Friday, July 29, 2005

If You Have Children, Hide Them Now

Since I'm supposed to be a photographer, when I post knitting shots I try my damnedest to make them good ones.

But life is not always pretty. If you're going to read this blog it means you shall take the rough with the smooth.

I finished Susan's hat. It began as a pillbox, as designed by St. Elizabeth Zimmermann for one of the "Wool Gathering" newsletters now happily reprinted in The Opinionated Knitter. However, a knitted pillbox has limited appeal in a cold, windy climate. Susan lives in Maine.

Meg Swansen must have thought likewise because the examples of the pillbox shown in the book have all been knitted with more depth so that they cover the ears. They do retain the flat top, which was the feature that drew me to the pattern in the first place.

But I kept knitting far longer than the venerable Mrs. Swansen, and wound up creating a toque. (Thanks to my dear friend John of Customworks, Inc. in Dallas, dressmaker/costumier extraordinaire, for confirming that this is, in fact, what I have made.)

The resulting garment was too large for Victoria to model, and looked ridiculous on Charlie Brown. I tried stuffing it with paper (too lumpy) and putting it on a coffee can (too skinny) and finally had to...well...I had to...

Aw hell, here it is. Sorry if you're reading this around mealtime.

Susan's Toque, Completed

I threw in the garter check on a whim while knitting at the Intonation Festival. I rather like it, and I've found a check pattern in Barbara Walker that I'm using for the matching scarf .

This was my first project with a knitted hem. I followed EZ's later refinement of knitting the hat from the bottom up, then picking up stitches and knitting the hem downwards, binding off live stitches directly from the needle. It looks very neat and is completely elastic, and I have one less process to be afraid of.

And I find I really do like the top. I think it's a nice change from the usual domed shaping.

Susan's Toque, Detail of Top

Susan, of course, is free to disagree with me. (If you don't like it, my dear, do pass it along to somebody who might.) But she has a model's long neck and a wonderful face for hats, and will be able to carry off a somewhat unusual design.

Oh, the particulars. This was made from Mission Falls merino on a 16" US4 circular and US4 dpns, which gave me EZ's recommended gauge. (Don't ask me. Go buy the book. It's fun, though probably not for the absolute beginner.)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

In Which I Rock Out and Get Funky

Attending Lollapalooza, which took place this past weekend in Chicago's Grant Park, gave me an odd feeling I've seldom had before of being at The Center of Things. Our newspapers were full of it. They weighed in with what to do, who to see, and how to survive.

Then, turning on the television Saturday morning to check the weather forecast, we noticed it was getting mainstream media attention across the country. You will not be shocked to hear that this never, ever happens with operas, even when Renée Fleming is on the bill.

The best party in the United States of America, so they were saying, and I was going to it.

We didn't arrive until mid-afternoon, as C had class during the middle part of the day and didn't want to skip it. He's such a good boy.

The heat was heavy - in the mid-90s - but the sky was overcast and the weather wasn't so breathtakingly oppressive as it would prove to be the next day.

There was nobody vital on stage and so we strolled over to a sort of auxiliary art-and-culture area where a fashion show was going on. The clothes themselves were fairly typical, which is to say nothing to write home about, which is to say awful, but some savvy stylist did her best to distract us by piling unspun rovings onto the heads of the unfortunate Ford models who were roped into this gig.

Fashion Show, Lollapalooza, 2005

We listened for a brief while to a group named Brian Jonestown Massacre. I wouldn't say the music was memorable - an annoying mosquito-like buzz. However, I did sit up and take notice when the lead singer, who perhaps needs an adjustment in his medication, started hurling anathemas at the band on the opposite stage. They were (so I gathered) playing loud enough for him to hear, thus distracting him from giving all the proper nuances to his own performance. Apparently he was confusing Grant Park with Avery Fisher Hall.

We headed for the East Stage to stake out places for the first act C really wanted to watch, Billy Idol, and took the obligatory "Look Ma, I was there" shots. In my case, of course, it truly was necessary to take this picture or my parents would never believe I went.

Franklin, Lollapalooza, 2005
That's my Caligula shirt, by the way.

Chris, Lollapalooza, 2005
Note the shirtless frat boys in the distance who are suspiciously fond of each other.

One of the best things about not being a huge rock/pop fan at Lollapalooza was that I didn't feel guilty about not giving the performers my undivided attention. The crowd was often the better part of the entertainment. For example, these Billy Idol fans had just caught their first glimpse of him.

Audience Applauding the Entrance of Billy Idol, Lollapalooza, 2005

I actually know who Billy Idol is, which was comforting. What I hadn't realized was that his set would be like a Banned at My Catholic High School Hit Parade. He kept launching into things I half-remembered (like "Dancing With Myself") and a little light would go on in my brain.

He was fun. Lots of fun. He's not so much sexy these days as a cartoon of what sexy is, rather like Cher. I also hope I can have muscles like that at his age. Hell, I would like to have muscles like that at my age. He did his schtick to perfection, poses and grimaces and all. He also got progressively more naked which drove the crowd into a frenzy.

Billy Idol Performing, Lollapalooza, 2005
Lollapalooza's rules meant I had to work with no telephoto lens, but you get the idea.

His final song (sorry I can't remember which it was) brought out the sort of visible crowd reaction I have only seen in movies like Wayne's World. Party on, dudes and dudettes. Rah!

Approval for Bill Idol, Lollapalooza, 2005
Billllyyyy! Billllyyyyyy! Biiiiiiilllllllyyyyyy!

The Pixies were next up on the same stage, with a break of about an hour in between. We decided (wisely, at it turned out) to stay put since we had a spot near the stage. While waiting we were able to listen to Cake, performing nearby on the West Stage. I liked Cake. The lead singer had a sort of aging hippie frat boy vibe going on. Agreeably goofy.

Other people started to crowd in, waiting for the Pixies.

Waiting for The Pixies, Lollapalooza, 2005

For some people it had obviously been a long day.

