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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Starring on your Local Cable TV . . .

Kim was an ambitious budding journalist. While still in grade 12 she created a TV program to be aired over the local cable network. Being a cable show, it was seen by a dozen viewers at best, but Kim learned how to produce a show.


The show was about cooking. She asked her school friends to recommend mothers or grandmothers who had special cooking skills, and then she interviewed them (us) to choose appropriate guests for her show. When Kim called me I offered to demonstrate, on air, the making of cardamom coffeecakes. Great idea, said Kim.


She told me how to find the studio, and we chose a date and a time. But that was pretty much the extent of the background information Kim gave me.


It wasn't as if I'd never made these coffeecakes; these were the ones I distributed to neighbours and friends at Christmas. Nonetheless, I made a couple of batches in advance, to get the recipe nailed down and review the timing. Then I showed up at the studio with coffeecake ingredients in one arm and a collection of coffeecakes-in-production in the other. Let's see. I needed a bowl for mixing up a new batch. I needed a bowl that contained an already risen batch (which I would shape into braids as the world watched). And I needed some finished and baked coffeecakes.


What did I wear? Did I put on make-up (or was I hoping there would be a make-up person at the studio?). I remember fretting about all this, but I don't remember the decisions.


Finally Kim and I were under the lights, my belongings arrayed on the table. I had envisioned myself alone with the camera (after Kim's introduction), during which time I would enlighten the viewers about all aspects of yeast breads. Well, I was alone for a while, but I was so efficient that everything was finished in the first fifteen minutes of the thirty-minute show. I had mixed everything that needed to be mixed, shaped everything that n eeded shaping, and shown all the finished braids I had brought to show. There now remained fifteen minutes of dead time to fill. Kim, who had been watching from off-camera, stepped in, as any good producer/host should, and began asking questions.


Those who know me know that I don't like doing research. In fact, it usually escapes me that any research is required. So when Kim asked, "So, Ann, what is cardamom?" my mind went blank. What, indeed? I knew that it was a relative of ginger (or so I remembered reading). So I said that. "It's a relative of ginger," I said. Kim looked at me, awaiting more details, but I had none to give her. Where did it come from? How did it come to be a staple spice of Scandinavian cooking? These were questions I had failed to prepare for. My hands twitched, vainly seeking some other table-task that I could perform to avoid further questions.


Kim was desperate to lengthen the conversation. So she picked up my jar of cardamom and said, "Oh, let me smell it and taste it, to see what cardamom is like."


She unscrewed the lid and put it to her nose and sniffed. "H'm-m," she said. "It doesn't have much of a smell at all."


Now, anyone who has smelled cardamom knows this isn't true.


Kim tapped a little cardamom into the palm of her hand and touched it with her tongue. "H'm-m," she said, "there's not a lot of flavour here."


Now, anyone who has tasted cardamom knows this isn't true.


I didn't know what to say. Was Kim deficient in taste buds and smelling receptors? As it turned out, she wasn't. As it turned out, my jar of cardamom was as old as the hills, and IT was deficient in both smell and taste. But at the time I didn't know that. I just knew that Kim and I had different experiences with cardamom, and I didn't know where to go with this information. On camera.


I lamely agreed with Kim, "Oh, it's a subtle flavour. It's easy to see why you can't smell or taste much. Yes, you're absolutely right. Cardamom is virtually odor-free and taste-free. Yes, indeedy, Kim, there's no reason at all to use cardamom in a recipe except just to be able to include the word in the title. It's a very pretty word, isn't it? Cardamom? Some people spell it with an "n", as in "cardamom," but it's really cardamom. With an "m" at the end. Not an "n". I didn't really say this, of course, but I did spout a lot of nonsense during the long minutes we lived through as the clock ran out. Kim joined in with her own version of the agreed-upon insipidity of cardamom.


And eventually we reached the end of the show.


The embarrassing part is that even thirty years later people (in the dozens) are still seeing reruns of these moments of public ignorance, since local cable shows are endlessly recycled. How many insomniacs have watched me blunder my way through this interview over the years? I hope they focus on the coffeecakes, which are quite good, rather than on my ignorance. And that when they make their own coffeecakes, they smell the ground cardamom before they use it, and run out and buy a new jar if theirs has no aroma and no taste.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Stitch by Stitch

I learned to knit when I was 17. My mother, Eileen, didn't teach me to knit, because she hated knitting. It was hard to believe that this jack-of-all-trades, this champion seamstress, didn't knit. She told me once that she couldn't bear the thought of creating a garment one stitch at a time. One stitch. Another stitch. Another stitch. Finally, one row completed. No, this was not for my mother. She needed the whirr of her Singer sewing a fine seam in two shakes of a lamb's tail.


