My Clothes Are So F****** Boring: Me Made May 2016 Recap

At the beginning of Me-Made May, I pledged to wear one piece of handmade clothing each day and to alter five pieces of clothing to make them more wearable. I didn’t take pictures everyday, but I did keep track of what I wore in one of my journals. I easily managed wearing at least one handmade garment everyday. However, I only got around to altering one garment—I took my Ottobre “Get Moving” hoodie in at the sides and shaved some of the depth off of the pocket bags since they tended to poke out of the bottom when I put anything in them. We took a week-long trip to San Francisco in the middle of the month (where I wore my altered hoodie almost everyday), and when we got back I was tired and busy and needed time to recover the energy to sew, so ….no more alterations. I at least made a list of alterations I want to make and actually intend to take them on, so there’s that.

Simplicity 1062

S1062, which I still really like

The biggest thing I learned during Me-Made May is that I find my clothes very boring. There are, of course, some exceptions (I got a lot of joy out of wearing my Simplicity 1062 shirt and my newest Onyx shirt this month). It would have also been different if I had done this during colder weather, since I have a lot of hand knits that definitely do not feel boring. But for the most part, my closet—store bought and hand-made alike—is lean, utilitarian, and uninspiring.

So I’ve spent a lot of time this month thinking about my history and experience with clothing. I grew up in kind of a big family, living in very small Midwestern farming towns. My father is also a pastor (as was his father). I don’t ever describe myself as coming from a religious family or as having been “raised in the church” since people in the U.S. tend to have very specific associations with these ideas that don’t at all reflect my experience growing up in a very liberal, progressive church environment. But, looking back on my childhood and my family, I feel like there was always a distinctly Protestant moralism to the way my family looked at clothing.

Paprika Onyx Shirt

Love this Onyx Shirt, although I need to more permanently secure the sleeve cuffs

The basic goals for clothing in my family were that we had enough (and not much more), that our clothes were practical, and that they were economical. My family did not shop for clothing for fun—we got things as needed (and my dad is a no bullshit kind of guy so the need had to be real and demonstrable). My dad was also really suspicious of trends and a lot of the more ornamental aspects of fashion, which he saw as frivolous, irrational, and as a distraction from inner, personal growth. I remember having several conversations with my dad in which he basically argued for the value of intentionally eschewing trends and changes in fashion as a way of demonstrating humility, challenging the cultural value placed on material things, and developing a sense of self that does not depend on external validation. I think my dad has actually relaxed his view a bit as he’s gotten older, but I’ve really internalized a lot of his ideals and I can see now how much my attitudes toward clothing are tied to a very specific set of ethical principles that have shaped who I am.

 

Madigan Pullover

I really like my Madigan pullover (although it was too warm to wear it this month), but it’s actually too big now

But before I was thinking enough about my clothes to see how they are tied to a set of ethical principles, I just thought about myself as a person who didn’t care about clothes. This attitude was bolstered by my deep, deep hatred of shopping for clothes. Shopping for clothes feels like such a massive waste of time and just an ongoing exercise in disappointment. For basically all of my adult life, I’ve waited until I was at the point where I didn’t have enough clothes to get through a laundry cycle and then I would do one big shopping trip where I would fill in the holes with new clothing that was just minimally acceptable to my tastes. I go through cycles of being deeply dissatisfied with my clothes and then just deciding not to care about what I wear until the angst surfaces again. In Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline argues at one point that if we all think about it enough, we are actually very particular about the style and fit of our clothes, although the conditions of fast fashion tend to force us to settle for things that are just okay. I’ve done a lot of settling and had basically given up on finding things to suit my particular desires because they just didn’t exist.

Ottobre 05/2015 Get Moving Hoodie

Wore this a lot after I altered it to fit better. This falls in the category of boring but very useful

Even when I started sewing, I didn’t really focus on sewing things that would suit my particular tastes. I started sewing so that I could quit shopping for clothes, so my concern was being able to produce enough and on producing things that were practical enough to get a lot of wear out of. So I’ve made a lot of basic things like t-shirts, underwear, leggings, pajama pants, etc.—basically things that are fairly easy to make and easy to wear. I’m happy with what I’ve learned about sewing in the process and happy enough with the things I’ve made to keep wearing them, but a lot of what I’ve made still leaves me feeling a little cold. I think my closet still says, “I don’t care about clothes,” which seems like the wrong message for someone who cares enough to take a lot of time and effort to actually make my own clothes.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m gearing up for some kind of radical shift in style. I lean towards minimal, casual, and monochrome so the garments I really love and find joy in (all three or four of them) are things other people would find very boring. I don’t see that changing. I guess I’d just like to have more clothes that I actually enjoy wearing and that I care enough about to really want to preserve and take care of (unlike a lot of my handmade t-shirts, which frankly feel about as disposable as the ones I’ve bought from Old Navy).

SBCC Tonic Tee

I wore my Tonic Tees a lot this month. They fit better now than they did when I finished them, but I don’t actually like them anymore than my t-shirts from Old Navy.

 

Me-Made May was helpful in terms of helping me see that I have enough clothes, so I can shift the way I make my sewing and knitting plans. I don’t have a specific project list in mind. Instead, I guess I’m just trying to focus on slowing down and paying more attention to my internal sense of what I’d like to make, what I’d like to wear, and on the details that will make things all the more enjoyable. I’d like to move away from super easy projects, take some more risks, and try to learn some more things. I want to become more confident in altering patterns (not just in terms of fit but also in terms of changing details) and more proactive in terms of caring for and altering my clothes. Basically, I don’t want to keep replicating the generic and dissatisfying results of fast fashion in my own sewing. If my closet is even 25% less mind numbing next May, I’ll be very happy.

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Blogging Challenges for the New Year

I started blogging again this past November after leaving my blog dormant for over a year. In the final two months of 2013, I managed to publish 12 new blog posts, which all together add up to well over 10,000 words. My return to this blog has been one of the highlights of my year—I’ve been having a lot of fun sharing the things I’ve been making and am finding blogging a great source of inspiration. I’m looking forward to keeping up with my blog this year, and I already have a lot of post ideas to keep things rolling. But I’m also giving myself two blogging challenges for 2014 that I hope will help me develop my sewing skills and give me an opportunity to share some of my knitting knowledge.

Challenge #1: Make a Garment a Month

As I said in an earlier blog post, the reason that I started sewing again this past summer is that I wanted to start making my own clothes (beyond the sweaters I knit myself). Now that I’ve done some more crafty projects that have helped me get a better handle on some sewing basics, I want to get back to focusing on sewing clothes. To help me push myself, I signed up for the Make a Garment a Month blog challenge run by Sarah Liz. The challenge is pretty self-explanatory: you sew one garment for yourself each month and blog about the details. I think this challenge will set a nice pace for my sewing efforts, giving me enough of a challenge to keep me motivated without demanding more than I can reasonably keep up with. My stuff won’t be very impressive or terribly exciting since I’m just starting out, but I’m looking forward to acquiring some new skills and to learning from other, more experienced sewists participating in the challenge. I’ve ordered the fabric for my January project and will blog about my sewing plans for this month as soon as it arrives.

This particular challenge is officially sponsored by my dad, who bought me a new steam iron for Christmas (yes—crafters ask for the weirdest gifts), and by Aidan, who just got a fancy new job that will hopefully allow me to replace my crappy sewing machine in the coming months. So if nothing I make turns out, it’s all their fault.

Challenge #2: Write About Sweater Knitting

The other crafty/blogging challenge I’m giving myself this year is my goal to write a new post each month about some of the things I’ve learned (and continue learning) about knitting sweaters. Awhile ago, before I revived my blog, one of the sweaters that I made was featured on Modification Mondays over on Knitted Bliss, and I got some comments from people about the challenges of knitting plus-size sweaters. (I use the term “plus-size” less because it’s a term I like and more because it is a convenient referent.) I’m no expert, but I do feel like I have some good tips to share and now that I’m blogging again, I figure people might be interested in reading about some of them.

My version of Ravine. More details available on Ravelry.

I struggled to knit sweaters that fit me well for almost as long as I’ve been knitting. When I got serious about learning to modify patterns to fit my body, I spent a lot of time reading sweater-knitting resources on blogs, on Knitting Daily, and on Ravelry. There are lots of great resources available, but the majority of these resources fail to address issues that are more specific to knitting plus-size sweaters. But knitting plus-size sweaters isn’t just challenging because of a lack of resources or patterns—it’s made even more difficult by a whole host of cultural ideologies that can make talking about, respecting, and crafting for a fat body fraught and difficult. My aim with these posts I plan to write is to not only add to the pool of plus-size knitting resources that are already available (one of my absolute favorite resources and blogging inspirations is Knitting At Large), but to also affirm that every body is deserving of a great, hand-made sweater.  My goal is to write at least one blog post about sweater knitting each month, and my first sweater post will go live later this week.

What About Baking?

I don’t have any specific baking-related challenges in mind. However, my dad gave me a copy of Baking with Julia and a bunch of high-quality cake decorating gear for Christmas and I have a copy of The Cake Bible that I haven’t even touched yet, so there’s bound to be some baking fun happening this year.

The cake I made for our godson's 2nd birthday. Photo taken by Aidan.

The train cake I made this year for our godson’s 2nd birthday. Photo taken by Aidan.

Mostly, I’m looking forward to another year of crafting and creating. Have you given yourself any crafting or baking challenges for 2014?

Thoughts on Making Gifts

At Christmas, the craft world is abuzz with talk of lengthy gift lists, craft-induced stress, late-night craft-cramming sessions, and the nightmare that is having to wrap an unfinished item. At the same time, parodies of the homemade gift pop up over and over again. Crafters are losing sleep over their lists of gift projects while a whole host of voices want us to believe that everyone secretly dreads a handmade gift. Of course, the parodies, like most pop culture tropes, are cheap, one-dimensional, and tired. Unless you are watching a period piece, you rarely see a skilled maker produce a beautiful handcrafted item that the receiver loves, despite how often this happens in real life. And I think that people who really believe that “the only real gift is a purchased gift” are a small, albeit vocal, minority of people you probably don’t want to hang out with anyway. But given all the stress and anxiety and hurried toiling that comes with gift-related crafting, I’ve been wondering: why do we give homemade gifts?

I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question, as if to say: “why bother?” I ask the question genuinely, as in: How do we make decisions about when to make gifts and what to make and for whom? What kinds of values underlie those decisions? When does making gifts pay off and when is it an unnecessary drain on our creative energy?

Kari at UCreate has a list of 10 reasons to give handmade gifts that sums up a lot of the reasons I like to make gifts. My biggest motivation for giving handmade gifts is that it allows me to give things that are personalized and unique. Handmade gifts can also be a sure thing for people that you know appreciate certain items–I like giving Aidan socks because he wears them enthusiastically and his mom always likes getting knitted dishcloths. In the past, I’ve given something handmade when I’m short on gift ideas, which can work well if it matches the person’s interests and personality. I was stumped for gift ideas for my sister’s 12th birthday and ended up making her this sock monster. It might seem like a random gift, but it matches her quirky personality and her love of all things cute and silly.

But other motivations for giving handmade gifts can creep in, like the belief that handmade goods are inherently superior. Or the belief that a handmade gift is the only way to provide a personal gift or the only way to opt out of the rampant consumerism that takes over during gift-giving seasons like Christmas. The idea of a handmade Christmas is nice, but does it run the risk of replacing the pressures and expectations of consumerism with a different set of pressures and expectations?

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t also an aspect of performance to making handmade gifts. By that, I mean that I wonder if there is some part of us that is working to show that we are skilled and to have this skill verified by the people who receive the gift. I think this performance is more unconscious than anything and, to some extent, unavoidable. Of course I want to have my skill recognized. I take pleasure in having people appreciate the time and thought and skill that went into making something. But it’s dangerous to let that desire for praise or the need to perform “craftiness” take over—if you fall into a place of looking for external validation as the primary marker of the worth of what you’ve done it only breeds bad feelings and disappointments.

Gift giving is emotional, for both giver and receiver. And for the giver, it seems that the emotional stake in a gift increases the more we invest. We worry more about whether a person will like a gift when it is expensive or when we’ve had to go out of our way to get it. Or, in the case of the handmade gift, we worry more about how a gift will be received if it took a lot of time or precious materials to produce. When we inflate the value of handmade goods (simply by virtue of being handmade) or burden ourselves with more gift projects than we have reasonable time or energy to produce, we increase our emotional investment and, likewise, our risk of disappointment if the gift is not received in the way we hope. When we have an inflated emotional investment in a gift or when we’re desperately looking to have our work validated in specific ways, this puts more pressure on the receiver. And perhaps that’s where some of the disdain for handmade gifts comes from—from people being put in a position where they not only receive something they dislike, but where they know, implicitly, that there is added pressure to be extra appreciative or to actively praise a person’s skill.

 

There’s always a risk that someone won’t like a gift. The question for me, as a maker, is: how do I keep my emotional investment in a handmade gift in check and make giving a handmade gift as positive an experience as possible? I find that my best handmade gift-giving experiences come when I’m realistic about my time, my ability, and about the person that I’m giving a gift to. Likewise, my worst experiences have come from not being realistic. Usually, being realistic means that I focus on my energy on just a few handmade gifts at Christmas and the occasional handmade gift through the rest of the year rather than trying to make something for everyone. To stay realistic, I’m continually asking myself questions like:

  • Is working on a deadline or making something for someone else going to make me feel resentful? Do I have the creative energy to make this gift or am I already immersed in projects I’d rather being working on?
  • Is this gift appropriate for the receiver? Am I making it for them because I think they will appreciate it or just because I want to make them something?
  • Have I chosen materials appropriate for the person who will use the gift and for how the gift will be used? If I’m thinking about using expensive or delicate materials, do I think the receiver will appreciate those materials? Are these materials that I love and want to keep for myself?
  • Do I really have the time to make these gifts? Have I factored in other life events and responsibilities that will zap my energy or interrupt my ability to work on these gifts? Do I have time to do the finishing work that will make this item shine?
  • If I’m starting to feel overwhelmed or stressed, what can I cut from the list? What can be saved for the next gift-giving occasion?
  • Can I actually make this thing and make it look good/be functional?
  • And when it’s done: Am I happy with how it turned out? Do I feel good giving this as a gift?

It’s always a challenge to be realistic about your time, especially at Christmas when everyone is busy and there is continual pressure to make the season special. But I think it’s also difficult to be realistic about your ability. The bizarre ornament your 6-year-old niece made in art class is charming, but the dry, burnt cookies you receive from someone who only dusts their measuring cups off once a year in December are decidedly less charming. It’s tempting to use new skills to make everyone gifts (because, “Hey! Look at this awesome thing I can do now!”) or to learn a new skill because you want to make a particular gift. But being new to a craft means that even simple projects can take a good deal of time, can require the purchase of new tools and materials, or can make you feel insecure about what you produce, all of which inflate your emotional investment in the gift. It’s not that I think you can’t take up a new craft and start making gifts right away or that every new crafter endures a period of making endless items of shame. I’ve sewn gifts for three people in the very short time that I’ve been sewing, but I’ve tried to be mindful of my ability in doing so by picking projects I feel confident I can execute well and that aren’t a burden to complete.

I take for granted that the only acceptable response to a gift is to say “Thank you,” even if you’re visualizing the fastest route to Goodwill while you unwrap it. But there’s no denying that the handmade gift, despite the thought and love that might go into it, can become a special kind of disaster. I like to think that being mindful about why and when we give handmade gifts can help us avoid playing out the parody.

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about handmade gifts, I’m curious: Are you making gifts this season? How do you choose what to make and who to make gifts for? Where do you think handmade gifts go wrong?

(All of the pictures in this post are of knitted gifts I’ve made over the years. You can click on each picture to get all the project details on Ravelry.)

Learning to Sew

This summer, my life-long hatred of clothes shopping finally hit the limit, and I decided I would solve my shopping problem once and for all by simply making my own damn clothes. I resolved after more than a decade of failed attempts to really and truly take up sewing. Other, more normal people in my life have pointed out that this is an extreme approach to dealing with my clothes shopping problems. Maybe it is. My idea of what is easy or reasonable to make is clearly skewed.

My past sewing attempts have not been great. In high school, I managed to make a basic denim pencil skirt, featuring a functional zipper fly, a shiny black patterned denim that looked like it had eyes all over (tres chic!), and seams that I made no effort to finish. I think I wore it once or twice before I threw it in the back of my closet and then promptly gave up on sewing for the moment. In college, I decided it was time to try again so I bought fabric to make pajama pants for Aidan and myself. I finished Aidan’s pants, but they were at least a size too big with a tie-waist that didn’t really do the trick. I repeated the too-big problem when I set out to make sun dresses for my two youngest sisters but got discouraged when the first dress didn’t even come close to fitting. I never even got around to cutting the second dress out.

Kid Shirt

A T-Shirt I made for our nephew from one of Aidan’s old shirts. Made using this free tutorial from MADE.

Despite my sewing history, I thought this time around I would be able to draw on my experience as a seasoned knitter to try to control the learning process in such a way that I could maybe, possibly, hopefully avoid a long and awkward period of producing things that you wear once or twice (to the horror of your loved ones and close friends) before tossing them out. The quality and wearability of my knitting benefitted hugely from lots of research and careful planning, so I reasoned that applying the same principles to sewing would result in a quick path to sewing non-shameful garments. So I bought a handful of really good, well-reputed books on sewing technique and pattern fitting and I did lots of reading.

I realized my controlled, research-based approach was seriously lacking the first time I sat down in front of my sewing machine this summer, intent on finally finishing the pair of PJs I started seven years ago. (I thought finishing that project would be enough to sharpen my sewing skills and get me going seriously—Ha!) I couldn’t get the tension on my machine balanced and after 90 tedious minutes of messing around with my machine, I realized I had just threaded the damn thing wrong. And even that episode wasn’t enough to keep me from making the same threading mistake about four more times. Here I was thinking I was at the starting line, and I hadn’t even figured out how to tie my shoe laces yet. But I dug in and kept going. I managed to finish those PJs and they haven’t fallen apart in the wash yet. I also made two pairs of bike shorts, refashioned some of our old T-shirts into a toddler-sized shirt and a few pairs of underwear, made a cover for my sewing machine, and successfully hemmed a new pair of jeans. I even took a pair of scissors the pajama pants I had made for Aidan long ago—I resized them, attached a new elastic waistband, and cut them off at the knee (at his request) and now he has a pair of summer lounge shorts that have already seen a lot of wear.

A simple pincushion made from fabric scraps using this free tutorial from Riley Blake Designs.

A simple pincushion made from fabric scraps using this free tutorial from Riley Blake Designs.

I had a stumbling moment when I decided it was time to leave all those “busy” projects behind and get serious about making those well-planned, carefully executed garments that had always been my goal. I decided to try my hand at a simple woven tank top pattern, and it was a fantastic flop. I didn’t even bother to finish it. I think the only thing that stopped me from giving up on sewing again was finding out that a friend was pregnant and deciding to use my super-amateur sewing skills to make her a baby gift. Baby sewing yanked me out of my inflated expectations and led me back to low-stakes projects with simple steps and a quick turn-around time. I planned a couple of more easy sewing projects and started using the fabric scraps I’d accumulated for quick projects like a pincushion and a coffee sleeve. These little crafty projects are not at all what I had in mind when I decided to start sewing, but they have been seriously satisfying and I’m learning a lot from each project, no matter how small.

A reusable coffee sleeve made using this tutorial from Skip to My Lou. Pow!

A reusable coffee sleeve made using this tutorial from Skip to My Lou. Pow!

A few days ago, I read a blog post on Grad Hacker summarizing the 10 principles of Rapid Skill Acquisition explained by Josh Kaufman in his book The First Twenty Hours. (I haven’t read the book—just the post about the book.) The post was interesting, although not all of the principles apply to my efforts to learn to sew, especially since I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to learn to sew as fast as I can—it’s a leisure activity for me, after all. But I was especially struck by the last principle, which is to “emphasize quantity and speed.” The idea is to give up on the idea of achieving perfection and instead just do as much as you can. In general, I’m a big proponent of doing things well rather than fast. But my clumsy start to sewing has definitely shown me the value of putting quality on the back-burner for a bit and just diving in, making things quickly, and being happy with “done” and “good enough.” So have I made a bunch of crafty things over the past five months that were never part of my sewing goals? Yes. And have I made a bunch of things that are, on the whole, pretty crappy? Hell yes. Do I anticipate more sewing disappointments? Of course. But I also know that I’m getting more confident and a little less amateur with each quick project, and that’s no small thing.

10 Year Knittiversary

There are a lot of things to celebrate in November around our house—Aidan’s birthday, Thanksgiving, a week-long break from school, one of our two anniversaries, open enrollment for insurance, etc. But this year, November also marks my ten year knittiversary. That, of course, is a ridiculous way of saying that 10 years ago in November when I was bored during my first year of college, lonely, and desperate for something interesting in my life, I bought a pair of aluminum needles, some truly hideous $2 acrylic yarn and the then-fresh-off-the-press Stitch N’ Bitch Knitter’s Handbook and sat down to teach myself to knit. I still have the book and the very first non-swatch-thing that I made: my version of the Ribbed For Her Pleasure Scarf pattern included in the book.

first scarf

All of the knit stitches on that scarf and every other project I made over the next year were twisted. These kinds of things can happen when you are totally self-taught. But I eventually corrected my mistake and I’ve since knit up approximately a metric crap ton of yarn. I credit knitting with jumpstarting my relationship with my partner, for being a lifeline throughout grad school, for helping me make many good friends, for making creative work a constant in my life, for helping me through more than one depressive episode, and for making all of my TV watching productive. In ten years, I’ve made a lot of really crappy things and have had plenty of projects that bit the dust before they were even finished, but I’ve also managed to make a lot of fantastic items that do me proud. Here are my five favorite projects at the moment.

#1: Granville Sweater

granville

I knit this sweater once, realized it was way too big, and then ripped it out and knit it again. It was totally worth it because the fit is great now and it’s destined to become one of my most-worn sweaters. It’s warm, comfortable, and goes with basically everything I own. I can wear it as a jacket during fall and spring, and as a second layer during winter—I’ve already been wearing this several times a week since I finished version 2.0.

#2: Sock Monster

Sock Monster

This thing is SO DAMN CUTE.  The end.

#3: Aidan’s Black Socks

black socks

This is just a basic pair of socks, knit top-down in 2×2 rib. On paper, these socks are the definition of “nothing special.” Except they are Aidan’s favorite pair of socks and he asks me just about every time he puts them on why all the rest of his socks can’t be exactly the same. Major knitting win.

#4: Marshmallow Baby Blanket

marhsmallow

This is the first of many things I’ve made for my godson. I knit it before he was even born, and used organic, un-dyed cotton yarn. It was, I believe, the first blanket that he slept with. Obviously, this favorite is totally sentimental. I love this project because I love the kid.

#5: Every Wonderful Wallaby I’ve made

wallabies

I’ve made four of these little sweaters as gifts, and I love every single one. The Wallaby pattern makes a great basic sweater that’s well-suited to easy-care yarn. I don’t tend to get caught up in the experience or the aesthetic of the pattern itself, but the Wallaby is the exception. It has clever little construction details, hand-drawn diagrams, and little pictures of wallabies knitting and wearing sweaters. I can’t. Plus, it looks incredibly cute on every kid I’ve seen wear it.

I’m curious about what my list of favorite projects will look like in another ten years. Perhaps they’ll be five sets of matching his and her sweaters? So many glorious options!

Remember How I Have a Blog?

Because I had forgotten. Not really–but blogging obviously wasn’t on my list of priorities. My interests wax and wane, and I just haven’t been that interested in baking for awhile. It’s hard to maintain a baking blog when, over the past year, I’ve only baked a handful of times and, more often than not, made the same three recipes over and over. They were all delicious (from what I can remember) but how many odes to brownies can a woman write? (I mean, a person could feasibly write several odes to brownies, but I can’t imagine it makes for interesting reading.)

Brobee Birthday Cake

So what have I been doing over the past year? For one, I made this Brobee birthday cake for my godson.

I’ve been blogging on and off since I was 17 (before I really knew that what I was doing was even called blogging). And since then, I’ve probably started 10 different blogs, some of which have never gotten farther than a first post, but none of which have lasted very long. This ongoing cycle of starting and leaving blogs has me thinking about why I care about blogging in the first place. Luckily, it’s not because I want to make money or create a brand for myself. (Ew. I shudder at the thought.) Because if those were my goals, I’d obviously be a miserable failure.

Sock Monster

I also made this ridiculously adorable monster for my sister’s birthday. The pattern is Rebecca Danger’s Sammie the Sock Monster.

Instead, my interest in blogging really boils down to writing. As a grad student, I’m writing all the time. But my academic writing, while rewarding in its own right, tends to be very formal, is rarely read by or shared with an audience of any size, and is often hard. There are only so many times you can wrestle with the wording of a single sentence or agonize over the use of a particular term before you start to forget that writing can be pleasurable. That’s why I care about blogging, and why I continually come back to wanting to blog even if I let a blog wither and die: because I want a space where the writing comes easier and offers a quicker reward. I like the writing that I do as part of my research, but I also feel compelled towards outlets that help balance some of tediousness of that work. (Plus, I spend a lot of time making things, and I like to show them off.)

Baby face

I also spent a lot of time kissing this sweet face.

So I’m blogging again, but with a better sense of purpose. I’m not trying to maintain a niche blog about baking–I’m maintaining a space where I can write about my life and my projects. And hopefully that means I won’t wait around until I bake something to write here.

(Oh, and I passed my exams with distinction. This song most accurately reflects how that felt.)

Two Realizations and a Recipe

I had a realization this week that has totally thrown me for a loop: I am not a goal-oriented person.

God help me if I am ever driven to find a job in corporate America. I am also disorganized, an anti-people person, and do not own a skirt suit. I totally would not make the cut.

The eagerness with which I set goals for myself is a testament to how deeply I’ve internalized the idea that being goal-oriented is a key part of being a good, hard-working person. This was my to-do list for Saturday. I make lists like this all the freaking time. The text in the picture is backwards, but all that matters is that there are nine items on said list and only two of them are crossed off. One of those two items was to rid my inbox of this semester’s email clutter, and that task took all of ten minutes to complete, which is really the only reason it got done. At the beginning of this year, I wrote a post about my distaste for New Year’s resolutions and set five year-long goals for myself instead. Of the five, I’ve actually started on one–I’m half way through book two of ten in the Vampire Chronicles and pretty damn sure they won’t all get read before the year ends. And before that, I set a goal ten things I wanted to bake over winter break. I finished three.

These are just a couple of examples of years and years of setting and then failing to achieve goals. And every time I recycle one of those unfinished to-do lists, I feel a slight pang of guilt. But mostly I feel like it doesn’t matter. And then I feel a little guilty because I worry I should feel like it matters. But then I come back around to feeling like it really, truly doesn’t matter. It’s an exhausting cycle.

I recently recognized that external motivators–deadlines, rewards, expectations, etc.–simply don’t motivate me. External motivators make me feel like a cartoon dog chasing after a sausage dangling from a stick. I am ornery. I do not need to be given sausage, and I would rather just walk when and if I feel like it. For me, goals are a kind of external motivation. The point is to set milestones that mark some kind of progress or to establish an endpoint where you can feel like you’ve accomplished something. There is supposed to be satisfaction that comes from reaching the end, from achieving the goal. Except that I could give a shit about milestones and endpoints. (Case in point: I have a high school diploma and two higher ed degrees and I have never walked in a graduation ceremony. Sounds boring.) When I think about it, it’s really not surprising that the things I like to do–knitting, baking, writing–all involve an intense focus on the process of actually bringing something into form. There is never joy in the end product unless there was also joy in the process.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because the semester is over, and the summer is now laid out before me and waiting to be planned. But more than that, I’ve finished coursework–the most structured part of my degree program–and am now moving on to tasks that require that I work more independently. On the one hand, I am excited about the way that my time is becoming more my own since structure does not seem to suit me. But at the same time, I’m finding myself a little anxious about continuing to make progress and not just falling into the habit of waking up every morning and facebooking until my eyes bleed. Intellectually, I feel confident in my ability to the work that I need to do. But that nagging anxiety persists, and my first instinct is to try to quell it with goal-setting.

In the past week, I’ve set about a bazillion goals for myself: bake bread every weekend, knit a cardigan every month, teach myself to sew and then make 5 (or maybe 7? 10?) garments before the end of summer, practice yoga four times a week, figure out how to make the best possible iced tea yesterday. It all makes a girl feel a bit manic, you know? And the kicker is that none of these goals actually address the root of my anxiety.

Luckily, my second realization offered some calm. Writing, especially for school, stresses me out, and I’ve said over and over that I wish I could approach writing like I approach baking–with a general sense of fearlessness and appreciation for the process, no matter how tedious. I’m still working on getting there, but I’m also realizing that there may be a two-way relationship in which the way I approach writing might help me reign in the manic goal-making my crafting and baking efforts seem to spur on. When I write, I go through a drawn-out period of trying to think through things–you can call it invention, you can call it pre-writing, you can call it fucking around. Whatever. In this process I do some reading and some research. But more importantly, I find myself jotting down ideas and making lists of concepts or points on little slips of paper that I squirrel away and usually never dig up again. (See earlier comment about being disorganized.) Losing those little slips of paper doesn’t matter so much because I’m not actually capturing things that must go into whatever it is that I am working on. I’m not making a to-do list of writing tasks to accomplish and ideas to cover. What I’m doing is blowing the whole project up like a balloon, expanding it’s dimensions until it seems damn near impossible. The impossible, bloated version of the project is never meant to be the final vision–it’s really just an opportunity to recognize and capture the various dimensions and the various possibilities that a given project could take on. And that’s why just before it all explodes (and usually just as a deadline is whizzing by) I figure out what it is that I really want to talk about, what I really want to explore, what I really want to do. And then it’s on. So all of that list making I’ve been doing–the twelve cardigans I want to make, the bread recipes I want to give a run–aren’t meant to be a project in their own right, but rather a moment of trying to recognize the possibilities and figure out where I want to go from here.

I’m frankly not sure what these realizations amount to, although my sense is that they might be helpful in my ongoing struggle to cobble together a way of working that works (for lack of a better word) for me. Oh, and I should really stop setting goals and find some other way to use up those post-its.

In lieu of more definitive conclusions, I offer you this peanut butter fudge recipe, which was one of the three winter break recipes I managed to make and which has still not been blogged five months later. This recipe is ridiculously easy to make (no candy thermometer required!) and So. Damn. Good. You could make it without the ganache, but it’s hard to imagine turning down the peanut butter chocolate combo. Either way, it’s delicious and simple, unlike my relationship with goals.

Chocolate Glazed Peanut Butter Fudge (Adapted from Sweet Anna at Tasty Kitchen)

  • 1 c granulated sugar
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • 1/2 c milk
  • 5 large marshmallows
  • 1 1/2 c creamy peanut butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 c heavy cream
  • 1 c chocolate chips
  1. Line an 8×8 pan with tin foil and grease the foil.
  2. In a saucepan, stir together the sugars, milk, and marshmallows. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat and stir until sugars are dissolved and marshmallows are completely melted.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in the peanut butter and vanilla. Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared pan, and allow it to cool completely.
  4. For ganache, heat the heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan. Pour the cream over the chocolate chips in a small bowl and allow it to sit for a minute or two. Stir the mixture until smooth. Spread ganache evenly over cooled fudge.
  5. Refrigerate fudge for at least two hours. Using the edges of the foil, pull the fudge out of the pan and onto a cutting board and cut into 1″ pieces. Store fudge in an airtight container for up to a week (if it lasts that long).

Fat Acceptance and Carrot Cake

Allow me a serious moment. I promise to reward you with cake.

I began 2010 in a really dark place, struggling with a pretty serious depression that I eventually started to refer to as “my sadness.” My sadness was full of insomnia-producing anxiety, deep guilt, and an absolute deflation of my self-confidence. My sadness was a life-sucking vampire, and not the sexy kind.. I feel lucky to have recognized that I was depressed and to have also recognized that my sadness was not the result of there being something fundamentally wrong with me. I struggled for the first half of the year through a long process of trial and error to figure out what kinds of things I could do to help myself feel even a little better. Not everything worked, but a lot of things did and the final breakthrough came when I allowed myself to step away from the world a bit and dedicate the summer to rebuilding myself. It was good. I owe a lot of where I’ve come over the past year to my support system—to good friends, family, and especially to Aidan.

Things like yoga and writing and establishing routines were all helpful, but light really started shining through the cracks when I stumbled across fat acceptance blogs and Health at Every Size advocates. These writers spoke (and continue to speak) to truths that I think I have known but not allowed myself to live for a long time:

  • That fat shaming runs rampant through Western culture and creates a deep fear that disciplines our bodies.
  • That diet culture (including all of those “lifestyle changes” that essentially act like diets in disguise) give rise to all kinds of disordered eating and fraught relationships with food.
  • That we are increasingly narrowing our vision of the acceptable body rather than appreciating body diversity.
  • That diets only ever work in the short term and maintaining weight loss from dieting is statistically improbable.
  • That we have come to mistakenly conflate health with weight. This conflation is particularly damaging when we get discouraged from doing things that can improve our health (like exercising regularly) because we don’t see the weight-loss results we desire.
  • That continual dieting does more harm than good to our physical and emotional health.
  • That what Kate Harding refers to as The Fantasy of Being Thin often leads us to put our lives on hold, expecting that things will magically come together and we can become the person we’ve always wanted to be if we can just manage to reach our “ideal” weight.
  • That medical terms like obesity and medical scales like the BMI further fat shaming and naturalize the narrowing of acceptable bodies rather than encouraging health.
  • That there are a whole host of medical studies that have proven that diets do not work, that weight is not a measure of health, and that dieting is harmful to health, but these reports are rarely circulated in the mass media outlets where stories about dieting, weight loss, and the so-called “obesity crisis” sell better.
  • That our bodies don’t need to be whipped into shape, but rather that we need to learn to listen to our bodies and the natural cues they give us so that we can feel as good as possible, and that feeling good will always be a better barometer of health than a number on a scale.

When I finally stopped worrying about my weight and severed myself from The Fantasy of Being Thin, I felt free. And most importantly, I learned just how much energy I had been pouring into worrying about my body–energy that I was able to dedicate to my work and toward creative pursuits like baking and blogging that have brought me a lot of joy and that give me something to feel confident about rather than ashamed. All of this is not to say that fat acceptance of HAES are easy roads with no bumps or that deciding to accept my body as it is was something that happened over night. It is a process that takes work. But it is a process that is definitely worth it. And while I think it is important to feel good about myself and would hope that you feel good about you too, I also know that the body politics that fat acceptance embraces intersect in important ways with other social justice movements. That is, unlike dieting, fat acceptance and HAES is not a solipsistic enterprise but rather has the potential, if we only work to seize it, to contribute to the fight against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism . . . and the list goes on.

I’m writing this now because of a campaign called the 2011 ReVolution. Marilyn Wann and a number of other wonderful people have set up a fantastic blog space that now houses a whole host of resources about fat acceptance and HAES, encouraging people to spread the word on social networking sites throughout the month of January. The goal is not only to raise awareness about FA and HAES, but to also try to counteract so much of the diet and weight-loss blather that pours out around New Year’s resolutions. I’m contributing my voice to the 2011 ReVolution cause because I believe deeply in resisting diet culture, in celebrating body diversity, and in transferring the energy we waste disciplining our bodies into more vital social justice work. So I just want to encourage you to check out some of the resources available at the above link and to throw out questions–I’d love to talk about this more! I’ve also listed some of the FA blogs I regularly read on my Favorites page. Check them out.

And now to cake. I made this carrot cake for a program dinner because I was tired and stressed and needed a sure thing. Carrot cake tends to be one of those things where people over-do it with add-ins like raisins and nuts and too many spices. It also suffers because it’s the kind of thing that people try to turn into a healthy, guilt-free dessert. The truth is that it is best when it’s simple, and most satisfying when we allow it to be what it really is: a humble slice of mid-twentieth century American life. If you have a food processor, shredding the carrots takes no time at all. And when you pull it out of the oven, you can slather it with some cream cheese frosting, throw some chopped pecans on top for a little pizazz, and make the people in your life happy. Very happy.

carrot cake

Best-Ever Carrot Cake (From Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 75th Anniversary Ed.)

  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 2 c flour
  • 2 c sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 3 c finely shredded carrots
  • 3/4 c vegetable oil
  • 1/2 recipe of Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (below)
  • 1/4 c chopped pecans (optional)
  1. Grease and flour two 9″ round cake pans or a 9×13 cake pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and baking soda.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine the beaten eggs, carrots and oil. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stil until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s).
  4. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. If making a layer cake, allow the cakes to cool for ten minutes before removing from the pans. Allow cake to cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.
  5. When the cake is cool, frost and sprinkle with chopped pecans, if desired.

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (from Smitten Kitchen)

  • 2 8 oz packages of cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 c pure maple syrup
  • 2 c powdered sugar

Beat cream cheese, butter and maple syrup until smooth and then slowly add powdered sugar. If necessary, refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour until frosting reaches a spreadable consistency.

Fat Girl Says: Resist the Shaming!

Last night, I kept Aidan awake by ranting about the all too-common moment that happens when you share food with people–especially desserts–in which people start talking about how they shouldn’t really partake because its “bad” or in which they curse you for tempting them to . . . um, enjoy themselves? When I’m feeling particularly belligerent, I think to myself, “I worked hard to make this so you should really just shut the hell up and eat it.” Or maybe I’ll think, “Why don’t you find something else to project your internalized sense of guilt onto and leave my brownies/cookies/cake/whatever alone.”

For me, sharing food is an act of celebration, an act of connection, an act of fellowship. It is, and should be, a spiritual and emotional act of communion in which we share in even the smallest of ways significant parts of ourselves–our histories, our cultures, our desires, and our stories. To make food mechanical or to treat it as a rule-bound terrain in which we separate the good from the  bad is, I think, to deprive ourselves of a rich and necessary opportunity to nourish body and spirit together. I don’t share the food I make with the people around me because I just don’t want it to go to waste–I do it because I value the act of sharing, because I care about the people around me and the act of sharing functions for me as an outward symbol and testament to that care. I’m not going to be offended if people just don’t like what I make or just decide not to partake, whether because of choice or restriction. But I do feel deeply bothered, regarless of whether or not I’m responsible for making the food in question, when people insist on prefacing desire or appreciation with all kinds of qualifications about what they “shouldn’t” do or about feeling guilty for transgressing some set of externally determined expectations. Particularly when I am around other women, I don’t want our time together dominated by feelings of shame and guilt over enjoying food. Because when that becomes the case, it means that my interactions with other women, and my attempts to forge meaningful connections with them, are being overrun not only by misogynistic ideas about what it means to be “good women,” but I would also argue by a whole network of racist, classist, heteronormative ideals of citizenship that divide and pathologize particular kinds of bodies in order to justify a denial of the rights, protections, and recognition we all deserve. So it shouldn’t really come as a shock that I’m not willing to quietly allow that kind of bullshit to have so much power over my life and my relationships with others. And I don’t think you should either.

This all came to the surface again tonight when I caught a brief interview with Nikki Blonsky who starred in the 2007 film version of Hairspray and is now starring in the new ABC Family show Huge. In the interview, Blonsky spoke about the ramifications of her decision to not lose weight after filming Hairspray, as well as the sense of confidence and increased comfort with her body that she learned from playing the character of Will in her new show. Without thinking much of the interview, I opened up Ravelry and found a discussion thread someone had started expressing excitement over Blonsky’s new show. I probably shouldn’t have been shocked to find that this post was followed up by a whole slew of people more or less cringing at the idea of a show that “glorifies” obesity. But I was shocked, and I was also pissed, so I just stopped reading. But it’s not like you really have to read any of it to have a good idea of what might be said, because we all know the “fat is bad” script backwards and forwards. So many comments in the thread echo what we hear in so many other places: that the only “okay” way to be fat is to feel bad about it, to confess mental or physical weakness or inability, to show that you’re doing everything you can to be different.

I hope to write more here on this topic in the future, because I can’t possibly put all of my thoughts into a single post. (I take this a good sign since I see glimmers of a dissertation on some facet of body politics in my horizon.) But, as a way of giving myself a point to return to later, the question under my skin is this: what exactly is it that we gain from treating obese bodies as pathological, as weak, as necessarily diseased? And what exactly do we gain from treating fatness as a hyper-individualized issue through which, in the name of “health,” we continually foster a climate of shame and blame that disciplines us all into treating and talking about our bodies in very narrow and problematic ways? What has made us so certain that we are right to treat our bodies this way or to make pronouncements on the bodies of others?

While there’s certainly a lot at work in the way we talk about fatness, it seems to me that the power of a lot of these discourses lies precisely in their ability to narrow the scope of our attention. The climate of shame and guilt surrounding fatness not only has the all too frequent effect of relegating fat people to positions of silence and invisibility, but it also occludes from our vision powerful systemic factors that create deep and staggering divides between those more and less likely to experience frequent, debilitating, or even chronic health problems–divides that not only tend to correspond to but actively reinforce raced, classed, and gendered oppressions.

Sometimes when I realize how deeply I’ve internalized all of this negative body talk, I feel overwhelmed because it seems to take so long to unlearn the ways we so often talk about and view our own bodies and the bodies of others. But I’m committed to the unlearning, because I think I’m worth it and because I have no interest in reinforcing ways of speaking and being that are so harmful to others. I know there are plenty of other people who share similar commitments, and who are writing and speaking out loudly about body politics. I look forward to contributing in a more public way to these discussions.