dirty c-word...

i make a statement every once in a while that leaves me thinking, "have i gone too far this time with my curmudgeony?" (it is a word now, and no, it is not the c-word under discussion). explaining this one involves a bit of background on the joys of growing up in a Caribbean family. and, no, that is not the word either. i will be sure to let you know when we get there.

Caribbean decor sensibilities peaked at something i usually describe as "Victorian chic". regardless of where we might live in the diaspora, this one feature usually remains the same. it is a tendency toward a prim, ornate muchness that makes you feel like you have stumbled into the tea parlor of an aged spinster from a bygone era. you expect to see Miss Marple seated amidst the brocade furniture (and i do not mean the Miss Marple of more recent years, as she is practically a feminist warrior). it feels less like you have entered the comfort of a living room in someone's home, and more like you are walking through a life-size diorama in a museum of forgotten history.

added to that are the many ornate side tables, upholstered benches, and chairs adorning every non-vital bit of floor space. these objects are not for sitting or even resting something on. their sole purpose is to be admired... and to impress. as i write this, i can hear my mom disagreeing with this characterization, but i only have to remind her of some of the folks we have known over the years (including the one lady who had so many shower curtains hanging in layers at the same time, it must have taken her a few extra minutes to find her way in or out of the bath). making your way across some of these rooms can be like completing a complex maze in a side-scrolling game. you almost expect to 'level up' when you get to the other side. but—worst of all—there atop every table, chair back, and shelf you will find a crisply-starched lace doily made in the most-ornate of crochet... and that is the c-word we are going to talk about today.

i recognize that this qualifies as the most-first of first-world problems possibly ever in the entire history of humanity, but it should be stated—for the record—that i truly despise crochet. this is due to the fact that i tend to associate it with a certain aesthetic that has dominated far too many homes i have entered in my lifetime. my people seem to be seriously bothered by the sight of empty spaces, so they adorn every horizontal surface and piece of furniture with some form of elaborate crochet (or some mass-produced facsimile of the same). i think the assumption is that it adds a perceived value or beauty to the object below it, but (in my mind, at least) it has always served as a banner that screams, "do not touch anything... do not get too comfortable here". where is the "welcome" in that?

i further recognize that this all sounds completely absurd coming from me. i am knitting obsessed. i spend my leisure time reading about sheep. i am fairly certain that the Canadian wool growers association removed a bunch of breeds from their list after my repeated inquiries highlighted the fact that there were no farms in the country raising said sheep. seriously. you do not ever want to give me your mailing address, because a package will eventually show up at your door containing some sort of item knitted by me... plus some sweets (an apology of sorts for having burdened the recipient with the joy of hand-knits). who am i to criticize other people's fiber-related insanity??? yet, criticize it i will. it is not that i am condemning or even discouraging the craft of crochet... though, face it, i am. it is simply that my experience has led me to conclude that it is a thing of which i want no part. exactly.

worse than the doilies and other decorative knick-knacks are the garments made of crochet. why...??? i know that i am not the most expert of knitters, and i still have quite a way to go toward refining and perfecting my skills. [case and point: zippers in knitted garments. following one too many disappointments, i have vowed to avoid them until i figure out how to stop it from looking like a wavy piece of bacon in a frying pan.] seriously... i am no pro, and most of the stuff i produce still looks "handmade... with love". look at some of the patterns coming out of design-powerhouses like Berroco (i want this sweater from one of their latest collections), Quince & Co, or Brooklyn Tweed, and the phrase "handcrafted... with great skill" jumps to mind. the simplest of hand-knits can be super-refined when done right. by contrast, most of the crocheted clothing i have ever seen look "obviously homemade... possibly by a person who made the garment out of sheer spite". sorry, but... pretty much.

me: seriously... why do people keep crocheting clothes? it only ever looks like they're wearing macramé plant hangers on their body. 
him: it's just like knitting. how bad can it be?

i usually shake my head at him in pity at this point.

crazy part is, i actually know how to crochet, i just refuse to do so. that collection of hooks? they are mine, and there probably are a few more of them scattered around our place.

mom taught me the basics eons before i even knew what knitting was. i never actually saw her make anything, but there were always a few steel hooks and the odd ball of insanely-thin crochet thread somewhere in our home. i practiced just long enough to get the hang of the thing, then abruptly abandoned it, lest i be insulted by being asked to make doilies. to this day, i am not sure if my mom knows that i actually can crochet... and i hope to keep it that way.

