I am, apparently, on a minor blog hiatus. High Stakes Things are happening and demand my full attention. I will return as soon as possible, but in the meantime, check out this mini-documentary of one of my favorite things, The Dickens Universe.
Like any child of the 80s, I spent some time with Lamar on Reading Rainbow. (Butterfly in the skyyyyyyy! I can fly twice as hiiiiiiiigh!). I got down in Fraggle Rock — a show that, through the misadventures of Red, soothed my angst about being a carrot-top. And I appreciated the subtle comedy of Bill Cosby’s Picture Pages. (Seriously… have you revisited Picture Pages? Because it’s a lot more complex than I remember.)
Wow. That was quite a collection of 80s YouTube links.
Not infrequently, I recall the Yip-Yip aliens from Sesame Street, creatures whose droning calls adhere to my subconscious like some sort of nightmarish picture show, never to fade. :: shudder :: And a snatch of melody from a passing car will re-animate in my memory the Teeny Little Super Guy, from the same program, who tap-dances his way into my heart afresh every time I recall him.
You can’t judge a hero by his size, people.
But lately a lost snippet of childhood television has been clinging to the edge of my brain, persistent but indiscernible. A child stoops on a cratered seashore, a bucket near his bare feet. He peers into a tidal pool, and as he recognizes each creature — a sea anemone, a starfish, a hermit crab — it happily exits the lukewarm comfort of its home and jumps into the bucket. (Oh, unhappy creatures. Don’t you know that tidal pool trumps plastic Walmart bucket?) I don’t remember if the clip was live action or animated, because really? It doesn’t matter when you’re still wearing Jellie Shoes.
I blame this seashore children’s television clip for ruining the beach for me. Well, not ruining it, perhaps. But after watching this boy effortlessly collect a zoo of sea life within a matter of minutes, I fully expected all visits to the ocean to include an almost alien landscape of craters, each offering up a mirror-surfaced pool filled with its own miniature, Crayola-colored landscape. If this boy — who, if I recall, was not the sharpest pencil — could corral a seahorse just by smiling invitingly into the water, imagine the safari I could collect with my feminine wiles, my palpable enthusiasm, and my stylish Jellie Shoes.
I don’t have many early memories of the beach. I spent many of my elementary years landlocked in Tennessee or in the Midwest, where the shores of Lake Michigan offered no promises of tidal pools. When we lived in the Carolinas and ventured to the beach, I found the sprawling, flat sands of the Atlantic. No starfish happily waved their suckered arms at me. Digging in the sand usually unearthed the discarded spoon from a frozen lemonade.
Not that there is anything wrong with east coast beaches. I enjoy them very much, in fact. But the disconnect between my Sesame Street expectations and the quite different beauty of a place like Hilton Head or the Outer Banks or Surfside was a shock to the system.
And really, it’s a lesson in both managing expectations and paying attention. As much I would love to live in a Fraggle Rock world of talking trash heaps — or in a Sesame Street world of endearingly antisocial trash monsters — it is probably irresponsible to take life cues from daytime television. And trash cans without monsters are, after all, useful — just like beaches featuring smooth sand instead of rocky pools inhabited by hermit crabs on a suicide mission are enjoyable in their own way. You just have to know how to look at this very different beach. For example: with a margarita in your hand.
Like Robert Fulghum, I’m trying to learn such lessons from my kindergarten years. Things are taut and stressful and not enough right now. (COME ON job search committees. We’re dying here.) But things are fine. Great, even. I still suspect that these tidal pools exist, somewhere. Edmund Gosse tells me so in Father and Son. And I may not be in these tidal pools (yet).
But the water here is fine.
Wandering through your local big-box bookstore, there is much to find mildly repulsive. The inconsiderate jerkface who leaves his half-empty frappe mocha venti concoction on top of a stack of hardcovers. The gaggle of teenage girls wearing neon thongs and low-rise jeans. Tuesdays with Morrie. When you walk into a Barnes and Noble, you steel yourself against these things. But last night I was not expecting to happen upon this:
No, not really with your cat. Out of your cat. Author Kaori Tsutaya and translator Amy Hirschman recommend brushing out all of that excess fur in order to create small, felted cat figures to use as finger puppets or decorations for book covers and coin purses. One project: a jaunty brooch fashioned out of Trixie’s shed pelt. And all that fur your good cat Socks is leaving around can, apparently, be transformed into a portrait of Socks. Very meta.
