the occasional needle-retrieval moment which she indulged with great generosity (it was like a contact-lens incident in style, if not scope). That’s an hour or so into the tupperware, right there.

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I’m back from my friend’s, and the sun is shining for the fourth day in a row, and the builders are lurking in the garden with noisemaking equipment and the radio (I so wish I could impose my taste in music, or shared theirs) . All seems well with the world, so there’s a glaring “what is about to go wrong?” feeling in the back of my mind. I don’t mean small stuff, like finding out that my adored jasmine has been decapitated, of something (don’t worry: it hasn’t been, yet). More the kind of “we’ve hit a snag that means we need to scaffold immediately and rebuild the rear wall of your house and your new toilet is now going to cost £15,000” kind of a go-wrong. But maybe not. We live in hope, which is fine. It’s the holding my breath part that’s getting to me.

My friend was as much of delight as she has been for the last twenty-odd years. Her children were new, but quite as delightful as their dear mother. I’ve also decided that maybe her husband doesn’t hate me after all. Why did I think he did? Other than generic neurosis? No idea. Either way, they announced the Lions touring party to South Africa and we chewed that over for a while. Wales has supplied 13 of the 37 players, and England only 8, so I was happier than him, but I don’t think he cares quite as much. Rugby tends to mean so much more to Welsh than English supporters, largely because it’s a significant part of how we can externalize our separate national identity. We are, in this one aspect, not entirely subsumed and we can hold our own against them, a nation with a population getting on for twenty times the size (can that be right?).

And to answer a burning question: no, she is not a knitter, but yes, she is as close to perfect as a non-knitter can be. It transpired that her mother is a big knitter, and she understands. I wasn’t planning on knitting at all, but she had to deal with some telephone calls, and I was sitting in the garden (and yay, I even took my tights off!) keeping an eye on the various children. I thought I could sneak in a bit of sock time without being rude, so I did. She eventually returned and picked up the conversation without even appearing to notice the sock. After a few moments I remembered it myself, apologized, and made to put it down. “No, not at all,” said that paragon of amicable virtue, “I know it doesn’t interfere [with the conversation]. It’s like, …smoking or something.” Well, only in this one respect is it ‘like’ smoking, but the analogy amused as much as it disconcerted me, and so I pass it on. And in the event, the sock stayed out. Hooray for the Paragon.

In addition to everything else, I got to give them their wedding present, a mere matter of five or six years late. We were moving around when the wedding took place and I ddn’t want to give her some random thing, so I said I’d wait. I didn’t forget my promise, but she seemed so surprised that I think they may have. I decided ages ao i’d give them some glass, but I swore to myself that I wouldn’t do so except in person (it would have been really ridiculous to wait all this time and then send something). I chose a dish in grays and plum, and a pair of coordinating coasters. It’s hard to tell with people as pathologically polite as my friend, but I think she liked them and I suppose they are guaranteed to be better than nothing. Which reminds me of a very funny thing I came across once: a rant on the pseudoscientific graph on a cereal packet which concluded: Cheerios – better for you than starvation. We use this around the house as a visiting pet slogan.


Coasters: better for you than no wedding present?

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“Most glassblowers aren’t born artists,” says Caleb Siemon. “They’re born pyromaniacs.”

On Saturday I found out a little more… but I haven’t any time to write about the most thrilling day I’ve had in a long time because I’m taking the little ones and running away from the builders. We’re off to see my oldest friend, who I always think of as living right on the other side of the country, and it turns out to be only about three hours away. So it is revealed as truly disgraceful that we haven’t actually seen each other in four years. All the more so since I suspect that on more than one occasion we’ve spent more time on the phone (at least, we could easily have done so in our heyday) than it wold take to drive over to visit. Disgraceful. Dreadful. Shocking. We have accumulated three unseen children between us since our last meeting. This should be fun. And I get to escape the worst of the knocking down and destroying which is going on in the garden as I write. Bash, bash, bash crash. Just burn it down, I say…

I’m going to miss the Beloved, and Child One (who only came home yesterday from a week away), but I’m more worried than I think I should be about

  • missing the first week’s glass class at the adult education center
  • not being able to check my email (and my blog, and all the rest)
  • not cracking on with the socks. I don’t think my friend’s a knitter. I don’t think it looks very polite to knit while we catch up on the last four years. I know I can divide my attention between her and the sock with no detriment to her, but I suspect she may not believe this. Even though she has children, and should therefore understand the whole divided attention thing, I think she might feel there’s a difference between the call of the young and the call of the yarn. What can I say: she’s great, but not perfect.

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The other day we took the kids to a petting zoo and playbarn.

