Saturday, August 1, 2009

Wrestling a Yak

Ouch. My hands hurt. I feel like I spent the night wrestling a yak.

I spent hours last night crocheting with what is coyly called "T-yarn" - yarn made by cutting old T-shirts into loops and linking them together. It always sounded like fun, and since the pile of discarded T-shirts in my closet has grown to resemble a lump the size of a hibernating yeti, I thought this would be a great way to recycle them all. So last night I pulled out my cutter and picked out a fun variety of colors, and went to work. Soon a pile of yellow, lime green, orange and white shirts bit the dust, and I ended up with what looked like a mountain of loops. I was ready to be creative. What fun!

OK, the first thing I noticed is that this is some SERIOUS yarn. This isn't meek little sock yarn. This is yarn with attitude, yarn that talks back when you work with it. And let me tell you, it brings new meaning to the expression "working with yarn". By the second row, the muscles in my shoulders (shoulders? when do you knit with your shoulders?) were beginning to mutter indignantly. Within half an hour my hands (especially my left hand, which I wrecked in a fall last spring) were crying for mercy. I started to wonder if I shouldn't take a break (say, for a year or two) and do some intensive bodybuilding.

As I lurched my way along, row by row, I began to notice a disturbing development. The stack of loops was disappearing at an alarming clip. The stuff was so thick, each loop made only about three stitches. Soon I was down to cutting up the sleeves. Then I tried knitting with the scraps, knotting and fretting about loose ends, and still my bath mat was about the size of a bath potholder. I found myself wondering if I could steal any of my husband's shirts from his dresser without him noticing. No, wait. He's still awake. Drat!

I admit it. I surrendered. At about midnight I unraveled the whole thing. Now I have about seven balls of yellow, lime green, orange and white T-yarn in a pile on the couch. They stare at me. They look so innocent. They're evil!

I refuse to be intimidated. I refuse to be bullied. I'll get you, T-yarn, if it's the last thing I do!

Maybe there's enough for a purse?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Book Review: The Know-It-All

Book Review: The Know It All, by A. J. Jacobs

Imagine reading the encyclopedia. Not just the World Book, but the King of Kings: the Encyclopedia Britannia. Imagine reading it from cover to cover – thousands of pages, on every topic from the Aardvark to Zulu culture. Could you do it? And if you did, what would you learn? What would you remember?

I'm not sure if I could, but I'm inspired to give it a try, now that I'm reading A.J. Jacobs's book, The Know It All, published by Thorndike Press in 2005. His disarmingly honest account of one man's attempt to climb that highest of intellectual mountains is both funny and thought provoking.

Learning fact after fact, many of them by turns startling, confusing and hilarious, he struggles not to bore his friends and family to tears by constantly barraging them with his new information. He frets that if he doesn't share some of the thousands of facts he's stuffing into his brain, his head will explode. He worries about the mountain of facts he's already forgetting, as well as the sheer volume of knowledge he never realized he didn't know.

Over the months, as he spends hours every day reading, he sees more and more connections, both large and small, between his new insights and the world around him. At the same time, the skepticism and disdain he receives from friends and colleagues sheds an interesting light on how our society views the quest for knowledge. To attempt to become smarter is a waste of time; more, it's seen by many as arrogant and vain. But he perseveres.

As he strains, day after day, to reclaim his childhood fantasy of being the smartest person in the world, Jacobs yearns to connect with other intellectuals. He joins Mensa, attends a college debating team, revisits his high school for a day, and tries to get a spot on Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? His insights on his experiences are both honest and witty. I found myself liking A. J., sympathizing with his quest, and rooting for him every page of the way.

Here's to A. J., and to all of us who want to open our brains and pour in all the knowledge we can. Good luck, A. J., wherever you are. When you reach Z, I'll be lifting a glass in your honor.

Heather Jerrie



by Heather Jerrie

Oh, my God. Andrea. I can't believe it.

This woman drives me crazy. She works in my office, and she's so incredibly PERFECT. She's thin and beautiful. She never loses her keys. Her nails are always beautifully polished. Her desk doesn't have a single piece of paper out of place. She's always on time. And she never, NEVER seems to make a mistake. I hate her.

So I've come to my knitting group hoping for a little Andrea-free time, and guess who's sitting there - in my chair, if you please, primly knitting on a little lacy thing, looking cool and superior? Andrea the Goddess of Overachievers.

And guess where the only empty seat is? You got it. Next to Miss Perfect.

Sigh. I plop down and pull out my current project, my Amazing Endless Cardigan. I've been working on it for months, and I'm sure not going to let Andrea keep me from making some progress and enjoying my knitting time. Come to think of it, who invited her tonight anyway?

Everyone's talking away, chatting about the latest movie. No one notices my gloomy silence. Good.

