Saturday, March 26, 2011

Resorting to Fiction

This week, due to a dearth of blog fodder, I am resorting to fiction. It’s a bit long, so if you have to pee, do it now.

Career Counseling for Heroes

The future is opaque. We cannot know what will happen in the next hour, or even the next second. To avoid this fearful uncertainty, we participate in consensual reality, which uses pattern recognition to predict the future. The sun has risen in the east since time immemorial and it is reasonable to assume it will do so tomorrow. For the most part, this mass hallucination is benign.

But there are moments when fate hangs on the cusp of possibility. In these moments, blindness to uncertainty and addiction to pattern become lethal. Richard Tasker and his recently earned B. Sc. in Economics have arrived at just such a moment. He is spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with it, having spent all of his twenty two years slavishly attempting to earn the approval of his father by following the rules. Fortunately, help is available.

Richard is not dressed for walking through a forest. He is wearing his interview suit, grey worsted with a fine blue pinstripe over a white shirt and solid navy tie. He remembers choosing the navy tie over the red paisley because it seemed more conservative. He also remembers putting on shoes and socks and wonders what happened to them as he limps barefoot between the trees. He does not know where he is, or how he came to be here, or even how long he’s been here because his watch has stopped.

The path, a narrow ribbon of packed dirt winding between what he thinks of as giant Christmas trees, ends abruptly at the edge of a sunny clearing. At its centre, a small house with a curved roof stands on yellow stilts, surrounded by a white picket fence. Richard approaches it though the long grass, stopping when he comes close enough to see the pickets of the fence are human thigh bones and the finials crowning them are human skulls. What appeared, from a distance, to be rounded wooden shingles covering the roof and walls, turn out, on closer inspection, to be giant, red-brown feathers. The stilts on which the house stands are actually scaled and clawed bird feet.  There are no windows or doors.

He walks around the house, intending to find where the forest path continues on the far side of the clearing. Everything looks the same and after a time he realizes he has made several circuits of the house. The trail of bent grass stalks he created when he left the forest has disappeared. He can no longer see where he entered the clearing.  “What the hell am I supposed to do now?” he mutters.  He believes the question is rhetorical.

The house makes a loud squawking noise.  A gate like a rib cage appears in the fence and a circular opening with jagged white edges yawns in the feathered wall. The house squawks again, as though issuing an invitation, and squats down until the newly created door is touching the ground.  Richard pushes open the gate, walks up to the door and peers inside.

There is one room. A plain wooden bed with a thin mattress stands against the left wall. Opposite the bed, flames dance among three small logs burning inside a large stone fireplace. The walls, as much as he can tell in the firelight, appear to be paneled in richly carved wood. On a bench by the fireplace sits... something. Its face, under the broad, bald dome of the skull, is so crumpled and imploded with age, Richard is unable to assign gender or race. He’s not even sure of the species. Simian eyes, deeply set, stare accusingly at him. 

‘’You late,” the creature says, in a heavy Russian accent as it leans down to pick up a knife from beside the bench. The blade is the brightest object in the room.  “Come in.  Hold out hands.”

Richard tucks his hands behind his back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll leave now.”

Heavy white eyebrows draw together. “You not new servant?”

“No! No. I was just walking through the forest and saw your house.”

The creature drops the knife back to the floor and rises. The folds of a long green skirt fall to the ground.  A ragged black shawl, thickly embellished with frayed embroidery, drapes over the humped shoulders. The ends of the shawl cross over at the front and tie together behind the back.  The occupant of the house, Richard decides, is a woman. Her lipless mouth expands into a gaping smile, exposing a single, tusk-like eye tooth.   Firelight flashes off its yellow point. “Ah well, you better come in.”

Richard lifts his right leg to step backward but finds himself compelled to step over the teeth of the threshold into the room instead.  Behind his back, he clasps his left wrist tightly with his right hand.  

 “You must be tired,” the woman says. She gestures to the bench hospitably. “Sit. Rest. You want tea?” The tooth flashes again. Suddenly Richard is thirsty.  He presses his lips firmly together and remains absolutely still. Her smile disappears.  She closes her eyes and sighs. “Okay. We do hard way. What is your question?”

“I don’t have a question.”

