Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Little Bald Dude to Go

So, I'm leaving town tomorrow for a couple of days, and doing the same again next week.

It's all part of the Where Next? project, and I don't want to jinx anything, so I'm not going to write much about it in advance. I will tell you that if you're not in Chicago, but you think you see me on the street, it actually might be me, especially if the person is:
  • knitting,
  • taking a photograph with a big fat Canon camera, or
  • not paying attention to where he's going and running into parking meters or trees.
You will know it is not me if the person is:
  • wearing any item of clothing emblazoned with a professional sports logo,
  • holding hands with Kelly Clarkson, or
  • smoking a cigarette and walking an ocelot on a rhinestone leash.
With all this time on the road, posts will be thin on the ground but I'll write when I can.

We're Just Like the Barrymores, Only Fluffier

Dolores, meanwhile, is trying to figure out whether to spend Christmas with my family Maine or go up to Canada to have a Joyeux Noël with her cousine Victorine. She's staying in Chicago this week and next because Harry landed a plum role* in the Goodman's A Christmas Carol and she has to take him back and forth to the theater. She has started calling herself Mama Rose Van Hoofen.

Dolores tried to get into Congo Square's Black Nativity but stomped out when they asked her to play one of the sheep.

I took her to the Shoe for a consolation Cosmo. "Clearly, I'm a vicitim of typecasting," she huffed.

"You must admit you do look the part," I said. "What were you expecting? The Angel of the Annunciation?"

"Something with a little more meat," she said. "One or two good speeches. Maybe a harmonica solo. How the hell am I supposed to show my range when all they want me to do is stand next to a shepherd and say baaaaaaaaaa?"

"I see your point."

"And let me tell you, cupcake, I kicked ass at that audition. Blew those other bitches right off the stage. Amateurs. Flashing their dimples and singing eight bars of 'Go Tell It on the Mountain' like they were trying to sell Tupperware in Kankakee. Is that art? Is that passion? Where did that Cosmo go?"

"You finished it."

"That's okay, they got more. Hey, Ralphie–hit Mama again. Anyway, I got up there and rocked the joint. Who else do you know in this town who can follow a monologue from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom with 'Mary's Boy Child' on the harmonica? And then I sang 'Silent Night' whilst performing select excerpts from my one-woman ballet."

"That explains the red and green glitter thong in the laundry hamper."

"Well, it's a Christmas gig."

"Uh huh."

*If you're going, look for him in Mrs. Fezziwig's knitting basket. I know I'm biased, but frankly when I caught the dress rehearsal I thought he walked off with the scene.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Yes, And I Also Took Lessons in Sodomy

I thought at this point I'd heard every comment possible from strangers interested in my knitting. I was, as Shakespeare wrote in Cymbeline, wrongeddy-wrong-wrong.

To get back and forth to Indiana for Thanksgiving I took advantage of a fairly new bus service running from Chicago called Megabus. It's not fancy, but it's cheap (my round trip at the pricey holiday rate was $44) and convenient. There are no frills, but the parent company is British and somehow this gives one confidence.

The ride out was wholly uneventful. I had two seats to myself and knitted like mad.

On the way back, the bus was crowded and I knew I'd have somebody sitting next to me. Sure enough, just before we departed a group of three came aboard, two paperwhite preppyesque men and a woman who probably fancies herself the Hoosier Sarah Jessica Parker. The men were obviously, you know, together. The woman, I later determined, was a friend who had come along to keep things looking hetero because one of the men is presently in the military.

The few remaining seats near each other happened to be the one next to me, the one in front of that, and the one across the aisle. As they approached, I looked up and gave the first guy the friendly, noncommittal nod that means this seat is open, feel free to take it.

He recoiled visibly. The three were extremely put out at not being able to sit cheek to cheek for the ride. There were many sidelong glances in my direction. Looking back, I imagine I appeared very menacing as I wear earrings and was working on a two-color baby hat. Also, while I am technically caucasian, according to Indiana's racial standards the hint of olive in my skin means I am Kunta Kinte and that seems to be an issue for many locals.

After many mumbled negotiations they gingerly took their seats, with the first guy next to me and the woman across the aisle from him. The (whisper) boyfriend discreetly took the seat in front of us.

They were heading to O'Hare in order to catch a flight to Italy for a budget tour of the Amalfi Coast. I know this, and everything else about their plans, because with the enthusiasm typical of traveling crackers they talked it over endlessly and loudly. The fellow next to me rode on half his seat, the further half. Somewhere along the way we hit a bump and my ball of Patons bounced over and touched his thigh. He jumped as if stung.

