Category Archives: Knitting

A Washington Irving Award, Thank You

Back to Cabinworld after an afternoon at the Washington Irving Awards, presented at a local Hilton.

Compared with hotel air, the azaleas, violets and weeds seem to bloom a bit more riotously.


The smell of rain in the air. The first angry-sounding, toothpick-billed hummingbird of the year dive-bombed me near the feeder with its red sugar-water.

My weathered old three-legged stool (note pegs that join the top, no nails) is ready for duty as a summer-porch-time computer stand.


At the conference to get one of the awards, I spent time with librarians (hundreds, representing the Westchester Library Association) and authors (20 or so, all Westchester residents). Funny, sometimes, inspiring, always. I saw some friends, nonfiction, fiction and librarian. I always feel a little sleepy after a rubber-chicken luncheon, but I pepped up for the remarks of keynote speaker Barbara Stripling, current head of the American Library Association.


Barbara’s remarks, passed along with both bubbly mannerisms and erudition, talked among other things about finding a “gorgeous balance” between digital and paper resources. She spoke about libraries changing lives. But first she told a story about when she was in college, craving an A on a paper and seeing only a lot of plus signs in the margins. She stuck up her hand and demanded to know the meaning of the notations. Those were actually t’s, she was told – they stood for trite.


Does the use of primary sources encourage empathy? That’s the question she asked in her Ph.d. studies, going into high school classrooms that were studying slave narratives. It’s a fascinating line of inquiry.


It’s hard for people to use primaries, she found, without some sort of context. I get that, I suppose. Although as a historian I generally find the original sources when they are embedded in some author’s history to be the most exciting part of the work. They themselves give the context. That’s where you find the BITADs, the bite in the ass details that really give the flavor of a time or place or person.

I liked another story Barbara told, too, about a knitting club that refused to be shut into one of the back rooms at a public library for  their weekly stitch n’ bitch, but instead colonized a  table in the center of the building. Well, a technology club soon discovered the knitters and found what they were doing interesting, and the two groups ended up knit-bombing the library – the mouse, the circulation desk, etc.

knit tech

Everything covered in knit and purl by tech geeks and old ladies.

A library “provides the thinking spaces for civilization,” said Jaron Lanier – he’s the computer geek who popularized the term virtual reality.


He has a new book just out, Who Owns the Future? Certainly worth a look.

The feeling that you are just another mouth in a chorus of songsters is a welcome one when you spend a lot of your time on your own at your desk. That is what I brought home from talking to my fellow writers and hearing them deliver brief remarks at the podium. Being one of the crowd, one of a club.

Allison Gilbert won a Washington Irving Award for her book Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children. Allison lost her own parents at a tender age, but the book is much more than a memoir or advice manual.


It’s not her first book on the subject, and support groups of parentless parents have sprung up around the country to deal with the difficult subject. Allison announced some news, that some these groups have banded together to make a trip to Peru to help orphans there.

It gave me goosebumps to hear about another project she’s got lined up, because the excitement in her demeanor was just so visceral. There’s a real life journalist she wants to write about who went from panning for gold in the early 1900s to penning regular columns for Hearst in one dramatic lifetime. Apparently this person was a rabblerouser, a women’s rights advocate and is now – but perhaps not forever – all but forgotten. What a great topic, a great kernel of history to unearth.

Writers were honored today from all over the literary map.

My colleague Karen Engelmann was there for her novel The Stockholm Octavo, a magical work set in 18th century Sweden. Delicious, witty and swooping are some of the buzzwords used around her book.

jean and karen

Doesn’t everyone look happy today? If a bit blurry? Karen’s next novel is well underway, and she promises to jump forward a few centuries and incorporate greeting cards rather than fortune-telling into the mix.

I stood up to say a few words about The Orphanmaster. How The Orphanmaster is a love story wrapped around a murder mystery that takes place in a tiny settlement in the middle of a vast wilderness. And about libraries. That over the years I’ve not only dug into books and mususcripts, taken thousands of pages of notes and written many chapters in libraries, but eaten and drank within their hallowed halls. My hometown library growing up, in Hastings-on-Hudson, where I read Tristram Shandy for the first time:

hastings library

I’ve also taken some great naps, with fantastic dreams.

Some of what I was saying felt as if it were in the rearview – I’m working on the Savage Girl copyedit, and just took a first peek at the proposed cover for the novel. The art is beautiful and chilling and only needs a little fine tuning to make it perfect. I am obsessed with Savage Girl at the moment, though I have to wait until January 2014 for the book to be published.

Still, The Orphanmaster has just come out in paperback, well in time for another season of beach reading. And to be given an award for The Orphanmaster by librarians, for librarians to appreciate it, was a very special thrill.

Without librarians, said Maggie Barbieri, one of the fiction writers getting an award, we’re “a bunch of noisy trees echoing in an empty forest.”


Filed under Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Water, Dirty and Clean

Today’s is a two–part post, all about water.


Number One: Man puts junk in water.

No man is an island. But out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, man has created an island. An island of trash.

I heard of this phenomenon some time ago, and I found my mind circling back to it occasionally. It sounded farfetched, incredible, too disgusting to be true. But I finally decided to learn what was what.

