(Don’t) Lower Your Expectations

Last winter, I made myself this hat.

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I was disappointed with it, at the time. I wanted a slouchy beret, and I hadn’t made it long enough or large enough. Blocking it with a plate inside didn’t help. The color was wrong, not warm enough against my skin. I believe I told Twitter that it made my head look like a mushroom.

It wasn’t what I expected.

This wasn’t going to be a post about a hat. It was actually going to be a post about a conflict Jon and I had last week over what “doing the dishes” entails, and who should do them, and when, and how. But that made me feel petty and ridiculous, and I didn’t have any pictures to go with it, so here’s this hat.

I think, “Lower your expectations,” is terrible advice. I know the idea is that if things go well, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and if they don’t, you won’t be disappointed, but that’s acting as if your expectations don’t influence the way things go, and they absolutely do. I expect myself to get good grades, to be at work on time, and to speak kindly to people. If I didn’t expect it from myself, do you think I would do those things? Because I think I’d lie on the couch marathoning Battlestar Galactica for the third time and telling my family to leave me the hell alone. Thoughts have power. Lower your expectations and you won’t get anywhere–or knit anything.

On the other hand, you can’t quit knitting because your hat didn’t turn out quite as planned, and if half a sink full of dirty dishes makes you want to throw something or start to cry, you clearly need to reconsider something about your life. So where’s the middle ground?

When you join the Peace Corps, they spend a lot of time during pre-training and training telling you not to have expectations. You have no idea what you’re about to get into, and whatever vision you’ve constructed in your head about your future home or work is, assuredly, wildly off-base. Better just to not expect anything at all, right?

I always thought that was such a load of crap. How is anyone supposed to not have expectations? That’s some Buddha-level shit, right there, and let me tell you, nobody joining Peace Corps is anywhere near Nirvana. But, seeing the merit of the reasoning behind the advice, I tried the next best thing–having expectations, but acting like I didn’t. I didn’t waste time frantically trying to prepare for the unknown. My bags when I left were 20 pounds below the allotted amount, and I spent the next two years trying to convince future volunteers on Facebook that they would be just fine without quick-dry towels, or anything else from REI.

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I think the trick is knowing how much to invest in your expectations. How much are you going to let them affect you? With Peace Corps, I was well warned to invest almost nothing in them–I read all the blogs, all the Wiki articles, even, “So You Wanna Be a Peace Corps Volunteer?” I internalized all the good advice about how Peace Corps is unpredictable and you need to be able to bend and not break. In the rest of life, I’m not always so well prepared.

The hat went into storage for the summer. When the weather got chilly and I found it in with my other handknits, I couldn’t imagine why I didn’t absolutely love it last winter. A few months took the edge off my emotions, and now I love the warmth of the thick cables over my ears. I love the wavy line where the hat springs directly from the cables. I love the near-perfect kitchener graft I did to join the cable band (visible in the above photo; I’m sure a knitter can spot it, but it’s almost invisible). The hat even makes my hair look good! It’s still not terribly slouchy, but why does it need to be?

On Saturday, Jon went out in supremely nasty weather because I was mired in homework and craving the warmth and comfort of red wine. He doesn’t even particularly like red wine–he just wanted to take care of me. And I’ve been doing the dishes myself, because for crying out loud, it takes ten minutes, and I do them exactly the way I want them done, and why should I expect anyone else to do that? I’m learning that the world doesn’t operate within the parameters of my expectations. The things I focus on aren’t the only things there are. Sometimes I forget that. I’m working on it.

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The hat is Scathach’s hat by Mona C. NicLeĆ²id–it’s a free pattern, and I recommend it. And the scarf, well that’s a subject for another post. (There may be another post. Blogging twice a year is still a schedule, right?)

Pi Shawl, finished

I am celebrating this.

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It’s done in laceweight baby alpaca, three skeins I bought many years ago and never got around to using. I adore shawls and scarves, but never made myself a really good shawl. On March 14 (Pi Day), the pattern was going around, so I cast on, and here I am!