I snatched the book off the shelf and ran to find Danny, who was thumbing through some art books on the other side of the store. Without a word — but with my best WTF? face — I showed him the cover.
“No,” he said.
What I didn’t know at the time was that crafting from pet hair is a thing — an art much defended by its practitioners. Crafting with Cat Hair has garnered seven positive reviews on Amazon, a fair showing. But apparently cat owners are indifferent to the opinions of others — typical — while dog-hair knitters are quite vocal about their craft. See: Knitting With Dog Hair: Better a Sweater from a Dog You Know and Love Than From a Sheep You’ll Never Meet, by Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery, an instruction manual that includes 25 reviews, 23 of them positive (or mock-positive). Some highlights:
“Be very careful with this book. Thinking myself clever, I shaved my dog, then knitted him a sweater using his own fur. I believe this paradox may have ripped a small hole in the space-time continuim. My son seems to be now aging in reverse, causing me to deduct one star from this review. Otherwise a very informative book.”
“When all the sheep have been swept away or encased in rogue glaciers, what will be left to make our clothes from? Dogs, that’s what. Man’s best friend will stick close by our side through the emergency — begging for Snausages, most likely — and will happily provide raw material for our shirts, hats and scarves in the aftermath. Because they won’t know any better.”
And, perhaps my favorite: the disgruntled Knitting with Dog Hair customer: “My only complaint is the cover is misleading, there is a picture of a basset hound on the cover but you can’t spin basset fur. I own a basset and bought the book because of the cover.”
But I wanted a basset sweater, dammit!
All joking aside — if that’s possible — many customers seem to genuinely appreciate the book, and as I read through their reviews they did begin to answer some of my concerns about crafting with the hair of an animal that licks its own butt. The smell, apparently, is not an issue, after a thorough washing. And, as one reviewer reasoned: “Have you ever smelled a wet SHEEP? A dog smells like daisies by comparison.”
Overall, defenders of the art of dog-hair knitting make some valid (if odd) arguments in favor of their craft. There’s something kind of ecologically responsible about the entire endeavor, they argue. Why let all of that good hair go to waste? And some fierce dog lovers suggest that crafts made from a beloved pet’s hair can be a sweet reminder of days of fetch once your four-legged friend has left you. That feels a little icky. And a little nineteenth-century! It reminds me of mourning jewelry made out of hair–the locks of a loved one woven or shaped into an image or transformed into ink.
So, dear carrots readers, next time you’re lint-rolling Fifi’s hair off your favorite sweater, consider the relative ease of dog-hair apparel. You never have to lint roll dog hair off a sweater made of dog hair.
Things are getting ugly over here at the carrots household, dear readers. The job market and the end of the semester are combining to create the Perfect Storm of Stress. Bill Paxton is around here somewhere, furrowing his brow in that neanderthal way, hiding in a ditch from the twisters, and watching cows whiz by.
I know I am not alone among my academic-job-hunting friends in feeling that right about now I need to take my mind off things. I’ve sent off my first round of applications, and now I’m waiting waiting waiting. I need a distraction. Some turn to world travel. Some turn to alcohol and gambling. I turn to crafting, apparently.
In a moment of recklessness — oh, the adventure! — I decided to try out these “paper bauble” Christmas ornaments. A friend had posted the pattern for them on Pinterest, and I was seduced by the simplicity of them. My brain is tapioca, after all — a little wobbly and of an unsettling consistency — and I therefore cannot handle complicated directions or sophisticated crafting equipment, like a hot glue gun or a sewing machine. The finished product is not-too-terrible! On to the photo-essay!
I began by braving Michael’s, where many parents of irresponsible middle school children were buying posterboard in some last-ditch attempt to put together a science project for Monday morning. I elbowed my way around the scrapbooking aisle for awhile, picking over the selection overpriced papers. I chose a few solids and a few patterns. That piece in the middle? I definitely thought it was a whimsical pattern of mittens. No. It’s oven mitts. Oh, well. People bake around Christmas, right?