Before the Pixies Set, Lollapalooza, 2005

I amused myself by shooting and shooting and shooting. (I'd brought knitting but it was very dusty and elbow room was at a premium.)

Lit Cigarette and Armband, Lollapalooza, 2005 puis, je fume.

No, that's not my arm.

Right on the dot of the hour, on came The Pixies. My biggest surprise of the day. I loved them.

The Pixies, Lollapalooza, 2005

The crowd was huge, and much more dense than Billy Idol's, but they were remarkably sober, agreeable, and happy. You can see what a wonderful setting Grant Park is, bordered on the west side by the famous Michigan Avenue "wall" of uniform skyscrapers.

Watching The Pixies, Lollapalooza, 2005

And gee, C seemed to like them pretty well.

Chris Dancing to The Pixies, Lollapalooza, 2005

Which was the general reaction.

Girl Dancing to The Pixies, Lollapalooza, 2005

I started playing with long exposures to try to capture some of the energy through blur.

The Crowd Sings with The Pixies, Lollapalooza, 2005

By the end of the set, some people were positively manic. And I could well understand.

Final Applause for The Pixies, Lollapalooza, 2005

We left after The Pixies. On the way out, C and I stopped to photograph each other near a planting of bushes that had been illuminated. Cool colored light, eh?

Chris, Saturday Night at Lollapalooza, 2005

After we'd left the festival grounds, I took a shot of C by one of Chicago's signature sights, Buckingham Fountain. The long exposure with no flash or tripod meant blur, but I still like it.

Chris Near Buckingham Fountain, Lollapalooza, 2005

Sunday, I must confess, was less enjoyable. We got all geared up and went down there, and lasted about 30 minutes. The crowd had changed. Fewer goofyhappy music lovers, more Lincoln Park snobs and arrogant college students strutting around with their cell phones. Security had turned nasty (although my camera had no interchangeable lenses and is clearly not a professional model, they still didn't want to let me take it in). And it was 107 degrees out.

We walked onto the field in front of the East Stage, which felt like a frying pan. Dust was flying through the air. It was still two hours before the next act we wanted to see. I turned to C, who was frowning, and said, "What are you thinking?"

"I want to go home," he said. And we did.

Just that brief time out in the heat brutalized us. When we got home, C fell into an exhausted sleep. I laid down next to him and read the final 400 or so pages of the latest Harry Potter. A good book, a cool room, C snuggled up on my shoulder. There are certainly worse ways to end a weekend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Real Quick

Not a spare minute to post today, but perhaps I can interest you in a news item about my knitted namesake, fresh off the needles?

Needless to say, survived Lollapalooza. Enjoyed it enormously, in fact. Pictures and full report forthcoming. It was rather hot.

And one more happy little note: Monday, me, C - one year. We are much pleased.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Out of Time

Once upon a time I was a Boy Scout. I wasn't a good one, but there were a few things I got from the experience that have stayed with me, quite aside from the uniform fetish.

The most useful is the ability to keep my wits about me when thrust into a situation fraught with danger, discomfort, and the potential for personal injury. You're thinking I learned this during wilderness campouts. No. It came from being tossed into a meeting full of screaming hooligans once a week. Nature holds no terrors comparable to that of a group of twelve-year-old boys, at least when you're the quiet kid in the corner who'd really rather be reading Little Women.

And this weekend I'm once again facing a foray into terra incognita more frightening to me in some ways than any forest full of creeping, biting things. Lollapalooza.

It's not exactly the same, mind you. I will have a trusty and considerate guide in C, who is very good at leading me through new experiences with a knack for knowing when I'm going to freak out.

And I not only made it through the Intonation Festival, I had a very good time. So what's to worry about?

I'm not worried, I suppose. Just puzzled. Puzzled at the recurring feeling I get when going to an age-appropriate activity that I'm much, much too old for it. It doesn't help that out of the entire festival lineup, the only person or band whose name I recognize is Billy Idol, and I can only vaguely remember two of his songs because they got played on classmates' boomboxes back in the 80s.

When I was tiny, adults frequently said in my hearing that I acted "like a little old man" and I wonder if they cursed me with this permanent sense of being forever removed from my own generation.

I have trouble even being nostalgic with exact contemporaries. "Remember Duran Duran?" Vaguely, yes. I remember I didn't like them at all, didn't buy their albums, didn't watch their videos, didn't care. Even when I tried to. I once forced myself to spend babysitting money on a stack of cassettes at the mall, classic 80s pop music I knew everybody else was listening to. Forced myself to listen it for a whole week. Hated every minute of it.

But put me in a room with a group of people who were teenagers in the 40s, let them get sentimental about Jo Stafford or Peggy Lee, and I go right along with them. "They don't make voices like that any more." No, they don't, and it's a great pity, and I regret it as much as they do. I didn't hear this music played at home, so who even knows where the taste for it came from?

I am keeping an open mind. I'm truly looking forward to the festival. It is very hard for me to be anywhere with C and not have a great time. He's already made it clear that if it's too much for me I can leave, no hard feelings.

And still I wonder, how normal is it for somebody my age to be having reservations like this in the first place?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Idle Chatter

Darlings, it has been such a day and it's only quarter after three. But a boy has to eat, so I'm going to hold the fork with one hand and type with the other. I have no actual topic in mind, but since when has that ever stopped me?

You look hungry. Pull up a chair. Cookie? Wine spritzer? Careful, the fajita platter is still hot.

Screechy Peaches

So, I mentioned Peaches (the rock singer, not the fruit) and Felicia outed herself as a Peaches fan and asked if I liked her stuff.

Well, in a word, no.

I am all for women (and men) telling it like it is, I'm just more comfortable when they do so in a manner that won't make the dog soil the carpet. Honey, that girl and the noises she makes are scary. Somewhere between the classroom and the concert hall, something went grievously awry.

In the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Sigmund Freud tells the narrator that she needs to "cultivate some inhibitions and get some sleep." I think that's the same advice I would give to Peaches. After which she would kick me in the head and use my goatee to light her cigarette.


