Sunday, July 29, 2007

Outdoor Knitter Tells All

There are a lot of people out there who think that man's most important invention was the wheel. More practical people say that it's our ability to use fire that puts us over the top as a species. And in the 90% perspiration/10% inspiration camp, it's the electric light bulb that takes the prize.

They are all wrong.

The most important invention of all time is the Ziploc bag. Preferably in the gallon-size.

I had this revelation a few weeks ago, when I unpacked my suitcase after our recent family beach vacation. Sand, being one of life's great equalizers, covered everything in there. My clothes, my books, my stash of Blind Betty Hot Sauce, and even my toothbrush were covered, to one degree or another, in sand. Yup. It was all a gritty mess. Everything, that is, except for my knitting. And that's because of the Ziploc bag. (Angelic harp music rises to a crescendo about now.) All of my vacation knitting projects emerged from the comfort and safety of a system of Ziploc bags that would make even a FEMA official cry for its sheer preparedness.

Think about it: How many times have you looked around for something to put leftovers in? Where do you put those nuts and bolts from that Ikea bed you just took apart? (The one that came with the inscrutable instructions in some Swedish Manual Sketch Language.) What else will contain the spidery mess of power cords you've collected from years of home computing? (Was that a REAL floppy disk at the bottom of the bag?) Yes, it's the Ziploc bag that deserves a lot more respect than it gets.

For me, the Ziploc bag allows me to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes -- outdoor knitting. Being one of those people who just HAS to put her feet on the Earth first thing in the morning before I can make a declarative sentence -- or breakfast -- it's no surprise that I indulge in knitting, my favorite hobby, out of doors. I knit in the garden, at the park, at baseball games. But, hands down, my favorite place to knit is on the beach.

Give me a beach and I will knit on it. And not just on sunny, gorgeous, let's-pretend-we-are-stars-making-a-paparazzi-moment-by-walking-our-dogs-in-Malibu days. I knit on blazing, 100-degree days when the sun has a presence like a World Federation Wrestler. I knit in sand storms. Dark storm cloud advancing from the south? I keep right on purling and yarn-overing right up until the raindrops start falling. I'm not scared. I've knit complex Fair Isle sweaters on the beach. (This requires a fluid, but practical system of Ziploc bags.) I've knit lace. I've knit socks -- more on that later. I've knit just about anything on a beach -- with the exception of making pom-poms. Though give me some time there, and I'll figure out how to do it. If it involves knitting, I've tried it on a beach. In fact, I spend by far the lion's share of my vacation packing time not on which clothes I'm taking. It's organizing the beach knitting projects that takes hours of preparation and outfitting. (Whole vacations can be ruined when you find yourself at some equatorial location with the WRONG size circular needle.)

Now that I'm unpacked, it occurs to me that I should share some of my Ziploc beachside wisdom. I know you too (and your knitting) will live better, because of the Ziploc bag:

1 -- Bring 'em all. Don't be shy about the number of Ziploc bags you bring on vacation. You might lose one. Or your husband-wife-partner-pick one might need one for his-her toothbrush. Or, just maybe, you might have to buy some yarn at that yarn shop you discovered "right down the road from the hotel" (20 miles) that has just the right handspun, hand painted stuff you've been looking for so you could knit up that pattern you've been holding onto for, oh, about the last six years. Yeah. You're going to need a safe way to transport that treasure home -- like in a Ziploc.

2 -- Don't over-stuff your Ziploc. Once your knitting project begins to take shape, it will require more room. This is because the wonderful sense of order it had balled up on a skein has now been replaced by its creative function in life. Wool with a purpose needs room to be fully realized.

3 -- We all live in fear that our knitting will be confiscated by airport security. (On an X-ray screen, knitting equipment just screams out "potential explosive device.") Save yourself and airport security folk a lot of hassle by putting all you knitting stuff in a Ziploc -- all pulled out of your bags and easy to see. I do this every time I fly -- and have actually seen a security scanner smile.

4 -- Let your bags air out apr├Ęs beach. Just like you, wool loves to absorb the lovely salt air. Unlike you, it will sweat it out later. This can cause unseemly condensation inside your Ziploc. Fine for blocking, but not what you want to deal with as you prepare to leap over the side of the boat with your snorkel mask on.

3 -- Toss a clean rock or seashell inside your bag to weigh it down. I have learned the hard way that even on a day as still as the Sargasso Sea, you are taking ridiculous risks trusting the wind. Winds DO kick up. There are few things more embarrassing than sprinting down the surf after an airborne knitting project, the skein unraveling around bathers and snagging boogie boards.

5 -- If you are knitting socks on the beach, knit both of them there. Maybe it's the salt air, the proximity to sea level, whatever, but a sock you knit seaside (even using the same yarn and the same sized needles) will be looser than the sock you knit in your dry, air-conditioned home. Who wants one baggy ankle?

So, I will close here in awe of mankind's greatest achievement. It's good to know that I don't have to do anything too lofty to take in its unique and ubiquitous value. All I have to do is open a kitchen drawer. Or head to the beach to finish that hat.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

All About Harry

I've been lying. Although the "What I'm Reading" Section to the right shows a list of respectable literature, the real story is that I am also rereading the whole "Harry Potter" series. I am wailing through them, carrying them everywhere, propping them up on the stair master (after engineering a system of rubber bands to keep the pages in place), snatching glimpses while I sautee onions for our dinner. I have let myself sink below the waterline. I'm completely submerged in the wizarding world and I have not the slightest interest in coming up for air.