After three hours of discussing Whether One Ought to Tip Italian Waitresses and Why We Absolutely Must Go the Blue Grotto, we pulled into Chicago. They planned to take the El from Union Station to O'Hare, and the woman said that this should take about twenty minutes, leaving just enough time to check in and clear security.

Their discomfiture was unbounded when the guy sitting behind them spoke up and said, "That's going to be a forty-minute ride. Maybe fifty."

In desperation they started talking to the rest of us, seeking advice on alternate routes. The guy next to me asked if it would be faster to just take a cab. I told him probably not, and wished him luck. (I hate rushing to the airport and don't wish it on anybody else, not even Log Cabin Republicans.) I made reassuring noises and told them international security at O'Hare is usually pretty quick.

The men were still looking at me as though I might try to lick them, but the woman was positively chatty now that the ice was broken. As we waited for the crowd to move forward, she asked about my knitting.

"I noticed you were making some pretty fancy stuff," she said.

"It's fun, not that difficult," I said. "You just have to know one or two things about what to do when the colors change."

"Oh, I see," she said, brightly. "Now, did you learn to do that in prison?"

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Modest Proposal

Okay, I forgot one thing about Thanksgiving I've always liked: the Macy's parade.

Yes, I know. It's nothing but a gigantic ambulatory commercial for toy companies and for the corporate behemoth that sponsors it. However, when I was kid it was a chance to see New York City (where I dreamed of living some day) and one of my two chances to see numbers from whatever was running on Broadway. I was a mild-mannered little boy, but you did not get between me and the television set on Thanksgiving morning or Tony Awards night.

I still watch it, half from nostalgia and half out of genuine interest. Because between the crappy pop music acts and commericals you get local high school bands, and those Azalea women from down South who dress as toilet tissue covers, and the kids who for one reason or another get to ride on the floats. I like to think of families all over the country sitting and waiting for a loved one to pop onto the screen for two seconds, so they can scream "There she is! There she is!" and dine out on the taste of celebrity for an entire year.

One thing lacking, though, is knitting content. This thing is supposed to kick off the holiday season, and what group is more hypersensitive to the approach of the holidays than knitters? This morning you could hear the collective gasp reverberate across the time zones as knitters awoke and suddenly realized what's facing them in the coming weeks.

Not all of us celebrate Chrismahannukwanzawalisolstice, of course, but enough of us do that we should be represented. Our yarn and needles represent the season far more strongly than Hall and Oates, for heaven's sake, and Macy's gave them a slot in the line-up.

While assembling the relish trays I've been brainstorming. Here are a few things I think would make a fine start toward redressing the imbalance. Feel free to add your own ideas, and maybe we can build up enough mass to shake things up next year.
  1. Five hundred synchronized knitters in spangly costumes, marching and working fair isle in unison.
  2. An animated float, sponsored by Schacht, featuring fifty lucky knitters (one from each state) riding round and round on a giant Matchless while Raven Symone lip-synchs to "Carol of the Bells."
  3. The cast of Sesame Street dancing down Broadway on a float celebrating the release of the new movie Elmo in Unfinishedobjectland.
  4. A 100-foot-tall Elizabeth Zimmermann helium balloon.

Of course, if we're going to make this happen we need star power either at Macy's or NBC. Does anybody know if that nice Meredith Viera knits?

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all, wherever you happen to be.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Farm Report

I am not and have never been a fan of Thanksgiving. I know it's heresy for an American to say so, but try as I might I can't help myself. I associate the holiday with frenzied travel, day-long confinement in a hot kitchen, and liver attacks brought on by overconsumption of pie. Upon reaching adulthood I rejoiced in the idea that I could, henceforth, skip the whole thing.


I've since learned that nobody believes you when you say, "No, honestly, I'd rather spend the day quietly, by myself," any more than they believe actors who say they don't mind losing the Oscar because it's honor just to be nominated. And I'm not enough of a misanthrope (yet) to be able to turn down a kindly invitation.

That's why I'm writing from Indiana, to which my parents relocated this summer. Normally I won't travel for Thanksgiving, but when your mother and father say "pretty please," how can you say no?

Mind you, to get here it's only about three hours from Chicago by bus, but it might as well be the Other Side of the Moon. There's a cornfield in front of the house. And another behind it. And two more, to the right and left. Are you getting the picture?

They have a yarn store, though. It's right next to the place where my father gets haircuts, and he asked if I'd like to browse today while he went in for a little trim. As the local butter churning festival has been postponed (the cows are all in Washington, DC, staging a protest against Lactose Intolerance), my social calendar was suddenly wide open. Off we went.