It just occurred to me that Eileen's sister, my Aunt Lil, was a crackerjack knitter. I'd forgotten. When I was born Aunt Lil knitted a white snowsuit for me: white wool leggings, a little jacket (with a zipper front), and a hat. I don't actually remember wearing it, but I have it on in an old family movie, and I remember the snowsuit making the rounds of my younger siblings. The next three of them were born in the fall of the year, so they were perfectly sized for that snowsuit come January and February. Indiana winters demanded snow suits for babies.

So I'll bet Aunt Lil's knitting skills contributed to Eileen's dislike of knitting. Don't know why it took me so long to figure that out.


It's clear that Eileen didn't teach me to knit. But Mary Lynn McCorkle did, my first year at university. I chose a complicated stitch and made myself a pair of beautiful yellow mittens that were perhaps a little tight because of my beginner's very tense tension. It was cold in Greencastle, Indiana, and I was thrilled to have those wonderful mittens. And it wasn't even a month later that I lost them. I had gone to the local college eatery—called what? The Double? The Den? The Dive? Something with a D. When I got back to the dormitory I had no mittens. I called the place, frantic, but no one ever found them. The fact that I still mourn the loss of those yellow mittens shows how special they were. Or how bizarrely selective my memory is.


But—give a man a fish, etc. So even though those particular mittens were lost forever, I had been taught to fish—that is, to knit—and my knitting career was launched.


I knitted sweaters for our children when they were small. I remember a set of three: a teal cardigan for the oldest, a yellow pullover with a cabled front for our middle child, and for the youngest, a camel-colored pullover with a pouch pocket and a hood. Oh, he was so cute in that. Some forty years later I still have the pattern for that kangaroo-pouch sweater.


Just after we had moved to Kansas for my then-husband's next round of graduate school, I decided to buy a knitting machine. I found a used one in Kansas City and spent the next three years making the ugliest items imaginable. The learning curve of the knitting machine was too steep for me to climb. But I kept the machine.


I have no glittering tales of my life in knitting? Does it all really come down to "knit a stitch; knit another stitch"? Was Eileen right all along?


Years later, I bought a Brother Bulky knitting machine and found my machine-knitting comfort level doing intarsia work. For the next ten years I used it to make one-of-a-kind sweaters. I became a craftsperson. Several of my articles were published in (can I say "international"?) fibre arts magazines. All day every day I sat at my table, improvised from a door and a couple of large wooden boxes, and "painted" intarsia sweaters on the knitting machine. I bought yarns until my stash dwarfed the inventory of many yarn shops. Once a year I held a crafts sale with half a dozen other craftswomen and we sold everything we'd spent the year making. I made just enough, at these sales, to finance my yarn purchases, and then I'd spend the next year knitting again, all day, every day. Evenings were devoted to hand-finishing whatever I was working on, knitting or crocheting ribbings and button bands by hand.


After ten years of constant knitting I suddenly said, "No more. This is the end." And it was. I sold off most of the yarn at a garage sale. I hated to say good-bye to my Brother Bulky, my workhorse companion for so long, but I gave it away to a group that was creating a crafts space for homeless teens. While I was demonstrating for them how to use the machine, I realized that it was indeed time to let it go—the carriage was so heavy I could barely move it across the needle bed. I had obviously grown too old and feeble to use my favorite knitting machine.



So now what? I could still knit by hand if I wanted to. My

friend Sally knits constantly, follows several knitting blogs, and enthusiastically turns out garments and baby blankets. Why am I not doing this? H'm-m. I think it's because I don't want to. Any projects I've started in the last fifteen years have been abandoned after a few inches. It just seems overwhelming to try to create a garment stitch by stitch, one knit stitch at a time. Does that sound familiar?


Could I knit a sweater now? I don't think so. My fingers ache just thinking about it. It was fun while it lasted, but my knitting days are over.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Adventures on Public Transit

When I reached the subway platform this morning, I silently thanked the horde of waiting commuters for having done my waiting for me. The train arrived, much more crowded than usual for the time of day, made even more crowded by the group of us who got on at this stop.


All seats were taken, so I stood. Because there was still plenty of standing room, I didn't feel squashed. I was able to hold the pole with one hand and my book in the other, and I began my reading, paying no attention to my surroundings.


