Sunday, December 23, 2007

In which I knit a lot, and FO one item

I finished the imminently-gifted scarf. I didn't want to blog about it in case the recipient reads this (but I think not). It's the Hearts of Oak pattern from Barbara Walker, knit in bamboo/cotton blend yarn. It was way fun to knit--the pattern is a perfect balance between complicated yet not. Easy to memorize but interesting enough to keep the attention, but not so "interesting" that I can't watch TV while I knit. The yarn is very heavy and I'm worried it won't be able to bear it's own weight. I also had a panic that giving black scarves was some taboo I'd never heard of (European chic, or just funereal?) but the Ravelers convinced me otherwise. I then went on to worry about the yarn (Cotton kills! What are you doing knitting a winter scarf out of cotton! Oh wait, we're going to London, not mountaineering...) and now I've moved on to worrying about it being so heavy it might inadvertently strangle it's wearer. Onto the pictures:

My favorite hoodie developed a hole in the underarm. You can see where I attempted to "patch" an earlier hole (That snarling knot) and the new stitch that's running. I don't know how to darn, so I've been avoiding this repair, but it's reached a point of urgency:

I've been slogging away on Mystic Waters. I love the pattern, but I can't knit more than 2 or 3 rows at a time because I have to concentrate so hard. I'm halfway through the 2nd (of 8) clues. Here's a reasonable representation of the color:

And a blurry one of the pattern:

And I cast on the first sleeve for my church sweater. I really drag my heels on this project, I think because I'm designing it myself and every time I sit down to knit I have to make some calculations and decisions, and it just robs me of my motivation. I guess I knit more for the meditative aspects, not for the stressful designing and project management experience...


Friday, December 21, 2007


I love trams. Love them! It's one of my absolute favorite things about living in Zurich. When I first moved here I found myself thinking a lot about my years in San Francisco. Partly because I was also in school in SF, and partly because SF is such a european-y city (for an American city), but mostly, it was the trams. I love them so much more than buses, I think because the ride is smoother. I love how the whole street rumbles when they pass by. I love them for their more mundane aspects, such as the fact that trams always stop at every stop (unlike buses which usually stop only on demand), meaning that if you are in a new city (or even a new part of your own city) you can count stops to figure out when it's time to get off. OK, the squealing on corners? That I don't love so much.

On my ride home last night, as almost every night, the overhead announcement came on with the familiar [ding, dong] Information der Zuri Linien... announcing a collision or malfunction or anything else that causes sections of the track to be closed and the trams rerouted. The pair of chimes that open these announcements used to strike fear into my heart when I first moved here and couldn't decipher them. Now, despite my poor and uneven German, I understand almost everything in the announcements, probably because they use a ritualized (and tiny) subset of words in these things. I'm always amazed at how fast they organize buses out to the affected stretches, and municipal employees to the larger stops to make announcements and answer confused rider's questions.

Which brings me to a bizarre confession. I have some kind of deep, secret love for municipal logistics. The public transit systems, the garbage and recycling trucks, traffic control, newspaper delivery. I just find them totally fascinating. They are so unsexy, so dirty (although that's kind of sexy), so necessary and overlooked, but almost graceful in a weird, truckish kind of way. I think there is also some strange uniform fetish bleedover--not that tram uniforms do much for me, but more the institutional background implied by uniforms, which must be part of their appeal. I'm very neurotic and rigid do well in structured environments, so institutions draw me towards them with some neuroticmagnetic pull.

Speaking of traffic control, for many years I've had a theory about a pair of traffic phenomena. One is the expanding nature of traffic jams, which I always thought was driven primarily by over-braking. The idea is the person in front of me taps their brakes, I see the red light come on but right at first I can't tell how much they are braking, so I step on my brakes, perhaps a hair harder than they did (err on the side of caution!). If everyone behind me does the same thing before you know it traffic is at a standstill. For a while I got into the habit of slowing down via downshifting, trying to do my part to stop the chain reaction. I'm not so sure that's such a great idea, because if it turns out people behind me really do need to break, then they need the indicator of my taillights. Turns out my theory was right! The other theoretical traffic control issue I've often pondered is what I like to call "line compaction", which happens in long lines or stand-still traffic jams, where people just like the sensation that they are moving, even if there are still the same number of people ahead of them in line, so everyone keeps inching forward, compacting the line while getting to fool themselves into thinking it's helping. Like pushing the elevator button a couple extra times...


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My tiny fridge

My fridge defies the laws of physics. It is well known that hot air rises and cold air sinks. This leads me to assume that in a fridge with poor circulation, the bottom shelf would be coldest. In my dorm sized fridge things in the door are warm (spoil in 2 days) while things in the back are cold (freeze solid). I realize this must be because the door leaks (like a mofo, apparently). I'm just astonished that in such a small space no convection occurs, sliding the slab of cold air at the back down to the bottom.

I was reading something about how wasteful Americans are, and our obscenely large refrigerators and how the Europeans always make do with little ones. My small fridge has been another thing I just cannot adjust to, and I was feeling bad about my wasteful, consumerist desires for a full sized fridge with a freezer more than 4 inches tall. But now that I think about it, I suspect a modern, energy efficient larger fridge is probably better than this thing, since it's so poorly insulated. Food lasts about 4 days (well, aside from the thin layer of inadvertently frozen food at the back), which means I'm not only wasting energy cooling the air in front of the fridge, but I also throw out far more food than I ever have in my life because I can't get the balance right. I shop 3 to 4 times a week an an attempt to buy smaller quantities. But because I bring food everywhere (thank you, celiac disease), I tend to cook largish quantities of soups and stews that can be transported. Apparently, I always cook just a bit more than I can eat in 4 days. When I try to be more careful and cook less, I always seem to run out of food entirely and wind up eating nothing but plain brown rice for 3 days. (Whose dumb idea was this whole "being an adult" thing, anyway?)

I struggle here with the balance of work and life and play, and getting errands done and food cooked and house cleaned. This fall I joined the choir at my church for the Christmas Carols. I enjoyed it tremendously, but it turned out to be more time than I had to spare, so I've really been swamped. In the new year I want to take a look at my time-priorities and perhaps arrange my life a bit more thoughtfully so I'm spending my time doing the things I choose rather than rushing around playing catchup, resenting the commitments I've taken on.

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Learning German

I don't speak very much German. It is one of the biggest sources of misery for me during this whole expat gig. The situation is both simple and complicated. If I simply learned German, many of my complaints would disappear. I would feel more connected, I would be able to communicate better (where communication = actual understanding and connection, not just talking AT someone), I would be able to join activity groups and meet people, and on and on. Yet for some reason, I am unable to "just get over it and learn German".

Here I'm going to list some reasons this is so. I do not mean this post as a bitchfest, whining, or to make excuses for myself. It turns out that life is always more complicated than it looks at first glance. When I step back and look at all this from an outside perspective, it is actually a fascinating pyschological exercise.

  • First and foremost, I am a starter, not a finisher. Some might call me a quitter, but you know, it takes all types, so there's no need to use pejorative terms. I'm great at inventing and starting new things, but I'm not so good at finishing. I knit a lot of swatches in new stitches, fully intending it to be the beginning of the pattern, but then I frog it once I've mastered the stitch (and seen that I don't have enough yarn, or I don't like the final product, or I'm just bored with it, or whatever else). I'm cool with this, for the most part. But it's perfectly natural that this would apply to learning German. Sure enough, I got here, and I tore through 2 German classes, getting myself solidly into the A2/B1 realm, and then, well, I just kind of found other things I'd rather do with my time. I'd learned enough to be able to get around--I can ask for things in the shops, I can navigate small emergency room visits entirely in German, I can get the gist of a conversation. This is enough for me.

  • I'm doing a PhD. I'm doing a PhD in three years, in a field in which I've never taken any coursework. I have a lot on my plate. I'm stressed and overwhelmed already. I'm living in a foreign country, and doing that saps one's reserves (to be covered in another post). Ironic as that might be: the exhaustion from living abroad makes me too tired to do what I need to do to make living abroad easier. Talk about counterprodcutive. We will see there are many maladaptive responses going on around this German thing.

  • My health hasn't been so great. I've felt like crap since I moved here--worse than I've ever felt in my life. Then I had knee surgery which just flattened me. I just couldn't seem to recover from that. I spent last winter in a fog of bone-deep fatigue and what I like to call "digestive chaos", wondering if my life was over at 34, wondering if I'd have to go on disability. Then, finally, I got diagnosed with celiac disease. My recovery since going gluten free has been pretty miraculous. But now I have a new hobby/time consumer--staying gluten free. Shopping and cooking and just keeping on top of it all seem to take me a lot of time. Additionally, some other health problems are sneaking around which are busying up my radar.

  • The language that I've studied here is not actually what anyone speaks. Swiss German is said to be a dialect of German, but that's kind of like saying Latin is a dialect of Italian. Yes, they came from the same root language 1000 years ago, but they are very, very different. There is almost no overlap in vocabulary, and where there is the pronunciation is completely different. The grammar is different. The verb tenses are different. What this means is that I understand only one single word of Swiss German ("Gruezi", which means "hello"), even though I can speak a reasonable amount of high German. This generates a series of problems.

    • If I attend casual events such as coffees, parties, or clubs/activities, I can't understand what anyone is saying. So the idea that learning German would allow me to integrate more is simply not true. Most Swiss can speak high German (although it is a second language for them and they are generally reluctant to speak it, which is strange because they aren't reluctant to speak their other second languages...), but think realistically about a casual social situation: A group of people is sitting around, with several small 2-3 person conversations going on. Those will all be in Swiss German. The one I am in might switch to high German, but almost always slides back into Swiss German, and I'm unable to jump into other small groups because I don't understand.

    • Even if I studied German 2 hours a day for years I would still not really be able to understand people. Kind of a motivation killer.