Here's a thing to remember. In the future, when visiting yarn shops run by timid older ladies in rural Indiana, it might be best not to wear my usual Chicago ensemble of faded jeans, biker boots and black leather jacket. When I walked in the owner turned white as a sheet and, I swear, immediately went to her cash drawer - whether to lock it or surrender it, I can't say.

She needn't have worried, mind you, because if I ever decide to knock over a yarn store it won't be one that primarily stocks acrylics.

After that I did a fair amount to help with preparations for tomorrow and now I'm taking time out to work on some stuff for Yarn Market News and that sexy chick who runs Knitty.com.

Cartooning is so marvelously portable. I have my ink, paper, pencils and eraser, and need nothing else. In this way it is a far more practical career than blacksmithing or animal husbandry.

Oh, listen - if reading my whining about the holidays is not enough, you can actually hear me whine about the holidays in the next episode of Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, which goes live on Friday. Not that you have to listen or anything. But I worked hard on the essay, and got up at 4 a.m. to record it, so I just thought I'd mention it.

I think I just heard a wolf howl outside the house. Seriously. No, wait. Neighbor's dog.

As this post was going nowhere, and has now arrived, I think it's time sign off. As the locals say, "Moo."

Monday, November 20, 2006

Brief Encounter

It was the first day in weeks without a pressing deadline looming. Dolores had taken the sock yarn down to the Art Institute for the Charles Sheeler exhibit. The laundry was finished, the dishes clean, and no visitors were expected. I poured a tall glass of milk, neat, and curled up on the sofa under an old plaid blanket and cracked open a fresh new arrival, Cecil Beaton's unexpurgated diaries.

"Ahem," said the Spinning Wheel.

I dropped the book and covered my eyes with my hands, uttering an oath unfit for delicate ears.

"Well, excuse me for breathing," said the Spinning Wheel.

"Would it be too much to ask," I sighed, "for one lousy day free of Magic Realism?"

"I just work here," said the Spinning Wheel. "Or rather, I just sit here, which is the root of the matter."

"Maybe you could go complain to the vacuum cleaner. He doesn't get out enough either."

"So I've noticed," said the Wheel. "But I do not wish to discuss the state of your housekeeping. Instead, pray observe my bobbin." It walked over to the sofa and leaned forward. "You will notice, please, that the red leader is still visible. This is the same red leader tied upon the bobbin by Mr. Ted Myatt when he visited."

"Yeah? So?"

"Mr. Myatt's memorable stay took place in high summer. If you will look outside, you will notice the trees are bare of leaves and the wind blows cold. Summer is but a memory. Fall is more than half-spent. The Feast of Saint Lucy fast approaches."

"You want me to make cookies?"

"I want to you realize that since I had the all-too-brief pleasure of being oiled and caressed by Mr. Myatt's capable hands, I've sat here untouched and untreadled. You have well-nigh twenty pounds of lovely roving and top sitting in a storage bin, and yet I am less regarded than the magazine rack in the bathroom."

"What has the magazine rack been telling you?"

"Don't change the subject," said the Wheel, sternly. "Are you ever going to use me again, or are you not?"

"Well, you know, it's been so busy at work and there was the Knit-In and everything, and–"

"Prevarication ill becomes you."

"I'll spin a little bit tonight."

"Tonight won't do. I think I've waited long enough. Either you show me some attention right this minute, or I'm reporting you to Merike Saarnit."

"Just let me finish this chapter."

"Do you want me to put this orifice hook to uses never intended by the nice people at Ashford?"

"Fine, okay, swell, whatever, let me go get some roving." I heaved myself off the sofa and headed for the bedroom closet.

"I want the merino from Rabbitch!" screamed the Wheel. "Don't even come near me with that cheap mixed-breed shit you got free from eBay."

I remember sitting down with the merino, and giving the treadle a tentative push. And then things began to spin, faster and faster. The room blurred. Dizziness struck, hard. I felt as though I were falling...spinning...downward...as the Wheel whined for more...more...more...

I blacked out.

And then all at once I woke up with a start, flat on my back in bed. Dolores and Harry were bending over me as my eyes fluttered open.

"He's alive!" shouted Harry.

"Oh, thank goodness," I sighed. "Dolores, I had the most ridiculous dream. The spinning wheel...it...came to life...it was...talking..."

"Totally whacked, man" said Harry.

"Yeah," said Dolores. "That's a good one. You musta had something spicy for lunch again, right?"

"That must be it," I agreed.

"You'll never learn. I'll go fetch the Peptol Bismol," she said. "You go put your feet up and Harry will get you a hot water bottle."