There's a lull in the conversation. I hear a quiet sniff. The kind of sniff someone makes when they're trying hard not to cry. I glance over at Andrea, just as one lone tear falls onto that perfect lace in her hands.

Andrea? Crying? What, did she break a nail?

"Um, are you OK?" I say reluctantly. As if I care.

"Oh, it's just... hard." She takes a deep breath. "See, my daughter Stephanie has been - sick - lately. Really sick. I'm doing everything I can to keep my head above water. My therapist said I should get a sitter for just one night and find something fun to do, to get my mind off things. It helps to knit - calms me down. And it's nice to be here. I just - it's hard."

Wow. I didn't even know she had kids. "Sick?" I ask.

"She has leukemia. She's getting better - the doctors are pretty hopeful. But still - it's hard not to worry."

"I'm sorry. Really - I'm sorry."

She nods, takes a deep breath. She seems to feel better, now that she's talked a little bit. We begin to talk - she shows me her knitting - a scarf she's making for Stephanie. I show her my cardigan, and she says she loves the color. As she hands it back to me, I look down and gasp. There's a mistake, a big one. And it's way, way back, rows back. The whole pattern is off. Damn.

"What's wrong?" she asks, seeing my crestfallen expression. I show her, and she commiserates.

Then I look at Andrea. Where did I get the idea she was a snob? She's gazing at me with concern.

"It's OK." I say. I take a deep breath, and smile. "I can back up and start again."

Fiction: A Most Unexpected Discovery (Sherlock Holmes as you've never seen him before)

It was a bitterly cold February day, I recall, and the meager sun was just setting as I wearily climbed the stairs to our flat at 221 Baker Street. I was looking forward with pleasure to a quiet evening by the fire, with my feet propped up on a footstool and a glass of brandy in my hand. The door to the flat was ajar, and as I quietly pushed it open, I became aware of a voice. It was Holmes, and he was counting.

"Twenty one,
twenty two, twenty three..."

I shrugged off my coat and scarf and hung them up as I glanced around the room. He was nowhere in sight.

"Holmes? Where are you?"

The tall, wing-backed chair turned toward the fire moved convulsively. There was a flurry of startled scrabbling, than a silence. I moved into the room.


My old friend was sitting quite stiffly, staring fixedly at a large book, which he held, I noted, upside down. As I gazed at him, bemused, he quickly righted the book, and then, with a studied air of nonchalance, slowly wetted a languid finger and turned the page.

"Holmes? What were you doing just now?"

"Hmmm?" He turned another page, then glanced up. "Oh, ah, I was just... counting the number of, um, types of Persian tobacco."

As I stared at him, I noticed two or three loops of what looked like grey string protruding from beneath the chair cushion. "What's this?" I asked, bending down and giving one of the loops a tug.

With an anquished yelp, Holmes grabbed at my hand. "Look out!" he snapped. As he jumped to his feet, a ball of grey yarn popped out and rolled across the floor.

With a sigh, Holmes carefully retrieved a small bundle from beneath the cushion. Standing before me, he looked like a small boy caught in a particularly large indiscretion. I stared at his hands.

"Holmes? Were you... knitting?"

There was a long pause.

"Well, yes." he finally replied through gritted teeth. His normally pale face was flushed crimson as he turned and placed yarn, needles and what looked like a half-finished sock in an ornate carved box I had often noticed on the mantlepiece. I was astounded. I had always thought that box held his pipes, or his cocaine!

He gazed out tbe window a moment, and then turned to me suddenly. In a rush, he said, "You'll recall when I was laid up two years ago with that bullet wound. Mrs. Hudson often sat with me, and as I watched her knit, I became intrigued. I was fascinated by its intricate logic. Time was weighing on me heavily, and I asked her to teach me. Soon I found it - strangely calming." A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "She said I was quite an apt student. Of course, I started quite simply, with a dishcloth."

"Of course." I echoed numbly.

"I find it to be quite helpful, especially when I am grappling with a difficult case. And, of course, useful; I made Mrs. Hudson that blue shawl she always wears. And -" his eyes flicked to my scarf on the hook behind me.

"Holmes! Do you mean to say YOU made that scarf you gave me for Christmas?"

"Well, yes." His tone was defiant. "And my cables were quite good, if I do say so myself."

I fingered the fine wool, admiring the neat, precise workmanship. "You know," I confessed, laughing a little, "When I was in hospital after the war, one of the nurses taught me to knit. She said it would help me recover my dexterity. It was rather fun, I have to say. Of course, I've forgotten how by now, but..."

Holmes's eyes lit up. "Watson, old fellow! This is wonderful! You know, you probably remember more than you think. Come, let me show you!"

And that's how it began. Before I knew it, I was gripping a pair of needles in my unsure hands, mumbling, "In through the window..."