“Of course you have question. Only question people come to Baba Yaga.”

“I don’t.”

“Then why you in forest? Only thing in forest is Chicken. Only thing in Chicken is Baba Yaga.”

“I didn’t mean to come here. I’ll leave now.” Richard turns to step out the door, but it is gone. In the flickering light, animal faces carved into the unbroken walls leer at him.  “Where’s the door?”

“No door. Chicken open when question answered.”

“But I don’t have a question.”

“Then you must find question, or you stay forever.”

“What kind of question?”

Baba Yaga sits back down on the bench. “I not know.” She flaps her hand outward. “I not give question. I give answer.”

Richard tries to think of a question.  Nothing comes.

Baba Yaga shrugs. “Okay, okay. I give you question and answer. Same price. Package deal.”


“What? You think I work for nothing? Is business. You look like nice boy. I give you discount. Son, daughter, doesn’t matter. Okay even not firstborn.”

Richard backs up until a carved projection on the wall presses into his left buttock. “Firstborn? Child? Are you nuts?”

“No give child?”


Baba Yaga stands and approaches her visitor.  This close, the old woman has a vague, unpleasant smell, like damp, dirty laundry. “Hmmm. Tough. Too much muscle.” A sharp fingernail pokes at Richard’s stomach. “Not much fat. But make tasty stew. Okay. I take you.”

“To eat?” His voice rises to a pitch it has not achieved since early adolescence. “Even if I had a question, which I don’t, and I wanted an answer, which I don’t, what good would it do me if you ate me?”

“No good. This why I ask for child. But no. You not give child. You not give self. What you give?”

“Do you take money?”

“Depends. You have gold?”

Richard extracts his wallet from his back pocket and pulls out a card.  “American Express?”

“Don’t try cheat me. Is not gold, is gold colored.”

“It’s a credit card.”

“No credit. What else you got?”

 “Okay, how about my watch.”

“Watch? What do?”

“It tells time.”

The room vibrates as a directionless sound echoes through it. “Brrrk. Brrrk.”

Startled, Richard looks wildly around. “What’s that?”

“Chicken laughing because you think watch tell time.”

“Okay, it’s not working right now, but all it needs is a new battery.”

“Brrrk. Brrrk.” The room vibrates again.

Baba Yaga hobbles over to the nearest wall and kicks it. “Stop. Is rude.” She returns to the bench and sits down. “Watch no work here. What else?”

Richard shrugs. “I don’t have anything else. Look, I can’t pay you, so why don’t you just let me leave.”

She shakes her head. “Is not work that way. Chicken not open until answer.”

“Can’t you tell it to open the door?”

The room shakes harder as the house laughs again. Richard loses his balance and falls to the floor.
 Baba Yaga sighs. “I wish.” She stares into the fire for a time. “Okay, you not pay. I not work free. We make bet. You find answer, Chicken open, you leave. I find answer, you lose.”

“What happens if I lose?”


“There’s no other way to open the door?”

Baba Yaga says nothing.

Richard swallows and feels his Adam’s apple scrape on the collar of his shirt, which suddenly seems several sizes too small.    “Okay,” he says, pulling down the knot of his tie and undoing the top button of his shirt, ““here’s my question. What day is today?”

This time the shaking of the house is so violent that the old woman falls from her seat to the floor. She reaches under the bench for the knife and throws it at the wall.  The blade makes three bright circles through the air before sinking half its length into the carved wood.

“Raaawk!” the house protests and the shaking stops.

“Again with time?” Placing her palm on the bench, Baba Yaga levers herself up. “Stop make Chicken laugh.”

Richard pushes himself up to a sitting position but remains on the floor. “I don’t get it. What’s so funny?”

“Here no time, only now. Chicken think you make joke.” She rubs her hip. “We need real question.”

He stares at his bare feet while a hard lump of frustration forms under his breastbone. “What real question?”

“Question you come for,” she replies in a tone suitable for conversing with an idiot.

“I don’t have a real question!” he shouts, surprising himself with the volume of his denial. “And where the hell are my shoes?”

The house gives a satisfied cluck. Richard looks at the old woman. Her eyes are brightly approving and his frustration melts into apprehension. “Is that my question?”  He hopes not. He doesn’t know the answer.

“No. But good start.” Baba Yaga claps her hands. “I have tea while you think.”

Beside the fire place, a panel opens in the wall.  Two bodiless hands float out, bearing a wooden tray containing an engraved silver samovar and two glass beakers in silver filigree holders.  The hands are mismatched.  The right hand is slender and pale, with pink, oval nails.  The left hand is darker skinned and broad palmed, with calloused finger tips.   They place the tray on the end of the bench. The small hand puts a spoon in one of the glasses and holds it under the spout of the samovar, while the large hand pulls the lever to pour the tea. Gliding across the room, the small hand offers the glass to Richard.

“No thank you,” he says.

“Is okay,” Baba Yaga assures him. “Come from servant, Not poison. Only poison if I give.”

The tooth makes no appearance. Richard feels no thirst and no compulsion to take the glass, so he takes it. “Thank you.”

The small hand makes a graceful rippling gesture with its fingers and returns to fill the other glass, which it gives to Baba Yaga. Both hands then hover in the air over the tray, holding each other with fingers entwined.

Baba Yaga sips her tea, then wags a skeletal forefinger. “Stupid hand. Why you no listen? I tell you, he no good musician. Where you think other hand is?”

The right hand disengages. Fingers spread wide, it flies back through the open panel by the fireplace. A noise like breaking pottery erupts then a regular clanging, as though something is being struck with an iron pan. The left hand moves to the other side of the fireplace and presses itself against the wall.

“Da. You hide,” Baba Yaga tells the hand. “Go kitchen now, all ten fingers broken.” The clanging stops abruptly and the panel by the fireplace slams shut. Baba Yaga shakes her head and says conversationally, “Before, I take whole person as servant. Always problems. So I think, don’t need whole person, just take hands. Hah! Still problems.”

“What happens to the rest of them after you cut off their hands?”

“Waiting. They come. They say ‘Baba Yaga, I have problem. Please fix.’ I say ‘Okay, you work, I give wish.’ Work finish, body back, wish granted. But,” she points at the hand by the fireplace, “wish not solve problem. Same person as before. Make same problem.” She salutes Richard with her tea glass. “You smart, you come for answer, not wish.”

Richard sighs. “If I can find the question.”

“I help.” Baba Yaga walks to the back of the room. Grabbing the nose of a carved wolf, she slides back a panel to reveal a dark glass rectangle mounted horizontally inside the cupboard.  She twists her neck to look at Richard. “What this?”

“How should I know.  It’s your house. Don’t you know what’s in your own cupboard?”

“I not artistic. Chicken do decorating. Is from your world, da? What is?”

Richard rises to his feet and crosses the room to stand beside the old woman. He peers into the cupboard.  “It looks like a flat screen TV.”

“TeeVee. What do?”

“It shows pictures.”

“Da?” Baba Yaga turns eagerly back to the TV. “Chicken, show pictures.”

The screen brightens and the house appears, sitting in the meadow, surrounded by its grim white fence. 

Baba Yaga gasps, “Ahhh! This you, Chicken? Feathers very smooth. New fence very pretty.”

The chimney of the house bends slightly, as though in agreement.

Baba Yaga hobbles back to the bench. “In crystal ball, picture always wavy. Give me terrible headaches. Tee Vee better.”  She sits down on the end farthest from the fire.  “Now think about shoes.”

Richard remembers putting on his black brogues. On the screen, a picture of his feet in the shoes appears, as though he is looking down on them. They are standing on a sidewalk. The image pans up the face of a building to show a corporate logo. “Consolidated Financial Services!” he exclaims.  “I remember now. I had a job interview there today. Investment counselor. But I don’t remember the interview.” The picture swerves back to Richard’s shoes as they walk away from the building. For a while they walk on cement, then veer off onto grass, coming to a halt beside a fountain. Richard watches his legs hopping awkwardly as his hands pry off his shoes and socks before rolling up his pant legs. He sees his bare foot stepping over the rim of the fountain and the screen freezes on his legs, pale and foreshortened, knee deep in water. “I didn’t go to the interview. I went wading.” Why? he thinks, but is careful not to voice the question.

