Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ill Fares the Land

I know I have yet to chronicle my experience with Knitting Sprawl in Vancouver but that will take some photo editing and actual thinking, and after nearly a week of driving, at minimum, seven hours/day, I am feeling a little too fried. We are just east of South Bend, IN today. Tomorrow, Pennsylvania. Things begin to look more familiar.

We all have had a fair amount of time to read on this trip. Finn and Lucy have gobbled up books and then re-read them as needed. I have read a somewhat strange, diverse range of books: a biography of the Buddha by Karen Armstrong, Anthony Bourdain's latest book, some of Finn and Lucy's books including a really gripping story by the wonderful Philip Pullman. And i have been reading a book that feels very important, Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt.

Ill Fares the Land started as a talk Mr. Judt gave at NYU. It become an article for The New York Review of Books and, subsequently, this short book. In all three forms, it is his call for people who lean leftward politically to re-think how they talk about what their aspirations are for the future. He acknowledges the current state of affairs where anyone who shows compassion for their neighbor is branded as, and thus dismissed, a socialist. He makes a compelling case for reworking the language of our arguments to neutralize this kind of immediate polarization and he does an excellent job laying out a history of how this came to be - especially how we in North America and in the UK, have replaced the goal of creating a society that promotes doing good for people with a society that judges and makes a priority of only things that make "economic sense." And he points out that the generally accepted myths about capitalism and privatization are actually mostly false.

It is an eye-opening book and one that I think has great value for anyone who wishes to see a change in the political dialogue and general atmosphere in the US, particularly. (Canada mostly comes off looking pretty good in comparison, which is not surprising.)

I think it might also be worth noting that Mr. Judt is suffering from the late stages of Lou Gehring's Disease or ALS and is completely paralyzed. The book has a kind of urgency that one might imagine comes from looking death square in the face.

Here is a link to an article about him in the New York Times. It has relevant links to his other works.

Friday, June 25, 2010


We are in full crush mode to return to New York and return the rental RV on time. Long days of driving - yesterday with a touch of some kind of stomach bug, which I must say is not at the top of my list of fun ways to spend time. But the miles must be covered so we keep moving. At the moment, we are in Rawlins, Wyoming. It's not near anywhere. I have always been fascinated by the idea of Wyoming: so empty and vast. And E. Annie Proulx moved there after she left Newfoundland so it must be cool. But dang, it is one harsh place! Where'd they put the trees?

Loads of pictures and the final installments of the travel portion for Knitting Sprawl coming soon!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Knitting Sprawl - Calgary

You know I was joking in that last post right? I just loved the audaciousness of her parochial attitude - I mean, if you're gonna play, play. Right?

But back to the reason that we have embarked on this wild ride. Knitting Sprawl. We drove from Saskatoon to Calgary, which I was informed, I did backwards - should have gone first to Saskatoon, then Regina, then Calgary. But whatever.

Who ever said it was just flat, flat, flat in Saskatchewan? Jeez. Talk about parochial!

The landscape is incredibly varied. Just look!

Ok, I'm kidding. I loved Saskatchewan and was actually quite sad to enter a more varied landscape as we entered Alberta and went through Drumheller and the Badlands. We stopped in Drumheller on the advice that there was a great Greek restaurant there but it was closed and we ended up at a regular old coffee shop. After the profoundly broad expanse of solitude that was Saskatchewan, the touristy bustle of Drumheller (famous for its dinosaur fossils) just didn't set right with us. It was here that Finnian made is now famous statement, "First we went to The 'Peg, then The Jaw, then The Toon, and now, The Hell." (Translation: Winnipeg, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, Drumheller.) It summed up the general feeling of the moment perfectly. So, we moved on.

To Calgary, the heart and soul of Western Canadian Sprawl.

Calgary was a challenge. It is nearly all sprawl and so very hard to actually take in for that reason. We drove and drove (with Finnian at the camera) and barely touched on it. It felt impenetrable.

I found myself revisiting some of my original questions of how does one enter these communities?

How do you situate yourself in a centerless landscape?

Is it possible to create a center? Find the heart of the community?

I don't know. I still don't know.