What's this I'm making? Oh, it's just a scarf for Inspector LeStrade. Do you like it?

Fiction: The Sand Dragon, Chapter 1

The Sand Dragon
by Heather Jerrie


It was the ring that started it all. It lay heavy and cool in Emily's palm, rolling slightly - an intricate coil of gold, carved as a dragon, with glittering, emerald eyes. It curved in an elegant spiral, and a few grains of sand still clung to its carved scales. The children stared at it, awestruck. "How beautiful!" Emily breathed. Ben said slowly, "But where did it come from?"

Chapter One: The Sand Dragon

They had run down to the beach after lunch. "No swimming, kids," their mother had said, before she went in to take a much-needed nap. Sitting on the shore, watching the waves endlessly rolling and retreating, they idly dug in the sand. "Let's not make a castle," Emily said suddenly. "Let's make something special, like a mermaid or a whale." "A dragon!" Ben burst out, and so they did. All afternoon they had shaped and patted the warm sand, and in the hot, sleepy, heavy sunlight it had seemed to somehow take shape all by itself.

The body was long and slender, its tail curved around it neatly, its head resting on the front paws. They shaped a rough mane - "like those Chinese dragons", Ben muttered - and crisp, sharp spikes down the back. Finally they sat back on their heels to gaze at their creation. And it was then that Emily had noticed the small lump of gold jutting out of the sand between the curved claws.

She slipped it on her finger carefully, and the held it up to the sunlight, admiring the intricate spiral wound gracefully up her small finger. "Funny," she said absently. "It just fits…." "It looks like it could almost be a magic ring!" Ben said, half joking. "Make a wish, Emily!" She lay back against the sand dragon dreamily. "Wouldn't that be cool?" she murmured.

"You know what would be really great?" Ben leaned to look at the dragon's sleeping face. "If there really were dragons. Dragons you could ride on, or little tiny ones, wild ones, or old ones that could tell you stuff." "Like our sand dragon," Emily said wistfully, patting the knobby elbow by her side. "I wish you WERE alive, you!"

There was a sudden rumble, like distant thunder, and a cool breeze sprung up and ruffled their hair. "We'd better get back. It sounds like a storm is coming up!" Ben got up and dusted the sand off his shorts. Emily sighed, and got up, and they turned to go.

But suddenly they stopped, and Ben grabbed Emily's hand. Behind them, a low sound was growing, a rasping, grumbling sound that made the hairs on the back of their necks prickle in excitement. They turned slowly, and stared.

Once in a great while, in every person's life, a moment comes that changes everything. The ground shifts, and suddenly everything you knew is different, and you know your life will never be the same. You meet someone, and suddenly know that a new friend has stepped into your heart. Or, in one terrible instant, someone you love must leave you forever. These moments happen to every one of us, and we are never, ever ready for them. And so it was for Emily and Ben, as they gazed wide-eyed at the sand.

The long shape was moving - slowly shifting and unfolding. The sand was falling away from their dragon, sifting away in sheets, and revealing shining bronze scales. Now the head was lifting, and the huge creature turned its head slowly and looked straight at the children with glowing, emerald cat's eyes. They stood stock-still, fascinated and terrified, and the dragon opened its mouth to reveal its glittering teeth. They trembled.

Poem: Turning the Heel

Turning the Heel by Heather Jerrie

Needles poised, she leans close to read yet again, frowning.
She looks again at her knitting, then at the instructions.
Laboriously she knits, stops, reads, knits, step by step.

Knit, but don't go to the end of the row. Turn.
(Huh? That can't be right. I still have stitches left!)
Just turn.
(Maybe the directions are wrong!)
(Are you sure?)
Trust me.

OK, she sighs, and she turns the knitting around.

Now knit some more, and then turn.
(WHAT? I still have stitches left to go!)
Turn. Trust me, it will work out. Really!
(Well, OK...)
She turns again.

Row by row, she follows. Simply following directions, fumbling, trusting.
Before her eyes the stitches turn, change direction,
and form a new shape: a heel.
Like magic.

She holds the knitting up to the light and marvels.

There are times when we learn to be led,
to listen to the voice of someone who knows the way.
We take a hand and follow, stumbling, often unwilling,
unsure of the way.
and when we arrive, are told,
Aren't you glad you listened?

Fiction: The History Glasses

The History Glasses
by Heather Jerrie

To not know history is to look at the world with one eye closed.
The world has no depth. When we know where we have been, we see deeply.
To know where we have come from is to see where we are going.

Mr. Janus is our history teacher. He's a little weird, if you know what I mean. He has these bright blue eyes, and a little goaty beard. And he LOVES history. I mean, he raves about Romans, and the Revolutionary war, and Lewis and Clark. One time Arnold Brinkman brought in some old moldy clothes he found in his attic, and he just about fainted. He loves that kind of stuff!