so, there i was one day, browsing through some patterns on Ravelry. i had just finished a knitting project and i was trying to decide what to start next, when it occurred to me that my intense prejudice against crochet has nothing to do with the craft itself and all to do with my intense dislike for surfaces covered in useless bits of lace. maybe i just needed to find the right garment to crochet. i was having something of a love affair with cottony Summer tees, so i decided to keep things simple and search for patterns of a similar kind. i typed in "summer lace top", then totally ignored the little box next to "knitting", and checked "crochet" for the very first time. there was quite a lot of the kind of stuff i expected to find, but there were also a lot of sophisticated, refined designs and some truly impressive garments among the results. i wanted something simple—both in look and in construction—so i settled on the Amma granny square top. it is two large squares knit crocheted from the center out, then joined and finished with a few rows of stitches for tidy edges. it is the kind of pattern that you read through once, then maybe come back to it at the end to see what stitch they used for the trim... maybe. this was perfect for me. plus, i really did like the top. so i found some yarn in a season-appropriate cotton blend, and began my foray into crochet.

it was going better than just fine. i had one small hook and only one live stitch to worry about at a time. it was downright divine... for a while. then reality kicked in. as my square grew, so did my concern. gone was the lovely, squishy fabric i am used to when i knit. what i had before me was a ropey, nettish mass, the sight of which made me think of only two things: macramé... and crochet. maybe i was letting my expectations cloud my judgment? i grabbed another ball of yarn and carried on. i put down my hook somewhere near the end of ball number two, and took a hard look at what i had accomplished. then i heard the whisper of a familiar, nagging voice growing in the back of my mind. am i ever going to actually wear this thing? highly unlikely.

i was fully prepared to abandon it at that point, but i decided to seek an unbiased second opinion. i entered the studio with the fabric displayed in all its glory between my two outstretched hands, and waited to be acknowledged. it should be noted that i have been accused on several occasions of creeping him out by standing there silently. in my defense, it is usually because i went there to tell him something, and forgot what that was along the way, so i just stood there, trying my best to reverse my train of thought... then he turned around and was startled by my sudden appearance, standing there, staring blankly at a wall... or at him.  nothing creepy about that, right?

this time around, i cleared my throat to make my presence known, then said nothing. i did not want to influence his first impression by asking a potentially-leading question, so i just held out the large square of fabric and waited. this is pretty normal behavior around here, as i am always in the middle of making some thing, and always seeking an opinion from him. he gestured for me to bring it closer, then leaned forward to study the object briefly before commenting. no, exaggeration... this is exactly how it went.

him: oh... i see what you mean about crochet.
me: exactly.

i did not frog it right away, as i held on to the hope that i might change my mind, but i did grab a fresh ball of that same yarn and started working on a different top. knitted this time. it is like returning to the company of an old friend.

this decision was approved by the highest authority in our household.

she sat on the thing and immediately proceeded to fall asleep. i so absolutely love the total lack of disregard for self-awareness of cats.

this is not to suggest that i have abandoned the idea of giving crochet a try. i just need to find the right pattern that takes advantage of the technique, without producing a fabric that looks (and feels) like my dead grandfather's old fishing nets. the Crystal lace bolero has been in my favorites list for quite some time now, but i keep resisting the temptation to make it because... well... it is crochet. maybe i will make one for mom. then there are the designers like Marie Wallin, whose work just might convince me to give crochet another try. i recently fell in love with her knitwear designs (i just bought the pattern for a sweater of hers), and i realized that she also crochets. her Fountain and Lupin tops are beautiful, and the Rose sweater looks like something right out of a fairy tale (i can definitely see my mom in that last one, as that sort of thing does not fit into my 'tank top and season-appropriate pajama bottom' lifestyle). i am almost tempted to ask if she would like me to make her one, but i already know how that will go down. "oh, i didn't realize that you also crochet. i should get you to make me some doilies"... then i will probably end up being disowned.

