Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Baby's First Pun

I overslept a bit over the weekend (maybe it was wrestling with the rose bush), so the dog and I went out for her morning walk during what’s usually kids-and-families time. One group, father, stroller, daughter maybe 6, son maybe 5, plus baby of unknown gender in a front pack, were coming toward us. Usually, I move the dog away — she’s friendly enough, but can be both bouncy and vocal, which can scare children — but the father seemed to have the children well in hand, so I didn’t interrupt Vixen’s busy marking. As they came closer, the boy showed signs of wanting to run up, but the father stopped him, and the girl said, “May we pet your doggie?”

This is behavior to be encouraged, so I said they could, warning them that Vixen would probably bark, and that it was just her being talkative. They asked the usual questions — what’s the dog’s name, is it a boy or a girl, how old is she — and the father commented on the nice size and how well behaved she was. At which point the girl tugged on daddy’s pullover and said, “Can I ask the lady a question?”

The father got the wary look that parents of bright and vocal children often get, but said that she could.

“Why do dogs pee so much?” she asked. (She’d obviously been watching Vixen mark everything in sight.)

It was actually a good question, and I said so; the father’s body language indicated that I could go ahead and answer, so I did. I explained that dogs have a good sense of smell (“the first thing my dog did was sniff your hands, remember?”) and that they peed on things so that other dogs could smell it and see who had been there. A dog can tell how long ago the other dog had been there, and whether it was a boy dog or a girl dog, and then they’ll pee in the same spot to tell the first dog that they were there, too.

The girl giggled at the idea, and so did her brother, but then his eyes widened and he got this big grin.

“Daddy!” he said. “It’s PEE mail!”

His father and I both burst out laughing, and as they moved away, I heard the father say, “wait till we tell your mother.”

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Where DO You Get Your Ideas, Ms. Scott?

Understand, I am not a gardener. Lisa was, and we made a deal long ago that I would happily supply unskilled labor — digging, pulling up plants as directed (I’m not reliable on what is and isn’t a weed), hauling mulch, and abetting trips to the garden stores (“oh, that’s pretty, you should get it”) — in exchange for enough pesto to freeze for the winter. And now I am faced with putting the garden to bed.

I have an idea of what to do, and friends I can ask if I run into trouble, but before I can even get to that point, I have to deal with the two-and-a-half months of almost total neglect. (Hey, I had abdominal surgery. I couldn’t pull weeds.) As you might expect, there were a few surprises.

Some were good: the mint, which escaped years ago from a pot and was not eradicated in time, has actually spread into an area where nothing else had thrived. It seems to be doing well, so I think I’ll leave it alone. Some one of my neighbors left a hash pipe in the sage, along with a Bud Light can. (You can have the pipe back if you take away the can.)

Some were bad, like the lavender that was overshadowed by the asters and is unlikely to make it through the winter.

And some were just plain ugly. There is a rose in the front “yard” — a two-and-a-half foot wide raised bed right on the sidewalk — that seems to survive weather, neglect, and sheer ignorance. (I have no idea what kind it is. All I can tell you is that the flowers are pale pink, and it has lots of really big thorns.) Every year it sends out suckers in every possible direction, and every year we clip them back before any children or dogs get hurt. Every year it blooms profusely, usually on branches that need to be cut back, and then it’s a race to see whether it will finish blooming before the branch has to go.

This year I didn’t get to it in September, and I was really pretty halfhearted in July, with the result that several of the back canes grew to be eight feet long and curled into fantastic shapes against the side of the house. The flowers and the dark leaves were very pretty against the pale gray paint, but the time had come to cut them back before they got any further out of hand.

The next time I need a natural menace in one of my novels, I know what it will be: the thorn snake vine. It’s neither fully animal nor truly a plant, but combines the mindless voracity of a lesser predator with the growth habits of bamboo. It’s studded with inch-long thorns that stick out at random angles so that no attacker can grasp its body without being stuck — and I expect it’s poisoned, too. The thorns can be stripped from the stalk, but have a half-life of their own, and they’re strong enough to go through shoe leather. The vines live in tangles, and, though each strand is an independent organism, if one vine is attacked, the others will shift to protect it, trapping an attacker on their thorns. As soon as one vine draws blood, the others are roused by the scent and redouble their attack. Anyone foolish enough, or desperate enough, to mess with a tangle can expect to have serious problems....