Baba Yaga reaches down and picks up a shapeless leather bag from under the bench. Pulling out an equally shapeless piece of fabric, she begins to knit. The clacking of the needles blends hypnotically with the crackling of the logs in the fireplace.

Richard sips his tea, searching his memory for an explanation of why he didn’t go to the interview. With sixty-five thousand in student loans to be repaid, walking away from a potential job seems like a stupid thing to do. Even worse, how will he explain this to his Dad, who pulled strings to set up the interview? He watches the old woman’s hands, rhythmically twisting yarn around the needles, and wonders about what it will be like to be cooped up inside a chicken house forever. The inadvertent pun makes him giggle, then he realizes that sitting in a chicken, under threat of death, has been more exciting than anything he has experienced for years.

“I don’t want that job.” Richard whispers. “I don’t want that life. I don’t want to be like my father, buried behind a desk.”

Baba Yaga watches his face but says nothing. The needles clack faster, as though they have a life of their own, separate from her hands. The crackling of the fire becomes louder and the room becomes warmer. Sleepily, Richard remembers a book his mother read to him, in the cuddled, just-before-bed time of his childhood. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. For years afterward he had been obsessed with the idea of becoming a sailor.

“I want to travel to the ends of the earth.” He tests the words out loud. “I want to become a dragon and rescue a beautiful maiden.” His voice grows firmer with each word until he is almost shouting. “I want adventure! I want to make a difference!” The needles fall silent. Baba Yaga stares at him with sharp, black eyes that seem almost kindly. She nods encouragement. Helplessly, pushed by need he cannot control, desperate for the answer and heedless of the consequences, Richard utters his true question.  “What the hell am I supposed to do now?”

Chicken crows a crescendo of approval.  Beside the fireplace, the musician hand makes a fist and punches upward into the air. Baba Yaga folds up her knitting and pushes it back into the bag. “Easy answer.” Ticking off each point on a withered finger, she instructs him: “Get dragon tattoo. Join merchant marine. Rescue maiden in… I think should be Bangkok. Join Peace Corps. End war.”

 Richard glares at her. “What kind of an answer is that?”     

“Is good answer. Give everything you want.”

“But it’s ludicrous! How am I supposed to end war?”

‘Okay. That part, maybe too hard. But rest easy, da?”

 “It is, isn’t it?” he whispers, then chokes out a laugh.

“What funny?” Baba Yaga asks.  

 Richard scrubs his eye sockets with the heels of his palms. “Too bad I’ll never get to do all that.”

“Why not?”

“Stew. Remember?”

Baba Yaga hangs her head. “Ah.” The curled tip of a red Turkish slipper peeps out from beneath the hem of the green skirt and inscribes a half circle on the stone floor. “I lie. You want big risk. I give big risk. I vegetarian.”

Sunlight streams into the room when Chicken opens the door. Richard turns to face the light. Its warmth penetrates his chest through to his heart. He feels taller. His shoulders feel broader. He takes two slow, long breaths then crosses to the bench where he kneels at Baba Yaga’s feet. Lifting her withered claw to his lips, he kisses it lightly. “Thank you.”

She pats his cheek with her free hand. “You good boy.” The pat transforms into a painful pinch. “No screw up.”

Richard Tasker gets a dragon tattoo on his right bicep. He joins the merchant marine and sails around the world several times having many adventures and rescuing any number of fair and rewardingly grateful maidens from perils as diverse as broken stiletto heels and white slavery. But it isn’t until he pulls the beautiful and philanthropically inclined Amanda Peabody, of the Boston Peabodys, from the wreckage of an overturned Bangkok tour bus that his destiny finds him.

They marry and serve together in the Peace Corp for two decades, during which time Richard’s work in microfinance leads him to write his book ‘The Profits of Sharing’. Within five years of its publication, the far more lucrative practices of cooperative capitalism have replaced competitive profit models. Within ten years, all governments have demilitarized as the higher standards of living created by the new global economy make patriotic boundaries undesirable.