"Much obliged," I said, and toddled into the living room.

And...there it was.



Saturday, November 18, 2006


Note: This is a very long and purely personal post. Please indulge me. On some occasions, this blog still needs to be the diary I intended. I want to write this all down quickly so I won't forget it, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time explaining every term, etc. And, as always when I write about Zen, all I'm doing is reporting my personal experience in as plain a fashion as I can. I write from a position of no authority. If you really want to learn about Zen, hunt down a qualified teacher or check out The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau Roshi.

When I first set foot in the Chicago Zen Center (CZC) back in March, I'd been reading about Buddhism on my own for a year, devouring any book I could get my hands on that didn't seem too superficial or too weird. The more I read, the more Japanese Zen seemed to call me. (I once thought Buddhism was a monolith. Not so. There are many, many sects–same as in Christianity. In Japan alone, even Zen has three major branches.)

My first sittings, for about two months, were with a GLBT Buddhist group in Chicago. They were a pleasant fellowship, and well-meaning, but ultimately I decided I wanted to work with a teacher. The group, which bills itself as non-sectarian was distinctly anti-Zen for reasons I still can't fathom. I asked the others about training centers in Chicago and was told, flatly, that aside from the Korean Zen temple in Lakeview that there weren't any and that, in any case, GLBT people do not practice Zen.

I chalked this up as yet another instance in which I and the mainstream GLBT community disagree about what is right for me. A quick hunt around on the Internet turned up the CZC, which not only seemed to offer exactly what I was looking for, but also happens to be about a ten-minute walk from my office.

After one visit, I suspected this was the place for me. After three, I was certain. The place is welcoming, but they don't give you a big hug when you come in the door. I was shown how to do prostrations, how to ask for the kyosaku during a sitting, how to do kinhin, and how to sit properly. And then into the zendo I went, to do it all best I could.

For somebody who has always been compelled to get even complicated things right the very first time, there have been moments of terror over the past nine months. Because, as I am beginning to comprehend, there's no such thing as a Zen prodigy. And at the CZC there's no hand-holding, no dumbing down, no gold star stickers for minute increments of progress. This is the real thing, not some hippy-dippy smiley-happy Easy Zen substitute, where the path to satori is ordering a platform bed and ecru curtains from Pottery Barn. As a matter of fact, nobody seems to mention (or care about) satori at all.

Sensei and the other members have been very kind to me as I've stumbled over my robe (and my own feet), bowed in the wrong direction after a sitting, got lost on the way from the Buddha Hall to the zendo, and (during one sitting I will never forget) slid right off my cushion with a deafening THUD because my entire ass fell asleep during zazen and I was trying surreptitiously to wiggle it around and wake it up.

I'm allowed to make mistakes, I'm expected to make mistakes. When they happen, I'm gently but firmly corrected or nudged in the right direction. It's like being a child, except that when I was a child in school my errors were punished far more harshly. I can remember so many times hearing a teacher yell, "I would have expected [insert problem here] from any other child, but not from you!" And now I'm not special, not special at all. What a luxury.

All of this led up to last night, and a ceremony called Jukai, during which I (and the rest of the community) took the precepts of Buddhism. I don't know how to describe this in terms that really make sense to people who haven't read a lot about Buddhism. It sort of reminded me of the once-yearly reaffirmation of baptismal vows in a Roman Catholic church. But for me, personally, it felt like a conversion ceremony. I was once a born Christian with an interest in Buddhism. Now I'm a Buddhist. A small but important (well, important to me) line has been crossed.

So that I won't forget them, I want to write down the superficial details of the night.

Jukai was preceded by what the CZC calls Temple Night. Usually, our practice isn't what you would call devotional. We meditate facing the wall, not the altar, and the altars are very small and simple. On Temple Night, sitting is done facing not only one, but many altars set up all around the center. This was my first Temple Night.

I arrived about 7:15 and was greeted by Mike, one of the practitioners who's been there...I don't know...forever?...who gave me a typical CZC orientation for a new occasion: it was whispered, about ten words long, and delivered only once. At this point, I'm used to that. I even like it. It keeps you alert.

I noticed that a scroll I haven't seen before, a standing Bodhidharma, had been hung in the Center's living room. It looked like it was a rubbing from a masterwork, but unfortunately I never got a chance to check it out up-close.

I went down to the men's changing room and discovered that Jukai is something like Christmas Eve in a Catholic church–people come out of the woodwork. I was lucky to get a hook for my pants and such, even though I was early as usual. Note to self: next time, show up at 7.

Sitting was open, which meant we could sit in either the Buddha Hall or the zendo; and we could get up and move as we wished (usually, the stages of a sitting are strictly timed and announced through the use of different bells and gongs). Mike had told me the altar for images of departed loved ones was in the zendo, so that's where I went first.

I had brought Uncle Mike's picture with me–the one from this post. In the zendo everything was rearranged. Two arcs of mats faced a low, central altar of the many-armed Kannon (Bodhisattva of Compassion) against the west wall. There were a lot of photographs already on the altar. I added mine, bowed, and sat down, resisting the urge to stand there and examine the gorgeous figure. (The instincts of the art historian die hard.) It was odd, at first, to be facing the others instead of the wall, but I got used to it pretty quickly. Made a nice change. And then I noticed that everyone who came and went was doing prostrations to the altar* instead of merely bowing. Oops.

I sat, and felt that this sitting was really my time to remember and honor my uncle. My thoughts were very personal and I won't record them here.

After a time, I decided to move to the Buddha Hall and so got up, did three prostrations (without tripping over my robe!) to Kannon and headed downstairs.

My first sight of the Buddha Hall was so startling I had to stop for a moment and catch my breath. It's a low room, with dark pillars and walls and only small windows, high up. Normally the lighting is subdued, but on this night the only light came from hundreds of small candles on three altars and maybe six or eight smaller tables piled with offerings of fruit, vegetables, flowers, and bread.

From left to right, the altars were (I hope I remember this properly) Kannon (seated, gesture of the fist of wisdom); Shakyamuni Buddha (seated, zazen mudra) and Mahaprajapati (seated, gesture of fearlessness). I'm especially fond of that figure of Mahaprajapati. She was the Buddha's aunt/foster mother, and she was instrumental in persuading him to share his teaching with women. You go, girl.

In the dim light, robed figures sitting, sometimes moving to sit in a different place or do prostrations. Kinhin (walking meditation) at the back of the room. It felt...ancient. Imperturbable. Every so often, chanting. I discovered to my delight that both "Kanzeon" and the Heart Sutra are both now firmly in my brain, and about half the chant to avert disaster.

One thought that rang out loud and clear out of a quiet brain: How happy and fortunate I am to be here.

Sitting in front of Kannon, quite close to the altar, I had a strong sense of déja vu and couldn't stop from trying to puzzle out why. After about a minute it hit me. The overwhelming warmth, the peace in my chest were exactly those I'd experienced one Christmas, years ago, sitting in our darkened living room looking at the Nativity figures by the light of the Christmas tree. I've been trying to get back to that space, without success, for so many years. And here it was, perfect, as if twenty-plus years of angst had not intervened.

A round of kinhin, with chanting (something new for me–usually we're silent). I had never heard the chant before but recognized it (I think) as Sanskrit in praise of Shakyamuni Buddha. I need to go look it up to be sure.

And then, Jukai. I ended up quite by chance directly behind the mokugyo player, in the middle of things. As far as I know, I may have been the only person taking the precepts for the first time. Sensei led from the front. His sense of conviction was palpable. Another luxury: a teacher who believes what he's teaching.

I recited the Three Treasures, the Precepts, and the Bodhisattva Vows as directed. Meant every word of it. May not ever be able to live up to it, but I mean to try. Knelt, prostrated, bowed. And when Sensei read about this ceremony being the way in which "we enter the Buddhist family" I felt a tear roll down my cheek. I have so far to go, more miles than from here to the next galaxy before I'll even feel I've moved an inch, but at least I've started.

About the prostrations: the CZC's Web site explains them better than I could, in answer to the question of why there are figures on the altar if there's no "personal God" in our practice: "The Buddha (and the other figures) are inspiring to the practitioner. They embody, in a kind of metaphorical, crystalized manner, the enlightened, open mind that is our truest nature. When we prostrate or bow to a figure it is not a form of worship, but rather an affirmation that the purity that is represented by the figure before us is really within us, and we are lowering our smaller, limited ego before this all encompassing truth."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Next Stop?

The Wheel

The other day I was walking from the train station to work, bent double against the nasty wind pouring across Lake Michigan, and onto my iPod rotated Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing "Vienna, City of My Dreams." It hit me like a punch in the gut.

I've spent all of four days in Vienna and count them among the four best in my life to date. I didn't walk through the city, I floated through it. I danced through it. And not just the spectacular bits within the Ring, either. My inveterate passion for seeing the commonplace wherever I travel took me out via the subway, randomly, to see neighborhoods that don't attract group tours. And those places, too, I loved. I enjoyed the everyday gemütlichkeit of the Austrians, whose attitude seems to be, "Yes, we used to rule half of Europe, and now we don't, and who cares? Have another cup of coffee."