We did spend a great day at the Glenbow Museum, which I highly recommend to any and all who venture to Calgary. Here is a little statue of Buddha. I have never seen one with his arm raised like this. They also have an excellent exhibition about the First Nation people who live and lived in the region. Very informative and honest, I thought.

And this is just a picture of a display of pastries and cookies that won the "Most Likely to Kill Any Craving for Sweets" award. It was right outside the museum.

I didn't visit with any knitters in Calgary. I was turned away from one group (first time for the project) and I just never bounced back. The whole place was rather overwhelming in a way. We took an extra day to film and photograph, and I am glad we did, but mostly I felt a sense of relief to move onward towards the mountains.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

3000 miles from the ocean

Supposedly, Alice Saltonstall, wife of Boston Brahmin and local, beloved politican, Leverett Saltonstall, was once to have said, "I feel sorry for those people in California. How can they stand being 3000 miles from the ocean?"

Or something like that.

That thought came to mind as we caught our first glimpse of the Pacific through the fog. Actually, it felt wonderful to be back within eyesight (and earshot and nosesmell) of the ocean, even this one that is so far from the real one.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Knitting Sprawl - Saskatoon

From Regina, we headed northwest to Saskatoon. Saskatoon is a larger city than Regina, described by the knitters in Regina as being more fast-paced, having the larger university campus and medical center. To me, it still seemed pretty manageable. We made it across town in about 20 minutes. It is a very pretty city with a winding river going through the center and a variety of architecture.

Our first stop was a knitting group that meets on Sunday afternoons at a coffee shop. It was a gorgeous day - the first in a while - and attendance was light. I have found, however, that a small group is sometimes better than a larger one if only because the conversation tends to stay a little more focused.

The dedicated few who didn't let a warm, sunny weekend deter them from knitting. One of those featured here has a lovely blog titled Saskatoon Stitcher. Check it out and learn more about life in Saskatoon. She wrote a nice post about my visit, too. The conversation varied but I definitely got a sense of local issues, including bicycle regulations. I say that somewhat laughingly because it is an example of conversation drifts that I learned a great deal about local bike regulations. It might seem somewhat irrelevant to my topic but, in fact, it was quite enlightening.

The following evening, we met up with a friend, who lives in Corner Brook, and her daughter, who lives in Saskatoon. They were just recovering from a very serious family tragedy, so it was extra kind and special that they made time for us. I guess the distraction of having three people descend on you from out of nowhere can be useful now and then. They gathered their knitting friends and we had a wonderful dinner and then, knitting and talking. There was a bit of melancoly in the air but it still was a fun evening and so nice to see some familiar faces, especially to see our friend in her native land. I barely remembered to take a photograph because we were having such a good time but here are two blurry ones just to prove it really happened.

This one features our friend, Linda who looks like she is flapping her wings but she is actually showing off a scarf/shawl that both she and her daughter are quite addicted to knitting. They gave us a copy of the pattern and heavily encouraged Lucy to start one right away. Lucy, however, has taken to other activities on this trip.

Perhaps I should post some her poems and Finn's drawings next.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Knitting Sprawl - Regina

From Winnipeg, we headed west into Saskatchewan. We made one stop just before the border in Elkhorn, Manitoba to eat some lunch, mail some postcards and watch the trains go by.

As new Canadians whose main knowledge of Canada comes from being in Newfoundland, I have heard many things about the mainland from my (now) fellow Newfoundlanders. One thing we heard from nearly everyone is how boring it is in Saskatchewan - flat, flat, flat.

Well, I beg to differ. I loved Saskatchewan! I found myself immediately scheming about how I could spend more time in Saskatchewan. I saw many parallels between Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, and I finally learned how to spell Saskatchaewan. There is so much to love about Saskatchewan, I hardly know where to start. The flatness is all a matter of context. Yes, compared to western Newfoundland, it is flatter than flat. But compared to itself, there are many hills or bumps or nobs. And the sky! There are no words for the ever-changing sky. I couldn't get enough.

Finally I tore my eyes away from the sky long enough to head into Regina and join a regularly scheduled knit together held at Golden Willow Natural Fibers (they don't have a website so I can't make a link but they are right on 13th Avenue in the heart of Regina). I felt very welcomed by Sharon, the store owner and Debbie, one her main instructors there and a regular at the knit together, as well as all the others who graciously answered my questions and shared with me their thoughts on Regina, Saskatchewan, the idea of flatness and what winter is like when there aren't many trees.

