Crafty

IMG_2525I’m standing in the rush hour train, mesmerized by the art being created before my eyes. A women is seated near the door, quietly crocheting in her lap. The flashing crochet hook is turning lengths of olive and purple yarn into a beautiful web of something – a scarf, a hat or part of a throw. She isn’t reading from a pattern, but she does occasionally stop to count the flower-like clusters she’s made. I alternate between outright staring, and oblique glances so I don’t seem to be too creepy. I should say something, but I’m across the car and don’t want to shout. Soon, she pokes everything back in the bag and we get off at the same stop. I’m following her up the stairs, wondering how much more of the work she’ll accomplish on her ride home.

Most people on the train are absorbed in their phones or tablets. Sometimes I see students reviewing text books or notes, finishing homework problems before school. But the rarest sightings are women (and it’s always women) knitting or crocheting on the train. Their work is usually contained in a small bag so you can only see the small piece they’re creating now. Small deft movements, and the color of the yarn usually get my attention. I’m looking at the stitch pattern, and the size of needles, admiring the even gauge and emerging pattern. If I’m close enough, I’ll say something complimentary. It’s hard enough to do sitting in your chair at home, but to do it on a train requires some focus.

I’m a big fan of using time that could be unproductive in a more productive way. I used to take my knitting to chorus practice to fill a break, or the time when the tenor and bass sections were rehearsing. I could usually get a few rows done, unfortunately, when one of my needles slipped out of my hand and hit the floor, it produced a tone just flat enough to prompt a glare from the conductor, so I decided this wasn’t the best multi-tasking atmosphere. I have taken my knitting on planes before, but now I’m afraid that the TSA will confiscate my needles, because they look like long scary weapons.

I’ve not tried to bring knitting on my current commute, mostly because it’s pretty short, and also because I stand most of the time. Plus, the project I’m working is proving to be especially tricky and I keep having to take it off the needles, unravel some, and start over. It may be that I can no longer knit in front of the TV and instead must seclude myself to get it right. But what if a long-quiet train ride is the answer? My knitting fits in a small string bag and I have all afternoon…

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Briefcase

IMG_2519I head out the door laden with my lunch bag, my shoe bag, and my briefcase. I look like most other commuters, but what appears to be an ordinary briefcase, is really a magical object, George Jetson’s flying car/briefcase, that bridges the gap between home and work life.

Gripping the handles, I’m already in work mode, focused on the day’s tasks, who I’ll need to collaborate with, and what will be expected of me. I’m thinking about print deadlines, materials to go live on the website, proofreading, managing vendors, and tracking down data. For 8 hours, home fades to the background.

It’s surprising, really, how being a few miles across town takes you into a separate plane of existence. The people I spend my day with, the conversations I have, phone calls made, sentences typed, work completed are part of a seemingly secret life I carry on 5 days a week. My family knows I’m gone all day, and every two weeks money is deposited in the checking account so we can pay the bills, but they don’t really know what I do. I may relay stories about my teammates, but these are imaginary characters to them.

Over the years I’ve pointed out a building or two, and arranged a visit so my family can see where I sit – sort of like pointing out a museum exhibit – but they’ve never really seen me at work, doing the work. Once I took a call from a colleague at home and afterward, my husband commented, “wow, that was your work voice” – apparently my tone revealed that I am another person at work.

Sometimes I carry work back and forth in my briefcase – a draft to review and comment on. But most days, my briefcase only acts as a big purse, holding my train card and ID badge, wallet and phone. I guess my original thought was that a briefcase would make me look like a serious worker. My dad always carried a hard-sided Samsonite case with his initials next to the lock. It was a mobile office, filled with a legal pad, business cards, a Cross pen and pencil, and a deck of cards (he traveled a lot, so I guess those came in handy).

When I was able, I invested in a lovely Coach briefcase and carried it for many years. Finally, I admitted that it was too heavy even when empty, too slim to hold everything, and did not do well in the rain. So I shifted to something lighter and non-leather. It wipes clean, and feels pretty indestructible. Most importantly, it has the same power to demarcate the day. Now, if I can only find the button that turns it back into a flying car.

Turning Leaves

IMG_2489Looking out our windows, the solid green tree tops form a peaceful forest. Those leaves will soon start to yellow, and in one day of high winds, will be stripped naked. As if the theatre curtain dropped, revealing the mechanical underworking of the stage before the next scene is set, white and cold.

Fall is a beautiful time with colorful leaves, and some lingering warm sunny days. It is also punctuated with cold snaps, rain, and wind to remind us that this won’t last long. The familiar scent in the air must be the leaves as they settle on the ground, form wet mats in the gutters, get macerated by cars, and decay. The one thing you don’t smell anymore are leaves burning.

As a kid, autumn meant leaf raking. Hours of repetitive motion, moving leaves across the yard and down the driveway to a big pile. A pile that my brother and I could jump in, burying each other, and jump out of. I know that we burned leaves back then, but for some reason, I can’t remember where or how we did it, only that it made an aromatic, smoky fire that went on all day. Some neighbors tended large flat smoldering piles; others used vented metal trashcans.

All that smoke was clearly too much, and leaf burning became prohibited. Now leaves had to be bagged, so the work strategy shifted. Make a series of small piles, fill bags by the piles and struggle to carry them to the curb. Wet leaves fished out of the garden were the worst, making the bags extremely heavy. A weekend of raking and bagging produced so many bags, it was hard to park the car.