I got the rose trimmed. I think we’ll call it a draw.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Green Gansey

The Yarn Harlot revealed today that the gansey and shawl she’s been frantically knitting were intended for her and Joe’s wedding. (She didn’t finish either of them.) This made me cry, not because she didn’t finish, and not because I always cry at weddings — I usually giggle, actually — but because of the gansey.

Ganseys are, for those who don’t know, fishermen’s sweaters from Great Britain, mostly the eastern coast; they’re tightly knit from a 5-ply skinny worsted- or hefty sport-weight yarn (in some parts, it’s known as “seaman’s iron,” and there are companies that make specific gansey yarn), and they have elaborate textured patterns on the chest and sleeves. Unlike the fancy Aran sweaters, the patterns are mostly made up of combinations of basic knit and purl stitches. They’re also knitted in the round: up from the waist, divide for front and back, then knit the shoulder seams together, knit a collar, then pick up the armhole stitches and knit down to the cuff. When you cast off that last cuff stitch, you can put the gansey on and walk away in it.

I’ve been knitting for about 20 years, ever since Lisa’s mother taught me the basics. After 5 or 6 years, I was pretty good. I could do cables, I had succeeded at colorwork even if I didn’t like it, and I could even make gloves — cabled gloves, at that. But for the longest time, I hadn’t really made anything that Lisa liked. I’d made her sweaters, which she wore dutifully, but they were all too heavy or too fancy for everyday, or just too... not Lisa. Ditto for the gloves and the hats and the scarves: all not quite Lisa.

And then I found Knitting Ganseys, by Beth Brown-Reisel. I’d read about it in a knitting magazine, and was intrigued by the one-piece construction and the subtle patterning, so I bought the book and some yarn from the farmer’s market and knit away. The yarn was a dark purple heather, heavier than the usual gansey gauge, so that I ended up with a cozy tunic: very much my kind of sweater. I showed it and the book to Lisa, and to my surprise, she said, “I like that. Can you make me one that’s lighter, and with ribbing? But I really like those pattern bands.”

“Of course I can,” I said. “Just give me a little input here....” (I’d learned something after all those years.) We looked at the book, and at the various patterns, and she picked four she liked, which would go across the chest of a basic, traditional gansey. Traditional ganseys have the owner’s initials knitted into the area of plain stockinette stitch above the ribbing, and Lisa decided she was OK with that, too. Then we went back to the farmer’s market and found two cones of an odd weight that you’d have to call either light sport or heavy fingering. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but Lisa loved the color, a deep but bright forest green flecked with bits of cream and a little brown. So we bought it.

And that’s the thing about ganseys: once you learn the technique, you can adapt it to any weight of yarn. I did my swatch, did the math, and off I went. I knit in the initials, and only had to unknit twice; the underarm gussets emerged just the way they were supposed to. The patterned sections were actually fun, though I did make a mistake on a wrong side row once I’d divided for the armholes, and I never did correct it. You’d have to look hard to find it, anyway. I could only fit three pattern bands on the sleeves, so I dropped the one that had given me the most trouble, and then.... I was done.

I called Lisa to come and try it on. She did, and I held my breath. She grinned. She tugged the cuffs and the waist ribbing, and then she ran upstairs to look in the mirror. She came back down running her fingers over the initials above the hem. It worked. She liked it, it looked good on her, and — she liked it.

That was almost 10 years ago, as best I can work out from the photos in our albums. I made her other ganseys, but it was the green one she wore most often, to work, on vacation, on long walks, finally as the hem and cuffs started to fray out to the barns at EPONA where she volunteered with rescued and retired horses. I offered to unravel and reknit the edges, but that never happened, partly because I was afraid I’d mess up the magic somehow, and partly because it was hard to get the gansey away from her. The horses rubbed hay and spit on it, chewed on the hem and generally felted the cuffs so that I doubt I could have unraveled them anyway. After she had to stop volunteering, she used to hold the gansey to her face and breathe in the faint barn-smell that still clung to it.

Finally, this January, I persuaded her to let me try again. We went to the local yarn store for the January sale. Lisa picked out her yarn in about half an hour, then retreated to the “husband chair” to wait while I spent another hour choosing yarns for my projects. Then.... You know the rest.

