Wednesday, April 24, 2013

neither here nor there

I am always nervous the day before I fly. Until that moment when the plane levels off at cruising altitude little tiny butterflies tickle my gut. 

At the same time, as I approach the airport, the sight of other people's planes arriving and departing over my head amazes me. I stand in awe of the human ingenuity that allows us to travel this way. 

Over the years, I've agglomerated rituals to calm the pre-flight flutters. I rehearse my mental list of oft-forgotten things ad infinitum, knowing that I will realize which one is missing and grab it at the last moment. I pause to sit on my suitcase as my Russian sisters have taught me. I bid farewell to the land I'm leaving through the gap between jetway and airplane. (I've given up tossing a coin onto the tarmac for fear the TSA will question my motives.) As the plane begins to taxi and then gathers speed to jump aloft, I breathe the word 'safe' over and over again and imagine my little mantra reaching out in expanding circles to reach my row, my cabin, my plane, and then all the planes nearby.

On this trip, I was struck by the extreme liminality of travel by plane. Certainly all travel is the traversing of a threshold between origin and destination. But a horse, a car, even a train, can be made to stop at any given point on the trajectory. In motion, they occupy a transitory space between, but simply by ceasing to move, the traveler immediately finds her self located in some specific where. 

The traveler by plane, however, does not have the option to stop the vehicle. To travel by plane is to give oneself over to the authority of pilot and air traffic controller, to agree to remain in the space that is no where until arrival at the destination. 

Often though, this destination is still an other space. Today, I crossed an ocean, and even though I am decidedly present in this here, it is an exotic space to me. In a foreign language, in an unusual state of aloneness, in a new city, adventure is mine.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

things fall together

This week, I had one of those moments where you seem to be getting the same message from very different messengers. Do you know what I mean? Some might say the universe is trying to tell me something. I think this is one of the ways the still small voice gets through to me.

After I wrote "caltrops," I happened upon a list of tips for being a more productive writer. Rarely do I meet a new idea when I encounter such lists, but I peruse them anyway because it's good to be reminded. This time, the idea that sparkled on the screen for me was "declutter your space."

"Hmmmmm," I thought, "it is easier to work in a clutter-free space."

Did I follow this advice? No, friends, I did not. I continued to add layers to the clutter on my desk, on my dresser, and on the shelves at home.

Then, Tsh Oxenrider's recent post about decluttering drawers and shelves popped into my reader. I could not ignore the advice any longer.

Still not ready to tackle my desk, I went for the low-hanging fruit in the bedroom. Here is my dresser before:

Woeful heap of clothes quickly approaching the slope of repose.
And here it is after:

I disappeared the clothes and found all these cool things!
My old stuffed animal friends are happy to not be smothered now, and they make me smile every time I walk by.

This transformation took maybe 40 minutes, but I'm so much happier in my room, and the momentum from this modest success propelled me through tidying the kitchen and living room before we threw an impromptu birthday party for Adam this weekend. I might actually make time for my desk this week just to regain the bliss of having created order from chaos.

My most pressing research project is also less like caltrops this week. There is still much to be done before the deadline, but the orderly structure has emerged, and I'm putting the details together apace.

The sock is also coming along quite well:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


My darling husband calls this the caltrop stage of knitting:
When starting at the top of a hat or the center of a circle or the toe of a sock (as I am above), the first few rounds are difficult to manage. With too little fabric and too few stitches, the needles don't wait patiently until the knitter gets around to their stitches. They twist and turn and poke the hands in unexpected places.

Fortunately, knitting quickly advances from the caltrop jumble to something more like this:
(this would be the beginning of a rainbow striped sock for those of you who are wondering)

I'm in the caltrop stage of a research project, and it feels like I've been here forever. 

Actually, it feels like each time I've reached the point where everything should be stable and I should be able to start making swift progress, things twist and poke me in unexpected places again. 

The way that we talk about the writing process makes it seem linear: prompt, brainstorm, outline, research, draft, revision, editing, final copy. 

In reality, writing, especially large research projects of the sort I am consumed by these days, is iterative: prompt, brainstorm, outline, research, outline, draft, revision, research, draft, research, outline, draft, revision editing, new draft. lather, rinse, repeat.

If there's one thing knitting has taught me, it's that getting through the caltrop stage requires patience and perseverance. Each new stitch adds more stability to the fabric and helps to create order from the jumble in my hands. I need to take that lesson to my writing. 

Knitting is so much easier. 

I should go write something.

I'll just do one more round on this sock....

Saturday, April 6, 2013

gun language

We've become more involved in 1812 and French & Indian reenactments in the last couple of years, and Adam needs an appropriate gun. Since he decided to build a flintlock himself, the house abounds with books, diagrams, and gun bits, and I am learning a lot. Characteristically, mostly what I'm learning is etymology.