It’s easy to put something out of your mind that takes place a thousand miles off the coast of California, in the middle of a stretch of sea that is an oceanic desert of sorts, filled mainly with plankton. Fishermen or recreational sailors rarely come through the central North Pacific Ocean. Currents there rotate in a ceaseless gyre.

That is where you find the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is technically known. Enormous gross plastic sludge, to the less scientific-minded.

North Pacific Gyre

It’s a floating mass of plastics, chemicals, and astronomical numbers of disintegrated  grocery bags – the largest landfill in the world. The mess has been trapped in the pervasive currents, which pull garbage into their vortex from households far away.

The size of the Patch has been put at twice the area of Texas. Yes, that’s what I said.

San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography found recently that plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch had increased by 100 times the amount of what was found in the region 40 years ago.

In 1997, a sailor named Charles Moore was returning home from a race when he came upon a stretch of debris of monstrous dimensions, most of it suspended below the surface, in a configuration that’s been called “confetti-like”.


It’s been estimated that 80 percent of the stuff comes from North America and Japan, while another 20 comes from cruise ships – your typical 3,000-passenger cruise ship dumps up to eight tons of solid waste weekly. But fishing nets find their way into the gyre too. Turning and turning in the widening gyre, wrote Yeats in his apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming.”

One hundred million tons of trash. That’s what it is. Broken down into small-enough pieces to be ingested by marine critters like the sea turtle and the black-footed albatross, when the current brings garbage from the gyre to the Midway Atoll.


Captain Moore, who can be heard giving a TED talk, now heads a foundation to clean up all the plastic.

Moore w plastic tray

In America, we use two million plastic beverage bottles every five minutes – but what’s worse than bottles is bottle caps. That’s what albatross moms feed their chicks, thinking they’re food.

Part Two: Man cleans up water.

Or rather woman cleans up water. Young genius woman. With the help of oysters. In New York City.

Isn’t this great: a landscape architect named Kate Orff had an idea that respects history and the environment all at once.


Under the auspices of a project called Oyster-texture, she and her team at Scape/Landscape Architecture P.L.L.C. are attempting to reinstall oyster archipelagos in Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, currently a toxic Superfund site. It’s an effort to blend urbanism and ecology in a new and exciting way, on a working pier, in the middle of the polluted harbor.

Up until 100 years ago, the palm-size bivalves were a mainstay of New York’s gastronomy, its economy, and, it turns out, its ecology.

Fulton Market, 1870

You’d get oysters from a street peddlar the way you get a hot dog now.

oyster houses-bowery boys

Oysters were so healthy, back when New Amsterdam was first settled, they could be found as big as a dinner plate. Manhattan’s indians consumed them in such quantitites, you’d find huge middens of shells all over the island. The Gowanus Creek in particular was a harvesting place for the succulent shellfish – they were so good, they were harvested by the Dutch and shipped back to Europe.

Then, of course, the waterways surrounding New York got dirty. In 1927 the last oyster bed  closed. As Thomas Wolfe wrote  in You Can’t Go Home Again, in 1940, “It is the old Gowanus Canal, and that aroma you speak of is nothing but the huge symphonic stink of it, cunningly compacted of unnumbered separate putrefactions.”

Oysters died off. No more local oysters at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, one of my favorite haunts. Oyster reefs used to cover a quarter of New York harbor. Now, none of it.

ships in gowanus bay-1867-Brooklyn Public Library

But the thing about that was – and this is where Kate Orff comes in – it was the oysters themselves in large part that were cleaning the water! So the thing to do, as she sees it, is reinstall them, carefully, so they’ll survive and build reefs. (The babies are called spats.) The oyster has a natural, what Orff calls a “beautiful, glamorous set of stomach organs” that take in algae and contaminants on one end and filter out clean water. She wants to “harness the biological power of the creatures that live in the harbor and the people who live in the city to make change now.”


She decided to use a cheap marine mainstay she refers to as “fuzzy rope” and build nets for the shellfish to cling to. (They brought knitters in to weave prototypes in the studio rather than drawing them.) Ultimately the reefs will serve as storm surge protectors and habitat for sea birds.


Orff has big plans. She did a project for the Museum of Modern Art that laid out what could happen in Brooklyn if the oysters took hold. Ultimately there would be a floating raft with oyster nurseries below and recreational opportunities above. You can hear all about it in, yes, her TED lecture .

Clean water, local oyster slurping (far from now, probably).

the love of oysters

Scuba diving. A watery jog-park. But, mainly, clean water.


Filed under Cooking, History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Nature

Turning It Around

I  can’t believe it, I said to Gil. I cannot believe I’m 55 years old and don’t know the proper time to plant a sunflower seed.

Well, he said, it’s no big deal. I’m 59 years old and I don’t know either.

It got me to thinking, how many new things, simple things, nothing earthshaking, come into my life every day, even at my advanced age.

It’s a question of noticing.

Today I prowled around the boonies upstate, in Dutchess County, with my brother Peter – these photos include his — seeing some small things I hadn’t seen before.


