Category Archives: anecdotes

Knit knot knat that

So I apparently lost the run of myself entirely on Sunday and decided that I should knit some mittens. I looked up some patterns and they mostly seemed to call for circular needles, which sounded far too scary and not what I was envisaging at all, but all it took was some mild encouragement from a friend on Facebook and I was out the door ostensibly to replenish our milk and beer supplies but actually to sneak in a quick trip to Joanne’s Fabrics and Crafts for another ball of wool and a pair of circular needles.

I didn’t even buy what the pattern told me to – I had the audacity to think I knew better than that – so I picked up some chunky (but not extra chunky) yarn in a nice aubergine colour that I thought nobody in the family would object to and the needles it said would be best for it. My thinking was that I would knit an experimental mitten and it – and, all going well, its mate – would go to whomever it happened to fit.

I also picked up milk and beer, to keep the ravening hordes at bay while I immersed myself in knit one purl two and also discovering, thanks to the delights of YouTube tutorials, the arcane skills of ssk (that’s slip slip knit) and M1 (make one) and other such hieroglyphs. And I cast on my stitches and started to knit.

Mitten in progress

Fillet o’ mitten

It was a strangely euphoric experience, watching something grow from my own hands. I gestated a mitten, shall we say. (Clearly I am having some issues with this no-more-babies thing.)

By later that evening I was live-tweeting the mitten’s creation. You probably missed it, so I will helpfully reproduce my tweets here.

You want to know the knitting joke, don’t you? Dash asked how I knew how to do braille. He meant purl, but I thought it was pretty good because purl is the bumpy side, just like braille. Sort of.

I spent last night dreaming stitches and needles. Today I finished the second mitten. They fit Dash, who is gratifyingly delighted with them. I have another ball of wool in my bag and I’m just itching to get off to Joanne’s and buy the right size circular needles to make Mabel a pair of gloves. In fact, in their absence I’m researching hat patterns. And I still have to finish my scarf…

Dash in mittens

Be-mittened boy

I’m sorry. I know you didn’t come here looking for a craft blog. I wouldn’t either. I’ll try to keep the knitting talk to a minimum.

(But if you really want to know, here’s the technical stuff. I’d never followed a knitting pattern of any sort before, or used circular needles, so that’s got to be a good recommendation for it being pretty simple.

I used this pattern for 45-minute mittens from Susan B Anderson. I made them with Lion Brand Wool-Ease Chunky in aubergine on 10.5 US (6.5mm) circular needles. The only other things I needed were a row counter – helpful, not essential – and a yarn or darning needle.)

Beginner’s luck

At the weekend I won a photography competition. Not since the great drama-exam drama of 1983 have I been party to such an upset.

The September I was ten, my ballet class moved to a time that was inconvenient, what with our habit of eating dinner and so on, and so my mother deemed that I should stop doing ballet and take up drama instead. Apparently I was a very malleable child, or perhaps I just wasn’t all that into ballet any more, because I took it pretty well and showed up at my new drama class ready to do whatever it was people did in drama. The teacher was a large woman given to wearing muumuus, who had a lot of bichon frise dogs, which is why I know a bichon frise when I see one. (Also a muumuu, but that episode of The Simpsons helped there too.) She was stridently West-Brit, and very hand-wavy, and pretty much exactly as you’d expect a drama teacher. She was, in fact, an institution.

The other kids in my class seemed to have taken up drama as toddlers, and to me they all appeared to be slightly posh, private-school girls (were there any boys? I don’t remember any) who had no need or inclination to befriend the unfashionable new girl. That was okay; so long as there was something we were meant to be doing, I didn’t need a friend particularly.

I really have no idea what it was we did in drama class. But I do remember the end-of-term exam with crystal clarity. I’d taken recorder exams and ballet exams, but this drama exam seemed particularly freeform. I was first up and had no idea what to expect. I went into the room alone (save for the examiner) and was asked to pretend I was an astronaut, I think. (“Crystal clear” may be an exagerration. Through a mottled glass vaguely, then.) With none of my peers in the room I didn’t bother with self-consciousness, and happily loped around in imitation of weightlessness, talking to myself about the hopes and fears of an astronaut, for the allotted minutes.

When everyone else was finished and the results were announced, I was astonished – and the rest of the class was probably pretty much disgusted – to hear that (while everyone had passed, I suppose) I, the newbie, had won the gold medal and come first.

I moved on to a different drama class the next term, with a smaller and more motley group, and we did a little thing from The Great Gatsby for a feis (that’s a competition). I was Jordan, and I had to wear a knitted sweater vest (tank top) over a shirt, and have a book under my arm. (Not a golf club. Hmm. I think they took some liberties with this dramatization.) We didn’t win. I think the group doing Lorca’s Blood Wedding did. It was very, well, dramatic.

So. To return to almost the present day, last year at the Labor Day Festival I looked at the photo show and thought “Hey, they need entries to fill up these displays. I could enter a picture next year.” And this year I did just that, with two photos I liked, which I went so far as to put into frames and get to the show in time. (That was really the hard part.) And my surprise was just about as great as it had been at the drama exam when I was informed that I had taken a blue ribbon in both my categories.

(I have to point out that judicious choice of categories went a long way here. There were only three entrants in one.)

I am no more a great photographer than I turned out to be a great actress. A creative type is not something I ever used to think of myself as being, but maybe my right brain has just been biding its time for a while.

Sometimes beginner’s luck gives you a boost just when you need it.

Framed photo of branch with ice on it

“Ice storm”

Framed photo of steps in Perugia

“Perugia, Italy”



Your Kindle can’t do this

Our school’s parent-teacher association runs a massive used-book sale every September, at the festival that takes place in our town for the Labor Day weekend. We collect thousands upon thousands of books, sort them into boxes for easy transport and display, and set them up on tables (under tents for shade, this year). We charge a dollar or two each for them – less as the weekend progresses and we just want them off our hands – and we raise a whole lot of money for the PTA to help the school send kids on field trips and do all the other great things our PTA does.

It’s a massive undertaking to organize the sale, and it takes a lot of volunteer power. This year for the first time (now that I’m no longer involved in volunteering for the nursery school) I’m helping out more than I had before – as someone yesterday said, I get to see how the sausages are put in the casings instead of just selling the sausages at the end. Looking at the amazing collection, ranging from the bizarre to the vintage, the beautiful to the trashy, I wondered about the people who gave their books away. Or who died and left others to clear them up and pass them on.

An elderly couple drove up to the school in the morning, after the first-day-of-school crowds had dissipated, with a pickup truck full of books. Not even in boxes or bags – just about 400 hardback tomes, mostly if not all non-fiction, tossed loose in the back for us to put on our little red wagon and trundle into the sorting room, one journey at a time.

From our end, seeing the wagon come into the room piled high with books, it looked like another half hour of sorting, flipping, deciding, box-cutting, and lugging. From the point of view of the sale, it might mean another $500 or more for the school, depending on whether the right person happened upon the right thing at the right time, or whether they were in fact saleable at all.

But as I went out to the truck to help fish everything out and load it up, and talked to the donors, I learned what else these books meant.

“These books mostly belonged to my son,” the woman said. She told me she was 80, but she seemed like a very young 80 to me. The sort of 80 I’d aspire to. “Some of them were his daughter’s.” Some of them were books they’d bought for their kids or their grandkids – a beautiful full set of animal encyclopedias with luscious illustrations. I thought of the 1970s childhoods of the siblings in a house where that set was a prized Christmas present, maybe. The whole lot ranged magnificently in subject matter from sailing to Freemasonry, and all sorts in between – a history of the world in many heavy volumes, a giant medical textbook… As if these were people who just picked up books and took them home because they liked them. They owned books to own books. “You’d know so much,” she said to me, “if you read all this.”