Golden Willow is a dream of a shop. Excellent yarn selection - all natural fibres in case you didn't catch the full name - and a huge selection of spinning fibres and accessories. As the pictures indicate, spinning is big here. People know their stuff.

It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Thank you Golden Willow knitters!

And now, back to the sky...

Monday, June 07, 2010

Remember This...

I Have News for You
by Tony Hoagland

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don't interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don't walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others' emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.

Knitting Sprawl - Winnipeg

We arrived in Winnipeg on a Tuesday afternoon smelling strongly of propane. It was actually very scary. I parked in a big box store parking lot and called Mike the RV Doctor while yelling at Finn and Lucy "I'm freaking out! Don't argue with me while I am freaking out!" It seemed to work - they moved away from the The Vehicle without too many opinions and questions but it was possibly not the high moment of my parenting career. It turned out that the smell was coming from our newly filled propane tank - a combination of the increase in outside temps and the bumpy roads causing the liquid to expand and need to vent. That it vented into the cab was not so nice but, apparently, no reason to run for cover either. Now we know.

But there we were, smack dab in the middle of the continent: Winnipeg.

We stayed north of Winnipeg in Birds Hill Provincial Park, which was really lovely and almost empty except for the deer and some very funny squirrels. It was here that I began to fully understand the limitations of having this large vehicle as our sole means of transport. Spontaneity, it doesn't encourage, which actually is a bit of a drag because there were many moments that I wished I could have just pulled over to document but I couldn't. I had about a day of feeling despair that I had made the wrong decision with this RV thing - shot myself in the foot - but then I had to just accept that this trip isn't the trip we did in September and realize it will be what it is, which actually is pretty great too.

Finnian became my main cameraperson and I asked him to photograph and videotape the small scattering of suburban sprawl that surrounds Winnipeg (there just isn't that much of it, so perhaps it is ok to shift the focus while here).

And that is how I drove three times through downtown Winnipeg. The first was to get to Wolseley Wardrobe where there was a Tuesday night knit together. The store is a yarn store and consignment shop (very cool!) and the group was very animated and fun. The conversation ranged from issues around community to the new name for sexually transmitted diseases (it's STI now, not STD in case you were wondering).

Many of the same people also go to the Wednesday night group at Chapters, and I would have been there too, but I was feeling pretty shabby on Wednesday and, despite getting almost there, decided to turn around and head back to our little berth at Birds Hill.

I think I was just plain old tired from driving for a week and keeping the whole thing moving. At a certain point I wondered if I could actually generate enough energy to make this trip AND create a rather large, ambitious art project.

So it was that Winnipeg was something of a low point. Not because of the people or the place - they were amazing and terrific - but because of my own need to sort it all out. One thing I have sorted right out of the project is my need to video tape the knitting groups. It was just too much and, frankly, not my style at all. When I gave myself permission to give that up, everything seemed more manageable.

Winnipeg, I haven't done you justice, I am afraid. But perhaps this just means I need to go back.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Wooly in Wisconsin

The first mill we visited was the Blackberry Ridge Mill in Vermont, WI. They are fairly small scale operation that works with fleece that is under 5" in length - lots of merino but no icelandic or other specialty fleece like alpaca.

This is their carder, which dates from the early 20th century and came from a mill in Worcester, MA. A fellow Bay Stater!

It has many moving parts but ultimately is not complicated, which is why it still works so beautifully over 100 years later.

The carder feeds the fleece to another machine that makes it into pencil roving. The pencil roving can be thicker or thinner depending on what the customer requests.

The roving is wound up and loaded onto the spinning machine - it is spun onto about 20 bobbins at a time. Apparently this is the most tricky part because one must keep an eye on all the bobbins and make sure they load up properly.

Once spun, it can be plied - usually people want 2-ply but they can make custom yarns.

Some single ply waiting to be plied.

The plying machine.

It all happens in a big barn on their property. Janine gave me a meaningful look and mentioned that her friends might be wanting to retire in a few years. Yes, with my precise mind and excellent mechanical abilities, it would be a perfect fit! Uh-huh.