I want to say how much I appreciated everyone's advice and compassion on the subject of undoing unsatisfactory stitches.

QueerJoe has offered to "butcher" some knitting (how studly does that sound?) at Rhinebeck so he can show me how to frog without fear. You're on, Joe, as long as you promise not to laugh at me if I get scared and start to cry. Otherwise it'll be second grade dodgeball all over again, except you're not a closeted lesbian gym teacher with a whistle around your neck.

Tattoos and Piercings

Boy, you are all so excited to see me get stuck with a needle, aren't you?

I mentioned being the only person at the Intonation Festival without "visible tattoos" and Lee Ann wondered if I might have a non-visible tattoo somewhere. Not at the moment, sugar.

I've wrestled with the tattoo-or-no question for years, and until I'm dead certain or dead drunk I shall remain un-inked. I despair of ever finding a motif I love deeply enough to wear forever, or an artist I trust to do work that won't make me feel I've been doodled on.

Colleen, who you may recall was the one who knew what a "pantyhose party" is, was also awfully learned about getting tattooed in a hurry. For somebody who has a real job and rosy-cheeked kids and an RV all that, girlfriend is certainly giving us glimpses of a wild side, and I don't just mean impromptu buying sprees on Knitpicks. As my mother used to say, it's always the quiet ones.

Rabbitch mentions that she adores pierced nipples. I do, too, darling, aside from the danger they pose of chipping one's teeth.

I am pierced, but very mundanely, one hole in each ear. I usually wear little hoops, though I have a pair of diamond studs for those evenings when I need to feel gala.

Churl with a Pearl Earring

On that note, it frosts my cookies that girls get to have all the fun when it comes to earrings. For a guy, it's simple hoops or studs or forget about it.

I was in a Vermeerish mood once and tried on a single pearl-drop earring, and quite liked it until the saleswoman came over and said I looked a pirate. I looked in the mirror and I didn't look like a pirate at all, I looked like Prince. Although it would have made me attractive to Yarn Harlot (no small benefit), that just didn't seem like a good idea.

Roll Call

Mush liked Edmund, the Wild Thing* in my picture of Susan's hat. I have many such little friends in the office. In the interest of giving you a fuller, rounder, Cinemascope picture of my life, here's a complete list:
  1. Winnie-the-Pooh
  2. George and Martha (the hippos, not the former Mrs. Dandridge and her second husband)
  3. Snoopy
  4. Arthur, D.W., and Buster
  5. Lucy from "Peanuts"
  6. Happy Bunny (on a pedestal that reads, "Hi. Cram it.")
  7. Buddha
Buddha is not very cuddly, since he's made of plaster. On the other hand, that makes it much easier to fling him at the heads of people who make me mad.

When I worked at New England Conservatory, I also had Madeline (the one who lived with Miss Clavell in the old house in Paris all covered with vines), and this one sicko coworker of mine used to come into my office while I was out and pose her on my keyboard, ass up with her dress over her head and her knickers pulled down.

Which brings us back to Peaches, doesn't it?

Since we've come full circle, I'll hush up for a wee while.

Another spritzer? Nu?

*Oh, and Mark let it slip out casually that he had, like, a friendship with Maurice Sendak.
Maurice Frigging Sendak! Good grief. What can I say, except, Bitch, I totally hate you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I Tink, Derefore I Am

I was cooking along on Susan's hat when I realized that something had gone awry with the decreases at the top. So I spent this morning's commute tinking back five rows to where the decreases began.

Susan's Cloche, 80% Complete

That's the sort of knitter I am. I would rather un-knit 455 stitches than rip back in a hurry and have to deal with sliding everything back onto the needle without twisting. I may grow braver as time goes on, but for the present I'm more tortoise and less hare.

I remain hesitant regarding claims that knitting is "the new yoga" (unlike yoga, it has done nothing for my midsection), but I will admit that it is drawing out of me reserves of patience and calm I never knew I had.

Mystery in Maine

Meanwhile, over at my sister's house it seems that tinking is also on the agenda. She also seems to have a fiber-obsessed poltergeist. That's what it looks like to me, anyhow. Do read it yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Weekend Part II: Sunday in the Park with C

If you've been reading this blog long enough to have read my account of the New Order concert, you know I'm not much of one for new music. It's all about familiarity, and most of us suffer from it: You listen mainly to what you like, and you like it because it sounds like what you've heard before.

This is why when I listen to rock music I usually wind up saying the same things I hear from people I introduce to opera:
  1. Why are they screaming?
  2. I can't understand what they're saying.
  3. Is there supposed to be a melody in there somewhere?
  4. Doesn't this get on your nerves after a while?
  5. Hey! Would you like to maybe watch TV instead?
Well, C's musical taste is about as far from mine as you can imagine. On the other hand, he has a gift for making gentle introductions. Franklin, meet David Bowie. Franklin, meet Prince. Franklin, meet Peaches.

That last one didn't go well, I admit, but in general I've had my horzions broadened to the extent that I now have been known willingly to listen to albums released during my lifetime by musicians who are still performing.

On Sunday, I experienced massive mind-expansion at Chicago's Intonation Festival, an Indie/Alternative gathering in Union Park on the West Side.

Some notes:
  • I realized halfway through the afternoon that this was the first time since my college commencement that I've engaged in a mass activity intended for people my own age.
  • In a crowd of at least 2,000, I was the only person without visible tattoos.
  • I am not immune to the amusement that comes from watching an intoxicated thirtysomething suburban guy in a polo shirt get hot 'n' funky to a hip-hop dance mix of "Darling Nicky."
  • There is no part of the body so small or hard that it cannot be pierced repeatedly.
  • Skulls are out, robots are in.
  • You can buy stuffed toys in the shape of poo (not Pooh), roast beef, and pickles.
  • The afro is back.
After catching a performance by OUT HUD and playing Scrabble under the trees, C went off to volunteer at the Neighborhoodies booth:

Chris at the Neighborhoodies Booth, Intonation Festival, 2005

And I found a nice bench in the shade, equidistant from both stages, and knit a whole lot of Susan's Elizabeth Zimmerman Pillbox Hat. It's going well. Pictures forthcoming.

