Monday, December 28, 2009

Making Spirits Bright

Making Spirits Bright

I’ve been thinking about Virginia Wolfe’s classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway, which depicts, in painstaking detail, the careful preparation for a party: the food, the guest list, the flowers--these mostly female tasks that went-- and have gone--mostly unnoticed, even derided as unimportant. Clarissa’s childhood sweetheart once told her she “had the makings of a perfect hostess.” It was not a compliment.

Each detail is lovingly captured in the book--fretting about the invitees, who will talk to the wallflowers? Etc. The point is that making an occasion is a complicated work of art.

I’ve been ramping up to Christmas for almost a month, baking and freezing scones and Christmas cookies, stollen and dumpling stuffing. To say nothing of nut brittles, which by this time, I can now truthfully say I hate, delicious and fiendishly addictive, though they are.

Though the up-ramping is exhausting, it is also a wonderful distraction from short days, bad weather and worse driving conditions. Better, far, than counting the days until spring. You are stage managing, are you not? Building sets, adding props, hoping that by creating a lovely backdrop, that people will have fun and be happy together.

Though I may have delusions of grandeur regarding my menus and clean linens, there is no more important prop than the Christmas tree.

In the last few years, the tree has fallen to my sons to mastermind. Usually we do it before Christmas Eve, just to enjoy the fragrance and the extra light over the darkest days. But we were waiting for the arrival of our elder son and his girlfriend. They’d both enjoy the tree hunt.

Here’s our tradition: Our generally very laid back younger son is a perfectionist when it comes to trees. You go out with him and he will not consider a tree for the first three hours. He ignores even the most worthy specimens, barely deigning them a glance. They are all dismissed as misshapen, too short, scrawny. As your eyebrows are about to freeze and drop off, you begin the think that not having a tree isn’t the worst thing in the world. Far worse would be the snapping off of your frozen digits, which seems immanent. Some years, the tree committee has come home then, all furious with each other, needing some cocoa and mediation.

But this year, we had my elder son’s girlfriend along, for whom it was a lark to be out cutting down a tree. Not only that, the Perfectionist has his permit, and he drove. This could have led to a twelve hour search, what with him in no discomfort or hurry at all. But it didn’t. The combination of the girlfriend’s wonderful sense of humor and the relatively mild temperatures may have done the trick. We had fun. There were no tears.

We found a tree, a 20 foot behemoth which, when tied on top of the car, made the latter look like a matchbox toy. We brought it home and stood it up beside the house, which it dwarfed as well. Off came another three feet, although everyone but the Perfectionist lobbied for five. We slid open the glass door in the living room, jammed the tree through it, trying not to topple plants and furniture within it ten foot radius. I think it was ailing, with its bald branch tips, and so I felt slightly less guilty cutting it down.

The girlfriend suggested (brilliantly) we put it up by the balcony, and tie it to same, so we could decorate it from two floors. The elder son whittled the top down enough to accommodate the star, which missed the peak of the ceiling by about two inches. There it was, the absolute best tree we have ever had, all 13 feet of it. We trimmed the bare ends of branches, put on our few strings of lights added ornaments and will happily circumnavigate it for the next few weeks, past Epiphany, until brushing by it causes such a rain of needles we decide it’s time for it to go onto the compost heap.

Our spirits are brightened by our new giant, and by the unscripted harmony with which we brought it in. All told, it was a party.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Buying Things

Buying things

Is this what happens a week before Christmas when the handmade zeal has fizzled? I do know that when I published last week’s blog on making socks, there appeared, as if by magic, an ad for felting yarns, right on the page! How ever did they know that I would be a sucker for felting yarns? How did they know that I love buying materials, more than any other purchase? Along with most of the rest of America, I am being sucked into the commercialism vortex, and happily.

Not altogether happily. Last week, I met a friend at a smallish mall to do some Christmas shopping. It was a fairly hellacious experience. I love my friend, whom I don’t get to see much. The crowds, though large, were generally very polite. We all excused ourselves when whacking into each other. There were some great deals to be had. The guy collecting for the Salvation Army sang a cappella Christmas carols. So what was the problem?

Chain stores, for one thing. Huge, impersonal, loaded with cheap stuff that nevertheless didn’t seem like good buys, you get lost. Not lost as in fascinated, lost as in despairing, wondering if I’d ever get out.

My friend was on the phone a lot to her family, whose complicated Christmas lists kept changing. Where, for instance, would you go to purchase a Monopoly game set in East Longmeadow, MA? My friend is a champion shopper. She probably relished the challenge. I’m a wimp.

