26 February 2013

Things I've Made - Update

In my January post "Things I've Made," I promised to show you my latest knitting project when it was finished. I mailed it to its recipient yesterday, and it should arrive today, so I don't think there's too much harm in jumping the gun and showing it to you now.

It's a pale blue baby blanket for a little boy in an aran pattern. Aran patterns are traditional in the wind-and-water-swept islands of Ireland and Scotland, where their thick cables and textured stitches keep fishermen and shepherds warm and dry. I've knitted cables before, but never something this cable-intense. Messing up the cables (and learning to fix them, using the technique outlined in the Yarn Harlot's tutorial) were important parts of the process.

Here are some photos of the project from beginning to end.

The pattern is set up at the beginning on a circular needle.
Note my sushi-shaped stitch markers. I love my stitch marker collection.

Oops! I twisted a cable in the wrong direction. Ripping it back and fixing it is
one of the bravest things I have done in a long time.

Shaping up beautifully.

Finished, folded over the living-room chair, awaiting blocking.

Just before folding, wrapping, and shipping. The detail in these patterns is exquisite, isn't it?

Thanks for peeking at my work. I derive so much joy from this process! I'm calculating that the new owner of this blanket will go off to college in the fall of 2031. I hope he takes his blanket with him.

25 February 2013

Oscar the Grouch

Maybe you watched the Oscars last night. I did. I sat by the TV with my kids and my knitting bag. We admired the beautiful gowns on the red carpet and rooted for our favorite movies when the awards presentations began.

And about a third of the way into it, I had had enough.

My main problem with the program was the offensive jokes. I've been accused of lacking a sense of humor before, but I promise, when something is legitimately funny, I'm laughing the loudest. Nonetheless, it really didn't seem appropriate to me to have an entire musical number called "We Saw Your Boobs," listing the actresses who had appeared topless in various films. Was it necessary to subject such big-screen greats as Helen Hunt and Anne Hathaway, actors who have paid their dues just as much as any man in attendance, to fourth-grade-level body-part jokes? Have we made no progress on this front?

Nor was it funny to joke about domestic violence in the context of Chris Brown and Rihanna. I've made my point about this already, and I won't belabor it, but violence against women is not funny. Ever. At all.

And did Seth MacFarlane, or, more accurately, his writers, think that the jokes about Jews in Hollywood would meet with raucous laughter? Since when is it okay to make anti-Semitic remarks thinly disguised as jokes?

But it wasn't just the jokes. The artists who were honored with awards were given an extremely limited amount of time to thank those who had helped them in their achievements. Anyone who went over the allotted speech time was drowned out by a loud, obnoxious rendition of the theme from "Jaws" (which was intended, I assume, to be construed as funny) and swept offstage, sometimes while still trying to thank their mothers or agents. The reason why the artists were given so little time had to do with leaving enough time for the musical numbers ("We Saw Your Boobs," for example) and the comedy routines (one of which involved Ted, the profane teddy bear, theorizing that pretending to be Jewish could further his Hollywood career).

Frankly, I would have rather heard a costume designer acknowledge the adults who inspired and encouraged her as a child than have listened to another cruel joke about how old Meryl Streep is getting.

The question is this: what is the point of the Oscars broadcast? Is it to honor the artists who entertain and inform us through their work, or is it to entertain the masses at the artists' expense? I am an avid movie fan. There is nothing I like better than an evening at the theater, with a big bucket of popcorn and a soda, escaping from my daily life into the fantasy world of a well-made film.

I tune in to the Oscars because I love the beautiful clothes and the well-deserved accolades. I enjoy hearing the actors and directors talk about who and what inspired them. And in the past, I have enjoyed the musical performances, the tasteful retrospectives on the careers of those who have passed on during the year, and the tongue-in-cheek jokes and parodies. This year, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. Am I alone?

19 February 2013

A Supreme Court Case To Watch

It is extremely difficult to get the United States Supreme Court to hear your case. To do so, you need to file something called a petition for certiorari, which is a relatively complex document that describes your problem and your reasons for needing the Supreme Court to review your appeal.  Very, very few petitions for certiorari get granted by the Court. The Court is busy and has limited time to hear cases. It is helpful if your case presents a new and novel question that has never been addressed before, or if it raises an issue about which the lower courts disagree. But even in those situations, a grant of your petition is not guaranteed. Having it granted, and then winning, is like hitting the lottery.

When I worked in the federal appeals court in Manhattan, we received many, many appeals from prisoners, claiming that their rights had been or were being violated. Most of these petitions were filed pro se – that is, on one’s own behalf, without the assistance of a lawyer. Some of them were handwritten. All of them were reviewed carefully, scrutinized even, to make sure that no claim with merit was overlooked.  The vast majority of them were dismissed.