I'm rereading the series to get the overarching story straight before I settle down in my big easy chair with J.K. Rowling's last Harry book. Sure, I want to get my hoarcruxes straight from my port keys. I want to assess some dilema-producting characters like Snape and Aunt Petunia, too. (You know she's got to be the sleeper!) Truly, I have been bitten hard by the Harry bug. That's because I come from a family of storytellers. And not just stories about this cousin's lousy car or that sister's affair. Our best stories came from my father, and his best stories were some of the most fantastical children's stories I've ever heard.

When I was a kid, my dad worked two jobs. Between working in the mill and teaching night school, I might not see him for days and then only late at night. On those special nights, he'd plop down on the side of my bed, sometimes waking me up, and give me the next installment of our current story. (He'd work out the latest chapter on his lunch break at the steel mill.) He'd set out recapping what had happened where we had left off and launch into the new installment. My interruptions, suggestions for changes, and sudden inspirations were strongly encouraged. He'd just weave in my mid-air plot twists, and off we'd go right back into the story. It wasn't long before his stories felt just like my own.

The earliest stories were about a series of his own past life incarnations. He recounted his previous lives (prior to this much more dreary one as a human) in exciting detail. These lives included a stint as a brontosaurus, a stag (shot by King Henry the 8th), and a bear (who was immortalized in song when he "went over the mountain.") I listened, rapt, and asked lots of questions about the mechanics of dinosaur life and just how fat that king was. His stories were so convincing that after I told them to a playmate up the street -- and from a strict church-going family -- his mother forbade him to come inside our house again. My dad just chuckled and made up another story.

As I grew older he made up a series of tales about J. Sweetbody Goodpants, the genius son of the buggy whip king of Boston who lived in the 1800s. ("J. Sweet" was a terrific inventor and single-handedly created the first automatic shoe buttoner.) But Dad's real masterpiece, famous family-wide, was the saga of Two-Gun Bunny. This sharp-shooting rabbit served under the Union Army during the Civil War and spoke English and Rabbit fluently. Once discharged, he went off to have adventures across the expanding West, including making and losing a fortune in the Silver Rush and working briefly as a Canadian mounted "bunny". His best friends were his right-hand "man", Rattlesnake Sam, and a talking kelly-green horse named Finn McCool. For this saga, we kept a large atlas under my bed that I could consult when my sense of geography got fuzzy. It took us two years to get Two-Gun from the surrender at Appommattox to a peaceful retirement in Toronto (on a good police pension).

So, Harry's wizarding world suits me just fine. Unfortunately, my dad isn't here any longer to partake in what, I am certain, he would have recognized as a familiar parallel universe to our own. But, for a few stolen minutes here and there, an hour before drifting off to sleep at night, I can pretend that my first storyteller is right next to me reading along. He would have loved it. And he might have slid that atlas back under my bed. Just in case I needed it.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Sugar's Bitter End

Tearing ourselves away from the beach and fish, we took to the mountains to track down some of the islands many ruins. It was an education in the darker side of paradise.

Laced throughout the forests of St. John there are stone walls, the old "Danish" roads that dead end at abandoned fortifications, half-buried foundations, stone flues and channeled floors. These are the remains of the sugar estates that once covered the island. What is now a green, forest-covered wilderness was, from 1720 to 1880 or so, one massive plantation factory with terraced sugar cane fields, sugar mills, and rum distilleries. It was a relentless and harsh industry that generated profits that some have likened to those of today's drug trade. Once Europeans had tasted refined sugar from sugar cane, it seems, their demand for it was insatiable. Given what happened next, you can't help but wish we'd had more diabetics in the Old World.

The sugar economy of St. John, like everywhere in the Caribbean, rested on the back of slave labor. Mostly from the area around Ghana, where Europeans played on ancient animosities between tribes to maintain a constant flow of captives, African slaves harvested and processed the sugar. It was a brutal enterprise. Field hands were not given clothes, so as to better the identify them should they run away. Slaves weren't given food, but rather were allowed "provision grounds" where they had to grow their all their own food in their "time off." Regular droughts caused the regular starvation of slaves. And to keep the slaves from running away -- known as "marooning" -- unmerciful laws were enacted mandating the amputation of arms, hands, legs and worse, torture, and painful executions. Even so, a slave revolt occurred in 1733 that lead to a slowing of interest in having plantations on this island. Finally, on July 4, 1848 the St. John slaves were emancipated. Today, the island's July 4th carnival marks that event.

Just to see for ourselves what the sugaring life was like, we hiked up to the remains of the sugar windmill at Catherineberg. This is where the cane was brought to be ground. One mill could grind over 75 cartloads of raw cane a day. Three men were required to run the massive grinding stones. Two would pass the cane back and forth between the stones and the third would stand by with an axe in case one man's hand was caught between the stones. If he acted fast enough, he could cut off the unfortunate slave's hand before all of him was pulled between the stones.

Today only the hollow foundation of the windmill is left at Cahterineberg. It's walls are four feet thick. Not even the intervening years of hurricanes could take down more than its blades. It is, as they say, horribly beautiful.