An Engineering Problem

Crochet is an interesting beast.  I eschewed this art for many years because it smacked of femininity, and because my great aunt used to make these gods-awful crocheted toilet paper-cozies in shades of honey mustard and vomit, with a plastic cheapo doll body protruding from the top.  See, the cozy was supposed to be her dress skirt.  As a child it disturbed me, “What happened to her legs?!”  Nightmares of dismembered women in vomit colored dresses were soon to follow.

My grandmother knitted some.  Not much, but some.  Enough to gift me some knitting needles, to teach me to knit and purl, and set me about the task of making headbands in solid shades of scratchy acrylic.  Everything was red or ecru.  I came to loathe these colors.

Knitting and crocheting seemed time wasters for old ladies who had nothing better to do than make ugly doilies.  Most of the patterns I’d find in the yarn sections of craft stores confirmed this: bulky monstrosities in Christmas green rife with pompons and stupid ducks.  Who in their right mind would ever make these things?  Give them as gifts?  Be caught wearing them?

But stroll by the windows of any boutique clothing store, and there were sheer lace vests in rust or teal or sunflower, sweater coats of mohair in the same soft grey of a baby bird.  I’d go in knowing the price tag was absurd.  I’d look at the interlocking patterns of yarn, and wonder.  Someone designed this.  It was made.  I’d run my fingers over the material, knowing it was knit, knowing how the sleeves were stitched on, but marveling at the drape of the cloth, the absence of any other seams.

I grabbed a crochet hook one day, this clunky size Q, in order to make some plastic bags into a thing other than landfill stuffing.  I think hard about materials, about how to minimize waste.  My grandmother lived through the Great Depression, you know.  I’m a New Englander, after all.  I’m GREEN, dammit, look at the color of my hair!  After looking up a basic single crochet stitch and turning all the bags in the house into a series of strips tied in loops end to end, I managed to knot out a number of garden mats to save my knees while digging in the dirt.  So that’s crochet.  And I began thinking about mohair sweater coats vs. toilet paper cozies.

There are actually quite a few yarn shops in Tallahassee, it turns out.  The first one I crept into, I felt rather small and mouse-like.  This is not my usual thing, you see.  I tend to feel more comfy in a wood shop, even just dicking around.  It’s the drill press, the wood lathe, the table saw, you see.  I’ve known them intimately since childhood.  Yarn smacks of girliness.  And newness.  I hate being new and foolish and girly about things.  But when I started looking, I realized this was nothing like the yarn baskets my grandmother and great aunt kept.  The walls here were dominated by natural fibers in bold gashes of fuchsia, dandelion, aqua, and a thousand gorgeous shades of green.  I talked a while with the owner, learned the shop was closing permanently, and skittered out bearing three skeins of worsted wool yarn that meandered through the shade of spring’s best new leaves to royal purple and ended in magenta.  I had no idea what I was going to make with this.

Even still, I grew my collection: fragile airy crochet thread of unforgiving cotton, smooth balls of bamboo/silk mix, and ever more hanks of bright wool: sock weight, fingering, sport yarn, and abundant loose bulkies.  It was in my third shop, Wooly Bully, that I was able to pick up, feel and begin to identify yarns: this is mohair, this angora, here’s a cotton/acrylic blend.  It took a bit of help, but I was starting to understand it with both eyes and fingers.  It was in this shop, with the proprietor’s mother, that I was able to finally feel like myself, wondering aloud about tensile strength, bulk of finished product, asking questions about how to match texture to application.  I began thinking of these things in terms of engineering and materials science.  It became a beautiful question of geometry and the physical properties of my material.  All that fear of so-called girliness— which is actually a fear of perceived irrelevance and disdain from others— had evaporated.

After we’d discussed the use of odd fibers, raffia, hemp cord, stripped computer wire, she encouraged me to continue doing what seemed most natural: build the stash, play with textures, increase my knowledge that way.  Savage my test swatches.  Stress test them.  I can’t say it hurt that we started discussing yarn bombing and science fiction.

And I realized as I walked out of the shop that the last time I’d felt so at home with learning a skill was when I watched my father turn wood into cabinetry, wood into work benches, wood into objects I recognized day in and day out.  My father, who approached these things as an engineer.  I was suddenly interested in this beast.

But there’s one loose end still to attend to. I needed yarn the color of honey mustard and vomit.  To make a bag.  You know.  In case I ever find the missing legs of those TP cozy dolls.

A Series of Goodbyes

The universe doesn’t let up, and it doesn’t play favorites.  Entropy just continues: a snowball rolling downhill.  One death followed by another.

