Tuesday, March 21, 2006

This old house

During the years in which I was eight through ten, my weekends were spent traipsing through model display homes with my parents and siblings, searching for our new house. Or rather, my parents were looking for a suitable design and a builder to trust, and the four of us were dragged along for lack of any other option. It can’t be true that the full weekend’s 48 hours was spent on this quest every week, but to hear my siblings remember it, there wasn’t one minute of the weekend when we weren’t begging for a pool (if the display home had one) or whining about carpet colour or begging our parents to let us stay behind to do our homework. Reminiscing about this period generally revolves around how put-upon we were, and how our parents desire to provide us with a comfortable home severely impacted our weekend television-watching schedule.

I complained with the best of them, I’m sure, but secretly I liked visiting display homes. I liked the array of possibilities. At ten, I was opening and closing cabinets testing their hinges, weighing up the pros and cons of veneer vs. hardwood, and lobbying for a mezzanine level. One of my more extreme ideas involved the purchase of six separate pre-fab structures: one for my parents, one for each child and one for a kitchen/dining combo. These small buildings would be arranged along a wooded path on the suburban block my parents had just bought. Needless to say, I had little input into the final design. To this day, my mother is still bothered by the fact that I dislike the carpet they chose for the formal area of the house: I disliked it at ten years old, and I dislike it now.

With all this behind me, you’d imagine (as I did) that I’d thrive as a homeowner. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Our house, a brick, single-fronted Victorian worker’s cottage, needs work. To be frank, it scares me how much work it needs, and how I imagined I’d be equipped to tackle it. I’m very handy with an Exacto knife and an A4-sized sheet of paper, but anything larger and I’m out of my depth. I’m afraid, I guess, of irreparably damaging the house. And, I admit, I’m also a little lazy.

It’s nothing for me to spend a Sunday morning knitting up a few rows while meandering through crafty blogs. Over the years, I’ve occasionally found myself reading a renovation blog, but my eyes quickly glaze over. These aren’t my people, admirable though their efforts. A sock bunny: yes. Backed-up waste line: no.

But truly, I should be spending my time over with the housebloggers. I don’t deserve to be here, discussing Danish paper cuts and Japanese short-rows when I have brickwork to tuck-point, grout to replace and a roof that needs sealing. All this became clear reading Stephen Metcalf’s analysis of the houseblog genre in the New York Times the weekend before last. In his article, Metcalf identifies the houseblog as a descendent of 18th and 19th century English house literature (in which a virtuous heroine of lowly birth finds herself married not so much to the right man as to the right house) and American fiction (house as monster, disguising the mouth of hell.) While most academic writing sends chills through me, this wonderful piece made me long for a discussion around the English Department seminar table: if genre relies on a set of comforting narrative conventions (according to Metcalf), how would we define those conventions for the crafty blog? Answers please, by next Friday, in no more than 5 pages.

Baby steps are required. Winter approaches, and I vow that this year, we’ll have curtains. I’ll spackle over the holes in the plaster. I’ll silicon-seal the roof above the leaky bathroom. In the spring, I will paint the front room. In the meantime, I’ll contemplate this embroidered house, which I made when I was fifteen, and was dreaming of a house of my own that would look surprisingly like the one I live in now.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hot Irons Cannot Hurt Them

I keep a list of things I plan to write about someday. On the list is “Victorian Button Collectors Club Inc.”, except that now, after Alicia’s wonderful post, I feel I can cross it off. Like Alicia, I was charmed during the short time I spent in this parallel universe, a universe ordered by buttons in all their multitudinous glory. Alicia headed out to a non-descript suburban hotel; we drove far out east to a 1970’s-era church hall. Alicia described most of my experience exactly: the carefully assembled cards with their tiny, spidery handwriting, the old ladies, the camaraderie of like-minded souls. But at the Victorian Button Collectors Club Inc. Display Day and Sale, there was a raffle, and there were men.

It was the men I really noticed. Or rather, a couple of men, both button lady husbands, both wearing gold-lettered enamel badges: President and Secretary. I was struck both by the officiousness of the organisation (but of course, button people would insist on a good badge) and the sweetness of these elderly couples with their shared passion. Stories ran through my head of relationships in which the void left by grown children was filled by buttons, or a family in which button collecting ran down through the generations or a man saved from alcoholism or overwork or retirement by the chance noticing of an especially fine mother-of-pearl. Mostly I was struck by the fact that neither of these men seemed at all uncomfortable or out-of-place in a sea of women poring over precious buttons. This was their world too, and they wore badges to prove it.