They had raised their family in our town, and only moved away when the children were grown. Her son, the one whose books many of these were, had died.  She said all the siblings come back for the festival every year. She picked out a few books that had been included by mistake: “I wanted to keep this one,” she’d say, and watching her fingers run over the dust cover, I could see the meaning it held for her, the familiarity and the memories and the history behind that particular collection of pages and binding. Every one of those books probably had a history behind it in her eyes. So many memories; so many stories.

“You’ll have a lot more space now,” I remarked, when we’d unloaded them all. I pictured empty shelves, or a whole corner maybe devoid of its stacks. They looked at me with relief in their eyes and agreed. But it was more than just space in their house. I knew they were saying a last goodbye to their son with this journey; moving on mentally, making a space and a peace inside themselves. Making room for grandchildren and the great-grandchild they told me was on the way. They may have been 80, but life was moving on and they were moving with it.

I went back to my sorting with new eyes.


Girl sitting among many books.

Mabel and Dash at the book sale three (!) years ago. (There’ll be tents and tables this year. It’ll be all fancy.)

Little feckers

Of all of us, Dash is the most delicious to mosquitoes.

I used to be right up there beside him in that achievement, but an amazing thing has happened this summer: I’m no longer beset by bites. And it’s – apparently, according to some light reading I did on the Internet – because I’m not nursing any more. I could swear I always got bitten before I had kids too; but on the other hand I’ve been pregnant or lactating solidly for the past eight summers, so maybe my memory before then is just too fuzzy. I mean, we didn’t live in the swamp that is the DC suburbs eight years ago either, so I have no local comparison. Anyway, this wonderfully unanticipated upshot of finally weaning the giant babies (which happened last November, if you weren’t paying attention) is that I only have a few stray itchies here and there instead of the 40 or so my legs were sporting this time last year.

So now it’s mostly just Dash who suffers. Mabel only gets one or two, and B generally repels them effectively with his dashing manliness. (Or possibly his unique combination of permanent hirsuteness and frequent sweatiness.) And Dash, poor bunny, hates mosquitoes. One of his first two-word combinations was “eviw addito”, parrotting me as I slapped one of the little feckers off my darling child’s alabaster forehead. (I said “evil mosquito”, if you haven’t worked that out.)

Last year we tried out a couple of the natural bug sprays, because DEET scares me and because he doesn’t have a bath every night so I don’t want something that has to be washed off. They didn’t work, but Dash decided he could probably make his own just as well. (Well, since they didn’t work, I suppose he was right.) I’m a bit vague on the science he claimed was behind it, but it involved scraping some bark into some water and crumbling up some leaves and adding them, and then spraying the resulting concoction (or is that a decoction? I know there’s a difference) on himself.

This year he decided to make his bug spray again. He got me to buy a spray bottle, which I did, because hey, anything to have him gainfully occupied outdoors, right? (I use the term loosely.) And then he filled it with his special formula and has been assiduously putting it on himself. He still has mosquito bites, and there’s a can of DEET (yes, I caved) beside the door, but he’s convinced that his way is the one true way.

I don’t want to wait for him to get West Nile Virus before I burst his bubble and force the hard stuff on him. But he’s surprisingly resistant to any sort of scientific experiment to determine exactly how well his spray is working. Because you can never know how many bites you might have got if you hadn’t used it, you know?

Three bottles of bug spray

One of these things is not like the others…


Reverse shoplifting and orange squishies

I have never taken a thing from a shop in my life. Not ever. I mean, I’ve heard that some people in some places might consider the swift swiping of a lipstick from Boots or a nail polish from Target to be some sort of teenage rite of passage, but no, I never did that. I’d have been horrified at the thought.