strange though it may seem, this experience has left me with a nagging desire to crochet—of all things—doilies. crazy, i know. i want to make them in an assortment of colors and sizes (ranging from tiny coasters to large bed throws, all in unnecessarily-ornate lace), then mount them in frames and display them together on a wall for the world to see. above it i will hang a banner that reads, "please feel free to sit wherever you like and  make yourself comfortable... all are welcome here". exactly.


running with scissors...

to the casual observer, i likely appear from the outside to be in a near-catatonic state. from the inside, however, i feel like a super-hyperactive small child running around with sharp scissors... in both hands. this will not end well.

i attempted to make use of this burst of insanity by tackling a few tasks around my home. problem is, it is impossible to maintain the attention span necessary to actually get anything done when i am in this state. as a result, i started doing many things today... and finished none. sigh.

the balcony garden project continues on, despite a few setbacks that i am blaming entirely on Canada. we went from near-freezing-overnight to mini-heatwave then right back to unseasonably-cold-all-of-the-time all within a few weeks. fortunately, i happen to know the cure for unseasonably cold weather. savory cheesy muffins, anyone?

they are not fond of the yellow coloring that we love so much back in the States, so the cheddar is white, but trust me when i say there was a vulgar amount of cheese utilized in the making of these muffins. i threw in some green onions and cilantro for herby goodness, and a pinch each of ground cumin and cayenne. it is a proven fact that everything tastes better with a spicy kick.

so, while i am back to sleeping with my feet pressed up against the hot water bottle (in late June), the sugar snap peas are doing just fine. they are putting out more lovely little flowers every day.

i absolutely love pea blossoms. they are beautiful, and totally edible, as are the tender shoots of the plant! unfortunately, eating them would mean having fewer peas to harvest, and that would be an utter shame. speaking of which... do you see the tiny pod growing out of that dried up flower there on the right? that is a tiny sugar snap pea!

we had our first harvest last week.

we each got half a pea, thought i am certain he bit off more than his share.

the plants seem to be loving the weather at the moment, and they have put out quite a few tiny pods that should be ready for harvest before the end of the week. we may even have enough for a meal. okay... so it will probably be one of those posh meals where you get like three pods each, but it will be the three tastiest pea pods in the entire history of humanity.

as this little adventure is entirely for entertainment purposes, i have zero delusions of self-sufficiency from the proceeds of a few plants. still, it is nice to pick something every once in a while that becomes part of your next meal. so far, it has mostly been sprigs of lemon balm in iced tea...

or in a glass of water complete with lemon wedge and fresh blackberries. yes, i have too much time on my hands.

there was also the the odd violet blossom atop a fruit salad.

and, yes... i ate it. the flower tasted like nothing, but that was one seriously yummy piece of pineapple.

i am not sure if the flower is was a violet, viola, or pansy, not that it really matters at this point, as the plant is near death after the latest spell of cold. gone too are the multicultural basils, and i doubt the nasturtiums will make it through the night. part of the adventure of growing things is that you never know what to expect, so i usually approach it with zero expectations, then treat anything that actually grows as an awesome surprise. how ever did that swiss chard get there? i have no idea, but it just might be part of tomorrow's meal.

the hyperactive small child inside my head is screaming that this may be the perfect time to organize all the things. i am going to have a glass of wine and try to drown him/her out... literally. i took a ton of photos in the recent weeks, so there will likely be a few more posts in the coming days. that is, unless i am busy rearranging all the furniture or sorting all of my yarn by the number of meters in each skein. yep... definitely time to silence that voice on the inside.

oh, and i got new reading glasses. purple this time. i approve.


the eagle has landed...

Spring is lovely, Autumn is divine, and i certainly own enough warm layers to feel cozy for a quick trip out on the briskest of Winter night. it should, however, be stated for the record that i absolutely, unequivocally loathe the summertime.

with the single exception of it being the  perfect season for gardening, there is nothing to like about Summer. it is hot, muggy, and soul-draining most of the time, and the air is constantly filled with the happy sounds of dogs and children reveling in joy. i hate the happy sounds of dogs and children reveling in joy. yes... i may have been Grouchy Smurf in a former lifetime.

seriously though, it was so cold just a week ago that we had to cover up the tomato plants overnight. now we are at the point where they issue warnings to keep pets, old people, and small children inside. seriously...? according to the forecast, we are expecting a high today of 32°C (90°F)... feeling like 41°C (106°F)! seriously...???