The rest of my supplies: florist’s wire, thin red ribbon, and a small baggie full of these ingenious little pre-measured dots of glue. I love the OCD precision of these small dots of glue, and I am therefore considering finding future crafting projects that allow me to use them.
I spent far too much time cutting out circles of paper this evening. But check out the fun campsite paper I found! This paper also has nothing at all to do with Christmas, but I enjoy the small lanterns. Each ornament requires twelve of these circles, which you fold in half, stack, and bind with florist’s wire. Gluing the edges of the circles together in an alternating pattern creates the honeycomb pattern of the finished ornament:
Not too bad for my first try. Here’s the same ornament from above:
Toby is in her teenage angst phase, and therefore she is Too Cool for Crafting. But she enjoyed the completed project.
I imagine that these would be more interesting ornaments if created out of something more meaningful than overpriced paper from Michael’s. Piecing together an extra wedding invitation and program could make for an interesting substitute for a bow on an anniversary gift, maybe. And they don’t take long. I made two in about an hour:
I appreciate the immediate gratification of a senseless crafting project. If only I could stick together the edges of my CV and job letter with small dots of glue and — voila! — at the end of the process find a small, perfect, tenure-track job on a string.
Nursery rhymes and playground songs are full of superstitions and hare-brained predictions. Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll break your mother’s back. Monday’s child is fair of face. Tuesday’s child is full of grace. One for sorrow, two for joy. Three for a girl, four for a boy. Who knew that counting magpies could determine so much?
In my training-wheels days, deciphering my fate through the patterns in the larger world made a lot of sense. I had no qualms attributing larger shifts in my universe to worn pavement, the arbitrary logic of the calendar, the arithmetic of flocks of birds. Fed fat with children’s verse and stories rife with clues and omens, wishes-come-true and dire portents, I began to formulate my own system of superstitions. An even number of stairs was auspicious. A note or flower pressed inside a library book obviously translated into good fortune. A phone ringing three times — not two, not four — promised bad news.
I still try to snatch the phone off its cradle before that third ring, and I’ll be sure to sprint to the receiver each time it rings during job market season. I’ll imagine a search committee chair on the other end of the line, counting each ring. It rings once, I have an interview. Twice, perhaps a job. Three times? The chair has obviously changed her mind and is calling to tell me about that typo on the first page of my CV. “Did you really mean to say you were from Horston, Texas? Ridiculous! We’re shredding your application right now. Do you hear the ominous whir of the shredder? Do you hear it!?!”
Intellectually, I know these small details have little to do with success or failure. Stumbling on a crack on the sidewalk can’t fracture a spine, and counting magpies won’t bring happiness or heartbreak. But somewhere in my lizard brain I both enjoy and fear the simple equations of superstitions. I appreciate their immediacy: the sense of urgency they lend to trivial situations and their assumption that something as simple as bird-against-sky is legible. Read the world and know what’s next.
And nothing puts me in a superstitious frame of mind quite like a fortune cookie. Sure, I’ve disparaged them in the past, but I do so with a sideways glance at the swirling cosmos and a hidden sense of respect for whatever a small slip of paper may reveal to me. It was with ambivalence, then, that I cracked open two cookies last week. I was alone in my hotel room at an academic conference, a little greasy-fingered with take-out veggie lo mein and a little heavy-hearted with the feelings of inadequacy conferences tend to inspire in an anxious person like myself.
Fortune cookie #1 told me that I should bide my time for success is near. Not bad! Fortune cookie #2 revealed that I should be prepared to accept a wondrous opportunity in the days ahead. That word wondrous rung a little false, perhaps. Wondrous? Really? Should I expect a stray twenty dollar bill on the pavement, or are we talking leprechauns and winged monkeys? And how to I prepare to accept a winged monkey, anyway? A litterbox and a stash of bananas?
Before I tossed the fortunes in the garbage, I turned them over for my mini language lesson. Fortune cookie #1: “Market, shì chang.” Fortune cookie #2: “March, san yuè.”
Propitious, I’d say, for a job market that begins to resolve itself into new hires in the spring months.* I’ll be keeping these two tacked to my bulletin board.