Here is what we saw.

what the knitter saw

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I don’t like waste, I really, really don’t. I’m not a big one for throwing away anything that might be useful (but on the rare occasions when I do throw away, boy, do I throw). In the “there are two kinds of people in the world” division between the pack rats and the minimalists, I am rather sorry to admit I know to which party I belong. In fairness though, I am better than many at actually getting round to using those useful-looking things. Here is a broken clothes airer:

clothes airer houseclothes airer house2Two things you should know about this: it still folds up like a regular airer, and it’s a HOUSE, not a tent. Thank you.

And maybe my best day last year was the day we got the compost bin. It was a gleeful, soothing thing to peel a family’s-worth of vegetables for a roast dinner and not fill the bin. Just – disappear it to the compost, and know that it was doing something good. It used to kill me: all those healthy peelings, just going into a black refuse bag. The day my local council introduced a food-waste collection scheme was pretty good too. Now they take away the things I’m not keen to feed my own compost, like meat bones and cheese rinds and the dead pasta that fell under the little ones’ chairs (“you could eat off out floor” says the Beloved darkly, and with regularity).

I am, after all, a person who has found a use for dryer lint. I’m not saying I keep it indefinitely, but I found it irksome to throw away something so glaringly useful-looking (but perhaps other people are not gnawed at by the ‘obvious’ utility of lint), and now I have found me a use. Turns out that dryer lint, if reasonably densely textured, is excellent for polishing stained glass. Outstanding at it. Assuming that the solder has no nasty spikes (which good solder lines shouldn’t have), it polishes up a treat. All the finger marks and residual flux grime come off beautifully, and then you throw your little wad of polishing lint into the compost (ha! ha!) and done, sorted. Solved.

So, when a knitting recipe says “place stitches in reserve on some waste yarn” my first instinct is to think something like “what mean they by this ‘waste yarn’ idea?” In exactly the way I have trouble throwing away any piece of glass more than about half an inch square (there’s no glass too small to use if you’re prepared to be patient as you can see here), that extra six inches of yarn left over from grafting the toe of those socks isn’t WASTE, it’s darning yarn in waiting.

eye of partridge heelBut I’ve decided that you can still use it like the proverbial waste yarn, even if you intend to keep it for later. Which is what I just did. I’m making a new, slightly more ambitious pair of socks. Firstly, they are patterned, secondly I tried the ‘eye of partridge heel’, and thirdly I’m sort of doing them both at once. That’s where taking the first one off the needles came in. I previously left all the other stitches on while I did the heel, and now I’ve counted my needles and contemplated the intruiging notion of ‘hot-needling’. If I work smart, I can use one set of dpn’s and still work on both socks simultaneously (leg on one, heel on the other; heel on the second, gusset on the first). I’m not sure about how working the yarn from both ends is going to pan out: it could be a real pain.

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I only had a year to come up with this. Allowing for the intricacies of lunar year cycles, only about about 350 days in fact, but admittedly it should still have been plenty. And, yes, it did take me 350 days to do. More precisely, 348 days to get round to doing anything, and no room for errors. So of course there were errors, and I ended up needing 351 days (which I didn’t have). Which is why I have a seder plate with bubbles in it where there should be none. Now, luckily for me, this was a design with bubble-like elements in it anyway, so the effect was passable. But still. Once again, nul points for organization.

So the story begins 3000 years ago two years ago when due to a certain amount of family horse-trading my sister-in-law had my husband’s bachelor china, we had the great-grandmaternal pesach china, and my sister-in-law’s cast-off* discarded seder plate, which is hideous. Now to be completely frank about this, and very venal, I’m not a huge fan of a festival that forbids me to consume my favorite thing in the entire known universe for a week. Actually, eight days. Normally, I’d say, ‘let’s not quibble. What’s a day between friends?’ But a day – another day between me and my baguette crust is something I can’t just ignore. I have ludicrous bread dreams, pathetic bread torture nightmares and produce interesting Freudian slips like ‘sandwiches’ for ‘sandals’ (don’t let’s go there).

On the other hand, a chance to pull out some different china for a week? What’s not to like about that? Shipped from Stoke-on-Trent to a little general store in a sleepy town in Natal, and seventy-something years later whizzed back on an SAA flight into Heathrow, I love the fact that it’s been around for so long, experiencing the same ritual through so many years; that it’s never seen bread; that one dish has so clearly held a lifetime – or three’s- of chopped liver, and the bowls are almost visibly steaming with phantom chicken soup and kneidlach…

The seder plate was another matter. An item of unrivalled ugliness, using it was not an option, but it got me thinking about making one.