After three stops, the woman seated directly in front of me stood to leave. Hurrah, I cheered, I'll be able to sit. But as I made a move to sit, the woman standing on my right, without looking me in the eye, slipped in (shoved in?) ahead of me and took the seat. Once I realized what she was doing, I backed away slightly and made a "be my guest" gesture, which she didn't acknowledge. She certainly had my attention now. The first thing I did (pretending to read) was to check her age. Perhaps she was even older than I and thus was entitled to the seat. But she was about 50. Her hair was dark, worn in a pageboy, and she wore large, black-rimmed glasses. As she sat in my seat she took out a book and began to read. I returned to my own book, though I was no longer in the mood for fiction. Oh, I thought, pretending to read, maybe she's wearing high heels. I'm happy to let a high-heeled woman sit, because I know how very uncomfortable it is to stand on the subway when your feet hurt. But Ms. Pushy-Pushy was wearing flat-heeled boots.


She got off after three more stations, and I spent those minutes imagining why she had felt so entitled to my seat. (At no point was I curious about why I felt so entitled to her seat. That must be a different story.) Perhaps she was ill with some degenerative disease and was unable to stand. Or she was recovering from knee surgery.


At any rate, she held at least half my attention until she left the seat (which I took immediately) and the train. In the meantime, while I was still standing, a small man had boarded and stood beside me. He was abnormally short, a hair over five feet tall, reaching not as high as my shoulder. We carry with us a template of "normal" in our mind's eyes, and the slightest deviation from that template triggers our attention. We don't stare or judge or necessarily reach a conclusion—but some little part of us notices. That's how it was this time. I noticed that he was extremely small. Otherwise he seemed perfectly normal (whatever that is), though I didn't turn to look or otherwise investigate. He wore a jacket and tie and a tiny topcoat.


When I took over the seat (my seat) vacated by Ms. Pushy-Pushy, he moved over to stand beside me, the way subway riders shift position when space opens up. He stood beside me as I had stood beside Ms. Pushy-Pushy—but closer. Much closer.


I have heard of men who take advantage of crowded conditions to cop a feel or otherwise get their jollies under the justification of involuntary proximity. It wasn't that crowded, I assure you, today. He stood nudging my shoulder, invading my space, and making me extremely aware of him (paying me back for having noticed his stature—or lack of it?). I tried to read but was too distracted. Finally, I made up my mind that if he hadn't moved away by the next stop, then I would stand up and go to the far end of the subway car, even if I had to stand up for the rest of the trip. I do think he was reading my mind, for before we reached the next stop he had moved down the car, behind me. I don't know whether he got off, found a seat of his own, or simply found a younger, prettier woman to squeeze against.


We reached Yonge Street Station, the chief transfer point for those going downtown, and the car emptied. As I lifted my glance, a large man lurched past me to the seat across the aisle (we were both facing the front of the car, not each other). His face as he passed me was as grey as a dirty sheet. He looked like a very ill man. I wondered what ailment he had and whether it was as serious as it looked. And then, before I even finished that thought, a man in a red jacket came up to him and began to talk. Seats were available, either beside or at right angles to the Grey-Faced Man, but Red Jacket didn't sit. He stood in the aisle beside me for the next five stops, chatting loudly with his friend the Grey Man. I never did get back to my book.


A subway ride may not be stranger than fiction, but it is at least as interesting.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Deer Creek

A black-and-white photo of Deer Creek hung on our living room wall when I was growing up. It was a picture of an anonymous waterway (so why do I know that it was Deer Creek?) with thick banks of trees on either side overhanging the creek. I don't know why we had the picture, or who took it. Certainly no one in our family took artsy nature photographs. And yet there it was, from my earliest memories: Deer Creek on our wall. Was either of my parents particularly attached to Deer Creek? Not to my knowledge (though I have to point out that there were many things they never bothered to reveal to us). Neither of my parents was a fishing fanatic. They ate fish but they didn't fish. Like most people in our town, both of them loved those small local catfish rolled in cornmeal and deep fried to a fish-y crispness, so that even the wafer-thin tail was delicious.


But water? Or banks of greenery? Nature in general? Nothing. If it was any less manicured than a golf course, Nature held no interest for them.


Of course, all of my knowledge of them comes from the years after they began having children. Once they found the on-button for that procedure, they seemed unable to figure out how to turn it off, and that made them much too busy to be floating down Deer Creek in a canoe, taking pictures.


So perhaps our black-and-white picture was a reminder of earlier romps in the woods, of old swimmin' holes, of the free play of their before-family lives.


It's not easy to discover our parents' secrets.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor