Sunday, January 24, 2016

Becoming Auntie Maureen

You know how it is when you get older. Something pops out of your mouth and barely has it left your lips when you hear the echo of your mother or your father or some other family member in your words - "If you break your leg, don't you come running to me!"
That kind of thing.

Well, in my case, something astonishing is happening. I'm turning into my Auntie Maureen. Let me explain: Maureen is my mother's older sister. When we were young, we always thought she looked quite stern - she's quite a straight talker, Maureen. You'll know where you stand with her. However, rather than appearing forbidding, she seems to able to extract the most intimate confessions from complete strangers. Whenever she travels by public transport, she disembarks with a handbag full of deep, dark secrets. Once, on a train to Dublin, she sat beside a young woman who felt compelled to share details of her S&M lifestyle. Share stories, photos and Wikipedia pages on her phone (because, God bless her, Maureen really didn't have a notion what it was, so the young woman decided to elucidate with informative Internet articles) with a 70+-year-old widow travelling to the nation's capital on her senior citizens' travel pass to do a bit of shopping and have a nice cup of coffee and an iced bun in some comfortable café. ("I told her it was all a heap of nonsense," Maureen declared decisively. "I said if any fellow tried to smack me, I'd give him a good, hard smack right back!" Clearly, Maureen did not understand the appeal of bondage.)

This is what I am turning into. I, however, have a very specific audience: children and senior citizens. I cannot begin to repeat some of the stories I have been told by the elderly: many of whom are now in their eighties and nineties and have a compulsion to tell a random foreigner stories of a childhood in the Third Reich (-> confusing), of having babies in the 1950s (-> scary and disgusting), finding husbands in bed with other women (-> also confusing) or their miscarriages (-> words fail me.) I must have a very priest-like countenance to inspire these confessions. I don't ask them, honest. People literally stop me on the street and tell me things. Oftentimes, they just plonk their zimmer frame in my path and hold me captive, sometimes they just smile at me and I smile back. And they're off!

But that's one thing: they're choosing to tell me these things and I choose to file them away in a big drawer labelled 'RANDOM SECRETS' in my mind. However, I seem to have the same effect on small children, and they'll tell me anything about anyone, no holds barred. When I deliver my son at kindergarten, I am often surrounded, Pied Piper-like, by half-a-dozen small children vying to tell me their family secrets. They bypass other parents, including their own, to corner me and start talking at me. Did I know that Mama and Papa had a fight this morning and Mama called Papa an idiot? Did I know that Papa got a new motorbike and banged his privates on it? Did I know that Mama was at the dentist and when she came home, she cried? The head of the kindergarten wades in and sends them off back to their macaroni sculptures and board books, while I stagger home, traumatised by the amount of unwanted information I have just been given.

I report back to my husband and he shakes his head. "Why do you get involved in this kind of thing?" he asks, as though I had a choice.
"I just look at them," I protest. And, really, I do. I look at them and stuff pours forth. So I'm coming to terms that whatever it is Maureen has, I have it, too. One of these days I'm going to read up on S&M, just to be prepared for future conversations on trains.
I really should keep my head down more.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Sonic Mama

As regular readers might know,  I have two children: the oldest boy is three and the youngest is a year and a half. They are talkers. As a language teacher, I was expecting my bilingual male children to be like many other bilingual male children and start to speak late because, y'know, that's what The Experts say happens - no, no, that wasn't the case. From the moment they rise to the moment we press them into a horizontal position in their beds, they never shut up. They even talk in their sleep.

Their favourite thing - above raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens - is to say, "Mama?" about a thousand times a day. A thousand times a day EACH. I wish I were exaggerating but it doesn't feel like hyperbole: every breath they draw seems to exhale a Mama somewhere. Sometimes they Mama even when they don't mean to, when playing with their cars ("Brrrrmmm brrrrmmama...") or when they've discovered something interesting ("Oh, Mama!"). I answer, "Yes, love?" because it's easier to answer that way than figure out which child it is and sometimes it serves as a double-answer if I'm being Mama-ed in stereo. Everyone's happy with that answer.

And I can often ignore it, but not for long. The MPMs (Mamas Per Minute) increase and become increasingly frantic because - heavens above! - I might've disappeared! I might've been abducted! Or, God knows, I might be sitting down with a cup of tea and a book or writing a message to another literate, full-sized human being on my phone. If they can't see me, e.g. if we're separated by the insurmountable obstacle that is the bathroom door, the MPMs might increase to a wail, "Maaaaaaamaaaaaaaaa!". And if I'm resting - the cruelty! the neglect! - they'll Mamamamamamamamama onto the bed and I'll be given a couple of seconds of ominous silence and feathery smallchild breath on my cheeks, till they try to poke my eyes open.
"Yes, love?" I'll say to the little faces pressed up against my own.

I say "Yes, love?" oh, hundreds of times a day. Sometimes there's an answer:
"I'm a baby octopus now."
Or: "I want to run away and away."
Or: "My feet smell disgusting"
However, there often isn't. The child in question stares at me blankly and visibly racks his brain to find something to tell me: "I like owls."
"That's super," I'd say. "What's your favourite owl?"
And off the child goes on an owl monologue, punctuated by - you've guessed it - twenty million Mamas.

Yes, yes, it's lovely and sweet, but also exhausting and relentless and head-wrecking. When I come in from work, I just want five minutes of peace and quiet, preferably with a cup of tea, and instead I'm bombarded by two children climbing on to my knee, up my sweater, into my face: "Mama! Mama! Mama!"
"Yes, love?" I answer. "Yes, love? What is it, love? What would you like to tell me?"
Exhausted. Weary. Fed up.
Go away, children, and just leave me alone.

"What flavour would you like?"
And then today I learned something interesting. I went out for a walk with my oldest boy and he had an ice cream, his first of the year. I sat on a bench and he sat on my knee, holding his ice cream and delicately eating it with his plastic spoon.
"Mama?" he said, squirming around to face me.
"Yes, love?" I replied automatically, distractedly.
He repeated it, but he said, "Yes! Love!" and turned back to his ice cream with a grin on his face. And then I realised that what I'm saying to my children and what they're hearing are two different things. I say, "Yes, love?" and they hear: YES! LOVE! and they seem to need to hear it hundreds of times a day. They use it like a bat's sonic signal to locate me and I answer. I didn't know that. I'd never thought about it. To them it's not a question, it's an affirmation. Now I know.

This evening my youngest son wouldn't sleep. He told me about trains and dogs and Papa and more trains and Papa and then there was something indistinguishable about a monster truck ... till he finally fell asleep. Drifting away, his eyes rolling, being pulled downwards into soft sleep, he whispered, "Mama?"
I watched his lids fall, kissed his forehead, and gently I replied: "Yes. Love."

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Crafter's Thingy

When I was packing up to travel to my in-laws' before Christmas, I did my usual search for one of the little bags I have on hand to carry my crafting supplies. As I scrambled to find some scrap of paper or cloth to stick a darning needle into, I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have a thingie that had all of your crafting bits and bobs in one place?"

Aha. An idea was born. And I created this ... thingy. I asked members of an online crafting group if they could come up with a name for it, and the first suggestions were a thingamajig, a thingummy, a thingamybob and an it - as in, "Where is it? I need it!" So I think I'll just stick with a crafting thingy. You know what it is.

In any case, self praise is no praise, I know, I know, but I love it. It's brilliant. It is the first thing that I have made in years that I have not only kept for myself but (whisper it) kept two of. I feel so naughty and so decadent - imagine! Making something for me! And you can make one for yourself, too. It's not difficult, I promise.

You need
  • a very small amount of thin yarn, about 20g. I used self-striping sock yarn, but you could also use cotton or thin acrylic
  • something to stuff it with - enough stuffing to fit in your fist
  • a darning needle
  • a folding scissors (I ordered 10 on Amazon for less than $1.50 each)
  • a round, retractable tape measure (also can be ordered on Amazon for about $1 each or found at a local euro/pound/dollar store)
  • something to attach the scissors to the ... thingy. I use a keychain, but a piece of ribbon would do just as well
** This pattern is written in American English! The British English terms are in [brackets]. ** And a PDF of the pattern can be downloaded HERE. **

Start with a magic loop and make 10 SC [DC] and join with a slip stitch to form a little circle.
Round 1: Ch 1, then 2 SC [DC] in the same stitch. 2 SC [DC] in next nine stitches (20 stitches in total)
Round 2: Ch 1, then 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 1 SC [DC] in next nineteen stitches (20 stitches in total)
Round 3: Ch 1, then 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch, *1 SC [DC] in next stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch. Repeat from * around, ending with 2 SC [DC] (30 stitches in total)
Round 4: Ch 1, then do 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 1 SC [DC] in next twenty-nine stitches (30 stitches in total)
Round 5: Ch 1, then 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 1 SC [DC] in next stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch, *1 SC [DC] in next two stitches, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch. Repeat from * around, ending with 2 SC [DC] (40 stitches in total)
Round 6: Ch 1, then 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 1 SC [DC] in next thirty-nine stitches (40 stitches in total)
At this point, stop and place your little circle over the tape measure. It should cover it, but not be bigger than it. If you need to make it bigger, do another round of SC [DC] with a double SC [DC] in every fourth stitch. 

After this point, you won't increase any more, just continue by doing 1 SC [DC] in every stitch, so your work starts to form a little saucer-shape:


When you are satisfied with your little dome (I normally only do 3 or 4 rounds of SC [DC] to achieve it), continue:
Round 8: Crochet 3 chain, then 1 DC [TR] in next and each stitch around till you come to the last three stitches. Do not do any DC [TR], simply do three chain and join to the third chain in your initial 3Ch at the start of the row.

Round 9: Do 1 SC [DC] in each stitch. Finish by doing 1 chain, cut yarn and yank tight.

 When you fit this over the tape measure, you will see that the hole formed by the 3 chain is designed to allow the tape measure to poke out.
The back (part 1)
Chain 8-9 stitches - large enough to form a circle around the button at the back of the tape measure. Crochet a flat circle by following the instructions above:
Round 1: 1 SC [DC] in each of the chain.
Round 2: Ch 1, then 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 1 SC [DC] in each next stitch
Round 3: Ch 1, then 1 SC [DC] in the same stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch, *1 SC [DC] in next stitch, 2 SC [DC] in next stitch. Repeat from * around
 - in other words, every second row has a double stitch spaced between 1, then 2, then 3 single SC [DC]. Do this till your work covers the bottom of the tape measure.

Place some stuffing on the 'top' of the tape measure - not the side with the button! - I hold it in place by just smearing a bit of glue on the tape measure, then pressing the stuffing down, till I have the little crocheted dome in place. Then I sew the back to the bottom of the dome with a whipstitch.

The back (part 2)
Follow the instructions as per the front, but just before you finish the final round, stop about 10 stitches before the end. Do 1Ch and cut your yarn, yanking it tight. This creates one side that's a bit flatter than the others and this serves as a kind of pocket flap. Sew this (almost) circle over the bottom of the thingy, covering the button.It will create a pocket to store the folding scissors.

 And that's it! Now you simply have to attach the scissors to the thingy, by using e.g. a key chain or tie it on with a piece of ribbon. Then you're ready to go! Be warned, though: they are very addictive. Very, very, addictive.

The legal bit:
This is my idea, my work, my photos, my pattern. You may not reprint it/them, republish it/them in any form, or claim it/them as your own. What you can do is make them for friends and family, and if you can make yourself some pin money by making them for sale - good for you. Just don't go into mass production with them, though - not without my permission. It would be nice and decent of you to credit me with their design, though - but I don't need to tell you that, do I? Only nice and decent people read my blog :-)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Goodbye 2015 ... Rainbows in 2016