I like Neighborhoodies and wanted one of my own, so I picked one out (all the while flirting madly with the salesman, even kissing him at one point) and was delighted with the result. I was hoping the kiss might get me a discount, but no. I am now proud to be playing shortstop for the Middlemarch Marauders (sponsored by Vincy's Dry Goods).

Shortstop for Team Middlemarch, Intonation Festival, 2005

If you don't get the joke, Google "George Eliot," and shame on you.

C had his purple t-shirt printed up with the words "wrecka stow," which will strike a chord in Prince fans who remember (in spite of their best efforts) Kristin Scott Thomas's immortal performance in Under the Cherry Moon.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I loved everything I heard. (There was one band that came all the way from Oakland to sing falsetto Japanese baby talk, and I hope they will decide en masse to enter a religious order that requires a vow of silence.)

But for all the amplified sound I did have a marvelously peaceful and restorative day, with an appropriately splendid sunset:

Sunset at the Intonation Festival, Chicago, 2005

And a terrific closing performance by The Decembrists:

The Decembrists Close the Intonation Festival, 2005

Perfect training for next weekend's adventure: Lollapalooza.

I wonder if I can get something pierced and/or tattooed by Friday?

Weekend Part I: Chocolate Bore

I know that for a lot of people (Americans, anyhow) the 4th of July is over and summer is downhill from there. For me, though, it's just cranking into high gear. This weekend was wall-to-wall activity, and according to my calendar things are not going to slow down until September.

I'm going to have to write it up in multiple installments, that's how full and fun it was.

Let's get the only bad part out of the way with a fair-and-balanced film review, shall we?

On Saturday night, C and I went to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the River East Gigantoplex. We thought that perhaps by going at 9:30 p.m., we might avoid most of the families with little children since it would be past their bedtimes. That shows you how out of touch we are. Apparently the concept of "bedtime" no longer exists. The kiddies were out in full force and full cry, not to mention full of sugar.

Can You Say Irony, Children?

On the way into the theater, we were cut off in line by a screaming, sticky brood of six or so who shoved themselves in front of us and were followed by their thin, wan mothers. The mothers did nothing to suggest to the children this might have been rude, and one of them snapped at a theater employee who asked her son to stop climbing up the handrail on the escalator as he might fall off and plunge two stories to his death.

I'm assuming the moral lessons of the movie flew right over their mothers' empty, bleached-blonde heads.

Anyhow, the real downer of this trip to the movies was not the audience, it was the movie.

The Script

I didn't much like the 1971 film version of Roald Dahl's book, which I love and admire. But it was better than this one. It at least had no pretentions to being high art nor magnificent spectacle. Aside from truly dreadful songs (one exception, "Pure Imagination") it wasn't all that bad and did get across the frightening, freaked-out tone of the novel.

In spite of all claims to the contrary, Tim Burton has not (aside from the restoration of one or two episodes and the quoting of some dialogue) created something closer to Dahl's vision. Instead he has inserted a whole lot of unoriginal and unnecessary backstory, and tacked on an inappropriate ending so sticky sweet that even Augustus Gloop would gag on it.

With all this added content, once the factory tour begins the movie slows down to a positively glacial pace...and just keeps getting slower...and slower...and slower. Then, it does something I have never seen a movie do before. It actually stops completely, never to move again, at least fifteen minutes before the end credits.


The Sets

And as far as the famous Burton visual touches go, the majority of the good stuff references far better stuff from other directors' movies. The chocolate river room, which I hear occupied the entire James Bond soundstage and cost millions, isn't any more impressive in the final cut than the $2.95 set from the 1971 version. It looks like a Nightmare Before Christmas display in a suburban mall.

The Music

The songs are blandly serviceable, as well they should be at this point, since Danny Elfman has written them many times before and only had to change the keys for this airing.

After which he probably called up John Williams, and the two of them went shopping.

The Performances

Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka is but a bundle of nervous tics and vocal mannerisms. Sort of like Maggie Smith, except that from scene to scene, he assembles them from different sources. Now he's Carol Channing, now he's Mister Rogers, now he's Marilyn Manson. Saddest thing is, you get the sense that if the director had helped him to achieve some sort of consistency, he could have been wonderful. I imagine Burton was too fascinated with the trained squirrels to pay attention to the humans. No wonder he only wanted one Oompa-Loompa.

The only thing in the entire movie at all in keeping with Dahl's vision was Freddie Highmore as Charlie. The kid was a perfect choice, did a bang-up job, and probably got his characterization in gear on his own.

And finally, two little things. Very little, but they bug me.

Where the Hell is This Movie Set?

Charlie is English. His parents are English. Everybody all around him the streets is English. It sure looks like England.

Then, when Charlie gets the Golden Ticket, the (English) people in the shop start offering him dollars for it. If the goal was to keep Charlie's location non-specific, the matter of currency could have been discreetly avoided with some careful writing or editing. As it is, it jars mightily on the ear.

The Pansy is Alive and Well and Simpering in Burtonland

Charlie learns that somebody has apparently found the final Golden Ticket when two men walk by him in the street talking about it.

These two men, who serve no other purpose than plot movement and are never seen again, are total throwbacks to the pre-Stonewall stereotype of gay men - mincing walks, Franklin Pangborn intonation, flailing hands, and little doggies on leashes.

You know what? I'm sick of this shit. Really sick of it. Here we are decades after Stonewall, and we're still nothing but cheap 'n' easy comic relief.

There is no more excuse in this day and age for the portrayal of gay men or lesbians (or anybody else, for that matter) according to stereotypes of this kind.

