Friday, October 10, 2014

Sleeping Beauty

“His mind now misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched. Surely this was his native village which he had left but the day before.”
"Rip Van Winkle," 1994 edition, 17

In recent days, Rip Van Winkle seems a kindred spirit.  Like this long-slumbering fellow, I have woken up to find that time has eluded me.  I’ve been jolted from summer-in-the South’s numbing reverie, and suddenly there are cracks in seemingly endless searing days.  Mornings are cooler; some positively brisk.  And when I do find a moment to hang my laundry outside, the shirts and socks have come to life, snapping back and forth in the wind, rather than lolling about listlessly in the summer heat and humidity.  Their merry dance reflects my mood, as I am happy for the end of what is always a long, hot season in North Carolina.  I’m especially pleased that the last few difficult months spent utterly absorbed in navigating the ins and outs of my new job are behind me.  During that time, I did a bit of knitting and had moments of creative design inspiration, but had to do the very grown-up thing and put executing those ideas on hold.  I can’t, however, let fall slip me by without taking a moment to pause from my daily grind to pay homage to its simple pleasures.

While the leaves haven’t turned here yet, mums and pumpkins and Indian corn grace roadside stands, and I am fortunate that there is such a farm market around the corner from my house.  In the past, I stopped here maybe once or twice a year, always too intent on my next goal—pick up children, drive to sports practice, race home to cook dinner and throw in laundry to take the time to drive in, park, and spend a few moments perusing seasonal fare.  But, in the last couple of years—whether a result of more time on my hands as my children get older or a greater appreciation for life’s simple pleasures as I advance in years—I have made frequent stops to buy homemade jams, vine-ripened tomatoes, sweet Silver Queen Corn, and even some okra, an item I can’t recall cooking (but since my southern husband was raised eating this, I assume he cooked it up for the family, and I probably ate some).

Fall is also the time when thoughts turn to knitting cozy winter garments.  The yarn shops gear up, replenishing their stocks of cotton and silk yarn with infusions of woolly fibers.  And, here in the Charlotte area, shop owners join forces for our area Yarn Crawl.  While I didn’t make it to the thirteen or so shops which took part in this event, I did have a great excuse to visit a few, emerging from the experience with a book of mitten-and-glove designs by designer Amy Gunderson (who lives in the Charlotte area and works for nearby Universal Yarns) as well as The Unofficial Downton Abbey Knits and some yarn to craft a roaring twenties inspired Modular Lace Blouse in this magazine.   I hope the final result isn’t too youthful for me, as the text accompanying the pattern describes this garment as suitable for "devil-may-care" flapper Rose, a character who epitomizes the free-spirited mood of the Roaring Twenties.

Waxhaw, NC knitters outdid themselves by yarn bombing numerous lamp posts in honor of
the yarn crawl.  I hear that, for next year, this creative bunch have set their sights on
transforming a trestle bridge  that spans railroad tracks.  

This is the start of the Lady-Rose-inspired Modular Lace Blouse.  
I’ve also been planning a fall weekend getaway to the mountains.  Two former co-workers and I dreamed up this trip over coffee on a hot Saturday morning in August.  We now have seven people going, all former co-workers of mine, some retired now.  We will be staying in a house in Black Mountain (no picturesque mountain cabin, but, rather, a vinyl-sided rental replete with 1980’s décor with a school-teacher-friendly rental price).  We can still soak up some atmosphere, though, as on Friday night, will be taking part in a haunted tour of the historic Terry Estate, also known as  In-the-Oaks.   And their is a good view from the back porch of our weekend lodgings.  

This shawl is a gift for one of the women going on the the knitting retreat.  The yarn I used
belonged to her mother.  

Of course, I wouldn’t be traveling to the highlands without having some ulterior motive related to knitting in mind.  On Saturday, I, along with others on the trip, will be making a trek to SAFF in nearby Asheville.  This huge event always provides an indulgent fiber fix, and I always make a point to take some time to pet and cuddle at least some of the woolly animals on display there.  I have to show some self-restraint and not arrive home with a fluffy angora bunny  . . . or maybe a llama!

A beautiful fall Sunday merited a walk outside at my mother-in-law's house in the country.  Her pomegranate trees were weighed down with fruit.  

This mocking bird was frantically jumping up and down in front of a window at  my
mother-in-law's.  He must sense a change in the air and has an inkling of winter's impending descent.  