Someone said to me, in an effort to provide some comfort, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  But I’ve seen no evidence that this is the case, whether or not there is a god.  I see evidence that we just keep on going until we don’t.  And we all hit the point that we don’t.

Until we get there, we have little rituals to ease us from one moment to the next.  Rituals of goodbye.  We are always saying goodbye.

So here is a goodbye:

Analog: Second Hand Stories
My grandmother was
a hard-edged
Depression-era
woman.
The corners of her mouth
turned down.
The glass was not half-empty
because there was no glass:
you drank from a pot,
a ladle,
your hand.
Make do.
Save the tin foil from
your lunch wrappings.
My grandmother told me
stories.  Like: 
how her mother owned a bakery and
made cakes for the children after Sunday school,
and how she frightened her sisters
with the snakes she found in the brush,
She told me:
     “My grandmother was
     a real live Indian woman!”
as if her grandmother
were a unicorn
or a primitive on display
at a World’s Fair
     (see, they’re not like
      us, ci-vi-lized)
It was hard to look at
that hard-edged face
(corners of her mouth
down-turned)
to admit, then,
that I loved her.
It was hard to see 
what was written
in the wrinkles of her
skin, to know it is
not her alone
I’m seeing.
Her world is there,
etched in the creases near her eyes
which saw the water fountains
“colored only.”
It was not my world.
It was not my world.
We invented continuity

with the radio.

A City Ghost

Too often I am a ghost haunting old places.  I can’t tell why Tampa still feels like home.  I’ve been to spectacular cities.  She is not one of them.  She is made of old brick façades hiding worn down cigar factories, half-cocked new apartments encroaching on the steel grey of the port, and a handful of wistful minarets.  She’s a bad lover.  I adore her unreasoningly. 

I come back to the banks of the Hillsborough River, and see the Florida that I know how to read as Florida, gators basking in the brush, Spanish moss screening oak hammock and cypress dome.  That slow brown water, dark as tea.

So I come back to old places years after having moved on, pretending I’m awake and not sinking back through the years.  I come back to old places and realize they never leave go of us, collecting like dust on our shoes.  We carry them with us.  We recognize them in other cities, where they set off our memories in a firework display.  So I will take Tampa to Boston.  I wear her through Tallahassee.  I will shake her out in Seattle after the rain, let her dry off, and don her again when I’m ready to fly back south.  I will see her in whatever I love and whatever I hate about these places, I will see her magnified and repeated where ever I fall in love, where ever I come into my own.

She will not be alone.  Other cities will stick to the hem of my jeans.  They will make an impossible skyline for me.  It will be superimposed over every other skyline I see.  No other skyline will measure up to the rust laden docks of my personal Port of Tampa, the libraries of my private Cambridge, the streets of my Queens in miniature. 

It will not be enough. I will go back.  I will always see something other than what’s there.

Two Cats at the Window

It’s spring.  There are trees wearing pink lace even before they get their leaves.  Birds are pecking grubs from the grass here.  My partner’s cat, Pan, watches from the window.

Pan is a fat orange tabby, a 14 pound cat who seems largely unaware of his size.  He sits right up against the glass, his breath making clouds on the window pane, and ignores the pink trees, and is held captive by the small creatures moving in our yard.

Pan used to be a cat that went outdoors.  Before I moved in with my spouse-creature, Pan didn’t have a litter box.  Instead, he was let in and out whenever he me-yowled at the door.  Now, he stares out the window, his little butt wiggling in readiness for the pounce whenever those little birds peck, hop, and flutter close.  It doesn’t take long for Pan to start dancing with the window, baffing his paws against it, halfheartedly attempting to lunge through it.  He never asks to go out, now.  He has a litter box, and running water to drink from.  He’s off his kibble addiction.  But I wonder sometimes, watching the way he watches the world outside.

I used to ride my bicycle everywhere.  South Florida was a flat, flat place, and I am a heat resistant creature.  All summer long I could ride for miles and miles.  I rode from Aventura to Islamorada, 90 miles down US 1.  It was a 34 mile round trip from home to work and back, and I covered them daily with my thin road bike tires.  But now I sit indoors with a fat orange cat, gazing out the window because I’m bookended with steep hills, and down slopes all speckled with red lights.

It’s okay, Pan.  I know how you feel.