If this were an Adam Sandler movie, I might have been less surprised. But who exactly does Tim Burton think much of the audience for a campy children's-book-filmed-for-adults movie is going to be? Or is this his way of trying to show he's not like that by making fag jokes along with the other dudes?

Perhaps this was (as C suggested to me) Burton's somewhat misguided idea of inclusion. Well, if it is, Mr. Burton can go shove an Everlasting Gobstopper up his ass.

And then do the same with this sorry film.

Save yourself some money. Read the book.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Yarn Store Review: Khadija Yarn Shop

While my parents have bought the new house in Kokomo, Indiana, they don't live there yet. They're still getting it in order, ripping down wallpapers and replacing light fixtures installed by the previous lady of the house.

I have never met this lady, and hope I never will. I can only say that her horror vacui is all too evident even in the empty rooms she left behind. I have never seen three different patterned papers and two colors combined in one space before.

The light fixtures, for their part, are so ugly that when I saw the one in the downstairs bathroom I actually developed a rash on my eyelids.

Since we couldn't stay in the house yet, we were guests of the Schuelkes, dear old friends of my parents and the people who introduced them to Kokomo in the first place. (We like them anyway.) Charming Mrs. Schuelke, anxious to alleviate our fears that my parents were moving to a town that could have kept Diane Arbus busy for 50 years, took us on a whirlwind tour of the best the place has to offer: little cafés, historic houses, and a truly impressive stained glass factory.*

Smart woman, she also knew the way to the nearest yarn store.

So we visited Khadija Yarn Shop, 3712 La Fountain Street in Kokomo. It's a tiny little place in a strip mall, but one of the plate glass windows was entirely covered by a SALE sign and that's always promising.

Included in the posse during our visit were Mrs. Schuelke, my sister, and both my parents. This meant I didn't hang out as long as I might have, given that the levels of their interests in yarn range from slim (my mother) to none (my father). We did stay long enough that I can offer the following.

The shop has two rooms. The first, smaller room is jammed to the drop ceiling with pattern books. You think I am exaggerating, but I am not. It would take a person at least half a day, possibly more, to go through all the books. I had about two minutes. Most of what's there was like the Bernat book pictured above. According to C, it looks like it was released as a tie-in with the movie Valley of the Dolls.

Now, some will scoff, but (as dear Miss Jane Brodie would say), for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like. I picked up the book for two reasons. First, my sister liked one of the knit shells inside it. Second, although I have no intention of knitting the shell or anything else in the book (they all use ribbon yarn and require finishing on a sewing machine), the pictures, my darling, are to die.

Check this out:

The open-eye look in full bloom. What was the allure of perpetually looking surprised? Was it supposed that men found startled women to be especially yummy? Is she meant to be thinking, "You want me to put that where?" or what?

Not that I think the vacant, bovine stare of the Britney Spears/Olsen Twin set is an improvement. Feh.

And look at this:

The other popular fashion expression of the era, a relic from the golden Bettina/Suzy Parker/Lisa Fonssagrives era at Vogue: icy-cold sophistication.

She could probably rip the face off the mailman with one swipe of that manicured claw and still keep her pillbox on straight.

Did I mention the price? A lot of the books are were (and probably still are) on sale for 40% off the cover. This one set me back 80 cents.

In the second, much larger room, yarn lines the walls on high shelves. The center floor is reserved for something I had never encountered before: knitting machines.

I will confess that the allure of knitting machines escapes me utterly, but they seem to be mighty popular in Kokomo. There were three women (one of whom turned out to be the saleslady) working at machines. If this is your heart's delight, the store (if I remember correctly) will rent you a machine by the month and also offers classes.

The yarn selection is large but most of what I saw was mid-price to low-end. Brand names I noticed included Patons (lots of it) and Berocco. There was a pretty good selection of needles including bamboos by Clover.

No Rowan, no Lorna's Laces, nothing unusual or luxurious or locally spun. Just plain, stout yarns for (I am guessing) plain, stout knitters.** If you're fiber snob, this store is not going to do much for you; but if you need basics and you need them cheap, stop in.

Regarding customer service, I'd say it was just fine. When we arrived I led the way into the store, and got the usual response - raised eyebrows and a "Can I help you find someting?" that clearly telegraphed the metamessage "I am afraid you've mistaken us for the auto parts dealership two doors down."

However, after I explained that I was a knitter visiting my parents and checking the place out for the first time, she recovered her composure and was very friendly and solicitous. I bought my book, and she said she hoped I'd come in again on my next visit to Indiana and spend more time looking around.

With all those books to dig through, I think I'll be back.

*I didn't want to spoil the flow of positives, so I'm putting it in a footnote that we also visited two of Kokomo's other claims to fame, housed side-by-side under glass in the town park. They are a taxidermied bull with no tail and a tree stump, both freakishly large. I won't even bother to comment.

* *Not perjorative. I like plain, stout people. I'm already halfway to being one.

Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

Today's theme is "Progress."

Among the highlights of my week is this post over at my sister's blog.

Reading it will bring back good memories for many of you. I know it did for me.

Portrait Project Update

The response to my call for men to be part of the portrait project has been promising. The scope and nature continues to evolve as I work on it, and I've decided to expand the area to all of Chicagoland. If the Metra or other form of CTA-related transport reaches you, you're in.

For more details, please check out the original post.

Photo Work

Last night I pulled out a series of shots I took during my last visit to my grandmother's house and started working on prints of two of them for my portfolio. They're all still lifes I found there, waiting.

The thing I like about them is that they speak to me as much about my grandmother as a portrait would. Possibly more. This is the second house she lived in as a young married woman. After my grandfather was killed in an industrial accident shortly after World War II, she stayed there and raised all three of her children in it. (You parents reading this will be impressed to know the house in question has two bedrooms, one of which has no door; one bathroom; no air conditioning; and excluding the cellar and porch is maybe 800 square feet.)

Below is one of the better shots, from her bedroom.

Now that the house my maternal grandparents lived in has been sold out of the family, this is the only place in the world from my childhood that I can still visit. It means a lot to me.