We spent most of our time in Tivoli, a tiny village near the Hudson River that dates back to 1872 but avoids all dustiness, with its free-thinking, artistic, intellectual inhabitants.  Nearby Bard College sends over a constant scruffy stream of  students, not to mention professors.

Pete introduced me to a monument in the cemetery of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tivoli, where the stones seem dominated by the Hudson  Valley families DePeyster and Livingston.


An exquisite stone carving to represent the soul of a remarkable woman, Estelle Elizabeth de Peyster Toler, who was born in 1844 in Red Hook and died 45 years later in Manhattan. Descended from the cream of New York society — De Lanceys, Van Cortlandts and Coldens — she was known for her piety and philanthropy. Her husband died the day after her death of a broken heart. Estelle’s marker reads, from the Proverbs, “A perfect example in life of the ideal virtuous woman.”


But I found the inscription on the base of the praying girl more moving.

sister baby

With its sweet embellishments of lichen and moss: SISTER–BABY.

Another grave, more modest, this one in a field of grass off a country highway.


Was this Molly also a virtuous woman? A virtuous pet? It’s an odd place for a burial but oddly peaceful.

Coffee break.

I’ve had plenty of fancy cappuccinos, like this one at Tivoli’s Murray’s café, designed by stylish barrista Michelle.


Pretty good, she said under her breath, checking her work, deadpan. Not the best I’ve done.

But I’ve never before had borscht made with garbanzos rather than beef to complement its beet chunks. Topped with a spoonful of organic sour cream, it was scrumptious.

And before today I never had a perfectly-designed, shot-silk carryall for knitting needles such as I brought home from  the yarn shop on the tiny stretch of Broadway that is the heart of Tivoli. Fabulous Yarn offers luscious skeins (“fibers for fanatics”).


And whimsical taste. Under one cheery roof.

yarn store

Down the street, a tavern called the Black Swan, currently under repair.

black sway

Attitude will remain unchanged.

all our visitors

Before today, I had never laid eyes on the brick-and-stone construct of architectural genius that is the historic Stone Jug House in Clermont, housing families since 1752. Local stone, I knew. Weathered brick, sure. Together, gorgeous.


I looked around today for something I’d seen a hundred times, but always loved: a painted turtle. But the large one Peter knew of refused to show his face at the pond, the weather being cloudy. Still, there was something to see, an exploded cattail.


Like cotton wool laced with cornmeal. It was something I’d never touched before.

cattail cu

Sometimes if you simply turn something around, it’s totally new.




Filed under Art, Cooking, History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Nature, Photography

Pruning Links

Damn. My cup runneth over with links. My computer wouldn’t let me save another bookmark, it was so stopped up, so I had to prune. Throw out and organize. Floss. Figure out what I really needed to save, what I might need – need being a relative term – and what could be relegated to the virtual trash heap. So I’d have room for new, extra important links!

It was enlightening, actually. In embarking on this task, I found that there were three big categories that had held special importance for me in the past few years.

One was wonderful me and my wonderful work . My log cabin got its due . Even a movie (just a glimmer, but a Hollywood glimmer) had found its way into my bookmark file.

When I was a middle schooler making covers for my little hand-crafted books by binding pages into cardboard and calico with ironed wax paper, I think I would have been amazed that some day someone in the world would be interested in what I had to say. I still remember the smell of the hot wax paper as it was pressed, and the excitement that Miss Henny Penny’s Travels was going to be “published.”

young Jean

Edith Wharton tells a story in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, about going in to a book store in London when her first book, The Greater Inclination, came out in 1899 and asking the manager innocently if there was any new and interesting book she could look at. “In reply Mr. Bain handed me my own little volume, with the remark: ‘This is what everybody in London is talking about just now.’” He had no ideas who he was talking to.

Then, second, I have the category of Gertrude and Sylvia  and Simone   and the rest of the ladies who launch. And more of Stein.


I couldn’t believe how many iterations I had of critiques, praise, profiles, pictures of the women who inspired me over the years and still fascinate me.

The third whopper of a group: scarves. Knit patterns for scarves. Especially circle scarves. Yes, cooking and knitting do take up some of my time, I admit it, unintellectual as that might make me. I’m itching to make Paula Deen’s gooey butter cake. But the scarves have it. I made seven this winter. Plus a sock.


Then there is everything else. Before they go into the Older Bookmarks file, I’ll highlight a few that have grabbed my interest along the way. A self audit, as it were. And a little gift to anyone looking for something new to chew up their time.

I obviously made a serious trip into Victorian America in recent months. Many times over DanceDressGetting aroundMansions, mansions, mansions. Does my time machine have an exit onto Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in the 1870s? You bet.

James Tissot 1836-1902 - French Plein Air painter - Tutt'Art@ (8) copy

Even (or especially?) Victorian headless portraits interest me. So much of this nineteenth century arcana found its way into Savage Girl, my new novel that will be published in early 2014, which officially made it work, but it still felt like a guilty pleasure.

More research, this time for The Orphanmaster, unearthed this incredibly absorbing digital redraft of the Castello Plan. You can hover over the first street plan of New York, a drawn-to-scale view of seventeenth century New Amsterdam, and investigate what it was actually like.

I had the idea at one point that we should explore Oliver’s genetic background and see what part of him was actually pit and which part was hound. So I looked into DNA testing for dogs.