But last week he did something that really – well, it messed me up or something. I don't know what to do!

It all started in class one day, when he was trying to teach us about the Pioneer Days. He was blabbing on and on about covered wagons and all, and most of us were looking out the window and wondering how long it was until recess. Suddenly he stopped and looked at us. “OK, everyone,” he said loudly. We all jumped. “Stand up!” We all mumbled and struggled to our feet. “Now, put your hand up, and cover one eye.” We all stood there looking like a bunch of goofballs, with our hands on our eyes. He said, “Look carefully, and then take your hand away, and look again. Now what do you see?”

You know how everything looks real flat when you do that? And then, when you uncover your eye, all of a sudden everything looks really deep or something? It was kind of cool. We did it a few more times, and then he stopped us. “Class, if you don't know history, it's like walking around with one eye closed.” He paused, and it got really quiet. And he said real softly, “The more you know about where we've been, the more you'll understand where we're going.” And I swear he looked right at me, with those bright blue eyes of his, and a chill went down my back.

Well, I don't know why, but that really got me thinking. It's like when you can't get a song out of your head, or when a mosquito keeps circling around you. But it felt like I had put on a pair of glasses – History Glasses – and now I keep seeing history everywhere!

You don't believe me? Well, after school I was walking home, and I stopped at the top of the hill and looked back at my school. And I got to thinking, what was our school like before?

Suddenly it was like those History Glasses were on again. Instead of seeing our big school with the buses parked out back, I got the weirdest picture in my head of how it was maybe fifty years ago. There was a little brick school with a bell tower on top, and old funny cars. And then the picture changed, and I could see how a hundred fifty years ago there was a little one-room schoolhouse, and some wagons on a dirt road. And then my mind went back like three hundred years ago, and I could see an Indian village – Chippewa, I guess – and smoke rising up from wigwams. Whoa.

OK, I know it sounds crazy, but wait! There's more!

I walk home through town, and this time, everywhere I looked, I saw history. It was incredible! I walked by this old church, see, that I've walked by every day for years, and suddenly I noticed that there's a date carved by the door. 1892. And I got this picture in my head of people in old fashioned clothes, standing by their brand-new church, looking all proud and happy.

Then I turned left at Main Street, and suddenly I noticed that old cannon in the park. BOOM! Suddenly it wasn't just an old cannon – I could picture the soldiers in uniforms, firing it, with smoke and noise, and cannonballs flying! Wow!

And I walked by Elm Street – you know, the street with those wimpy little trees? Suddenly I could picture the old elm trees that used to be there, making a cool archway in the summer sun. And in the shade I saw kids in funny-looking clothes, playing with hoops and homemade toys. And instead of looking all serious like they do in pictures, they were laughing and goofing around just like regular kids. For a second I wished I could run over and join them!

This is TOO weird, I thought. I shook my head, and everything went back to normal. I tried to put it out of my mind, and hurried home.

“Mom, I'm home!”
“We're in here! How was school?” My mom was in the dining room with my grandma. The minute I walked in I knew I was in trouble, because they were looking at some old pictures spread out on the table.
“Look, Danny. Do you remember this one?” My grandmother pointed to this serious-looking guy in a tight jacket. “This is your great-grandfather. He had this taken after he got off the boat from the old country.”

You know, I've seen those old pictures before, but did they ever talk to me? No. But THIS time, they did. I looked at them, and this time that guy looked right back at me, and he smiled.

I carried the picture into the kitchen, out of earshot. We looked at each other. “Psst!” I whispered. “Hey, mister!” The man nodded. “Yes, young man? What is it?”

“I was just wondering...Why? I mean, why did you come to America? It must have been really hard, leaving your family, and traveling in that crowded boat, being seasick and all. And coming to a new land, not knowing how to speak English... Why'd you do it?”

Just as he opened his mouth to answer, my mom came bustling in. “Danny, you need to put that picture back in the album. It's very valuable.” Rats. Maybe now I'll never know!

I lay a long time that night, thinking. About history, and knowing where we've come from, and how looking for history makes us look at everything else differently. And the next day after class I stopped in front of Mr. Janus. “Well, Danny? What is it?”

“Mr. Janus, that thing you said about seeing history. I think you're right. I mean, I've been noticing things...” I couldn't figure out what I wanted to say. “I mean, I keep seeing stuff everywhere! Old buildings in town, and old pictures, and stuff like that old cannon in the park – it's like they all have a story to tell, and we just need to look for it.” I paused. He probably thought I was crazy. “Do you know what I mean?”
He looked at me, and he smiled. “Keep those history glasses on, Danny. You'll be glad you did.”

And I am. I still have those history glasses, and I can put them on anytime I want. I keep finding history, in the most unlikely places. It's pretty cool. Really!

You should try it sometime!