as if the hot, humid, sunny weather were not enough to ruin my otherwise cheery disposition, this also happens to be the time of year when i was born. there are some people who regard their birthday with the same reverence as the most sacred of holidays (cough cough... mom). needless to say, i am not one of them. the single exciting part of a birthday at this point in my life is that it is a guilt-free excuse to eat cake.

my favorite animator announced a couple weeks earlier that he had ordered a cake for my birthday. we are never that organized about anything, so that in itself was quite the surprise. he was taking a quick showering before heading out to get said cake, when the phone rang.

me: hello...?
voice: [momentary pause followed by a panic-laced] hello... uhm... can i... uhm... speak to ---?
me: he can't come to the phone right now. can i take a message, or would you like for him to call you back in a few minutes?
voice: [even longer pause] uhm... just... err.... tell him... that...uhm... tell him that his order is ready. 

there was a tone of extreme satisfaction when he said that last bit, like he had accomplished some great feat in getting the words out. i thought nothing of it at the moment, but when the call was done, i looked again at the name on the display and realized that it was the bakery... and that this poor creature probably thought the cake was meant to be a surprise. my favorite animator popped his head out of the bathroom at just this point to ask who it was on the phone.

me: it's the bakery. the eagle has landed.

he returned home a short while later with the cake in hand.

me: did you explain to the guy that it was not meant to be a surprise and that he didn't give anything away with his call?
him: are you kidding me? he was still talking about it when i got there. he was so proud of himself for outsmarting you, i didn't have the heart to tell him that you knew all along.

then we both had a good laugh before opening the box to admire said cake. it was the lemon-strawberry cake from the local Polish bakery. trust me when i say that Grouchy Smurf on his grouchiest day would love the lemon-strawberry cake from the local Polish bakery.

[and, yes... i believe in the fundamental right to privacy for cakes of all types.]

this cake consists of a barely-sweet, lemony mousse sandwiched between thin layers of the pillowiest sponge cake ever created, and a lovely strawberry gel that tastes like all those wonderful things other people say about the summertime. i am not a fan of custardy things, but this one is less like the eggy custards that i usually avoid, and more like a tart, refreshing Greek yogurt that tastes like happiness and sunshine. we tried a slice a few weeks earlier, and i fell in love at first bite, so it was a perfect choice for the day.

i ordered some cotton yarn about a week earlier, and it showed up that very day. it was not intended as a birthday gift for self (as i do not usually need an excuse to justify the purchase of even more yarn), but it did kinda make me smile just a bit harder when it arrived. i may have even clapped my hands a few times and uttered something that sounded like the noises dolphins make when they are happy, but i will deny all of that in a courtroom. it is a cotton-acrylic blend in two shades of blue and a silvery-grey that is so light, it may as well be white. i have enough to make two or possibly three items that i will actually be able to enjoy wearing. that part definitely makes me smile.

i took a super-long shower, then grabbed a cushion and sat cross-legged on the balcony in between the pots of veggies (that is only half of it) to soak up a bit of sun while my hair dried.

it was the perfect setting for knitting up a swatch while pondering what i might make with my new yarn.

i was joined at some point by an extra-fluffy cat, though she was (mostly) there to eat grass. watching that cute little pink tongue lick the edge of the bowl could melt the heart of even the grouchiest of misanthropes.

i sat there, daydreaming happily for a couple hours or more until the sun had disappeared behind the line of trees to the west, before picking up the cushion i was sitting on and going back inside. i challenge anyone to find a more perfect way to spend a birthday.


now with extra baby-duck magic...

i entered the living room a short while ago, only to find a scene that set off all the alarm bells. my favorite animator was stretched out on the chesterfield with my little brown blanket pulled up over his head. there beside him were the two cats. everybody was fast asleep. on the other side of the wall of glass, just beyond this blissful slice of domesticity, two squirrels were investigating the balcony filled with plants... my plants... my very-recently planted plants. everybody was in trouble!

having got this year's garden off to a decent start, it is time to turn my attention to discouraging unwanted guests (of the non-human kind... although human visitors are equally discouraged at all times). i prefer to stick to bio-friendly deterrents (especially when growing edible things), so i gathered a few items from the kitchen (the tea was for drinking)...

then returned with a couple more things from the cupboard under the sink, and i was ready to whip up a batch of my favorite pest-be-gone spray.