During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Richard passionately thanks ‘the woman who opened my eyes and changed my life’. The audience, and Amanda herself, assume he is referring to his wife.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Scientifically Sane

Late the other night, just as I was dozing off in bed, I heard a noise from the bathroom - a prolonged cascade of shattering, as though a pyramid of crystal wineglasses had collapsed in my bathtub. I didn’t bother panicking for two reasons:
1)      I don’t own any wineglasses, and if I did, I certainly have better uses for them than building pyramids in the bathtub.  
2)      This happens to me all the time.
I've heard these noises my entire adult life, everything from thunderclaps in the basement to slide whistles under the bed. At first, they terrified me. But no physical cause ever materialized and it didn’t take long to realize no matter how loud and real the noises seemed, they came from inside my head.  Of course I never told anyone, under the assumption hearing imaginary noises was the same as seeing imaginary people, a symptom of insanity.
Today, I am finally able to come out of the imaginary noise closet thanks to the brilliant Mary Roach and her hilarious book, SPOOK. Those of you who are cowering in the imaginary people closet can come out as well. (Those of you who are receiving instructions to kill things – stay inside.) It turns out there could be a scientific explanation for these phenomena:  electromagnetic fields. I am not a scientist, and respectfully request readers who are to bear with the following, highly remedial, explanation.
EMF’s are fields produced by electrically charged objects. They’re nothing new. They’ve existed since the Big Bang.  On earth, until recently, EMFs generation was limited to objects struck by lightning and the occasional cat whose fur had been rubbed the wrong way.  Then we harnessed electricity and nowadays just about everything generates EMFs: the wiring in our houses and all the appliances connected to it, cell phone transmission towers, you name it, it’s generating. Some scientists believe EMFs propagate in waves. Other scientists, mostly quantum physicists, believe they propagate via virtual photons. (Virtual photons? And I thought I was crazy.) I just threw that in because it came up in my research. You didn’t really need to know it, because all wave/particle systems move in ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’, which means they create patterns when they intersect.
Research has shown a correlation between certain EMF patterns and reduction of melatonin production in rats and cows. Melatonin is one of those uber-hormones released by the pineal gland. Aside from inducing sleepiness, it plays a role in preventing microseizures, which have a strong correlation to hallucinations.
At Laurentian University in Sudbury Ontario, Professor Michael Persinger put all this together and devised an experiment to generate special effects in the human brain by bombarding test subjects’ heads with EMF patterns to create microseizures. Amazingly, over a thousand people guinea-pigged up to be seizured. Over eighty percent of them reported ghostly phenomena; everything from sensing a presence, to seeing an apparition to – that’s right – hearing noises. Mary Roach tried it herself and heard a police siren.
William of Occam (1288 – 1348?) was a proponent of lex parsimoniae – a scientific principle that states when competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, one should select the  hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions. If he were alive today, he would tell me the simplest explanation for my head noise is a mild form of epilepsy. But I also have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, so I am attracted to the EMF/reduced melatonin theory. I think the wiring in my house is trying to fry my brain.  
Does this make me paranoid?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Too Strange for Fiction

Writers are always looking for new material.

Especially weekly bloggers who live very dull lives.

We study passersby on the street to develop characters, plumb our friends’ tragedies for juicy plot devices, and shamelessly eavesdrop on buses and in restaurants. There’s a wealth of material out there for the observant writer. Unfortunately, much of it is useless because fictional characters operate in a logical universe, which doesn’t exist.

Damn those physicists! We were doing just fine until Einstein said everything is relative to the observer and Schrödinger started not-not-killing hypothetical cats and now it’s just a mess.
Real people must interact through the comprehension barrier, which sieves raw input through our mental filters. Here are two formulae to illustrate the difference between fictional characters and real people from a writer’s perspective:

Fictional characters
     (Personality + Motivation) *(Objective / Obstacles)  = Plot

Real people
     (My shit  + Your Shit) / Comprehension Barrier  = WTF

For those of you with no knack for interpreting equations, here’s a real life example:

The other day, Wen and I were about halfway through our bacon-and-eggs-over-easy  at the Aviemore restaurant, where we go every Friday morning before bell practice because they have a great kid’s menu.

Illogically, while the rest of me gets fatter, my stomach shrinks. I figure if I last till ninety, I’ll weigh five-hundred pounds and be living on one peanut a day.  