Now I’m so excited to wear my new…. What’s that? Alpaca is warmer than wool? Summer is almost here?

…I’ll be so excited to wear my new shawl in about six months.

Runzas (a recipe)

Oh, runzas. Where do I even begin to explain this mythic food to you? Do I tell you that they’re a Russian/German stuffed sandwich now popular in America’s Plains states? Do I explain that they’re the basis of Nebraska’s most popular fast food restaurant? (I actually worked in a Runza once, for four months. This is not their recipe; I never did the cooking part of the job.)

A runza is basically a bread roll stuffed with ground meat, cabbage, and onions. Like an Old World Hot Pocket, I guess. Jon, who grew up here in southeast Michigan, compares them to pasties, and I guess that’s really not far off. My mom made them while I was growing up, and I make them, and now I’m going to show you how to make them.

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Runzas

You’re going to need:

  • 1/2 lb. ground meat (I used breakfast sausage; ground beef or pork is more traditional)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1/4-1/2 head of cabbage, sliced into strips
  • Salt, pepper, and any other seasonings that strike your fancy
  • One loaf’s worth of your favorite sandwich bread recipe–I used this.

Prepare the bread dough ahead–I actually let mine rise in the fridge overnight.

For the filling: brown the meat and onions in a large pan until you like the color (brown is flavor!). Add the cabbage and stir until the cabbage is fully cooked. Season with salt, pepper, and any herbs you like. I kept mine simple because that’s how we like it, but thyme or sage would be lovely.

Allow the filling to cool completely. (I refrigerated mine overnight with the bread dough.)

Oil a large baking sheet and dust it with cornmeal.

When your dough is finished rising, dump it onto the counter and flatten it out to about an inch, pressing all the air out. Cut it into twelve equal pieces–I did three strips, then cut each strip into four.

To roll each runza: Flatten a piece into a rounded rectangle, and put a scoop of filling into the center. The amount will depend on the size of your bread piece, but 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup should be about right. Roll it up just like a burrito: fold the sides in a bit, then fold up the bottom, then roll it up tightly, stretching the top of the rectangle. Pinch the sides to make sure the filling can’t leak out, and place the runza seam-side down on the baking sheet.

Roll all the runzas and place them on the sheet. Cover with a damp tea towel and allow to proof for 30 minutes to give the runzas volume.

Bake at 400F for 15 minutes or until golden. I didn’t bother preheating my oven–you can if you like.

Yield: 12 smallish runzas.

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Notes:

The ground meat could be substituted for well-seasoned lentils, white beans, or another meat-substitute for vegan runzas. I keep meaning to try this, but my husband loves the meaty kind and is wary of vegetarian variants of beloved foods.

I made twice amount the filling given above, not realizing it was way more than I needed. The leftover filling makes an excellent soup if added to broth. I used mine to make a matzo ball soup that may have actually been more delicious than the runzas themselves.

For the bread, I used a basic white sandwich bread recipe (linked above). My mom always made them with whole wheat dough, which would certainly be healthier. I’ve also successfully used frozen pizza dough, which I can get really cheap from the liquor store where we buy our favorite pizza. Once in college, I even made them with refrigerated croissant dough, but the results were not satisfactory.

The Quietest Place: Suburban Detroit

This post is part of The Art Assignment #5, The Quietest Place.

I spent the first two decades of my life in very rural environments–I grew up in western Colorado, miles from anywhere, then attended college in Virginia on a campus with thousands of acres of woods, away from any major cities. In those environments, it was never very difficult to find quiet places.

Then there my small city in the Philippines, where quiet was practically nonexistent. You can’t cram so many people into such a small space without hearing your neighbors washing laundry, or having a busy street right outside your window.

And now? Suburban Michigan. Oh, how I resisted moving here. What could possibly be less glamorous?
I came around on the subject of Michigan, and I love living here now. But I hadn’t really confronted the idea of the suburbs until this assignment. The assignment was to take a walk from your home and find the quietest place, then absorb and document it. I actually began my walk at my inlaws’ house, because that was what worked for me. So here it is: the quietest place in my inlaws’ neighborhood.