Janine also generously allowed us to try milking her goats. She currently has three does to milk 2X/day. She makes cheese with most of the milk but drinks it too - very rich and sweet. I'm sure it was painful to watch us muddle through, spilling more than we captured in the bucket but Janine was the picture of patience.

Here, Lucy gives a try. She liked it - must have brought back memories of her own nursing days (years). It was a strangely intimate and warm experience. It makes the notion of hooking an animal to a machine to do that seem quite cruel.

To end on a happier note - here is a photo as we crossed into Manitoba, where we experienced the infinite flatness of the landscape for the first time.

I had a little moment of panic thinking about being so far from the ocean. Here, the land is the ocean.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Knitting Sprawl Hits the Road Again

We are in Regina, Saskatchewan, and I just downloaded 108 photographs. I can't think of a streamlined way to bring you up to date so I have decided to do a short, greatest hits kind of retelling of the past week or so. Or I may just do the best I can for now and continue later...we'll see how my stamina holds up.

First, you must meet the main character of our story.

We have not given it a cute name - I usually refer to it as "The Vehicle." Chateau seems a tad generous. I have quickly developed a love/hate relationship with The Vehicle. It is kinda cool to wear your house on your back so literally like a turtle but, on some occasions, it is a total pain in the ass to have to drag it around. For example, when one is trying to do things that require more agility, like discreetly videotape suburban neighborhoods or get to a downtown yarn shop. I did manage to drive Le Chateau through downtown Winnipeg three times but I suspect that says more about downtown Winnipeg than my driving skills.

Anyway, our trip revolves around this vehicle, for better or worse. My fears about driving it were mostly unfounded - it isn't that hard to manage but it sure does suck up the gasoline. I can't even admit to its mileage...let's just say that it will take a lifetime of Prius driving, bike riding and subway riding to make up for it. And speaking of karma, I am not sure what the karmic consequences will be for all the insects that have met their untimely end on the front of The Vehicle but I suspect it won't be pretty when the times comes.

Our first stop was Ithaca, NY. We stopped there because we didn't have a lot of time left after picking up The Vehicle. We were only allowed to pick it up in the afternoon and were required (I was grateful for this) to watch a 20 minute video about how to drive it and work all its special parts. Believe me, when the black water indicator reached "Full", I was mighty grateful for the instructional video on how to empty the tank in the proper way. Did I then do it correctly and to a sound track of cheesy jazz music? No, I did not. But I will next time, you can be sure!

So here is lovely Ithaca, to which some of our best homeschooling friends have escaped.

They bought a church (and house and yard).

A second theme of the early days of our trip was visiting all our cool friends who left NYC to live in other places and now talk about how much easier it is to homeschool away from the crazy city with all its neurotic parents and combative Board of Education. Look people, just rent a 25 foot long vehicle and drive across the continent - all your troubles will be washed away. I promise!

Ok, so that was the first day...

No, I won't torture you with so much are a few more pictures, with short captions. I promise!

Our only traffic jam (so far) - just outside of Cleveland.

The lemon meringue pie that the wonderful blogless Janine made for our arrival. I actually didn't have any since I was so full up on the rest of the incredible dinner that she prepared, which included two kinds of homemade paneer (goat and cow milk varieties).

Here is the wonderful, blogless Janine herself.

And here are two of her male animals. Note the look of malice on the ram's face. He was one tough character and not one to turn your back on. He does his job well however - there were plenty of little lambs frolicking in her pastures.

Janine took us to visit two small-scale woolen mills, a dairy farm and The Shoe Box. I think that deserves another post, so I will leave you in New Glarus, WI.

We will get to Saskatchewan...I promise!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

How are You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm When They Have Seen Karl Hungus?

We have only had sporadic internet access - and I think I am about to not have it for the next three days but I wanted to check-in and let you know that we reach Winnipeg this afternoon and experience the first knit together tonight. I am trying to remember that this is why we are doing this whole, crazy thing.

Meanwhile, we spent the night just outside of Moorhead, MN, which you may recognize as Bunny Lebowski's (aka Fawn Knudsen) birthplace.