I knew I didn’t want a flat plate, but one with indentations, but I couldn’t find a suitable mold, until eventually I came across the rather fabulous sounding Kaiser Lee Board (KLB). After another while a UK supplier started to stock it. (Now I think of it, maybe my total procrastination time on this project is only the time since I bought the KLB, in December).

I used two 3mm discs of Bullseye glass, one Tekta, the other a very pale blue tint, and between them, six smaller overlapping discs of varying blue and gray hues. arrangement seder plateI fused this all together in one go to full fusing temperature. I should have known this was a recipe for disaster. However slowly I heated the kiln, and however much time I left for the air bubbles to escape (I can look it up if it helps anyone), it wasn’t enough. Had I had an extra day (yes, any one of the 347 previous days would have done nicely) I’d have fused the blue/gray discs to the clear layer on one day, and then re-fused with the tint the second day, and slumped on the third day. [I note that when God made the world, He is not said to have sat and thought about it for five days and played solitaire instead, thrown everything together on the sixth day and then gone to the pub. Although, that version of Genesis would explain a lot, now I come to think about it.] I do have to say that whatever the other failings, the overlap of the upper layer over the rest was perfect. I was happy with that, if not so happy about the big bubbles. The color was also superb. I’ve never really used tints before, although I’ve wanted to. The clear is cheaper, and that tends to be a significant factor, but this time I allowed myself to be swayed by hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the commandment) and went with the tint. Also, the design was incredibly simple, so the color was an important element of it.

klb moldMeanwhile, I cut the KLB, which was as easy as it’s made out to be (I used a craft knife, which was a little too short to go all the way through the full 1″ of board, and a boning knife from the kitchen to complete the job), and less dusty than I expected. Maybe I was particularly slow and cautious abut raising more dust than necessary because – you guessed it – I don’t have a dust mask (or more accurately, I’m sure I do – somewhere). It’s possible I could have carved/scooped the mold out of the board and not gone through the full thickness, but this way I get to make funky things out of the carved-out discs some other time. The not fun part of this exercise came when I realized that I did need to kiln wash it. If you read the literature, the first thing likely to spring to the forefront of your brain is the “no need to kilnwash it” part. Well, yes – if you cover the mold with shelf paper before using it. Duh. So, basically, if paper won’t conform nicely to the cute shape that you cut out (and you are probably only going to use this for the cute shape you can’t do any other way) you won’t get away without the kilnwash. And yes, you’re right: of course it takes kilnwash like an alcoholic takes the first drink of the day. And it takes the second drink the same way it took the first drink… I only gave it one-and-a-bit coats because I didn’t have a spare week to sit and wait for it to absorb the half gallon of expensive kilnwash I was so pissed off about using because I’d been gleefully thinking “no need to kilnwash it”. Then I popped it in the oven to dry for a bit (the sloven’s approach, I know. Forgive me.)

Day two. Which should have been at least Day Three, or possibly even Day Four. Slump firing. I assembled the following in my kiln:

  • the bubbly glass blank resting on
  • a large drop ring with
  • a  smaller KLB insert inside the drop ring standing on
  • a bisque plate mold standing on
  • the kiln shelf in the bottom of the kiln

The drop ring was because the KLB sheet was much smaller than the plate I wanted to make, so I needed to Heath Robinson a rim. I remember to position the blank so that the centers of my overlapping colored discs were nicely over my KLB holes and realized at that point that I would need to watch the firing carefully because it occured to me only belatedly that one inch of KLB was way, way deeper than I wanted my indentations to be.

OK, enough already**. What did it look like? This.

seder plate aseder plate bseder plate undersideseder plate side

It looked really nice once it had all the seder items on it, and went well but non-overwhelmingly – as I’d thought – with the blue dominant color of the family china. I almost (almost) forgot about the bubbles. Maybe I can live with them, maybe I’ll try to get round to attempting a rescue in the next year. That would involve re-flattening and re-fusing the whole thing and I’ve no idea if it could even work. I suppose I’d learn something either way, but perhaps I should try on a piece I know I actively dislike.

Now I only have to get through another twenty-six or so hours of matzo and that’ll be it for another 350-odd days. Tomorrow night, pizza is calling me, and I can hear it faintly already. Can’t you?

*I’m getting sensitive about ‘cast-off’ as an insult. As my husband is touchy about ‘gone south’ as the route to perdition.

**Disaster number two, completely unaccounted for was the bisque plate mold cracked. I have absolutely no idea why this happened and it’s scared the life out of me. I loved the KLB to bits, but I can’t have it do that to a kiln shelf. Or maybe… hang on – maybe, if the heat went straight through the KLB, I should have put the bisque mold on props…?

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