I wondered what you’d see if you opened the refrigerator door in Bangkok or Jerusalem. I found out at Fridgewatcher.

I always find it useful to keep a library on file in case my disheveled bookshelves won’t yield it up. And so, here they are, minding their own business, various books in their entirety, like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, one of my favorites,  and the Diary of Samuel Pepys. And it’s always good to be able to access an exhibit based on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.


Gil and I ventured to Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. For a while afterward we didn’t get our cholesterol levels checked. The menu  includes such delicacies as Tarragon Bison Tongue and Foie Gras Poutine (foie gras is their speciality, along with everything pig-related), all of it drenched in butter. It was here that I had the famous “duck in a can,” consisting of a duck breast, a lobe of foie gras, half a head of garlic and some kind of spectacular gravy packed into a metal can, like a soup can, and boiled.

duck in a can

Afterwards, when you’ve been sitting at your table for a while marveling at the number of trendy people there are in Montreal, the waiter opens the can at the table and dumps the whole stew onto your plate. Fabulous.

If you like menus as much as I do, you’ll go to The New York Public Library’s historic menu collection.

American House

Something I don’t want to file too far way is The Top Ten Relationship Words That Aren’t Translatable into English, assembled by a serious linguist, and including such gems as Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese): The act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair.

Probably the most delightful site I’m back-burnering. For now. Or, on the other hand, I think I’ll leave it out for a while in case I want to take it with me as a reference when I next tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Nipples at the Met(“updated regularly”).


All links welcome; leave them in a comment.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Dogs, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Poetry, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writing

Ghosts of Garments Past

I visited my parents in the  desert. My mother shared her wisdom on various things.

The efflorescing flora all around.

Mexican Golden Poppies

Family history, seen through a series of silver demitasse spoons.

silver spoon

They belonged to Lockie Hilllis Coats, my great grandmother, shown here in 1894.


The personalities of various seniors my mother lives with, who mingle and gossip like kids in a college dorm. She and my father have a charmed life at their retirement community. Though that sounds like almost too technical a name for a place with stretching gardens, a comfortable, well-thumbed library and big open doors onto a sun-flooded patio. They adore it.


I began to miss them even before I stepped on the plane back.

My mother shared something else with me. Her collection of hand-knitted sweaters. Some are the cherished work of matriarchs on both sides of my family. Each branch seems to have had a gene for needlework, or perhaps it was just in the water of their generation. To an avid novice knitter like me they gave great inspiration.

sweater 1

My great aunt, known to me as Auntie, produced a color blast of a harlequin-patterned cardigan for my mother. Auntie became a renowned home ec teacher in rural Tennessee and was the kind of adept who could knit and purl in a pitch-black movie theater without dropping a stitch. Tatting was her main thing, and carefully put away in storage I have the openwork pieces she wrought – in the dozens, if not hundreds.


For the triangle-themed sweater my mother laid out on her bed, Auntie took a different approach.

auntie's sweater

There was not only this one, it seems, but identical garments for two other women, my mother’s sister Sandra and her mother Virginia. Were they intended to wear them all at once? My mother pronounced the pattern gaudy if beautiful. Good for the circus, not for her.

On the other side of the family, the delicate crochet-work stole of my Aunt Gus, my grandfather’s sister, posed prettily here with Jack.

Gus and Jack

Yellowed now but preserved in one of my mother’s sensible moth-guarding plastic bags.

sweater 6 cu

And a knitted short-sleeved sweater decorated with appliqued circles like suns and tiny pearls. Perfect size and retro styling for Maud, who has it now at school.

gus sweater

Then, moving away from family, came the popcorn sweater from New Zealand.

popcorn 2

Each wool bubble intricately worked out of the body of the sweater.

popcorn 1

Also from New Zealand, this blue and brown beauty.

sweater 4

And a lacy pink number with ballooning sleeves that has appeared at various special occasions.

sweater 5 cu

Pink, also, but kind of crazy, the zig zags hailing from Holland, where my mother tells me she saw all the women sit out on their stoeps and ply their needles.

sweater 3

A loden from Germany with the kind of cables I long to make.

sweater 8

And the oldest one, from Italy, darkest blue and fuzzy yet almost scratchy.

sweater 7

Touching the handiwork of women from around the world, created so many years ago, is a rich experience, shared in a bedroom in the desert.

Then my mother brought out a wrap, teal ribs, with not-well-hidden knots where the yarn was joined. Amateur hour.

You made this for me, she said. In college or maybe in high school.

teal stole

Big question mark. I’ve only just learned to knit, in my 50s, I’m as sure of that as I am of anything in the world. When I was that young the notion of wielding pointy sticks was unfathomable. I was also too silly and distracted to sit still to knit.

Jean-High School

But my mother insisted. You did this, she said. You.

So was this actually knit? Was it crochet? Which I did have the patience for back then. Or woven out from some other material, or done in some secret life I have no memory of, or something that my mother in her wisdom invented? Or imagined?

It is teal, it is made by hand, and she has worn it many times. That’s what matters.


Filed under Fashion, History, Home, Knitting

Why I Knit

What about me? she said. My oldest friend, Josefa. She was eyeing the slubby cowl I made for my sister-in-law.

Okay, I said. How about pink?

And so I was off. Seed stitch, ribbon-yarn, simple cast on with 15 stitches.

ribbon yarn copy

My friends are not knitters. It may be hard for some of them to comprehend why I have become enraptured with sticks and wool.

This, then, is why I knit.

1. Because I can ply my needles on the couch with my dog snoozing beside me.

2. Because I’m bad at it. Fumbling with needles is humbling. Every dropped stitch, every extraneous loop is a lesson in how much I have to learn, how far I have to go. You can’t be cocky when you’re ripping out a row.

3. Because it gives me goals. Long term: some day I will use a cabling needle. Make a sweater. Upholster a chair. Sit at the back table in the knitting store with the people who really know their craft, the ones bringing into being elaborate mohair sleeves. Follow a pattern off of the wonderful German knitting site Grasflecken. Or, short-term – make it to the end of this skein this evening, before bedtime. Get three lap throws done by Christmas for presents. Wind a multicolored ball using this straight-backed chair.

4. Because I have absolute authority over colors, yarn weight and texture. Slinky, silky, chunky, nubbly. The hues of daybreak or deepest shadows. The coarse, undyed wool scarf made for my brother came from a Jacob sheep and was 12 feet long. Decisions I alone made (and my brother has to live with).

5. Because gifts materialize with my love woven into them. See above, 12 feet of scarf. Someone might not like the thing you knit for them, but they always recognize the sentiment.

pink scarf close up

6. Because it connects me with history. Men knitted stockings in Renaissance England. In the Scottish Isles, turn of the twentieth century, housewives knitted as they walked. With bundles on their backs! I’m part of an honored lineage.

7. Because it gives me something to do.

8. Because it’s so unlike writing. No paper, no ink, no computer screen, no books flopped open for reference. No stagefright, no verbal errors to erase. Instead, pliable, vibrant yarn, plush in your hands, fuzzy with promise.

9. Because it’s so much like writing. Building nub upon nub of fiber, row after row after row, is the closest thing to building sentences word by word. You make mistakes. You rip them out. You choose color, texture. It’s about you and not about you. If you keep at it long enough, you get a blanket, the same as keeping at the written word gets you a book. At the end, you look at your product and say, did I do that? And smile: you did.

10. Because I can. Now. I always wanted to knit. I never thought I could learn. I believed my fingers were too inept, my hands too shaky. I had already turned 50 when I tried in earnest, asking for help – which wasn’t easy – from my nephew’s girlfriend Paula, and making swaths of nothing identifiable, with huge bulges and ladders. I’m not gonna pick up waterskiing now, at this time of my life, but I can pick up a pair of needles and land on my feet. Even make a pair of socks for those feet. Well, nearly.

This one’s for you, Josefa. Wear it with your pink pants, if you insist.

pink scarf over door


Filed under Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Writing

A Tune Up

I thought I’d spend the midday concert with my knitting. I’ve always thought that being able to knit and do something at the same time was the coolest thing in the world. My great aunt, a knitter par excellence, took her work with her into the darkened movie theater. I’ve always had a burning envy of that.

But today it was not to be, and that was probably a good thing. The ribbon I’m employing to knit is too slippery and the library’s basement theater was too shadowy to allow me to handle it properly.

So I listened. I paid attention. I dreamed.

The first thing I noticed was the fiddle, color blocked, as the fashionistas would have it, in glossy black and honey-colored wood. I’ve never seen such a beaut of a violin. It belonged to Harry Bolick, “fiddle player and tunesmith,” as he styles himself.

Harry Bolick

Then came the tunes, old-timey, straightforward and pretty… sweet, said Bolick, introducing each number. He played with a guitar accompanist. The full room hushed to hear this message from another place and time.

We were transported to Carroll County, Mississippi, listening to the compositions of rural musicians–both black and white–from the beginning of the 20th century, collected as part of WPA efforts in the mid-‘30s then basically forgotten about. Bolick has been researching the “lost fiddle tunes” of the Magnolia State for a book. As he played, we could hear the simple thunking steps of the square dance, the slightly lighter gait of the waltz. We listened to one song that was the best seller of 1929, selling 100,000 copies. Bolick is a fiddle player, yes, a tunesmith, yes, but also a musicologist. (Some songs can be heard on his website.)

In those days, men out in the countryside courted women that had pianos because they wanted to marry music. There was a virtuoso named Alvin Alsop, now known to almost no one but surely one of the brightest talents of his neighborhood. His song Sweet Milk and Peaches lifted me up, spun me around and set me down in another time.

Kerr 2

I saw a road leading through black-dirt fields to a community center. I saw patched gingham skirts and dungarees and a fifth of whiskey poking out of a chest pocket, the windows propped open and a fiddler and banjo player in the corner, everyone flushed and ready to go all night… When I got home I found this picture, snapped in 1939. It matched my fantasy exactly. Let’s waltz.

Couples at square dance in rural home, McIntosh County, Oklahoma   by russell lee 1939a



Filed under History, Knitting, Music, Photography

Adding On

I’ve been a little laid up with an ornery quadriceps today, sitting on the couch, smoothed out with Motrin, admiring the fire and working up a ribbon scarf for my friend who is just moving in to a new home.