A man sat down at the table next to ours. He was about our age, still handsome in a ruddy-cheeked, well-barbered way, with a large black spot on the middle fingertip of his right hand. After ordering scrambled-and-ham, he leaned toward us and initiated a conversation using the weather opening, a Canadian favorite because we have so much of it. Due to a recent decrease in short term memory, I’m going to have to paraphrase, but here’s the gist:

What’s that on his finger? Is that dirt?

Man: Great to see the weather’s finally improving.

What’s he talking about?  It’s practically a blizzard out there.

Wen: Yep. Spring is coming.

Are they both on drugs? Wait, maybe they’re talking about the temperature. It is warmer today.

Man: My cows will be happy to get out of the barn.

Oh my god! Is that cow dung?

Wen: What kind of cows do you have?

Man: Charolais. They’re just a hobby. I got six of them after I retired. Keep myself busy.

How can he not notice a lump of shit that size? Can’t he smell it?

Me: (sniff, sniff)

Wen: They’re nice animals. When we lived in the country, there was a Charolais bull in the field beside our house. My kids named him Wellington. As in Beef Wellington.

Can’t smell anything.

Man: I make furniture out of wood. I made a dining hutch with a mirror … (some stuff I missed)

I thought we were talking about  cows. How did we get to furni… Oh! It’s a blood blister!

Me: Well that explains the blood blister.

Wen: We play hand bells. We’re on our way to practice after breakfast.

How did we get to bells? What did I miss?

Man: Now I’m making benches for retirement homes, for old people to sit on.

I think he must be having a different conversation. Maybe with the voices in his head?

Wen valiantly attempted to maintain a conversation while the man continued to pull responses from left field. I sublimated my increasing annoyance with his non-sequiturs by building a bacon and strawberry jam sandwich with the remains of my breakfast. When an attractive, middle-aged woman sat down at the table in front of his, he waved to catch her attention.

Man: How are you?

Woman: I’m fine.

Man: (gesturing to the other chair at his table) You can sit here.

Is he hitting on her?

Woman: I’m not Charlene. I’m her twin sister.

Man: Oh. Sorry.

Ah. Just a case of mistaken identity.

Woman:  It’s okay. It happens all the time. Everyone knows her because she works at Jo Ann’s.

Man: Who’s Jo Ann?

Oh Oh.

 Woman: You don’t know Charlene?

Man: No.


Me: We should go, Wen. Now.

In the car on the way to bell practice, I did some venting on the topic of people who carry on non-interactive conversations. “If he’s trying to pick up women, he really needs to work on his social skills. It’s like he was talking with himself.”

Wen laughed out loud, and not in laughing-with-you camaraderie. This was definitely laughing-at-you sarcasm.

“What? I barely said anything. There’s no point when the other guy isn’t listening.”

She responded with two words, “Blood blister,” effectively ending my diatribe on people who talk to the voices in their heads.

This is why fiction writers are necessary. Anyone can record reality. It takes an expert to interpret it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

