1990: Mama Said Knock You Out

By the summer of 1990, my life had drastically changed. I was no longer married, I was still living in Oxford, and I had managed to find a part-time job at a local print shop. One part of the job was the walk-in business: making photocopies (and learning to clear paper jams in the multi-function copier), designing business cards, and ordering graduation or wedding announcements. For simple design work, we used a Mac SE running Aldus PageMaker 2.0; if you worked with it then, too, you’ll understand what I mean by saying that the most useful trick I learned was how to create invisible boxes. (In later years, being able to find and delete other people’s invisible boxes came in particularly handy when editing a layout that didn’t print as expected.)


The other part of the job dealt with handling actual printing jobs initiated by the University and the local businesses. Every so often a brand new print job would come in, but most of what we did were reprints of prior jobs — another 10,000 pocket folders for freshman orientation, perhaps, but change the year on Cover One or the contact name on Cover Four. The client would call or come in; we’d pull the old job jacket, update the specifications, and hand off the jacket to our driver, Lester, to be taken back to the press in Richmond. Lester, a gentle and friendly soul who was past retirement age but liked to stay busy, drove daily between our locations in Richmond, Oxford, and Winchester to pick up job tickets and drop off print orders.

It was a good job for an English major who enjoyed working with computers and wasn’t seeking constant social interaction. Truly busy days were rare, and on the whole it was becoming a pleasant way to pass the summer and make a little money — not much money, because I worked only four hours a day. But that gave me the rest of the day for cycling, hanging out in the pool at my apartment complex, and other activities.

One day, we were all in a rush. Job after job had come in, and Lester waited in a chair in the corner while I talked to a client to get the specs for a new job. My boyfriend waited for the chance to take me to lunch. I hadn’t been able to take a break that morning, and I was starting to feel weak and crampy all at the same time. Then everything went white.

When I came to, I was on the floor. Lester was panicked and my boyfriend looked terrified. The client was gone, and an ambulance was on the way to take me to the local hospital for observation. Apparently I had fallen straight back to the floor: rigid, without crumpling. My boss sat by me as I lay on the concrete floor cushioned by a thin carpet. After a couple of minutes I heard sirens, then a team of EMTs came in to assess me. A brief question and answer period followed, and I was loaded into the ambulance and taken to the emergency room.

Ambulance and Gurney

This was not a reassuring turn of events. I may have mentioned that this hospital (the same one at which Professor Dickinson had “expired”) did not have a good local reputation at this time. I knew several townies with orders in place such that, should they have a medical emergency, they preferred to be airlifted to Cincinnati or Dayton rather than go to the hospital that was just a few blocks away from them.

After I arrived at the hospital I was even more confused. I was wheeled behind some curtains and left there, unattended, for over an hour. Eventually I was released to the custody of my still-terrified boyfriend, who had been sitting, uninformed by hospital personnel, on the other side of the curtain. We didn’t have cars, so we must have walked across town to go back to our apartment. Did I ever get lunch? What did we have for dinner? The details are lost to time and, possibly, to an undiagnosed concussion. Eventually I received a bill for $200 for the ambulance transport.


It was clear that, without health insurance, I couldn’t afford to get sick or hurt again. In an unprecedented act of chutzpah, I wrote to the owner of the printing company and explained that I would need to work full time and get health benefits or I would have to quit my job. I was amazed when they agreed, and hired me at full time. I didn’t know what had happened to me that day in the shop, but in one sense I could breathe a little easier.

A few weeks later, a sheepish looking man walked into the shop and apologized. He was the client with whom I had been talking when I passed out. I retrieved his job jacket, which had never been completed. I had used a red felt-tip marker to record the job specs, and at one point the handwriting ceased and a wobbly red line ran down the job jacket and off the edge. When I had turned off and dropped like a stone, the client had turned around and run out the door and down the street.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I thought you were dead.”

Knitwise, it took me a while to figure out which knitting (or crocheting) project I should start (or finish) next. I have a small project — the Baby Trekkie Washcloth — started at work and I can start another one to leave in the knitting bag for when I get stuck on my primary project. I assembled a preliminary project bag for a Knitterly pattern I bought online, but I felt dissatisfied even as I was just collecting the materials. It didn’t feel right, and yarn/pattern combinations that don’t feel right usually don’t go very well. I set that one aside until I could better listen to my intuition; after all, I had purchased that yarn almost 5 years ago and certainly didn’t have this pattern in mind at the time.

Finally I decided to start Nakia’s Infinity Scarf from Black Panther. I had already put together the project bag with the printed pattern, the right needles, and the specified yarn in the specified colorway, so I was ready to go. It turns out that I wasn’t quite ready, because the first step of the pattern entailed a provisional cast-on in a contrasting yarn. I’ve done this before, but it’s been a while. With some scrap yarn from our bin at Knit Night, and Jill’s crochet hook, and Therese’s coaching, I crocheted the chain and got the required number of 84 knits (actually purls) into it and finished eight rows (actually seven) before the row where the stitches started to get funky.

That’s when I remembered that the scarf’s designer was a machine knitter, and the pattern I had printed out was a machine knitting pattern. Some of the symbols and instructions wouldn’t make any sense. I checked on Ravelry and found that there was now a handknit version of the pattern, complete with row by row instructions; I’m printing out all sixteen pages of it now. And now I see that the first seven rows aren’t all purls, as I had previously interpreted the chart. As Don Henley sang, “Two steps forward and three steps back….”

Sigh. Next week I’ll be helping a friend learn to knit socks. Maybe I’d better find my stalled sock project, just in case.

Published in: on June 18, 2018 at 4:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

1989: The First of Four Elephants

Several life-changing events happened to me in 1989, but in order to choose a story to tell I will have to ignore a very large elephant that happens to be crowding out almost everything else from the room. One of the rules I set for myself in this storytelling series is that I would try not to tell anyone else’s story, and writing about my first marriage definitely qualifies as telling someone else’s story — even if the someone else isn’t likely to read it or to care about what I might have to say. This rule is self-imposed, and it’s about respect. It’s my rule and I’m sticking to it.


In the spring of 1989 I took the GRE and applied (and was accepted) to graduate school at Miami; in May I graduated with honors from Miami University with a double major in Creative Writing and English Literature. In July I got married, took a brief honeymoon in Denver, and returned to Oxford just in time to take an intensive pedagogy class for graduate assistants who would be teaching freshman English in August. In that class I met someone who would become a fast friend; in fact, you could say he owns the second elephant.

The summer of 1989 kicked off a complicated and stressful time in my life that persisted for entirely too long, and I didn’t often make the best decisions. Thus, we witness the generation of a series of elephants which shall not be discussed. (Special note for those who are 22 years old and think they know everything about the world: You don’t. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you. But it’s all right; I know you’re not listening anyway.) I’ll let you know when one of my elephants has wandered into the room, and we can talk about something else while it has a bit of hay and water.


To avoid talking about my elephants or anyone else’s, let’s go back in time a bit to the spring of 1989, when my capstone project for the Honors program was due. Because my degree was in creative writing, I didn’t have a research project to present. My requirement would be fulfilled when I read from my work, to an audience in Hall Auditorium. I repeat, my degree was in creative writing. Not speech, communication, theatre, drama, broadcast journalism, or performance art. In silence and solitude I had written my words, considered them, revised them, and offered a portfolio of short fiction to be evaluated by my “thesis” committee in the creative writing program. Now, for the sake of the Honors program, I had to make the transition from the page to the stage.

Hall Auditorium, located on the other side of the campus library from Bishop Hall, was originally constructed in 1908 and named after Miami’s fifth president, John Hall. Over the years I had attended several events there, including a reading by Tom Wolfe and a performance by the Second City Touring Company. It has a seating capacity of 750, and in my day it was sometimes the site of huge lecture sections of Western Civilization classes.


After a $6.5 million rehab in 1992….

It looks pretty big when you’re in the audience, and it has the curious property of looking even larger when you’re all alone on the stage, looking outward.

Mine wasn’t the only “act” on the agenda for that afternoon. I waited backstage for my turn to approach the microphone and read my work to whoever was in the audience — other members of the Honors program, I assumed. The student before me concluded their talk, received a round of applause, and walked off stage left. Everything was going just fine as I walked on from stage right. I placed my pages of text on the podium, took a deep breath, and began to read.

I heard my voice, small and soft in the large space. When I was a few sentences into my story, I noticed strange looks on the faces of the audience. When I was a few paragraphs in, I realized that they could not hear me well and it was possible that the microphone, which had worked perfectly for the previous speaker, was now not working at all.

As I continued to read, I brainstormed. Had the person before me turned off the mic before walking away, and had I been expected to turn it back on? No. Had the mic really just broken without warning? I wasn’t sure, but something did seem to be broken. Was it going to come back on? Perhaps. Should I keep reading, trusting that the mic would turn itself back on? Maybe. Should I stop reading, apologize, and start over?

The repercussions of my last question to myself were what made me decide to just keep reading and pretend that all was well. I was keyed up enough as it was; if I stopped now there was no guarantee that I would be able to calm down enough to start the reading all over again. I also couldn’t fix the mic, so there was no guarantee that it would be able to start all over again with me. There was a tech person on the stage, just behind the front curtain. Presumably they would be able to fix the mic if it were broken. (If I broke down, I wasn’t sure that I could be fixed.)

If that’s true, I asked myself, why haven’t they come over, stopped me, and fixed the mic? Maybe it’s not broken after all and I just THINK it’s broken.

So I kept reading, paragraph after paragraph, maintaining the gentle momentum of the text, staying as calm as I could. The short story itself was more of a tone poem with plenty of onomatopeia and internal rhyme, with a rhythm like a rocking chair, and it propelled me forward.

Two sentences before the end of the story, the microphone came back to life. My voice boomed through the auditorium as I read the last few words.

“Thank you,” I said, and exited stage left to a round of tepid, confused applause as my legs tried to turn to jelly.

I had done my reading, even if nobody heard a word of it, and there was no way they would get me back out onto that stage again.

Knitwise, I have completed the Grey Shawl of Eternity. Have I the proof of this accomplishment? Nay! I cast off last Tuesday night, displayed the shawl to my Jefferson knitting group, and folded it up and tucked it into my knitting bag. I then started a project with the only pattern I had on hand – for loafers, of all things – with the closest yarn to what it required, an orphan skein of brown-and-white marled bulky wool that ranged from extremely thin to extremely thick. It wasn’t fun or satisfying, but it was knitting. Two days later I took the shawl to my Whitewater group, unfurled it, and handed it over to the woman who had given me the donated yarn in the first place. While she wrapped herself in the Shawl of Eternity I knitted two more rows on the unsatisfying loafer pattern, paused, and then pulled out the needles and frogged the project.

Kate Hepburn knits

What would Katherine Hepburn knit?

I am open for suggestions.

1988: All Greek to Me

At the start of my senior year at Miami University, Republican presidential candidate George Bush made a campaign stop on campus. If you’ve never been in the path of a presidential appearance or even a candidate-for-president appearance, let me assure you that this is a Big Deal. The preparations must have been weeks if not months in the making.

I was not generally a political person at this point, though I generally learned toward the Democrats. However, when I was the editor of our high school paper I had interviewed State Representative Mike DeWine, a Republican, when he visited and gave a speech. He seemed like a sensible person, and over the years it was the memory of that interview that reminded me to vote for the better candidate rather than just for the familiar party. I voted regularly, though as a temporary resident of Oxford I chose to vote in my home district by absentee ballot rather than cast votes for local candidates, and on local issues, with whom (or which) I was unfamiliar.


When I saw how the lines were being drawn in advance of the visit, with the rich fraternity boys aligned with the College Republicans, I decided to wander over to a meeting of the College Democrats and see what they had going on. It turns out that they had some advance news of the level of security there would be for the speech. If you looked like a Democrat or in any way in opposition to Bush, you would be separated and kept far back of the main spectator area. Well, that hardly sounded fair. After all, we just wanted to listen like everybody else. But wait — they had a scheme that might get some of us close enough to see and hear the dignitaries.

The scheme was to make some smallish political posters, roll them up, and smuggle them past the checkpoint up our pants legs. It sounded about as likely as hiding under the bed to escape the detection of professional thieves, but it just might work. And against all odds, it did! I found myself up near the front, behind a row of the most muscled college students I had ever seen, next to a couple of equally incredulous fellow Democrats, all of us with posters stuffed up our pants. (Sure enough, those who had been caught were escorted far behind the crowd to where they could barely hear the speech.) But I had made it though the screening. Now I just needed to wait for Bush to appear, take out my little poster, and wave it around. I wasn’t trying to start a riot or make trouble; honestly, I was really hoping for Bush to unveil his economic plan at this point on his campaign trail.

The warmup act came on, and I was dismayed at the hateful rhetoric and ethnic slurs that were made in order to whip the crowd into a patriotic frenzy. “I went to college too,” said one speaker, “but I didn’t need to take GREEEEEEEK.’ The crowd roared at this insult to Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis (and possibly at the thought of easing the university’s foreign language requirement), missing the irony that most of the college students supporting Bush seemed to belong to fraternities and sororities. The rest of the speech was more of the same, and I grew disappointed and disillusioned as I waited through it. Surely Bush himself would take a higher ground than this, and we would get to hear about his plans for the country rather than just attacks on his opponent.


Bush in Troy, Ohio, in 1988.

Senator Bush came out, and so did our little posters for 70something Democratic senatorial candidate Howard Metzenbaum. We cheered and screamed and waved our posters, attracting the attention of the row of frat boys ahead of us. They took our posters, tore them up, and knocked us to the ground. I was furious but wasn’t really hurt. Senator Bush didn’t take a much higher ground than the other speakers, and after a few minutes of campaign clichés he was off the stage and escorted away by Secret Service, having convinced me of nothing. (His next stop was a meeting with the university’s Board of Regents, with whom he discussed his economic plan.)

After the main event broke up, there was a small counter-rally by the most liberal of the faculty members. Students who recognized their professors in the group gathered around and joined in for a while, briefly re-energized. Then that rally, too, broke up and we headed back to our dorms.

Postscript: Democratic candidates Mike Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen lost the election in November to George Bush and Dan Quayle, a poor speller from Indiana (Google “potatoe” if you don’t believe me) and no Jack Kennedy, helped along by the unfortunate image of self-admitted policy wonk Dukakis riding in a tank, looking like a geeky little boy playing Army. (Oh, and Howard Metzenbaum won!) The 1988 election was regrettable in many ways, but compared to recent events it seems bland and filled with naivete. Maybe it’s a good thing we can’t look too far into the future; we might stop walking forward at all.

Knitwise, I swear to all that is holy that I have just a few more rows to go on the Eternal Grey Shawl. I would have a better guess at this if my digital kitchen scale would cooperate, but all it does now is turn on and display which mode it is in (g/oz). The batteries are new, so something else is clearly wrong with it that I’m unable to fix. Every time I sit down to knit, I do two rows. I may be able to knit two more rows and then bind off tomorrow night. If it turns out that I had enough yarn to knit one more row, the extra yarn can go sleep with the fishes, the mermaids, and/or Jimmy Hoffa. I will be DONE.

So, let’s vote on my next project!

(A) Finish the Scrabble Blanket already!
(B) Pick a WIP, any WIP.
(C) Knit whatever you want as long as it’s not grey.
(D) You said you could crochet. Were you lying?
(E) Knit an elegant and impractical shawl in luxury yarn!
(F) Knit Nakia’s Shawl from Black Panther.
(G) ________________________________________________

Be honest, now. This is for science.

Published in: on June 4, 2018 at 9:56 pm  Comments (2)  

1987: The Macintosh era

In the spring of 1986, in the midst of the end-of-year confusion and grief, a minor miracle occurred. Miami required all its freshmen to live on campus, but on-campus housing after that was secured through a lottery system. I had been assigned a disturbingly high lottery number, and since most of the on-campus women’s housing was held by sororities (of which I was not a member), it wasn’t looking good for me. There was a separate lottery held for the very few available spots in the honors dorm, but I was sick the night of the lottery and I did not attend. Wonder of wonders, word soon reached me that someone had drawn a number on my behalf, and I had a space now saved for me in Bishop Hall until I graduated. Did I want to accept? Yes, a thousand times yes!

Bishop Hall

Bishop Hall, home of the Honors Program.

My new roommate, MaryAnn, was an upperclassman who was already living in Bishop; she already had friends there, she was engaged to a soldier stationed in Missouri, and she was incredibly talented within her program of study but fought a valiant battle to succeed in her liberal education courses. She was a great storyteller and knew how to tell just enough to build the drama. At the end of our year as roommates, she secured a single room for herself, which was perfect for the studio work she would need to do her senior year. I lost track of her after that, but I’m sure that she’s an immensely successful interior designer somewhere. Here’s to you, MaryAnn!

My new roommate for my junior year was Becca, a sophomore paper science and engineering major from Kentucky. Though our classes didn’t overlap and we didn’t do much together socially (mostly because I never went anywhere except to author lectures and poetry readings), we worked out well as roommates and shared the same room for two years.

During my freshman year I was introduced to the brand-name, honest-to-goodness IBM PC. I spent untallied hours in several computer labs across campus writing, rewriting, and reformatting my papers in PC-Write. By today’s standards the program was a horror show. Every change seemed to create more changes, and something as simple as changing the left margin became a programming chore as you revised and resaved the RULER.DEF file before starting the program and creating the file that would be your paper. You never knew what the paper would actually look like until you printed it out, then you had to make edits and do it all over again. I was spending many hours more than I needed on my papers, just on the formatting.


In fall 1987 I took a class on Environmental Geology; it didn’t exactly have a lab session, but there was a software program the instructor wanted us to use for a certain type of simulation. For this work we went to a different computer lab — a small room in Upham Hall that had about half a dozen Macintoshes, probably Pluses, ready and waiting for us.


Every function on the Mac was startlingly easy to perform. It worked just the way I thought it should work. I clicked and dragged my way through the unit on fault lines and was soon spending time in the lab when I didn’t need to. I befriended the lab assistant, who made me a copy of a newly released word processor called Microsoft Word 3.0.

“How would you, say, change the left margin in an open file?” I asked one day.
“Just drag this triangle over,” he said. That was it for me!


In October there was a Macintosh open house at the student center. Macs back then weren’t terribly powerful or, to be honest, affordable, but the Shriver Center Bookstore was an authorized Apple reseller and they wanted to drum up some business. They had my full attention, and within a year I had a Macintosh: my boyfriend’s mother worked for the University and we were able to use her discount and take out a loan on a Macintosh SE with a massive-at-the-time 47 MB hard drive sitting in one of the floppy disk slots.

For Becca’s sake — she and her classwork were IBM-compatible all the way — I picked out a keyboard (the DataDesk 101) that simulated an IBM PC extended keyboard. If she wanted to use my cute little computer she could just type away without worrying about those odd “apple” and “cloverleaf” keys that didn’t correspond to the IBM keyboard in any obvious way.

At a later point, I added a modem to the setup. (I still have it, but it’s in the basement, which is a Dark and Scary Place that may be inhabited by other species, so I’m not planning to get up and retrieve it at this very minute.) It was a whizbang 1200 baud modem, which meant that it downloaded text faster than my reading speed, which was somewhere between 300 and 450 baud. The downside was that it worked, as modems do, through the phone lines. For those of you readers substantially younger than I am, this meant that the modem connected to the phone line in place of the phone. If you received an incoming call during your “online time” you were disconnected. (This is why you wanted unlimited online access rather than a plan which charged you by the minute. This is also why my generation invented TTFN and LOL and ROTFL — we were saving time, and time is money!)

The primary reason that I had a modem at all was because of the Miami University Bulletin Board System, or MUBBS. This was the cyber-hub of Miami’s geek community a decade before anyone besides William Gibson was using the term “cyber” in front of any other word. At the MUBBS in-person meetings I was often the only female, which I enjoyed. We had online handles, we created and moderated discussion forums, and eventually we created and managed social events such as hackathons. I remained a member of this community through my time in graduate school, but am now in contact with only two of its members. Wouldn’t it be cool to find out that in the interim, they’ve set up a secret and invisible Facebook group that you wouldn’t know about until you hacked your way into it? That’s just the kind of thing they’d do.


Miss you, Steve.

Knitwise, it’s now escalated to a slogalong on the grey shawl. I promised my knitting groups that I would knit on the shawl while I watched the qualifying and race sessions for the Monaco Grand Prix, but that didn’t happen. I was too busy coming up with elegant hors d’ouvres and shopping for champagne splits to concentrate on pedestrian occupations such as KNITTING. (Also, the race was rather exciting.) I do want to reiterate that I kept my promise not to knit on any other project until the Boring Grey Shawl was complete, so there’s a gold star for me. Just in case I can get some credit for completing non-knitting items, I would like to mention that over the Memorial Day weekend I put the winter coats away, cleaned up my kitchen, started training for a 15-mile bike ride, and made asparagus soup AND roasted asparagus. So there.


My asparagus, James’s stoneware, Dad’s table.

What’s on your needles? I hope to report some progress or even a finished object in the next post. We’ll see how it goes. This Friday I will be chaperoning a group of eighth graders on their class trip to the Wisconsin Dells, and I might need more recovery time than I think.

Published in: on May 28, 2018 at 10:45 pm  Comments (2)  

1986: Major Malfunctions

In the fall of 1985 I took a class called American History for the English Major. It wasn’t quite the same — I can only suppose — as Physics for Poets or History for Jocks, but it did have a different feel to it than your standard college history course. The instructor was a professor named John Dickinson, who was the editor of a scholarly journal called The Old Northwest, based out of offices along the far eastern corridor of the third floor of Bachelor Hall. He was old school, he was a curmudgeon with a twinkle in his eye, he jibed at Ohio State every chance he had, he hitched himself up on the corner of the large metal desk to tell us stories about history, and I was hooked. After History 204 came History 205 and I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of his stories.

On Tuesday, January 28, 1986, our world changed. I was at Harris Dining Hall putting my lunch on a plastic tray when I vaguely sensed something different about the words coming through the hall’s sound system. Usually there was music from the radio; something had happened, and something was dreadfully wrong. I went right back to my dorm room and watched the TV. Eileen usually watched “The Young and the Restless,” but Dan Rather was on and talking about the Space Shuttle Challenger. The video of the launch and the sudden breakup of the shuttle at 73 seconds into the flight played over and over and over. The hours went by and Rather stayed on the air. At some point he was handed a plastic model of the shuttle and he continued his narrative as he identified key structures that were involved in the failure of the craft, the end of the flight, and the loss of the entire flight crew, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. Her class of proud students must have watched the morning’s events unfold in something beyond horror, past shock. Rather soldiered on for hours, live on the air, anguished yet calm, and perhaps hoping for someone to relieve him of this horrific public duty. Relief never came, and America clung to his every word.

I skipped a class that night, for the only time in four years. I was riveted to the small TV screen in our room, frozen with shock, aching for details, hoping against hope that this was all some sort of dream and there was something that I could do to wake up. This kind of thing just didn’t happen, but here it was, happening again and again.

“It has cleared the tower.”

“Go at throttle up.”

“Roger, go at throttle up.”


“…obviously a major malfunction…”

“We mourn seven heroes.”



After Tuesday night I attended classes again. I was taking Honors Freshman English from a professor who seemed impossible to please, a Freshman Honors seminar on “Work,” a Short Story class, a Zoology class with a lab session that met just when the dining hall was open but made me lose my appetite completely, and American History for the English Major II.

Professor Dickinson educated and entertained our small class of English majors, most of whom had continued from the first semester, but in March his health began to take a turn. He was hospitalized after an attack of gout, and eventually the History Department appointed another instructor to cover the classes he would miss. We all looked forward to his return, and took turns calling the hospital just before class to find out how Dickinson was doing. Just as he was recovering from the gout, he contracted pneumonia. One day in April I called the hospital and a voice on the other end said, “He has expired.” At first I didn’t understand; after I understood, I thought it was a particularly inhumane thing to say. Still in shock, I went to class and babbled the news to my classmates.  A few minutes later our substitute professor entered the room, awkwardly announced, “John’s gone,” and gave his lecture for the day.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the semester. I attended Professor Dickinson’s funeral at the Sesquicentennial Chapel and then went back to my dorm room and cried. The substitute professor soldiered on through the end of the term, but he had a different specialization and I couldn’t pay attention anyway. I went to class, possibly took notes, and took an almost incomprehensible final exam. I strongly suspect that the History Department’s priority was to pass us along gently in our grief and hope that nobody broke. There was no offer of counseling or therapy; John was gone and that was that. Classes were held and tests were taken.

A line from Shakespeare was printed on the programs from Dickinson’s funeral: “Love comforts like sunshine after rain.” At the time I didn’t believe that it did anything of the sort. I was in a fog and I don’t know how I managed to focus in my other classes. Perhaps it was only because they were my other classes that I was able to get through. A song kept playing on the radio that spring, and initially it caused me a lot of pain. I could barely listen to it, let alone sing along. But gradually the song came to stand for the Spring of 1986, for Dickinson, and for dear things lost to time.


Knitwise, my Jefferson knitting and crocheting group, Yarn-a-Latte, has celebrated its 9th anniversary. And my Whitewater knitting and crocheting group, the Yarnhawks, was recently approved as an official student organization after two years of informal meetings that included faculty, staff, and students. Knit on!

Published in: on May 21, 2018 at 11:01 pm  Comments (1)  

1985: Back to the Future

Monday, May 14

This post will be written and published whenever possible this week; tonight I am finally going to see Avengers: Infinity War! Shh! No spoilers!

Monday, May 21

Why did Back to the Future seem to mean so much to my generation? The action took place in the year I graduated from high school, but several months later. We graduated a month before it was even released, so seeing it in the theater wasn’t even a bonding experience for the Class of ’85.

Perhaps it was its celebration of the 1980s and the Reagan Years, even as it subtly mocked them. Perhaps it was the DeLorean — an older classmate’s father owned one, and it seemed like the coolest, most exotic ride in the world. Perhaps it was Michael J. Fox, fresh from “Family Ties,” which was set in Columbus (okay, probably Grandview or Bexley). Perhaps it was Huey Lewis, whose 1984 “Sports” album (okay, tape cassette) went platinum seven times over and was a huge album in a year of huge albums (the soundtracks to Purple Rain and Footloose immediately come to mind).


“I’m sorry, boys, but you’re just too darn loud.”

Perhaps it was just that Back to the Future (BTTF) was a very, very good movie. It was well written, it was funny, and it was tremendously appealing. It wasn’t the first time-travel story enjoyed by a mass market — my own mother was addicted to “Quantum Leap,” and certainly two versions of “The Twilight Zone” had prepared us for time jumps — but it was the best.


“Great Scott!”

This still doesn’t explain my own devotion to the movie and, eventually, the whole franchise. I own more copies of the trilogy than I should admit, I own a car charger that mimics the flux capacitor, and I can’t turn away from a showing of any of the movies.


“Flux capacitor… fluxing…”

In the fall of 1985 I went off to my future, to college at Miami University. I had a new home, new teachers, new classes, new responsibilities, and a roommate. In my freshman dorm I was surrounded by girls — young women — from everywhere else (but mostly Cleveland). They brought their favorite music with them, and instead of Barry Manilow and Amy Grant I was hearing Genesis, UB40, Sting, and more.

In my first semester I struggled with calculus that I could perform but not understand, struggled to connect with a roommate who had goals and values so different from mine, and struggled with the weight of a course that compelled us to wrestle with the moral implications of the Holocaust. I also found new friends, new foods, new books, new places to watch people, and new places to be alone. I dated a young man who didn’t understand me at all, but before I broke up with him we saw several movies for a buck or two at the student center. Without someone to go “out” with, I might never have gotten out at all.

Gradually I expanded my circle of friends, took different classes than I thought I would, tried on a minor and dropped it, and came to find all my geeks in the small but extremely nerdy online bulletin board community of MUBBS. And on one school break, I got a ride home (or was it back to Miami?) from the guy whose father owned the DeLorean. The fall of 1985 was only the beginning.

Knitwise, I’m plugging along on the gray shawl whenever I remember that I really should pick it up because it’s not going to knit itself. ONE SKEIN OF YARN TO GO. I also purchased a new shawl pattern, with some stash yarn in mind. Never mind that I don’t know exactly where this particular stash yarn is, nor do I need a shawl, and neveryoumind that I’m not allowed to put another needle to another yarn until the BORING GRAY SHAWL is all done. Because what’s worse than knitting on a boring gray shawl? QUITTING.

Regarding Avengers: Infinity War, I’m not worried. I’ve seen movies before, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

1984: European Vacation

In the summer of 1984, after many months devoted to the completion of paperwork, the applications for passports, the purchase of traveler’s checks, and the sale of many thousands of suckers, candy bars, and assorted marketable treats, several students from my high school’s French and Spanish classes embarked on a ten-day trip to Europe. We flew from Columbus to New York, and then to Madrid and Paris before returning via Brussels.

European Vacation

The movie came out in 1985; clearly we were ahead of our time.

We spent so much time preparing for this trip that I’m astonished at how little I remember of packing, driving, and even most of the flying — the important part was the Being There. I do remember drawing each piece of my cleverly planned mix-and-match wardrobe that would stretch to the ten days of the trip. Nevertheless, it still seemed to take up most of the World’s Largest Samsonite, a monstrous tan (lockable!) hard-sided suitcase with wheels and a snap-in handle that was part of a four-piece set given as a Christmas present from my grandmother. (Deciding to open my largest gift on Christmas Eve was rather anticlimactic in 1983, as much as I needed the luggage.)


The smaller piece was called a “train case.”

The most memorable moment of my first day in Spain was when I didn’t quite make it through a too-quickly-revolving door. My arm was caught between the spinning door and the frame, and it throbbed during our walking tour of Madrid. I managed to take a few pictures with my Instamatic as our teacher/chaperone checked on me from time to time. She finally told me that if it didn’t look better in the morning I would have to visit a Madrid hospital to be examined, to see if my arm was broken. Perhaps it was my fear of having inadequate language skills to manage a trip to el hospital Madrileño, but I woke the next morning with no pain whatsoever in my arm, and I never even developed a bruise at the site.


Our group was arranged into smaller subgroups so that French students were always accompanied by Spanish students, so that in each country we would be able to translate for each other. This worked out quite well in my own experience. I remember practicing several helpful phrases before the trip, some of which we used successfully:

Where is the bathroom?

Can I take pictures in here?

How much does it cost?

One Coca-Cola, please.

The culinary adventure of Madrid was a platter of paella that we all sampled. I remember that it contained rice, mussels, shrimp, many other items, and some tasty bits of meat that looked like small drumsticks. It was delicious, and it took me a day or two to realize that the drumettes were actually rabbit, not chicken. I didn’t tell anyone.

Madrid was a great place for us to overcome as much of our culture shock as possible. The Metro was easy to navigate, and teenagers who might not have ventured outside of Ohio soon were able to buy a subway ticket, hop on a car, and wander a new city on the other side of the world. During a memorable trip to the Plaza Mayor, one of our party decided that a leather bullwhip would make a perfect souvenir; we spent that evening taking turns trying to make the whip crack in the confines of someone’s hotel room. (When we made a day trip to Toledo, someone else bought a sword to take home. It was definitely a different time.)

Bullfighting Ring

Before we left Madrid, most of our group attended a bullfight. Regardless of how one might feel about the ethics of bullfighting, it’s a unique cultural experience and I don’t regret attending it; nerdy me had prepared for travel by reading James Michener’s Iberia and parts of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. To me, bullfighting is a poetic art form that feeds the poor after each performance. Two of my closest friends felt differently and opted to spend the afternoon exploring El Parque de Buen Retiro, a stunning 346-acre park which no one else was able to see; life is full of choices.

Retiro Park

We travelled from Madrid to Paris by overnight train; I didn’t fully understand our chaperones’ instructions to purchase a meal before we boarded the train, since nothing would be available until we disembarked. I couldn’t sleep in the topmost bunk of our train compartment, just as I hadn’t been able to sleep during the transatlantic flight, and when we arrived in Paris I felt disoriented and half starved. Our first meal was at an elegant restaurant, and all I remember was poking at a beautiful salad composed of pieces too small for me to spear with a fork. Eventually I found something I could eat — probably a continental breakfast with those yummy croissants. And one of the culinary highlights of the entire trip was a meal at a restaurant just off the Champs-Elysées, where courses of delicious food were capped off with a simple dish of chocolate ice cream that truly tasted like chocolate.

Sacre Coeur

Sacré Coeur, Paris, France.

In Paris we shopped, toured the Louvre, bought watercolors and postcards in shops next to the Seine, looked in vain for Jim Morrison’s grave in Montemarte (hint: it’s in Pere Lachaise), had our choice of visiting Sacre Coeur or the Eiffel Tower (I chose Sacre Coeur), saw Notre Dame through a web of scaffolding as it was being renovated, saw the spectacular stained glass windows of St.-Chapelle, and had our choice of visiting Napoleon’s Tomb or the Eiffel Tower (I chose Napoleon’s Tomb and was the only one on the trip who didn’t climb the Eiffel Tower).


Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France.

In the end, we flew from Brussels to New York, or was it Pittsburgh?, before landing again in Columbus. Unlike some of the other students on the trip, I had not sneaked off for American fast food while I was overseas. After my parents picked me up, I convinced myself that what I really, really wanted was a Big Mac. At some McDonald’s somewhere between the airport and our house I placed my order and tried to figure out how much my purchase was worth in American money; my brain had been doing currency conversions for almost two weeks and didn’t understand that a dollar was just a dollar again. What did it all mean, anyway? I was confused, exhausted, and jet-lagged. I didn’t even eat the Big Mac.

Knitwise, I have done somewhat less than the minimum daily required amount of knitting to make progress on the simple grey triangle shawl; it’s not going to knit itself, so I had better find more knitting occasions and start plugging away. Meanwhile, I did cast on for a project I can keep at the office. It’s a cotton washcloth which, by definition, can’t possibly go wrong. Nevertheless, I’m not creating the pattern I intended to make with the stitches that I am using. I could frog it and start over, I could tink it back a bit and write down what I’ve done so far, or I could leave it in its project bag and wait for a third solution to present itself. So far I seem to have chosen Option C.

Published in: on May 7, 2018 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

1983: Big Mom

I have already written about our twice- or thrice-annual drives from Ohio to West Virginia to visit my grandparents and my mother’s relatives, starting in Silver Anniversaries and also mentioned in Here, Kitty Kitty. Over the years the roads and routes changed, but the final stretch past Chelyan has always been the same: we drive east (though it feels like south to us Northerners) along Route 61 beside the snaking Kanawha River past Cabin Creek, through East Bank, and through Crown Hill before we arrive at Hansford.

Along the way, Mom would point out landmarks that gradually became memories: “There’s the house I grew up in, at the top of that hill, and Granny and Pap lived next door” became “Those apartments up there are where our houses used to be” and eventually “That space behind the fence is where our houses were, and I used to sled down that hill.” On the other side of the road, an elementary school became a high school and then became a patch of grass. Further down the road was my uncle’s house before it was someone else’s house and then just a place where a pink and white trailer used to be. Any hint of sadness was gone when we spied W. T. Elswick Fields (now the Pratt-Hansford Baseball Fields) through the trees and knew that our grandparents’ house would next appear, and our four-hour trip (eventually three and a half hours) would be complete in a matter of minutes.

One of those landmarks was Big Mom’s house, perched at the base of a nameless mountain. When we went to visit her — my grandmother’s mother, widowed since 1958 — we had to park on the other side of the road in the lot of an auto repair shop next to the CSX tracks, then cross 61 and haul ourselves up a set of concrete steps set into the embankment in front of her neighbor’s house (gone now, replaced by the pickup truck in the photo below), with the passive aid of a railing made of plumbers’ pipe (also gone now). Then we staggered up a trail that took us further up the hill to her house, after which the mountain’s woods took over sharply. This wasn’t a place where you could play in the yard. There were houses further up the mountain from Big Mom’s, but we never saw them. In fact, there had been a whole world of houses, businesses, and trails up the mountains back in the day (and the days before my mother), but most of it was gone by the time we visited the area. Whatever man puts on the mountain, the mountain will eventually take back.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 9.37.29 PM

Big Mom was ancient and gruff and could have been scary, but it was clear that she loved us, so we didn’t worry. Mom settled on the couch to catch up with her over tea while my brother and I wandered around the compact and unfamiliar house, trying to explore without touching anything. She may have had a dog the last time we visited her, but I clearly remember her Siamese cat (having been impressed with their evil nature when watching Si and Am in Lady and the Tramp). Even at fourteen I was still at the age where anyone with a pet was my friend, and I visited — carefully — with the cat while my mother visited her grandmother.

The last time we visited Big Mom was either Christmas 1982 or the summer of 1983. I don’t remember the season or the date as much as I remember the long, curious look she gave me. Then she went into her bedroom to retrieve a photograph. It was one I had seen many times before: my mother and me, she in her poufy late-1960s hair and I in my chubbiness. I didn’t know she had a copy of it, too. “Here,” she said. “I want you to have this.” In that moment when our eyes met, I knew that was the last time I would see her alive. I knew that she knew it, too, and I accepted the photo.


Big Mom — otherwise known as Margaret Miskell — passed away in September 1983, just after I began my sophomore year of high school. Interestingly, her husband had died when my mother was a sophomore in high school. And it may not be interesting, but it is curious that Margaret’s husband was named Wilbur, they named their only son Wilbur, and their middle daughter married a man named Wilbur. Some of the name’s popularity is surely due to Wilbur Wright’s achievements and fame in the early twentieth century, but it was growing in popularity before then as a form of the German name Gilbert, meaning “trusted.” In the years since then, my family has tended to hand down my grandfather’s middle name, Austin. And the landmarks continue to fade away, but we have our memories — and our photographs.

Knitwise, last week I used up the first skein of grey bouclé, leaving an enormous, tightly wound ball of more yarn that eventually revealed itself as a ball wound double. This means that two strands of yarn, for whatever reason, had been held together while the former owner wound a new ball of yarn. I would have to separate the yarns before I could continue to knit on the shawl, but how?

My first solution required a ten-story building and a friend of equal height. Not having any takers for this plan, I kept brainstorming. With my #1 son at home last weekend, we devised an alternate scheme that used a large orange plastic bowl, two ball winders, and, eventually, a Phillips-head screwdriver. It eventually worked like a charm, and the two skeins were separated into two yarn cakes. Now all I have to do is the knitting.


While waiting for the Grey Bouclé Solution to present itself, I decided to cast on for a smaller, more portable project that I could leave at work in case I, for some mysterious reason, might actually forget to bring my current knitting project to campus on the day when the campus knitting group met. Not that this would ever happen. I decided to use some bright red cotton yarn for a washcloth whose pattern I made up and never wrote down. The best thing about it is that, even if the design does not prove to be spectacularly interesting, it will still be a washcloth.

Published in: on April 30, 2018 at 10:27 pm  Comments (1)  

1982: The Book Behind the Desk

The years run together, and much of what I remember from high school is not exactly what my teachers would have hoped for. I was finishing my freshman year and beginning my sophomore year. I experienced my second year of “this one time, at band camp” as we returned to Proctor (of Proctor & Gamble) Farms somewhere south of Mt. Sterling during the hottest week of August.  (It wouldn’t be band camp if you didn’t suffer somehow; my section didn’t haze anyone but others did; my best friend nearly broke his toe on a metal bed frame, and several people regretted not taking water breaks during the post-lunch practice.)

Algebra I turned into Geometry, Life Science turned into Biology, and English 9 turned into, well, English 10. I remember them more for the stories within them than for the content they tried to impart. Algebra I was more filled with story than you might think, as James Clavell’s epic novel Shogun, later a miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain, came out in paperback that year — 1,012 pages of paperback. I’m sure I wasn’t fooling Mr. Mudd when I read that book every chance I had. Each day in class I hoped that he would start on my side of the room when he asked us to answer the odd-numbered questions from the book; that way I would be number 3 or 5 (easy problems) rather than number 35 or 37 (much more difficult problems, which I would have to work much harder to solve). I was obsessed with the adventures of Anjin-San, and every minute spent working out algebra problems was a minute away from making it through the longest novel I had ever read. I put off my math homework until the afternoon bus ride, when I could ask my friend Ben for help with any algebra concept I might have missed while I was busy reading about feudal Japan. We were halfway through the school year when it finally sunk in that his class was using the new textbook and mine the old; he was tutoring me in algebra without access to the textbook that I was using. He has gone on to live a happy and creative life, but sometimes I wonder about the math teach he would have made. And in Geometry? I wrote poetry. Nothingtoseeherelet’smoveon.


The texts I read in English class were, as far as I remember, the ones I was supposed to read: “Romeo and Juliet” in English 9 and “Julius Caesar,” “Our Town,” and The Great Gatsby in English 10. Why should I read a book in English class when I was already supposed to be reading a book? I probably had my pinky finger in the back of the textbook, though, to read the stories we probably wouldn’t get to that year.

Great Gatsby

Science class was another matter. I associate Life Science with Jane Eyre, which I loved and read over and over, and Biology with Wuthering Heights, which I didn’t enjoy or understand. I thought Catherine and Heathcliff were dysfunctional and insane with their continual brooding and running around on the moors. What the hell was going on there, anyway? Just last week I had a talk about this with a bona fide literature professor, who asserted that anyone who thinks Wuthering Heights is a romance novel needs some serious therapy. (That conversation was so validating.) I did do some science, though; kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. So there. I also dissected an earthworm in tenth grade, then petitioned — successfully — to be allowed to submit anatomical drawings of dissected creatures rather than perform the dissections myself.

Jane Eyre  Wuthering Heights

Math, English, and science? Surely I must have taken something else. Oh yes, there was this one time, in band class… where the woodwind section read horror stories. While the band director worked with the trumpet section, we slipped out from behind our sheet music the “Goosebumps” books from R. L. Stein, V.C. Andrews novels (who else was traumatized by Flowers in the Attic?), and Stephen King works that included Pet Sematary, Cujo, and Night Shift. What can I say? The director spent a lot of time with the trumpet section and we spent a lot of time with our books.


I didn’t read novels in the art class I took my freshman year: I was too busy disagreeing with my art teacher over what was art and what was nonsense. She wanted me to learn about abstraction and surrealism, and I thought photorealism was the epitome of artistic skill. She tried to inspire my creativity by making me sketch goat skull after goat skull and produce something that wasn’t a goat skull; I just wanted to draw my horses. I plugged away, refusing to try much of anything new, getting mostly B’s on my report card but somehow receiving the Art award at the end of the year.

At home I was now happily surrounded by animals — Boots, the inside cat; Cocoa and Cricket, my horse and my mother’s; calico Katie and her son Perry, the outside cats (the rest of Katie’s litter having been rehomed). My parents had added on to the house and built a third bedroom, so I didn’t have to share my bedroom with my brother any more; I converted one end of my closet into an admittedly claustrophobic writing space and typed up poems and stories on my manual typewriter, including a horror story that was based on calico Katie and ended with the haunting line “poison ivy grows on the cat’s grave.” Yes, I eventually got better. No, I don’t plan to publish it online.

Knitwide, I set the blue-green rectangle aside and cast on for a simple triangle shawl with a skein of tonal grey bouclé. I have two skeins of this donated mystery yarn to work with, and I intend to use up both of them while I make this shawl. It’s simple knitting and will bring someone comfort, which is a good thing to do right now.  There are plenty of projects to start and finish after I’m done with this one. Who knows, perhaps the next project will be a circle.

Published in: on April 23, 2018 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

1981: Summer Camp of the Nerds

The summer of 1981 brought great relief. I had survived the eighth grade and would be going to high school in the fall. (Considering that our middle school and high school buildings were positioned about 30 yards apart, this was not so much of a big deal.) I had made it through two years of marching band and was attending summer band practice. (There was this thing called “band camp” coming up in August, but that probably wasn’t going to be a life-changer.)

My big deal was that I was going to spend one week in July at Miami University, in a summer camp emphasizing science and math. Not only was it a camp about science and math, but it was pretentiously and embarrassingly titled the “Summer Institute for Tomorrow’s Leaders.” Nice job, Miami. Apparently I had been considered nerdy enough to attend this camp the previous summer, but my parents hadn’t gotten my application in before the spots filled up — grossly underestimating the number of extremely nerdy seventh and eighth graders in the nation’s heartland. I was waitlisted for the following year, and off I went to Oxford, Ohio.


Our drive of one hundred miles went due southwest along I-71, wound through Lebanon, south of Middleton, and north of Hamilton, and then ended at the top of a steep hill where State Route 73 would have run straight into a forested campus if there hadn’t been a stoplight. We were in Oxford. The sky was sky blue, the grass was grass green, and every building was made of weathered dark red brick crawling with real ivy, with cream Georgian columns out front. The campus screamed COLLEGE in 72-point bold type, and I imprinted on it like a newborn duckling on Konrad Lorenz.


We stayed in the dorms, and my roommate for the week was a girly girl named Kelly. She had come equipped for the week with a curling iron, a metric ton of makeup, and cute clothes. If I had missed some memo that summer reminding me to be girly while I studied science, it was to be the first of many. In my jeans and sneakers I happily ran around all over campus with the boys while we caught moths, saw early LOGO programming on the Apple II, played 20 Questions on the DEC VAX in the lab in Kreger Hall, and worked out solutions to math problems of our own devising.


For example, a bunch of us made it to Culler Hall to watch a Foucault pendulum in action. A sign next to the pendulum noted how long it took the bob to swing once out and back. The same idea came to each of us simultaneously: how many times would the pendulum swing in one year? We took out pens, papers, and calculators and calculated furiously. We were astonished to find that each of us had arrived at a different answer. This led not to arguments, but to a longer conversation about our different assumptions and methods. I was in nerd heaven. And when I was with the boys, it didn’t matter that I was a girl – all that mattered was getting the right answer or asking the right question. With the girls, it seemed to matter how girly you were. I knew I wouldn’t ever win that contest, so I ignored as much of girl culture as I could afford to.

However, I did temporarily align with the girls when it came to deciding who was the cutest boy at the camp. I don’t remember his name now, but he was medium height with blue eyes and curly golden brown hair. The entire girls’ wing of the dorm was swooning over Mr. Cute & Curly, but by Wednesday I noticed that his roommate got less attention even though he was friendly, tall, and slender. I can’t tell you how it happened, but by the time my parents came to pick me up at camp’s end I had found a hand to hold as I navigated the campus. I think my parents were as surprised as I was when I introduced them to gangly, dark-haired Scott and took his picture on the front steps of Minnich Hall. Even though I never saw him again, it was a confidence booster. Thanks, Scott.


Four years later, when it was time to apply for college admission, no college ever measured up to the memories I had of Miami. No other school had a chance at capturing my heart. When I did attend Miami, my new experiences overlapped my old paths: in the lecture room where I had heard about moth selection and elementary statistics, I took a night class on American literature. In the Bishop Woods where I had captured insects, I later darted from computer lab to geology class in a spring rain. In the computer lab where we had played text games on the mainframe, I later had the chance to alpha-test a new computer called a NeXT. And in Bachelor Hall, where our group had composed a song, I later worked at my first student job, took English and math courses, survived creative writing workshops, and — much later — shared an office with my future husband as I prepared to begin graduate school and teach my own English class. But I’m getting far ahead of myself, and the future wasn’t going to be as simple as a well-crafted ambiguous sentence can make it appear.

Knitwise… I have spent quite a bit of time reorganizing my patterns and stash over the last week. I started and finished the blue-green rectangle that I described in my previous post, and went looking for yarn to complement it. When I went stash-diving for blue fun-fur yarn for a friend, I found the unfinished projects about which time had truly forgotten. Felted loafers, two steps from being done? I pulled them out to re-prioritize them. Red, white, and blue cotton yarn? I’ll re-home it. And I found several would-be project bags filled with some high-class skeins of laceweight. In some cases I can almost remember the patterns I meant to use to knit them up. These are bags of hope, of ambition, of misplaced yet admirable levels of confidence. When I can start them, I will.

Meanwhile I have cast on for a simple triangle shawl made of fuzzy grey-and-white yarn, with a eyelet rows three stitches in from each edge. I use the easiest pattern in the world, which works just as well for a small cotton dishcloth as it does for a king-sized blanket, and it will allow me to knit on with confidence and hope through all crises.