I haven't posted in a long time and the reason for it was simple: I hadn't wanted to. 2015 was a strange year, a year that felt discordant or adrift to me. I'm normally quite a pragmatic person, someone who tends to always look on the bright side of life, but this year tested my limits. The German 'Word of the Year' this year was Flüchtling, refugee, and really, no other word came close to being in the running for first place this year. Over a million people, mostly from the Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, made their way to Germany this year, fleeing (in some cases) from war and (in other cases) from poverty and (in all cases) for a better life. The incessant - and I mean incessant - coverage of the plight of thousands of people arriving over Germany's borders became too much to bear and I went on a total media blackout for a long time. I can focus on and do something for what is in front of me, in my own neighbourhood and town, but I had to finally admit that I can't worry about every overcrowded refugee home, mourn every dead child, cry for every lost family - and 2015 seemed to pour a lot of that mental burden on my head.

So thank you very much, 2015, for all the lessons you have taught me, but I'm looking forward to making 2016's acquaintance. It's going to be a year full of rainbows, and it's starting here and now. I have lots of new patterns and tutorials lined up - I'm going to craft my way through 2016 with a vengeance.

Happy New Year.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mother's Day

Today, Sunday - Mothers' Day -  I tried to clean the bathroom.
The point I gave up at was when I was leaning over the bath with my trousers around my ankles, my nearly-one-year-old clutching my knees and joyfully wiping his snotty nose into the cellulitey cushions on the back of my thighs, while the 2.5 year old squirted my knickers with water, joyfully singing "The WHEELS on the BUS go ROUND and ROUND, ROUND and ROUND!"
It was a beautiful moment.
Ginger of hair and gappy of tooth,
he is half-child, half-goblin
I put down the Mr Muscle, pulled up my trousers and gave it up as a hopeless case. That was my Mothers' Day present to myself.

We've had a busy week and that's why the bathroom is filthy and the laundry train got derailed somewhere last Monday. The result of this was that I'd had to root around the depths of my wardrobe to find myself something (reasonably) clean and pounced upon a pair of  pregnancy jeans in desperation. Turns out, pregnancy jeans worn when not pregnant can be yanked down very quickly by thigh-high children and - it turns out - this is a hilarious exercise, especially when accompanied by 72 verses of The Wheels on the Bus. This, dear readers, is life with a one-year-old and a two-year-old.

That's right - you can hop back through the sparse entries of my blog in the last twelve months and establish that a full year has passed since I was waddling around, ready to pop. My younger son Robert is about to turn one! And Mr Gingerbread and I are at a loss as to what he should get for his birthday. The house is full of toys - he has a dozen aunts and uncles, after all - and more clothes than my poor laundry skills can cope with. And, to be honest, we tend to think babies and toddlers want this kind of thing

when in actual fact, my son would really like something like this for his birthday.

A compromise must be found.

I decided to radically attack scraps and half-skeins, and this has been my on-the-side project for the last few weeks.

 Because it's May and the magnolia is blooming and the balcony is beckoning! Hurray!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Terrible Twos

I learned a new word recently: threenager. It describes the delight that is a moody, irrational, temperamental three-year-old. And frankly, readers, I quaked. I have a two-year-old son and he is currently in the throes of Tyrannical Toddlerdom. I used to look at children writhing on the floors of supermarkets, red-faced and hysterical, and think, "How embarrassing! How mortifying! Why don't the parents do something?"
Oh, yes, those were the days when I could revel in smug judgement. Smudgement. When I have children I'm going to make sure they never behave like that.

 - pause for laughter -
Now I'm the mother standing off to the side, scratching dried yoghurt off her t-shirt while her child throws a conniption on the floor. I could care, really I could - but I'm often too tired to bother. And this might be the 42nd hissy fit in a three-day period; and if it's my child writhing around the floor, the cause of the tantrum might be any of the following (and many more besides):
a) the cockerel on the front of the cornflakes packet looked at him funnily
b) he doesn't want to be in the trolley, he doesn't want to walk beside the trolley, he wants to hover in the air above the trolley
c) he wants to eat a raw egg from the carton and I won't let him
d) he loves me, why won't I carry him?
e) he hates me, why am I carrying him?
Basically, sometimes I can do a SuperNanny move on him and distract him swiftly, but my son John is not easily distracted. He is eerily focussed and won't be fobbed off just like that. Sometimes I swoop him up and remove him to a quiet place. Sometimes I just let the tantrum run its course and exchange sympathetic been-there-done-that looks with parents of older children.