It’s not that I’m a stickler for honesty in all things; I’m sure I’ve been guilty of a little deception now and then. On the other hand, here I am telling you about my life in lurid detail, so yes, maybe it’s all part of the same thing. Anyway, you can imagine how shocked I was to discover that my rule-following son had inadvertently stolen something from Target last week.

To explain; we’d perused the one-dollar section and found one thing per child, gone through the store and traversed the checkouts in a law-abiding manner, and then gone to the bathroom. Dash waited outside while Mabel and I went into the ladies, holding our bag of purchases and looking again at the one-dollar stuff, because it’s all right there just outside the restrooms.

When we got home, I emptied out our bag to find one extra item: an orange squishy thing with googly eyes, which I most definitely had not purchased for its retail price of one dollar.

“Oops,” quoth Dash, looking abashed. “I put it in there for a minute, but I must have forgotten to take it out again.”

For the past week it has been sitting by the door, ready to be taken back to its shelf in the store; except then I had to hide it in the kitchen because people kept trying to play with it and I was afraid they’d pop it and I really didn’t want to have to go to the customer service desk and try to explain why I wanted to pay them a dollar for this orange piece of deflated flubber.

So by the time we were heading to Target again I couldn’t find it. I was a little worried at the prospect of having stolen something, but I went to the supermarket instead and paid for the two bagels the kids had eaten on our way around last time and I’d accidentally forgotten to account for, and that made me feel a bit better.

This morning, I found the orange squishy thing, shoved down behind the big blue bowl in the corner of the counter, and we swung by Target again on our mission to get “rewards” for this first week of our latest “incentive program.” I furtively slipped it out of my bag and back on to the shelf with all the other cheap and nasty things, feeling guilty and avoiding the line of sight of the security guard.

If un-shoplifting makes me this nervous, it’s probably no surprise I’ve never tried the other sort. Now I just hope the NSA isn’t reading this.


Frozen, the art project

Mabel might have possibly inherited some artistic talent from her grandfather, or something. I mean, it’s hard to tell, because she’s a typical little girl who likes colouring and drawing, and who has much better fine motor skills than her brother before her – though he has his moments, but mostly at this age he favoured bold sweeping gestures in black. But she goes through phases of producing masses of artwork, and even though I should make her use the scrap paper I tend to turn a blind eye when she nips down to the basement and steals some “clear paper” from beside the printer, because hey, it’s not TV.

Mabel drawing


Yesterday she created a narrative tale of Frozen, including never before seen scenes such as “Anna in Her Mummy’s Tummy” and “Elsa Wants Anna’s Ice-Cream.” I had to record them for posterity. Also because her figures, at the moment, bear an uncanny and delightful resemblance to Hyperbole and a Half‘s people.

Child's drawings

The Early Years

We can move swiftly through the first set of four. “Before the Fall”, if you like. From top left, we see Elsa as a baby, with Anna still in utero (plenty of room for growth there). Next we have Elsa aged three years with new baby Anna (11 weeks exactly, I’m told). Then we have Elsa alone in bed, and finally a happy portrait of the young sisters.

Child's drawings

Sad Elsa, twice

Things start to change. Anna gets an ice-cream cone but Elsa has none, hence her sadface. Later on, Elsa and Anna are on different sides of a door… foreshadowing…?

Child's drawing

The Fall

The piéce de resistance. The central scene of young Elsa and Anna’s life, with Anna (in pigtails) unconscious at Elsa’s knees between piles of magic snow. Their parents rush in through the big double doors and their father’s mouth makes a giant “O” of horror

Child's drawing

Elsa’s coronation

Things have changed in the palace. The girls grew up and got fancy updos, but Elsa’s still sad and Anna’s still happy. Note the golden orb and sceptre (one each). Also, Elsa is made of zigzaggy lines because she’s trembling with fear at this pivotal moment.

What will happen next? Will we be treated to scenes of Kristof or Hans? I don’t think Mabel’s so interested in the boys. Maybe a reindeer and a snowman. I’ll keep you posted.