* I have no idea if the cookie intends March the month or march the verb. I also don’t want to know. I am interpreting my cookie as I see fit.
I’m not the heaviest of sleepers. Surely this is due in part to Danny. He’s what I call an active sleeper, a phrase that does not begin to describe the way he sometimes violently flings his limbs across the bed. In his sleep he wrestles hyenas, or fends off hordes of zombies hungry for braaaaaains, or maybe competes in the World Championship Whack-a-Mole competition. (I would totally kick ass at that competition. I love Whack-a-Mole.) Unfortunately, Danny does not remember his dreams, so in the morning we’re left to wonder what all the fuss was about.
But these days I’m a light sleeper because I’m imagining my job application materials being filed away by English department office administrators across the country — applications that, perhaps, contain typos that I cannot fix. I’m imagining a search committee chair happening upon that stray letter or rogue comma in line three of a cover letter and, in a rage, tossing the whole packet in a wastebasket. Or, more likely, a recycling bin.
Us academics. We’re eco-friendly.
Of course, typos are the least of my worries. Job market season can breed feelings of inadequacy that have nothing to do with typing skills and everything to do with What I’ve Done With My Life for the Past Seven Years. So sleeping, some nights, can be difficult to come by. I snooze or doze or nap instead.
But, as stated in an earlier post, I’m looking for ways to stay positive this fall, even as search committees exert their weighty yea or nay votes into the wee hours of the night. I can find a way to tackle this. I am a running carrot, after all. (Speeeeeeeeedycarrot!)
Danny has suggested imagining myself in a soothing landscape. Design an imaginary place that banishes job market worries and eases me to sleep. It’s like Inception, but without the movie popcorn and, unfortunately, without Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This place cannot be noisy or rowdy, so my initial idea of a dark room, a single Whack-a-Mole board, an over-sized mallet… that was a no-go.
Danny will not reveal his secret location, which I respect. I suspect describing it is the subconscious equivalent of writing up a dive bar in a tourist magazine. Soon uninvited troubled sleepers are rambling up in their minivans and campers, ruining the vibe with their tourist sunburns and requests for souvenir tee-shirts. But I have friends who use a similar sort of meditation, and I’ve found that many of these friends imagine strikingly similar scenes. A winter landscape, almost polar: something with slanting snow and disappearing footprints and that whistle of wind bending around nothing but itself. Snow covers everything, after all. Houses and cars and mailboxes holding potential rejection letters. I like this idea, but imagining snow when it’s still 85 degrees in late October is a challenge.
The snow scene also reminds me of my visit to the Titanic museum exhibit when I lived in Raleigh. One room contained a block of ice supposedly maintained at the temperature of the water those on board floated in while waiting for rescue. I remember pressing my palm against the ice — so cold it ached — while opening the fake passport I’d been allotted at the beginning of the exhibit only to discover that my avatar, an Irish immigrant in steerage, wouldn’t leave the water alive.
Not exactly a happy place.
I’m thinking, instead, a lake — a salt lake, so it’s easy to float. It’s about to rain, and clouds are low and fast, purple-gray and that strange yellow. High hills on each side, in deep green. A shore of polished pebbles. Now and then a raindrop hits the water and echoes outward in dimming circles.
Do you have a place you go to during moments of stress or insomnia, carrots readers? If you describe it, I promise I won’t show up in an RV with a cooler and ugly lawn chairs.
Pardon my prolonged absence, carrots readers. A five-year anniversary trip to Lake Lure, North Carolina demanded my full attention. Or inattention, as it were. Sweet, sweet inattention. There was swinging (and napping) in hammocks. There was reading by the fire while eating oh so many doughnuts. There was zip-lining. And now I have returned to the Real World, which, alas, is not as pleasant as sipping coffee lakeside. This Real World? It demands that I grade papers.
On the way to Lake Lure, I begrudgingly downloaded Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. You see, I don’t think I like Jonathan Franzen as a human. But I do like his books. I’m 350 pages into Freedom, and I am spitefully liking it very much. Very much! Gah! And reading authors I like very much makes me want to write. So one day last week, while sitting in my pajamas at three o’clock in the afternoon and watching the mountains grow misty and clear and misty again, I decided to return to my amateur short story effort, Squirrels at Chess. (You can read the first installment here, the second here.)