When the Knitter is Ready

There’s an old saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will come. While this may be true in other disciplines, it does not apply to knitting.
Ask a knitter how (s)he learned the noble art, and you will frequently hear a heart-warming tale of sitting at the knee of a patient, apple-cheeked grandmother being lovingly instructed in the manipulation of treasured family-heirloom needles to create a misshapen but highly-praised potholder. This is not how I learned to knit. I came late to the woolly art, never having spent much time with either of my grandmothers, who could not be described as patient or apple-cheeked even when they were around.
The year was 1980. I had recently ditched first husband and was living at the Cockroach Arms, a dilapidated apartment complex so far from the right side of the tracks even the motorcycle gang who owned the club house next door only dropped by on weekends and public holidays to drink beer and rumble in the parking lot outside my living room window.  I didn’t have a television, but didn’t really miss it because I’d just nabbed a new programming gig at a start-up company located in a converted gas station over twenty miles from my digs and half a mile from the nearest bus stop. Whatever waking hours remained after overtime were devoted to the commute.
At Christmas, the company gave us two weeks off and a twenty-five dollar bonus. I decided to spend this windfall at the local secondhand bookstore, where a few sci-fi classics and the occasional Georgette Heyer could usually be found tucked in among the Harlequins in the dollar bins, with the intention of reading through my vacation. The bookstore happened to be next door to a handicraft shop which had a bushel basket filled with oddly colored yarn just outside the door, on sale for 25 cents a ball.
This is as good a place as any to begin sharing voice of experience tips. For all you newbie knitters reading this post, here’s VOE TIP #1: any yarn on sale at 90% off is NOT a bargain.
As I flipped through one of the bins at the back of the bookstore, I found the second book of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I’d already read but was considering re-reading if I could find the first and third books and didn’t find anything more appealing that I hadn’t already read. (Of course I know Foundation is actually a septology, but at the time, only the first three books had been published. Now where was I? Oh yes… )Tucked between the pages of the book was a folded pamphlet that had obviously been used as a bookmark. I unfolded it and discovered a 1956 knitting pattern for a gorgeous cable and lace cardigan.
VOE TIP #2: There’s a reason grandmothers start young knitters out with potholders. Cables and lace are ADVANCED techniques.
Lacking ancestral input, I decided to make this cardigan. My friend’s grandmother was too senile to put her clothes on right-side-out and she knit all the time. How difficult could it be? Instead of buying books, I stole the pattern/bookmark and went next door to the handicraft store,  where I bought ten balls of pinkish-brown acrylic yarn, the most plentiful color in the sale basket,  and two needles in the size recommended by the helpful saleslady who threw in a pamphlet entitled  Beginning Knitting – A Compendium of Techniques for the New Knitter. I had enough money left over to treat myself to take-out Chinese on the way home.
As I ate my Sichuan noodles, which happened to be the same color as the yarn I’d purchased, I carefully studied the instructions for knit and purl stitches in the Compendium.  Piece of fortune cookie, I thought, and settled down on my couch with yarn and needles to create a masterpiece. The first instruction in the pattern read: Cast on 220 stitches for back, so I returned to the Compendium and studied the cast on diagrams, which turned out to be much more complex. Four hours later, I’d managed to cast on 47 stitches when the first stomach cramp hit. I moved from my couch to the bathroom and cast on the remaining 173 stitches between purges. Exhausted, but triumphant, I went to bed.
The next morning, in the cold sanity of daylight, my 220 saggy, snaggly stitches did not, in any way, resemble the tidy edge of the cardigan pictured on the front of the pamphlet. They flopped loosely over the needle like earthworms that had expired simultaneously in the middle of an orgy. Undaunted, I started again and two days later probably became the first person in recorded history to master the art of casting on before learning to how to knit. The experience, coupled in my memory with the residual effects of food poisoning from Sichuan noodles, has left me with a worm phobia that remains to this day.
Chuffed with my cast on success, I spent the next week in an insanity of determination, pulling out and re-knitting so many times the cheap yarn frayed and snapped. When arcane techniques not covered in the compendium were required, such as 6KFC (six knit forward crossover) or KTBL (knit through back of loop), I went out and bought a secondhand book on knitting techniques that cost more than the yarn and needles combined.  I celebrated every completed row with a Rocky-esque victory dance, every dropped stitch initiated an agonized howl of defeat. It was a pinkish-brown fight to the death.
On Christmas day, while my biker neighbors slashed at each other with broken beer bottles in the parking lot, I finally finished the back. Casting off the last stitch, I held up my work to admire my accomplishment. In the flashing blue and orange lights of the police cruisers and ambulances, I realized this would never be the back of a beautiful cable and lace cardigan. Aside from looking like Tyrannosaurus vomit, it was three times too big. At best, I might have passed it off as a warped, lumpy, saddle blanket for a sway-backed Clydesdale.
VOE TIP #3: Always check the gauge.
Crushed by disappointment, and not knowing anyone who owned a Clydesdale, I threw my failure in the garbage. But I’d learned a lot, and I’m not the kind of person who gives up easily. My second knitting project, a potholder, did three months sterling service before melting into a sad, pinkish-brown scab on a hot element, which the landlord made me replace. 
VOE TIP #4: Do not make potholders out of flammable materials.
Over the past thirty years, I have knit many potholders, many sweaters and blankets, socks and hats, gloves and scarves, even a couple of coats. I can cable like an Aran Islander and lace like an Estonian grandmother.
I wish knew what the hell I did with the pattern for that cardigan. I am SO ready for it.