In the South, camellias bloom throughout the fall and winter.  

      The changing season also turns my thoughts to Christmas.  How will I ever finish the numerous projects on my needles and knit up gifts for friends and family?  I will probably have to put the Downton tunic, along with other projects, on hold, and get knitting.  I have, however, almost finished seaming a cute sheep pullover for a Christmas gift for a baby in the family.  And I plan to skip Vogue Knitting Live this year and devote that weekend to my own personal knitting staycation/retreat.  I’m forgoing VKL as I’ve been provided with a wonderful opportunity for my husband and I to travel to England this coming summer, so I need to refrain from shopping and traveling for a bit to save up for lots of yarn shopping (and good eating) abroad.  While my journey to the UK seems far off now, it will invariably creep up on me, much like fall has, and then usher in a frenzy of activity in preparation. 

I'm almost done with this sheep sweater.  I want one for myself!

I'm making progress on my cropped cardigan.  The pink yarn will be used for a hat.  

I certainly didn't need to cast on another project, but this Malabrigo called to me
this morning--perfect for the tulip lace shawl in Brooke Nico's book.  

Sunday, September 28, 2014


A new job at a school with a large faculty provides numerous gift knitting opportunities.  (I just finished sewing the buttons on this Feather and Fan sweater today, one that is identical to one I made within the past year.)  
“Since a new job is almost always accompanied by new surroundings, new co-workers, new responsibilities and many uncertainties, starting a new job is a significant source of stress.” 

                               -Melissa Stöppler, MD, About Stress Management Guide     

       Shoulders back.  Hair styled.  Blouse pressed. Nails manicured.  Like most people, whenever I go on a job interview, I present my best self—polished, suited up, self-assured. I also intentionally and methodically muster up a plan for suppressing any signs of insecurity, so that I appear self-confident.  And I always know whether my tactics have been successful before  I have even left the meeting—whether the encounter was a terrifying exercise in pregnant pauses and awkward responses or a test I mastered, where I vanquished my fears and passed my worry-wart self off as a competent professional.  Of course, in the larger scheme of things, the interview is only a minute portion of the challenges faced when one accepts a new job. 

In teaching, at least, it’s the first year at a new school that’s the most frightening.

I’ve been a bit absent from my blog lately, as I’ve been attempting to navigate the waters of a large and prestigious public high school.  On some days, in my new post,  I feel like the seasoned pro who has spent more than twenty-two years in the classroom and on others I see myself as a naïve first-year teacher, so intent on completing every task perfectly--organizing files, completing requisite forms, handling lessons with flair and aplomb--trying so hard that that I sink slowly gasping for air, ending up bungling even simple administrative tasks. 

At night, I wake up in the wee hours of the morning and my thoughts are always on school.  I think about particular students—the boy who mutters under his breath about the injustice of school cell phone confiscation, or the  poised, articulate daughters of the public school’s aristocracy who bring to mind Emma Wodehouse (from Jane Austen's Emma), reminding me in moments of uncertainty that I am merely Harriet Smith, blessed by their presence, a satellite in their bright and shiny spheres.  A particularly imposing and self-assured teacher also lurks in my nightmares, correcting me for grammatical errors in my emails and chiding me for computer log-in incompetence.  And the parents!    Teacher and administrators both have taken me aside for tête-à-têtes to warn me of menacing helicopter moms and dads, whirling overhead, ready to descend to question a point value on my course prospectus.  

This is a cropped sweater I am making for myself using Knitcol yarn.  The easy ribbing and stockinette stitches make for a stress-relieving knitting project.   

“I’m not an attorney,” I tell my students as I smile broadly with an air of false bravado, and then add, “my online grade book is not the daily stock market report,” updated by the minute so that it can checked twice daily and fretted about.  I live in fear of some mom with sharp cheekbones and insect-like legs, who will stride into my classroom—with the air condescending air of one of Mr. Bingley’s sisters—and view me with derision.  Or worse, she might, in the manner of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, take me to task, not for daring to aspire to Mr. Darcy’s love but for implementing vague assignment rubrics and an ill-conceived grading point system. 

Of course, Elizabeth Bennett would not be cowed.  But, as she is a fictional character and therefore has the license to open the sluice gates to her sarcastic wit.  I am a public servant, of sorts, so biting my tongue, seeking advice from a close friend who is my age and is also new to her teaching job this year, and trying to view each day as a fresh page in a book of notes that will someday come together as a guide to steering the course in a foreign territory.  And, of course, there is knitting. . . .