My poor American children do suffer somewhat from having parents who don’t quite speak the vernacular.

It’s rare that I encounter a word these days that I really just can’t find the American equivalent for, but I was pulled up short this afternoon when I found Mabel denuding the toilet roll of its paper in the bathroom halfway through a playdate.

“Stop messing,” I told her, exasperated.
“Is she making a mess?” her little friend asked me.
“No, she’s just … messing.”

I really couldn’t come up with the right word for what Irish people call messing. Messing about? Being mischievous? Up to no good? Cruisin’ for a bruisin’? No, I’m back to Dublinese there. In any given class at school there are the messers – everyone knows who they are and what it means. They’re not bad (or “bold”, for that matter); they’re just … exuberant.

“You speak English with an accident,” her friend told me.

That about covers it.



Sometimes your children surprise you.

Fine, we all know that. The “I thought you were past the biting phase” surprise, the “Hasn’t unrolling the toilet paper lost its thrill yet?” surprise, the “I swear you know to look both ways” surprise.

But sometimes, I mean, they surprise you in a good way.

The other night Dash lingered over his homework, as usual, choosing to watch TV before dinner and not get down to working till after dinner, as usual, and was angry when it was 7.30 by the time he was finished and I said there was no time for playing outside. All the other kids had gone in and it was getting dark. He went out anyway, followed, of course, by his sister.

He had put on his helmet, because he’s very responsible, and was riding his scooter. As he hadn’t had any outdoor time at all, and the weather was nice, and we’re still getting used to this daylight after dinnertime concept, and – crucially – I was doing bedtime alone, I let it go and said they could have five minutes.

Five stretched to fifteen and it was definitely getting dark. I tried shouting a bit, but nobody ever hears my shouts. Apparently I have a very soft voice. It doesn’t help lend me any sort of air of authority. After a few minutes Mabel agreed to call it a day, but Dash was still whizzing by me infuriatingly. I took Mabel inside, calculating that one out of two was a win and he’d probably come in soon.

He did. I tried to impress upon him, again, as usual, that while I want him to have outside time and I want him to play and I like when he gets fresh air, he also has to do his homework and has to do his reading, and the time for playing needs to come out of TV time rather than work time.

The surprising thing was that he listened. I could see him thinking about it. He came back to me a little later and got me to clarify what I’d said to make sure he understood it. Then he announced that he was going to get dressed early in the morning so he could play outside before school, and that he was going to do his homework as soon as he gets home instead of watching TV so he could play after that, when the other kids are out and before it gets dark.

For the last two days, that’s what he’s done.

I’m under no illusions that this will last forever. But it was a quicker turnaround of disobedience > talk > understanding > good action than I’ve ever seen before. It’s as if it’s a sign of maturity or something.



Entertainment value

I lost the run of myself entirely yesterday and started the 30-day shred again. I was so achy this morning after it that I misguidedly decided the best thing to do to loosen up my poor muscles was to keep at it. Now I can barely sit down, stand up, or go up or down the stairs, so it didn’t exactly work the way I’d hoped. I think that’s how they reel you in, and then you’ve a few days under your belt by the time it stops hurting and you think you can’t stop now. So maybe I’ll keep it up for a few more days.

Makes a change from the sore back anyway, and I’ve officially graduated from the chiropractor, so my mornings have freed up again. (Fine, it was only half an hour twice a week and it’s right beside the supermarket anyway, but it felt like it was the impediment to any exercise.)

That’s not what I was going to say.

It’s been raining steadily all day, except for when it turned to sleet. In the afternoon we half-heartedly offered to take the kids to the new Muppets movie, but as predicted they decided it would be more fun to stay in their pyjamas and play with a large cardboard box. (Otherwise known as “Stunt Box”. It has its own theme tune.)