But every once in a while, a handwritten petition that has merit comes through the system and catches the attention of the judges. This happened fifty years ago, when a prisoner named Gideon wrote a handwritten petition to the Supreme Court claiming that he had been convicted because he had not been able to afford a lawyer. He asked the Court to declare that the Constitution required that poor people accused of serious crimes be given the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer.

Gideon won and got the legal assistance he needed from a young lawyer named Abe Fortas (who later became a Supreme Court justice himself). On retrial, Gideon was acquitted. The Gideon decision has become a hallmark of American life. We now take for granted that criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer will nevertheless be well-represented at trial.

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing another case that came from the grant of a handwritten certiorari petition. A prisoner named Kim Millbrook alleges that he was sexually assaulted by prison guards while serving time for various convictions (which are not in dispute). The prison conducted an internal investigation and found Millbrook’s complaint unsubstantiated. His original lawsuit, claiming that his Eighth Amendment right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment, was dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity. That doctrine, roughly described, provides that the government cannot be sued for damages arising out of the intentional acts of its employees.

Millbrook is, by all accounts, what we law clerks used to refer to as a “frequent filer.” That is, he was experienced at airing his grievances in the federal courts. He filed a complaint every time he felt wronged. Handwritten petitions are seldom eloquent or easy to read, but they are always reviewed carefully and decided. Millbrook always lost.

But, in an unusual last-minute move, the Government reversed itself and sided with Millbrook on the current handwritten petition. It urged the Court to take up the issue of sovereign immunity, and the Court decided to do so. It appointed counsel to brief and argue his case, and today, Millbrook has a chance to make his case against one of the most firmly-ingrained concepts in American law.

Like winning the lottery, getting in front of the Supreme Court is a long shot. But winning a Supreme Court case, unlike winning the lottery, has the potential to change many lives and – this is no exaggeration - an entire way of thinking. I’ll be watching the case closely, and I hope you will too.

12 February 2013


This month, I am participating in a writing challenge in which I write one moment every day for 21 days. (And you thought, because you haven't heard from me in a while, that I wasn't writing.) I receive a writing prompt by e-mail each day, and then I am supposed to write my moment. At first, I had no idea what to write about, and so, for the first five days, I just sat staring at my screen, doing nothing. And then, on the sixth day, the floodgates opened.

When I signed up for the challenge, I had thought I'd write fictional moments involving the characters who are floating around in my head. But that's not what happened. What happened is that I started writing about memories, and I now have a small collection of scenes from my life. Some of them are significant (first day at a new school). Some of them are sad (death of a grandparent). Some of them are just funny scenes that make me laugh (a day at the beach with a high school boyfriend during which we got attacked by sand flies). They're mostly true, but some are a little bit embellished (either because I don't remember the details exactly, or because the story improves with embellishment).

The thing I am learning is that the more I write, the more I want to write. The more ideas I have, the more ideas I get. Stagnation breeds more stagnation, but good work breeds more good work. And that might be the most valuable lesson I am getting from working on this challenge.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, also known, in French-speaking places, as Mardi Gras, and, in German-speaking places, as Karnival. It's the day before Lent begins. Since Lent is supposed to be a penitential season, full of self-reflection and self-denial, the tradition for today is last-minute indulgence. I've been baking cookies for my kids to take to school and youth group parties. If we were really being traditional, we'd have pancakes for dinner, but I messed up and thawed an enormous brisket the other day, and now I need to cook it. It's in the Crock-Pot now, and I wish you could smell it. If you could, you'd know that it's going to be more than indulgent enough for our little carnival feast. (The recipe I am using is from America's Test Kitchen's "Slow Cooker Revolution," and I recommend it highly.)

My son has been learning some common Yiddish expressions lately. He now knows that a jerk is a schmuck, that chicken fat is schmaltz, and that if you want only a little bit of cream cheese on your bagel, you ask for a schmear. These words amuse him greatly. This morning, watching me get dinner going, he asked me whether "brisket" was Yiddish for "enormous hunk of meat." He might not be too far off on that.

We survived the recent big snowstorm, "Nemo," with no serious consequences. The weather is fickle, though; today is an absolutely beautiful day, and I've been running my errands without a coat. Tomorrow, on the other hand, we are expecting another three or four inches of snow. Wherever you are this week, whatever you are doing, I wish you just enough indulgence, and just enough self-reflection; something that smells delicious simmering in your kitchen; and a moment or two that, in a few years, will be worth writing about.