When I signed up for the local Secret Santa program and got my assigned wish lists from two boys, I was shocked to discover I didn’t recognize anything on them, except snowboards. When I asked a young person to decode the lists for me, I was assured the items were mostly electronic and mostly in the price range of $200. Whatever happened to Tinker toys? If I didn’t know better, I’d say these tots were trying to gouge their Secret Santa.

So with my tail between my grinchy legs, I called up the organizer and asked if I could do just one of the brothers. No dice. I tipped my hand as I complained that I wouldn’t buy this stuff (except the snowboard, and that as a Big Present) for my own kids. If she thought I was cheap, she didn’t say so, but nicely suggested I not take on this duo, that she would vet the letters and give me a more reasonable one next year. Apparently there have been Secret Santas (“from the city”) who have actually given their children televisions, etc., thereby upping the ante for the rest of us. Because, as we all know, there is no grapevine as fast, or as corrosive to satisfaction, as the “What did you get?” grapevine.

I’m not going to drone on about The Meaning of Christmas here. Children are generally slavish conformists, especially if they’ve been raised on the Idiot Box (what a quaint term!) with its hours of ads sandwiching in minutes of programming.

I believe in giving gifts. To give a gift is to think with imagination about what would please someone else, what would engage them more happily with life. This is a tall order for a necktie, I know. But the “To hell with it, I’ll get X a necktie” is a sorry cover for not caring about X enough to think for five minutes about what the poor guy would actually like. For the right person--a twelve year old boy, perhaps--a necktie would be a marvelous thing—a celebration of his coming of age, an excuse for the charming ritual of teaching him to tie one.

It is true that some people are harder than others to find an appropriate gift for; they’ve read the latest books, are fully clothed, and are on fat, sugar, salt and flour-free diets. They seem to have their programs down, and without your help. But isn’t there some enthusiasm you could egg on in some small way? Come on now.

As for the boys’ wish lists, if I actually knew them, I’d have a fighting chance. What boy doesn’t need a small but strong catapult? Unfortunately, the rules in this particular Secret Santa program say you cannot stray from the list. Understandable. The idea here is to suggest to these children that someone Out There cares.

Which I guess is the idea behind Santa in general. For once, information about you is not used to fleece you, sell you, spam you, ruin, coerce or compromise you. Given those odds, it’s kind of a miracle that the idea of doing something nice caught on at all. If we have to don fake, itchy beards and claw together enough good will to impersonate, for a few hours, a benevolent force, it’s probably a very good idea to do it.

I’m going to find another Secret Santa program.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Making Things, take 2

Making Things, take 2

I learned a lot in the course of getting ready for the fiber show in November.

For one thing, why handmade articles generally cost so much: R&D, or rather in my case, trial and error. I blithely thought that I would retool felted sweaters into all sorts of attractive articles. Wrong. I made several pairs of mittens from recycled sweaters that worked out, and a scarf that I have deep doubts about. But I froze (sensibly, I think) when it came to slashing sweaters and recreating jackets. I didn’t want to wreck them.

Christmas is almost upon us, and my zeal for hand-makery is redoubled. I am making hand-warmers filled with porcelain pie weights that you microwave and keep in pockets against the cold. I am making cookies, pistachio brittle and chutneys for giving. Such is my Yuletide optimism that I am even knitting socks.

My sock history is a sad one. My first pair, I made for myself and wore white-water rafting. They were wool, and even wet were fairly warm, but after immersion drooped so around my ankles that people regarded me pityingly and asked if I had made them myself.

The second pair, I made for my younger son, the only family member who was gracious about the first pair. The instep seemed so enormous that I chickened out halfway along the foot, so that although plenty wide, they looked like they’d fit only a bound foot. I thought they’d stretch.

The third pair I made, or rather started, for my dear husband, who didn’t want loud colors that would excite and motivate the knitter. He wanted something he could wear. I dragged through the first sock, a morbid self-striping back and gray, despairing of ever getting it done. I finally finished it on the ferry from Boston to Provincetown, and was so encouraged that I started the second, and positively whipped through it. BUT: I couldn’t find the first sock. Did it go overboard? Had I stashed it in some uber-clever place? I looked everywhere, several times. Nothing. Finally I was so disgusted, I unraveled it and gave the wool to our local thrift store, vowing never to have my heart broken by socks again. Then, eight months later, I found where I’d stashed the first. I saved it for a pet Christmas stocking, figuring the pets are color-blind anyway.