When our kids were small, we lived in a house on a heavily wooded lot. The volume of leaves generated was so high, we invested in a chipper shredder. It seemed like a great idea, but that infernal machine was loud, terrifying to use, and left us covered in leaf dust. In addition, it had a small capacity bag catching the leaf bits, so we were always having to start and stop – this chore seemed to go on forever. To wean ourselves off the machine, an interim step was to grind up as many leaves as possible with a mulching lawn mower. Finally we caved and hired a service. Like magicians, they’d arrive while we were at work, and make all of the leaves disappear.

Living in a condo, I don’t miss leaf raking one little bit. I am not tempted to stop by a neighbor’s yard to make a pile or bag and carry the leaves. We get to savor the good part, the colors, the smell, and the crunch under our feet.

Tool User

IMG_2484There’s nothing more interesting to me than watching a movie or TV character do something heroic with ingenuity. A prisoner picks a lock with a paperclip, a bystander performs a tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen, the Professor makes a ham radio set out of coconuts. In extraordinary circumstances, ordinary items are pressed into service and the day is won! Alas, real life is sometimes different. If my shoelace breaks, I don’t have a handy back-up tie. If the cork crumbles in my extraction attempt, I’m likely to shove it into the bottle – OK, fancy twist, I may keep the cork from the bottle neck with a chopstick so I can get the wine out.

I’m reminded of pictures of chimpanzees using a long stalks of sturdy grass to “fish” in a giant termite hill. When the stalk is pulled out slowly, termites are clinging to it just before they are plunged into the chimp’s waiting mouth. This example of animals using tools is considered rare and unusual. We think tool use and language are the slim margin of superiority we have over the beasts. But since I don’t usually have to rely on my wits to eat or find safety, the animals may be gaining.

If the grocery store is out of my favorite tuna, I don’t reach for my fishing pole. On the rare occasion that the power is out, it never occurs to me to chop wood for the fire. Instead, I’m scrambling around in the drawer for the melon baller so that the fruit cup is beautiful. I’m peeling and trimming carrots, adding lemon zest to something, or using the magical microwave to reheat leftovers.

The pinnacle of fictional tool-using is MacGyver. If you need to know how to defuse a bomb, land safely after jumping off a 20 story building, or escape a sealed room, this guy is for you. I think he’s the reason we all wondered if the paint on our 10-speed bikes made them too dangerous to ride. Even bubble gum became a suspect item. I’m surprised the TSA lets us on the airplane with it.

The six classic tools, or simple machines, are the level, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the screw. These are all around us today, fundamental parts of things like cars, elevators, and the humble doorstop. Other tools are harder to link to those classic forms. With a computer or cellphone I can determine the optimal path to my destination and even avoid traffic. I can find the answers to crossword puzzles, refresh my memory on the plot of any book, and pull up iconic movie scenes.

So while large scale tools manage to bring me water and heat my house, I can still use tools on a small scale. Screw in a light bulb, squeegee water off of the windows, knit a sweater of yarn. And if called, I’ll keep that bomb from detonating and rig a zip line to take me off the roof to safety.

Alphabet

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Do you ever start something and realize that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? That’s what I imagine Sue Grafton thought at some point. With A is for Alibi, she set an incredibly high expectation that she would write 26 mysteries covering the entire alphabet. Why not something that comes in threes, or at most, a dozen?

I love to read and try different things – history, biography, memoir – but I keep coming back to mystery. It’s always the puzzle that engages me up to the last page. So I was thrilled to learn that Y is for Yesterday was available. Over the 35 years Sue’s been writing the series, Kinsey Millhone, her intrepid detective, has aged only 7 years and the stories are set firmly in the 80’s. No cell phones or internet, just good old fashioned peril and sleuthing.

I read Nancy Drew books when I was young. I can’t recall the plots, but I’m sure she was sharp as a tack. I was introduced to Dorothy Sayers sometime around college and thoroughly enjoyed the settings, the British-ness, and the suave Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane!) My heart pounded reading Patricia Cornwell’s grisly tales from the point of view of the medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. When I moved to Chicago, I dove into the exploits of V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s Chicago gumshoe. I love the way she uses the city as a character, and through her I learned lots about the neighborhoods and local history. When Robert Parker died, I decided to read his 40 book series about Spenser. Not ever having seen the TV series Spenser: For Hire, this PI was a marvelous discovery.

But during most of this time, I’ve read Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. A new one was available every year or two, and it’s always been fun to reacquaint myself with the main and supporting characters, and have new tidbits of Kinsey’s history revealed. The extra special treat for me is that Sue is from Louisville and she has on occasion woven it into the story. Part of the action in L is for Lawless was set there, and it was fun to recognize the parts of the city she described.

Louisville makes a big deal about native sons and daughters who have gone on to prominence in their chosen fields by draping banners of them on buildings around town. Muhammad Ali, Colonel Sanders, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Olympian Mary T. Meagher, Diane Sawyer, Denny Crum, Pee Wee Reese, and Jennifer Lawrence, to name a few. Where is Sue Grafton? She deserves this honor! Maybe they’ll consider it when she finally gets to “Z”.

Years ago, my brother stood in line at the Hawley Cooke bookstore (before it was a casualty of Amazon) and had Sue Grafton sign a book for my birthday. Looking back now, I realize I was the same age as Kinsey Millhone. Maybe not as brave or clever, but a keen observer, on the look-out for evildoers.