Monday, May 4, 2009

Hooks and Needles

While I was divorced and not yet remarried, a girlfriend commented that while learning to cook was all well and good, she thought I needed some creative hobby; something that resulted in an object I could keep after I was done with it, unlike cooking which resulted in something eaten within a day or so. The result was that I took up origami, and I agreed with her; it was nice to be able to look at something I had made. But origami doesn't produce something that lasts years, at least not in a house with both parrots and cats in it.

This past summer I broke the glass shade of a desk lamp, and in the process of trying to replace it I did something Extremely Radical: I took up crochet. I reasoned that I could crochet a lace replacement shade, and I did. Two, in fact. The lamp repair remains unfinished, though, as I have had trouble with the more manly task of constructing a suitable wire frame to hold the new shade.

My new crochet hobby has been a great success! First and foremost, I enjoy it. Secondly, the feedback I have had from my daughters, my (yarn-averse) wife, and even her relatives, suggests I might even be good at it! And it fits my time schedule, because I can crochet to unwind, quietly, as my wife falls asleep beside me. I currently have two projects going, one for my Mom and one for Elizabeth, my younger daughter. There are also objects either I use or I see my family using that I have made, and that is something special.

I have made a variety of small objects, including a usable belt

Crocheted belt

a comfortable and warm alpaca/silk/cotton blend scarf

and a hodgepodge of other projects: a ball for the cats to play with, a finger guard for holding parrots with sharp claws, and even a new pair of pants for my niece's Christmas gift, a scantily-dressed Barbie Doll! Fortunately my male ego has no problem with the fact that while other men have table saws and create dog houses for their mastiffs, I have small steel hooks and create miniature pants for a child's doll. Well, if not "no problem", only a very small and manageable problem! One of my Facebook friends did ask me if I "do fashion", but as the man said, "I am not gay; I never have been gay. I love my wife."

There are some objects, however, that cannot be satisfactorily made with crochet alone. And no, I'm not referring to functioning dog houses, plate glass windows, or watertight canoes: I mean socks. Socks that can be comfortably worn inside shoes!

There are certainly crocheted sock patterns available! I tried one before Christmas. It was certainly easy enough to make a fitted sock that encased each foot in yarn--but the fabric created with crochet is stiff, and is rather bumpy compared to the knit material that most store-bought socks are made of! My crocheted "socks" should more rightly be called "slippers" (very ugly ones, I might add, as I used an acrylic waste yarn in a sort of "proof of principle" project which didn't follow any published pattern). My experience with the finger protector led to the same conclusion, despite that being made from thin cotton crochet thread: crocheted fabric is just too stiff and inflexible to make a comfortable sock.

So after Christmas, I took the Next Logical Step and began learning to knit. As with crochet, learning to knit involved a steep learning curve, but once my daughters (both of whom knit, neither of whom crochets) had shown me the ropes and helped me through the first painful steps, and I got a little more expert help at the local yarn shop within walking distance of home, I was ready to start making Finished Objects.

Later tonight I expect to finish my fourth sock--fifth, if you count my horrid First Attempt. Oh these aren't socks that would fit my size 13 mens feet; these are two pair of (nearly) identical socks for the newborn twins Zach and Theo, who are coming home from the hospital today with their proud parents to the house across the street. But despite their small size, they have all the parts of an adult's sock: a Cuff, a Leg, a Turned Heel, a Heel Gusset, a Foot, and a Toe, sewn up with Kitchener Stitch. They were the perfect project for a man who wants to learn to knit sturdy Mens Socks in a world full of patterns of lacy, rainbow-colored "ladies medium" sock patterns.

These are just what Zach and Theo will need: good, sturdy, plain, soft Mens Socks, scaled down to be Just Right for lads their size. These are socks they can be proud of!

Along the way I have discovered that, in addition to skads of women who like to knit socks, there are also skads of ways to knit socks. Cuff-down or toe-up is probably the most basic division, but there are also other engineering choices to be made: knit one at a time, which is easier, or two at a time, which is more likely to result in a matched pair? Heel flap or short row heel? Fitted leg? Fitted inseam? Padded sole? Wide ribbing or narrow ribbing? How tall should the leg be, and how much of it should be ribbed?

These are the engineering choices that most women might find uninteresting--women are more likely to want to make a stitch pattern that shows above the shoe--but these are the engineering choices that will fascinate men who make themselves "plain socks".

Men like me, anyway. I look forward to learning what goes into making a durable sock; a comfortable sock; a sock I am proud to display to my family and friends; and maybe even a new kind of sock, one that others will want to make for themselves. Even in the most mundane pursuits, it seems a man can have his ambitions.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Outwitting Squirrels

It's that time again...springtime, when all the world's animals emerge from their hidey-holes...often with new replicas of themselves to show off.  So too it is for squirrels.  Now I don't mind squirrels as a general rule, they have as much right to cast a shadow on this planet as I do, but the feeders we put out in our yard are called bird feeders for a reason, and the squirrels just don't seem to be willing to abide by the rules.  Once again, I find myself drawn into the conflict of birdwatcher versus opportunistic rodent, of the modern major general against the ever-present scourge of the neighborhood.