When a young friend came to stay, wearing sandals, in November, with no socks, my resolve melted. I raced out and bought very exciting red self-striping wool and pipette-sized needles to embark on my fourth pair of socks. I am a third of the way through the first one, knitting in markers so I can tell when I’ve done my requisite 2”. I am trying to get into a Zen knitting space. Failing that, I engage family members in long conversations, which do not require lots of eye contact. There is even a book on tape in the wings.

The thing is, I make things out of curiosity. I want to find out how the thing will look, how the colors will play against each other, how the thing will feel, or in the kitchen, taste. Call it arrogance, but with socks, I pretty much know the answers to all these questions. With socks, for me, there are no happy surprises, just drooping, misshapen, oddball articles I can only give away because people are so nice around Christmas.

To what do we attribute this (as the wag said of second marriages) triumph of hope over experience?

Maybe the spirit of Christmas itself. This time, I’ll get it right. Haven’t I learned the hard way about gauge? This time, the socks will work. The recipient will be glad and warm, to say nothing of stylish, even trend-setting.

Or maybe we’ll just have to settle for glad and warm.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pushing the Seasons

Pushing the Seasons

The irony is not lost on me that as our neighboring ski resort tries to drag in winter by making snow, I am out in the garden with my little spade, still trying to hold onto our luxuriously long autumn as I plant my wintering-over garlic.

The snow machines on the mountain are groaning away, every snow gun arcing a blast of engineered crystals over the trails. Chewing up and packing down the new snow, groomers line along their length, going back and forth. We need snow on the mountain to attract tourists in winter.

No clever riff on Teflon or Astro-turf will cut it. Snow--even bad snow--provides the right kind of glide, the right sort of bracing cold, and the right variety of micro-conditions to make skiing and boarding fun. An icy patch here or a mini-swamp there test our mettle and supply us with topics for the chairlift.

I’m trying to warm up one raised bed enough to (I hate to admit it, after our extended warm autumn) plant garlic. What was I doing that was so important I couldn’t take 20 minutes to go out, poke some holes in the amazingly fertile bed I’d built up, plant the garlic and cover with some mulch? What indeed.

I just went out to investigate my chances of getting these cloves in.

The soil is ice. No home picked scapes for us this summer. It serves me right.

At the same time I’ve called the people coming to lime our fields and find out if the ground is frozen hard enough to support their equipment. The ground has been so wet all year, we’ve had to put off the liming because of the risk of miring the spreader. This one is not entirely my fault.

Meanwhile, we spent the weekend in New York City, and visited the Gardens of Saint Luke in the Fields, in the Village at Christopher and Barrow Streets. There is a yellow rose in bloom there, or was before Saturday’s snow. The south facing brick wall retains enough heat to boost the microclimate to a zone 7. That’s northern Georgia. To prove it, there is a fig tree, and a pomegranate growing happily right in New York City!

It does set one’s mind racing. If they can have a zone 7, couldn’t I edge my little garden corner up a notch to a solid 5? This would make it safe to grow a quince tree—not just the hardier flowering quince, but the tree whose fruit are full sized. Maybe I could grow a butterfly bush that doesn’t croak by February.

It’s a slippery slope for people like me trying to cajole summer into staying. If I wanted Ventura, CA, why don’t I move there?

Well, because the seasons operate on you. Your character is improved by waiting, by enjoying (or trying to enjoy) the contrasts. The rapturous Vermont summer is only possible in a climate that dishes out five months of sleet and snow.

The task of enjoyment (now there’s a New England oxymoron for you!) requires more imagination than we sometimes can muster. I, for one, am not flexible enough.

We don’t, for instance, embrace mud season with much enthusiasm; many locals floor it out of here, come April. Apparently the charms of driving muddy roads in unpredictable weather are lost on them. Navigating a muddy road is like driving across a very large bowl of Jell-o. Couldn’t this be made into a sport: bumper cars meet curling?

Health clubs could offer snow shoveling as an upper body building option. I bet Michelle Obama got a start on those terrific arms hoisting a shovel growing up in snowy Chicago.

I am stumped as to how one could celebrate the leafless, dark desolation of November in Vermont. It’s best to contemplate the harvest, with Thanksgiving upcoming, and resist reciting Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” (“One must have a mind of winter…”) more than once a day.

Once it snows, what light there is gets reflected. Spirits rise in anticipation of the holidays. To-do lists lengthen. New Year’s resolutions lurk just around the corner.

My first item on said list?

Get the garlic planted in October.