This morning, John woke at 6 a.m. and in a gesture of marital love that you will only understand if you have kids yourself, I swooped him up and left his father and little brother fast asleep in bed. We got dressed and slipped out into the quietness of the city. I hate getting up early, but I love being up early - if that makes sense. I love the stillness of the early morning, the lemon sunshine and the chill  in the air. John and I used to spend a lot of early mornings together, but since his little brother came along, we haven't had much chance to get out alone. This morning we walked side by side the entire length of the town.

We walked across the town square, where someone had decorated the concrete with chalk mandalas in the night:

We walked to the bakery and bought a chocolate croissant, then ate it together on a park bench.

And took a bus home, just because we wanted an opportunity to sing 'The Wheels on the Bus' - well, he did the singing and I had to clap along. More about the singing some other time.

We got home in time for breakfast but even as we climbed the stairs, my son was screeching, "Papa! Mama and I went on a secret walk!", an indication that his future will not be in the CIA or diplomatic field. But the walk did us good: no tantrums, no fights. We should really do it more often (just not tomorrow. Tomorrow is Papa's turn.)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Things you should know about my father

My father's birthday was in February but we were awash in the various fluids that accompany a dose of the 'flu at the time. As I've summed up my mother, I thought it might be fair to tell you a bit about my father as well.

Things you should know about my father

1. He pushed my mother into a puddle and laughed
My father first met my mother when he was five and she was four (I think. They were, in any case, scandalously young to be running around unsupervised, but this was Ireland in the fifties. I think parents ushered their kids out the door in the morning and did not expect to see them again till supper-time). He shoved her into a puddle and laughed at her. My father claims to have no memory of this incident; my mother, however, does and even maintains that he was wearing one of my grandmother's meticulously knitted pullovers whilst doing the pushing (held at arm's length to this little beast, she was probably in a very good position to view his knitwear.) When she wants a bit of extra sympathy, she also says that he and my Uncle John were laughing ("demonically")  as they pushed her - but, as I said, this bit is only tacked on occasionally and I have a feel that, half a century later, she's just embroidering an already dastardly tale.

But the years passed and my father turned into a skinny teen with a big hat and a lot of angst, and my mother found this quite attractive (I think men in big hats and artistic overcoats were uncommon 1970s Ireland). They got married in a flurry of flares and oversized lapels and produced a plethora of children. Sadly, they do not recreate the puddle-pushing on special occasions nor, to my knowledge, has my mother ever pushed him back.

2. He saved my life
When I was a toddler, I swallowed a fish-bone and started to choke. I don't remember this, but my mother (she of the "he was wearing a handknitted jumper and laughing his head off" version of events, so take it with a pinch of salt) said my lips were turning blue and I couldn't breathe. I'm not sure if deceased relatives were trying to usher me down a tunnel toward the light, but I was certainly in dire straits. Not acquainted with the Heimlich Manoeuvre, my father grabbed me by my chubby ankles, swung me upside-down and shook me hard, as you would do a pillow and - lo and behold - the fishbone was dislodged.
I'm very grateful to him for this and to this day, harbour a suspicion that fish are out to get me.

3. He never wanted us to have pets
"We are NOT getting another pet! I'LL end up looking after it! Not a single ONE will look after this dog/cat/rabbit, you all know I'LL be the one taking it on walks and feeding it!" etc.
My father has spent the last forty years telling us we're not getting another pet.
We've had a succession of pets.
And, to be fair to him, he has in fact ended up looking after every single one of them. On a visit home from Germany a few years ago, I saw my father walk up the lane to our house with his wheelbarrow (because another thing you should know about my father that doesn't warrant a point of its own is that he has filled the potholes in the entrance to our house about a hundred thousand times) and saw him followed by a procession of animals: a Jack Russell terrier, four cats, two miniature ducks and a couple of stray chickens who were out for an opportunistic walk. I have also seen him feed the Jack Russell from a spoon, store a kitten in his coat and pick worms out of a freshly-dug flowerbed for the ducks.
But he hates pets and doesn't know why we keep insisting on having the blighters.