Local Lore

February for planting potatoes, I am told by my spouse’s ex, who is herself a gardener, and has lived here long enough to know it well.  I have never grown potatoes.  They’ve always intimidated me.  Like rhubarb.  It’s the poisonous leaves.  Yes, I’m the one who will go to the woods and hunt down chanterelles, I will dig up bitty bunches of wild onions, and forage for wild blackberries.  But I fear growing potatoes.

I’ve grown other root crops no problem.  Stubby little carrots in soda bottles on a balcony.  Tubs of sweet potatoes while I lived in my studio apartment—but those leaves you can eat.  Regular old potatoes?  The kind you say “I’m a meat and potatoes kind of person” about?  I can’t grow those.  Growing those is devilry, I tell you!  Besides, they don’t grow in Florida.

Except they do.  We have commercial potato production all throughout the state.  Unlike the rest of the country, just not a whole hell of a lot of Russet potatoes (they mature too slowly, where slowly means in summer, during the heat, when bugs and disease will kill what they can).  There goes that theory.

So I went to the local nursery and bought seven pounds of Red Pontiac potatoes, a variety which was developed in Florida.  I would have bought less, except this was the smallest amount they carried.  The potatoes came in a brown paper bag, which I eyed dubiously, and cradled in my arms like a small child with an enormous stack of forbidden books of dark magic.

When I got them home, I cast skeptical glances over at their corner.  The rain helped me prepare the garden beds.  Sort of.  You know how rain is.  Don’t have to water, don’t have to worry about the sun hurting my spuds and their little eyes.  So many eyes.  It also kind of allowed me to delay planting the tubers, which looked like an army of tentacled Cthulhu acolytes reaching out of the sack.  Some of them would have to be chopped into small pieces.  I figured I would do that bit later, because it intimidated me.

I dug the little trenches lined with compost for my small foot soldiers of Cthulhu, and then buried them over.  Thirteen of them, a devil’s dozen.  I still have so many more potatoes to plant, big hulking seed potatoes waiting for my knife, waiting for a black loamy cavity in the earth.  Creepy.  I can’t help but prefer the little started slips of my sweet potatoes, leaves all happy and green… and edible.

So now I wait for the poisonous shoots to come up.  And for the tiny tubers to get bigger.  Witchcraft, mark my words.

For Names Are Dearer Than Roses

So, I haven’t been getting name change questions a lot.  Most people I run into are connected to me via some online community where I post things, and so they already know my spouse-creature took my last name, instead of the other way around.  When they don’t know, and I end up telling them, the response is overwhelmingly positive.  But there are one or two that have been kind of bizarre.

For instance: a woman overheard me telling someone else, gasped, and asked, “Isn’t that illegal?” 

I replied, “No… no, it isn’t,” eying her with that why-are-you-butting-into-my-conversation look. 

“Well it SHOULD be!”

A younger Story might have been outraged.  I just giggled and told her, “Maybe you should go write your congressman.”

The best positive response came from my cousin’s grandmother, who is in her 90’s.  When my aunt reintroduced us (the last I had seen her, I’d been a very very little girl) and explained how my spouse and I had arranged it, her face lit up in a delight that washed out the sun.

Neither of these encounters happened particularly recently, but the hour’s early, and while cleaning I dug up a congratulations card addressed to the happy couple using Mr. & Mrs. his-old-last-name, and I realized that my husband’s other relatives had just assumed, because “that’s what one does.”  That made me giggle, too.  Like I’d pulled some kind of vast trick on society, and stole the candy of my identity from the grinding wheels of propriety.  Like I was wearing green and orange mismatched socks under my shoes, and I was the only one who knew.

Because I’m the only one who can really know how attached I am to that family name, “Boyle,” and how strong and solid it made me feel to offer as a gift to another a share in that identity, and how thrilled I was that that gift was accepted. 

The Storm Rolls In

I don’t like driving long distances.  It’s not the trip; I like being carried over that ground, watching the land pass by.  I don’t like being the one to drive it.  It’s because I’m pinned in place.  The terrible thing about driving those miles is that you can’t reach for your notebook when the storm hits. The ideas are enough like a storm, yes?  The okra open-mouthed, empty-handed, cupping the sky. I am like those squash vines. I am like those blackberry brambles. Thirsty, thirsty, but planted in ground so hard that I cannot drink the rain.

The seat does get hard after a while.  There is no support for the back.  I am an untrellised tomato, slumping in my bucket seat, my lower back screaming while my spouse creature reclines passenger side, all sleepy-eyed.  I had wanted to read.  I had wanted to scribble.  And then this storm rolls up, filled with ideas like lightning flashes, words like rain, like hail stones, and I can’t catch any of it, hands glued instead to the wheel.