Because I am drafting this story in a spirit of pure fun and whimsy, without any aspirations toward True Writerdom or Discipline, I have decided to skip ahead in our story. Someday I will return to and write the intervening scenes, in which our beleaguered hero decides to become a taxidermist himself. (Writing this section will require some research, and those pesky papers insist on being graded. I don’t think my students would appreciate a delay due to taxidermy research.)
Cal was not really surprised to find that the Yellow Pages included the category “Taxidermy and Animal Preservation.” These establishments were businesses, right? And surely an index of taxidermists was no weirder than a listing of funeral directors or windshield repairmen or delis that deliver. But the tenor of the advertisements listed beneath was unexpected. One quarter-page ad for The Huntsman’s Friend Trophy and Taxidermy featured a forest in silhouette, framing the outline of a twelve-point stag, comically out of scale with the surrounding pines and peaks. You shoot it, we’ll show it off, the copy read. We’ll put the fear back in those eyes. Our veteran hunters and taxidermists excel at big game, but we’ll pretty up all beasts, from beavers to bears. Not a trace of buckshot. In the next column, in a horror-show, dripping font: The Re-Animator. Are you a collector? I’ll be your Dr. Frankenstein. No questions asked. Call for more information. It wasn’t until Cal had searched through three pages of taxidermists, each ad making him more queasy and anxious, that he found an establishment that seemed a possibility. A simple border, a line drawing of a cat batting at a ball of yarn.
Your trusty dog was a faithful friend to the end. Your tabby was a one-of-a-kind companion. That partnership need not end with death. The skilled technicians at Lifelong Friends Preservation Company will capture the spirit of your pet with dignity. We happily accommodate props and costumes. Don’t wait until the passing of your pet. Schedule an appointment today to discuss preservation options.
As Cal circled the ad with his felt-tip pen, he wondered what Lifelong Friends could have done for his childhood pet, a bad-tempered, overweight black cat named Señor. Cal hadn’t cried when, on a drizzly September Saturday, the great Señor roused himself from an afternoon siesta only to be sent to his long nap in the sky by the wheels of a passing sedan. After all, the cat had been nothing like the vibrant, yarn-loving kitten in the advertisement. He had shown no interest in Cal’s offerings of catnip mice and small, plastic balls hiding jingling bells, returning any show of affection with an irritated hiss and swipe to the face. But taxidermy could rewrite the Señor’s history. Cal imagined one of the “skilled technicians” at Lifelong Friends—a folksy gentleman, perhaps, speaking in an endearing twang and wearing a canvas apron—revivifying Señor as a solicitous, spry kitten, gently arching its back and tilting its head, waiting to rub against one of Cal’s trouser legs. Or perhaps a cozy housecat, curled on an artfully worn pillow, sleeping away eternity and requiring only an occasional dust-busting.
This was the great lie. While the establishments Cal had read about in the Yellow Pages—The Stuffing Company, Bayou City Professional Taxidermists, The Formaldehyde Brothers—promised reality and rehearsed their commitment to life continued as it was, taxidermy was an infinitely malleable art form. Reality had absolutely nothing to do with it. Why shouldn’t Señor be the amigo he never was? Why shouldn’t a quail, stumbling awkwardly skyward after being flushed by hounds from the security of a field, be preserved noble, mid-flight? Why shouldn’t squirrels play chess?
Two weeks later, Cal found himself outside a dirt-colored pre-fab building in the suburbs. Nailed to the tilted mailbox out front was a sign: Lifelong Friends, written in black permanent marker, on the reverse of a neon orange-and-black Beware of Dog sign. Cal stepped onto the porch and tried to peer in through the windows in the door but found them blocked with old cardboard boxes from taxidermy supply companies. A rusted metal planter sitting on the stoop was surprisingly filled with neatly-planted rows of pansies, purple and gold. Faint rustlings, pings, and thunks leaked from behind the doorway. Cal raised a timid fist to knock.
“Ho there!” came a voice from inside. Cal abruptly withdrew his fist. “I see ya there! Just hold your horses. Or your puppies or mice or what have you.”