As Schwarzkopf's voice swelled into a perfectly-pitched crescendo near the end of the plaintive waltz, the whole panorama of Vienna came surging back into my head and I almost cried.

Lately Chicago has begun to chafe. Part of it is upbringing. I was raised in a military family, pulling up stakes to head to a new base every four years or so, and the instinct to Get Up and Go refuses to leave me, no matter how much I like where I am.

And part of it, frankly, is Chicago. The climate aside, this is not a city founded on impulses I can embrace. The pioneers settled where the Native Americans would not, stubbornly enduring all manner of pestilence and plague in order to make bucketfuls of money from a strategically located swamp.

And Chicago, at least as I've come to know it, remains a city that above all cares about money. Nothing, no matter how beautiful, noble or holy, is ever permitted to stand in the way of commerce. While I appreciate the comforts that come with a nice paycheck, I also appreciate being allowed an occasional break. And I find myself in a place where even the universities won't close for national holidays because it would interfere with the bottom line.

Given these objections, you might question how the hell New York City could possibly be on my wheel of possibilities. It's not exactly a monument to Higher Motives. I suppose it comes down to differing ambitions. When I've been in New York and met New Yorkers, everybody is trying hard to be something. Whereas in Chicago, a depressingly large portion of the population is working non-stop in order to own something. My own tendency is more in line with the former. No judgment. Just an observation.

There are no plans, mind you. And I lack the temperament to put my books in storage, throw a dart at the map, and buy a plane ticket. I'm just daydreaming, but the dreams are getting more frequent and vivid as we plunge further into our signature dismal winter.

So what the heck do I want?

I want a better climate, which means any place where winter doesn't begin in late September and end in early July. I want the creative vibe that comes from at least a small, active population of artists or artisans. I want, if at all possible, a good Japanese Zen training center. I need some sort of street life, rather than the usual American model of strip malls bounding a gridlock of identical houses. Or, I need countryside–genuine countryside, not Lake Forest. It absolutely does not need to be in America. Wherever it is, I'd like it to be a place with a real sense of itself, a character of its own.

Today, on the way home from the train station, the wind coming off the lake blew over a large, steel-and-concrete trash can in front of my building and slammed me into the wall. A few more days of this, and I may buy a dart and a map.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Knitting Life

It took me a while to buy the new Interweave Knits because the first copies to arrive at the bookstore near my office were all, inexplicably, sealed in plastic. I wondered (hoped?) whether this indicated scandalous content within–perhaps a centerfold featuring John Brinegar supine on a pile of Jaeger.

The reviews began to show up online and were so positive that I hope Pam Allen et al. opened a bottle of something nice. In case you haven't noticed, knitters are not the easiest bunch to please. I don't know whence came the image of the daft little old lady smiling benignly at the world over her needles, because even since the demise of You Knit What?, make one false move and you're chum.

When I finally got to flip through an unsealed copy (and yes, I did buy it) I was disappointed that there were no naked men. On the other hand, there are several striking designs and two that are gorgeous (Eunny, honey, you're really giving She Who Litigates in Scottish Courts a run for her money). And then there's the men's sweater.

Now, this is not going to be a scathing write-up of the men's sweater. When you're putting your own stuff out there every day, honestly it becomes a little harder to flippantly write things like, "Wow! What a piece of shit!" Also, whenever I start to feel really poisonous I see my mother's disapproving countenance rising up before my eyes and saying "Play nice or you're going home!" and it kills the mood.

I want to write about this sweater because if, on the off chance that anybody who publishes patterns might be reading, I'd like to pass on some comments of my own–as well as one given at last night's Stitches in Britches meeting.

First of all, the model is completely cute should feel free to write to me at any time. However, I am going to assume that the sweater was intended for somebody rather larger. Here's why: look at a) the neckline and b) the waistline.

I am absolutely certain that the designer could not have intended the neckline to be so broad that it's mere inches from slipping off the fellow's pretty shoulders. Nor could she have jumped up from a deep sleep and shouted "Eureka! I've figured out how to make a normal-sized head look freakishly small!"

And there is no way any designer who's going to show up in IK would intentionally put an innocent male model into a knitted minidress, which is what this is. Imagine it belted, with some good silk stockings and a pair of kitten heels. See? You could wear it to a gallery opening.

But on a man, unless he has had his ass surgically removed, what you've got is a too-long sweater that will either bunch up over his butt while covering his crotch; or cover and accentuate whatever junk is in his trunk in a most unflattering dog-under-a-blanket sort of way.