Grandmother's Bedroom, 2004

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Tarred with a Different Brush

Photographic trickery is nearly as old as photography itself. Almost as soon as the pioneers of the craft managed to pin reality down, they were filled with the longing to fuck around with it.

Sometimes it was out of necessity. For example, long exposures meant you couldn't always catch objects in motion, so sometimes they had to be painted in. My favorite example of this is a 19th-century shot of a chuck-wagon cook flipping a pancake that was obviously added in post-production.

And I think it was in no way accidental that the emergence of retouching processes coincided with a huge surge in the popularity of portrait photography.

This has raised all sorts of ethical questions about how much a print can or should be messed with. There is no answer, and never will be, just lots of debate. As with other arts, there are no rules, only talent and taste or a lack thereof.

On the one hand, you have Henri Cartier-Bresson, an undisputed genius who didn't crop or otherwise heavily manipulate his photographs in printing. What showed up on the negative was what showed up in the print. And then you have Ansel Adams, another titan, who used the darkroom creatively to do things to his images that brought them to the finished state his vision demanded.

Who's right? Both of 'em.

But with the arrival of digital photography and Adobe Photoshop on the scene, post-production work has been made seamless and relatively simple to the point that you should never, never fully trust any photograph you didn't take and print yourself. For example, the latest version of Photoshop has a nifty tool called the "healing brush" that makes it possible to remove zits, wrinkles, sweat, and (if you're not careful) nostrils in four seconds flat.

But you have to draw the line somewhere, and designers and photographers are often called upon to manipulate reality in ways that are laughable, impossible, or even unethical.

For example, my employer is (like many institutions of higher learning) desperate to promote itself as a place that embraces diversity, particularly among the student body.

Before anybody angrily clicks the "Comment" button, let me say flatly that I support diversity initiatives. Although Arab-Americans aren't considered a separate ethnic minority unless it's a matter of racial profiling at airports, I doubt extremely I'd have been let into Harvard if at some point there hadn't been a push to add mixers to the gene pool.

Unfortunately, progress is slow. The university I work for catered during most of its history to the offspring of well-to-do Midwesterners, and didn't much care whether they were smart as long as they could afford the shockingly high tuition.

Needless to say, for century or more this place (like, I should add in all fairness, most American colleges of the time) was as white as an Olsen twin's pert little bottom. It's changing*, but we still have a long way to go.

That sad reality is a recurring thorn in the side of those who fashion the school's public image though visual design. I'm often called upon to photograph events hosted my department, and more than once I get a frantic reminder that "We need really diverse shots."

Recently I photographed a student picnic and, if I may so, it went well. We had extremely cooperative weather (an overcast sky, which lit everyone flatteringly) and the students were (shhh) already tipsy upon arrival, so they were inclined to cooperate with the poor sap with the camera.

The one criticism? I hadn't got enough shots of mixed groups. In frame after frame, white kids sat with white kids, African-Americans hugged only other African-Americans. You had an occasional wildcard Asian-American or Latino/a, but not enough to make the critic in question happy.

And why had I done this? Because I took pictures of the groups as they were, rather than shouting, "Okay, you - with the blonde hair - would you please step away? Thank you. Alright, I need a Black woman over on the left, and one more Asian for the front row. You're a Pacific Islander? Sorry, not close enough. But would you please go stand next to the Muslim woman in the headscarf for the next shot?"

A dear colleague of mine got similar complaint when she used a large, stock photo of a crowd as the background for a print piece. It had a mix of just about every age and race you can think of, and in proportions similar to those found in our student body, but it didn't appear diverse enough to one person in the approval loop. With time short and no other photo to be had, she had to resort to counting the number of "diverse" people in the print in order to prove it could be used.

And not long before that, another designer here had been slammed for using an all-white photograph on a reunion postcard for a class that had graduated 30-40 years ago. The person who complained didn't care that the entire university had, at the time, about four non-white students. The closest thing to a decent mixed photograph of the class in question? A shot of the final tableau of the senior show, featuring an entire chorus line in blackface. No, thank you.

It was then that we hit upon the idea of a new Photoshop tool that would be a boon to designers everywhere: the diversity brush.

The concept is simple. Just select the tool, click the appropriate box, and paint over the face in question. Poof! The girl from the Marshall Islands is now Norwegian. Click! Brad McGillicuddy of Ames, Iowa is now Rafael Sanchez-Montoya of Bogota, Colombia.

Simple, isn't it? No need to accept and admit the racist history of the school. No need to continue efforts to encourage students of all races to apply, attend, and (gasp) speak to each other. No need for the client to grapple with reality - just repaint reality to suit their needs.

Every designer I know would sell a kidney to get a copy.

You geniuses at Adobe, you're probably already two years ahead of us and at work on this feature for the next release. But just in case, please remember you read it here first. You can pay us in free software and fonts.

*I mean the school is changing. I'm not sure about the bottoms, separately or together, of the Olsen twins, and have no desire to learn more.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sis in the City

Yep, I'm back. And boy, were y'all chatty while I was away. I'm tickled.

As planned, my sister Susan flew back to Chicago with me after we visited our parents at their new house in Kokomo. Any visit with her will be too short for me, but we did make the most of the time allotted.

A few highlights:

Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was a motif of our childhood and it hangs, by happy chance, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Susan had never seen it in person. Now she has.

Considering that I introduced it to her via reproductions (including one I painted on my bedroom wall in Hawaii) and Sunday in the Park with George, it felt poetically just that I should be there when she came face-to-face with it at last.

Funny to think that when she first saw it she wasn't much older than the little girl in white at the center of the painting. Now, she's old enough to be the woman with the pet monkey.

We also went to Lincoln Park Zoo. When I was a kid, I had a fantasy about living close enough to a zoo that I could go any time I wanted to. And now I do, and I do.

The self-satisfied meercat at left is one of a little troupe (herd? litter? caucus?) that lives in the African Safari exhibit.