i use the same approach when fighting common garden bugs, but the object of this current exercise is to discourage pests of the furry kind. think of it as a do-it-yourself preemptive chemical warfare... with common household ingredients. the key to this approach is twofold: 1) use oil-based natural irritants, and 2) suspend them in water through the magic of soap. my go-to irritants are garlic and hot peppers (peppermint is also a good choice, but i have none on hand), and i use regular dish soap for the 'magic'. i am reusing a spray bottle (this one contained some sort of tub/shower cleaning product, if you really need all the details) which i rinsed thoroughly and filled most of the way with tap water.

note that the garlic cloves have been smashed (which the culinary world reminds us is the best way to release the natural oils in garlic), and i used a sharp knife to cut a long slit through the middle of each pepper to allow for better contact between the liquid medium and the oil-bearing innards of the pepper. basically, i try to avoid small bits that will clog the sprayer. chili oil or even a prepared hot sauce (the hotter, the better) can be used in place of the fresh chilies, but i like the touch of old-school alchemy that comes with starting from scratch.

my soap of choice is Dawn detergent in the original scent. we usually refer to it around here as the baby-duck scent, as that is the stuff they use to clean the ducks (and other animals) who have made the poor life choice of swimming just where we humans decide to spill crude oil. there is usually a picture of a baby duck on the label (hence the nickname). this particular one is the three-times-stronger Ultra Dawn formula... with, one presumes, three-times the baby-duck magic! [disclaimer: i am not suggesting that the people at Dawn use baby ducks in the making of this product. however, should that prove to be the case, please direct all the angry comments at them, not me.]

the rest is quite simple. add the garlic and peppers to the bottle...

then add in a generous squirt of dish detergent (i did not measure, but i used about a teaspoon or so of soap for a standard-size spray bottle).

seal the bottle tightly before inverting a few times to distribute the soap... then just wait.

i offer one word of extreme caution when using a spray that contains hot peppers... remember that it contains hot peppers!!! it becomes dangerously potent the longer it sits. i do not use this stuff when it is windy outside, and i always take the precaution of spraying it away from my person, and keeping the cats indoors until it has had a chance to dry on the leaves of the plants. in addition to facilitating the mixture of the oils with the water, the soap will help to create a slightly sticky film that bonds them to the surface of the plants, but it washes away with water. this means that i have to do a respray whenever it rains (or if i use some sort of sprayer to water the plants). i also make a point of washing my hands thoroughly (with extra soap) after handling the plants, because there are few things in life as unpleasant as the combo of garlic, soap, and chili in the eye. ask me how i know!

i do not use this spray indoors, for obvious reasons, but it is a simple, effective method for discouraging bugs (and the larger pests) away from the outdoor plants. sprayed on already-buggy plants, it acts as an irritant that can penetrate past the protective outer covering of some bugs and their eggs. i would put on a lab coat and launch into a discourse on polarity in soap molecules and their ability to denature cellular membranes... but no one needs to be exposed to such a thing. just trust me when i say that it works! as for the squirrels... a few nibbles of peppery leaves tends to discourage them from turning your garden into an all-you-can destroy salad bar. not gonna lie, i find a special (twisted) joy in that part.

it is Sunday morning, and i am sitting here enjoying my first cup of coffee and scowling over the latest news, when i am distracted by a sudden burst of activity outside. the rustling in the maple canopy tells me that there is a squirrel headed this way. the pet-deterrent formula has been sitting for just one day. is it too soon to put it to the test? i put down my cup and move quickly toward the door, grabbing the spray bottle along the way. i give it a few vigorous shakes and a quick pull at the trigger to make sure it works, then i go to work spraying the three troughs of greenery (the only things that were not encased in their own metal cages). satisfied at the light mist that has settled across the leaves, i return to my coffee and my comfy sofa... and i wait.

it takes about ten minutes before there is a springboard-like action in the nearest cluster of leaves, and a squirrel pops into view atop the railing. this is the point where i usually make my presence known to deter any further advancement into my domain. instead, i take a sip of lukewarm coffee and continue to wait. (s)he moves cautiously at first, climbing onto the nearest metal cage and continuing along the line of impregnable steel (they work!) before spotting the troughs of green on the ground. this is the real test. i sit perfectly still, lest i startle the intruder by shifting my position to get a better view. it takes less than a minute before a quick blur of grey fur goes rushing off in the direction from which it came and launches back into the canopy of the maple tree. think i will celebrate with a second cup of coffee.