Now, I know a lot of women who like this length, because it can smooth the transition from midriff to the lower regions and possibly look slimming. However, this is not how men's sweaters should look, at least not if you want men to wear them without hating you. A man's waistline should be at his waist. Not above, not below.

As the designer undoubtedly knew this, I am going to shake my stubby finger at whoever arranged and/or styled this shoot, and the person in editorial who let it run. Listen, IK, you are one of the only knitting magazines I enjoy and I know you can do better. This sweater needed a guy about a foot taller and, judging from the size of the yoke and collar, about a foot wider. A tall order, perhaps, but honestly...don't show a garment if you can't show it off at its best. It's not nice for the model and it's not nice for the designer who worked so hard to please you.

Also it encourages the men I knit with to say it ought to be called the Sphincter Sweater because that's what that yoke looks like on a too-small model. And the men I knit with, they know from sphincters.

Sock News

I finished knitting the first cabled sock and will show you a picture as soon as I can be bothered to take one.

The 2007 Ornament

The successor to last year's elf is this tiny Ode to Peace is nearly ready for the shop. Here's a sneak preview. (Note: it's up...and it looks like for a short time Café Press is offering it at a discount. They control these things, I don't–so I'm not sure how long the deal will last.)

Ornament Prototype

Of course, after the reaction to the last post I'm sorry I didn't draw them peeing on one another.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Out of the Sketchbook


I was rummaging through my sketchbooks and ran across this unpolished little gem. Somewhere in the Happy Knitting Grounds, Mary Thomas is clutching her chest and staggering backwards.

I promise I will not be publishing it as a pendant to this.

In my defense, I'm fairly certain it was created on a night when I was even more medicated than usual.

Note to self: In the future, do not mix cartooning and NyQuil.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


In memory of my Uncle Mike, July 1950–November 2006.

With Uncle Mike c. 1973
Uncle and nephew, circa 1973.

I almost never saw you, but you gave me one of my names. I hardly knew you, but the older I grow the more I think I understand you. I wonder if you ever realized how alike we are?

Tomorrow I'm taking a day off to go shooting with the Rolleiflex you gave me. I can't think of a better way to remember you.

Peace, man.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A Few Things I Need

  1. I need all persons in my workplace who can only converse by constantly shouting at one another across the office to rediscover the wonders of the telephone, the Internet, and shutting the hell up.

  2. I need the Gap in my neighborhood to stock men's ribbed fitted T-shirts in XS. In fact, I need American retailers everywhere to acknowledge that short men without beer guts exist and require clothing.

  3. I need Rachael Ray to choose one (1) television show and immediately cease production of the other seventeen. It's enough already, Rachael.

  4. I need That Guy I See On the Subway Most Mornings to either come over and say hello or stop staring at me, because it's getting weird.

  5. I need the Trixies in my neighborhood to wear sensible shoes while they commute. If I miss one more train because you can't manage your Prada stiletto heels on the stairway to the platform, onto the tracks you go.

  6. I need the two people who have expressed worry that my conversion to Buddhism is a terrible tragedy, and have suggested I return to the arms of Jesus, to worry about something else.

  7. I need the conglomerate that owns Macy's to personally apologize to me for defacing the old Marshall Field's flagship on State Street with black awnings. It looks like a funeral parlor. I thought you people in New York City were supposed to have a sense of style.

  8. I need Stephen Fry to call me and explain his long-standing indifference to my public protestations of love for him.

  9. I need to take four pairs of boots to the Boot Guy for new soles.

  10. I need the grocery store in my neighborhood to relocate about three blocks closer to my apartment.

  11. I need the grocery store in my neighborhood to stop running out of things like butter. What American grocery store runs out of butter? Especially when next state north is Wisconsin. How hard can it be to keep the lines of distribution open? Are the Butter Trains being ambushed by packs of Dairy Bandits?

  12. I need to eat less butter.

  13. I need to lose about five pounds. (See item 12.)

  14. I need, as the immortal Nina Simone put it, a little sugar in my bowl. It might make the previous 13 items rather easier to bear.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Political Animals

I came upstairs after voting (the lobby of my building is, conveniently, a polling station) and found the apartment in disarray.

"Dolores," I said. "Dolores, why are all the sheets and towels on the floor in the hallway?"

"We needed office space," she said. "Say, have you seen the hammer lately?"

"It's under the bathroom sink," I said. "Office space for what?"

"Comin' through," said a soft voice near my feet. "Move it or lose it."

Harry rolled past with a bunch of the other sock yarns, carrying between them a placard that read "HEADQUARTERS."

"Where are you going with that?"

The phone rang.