This is another baby gift, but not for a newborn.  The sheep decorates the front of a sweater that has pink sleeves.  I haven't blocked this yet, so it doesn't look quite right yet.  

I have already purchased some gold and black yarn (my new school’s colors) and if daily life ever calms down a bit (if twelve-hour days become a thing of the past), I have plans to design a school-spirit baby sweater.  With a large staff, my new school should provide ample opportunities for baby knitting.  In fact, I’ve already completed a sweater for one co-worker’s baby to be.    And there is a fiber arts club to get started.  While I don’t want any new challenges at present, I’ll know that when I’m settled in here, when fear and self-doubt are—on most days—memories, I’ll be searching for activities to fill spare moments and will be ready to interact with students outside of the classroom, sharing my love of my knitting hobby.  

Several years ago a former co-worker, Genny, gave me some mohair/acrylic yarn that belonged to her mother who is no longer able to knit.  Genny retired last spring, so I've been working on this shawl for her, using the yarn she gave me.  The lace pattern doesn't look like much here, but should open up with blocking.  I'm using a pattern found in Brooke Nico's Lovely Knitted Lace.   This book is a  wealth of information and provides numerous gorgeous patterns.  

Until that time I’ll continue the daily battle and soldier on.  Facing the  interview, the first day, open house, computer logins, parents, students, co-workers is a  hurdle whose landing is softened by knitting respites.  In fact, knitting might even help improve my job effectiveness.  In an article entitled, "This is Your Brain on Knitting," author Jacque Wilson cites Catherine Carey Levisay, a clinical neuropsychologist and wife of CEO John Levisay, who says that crafting "improves our self-efficacy" or "how we feel about performing particular tasks."   Elaborating on Levisay's statement, Wilson adds that "psychologists believe a strong sense of self-efficacy is key to how we approach new challenges and overcome disappointments in life. So realizing you can, in fact, crochet a sweater for your nephew can help you tackle the next big paper your teacher assigns."  I can only conclude that if knitting did, indeed, help me obtain my new post, maybe it will assist me in the day-to-day trials faced as a new employee.  I'm also reading a popular teen novel entitled Divergent (it's a movie, too), whose main character Tris faces fearful challenges every day to prove that she is, indeed, worthy of being inaugurated into the Dauntless faction in her society.  While this action-packed adolescent novel is a far cry from Austen's works, the main character's courage and perseverance are as inspiring as those of any Austen heroine.  

This vintage yarn looks a little dull and discolored here, but the photo is a bit deceptive.  The work in progress using this yarn is a color that looks bright and crisp.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Technique (and Technology) Matters

Four, two . . . .  I punch in the five-digit code to the copy machine at my new place of employment. While this school has a reputation as one of the top in the nation and consists of a sprawling compound replete with swimming pool,  the workroom here displays typical institutional shabbiness. The same cinder-block walls, refrigerator salvaged from someone's home remodeling project, and cast-off chairs longing for their glory days of every teacher workroom at every school where I have been employed greet me.   But my dismal surroundings do not depress me, as, after I have concluding punching in the final digit, a happy green light on the machine greets me and humming sound plays what to me is a joyous symphony.  My copy code works!

I have been on duty at my new school for about ten days, five of them with students in attendance. Since I’ve reported to my new post, I’ve had to imbibe so much information, that one afternoon I thought that my head would pop off and roll around the media center (where I was attending a faculty meeting). Student information cards. Bus duty.  Lunch duty.  Tardy policy.  Picture day.  Cell phone seizure (not a name for some strange disorder resulting from too much Instagram activity but referring to when teachers must confiscate these forbidden items). Dress code details--leggings, jeggings, distressed jeans, sheer tops, cropped tops.   

I have also had the opportunity to meaningfully interact with computers in a concentrated amount of time. First I registered for my school system’s Internet and email system and then explored “Intranet,” where I had to use another password and user name to access health benefit information.  Then there was Gaggle to unravel--but after a few emails to the techie at my school, I was able to access that site.   There was also a new Google account with my school email as my user name and then MyTalent to log into (an online teacher evaluation system now renamed and relocated from its former site).  Of course, the tab that I was supposed to select (according to the instructions) did not exist on my screen.  I also had to create a Wiki site, so had to navigate logging into my school system’s Wikispace. Since I’m not that familiar with Wikis and don’t like their limited personalizing features, I decided to create Google Sites for the two levels of senior English I will be teaching.  Of course, many of my students haven’t been able to access the materials posted there, as they’d forgotten their Gaggle usernames and passwords (provided to them freshman year), but after a  week or so, I am blindly believing that they have managed to do so and am naively imagining that that they actually know what homework is due tomorrow.  