the art of joyless gardening (a book by me)...

who knew that dragging a corpse-weight worth of compost up four flights of stairs would result in so much pain... who knew! we spent most of Sunday working on this year's Balcony Garden Project, and i seem to have hurt my everything! it is Wednesday, and the muscles at the back of my thighs still scream in protest every time i try to squat or walk or stand. standing is overrated.

with the compost safely inside, we caught our collective breath and sucked down fluid in large quantities (not gonna lie... i started out drinking water, and ended up drinking wine), then it was time for the real fun to begin. i spent the rest of the afternoon dragging large planters from one spot to another, mixing compost into the ones that were already filled, filling up a few more empty ones, and changing my mind about a hundred times as to what should be planted in each one. meanwhile, my favorite animator (who luckily does not share my aversion to high places) dismantled the screen on the balcony railing, replacing it with a thin wire mesh that should serve the dual purpose of keeping the cats in and the squirrels out. that last bit is wishful thinking, as the squirrels adamantly refuse to recognize any man-made boundaries, but we figure we would give it a try.

with so little space for growing things, extra precautions have to be taken to protect our precious seedlings, so we (mainly he) constructed cages to cover the planters. they will remain in place until the plants are large/strong enough that a single chomp from a furry intruder will not mean the death of the whole thing. it looks a bit bonkers right now, but it would be heartbreaking to have done all that work, then to wake up the next day and find it all destroyed. i would probably be slightly less insane with a conventional backyard garden where you can afford to lose one or two plants, but when your whole setup consists of twenty-something plants dangling precariously several stories above street level, there is no such thing as being too cautious. still, i cannot wait until the cages come off.

me: look at it.
him: yeah...?
me: it's kinda sad.
him: what's wrong with it?
me: it looks like a vegetable garden... in a prison yard. this was supposed to be my joyful activity. there is no joy.
him: that could be a thing. you should write a book about it. The Art of Joyless Gardening, by N Ayisha M---. 

so, for the next few weeks, i will be staring at a whole lot of this.

it is like modern art... with future-food inside!

while we were out shopping for compost, i kept walking past a display of plastic strawberry pots filled with assorted herbs, and i made the mistake of petting some lemon balm, which only served to remind me that i really like lemon balm. i have never actually cooked with it, but the stuff is a-ma-zing in pitchers of iced tea and lemonade. it is also quite lovely in boozy summery drinks, especially the ones made with vodka and/or gin. naturally, i had to find a lemon balm plant. two-and-a-half employees later, and it turned out they were sold out except for the ones crammed into those strawberry pot arrangements, so i bought a plastic strawberry pot just so i could get the lemon balm. i removed it from said container and replanted it in a bigger pot so that it will have more room to grow and spread, because you can never have too much lemon balm. i also repotted the curly parsley that was planted on the other side, so now i am left with a plastic strawberry pot with two empty slots. there is a joke in there somewhere.

we did manage to make one mildly-thrilling discovery while working on our tiny garden. about a month or so ago, i sprinkled seeds for beets and sugar-snap peas into a couple of the containers, so i decided to top them off with some compost to give the plants a bit of a boost. he was removing the cage of joylessness from the sugar-snaps when he paused and told me to come have a look. do you see it?

my insect identification is worse than my bird identification, but i am fairly certain that this is a Lettered sphinx moth (Deidamia inscriptum). the larvae feed primarily on grape plants, and there is a massive hedge of wild grapes that runs along the railroad track at the bottom of our street. the vines continue on for a mile (or more) along the tall fence that separates the tracks from the public roadway, so this area would be ideal for Lettered sphinxes looking to lay their eggs. i usually panic at the appearance of even a single moth (especially the ones that look like they are in search of a wooly meal), but this one can stay as long as (s)he likes. welcome, new friend. welcome.

the combo of black, greys, and browns with the splash of bright green in the background calls to me. i may have to pull out my dye pot and translate this image into a color scheme for some yarn.

for now, i am going to finish my coffee and stare out the window for a while. if i look hard enough, i may just find some joy.