"This is Jack at the front desk. You got a delivery here for D. Van Hoofen. Send it up?"

You will of course understand that I no longer accept deliveries to the apartment without checking them out first. Upon inspection, I found that Dolores had ordered two hundred yards of red, white, and blue bunting and fifty very small straw boaters with star-spangled ribbons.

"Dolores," I asked, not for the first time, "What the hell is going on?"

"In time of great need, my country is calling me," said Dolores. "And like Sir Francis Drake, I can but answer."

"Calling you? Calling you to what?"

"To organize. To lead. To inspire. Last night, I had a dream!"

"Oh, shit."

"Watch your mouth. It was beautiful! I was standing on a platform in the middle of Soldier Field, and there were thousands of people there, and I had a new hat, and everybody was cheering, and then a giant finger appeared in the sky and wrote DOLORES IN 2008 in flaming letters. I've never thought of myself as a political animal, but you don't have to tell me twice."

"You're running for President?"

"Well, I don't want to jump the gun, cupcake. We're in the exploratory stages. Listen, do you mind if I pull out the good bridge cloth? I have Libby Dole and some of the other girls coming over for lunch tomorrow. Hey, you okay? You look kinda green."

"It's one of my headaches coming on," I said.

"Again? You should get that checked. Hey, Harry–I need you to correct this welcome banner, she spells 'Hillary' with two Ls."

"You got it, chief. Ann Coulter is on the phone again. She's crying this time and wants to know pretty please can she come to the party?"

"Tell her to buy a box of Kleenex and remember that the restraining order is still in place."

"This is insane, Dolores," I said. "Stop and think for a minute. You're a heavy drinker. An elitist. With notoriously low morals. Related to any number of shady characters. You have no foreign policy experience. Your head is full of wool. Why on earth would anyone vote for you?"

"Who says lightning can't strike a third time?" she sniffed.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Like Woodstock, But With More Yarn

Through the miracle of smoke and mirrors I may seem like a nice person, but the fact is I'm a demanding and obsessive martinet. Just ask these three lovely people, who got up at an ungodly hour on Saturday morning to help get ready for the Chicagoland Dulaan Knit-In.

Ladies and gentlemen, my dream team:




Bonne Marie



Bonne Marie picked us up from my apartment in her rough-and-tough Jeep. In short order, we had the Alumni House fully prepared (following my very specific instructions) and awaiting the arrival of the Dulaaners. Check it out:

Encouraging messages from Ryan and Konchog. (Konchog was unanimously voted Sexiest Monk Alive.)

A table positively groaning with prizes...

...under the watchful eye of Guess Who.

Another table, covered with donated wool for Dulaan projects. (Look familiar, Penny?)

The bust of John Evans in the Library, looking far more cheerful than is his wont. Carol made the hat.

And on the buffet table, Buddha in Attitude of Contemplating Which Cast On to Use.


The Dream Team gathered for a moment of reflection before opening the doors. And then, after a pause of about forty seconds in which I actually said, "What if nobody shows up?", in came the knitters.


Lieutenant Buzz greeted arrivals at the reception desk with a smile and an overview of the facility.

And they started to knit.





Some of my homegirls from Lakeview Stitch 'n Bitch.

Aidan's extremely helpful wife Myfanwe (left), and the Two Sock Knitters Jonathan (center) and Meg (right).

Aidan (rear) and his knitting son Norbert (foreground), one of those rare children with manners and charm.









Knitters in the window. Knitters on the floor. Knitters, knitters everywhere...

...but always room for more.






The boys in the hall.

Kneeling in front is Lauren, holding her first FO–a Dulaan hat.



This is Grace, who started knitting in February and is already knitting extempore. She made that hat at the Knit-In, off the top of her head. Scary.

Emily, who provided us with some of her luscious Sophie's Toes Sock Yarn as a prize. She made the hat she's wearing, start to finish, at the Knit-In.

Lynette and her faboo cupcakes, which she described as "portion control desserts." So true, unless you eat five of them as some of us did.

In total, we had about seventy-six folks. If there's anybody I did not have the chance to thank in person for coming out to support Dulaan, let me say it here. This event would have been nothing at all without each and every one of you.

And now I need to go lie down for just a little while.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Child Is the Father of the Man

While we were visiting Detroit I had occasion to rummage through several boxes of old family photographs. Two taken of me at age five seem uncanny in their foreshadowing of the adult I would become.


"Keep your hands where I can see 'em, pardner, while I go fetch the lasso."


"Hey, Mr. Sondheim! Here I am!"

I'm beginning to understand why my parents didn't look all that surprised when I came out to them.