Most of the animals will go out of their way to run off, roll over or pee just when you get the perfect shot set up. Not the meercats. Little camera hogs, every one of them. They'll climb up on a log or a rock, give you an over-the-shoulder sweetheart pose and hold it while you adjust the camera.

I wish all my human models were so cooperative.

The trumpeter swans who live in the pond had hatched out a brood since my last visit. We came upon the nest and were struck dumb by the sight. One of the parents was swimming about while the other kept an eye on the kiddies.

Truth be told, swan babies are pretty homely. Hans Christian Andersen didn't tell the half of it.

But it was touching to see them shuffling short distances on the bank, flapping their fuzzy gray wings and (no doubt) suffering dreadful agonies of self-loathing that will require years of therapy to sort through.

What surprised me most was the proximity of the nest to the public footpath. Didn't seem to bother the birds.

Buzz was of the party and managed to stuff his 6-foot frame into the gigantic, hollow clutch of chicken eggs in the main barn of the farm at the zoo.

The eggs are meant to attract children aged 5-10 years, but never mind.

In my experience, one can invariably count on Buzz to provide a bizarre photo opportunity, whatever the setting.

I think he should use this shot in his online profile, with the caption "Castor Seeks Pollux."

Next to the zoo is the Lincoln Park Conservatory, and we paid a brief call because the temperature in the place had to be at least 90 degrees, with the sort of humidity that must be very welcome when you're a frog or a palm tree.

Before the beads of sweat became too pronounced, Buzz took this shot of Susan and me. I'm rather rumpled and gray, but I like it anyway, so thank you, Buzz sweetie.

On Saturday night we went down to Old Town and took in a performance of Red Scare, the latest review at The Second City.

TSC is celebrating its 45th year, which blows my mind. 45 years is a long time for a theater company to stick around, especially in the United States.

This is Susan before the performance, with the famous stage in the distance. I wasn't sure how much she'd like the show. If her laughter was any indication, I made the right choice.

I live near Lake Michigan, and on previous visits (at Thanksgiving) the weather conditions haven't exactly been conducive to a stroll, so this time we walked over to the harbor and looked at the boats.

This is the first time C and Susan have had a chance to spend much time together, so I was delighted (but not surprised) that they got on well.

Then we went home and watched, at C's recommendation, Napoleon Dynamite and giggled madly. (I never saw that sort of movie before I met C. It's nice when the person you fall for is able to open new doors for you.)

All the walking and looking was terrific, as was the eating and eating and eating, but of course nothing could quite match the thrill I felt at the sight of this:

Susan, having just knitted her first row ever. She followed it with several more, at which point I showed her how to bind off and we agreed she had just made a perfectly respectable wrist band or Barbie shawl.

Alas, I only had time to teach her the slingshot cast-on, the knit stitch (continental), and a basic bind-off.

Marilyn will be pleased to know I also taught her to say, "Shut up, I'm counting."

I packed her off to Maine with the needles, a ball of leftover yarn, a yarn needle for finishing and a new copy of Stitch 'n' Bitch. (Yeah, I know. But I think it's a very fine teach-yourself book for a beginner with no nearby mentor or support network and I'm not afraid to say so. If she sticks with it, she'll get Maggie Righetti and St. Elizabeth Zimmerman and all the others.)

(Does this make me a yarn pusher?)

I won't be heartsick if she doesn't keep up with it, but I sure hope she does. Between her first row and her final row there was a decided increase in speed and agility, and I swear she got that look in her eye. You know the one I mean.

Just wait until she learns to purl.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Lie Down with Muppets, Get Up with Fleas

I couldn't leave the blog sitting here for a couple days with a rant at the top of it, so I thought I'd share a touching picture of a finished object that's left the nest.

C sent me this photograph of Istvan, to show me how well he's adapting to his new home. I'm appalled. The last thing he read before leaving my apartment was an old copy of Odes of Horace I had lying around.

Blame it on Janice.

I guess you just have to cut the cord, don't you?

Why (Some) Gay Men Take Meth

(I've been debating whether to post this, most of which was written last week. I've decided to go ahead. We'll see whether it was a good idea or not. It rambles. I suppose it's a rant. Oh well. I warned you. If you prefer, skip it and read about my glamorous vacation.)

Two of my favorite blogs, QueerJoe and Tricky Tricot, recently referenced an article in The Village Voice about the use of crystal meth in the gay community. And boy, did it stir up some debate. This is a good thing.

I'd read the story myself before they posted it, and found I agreed violently with Patrick Moore, the author. He goes beyond merely saying "Drug use is terrible," (that not being news, certainly not to the Voice's readership) and tries to get at the underlying reasons why meth has become such a problem.

His conclusion, greatly simplified, is that gay men are inclined to use drugs not from an inherent moral failing, but because they are often desperate for solace in a world that at best ignores them and at worst seeks to eliminate them.

This is the passage that struck me. Moore is writing of his own experiences with drug and alcohol abuse:

"Had I looked deeper, I would have seen that I had always felt self-destructive and isolated, even from other gay people. I believe many young gay men* still feel that way."

The italics are mine.

I'm going to say something that may be very unpopular. And I don't care. I'm going to say it anyway.

I know guys who have taken or do take meth. A lot of guys. To a man, they have corroborated Moore's point that men who use it are usually doing so to achieve a feeling of connection - of bonding deeply, if temporarily, with a partner. Of belonging to the group of gay men who are desirable and desired. And every one of them made it clear that this feeling was something they couldn't achieve without the drug.

Moore twice brings up the feeling of being isolated from the gay community in his article, yet dwells more on the pressure from the wider, straight world as a negative force on gay men's lives.

Without in any way wishing to disagree with him that homophobia is omnipresent and powerful, I wish to offer the viewpoint that a good deal of the damage suffered by gay men comes from other gay men.

Here's an example, a personal one, of just how supportive gay men can be of each other.