So I went to Target instead, which was very relaxing except for when it was oddly difficult to get into the car (see above re muscles) and I had to sort of lean over it and then fall in the right direction with a little squeak. I hope nobody was watching.

And, even though it’s nobody’s birthday and certainly not Christmas, B suggested that I pick up Frozen on DVD, now that it’s out. Tis far from such profligacy I was raised, I’ll tell you, but I felt it would be churlish not to, seeing as how it would solve the perennial DVD selection problem for another week. And because secretly (or not so much) we’re all dying to watch it again.

When I got home (with, in addition to the DVD, a maxi dress for summer, some shoes for Mabel, some plastic tubs for yet more storage solutions because I am married to a man who believes all storage can be solutioned, and sundry groceries) nothing had changed on Walton Mountain. By which I mean the kids were still watching TV, jumping on a box, surrounded by soft-toy chaos, and in their pyjamas. I thought I should at least leverage the situation.

“I have a treat for you, but you have to get dressed and go out and get some fresh air before you can get it,” I announced. I really didn’t think it would work, but their respective imaginations went into overdrive wondering what amazing chocolate/iPad/toy I might have picked up in Target, and they sped upstairs. Mabel came down first, put on boots and raincoat, and dutifully went out into the “wintry mix” (which is what they call horrible rain that can’t decide whether it’s snow or sleet or what). She zigzagged down the driveway, walked in ever-decreasing circles for about three minutes, and came back in. Dash went outside after her, counted to 28, and was done.

Since B and I hadn’t even set foot outside while they got their “fresh air,” we couldn’t really demand any more than that. We produced the DVD (Mabel was delighted and Dash was a little resentful that it wasn’t a more him-appropriate treat, but he got over it) and we all very much enjoyed the movie for the third/fourth time.


Proudly nerd parenting

I was going to write a long and edifying post on the trip to the art gallery we took this afternoon, but then I decided that the salient points were neither the wonderful free museums nor the exorbitant prices of the food in said museums nor even how the children did not express a newfound love and appreciation for art, but simply the following two episodes.

I took Mabel into the bathroom and had a proud moment as she remarked, in her clear piercing voice as I hung out in the two square inches available in her stall, “Mummy, it’s hard to decide who the main character in Star Wars is.” Then we discussed whether a baddie could be the main character, how there aren’t often girls as main characters, and how (and whether) both Anna and Elsa could count as main characters in Frozen. If you have to have a long conversation with your pre-schooler in a public bathroom, all this rates a lot higher than a repeated chorus of “Have you finished?” “Now have you finished?”

But my nerdly pride was not yet satiated.

After a quickish look at the French Impressionists and some other British and American artists (not too bad considering we mostly let the kids direct what we looked at and how long for), it was time for lunch. After sustenance we were planning to go on to the modern-art side of the museum (though it turned out to be mostly all closed, so we didn’t) and I was trying to explain how this would be different and, you know, interesting.

“After a while artists stopped trying to paint what looked real and started painting other things,” I said. “So you could look at a picture and say what you think it looks like, but there’s no one right answer.”

“Oh!” said Dash, not quite getting the point, but ready to apply it to something he had heard about recently from his father. “Like that thing in Star Trek when there was a test the captain couldn’t get right because there was no right way to do it?”

Now, your nerd quotient might not be high enough to recognize this as a description of the test in Star Trek II (The Wrath of Khan) called Kobayashi Maru, but I’ve been acquainted with my husband long enough to know exactly what Dash was talking about, even though I couldn’t swear to you that I’ve seen the movie. (Not while awake, anyway.) But I pretty much brimmed over with vicarious pride (B had gone to the bathroom when this happened, so he couldn’t do it himself) in my well-schooled little nerdling.

I like to think we’re just keeping that whole discovery-of-art thing fresh for them so they can impress the opposite sex with their sophisticated prints of Dali and Klimt on their college dorm walls. Whereas knowledge of the Star Wars and –Trek universes will stand to them much earlier.