She actually cut through from her old apartment to claim the new space, so it’s sort of a Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe situation, with the old place lived in and broken in and loved, and the new place all spitshined and airy and immaculate. Magical.

The scarf I’m knitting isn’t the complementary flower arrangement those new light-sage walls deserve, but it’s got the warm rose colorations of the springtime that will have arrived when she and her family have moved in and colonized those spacious, high-ceilinged rooms.

pink scarf

Yesterday we toasted the novelty of getting this new add-on to her life, with seltzer. “If you don’t have enough,” chortled my friend, “reach for more!” She had been waiting a long time for this expansion.

The scent of just-finished oak flooring reminded me of moving in to an off-campus apartment so many years ago, when I was in college. The combined polyurethene underfoot and bright white latex on the walls made a heady perfume that promised a new exotic life out from adult supervision. I remember the sound bouncing off the undisturbed walls the first day I walked in, they echoed with promise. I put a scarred old wooden office desk in the corner and propped up my beloved books, then set my bed against the window where I could look out over the little trees in Straus Park and hear the rumble and wheeze of the 104 Broadway bus halting at the stop on our corner. It was the first home that I myself made, all for myself.

“Home is a name, a word,” wrote Dickens. “It is a strong one; stronger than a magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”

You can live in a primitive treehouse in Laos, or a Fifth Avenue duplex.

Laos treehouse

I’ve written about an 1890s mansion in the Berkshires, called Shadow Brook, that had 100 rooms and an attic so big kids could ride their bikes in it. My own house of the moment, the Cabin, could fit in a pocket.


Home exerts the same pull, no matter how swellegant or how modest. It affords the same excitement when you first move in, too.

Even for animals. A dog makes a rug its home, those four corners for that moment are the ends of the earth and all that matter.


Dickinson said it, typically, simply: “Where thou art – that – is Home.” So, to expand your home, it would seem, to move in, especially if you’ve been yearning for it for years, is an expansion of self. Could anything be more thrilling?


Filed under Jean Zimmerman, Knitting

A Burning Issue

Our neighbor said he will bring his chainsaw and come slice the giant, hurricane-fallen trees on our land to make rough boards. He’ll use them to frame up raised vegetable beds this spring.

twin tall trees

That will be quite a job. The trees are fifty feet long, with a diameter of almost a yard. We’d get some firewood out of it, too, for next year, once it cures. This year’s need for logs to burn is almost over, and just in time, as our woodpile has shrunk to almost nothing.

Somehow it’s been an especially good year for fires. For immersion in movies in front of the hearth, for eating too many cookies, too much buttered popcorn, warmed by the flames. For knitting and purling on a cozy piece of work stretched across my lap, glancing up now and then at the flickering, crackling hardwood.


Every fire holds worlds within it.


We’ve stayed inside the Cabin a lot this winter, since it’s been cold, working, dreaming. Eating, as I said.

So many people who still have hearths have converted to gas, but it’s just not the same. Good article today in the Times about the cult of firewood in Norway. The subject is practical, historical, even mystical. People there have to stay warm, especially at the Sorrisnivia Igloo Hotel in Alta.

Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel

A Norwegian TV show probed the proper way to cut and stack lumber. After all the discussion, a fire burned onscreen all night long. Viewers found it as thrilling as Downton. Nearly a million people tuned in. Afterwards an expert, the author of a bestseller titled Solid Wood, opined, “One thing that really divides Norway is bark.”

Meaning, should it lie up or down on the pile? A heated argument, so to speak, could be made for either.

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Filed under Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Nature

Tight Ends and Dips

Seriously, why don’t I make spinach-artichoke dip every day?


A good pinch of cayenne sticks it. Is there a law that you make something so good only for consuming during games?

I’m going to play my own game while everyone watches theirs. I’m planning to knit. A piece the color of wet cement. P2tog, leave stitches on left needle, bring yarn to back of work and k2tog through the same stitches from left needle.


Of course I’ll check out the action every so often, at the grave risk of dropping a stitch. Got to see what those tight ends are up to. Keep an eye on that spinach dip, too. Go Ravens!


Filed under Cooking, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting

Klonopin and Knitting

Which better soothes the savage beast, a trusted benzodiazepine or wool work? I choose both, one for night and one by day. I get a good eight hours. And as my pumpkin stocking comes along, so do I.

pumpkin sock 3

But I can’t limit myself to a sock, so I’m starting on a scarf of fine merino – its color defies description — that will be worked in a sprigged geometric I haven’t attempted before.

new wool

Different. And more difficult. One thing about knitting is that it’s humbling; it’s actually the hardest thing I’ve ever done, aside from writing, and I’m barely getting closer to the cable stitch that was my new year’s resolution for 2013. To cable, to make those gorgeous chunky fisherman twists, you need to use a special needle. Although I’ve heard a chopstick will do. But you really need, also, a brain that can move through the pattern’s complexities.

I wonder if my brain, trained up for the first time as a novice in this demanding, ancient craft, is approaching the actual work of my life differently. I’m currently ping ponging between two projects, neither of which I can divulge in detail at the risk of angering the novel gods.