I was sorting photocopies in the office hallway the other day when my ears pricked up at the sound of my name. In an office nearby, Colleague A was saying that the t-shirt I'd worn that day showed off my chest, and he was surprised to see that I have a solid build.

I was startled and so flattered that I blushed. Then Colleague B replied, "Yeah. But I guess when you're short and bald and have a face like that, you have to do something."

Colleague A said yes, that's true.


I wasn't suprised, though. When our office has reason to divide into groups - sitting at department events, going out after work for drinks, etc. - the gay men go off by themselves, and I'm not invited. I don't look like they do, or act like they do, and a tacit point had been made well before this conversation that gay or not, I'm not one of them.

Happily, I've had years to come to terms with the fact that I'm not and never have been a Pretty Boy by mainstream gay standards. I'm not blond, hairless, and slim as a willow. I've learned to take comfort in being caviare and catnip to the minority who like men who look like me. As much as one can, in this day and age, be at peace with one's physical appearance, I am.

But it takes years, and a whole lot of crying and hurt feelings, to get to this point. Some guys never get there. The fact is, and this never seems to be mentioned, that there are a lot of gay men who come out and aren't received into the fold with rapture.

These are the guys who aren't particularly good-looking, who may have a weight problem, who are shy in a club setting or aren't quick with a witty remark. These are the guys who happen to be the wrong race at the wrong time, or can't afford to live in the proper ZIP code,** or don't look right in the jeans that are the thing to be wearing this week.

There is a gay ideal, shamelessly pushed and promoted by those who market to the gay community (including our own press) that is as unrealistic for most of us as the supermodel ideal is for most women. Physical perfection is requirement number one.

Don't believe me? Take a look at the covers of gay books and magazines over at Amazon and count the number that feature some variation of a muscular, bare torso on the cover. And I don't just mean books about bodybuilding or sex. I mean books about cooking, decorating, childcare, philately, beekeeping, Esperanto...

The muscular, white, shaved and oiled torso has become universal visual shorthand for "gay." The logical conclusion? Don't have one? You're not really gay.

Some men can't handle this, and no wonder. When the world at large doesn't want to include you, it stings when those who are supposed to be (if nothing else) your comrades in oppression also make it clear you may not join the can-can.

When I was talking about this with Buzz the other day, he made a good point: "Do you really want to be invited to that party?"

No, as it happens, I don't. At my most muscular, I was given a pass to explore the fringes of it and found it dull. But the fact remains that except for persons temperamentally inclined to a hermetic life, everybody needs to feel that he belongs somewhere.

For many guys, it seems like the only place to belong is that perfect circle of shirtless men on the dance floor - the ones who will definitely be photographed for the party pages of the gay newspaper. Everything seems to point to it: you're here, or you're nowhere.***

And when you want desperately not to be nowhere, what's more tempting than a drug that will make you feel your God-given flaws have been erased by a Photoshop filter, and allow you to feel you have a right to membership?

Hell yes, pressure from the straight world at large takes a toll on you when you're gay. And so, sometimes to an even greater extent, does pressure from the gay world.

*I have news for you, Patrick, so do many older gay men. You know, the ones over 23.

**In Boston, I found "Which ZIP code do you live in?" to be the second most common question at gay parties, the first being "What do you do?" If your field was sufficiently impressive, you got to go on to question two. The South End (the gay ghetto) straddled two ZIP codes, only one of which was consdiered fashionable. Shades of Lady Bracknell. And people wonder why I don't miss Boston?

***Yeah, there are other subcultures within the gay culture (like the bear and leather communities). But some don't fit into those, either, and in my experience they can be just as elitist - at my first and only visit to Bear Pride in Chicago, I was openly snubbed for being too thin. Meanwhile, the gay press (when it speaks of them at all) usually implies that they are decidedly second-best, a lunatic fringe.

Dream Vacation

Stop reading this right now unless you're ready to sink up to your nipples in envy.

This time tomorrow I will not be sitting here at this keyboard, alternately writing doggerel and staring out the window. I shall be above the clouds, preparing to touch down in a place many hear about, but far fewer ever dream of visiting.

Kokomo, Indiana.*

My parents, whom I love dearly but who can be...vat is ze vort in English...nutty, have decided to leave their sleepy backwater of Washington, DC and move to a house located conveniently (for them) between a grass airstrip and a cornfield.

Of the two attractions, the airstrip is the greater. My father flies planes as a hobby (breeding polo ponies takes up too much room) and in this particular huddle of houses, everybody has a hangar in the backyard. You think I am kidding, but I kid you not.

I don't get it, but as my sister and I see it, this is our folks' first move ever that is based on doing something they want to do, rather than what they feel they must do. Our young lives were spent with the U.S. Air Force knocking us hither and thither like a pinball. After that, there was another move (to Pennsylvania) to tend to my grandma, then another to (to DC) to take advantage of a good job opportunity.

The moving didn't bother me much , but I can't imagine it was fun for them. However, they never worried or complained in front of us. They put on brave faces and made the best of it.

That was their modus operandi with everything. For example, my mother never had nice furniture, and my father never drove new cars, but my sister and I always went to the best school available wherever we lived. They never made noise about it, so it wasn't until I was out of college that I realized how they must have sacrificed.

This house is suits them, and it's about time. While I might wish they had taken a shine to Mallorca or Provence, after 36 years of marriage I think they've grown enough to do as they please.

*It's only for two days, and as a bonus my sister is coming to Chicago to stay for the whole weekend. Hurrah! So no blogging until next week. But there should be lots to report.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Meet Istvan

Teddy Bear, Completed

The teddy bear met his new owner last night and it appears that there is, indeed, chemistry. He even seems to be smiling. I suppose I would be, too, if I'd been in pieces for two weeks and then finally got my head and limbs attached.

He left this morning for his new home. I admit to feeling slightly post-partum, though it's not like I won't see him frequently.

I wondered how he was getting on, and then this arrived via e-mail:

He has been christened Istvan, and it looks to me like he's adjusting nicely. And apparently he's a Prince fan. Who knew?