Did you know that the three principal parts of a flintlock are the lock, stock, and barrel? I always pictured that idiom as referring to a locked wooden barrel full of some sort of commercial stock, molasses perhaps. Come to think of it, though, I'm not sure where on a barrel one would put a lock.

On a flintlock, the barrel is, of course, the metal part through which the ball travels, while the stock is the wooden part that the shooter actually holds and braces against his body when firing.

Linguistically, the most interesting part is the lock.

Men who carried flintlocks also carried their ammunition balls rolled into small paper packets with black powder. To load, you rip the packet open and some of the powder goes into the pan while the rest goes into the barrel of the gun with the paper and the ball.

Dealing with the powder in the pan is where the language gets interesting. A flintlock fires when the flint comes forward and strikes the frizzen, dropping sparks into the pan which then ignites the powder in the barrel and sends the ball flying. If you're thinking this is a complicated mechanism, you're right, and there are a couple of ways that things can go wrong. (Really, there are probably more than a couple, but right now I'm only interested in the ones that have produced idioms.)

The first is failure to fire. I'm not sure how the spark gets from the pan into the barrel, but when whatever is supposed to happen here fails to happen, we have a flash in the pan, a dramatic but ultimately unsatisfying spark that dies quickly.

The second way things can go wrong is firing at the wrong moment. When ready to fire, the soldier or hunter uses his thumb to pull the hammer all the way back or cock it. However, in order to push the frizzen forward to put powder in the pan, he has to pull the hammer back halfway. If the flintlock goes off while in this half-cocked position, chances are the person holding it is not ready, and the ball will fly in an unexpected direction.

Until I asked Adam to explain how this new thing inhabiting our house works, I had not realized how many of these everyday expressions come from the language used to talk about guns. Expressions like these continue to be spoken today because we hear how they are used, and we learn when their use is appropriate. We don't necessarily need to know the origin of the idiom in order to use it correctly. 

However, in order for phrases like this to become idioms in the first place, a critical mass of speakers in the speech community have to share the point of reference. These phrases are evidence of a time when every house had at least one flintlock, when hunting game or slaughtering one's own animals were the way to acquire food, when life on the frontier meant that every house had to be able to defend itself. This was a time when the majority of Americans lived intimately with their guns.

The newest idioms I can think of come from our technology. We might say that someone is out of juice or fully charged, not to mention the spread of abbreviated communication like FWIW, LOL, brb. I've been trying to think of mainstream idioms that come from newer styles of firearms, and I'm drawing a blank. Our guns are not the integral part of our lives that they once were.

Picture from: Marshall, Brian. "How Flintlock Guns Work" How Stuff Works, 2002.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

bones and water

I'm just sitting down to some lunch on this second day after the third day after, but tonight's supper is already bubbling away on the stove. The scrap and bones and gristly bits of our Easter ham* found their way to the stock pot Sunday evening, and while we walked and watched a movie and enjoyed dessert, the gently bubbling water extracted all the best things left in these unwanted bits.

Just now, while waiting for lunch to warm up, I skimmed the fat and scooped what bits were left into the kitchen compost. The stock is beautiful: slightly viscous when still cold from the fridge, richly brown, and wonderfully aromatic as it warms. Now it's gently bubbling again, but instead of detritus, I've added nutritus. Those little tiny bubbles, so small yet so powerful, will break down the split peas, cubed potato, and grated carrots into delicious soup that even Anna, the Queen of Hating Food Mom Likes, will eat with gusto.

There's a metaphor in there somewhere. I can almost taste it.

* We cooked a fresh ham for Easter for the first time this year, and the ratio of edible to less than edible was not what I expected. I'm not sure if this is the nature of real, uncured ham and the usual stuff in the grocery store is processed into just the right amount of bone in mostly meat or if this is a cruel joke the processors play. "Ha, you want it natural, uncured, and without additives. Here you go. Have your natural. Bwah-ha-ha."

Kate and Anna's laissez-faire split-pea soup

1.5 - 2 quarts ham stock (if you've leftovers from a bone-in ham, simmer the bits in 2 quarts of water uncovered for three hours or so, chill overnight, skim the fat from the top, scoop out the bone and bits)
1 pint split peas
2 potatoes, chopped into 1 inch cubes
2 carrots, grated
pepper to taste
bay leaf 

Combine ingredients in stock pot. Bring to simmer. Simmer uncovered 3 hours or more, stirring occasionally. You can eat the soup as soon as the peas are tender to the tooth (maybe 45 minutes), but it will be more delicious and wonderful if you let the bubbles do their thing until it all just turns to mush.

Nice served with a dollop of sour cream in the middle of the bowl, freshly ground pepper on the top, and biscuits or soda bread on the side.