I’ve written before about my love of enthusiasts and hobbyists. Buttons, cacti, metal type or steam engines, it’s all the same to me. Enthusiam draws me like a moth to a lightbulb. Alicia asks what is it about collecting that’s so optimistic, so moving, and I’d agree, yes, it is love. It’s about honouring objects, and caring. It’s about identifying with an otherwise disparate group of people. At it’s basest, collecting brings out greed and envy; and it’s best, I think, it’s how collective memory is preserved and nurtured.

I had an idea a few years back to make a radio documentary about a group of letterpress enthusiasts. We flew to St. Louis to attend their annual convention at a local Holiday Inn. We stayed in a decrepit motel off the interstate and ate dry cereal for breakfast in the parking lot outside the Target megastore across the street. In my head, I could hear my piece on This American Life already. But I misjudged how nervous I would be conducting interviews, how ill-prepared I was to operate the recording equipment and how suspiciously I’d be received. I’d thought, you see, that these were my people (I was a member of the group, albeit out-of-status), but I found instead that by adopting an anthropological role I was most definitely an outsider. It didn’t help that I was a girl (most of the members are male) or that many of them have been meeting together annually for thirty years or more. It was a disaster. Isaac stoically spent his 40th birthday dinner at the convention banquet in a St. Louis Italian restaurant, after I’d spent the afternoon berating him for not checking to see that the tape was actually recording. I crossed “journalist” off my list of things to be when I grew up. On the long drive back from a convention-related trip into southern Illinois, we listened to the wonderful Episode 268 of This American Life, which, in my black mood, seemed a perfectly-timed rebuke: You think you can do this? Think again, girlie! But I still believe that there’s a real story to be told, and I hope one day to tell it.

Monday, March 13, 2006

It's official

I’m a cat lady.

I wasn’t always. I had dogs growing up, the kind that rode unrestrained in cars, heads out the side window, ears flattened back in the breeze. I like the routine of walks, and the sociability of dog people chatting in the park. I like the way dogs demand an engagement with the urban environment: the slow, ponderous walks around the neighbourhood visiting this, this and that light post, those trees, that special spot on the curb. I like that dogs just want to hang with you, wherever, whenever. The best definition I’ve ever heard of a successful small business is one in which your dog accompanies you to work.

Until now, I’ve thought of myself as a dog person who just happens to love a cat. A stupid, devoted dog kind of love, but I assure you: she’s a very special cat. One night last week, another cat was outside my front door meowing pitifully, anxious to get inside. I live in fear of Henry being lost, so I quickly called the number on the visitor’s tag, and his person came to fetch him. At the door, she explained that they’d just moved to the next street, and it was only the second time he’d been out. She was terribly grateful I’d called and, as she pointed to my chest, she told me gravely “You’re a real cat lady.” Looking down, I realised I was wearing this beautiful new brooch my friend Emily gave me last week, a mirrored perspex silhouette of a cat.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Further proof

"You won't hear any squawks out of José," she said complacently, her needles flashing in the sunlight. "What's more, I am in love with him. Do you realize I've knitted ten pairs of Argyles in less than three months? And this is the second sweater." She stretched the sweater and tossed it aside. "What's the point, though? Sweaters in Brazil. I ought to be making s-s-sun helmets."

- Mag Wildwood, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, 1950.

Friday, March 03, 2006

How to tell if a girl likes you*

She may knit you something. Like a scarf, say. Wear it. Even if you hate scarves, or anything around your neck, and it makes you itch and claustrophobic: wear it. It took her a long, long time to make you this scarf, and with every stitch, she thought of you and the wonderful future you’d share together. You’ll need a scarf in this future perfect. It will get cold. Some days, she will wonder if she still loves you. You will need this scarf then, to remind you that she did, and will, and does. If you are lucky, she may offer to knit you a pair of socks, or a sweater. Do not recoil in horror. This is her telling you how much she likes you.

*From my referrer log. I love seeing the search terms that lead readers to this blog, though I often regret that there’s almost nothing here of any practical value to the random visitor. I imagine cursing out there whenever someone googles float+to+walls+containing+piers and finds no practical plastering advice whatsoever. The above is a small rectification, from a knitter’s point of view, just in case anyone comes looking for advice on this matter in the future.