But doing historical research, if you write about history, is another kind of soothing, even a self massage of a sort. It’s that good. You take your era, dive in and float with its current, sending your mind wandering to either shore and how your characters might relate to that time. The grittier, the more textured, the more exciting it is to submerge yourself through books and documents that will help you tell your story.

I will say this, that one book idea has to do with the American Revolutionary War – not in Boston, not in Philadelphia, but in New York City, which the Brits held for seven years while skirmishing on the outskirts of town with the Patriots. The high drama of the episode informs the book I am planning.


“Sleep knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,” says Lady Macbeth. And so does research.

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Filed under History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Writing

Happy Anniversary, Jane

“I am half agony, half hope.” Jane Austen, Persuasion

sock 3

I’m knitting my sock around stitch by stitch, knot by knot, minute knucklebone by knucklebone, and I’m thinking of Jane Austen. She plied her careful ironies one by one, a moral, steady, intelligent chronicling of the minutiae of Regency life. She, or course, would herself have been intimately involved with needlework.


Austen kept no diary. There are letters, though. A vicar’s daughter, raised with her brothers and sisters in rural Hampshire in the late 1700s (sister Cassandra destroyed many of Jane’s letters when she died), unmarried though the quintessential writer of “marriage novels.” She manages to remain a cipher to us now, though her books ring with the clearest truth.

The Royal Mail is coming out with stamps for each one of the novels.

Austen stamp

It’s a good time to reread Pride and Prejudice, the book that broke Austen out of obscurity, January being the novel’s 200th anniversary. And perhaps to rediscover its lesser sung gem, Lydia, silly and brash.

Lydia Bennet had more fun

Still fresh enough for a bumpersticker.

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Filed under Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Writers

Sock and Story

To some, knitting a sock might seem boring. All the world is talking today about Armstrong’s drug confession, about Teo, about the Americans abducted in Algeria. The exciting narratives of the world.

To me, it is high drama.

continued sock

The piling on of tiny knotted nuggets of sock yarn. The beginning a story of whether I can do this thing at all, this task I’ve set my mind to. I feel mildly victorious, not for finishing a chapter or a book or even a haiku, this time, but for finishing a row without dropping a stitch. And then, more amazing, dropping a stitch and managing to fix it with a needle and a tiny crochet hook. I’ve also added extra stitches and successfully taken them away, and mistakenly dropped loops off the needle and fetched them up before they were lost forever. Now that’s progress, and all in seven rows. Making mistakes, fixing them.

Story hung heavy in the air  last night when I returned to the Union League clubhouse after visiting for their December Book Fair, this time to give a talk for members about I.N. Phelps Stokes and Edith Minturn.

This is why you go to the Union League if you’re lucky enough to be invited: besides the fine wines, passed hot hors d’oeuvres and rare roast beef, besides the vitrines of toy soldiers (a long-term loan from one collector, who personally dusts all 15,000 of the figures when he visits once a year), besides the animated, literate audience, they give you a thank you gift.

A bust of Abraham Lincoln engraved with your name.

Lincoln bust

Throughout the evening, everyone liked to tell the tale of the Union League’s involvement in the Civil War, how it was formed to support Lincoln, how it sponsored two Negro battalions, how it opened its commodious pockets to fund the good guys. Hence the name.

The story I told over dessert intertwined with theirs. I wrote about Edith Minturn, whose grandfather, Robert Bowne Minturn, was the first president of the club.

Robert Bowne Minturn

Minturn came from an illustrious shipping family, grew up in Manhattan, received some education in England, and was as well known for his charitable works as he was for his business acumen. He was one of the people behind the establishment of Central Park – then called The Central Park — along with his firebrand wife, Anna Mary Wendell. He created an association for bettering the lot of the poor of New York. He was passionately opposed to slavery. A story has him buying a number of slaves in order to set them free.

The Union League would appear to be a rather reactionary place now, but it took a progressive stance back in the 19th century, when the Draft Riots tore apart New York City and you literally took your life in your hands to back President Lincoln. The club did important things, has a good story to tell even now.

On my way back home, Pershing Place, the street near Grand Central Station, was blocked, oddly, by a series of horse trailers, with three sleek mares chomping out of gunny sacks hung from the side of one vehicle. For a moment I felt transported to the time of the Union League’s founding, when these horses would have made for an ordinary sight on a snowy January night. Now a crowd was clicking away with camera-phones, wanting a story, an illustrated tale to send a friend, to tell about our night in New York.

More story, in the train station, with Klieg lights and corridors blocked off under the western staircase. Blocked off, you say? New Yorkers will not be denied.

film shoot

The hordes needed a good sighting of the hats, and it was all the production guys could do to wrap them them back around to the waiting room. It was late, 10pm, after a long day that started with slush on the ground, but we all wanted to know: What’s the story here? Is it a video, a movie, a commercial? What?

Back, back, called the exasperated production guy. We’re gonna do this shot a million more times.

That’s alright, I’m done with that business. I’m going back to my own small but crucial narrative, the story of a sock.