I grew up observing a master strategist at grandfather, David Palmer, spent a great deal of his retirement in central Tennessee devising new technological challenges for his low-slung, grey uniformed enemies.  We would visit once every few years, making the 16 hour drive down from the Washington DC area to their home near Crossville, TN, sometimes to partake of the Great Zucchini Harvest, sometimes to crawl through briars seeking wild blackberries, once even waking before the break of dawn to watch a morning glory open the flowers it had closed so meticulously the prior evening.  It seemed that every time we were there, though, the common theme was the wild birds and the latest attempts Grandpa Palmer had made to thwart them as they pilfered sunflower seeds and other precious commodities from his backyard feeder. 

Grandpa Palmer began with a feeder on a pole, a feeble attempt to thwart an animal that climes so well.  He altered the access to the seeds, however any design that prevented the squirrels from gorging themselves--and spilling the seeds to the ground for later, more convenient access--seemed also to prevent the birds from finding a satisfying meal.  Then there were attempts to hang the feeder on wires--first a stable set of three wires, then a less stable pair of wires that seemed sure to be harder for the heavy squirrels to negotiate, then wires stretching twenty to thirty feet to the nearest tree.  When mere wires proved unsuccessful, Grandpa Palmer turned his attention to placing "baffles" on the wires, plastic disks of various radii intended to make a more difficult obstacle course for the Enemy.  Unfortunately the only thing baffling about the baffles was how adept the squirrels were at overcoming them.  And each time, the squirrels would make Grandpa Palmer pay more dearly for his ingenuity:  now it wasn't only the seed that would be thrown to the ground, but the baffle, the feeder, and if they could manage it, the wires themselves.  Sadly, Grandpa Palmer never found the Ultimate Feeding Solution.

Grandpa Palmer is hardly alone in having tried, perhaps to the point of obsessively, to thwart the Great Grey Squirrel.  Nor am I the first to recount the frustration and hand-wringing effects of this Great Work.  One can find far more stories, and failed suggestions for thwarting these subtle rodents, in Bill Adler Jr.'s book "Outwitting Squirrels", which I found a few years ago in a great little store, "Science, Art, and More", which a few months ago succumbed to the current economic depression.  Our copy is a second edition, "Revised and even Craftier", although it still provides no sinecure against the Enemy.

My wife Emily and I have come to an "equilibrium point" with the squirrels in our yard.  In brief, we accept that squirrels will exact a tribute from us for putting out our bird seed, suet, and nest-building supplies, each of which hang from a branch of our apple tree.  We do not, however, cede our hard-won earnings, or the seed and suet which we buy with it, without a fight.  When we see the squirrels at the feeder out the window, we cry "bad squirrel!" and the race for the high-pressure water rifles ("SuperSoaker" brand) is on.  These rifles don't injure the squirrels--well perhaps they increase the chance of sickness during the winter, assuming our water jets actually reach their target--but they act as a stiff deterrent.  Squirrels do not like to get wet, apparently.  And whether it counts as any sort of solution to the Fight to End all Fights against our perennial Enemy, our strategy at least has the benefit that we feel we are fighting back, for Grandpa Palmer and every other backyard birdwatcher who has ever tangled with the Great Grey Squirrel.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A beginning...

Welcome, fellow travellers! Thanks for making the effort to try to see the world through my eyes, even briefly.

I'm sure as this blog grows I will talk about all of my favorite subjects--teenagers, parrots, cats, marriage, and other domestic issues; bicycles, molecular biology, computers, mathematics, statistics, and other scientific or technological issues; and politics, ethics, philosophy, photography, crochet, literature, and other topics in the so-called liberal arts. But as a beginning, let me share with you a musing or two about The Big Picture.

There are many views of religion, perhaps as many as there are people to take a stance on it. I think of myself as an inclusive sort of Christian, hoping rather to find commonality with others and sources of joy than to find certainty, or justification, or superiority over others. Whether you will agree with my views or not in the end, I hope you can at least take a peek through my eyes and see the world anew.

I see God as an artist brimming with joy and enthusiasm, who has begun a work of art--an enormous tapestry--and invites us to join him in its completion. He has provided us with a canvas on which to work and the freedom to weave our lives into his creation in any design we choose. As any artist would, God hopes that we will make the effort to look at as much of the tapestry as we can see, so that we can choose to add to its value and create a beautiful work of art. But whatever creative process we choose, if we add beauty to his creation God's joy increases, and he is proud of us and our art; but if we deface the tapestry, he cannot help being disappointed--nor could any of us in his place! For there is only this one tapestry for all of us to share, and it's improvement or diminishment affects us all.

This is The Big Picture, as I see it. Next time I'll zoom in and find some smaller bit of the world to focus on through my pinhole camera...but for me, this wide-angle view is a good place to start.