I ask him to take dictation, but he smiles sleepy-eyed, “sure,” and rolls over.  I will never know what that poem was to be.  Rolled through me while I was helpless to catch it and keep it.  I will never get to taste its words.  It’s gone, the rain receding.

The Value of a Dollar

What doesn’t make sense to me is this weird ability to reduce everything to money. Money isn’t food. Money isn’t energy. Money isn’t even a building resource. You can’t drink it, or use it as an adhesive. It’s an abstract, always needing something physical to represent it, lest we lose touch with its narrative function. All of those other things are tangible with real practical value. I can use them, like heat shrink and solder, like wood and glass, like the gases to run my torches and the lubricant I smear on my bike chain to keep it turning smoothly on its gears. Money means nothing until we assign it value, equivalence. Money means nothing until we introduce a system to equate it to a dozen eggs and three skeins of yarn. It has only ever been symbolic. But we’re symbol using creatures. Let’s get meta: you’re reading this, aren’t you? Every word is a symbol, a stand in. This screen is not oozing propane or skeins of yarn. Perhaps it’s not so long a leap.

I maintain that it should be, though. It’s this system of false equivalence that allows us to mask the real cost of eggs, $1.59 a dozen. Where do we see the energy used in the refrigeration and lighting in the supermarket, and the fuel for transit, the raw materials to make the diesel engine of the semi-truck that brought it there, the power to run the vast egg-laying operation that sequesters its hens unhealthily, packed in too tight, and then can’t “dispose” of their shit (hint: it shouldn’t BE “disposed of” but layered in compost and given back to rich productive gardens)? And that’s only scratching the surface. All of this gets reduced to a single symbol, $, and the players in this dance are falsely reduced to helpless consumers.

That’s what it is to be a consumer, though. It’s a special state of helplessness. Our abilities to make and think are discounted over our ability to buy, to consume, to use up. We ourselves are reduced to a single symbol: $. “Sex sells,” women are $. “Men are bread winners,” men are $. I would like to submit that we are not a symbolic substitution for our “earning power,” the sum of our bank accounts, our debts, and our credit limits, but that our value stems instead from the complex connections we make in our communities, the total of our skills and learning capacity, the richness of the yarns we spin, and our ability to make, modify, and subvert the things around us. We have value in relation to one another and we have value on our own; these values are not arrived at through a substitution. The sooner we can culturally digest this, the sooner we can eliminate waste and become vaguely more human. I, for one, like being at least vaguely human.

Grief and a Pattern of Atoms

Grief is a weird little animal.  They tell you, from one side, that you’ll get over it one day, but that’s not quite true.  They tell you, from another side, that you’re working toward a “new normal,” and I guess that’s closer, but that’s still not quite true.  What’s true is that you’re plastic.  Elastic.  A mostly bendable brain-thing which is part of a slowly decaying body-thing that learns to adapt to other beings in a constantly morphing community-thing.  And changing is disruptive.  Dying is disruptive.

It’s also kind of arbitrary.  The abnormal thing is how any of this functions, why anything at all is alive.  Death, I suppose, feels reasonable then.  But if matter forms into these bizarre little structures which produce this phenomenon “consciousness,” why does that have to end? 

Analytical thought is a safe ground.  Like gools or base in a game of tag, if I’m standing in my analytic ring, I can’t be tagged by grim thoughts.  I’m off limits.  I’m free.  I can pretend I’m not grieving.  I can play hide and seek with my tears.  If I am playing children’s games, I am like a child: I will never tire, I will never falter, I will never have to give up.  I will analyze things until the grief cries out, “I give up!” and then the game will end and we’ll all have cake.  This is how it works.  This is why I go round with it.

But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone, and won’t be there for cake.  And if he can’t be there for cake, I have to get used to it.  I have to be elastic, like a rubber band.  Bounce back, bounce back.  It doesn’t work like that.

I will go over the facts again: I couldn’t call on his birthday, because he’s gone, and he’s gone so I can’t reconnect.  I am not the only one grieving, nor am I the closest one grieving.  What right have I to grieve? 

Yes, let’s sort the facts. 

“1, 2, 3, my gools!” 

Let’s play tag again.

Strong Language

Listen, I know I have a mouth on me. It’s a thing. Maybe it’s even a New England thing. But if they didn’t want me dropping f-bombs all over the place, they should have chosen phonemes that sounded less like fireworks. The “fff” of the mortar leaving its tube, the hard “k” of the report that echoes through the sky.

Yeah, you can hear it now too, can’t you? You’re welcome.