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Filed under History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Love, Fiercely, Writing

Get Your Socks On

This be a sock.

new sock

I started it today, and it is one of those tasks that is absolutely simple and terrifyingly complex at the same time. The cozy pumpkin color belies the difficulty – you have to juggle these four two-pointed toothpicks and tiny-gauge sock yarn and somehow get it to all hang together. First, the ribbed top, then the body, then the heel and the gusset and a toe. I’m not even sure yet what a gusset does.

The whole time I’m beginning to learn the technique – from a master knitter – I’m distracted by the thing’s similarity to the Ojo de Dios, the God’s Eye, which originated with the Huichol Indians of Jalisco, Mexico. Also called a Sikuli, which means “the power to see and understand things unknown.” When a child is born, the central eye is woven by the father on perpendicular sticks.


Then an eye, or strand of color, is added for every year of the child’s life until the child reaches the age of five. The eye is the source of visions, power and enlightenment. The colors have different meanings: red equals life itself; yellow equals the sun, moon and stars; blue is the sky and water; brown the soil; green represents plants; black, death.

My new sock is my Sikuli. Albeit a single-tone Sikuli, a pumpkin Sikuli. Let’s say pumpkin means… calm, mellow, the value of the non-frenetic. A sacred meaning for today.

Socks have always been sacred. Historians say that the earliest evidence of knitted clothing found were fragments of socks that were made in Egypt.

brown 2 toed socksThis two-toed number (sandal-ready) came off of a single needle but is remarkably like the knitting we see today. It was recovered in the Christian burial ground of the late Roman period in the present day city of Bahnasa in Egypt, made between 410-540 ad.

Islamic socks had dazzling designs.


What was life like before it was possible to keep your toes warm? Try to imagine a Viking going to sea with cold-numb feet. Ancient shoes have been dug up that were stuffed with tufts of grass for warmth.

By the time the rich could afford it, in the late middle ages, stylish stockings had been devised.


It was men who laboriously crafted these luxury items from 1640, with their tiny thread count and delicate designs. The first, all-male trade union devoted to knitting professionals was founded in 1527 in Paris. The business moved to England. By the late 1600s, millions of stockings were exported from Britain to various parts of Europe.

Women took it up.


(Shetland knitter from Nancy Bush’s formidable Folk Socks.)

Somehow we managed to walk and knit, rock a baby and knit, stir a soup and knit. Things could go wrong in a household, in a life, but everybody needed socks.

Machine knitting relieved a carpal tunnel epidemic.


By now stocks had sexy garters and such. I think I’d like to have lived in 1851 just to slip this one on.

machine knitted stocking 1851

But there was still something about the hand-knit stocking, as witness this 1942 British poster. In a trench, would you rather have yer ma’s woolly sock or the cheap department store model?

1942 British poster

My favorites originated with the heritage sheep at Stone Barns, the farm near my house.


So warm and natural, wearing them is almost like wrapping my feet in sun-toasted grass. They fuel my work, my play, and even my ability to knit things I’ve never knitted before.

Please knit now.

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Filed under History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting

Knit, Eat, Publish

Feeling pleasantly festive,

1911 celebration

not in 1911 but 2013, we made our way to Tarrytown around noontime. First, an errand.

At the yarn shop, I attempted to yank out a hank of ribbon yarn from a bulging cubby of gorgeous candy-colored floss.

“Don’t worry… pull!,” said the proprietor. “The worst that can happen is a yarnalanche.”

ribbon yarn

Elise Goldschlag, the owner of Flying Fingers, is joined in the enterprise by her genius knitter son Dillon. They’re known for their Yarn Bus, which according to Goldschlag “has now logged 100,000 yards of yarn.” The store serves Westchester but also brings customers from stops across Manhattan– Bloomingdale’s, Chelsea, Penn Station, the Upper West Side – delivering them to Tarrytown (killer lattes right next door) for a few hours of chat and shop, then back home again.


Elise can knit anything, even a slipcover. Dillon’s getting close. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design before giving up the starving artist thing to work with his mother. Men were actually the first to knit for an occupation, and it’s still not uncommon the world over. To wit, these young men plying their needles in a Chinese dorm.

men dorm knitting

Clutching a new pair of size 13 sticks, I accompanied my husband to a new restaurant down the street. Did they know that Gil had just received his first copy of Mafia Summit: J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy Brothers, and the Meeting That Unmasked the Mob (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press)?

eyes on glass

The waiters kept arriving at the table unsummoned, bringing little complimentary plates of odd but tasty cheeses, cured meats, and a salad of wild rice and cranberries seasoned perfectly with sesame oil. We read the newspapers. Everything was easy.

There are few days that compare in the life of a book author with getting that first copy in the mail. You worked so hard on the earliest draft, sweated over revisions, slaved to get photos for the picture insert, and now the day is here and all of that is far in the rear view. It’s almost as if the book were produced by someone else – someone smarter than you! And yet it has your name on it (in large type, hopefully).

Gil’s book is terrific.

After we scarfed down as much of our paninis as we could manage, a different waiter appeared at our table to set forth a plate of french fries, gratis. “These have truffle salt,” he said before skipping away.

french fries

The most scrumptious french fries ever. Congratulations, Gil, the book is great.

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Filed under Cooking, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Writers