The new gansey yarn has been sitting in my basket ever since, still in the original skeins, not yet wound into balls. There’s not enough for a sweater for me (Lisa lost 45 pounds last year after the brain surgery, and she was 4 inches shorter than I to start with) and, anyway, that didn’t feel right. The hospice chaplain suggested making a shawl or a wrap with it, so that’s what it’s becoming. The green gansey sits on a shelf where I can grab it and try to smell the barn that Lisa loved. And, someday, I’ll make one for me, and I’ll put both our initials on it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Yesterday evening the cats were noisier than usual out in the kitchen, which, in retrospect should have tipped me off. However, I ignored them, and didn’t wander out that way until it was time to start supper. At which point I found the lovely fluffy gray cat living up to his name — Pretty Boy Floyd — while Grendel and Trouble crouched eagerly behind him, and Tenzing, the oldest, fattest, and loudest, sat on the kitchen chair and supervised.

They were all staring at the kitchen wastebasket, and Floyd was batting at it, trying to get his paw under the back edge. For some reason, I thought he’d lost a toy under there — he’d been chasing a big twist-em for the past couple of days — so I tilted the wastebasket back a little, and there it was.

A mouse.

Floyd lunged for it, and I reflexively dropped the wastebasket, protecting the mouse, but not solving my problem.

A mouse. In my kitchen.

My first thought was, Lisa, help! My second, equally irrational, was, at least mice don’t eat yarn. (This only makes sense if you are a knitter, and have several large baskets of expensive yarn sitting in your living room.) The third thought — the first useful one — was, OK, it’s trapped. There’s time to think this through.

Lisa’s family always said that the little bitty mice were field mice, while house mice were bigger. This was a tiny mouse, probably not much bigger than the first joint of my thumb: field mouse for sure. Plus I hadn’t seen any droppings or any signs of nibbled food, and six years’ working at a historic house museum with periodic rodent issues has left me hypersensitive to such things. Plus there are four resident cats, and, while they haven’t exactly rid me of this one, they certainly are making its presence known

So I probably don’t have an ongoing problem. But what am I going to do about this stupid mouse?

Before Lisa died, it was easy, or at least easier: yell for Lisa, and we’d deal with it together. I indulged in a brief fantasy that she would have pushed Floyd away, whipped back the wastebasket, scooped up the mouse and removed it all in one smooth gesture. Then reality asserted itself. Lisa never dealt well with mice. At her job prior to Heinemann, the ancient building had a mouse problem, and she’d come home regularly complaining about being startled by a mouse jumping out of her wastebasket, or running along the shelves out back where the inventory was stored. (The company ended up getting a pair of office cats, who grew fat, sleek, and oddly corporate, sitting on the windowsills looking like presidents and CEOs.) In fact, Lisa never dealt well with small animals: I was the one who had to catch the injured bird that wandered into the back yard, though Lisa knew who to call and where to take it. Cat-sized or larger, Lisa could and did handle: that’s where two of the cats came from, not to mention the various lost dogs that she rescued and got back home and who paved the way for Vixen’s entering the household. But a mouse.... No, mice would have been my responsibility anyway.

I grabbed a big wad of paper towels off the counter: the mouse hadn’t looked injured, but if it was, I didn’t want to add to the problem. I hissed at Trouble and Grendel, moving them back, oh, a whole eight inches, and picked up Floyd and tossed him out into the hall. (We don’t have a kitchen door any more because we took it down to make room for Lisa’s wheelchair.) I pushed Trouble out of the way, blocked Floyd from making another charge for the wastebasket, and flapped the paper towels to make Grendel retreat. That was as much space as I was likely to get, so I quickly picked up wastebasket, put it down between me and the cats — and the mouse, of course, ran straight for the gap behind the stove.

Luckily, something stopped it — it may even have been too large to fit — and I grabbed it. It ran over my hand and dropped to the floor. I grabbed it again, and this time I had it. It was pretty clearly uninjured — scared, certainly, and probably tired, but I could feel all four legs working inside the towel, so I figured it was safe to just let it go outside.

At which point Tenzing, who had done nothing (as far as I saw) to trap the mouse or chase it, who had been sitting calmly in the kitchen chair the whole time, let loose a yowl of complaint loud enough that I nearly dropped the mouse. I got the back door open, let the mouse go — it scrambled off into the leaves — and went back in to find all four cats lined up on the kitchen floor. Tenzing yowled again, and kept yowling the whole time I washed my hands. As I had handled a mouse, this was probably a good minute. When he stopped to breathe, Trouble chimed in, and Grendel gave a few Siamese-ish wails. Only Floyd stayed silent, but he had a distinctly disapproving stare.

What would Lisa have done, confronted with first a mouse and then four reproachful felines? Poured a stiff bourbon, and given the cats a treat. So that’s exactly what I did.