Finishing Louisa Harding's Stellina sweater sustained me during a busy time.  Love this
Noema yarn.

During the past ten days I’ve also had to set up a direct deposit account, write numerous emails to the payroll department of my former employer’s central office to see about having my sick days and personal days transferred to the new system, set up my dental plan, and somehow actually prepare to teach students.  There were also some emails involving securing payment for some days in August when I begrudgingly worked at my old place of employment.  

Then there was Turnitin. . . . This website allows students to hand in work digitally, where it can, through some mechanical process, be checked for plagiarism. I'd never used this tool before but welcomed any means that might discourage academic dishonesty. This program isn't free but my new school has paid for teacher access. During the early part of my first week with students, I sent an email to two individuals whom I’d thought might have information about logging into this system.  And then I decided to wait a while before reading any responses I might receive.  I was suffering from online overload and needed to see about what I was going to teach my students.  Something about Beowulf?  Finally, on Thursday, I read two of the several emails I’d received about Turnitin, pieces of correspondence that provided provided two entirely different user names and passwords--neither of which actually worked . . . for me, anyway.  I was ready to throw in the towel.  I once again contacted one of the individuals I’d already  emailed.  Let’s just say that the end result was my cowering apologetically for having neglected to read the detailed instructions this formidable long-time fixture of my new school had sent me (ones that I’d either never read or had merely glanced over).  I certainly am glad I’m not in high school anymore--at least as a student!  

I was exhausted and stressed last weekend but cooking helps me unwind, so I
used some frozen berries to make jam and also made some homemade yogurt.  Both of
these items have been a part of my lunches at my new school last week. 

Cooked milk has to be the proper temperature before adding yogurt cultures.  

I took this picture weeks ago at an outside cafe, when it seemed as if summer would never end and when I'd started to knit a shrug with wonderful Folio yarn.  I unearthed this sleeve this morning and brought it to Cottage Yarn, where I learned about my slipped stitch errors.   

I have a teacher friend who changed jobs this school year, too, although her semester began a week before mine.  She was bordering on an anxiety attack when she called me on a Saturday after her beginning-of-year teacher workdays to vent about the difficulty she was having learning how to teach lessons to sixth graders using iPads.  She’d been staying at school until six or seven every night, even though she is divorced and has two children to tend to at home.  There was a tinge of hysteria to her voice, but I was able to comfort her a bit--telling her to relax, put away the iPad lesson instructions, and do things she enjoys over the weekend.   She walked her dogs and went swimming and thanked me for the advice.  She also returned the favor this week when I called her about the Turnitin fiasco and began quoting to me from a self-help book she is currently reading.  I’m not one for reading that genre, but her words enabled me to take a deep breath and sleep through an entire night without waking up to angst about school.

Not only has this friend’s words sustained me through a tricky period, I have found great solace in my knitting.  While I haven’t pursued any design challenges, I have found myself at Cottage Yarn several times, both browsing and stopping to sit and knit.  I went there this morning to buy some white yarn for a child’s sweater that has an adorable sheep on the front.  When I was there, Lynn, the owner, helped me to figure out what row I’d been working on when I’d put a work in progress in a bag over a month ago and neglected to take it out until this morning.  She patiently examined the sleeve I’d almost finished and told me how she enjoyed figuring out this type of puzzle.  After we’d solved this issue together, she also informed me how I’d been working some stitches incorrectly.  I’d heard that slipped stitches should be slipped purlwise unless otherwise noted in the pattern and had mistakenly assumed that this same rule applied to slip slip knit and other slipped stitches used for decreases.  Lynn explained the twist created by my slipping those stitches purlwise and showed me pictures of correctly knitted stitches. While a bit ashamed of the fact that I’d been working so many stitches wrong for so many years, I am so thankful for Lynn’s technical help.  So much so that I think I will frog the sleeve with the incorrectly knit stitches and start over.  As for Turnitin, I think I might wait until next year before rolling it out for student use in my classroom.