4. He doesn't like people touching his things
Which is unfortunate when you have nine children, because no one ever had anything to call their
This man needs a comb, people.
own in our house. There was always a young child on the rampage, your precious possessions firmly grasped in a sticky paw.
"All I have is this comb!" my father would wail, holding up a plastic comb. "It's the only thing I have, a bloody comb for my hair. I leave it here on the mantelpiece and when I come down in the morning, the comb is gone! Who keeps taking my comb?"
Ah, it was the soundtrack to my youth: my father and his comb. At one point, he got it into his head that he might chain the comb to the mantelpiece - an idea we all found very entertaining. Sadly, though, he much preferred ranting about how he was going to chain the comb to the mantelpiece more than actually chaining the comb to the mantelpiece.

5. He like a rant
The index finger will go up.
"I'll tell you something," he says, leaning in. And he's off. Frequent topics for rants over the years have included: People (more about that in a minute), Not Getting Another Pet, Disappearing Combs, A Packet of Biscuits Not Being Shared Fairly, The State of Ireland, People. It's a very diverse list and it changes, with some points remaining constant (People).

6. He doesn't like people, especially people visiting him
No, don't get the wrong idea. My father's not a xenophobe. He doesn't like most people, regardless of where they're from or what they look like or do. They're loud and they can be rude and a select few of them (most notably - the cheek of them - his family) have the audacity to want to visit him and make him make ... small talk!!! Sometimes when he sees the lights of an approaching car and scarper off down to his shed, conveniently forgetting his mobile phone, leaving my mother with a bunch of unannounced visitors to entertain. (And a short note on this: in Ireland, people still pop in for a visit without calling. Why call and ruin the surprise? Think of the joy you'll give someone by just turning up at their door unannounced, looking for tea and biscuits. Ahhhhh. Maybe I've just been in Germany too long.)

7. He paints pictures in his shed
My father is an artist. Nowadays, that's a mildly interesting statement to make, but when my father was young, I believe saying you wanted to become an artist was about as ludicrous as wanting to become an astronaut or a lion-tamer. I don't know how my grandparents reacted, but I'm sure rosaries were said to save his soul and get him back on the straight and narrow path to the civil service or a nice job in the laboratory of the local roof tile factory. But he painted anyway. And now he does it professionally, as a graphic artist, and semi-professionally as a painter, intrepid blogger and YouTube fiend. By day, he's a mild-mannered (though given to an occasional rant) visitor-hating, animal-loving father of nine; by night he paints pictures and has a cyber-life that includes video channels and fan posts.

8. He paints pictures in his shed (II)
Before my father became a graphic artist by day, he did actually work in the laboratory of the local roof tile factory. But he and my mother decided that the laboratory of a roof tile factory is a very good place for a soul to die, so they set up their own business. Two weeks before a global recession, oh dear. It was a grim time, a lean time and a very hard time. But in the middle of this very awful, grim period, where we were constantly tiptoeing along the line to bankruptcy and losing - oh, everything, one of my teachers said, "You know, your parents have given you the greatest gift you could possibly get. They took the road less travelled and gave up a steady job to do something they're passionate about. You'll never be afraid to do the same, because you'll come through it and see it can be done."
And she was absolutely right.
Twenty-five years and two recessions later, their business is still going. Bravery is a very good thing to pass to your children.

9. He will wear a fake rabbit in his pullover
... because that's what good parents do. When my brother William was small, he had a soft toy called Baby Rabbit. Baby Rabbit tended to get lost, so my father was given to wearing Baby Rabbit in the V of his v-neck jumper so Baby Rabbit go to see what was going on, while remaining in a safe place. This seems like a random thing to remember, but the other day my husband ate imaginary cake out of Lego blocks at a teaparty for Papa, Wuffie the toy dog and my two-year-old son, and it reminded me that saving a child's life is a magnificent piece of parenting, but eating fake cake and wearing soft toys is just as important, and maybe more.