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Or is it? The first thing I discovered when I started walking is that noise is fairly homogenous in the suburbs. Once I moved away from the busy roads, it was a thin soup of dogs barking, robins chirping, cars passing, and always, somewhere, someone using a power tool.

It was really hard to find a quiet place. Every time I thought I had, a dog would start barking at me, or a car would pass, or standing still would cause me to hear the wind chimes I’d missed while I was walking.

I walked for an hour. It was Easter Sunday, and as I walked, I slowly began to become amazed by how much of people living I was observing. I heard a lot of radios, and because the weather was so lovely that windows were open, I caught a lot of snippets of people’s Easter celebrations–well wishes, arguments, complaining, and several parents stepping out onto the front porch to smoke and escape from their kids for a minute.

I’ve somehow always thought of suburban neighborhoods as faceless blocks of houses with no personality or distinguishing features; I had a lot of contempt for them, in fact. I’m actually ashamed to admit this, but it wasn’t until this walk that it clicked for me: Every house has people in it. All of those people have stories. Every single nearly identical house is absolutely filled up with the stories of people living their lives. They’re people who have buried parents, who worry about their children’s developmental milestones, who like yellow mustard but not brown.

There is no quietest place in a neighborhood like this. People’s lives are moving through it constantly, leaving ripples. I realized, I wasn’t looking for the quietest place: I was looking for the quietest moment.

So, after an hour of walking spanning a couple of miles, I finally stopped, just two blocks from where I started, and waited. And for a few moments, there were no dogs barking, no cars passing, no one mowing their lawn or calling to their kids.

So, here it is. Two photographs of a still moment between the waves of life on an Easter Sunday in Michigan.

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Leaving a mark

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I found this mug in a thrift shop, yesterday. It’s custom-printed and features an older man repairing or building a chair using Elmer’s wood glue.

I had to explain, both to the girl who bagged my purchase, and to Jon, that I suppose I felt sorry for him. Someone loved this man and respected his skill (as a carpenter? handyman? husband?) enough to both take this picture and immortalize it on a mug. Then, some time later, someone (someone else? the same person?) sent the mug to a thrift shop, for reasons unknown. (De-cluttering? Painful memories? Clearing out an estate?)

I felt that, whoever the man on the mug is or was, he deserved some respect. And as he was clearly a maker, I feel some kinship there.

(Jon: “So do we have to keep it forever?” He indulges my flights of fancy but doesn’t necessarily understand them.)

As it happens, I stumbled across this mug at a time when I had another dear craftsman on the mind.

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I snapped this photo in the park, while watching the twins play. I recently took up spinning again, and have found it remarkably well-suited to child supervision. But that’s a subject for another post; right now, I want to talk about the spindle.

My mom was, for some years, married to a man who built fiddles. He was an artist and a craftsman, and as I was living with them at the time I took up spinning, I asked him to make me a spindle. I had visions of some hand-turned, polished object of beauty, so when he delivered this, a dowel fitted rather poorly into a plain disc of wood, I was a little disappointed. But on it, I learned to spin.

Over time, the unfinished wood has developed a smooth, glossy patina. The spindle is just the right size and weight for my purposes. It holds a great deal of yarn. Since it’s a bottom whorl spindle, I can let it rest on the ground while I draft out extra twist, without getting the yarn dirty. It has no notches or hooks, no frills. It’s useful and it’s been used, and it was a gift from one maker to another. All that makes it beautiful.

The man who made it died of depression while I was in the Philippines. I cried for days, and no one understood why. “So… he was not married to your mother any longer?” They wanted to comfort, but they were confused. I couldn’t quite articulate at the time, but I think it’s the unfairness of the whole thing–that someone who added so many good and useful things to the world would leave it the way he did.

I think about him often. As a craftsman, he’s best remembered for his fiddles, but I have this spindle. I’m going to use it to make more good and useful things. It’s the best tribute I can think of.