    • It is possible for people to learn Swiss German directly. I am not one of those people, in large part because Swiss German is a 100% oral language--there is NO written version. I learn almost 100% by reading, thus I am forced to take the slower route of becoming fluent in high German and then easing into Swiss German like German native speakers do. Not very realistic.

  • Here's another motivation-killing scenario. Do I spend all my free time learning a language I don't really like, only in order to be able to speak to people I don't really have anything in common with? I already know that I have nothing in common with my colleagues--don't get me wrong, they're all really nice people but we really have nothing in common, and we already know that. It has nothing to do with language--we just come from worlds that are too different and there's nothing to bridge the gap. I'm pretty wierd--even in the US I'm strange--and the people I connect with are few and far between. I don't mean to sound like I'm judging people before I meet them, but from 35 years of experience, I know pretty damn quickly when I've met someone I can connect to versus someone better suited to the acquaintance arena.

  • And finally, there's the emotional trauma. About a year after I'd moved here, it suddenly seemed like no one would speak English to me anymore. I assumed I was imagining that, that my "you're too sensitive" feelers were waving about getting damaged. Lunch and coffee breaks with the colleagues now felt like stressful German exams rather than a break from work. I could empathize, to some degree--maybe speaking English at the break wasn't all that relaxing for them! And then I found out that, in fact, several of my colleagues had actually gotten together and decided to speak only German to me. They'd decided that "I'd been here long enough and it was time for me to switch to German". I'm not making this up. The really sad part is that I know they were doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, with the idea that if I learned German I'd be able to integrate better and have a better time here. Um, yeah. I don't really work that way, and my wildly immature response was basically, oh, you want to play that game? Well fuck you. I can win that kind of staring contest hands down. I pretty much stopped speaking German at work out of spite. It's so lame, but by the time I could come up for air, emotionally, I was so traumatized by the whole episode that I now can't study German without bringing up all that baggage.

So there you have it. A combination of factors, some reasonable, some not, some wildly counterproductive, and in the end, all a humbling reminder of my imperfection. We humans don't always do what's best for us. Some of us smoke, even though we know the dangers it brings. Some of us drive fast and don't wear a seatbelt, or eat organ meats despite having gout*, or never walk anywhere. It's what makes us human. Me? I just can't learn German to save my life.

*ETA: Perhaps this isn't as funny to others as it seems to me? My mom was diagnosed with gout and they told her she'd have to eat a restricted diet ... that included no organ meats. We agreed that probably wouldn't be too hard to follow.....


Lessons in humilty

Living in Zurich has been a series of lessons in humility. Some of them are general expat-ness, but others seem to be just random. They all seem to revolve around losing a sense of my competency in life. Not being able to read my mail or get telephone numbers from a voicemail. Not knowing how to pay a bill or change a fuse. Not being able to find shoes in a shoestore. Shopping like a bewildered foreigner--hours spent wandering the aisles in frustration, trying to imagine how else item X could possibly be envisaged (and thus which section of the store would have it)--and this not changing at all after 2.5 years--I still shop like I just got off the boat.

I'm feeling it a lot at work, too. In every job I've ever had I've generally played certain roles, such as being the equipment/instrumentation person, or being seen as a resource for using certain pieces of software. Here I don't fill any of my old roles, and it's disorienting and makes me sad. I also experience the silencing effect of being female far more intensely here--that when I speak up in groups people (at best) ignore me or (worse) literally talk over me (seriously they just start talking as though I weren't in the middle of a sentence and still speaking). There have been meetings at work where I just said the same thing 5 times in a row because I was getting no response. This taps into a real problem vein for me--I have a hangup about wanting to be heard, to be understood, and when I'm having a conversation with someone that I can see is going awry, I get really attached to making sure they understand my meaning. This means I wind up repeating myself, ever more forcefully, and it means I wind up in a lot of "arguments" because I can't let go of the idea of making sure they see my point from my perspective.

I had a bad day at work yesterday. At our weekly group meeting someone presented a side project they have been working on for several months. I listened in shock as they described reinventing a wheel I'd already invented at my last job--I have about 2 years experience doing literally exactly what this person in my group is doing. [ETA: And my group knows this--in fact that experience is the primary reason I was offered the position here.] I had no idea, and it really bruised my ego that no one had ever once asked me for advice. This is the heart of my experience here--that I feel as though I have nothing to offer (or at least, that no one recognizes that I have anything to offer). I try not to take it personally--it is their loss, after all, but it does go on day after day and it sort of weighs on me.

I probably needed to have some lessons in humility, though. It's had some good effects. I'm far more detached from things--I'm much more able to see things happening and just let them go on without needing to get involved. Yeah, I've learned to mind my own business. Ha. I've also become way more relaxed about life's administrative duties. I'm one of those people who has never cut class in my life. I've missed class, from being sick or whatever, but I've never just woken up and thought, Nah, I'm not gonna go today. I attend to bills and such obsessively. I'm kind of high strung that way. The most frequent advice I've heard in my life is to "take it easy" and "not take it so personally". Don't you think, if I could, I would?!?! But now, here, I've turned into one of those people who throws away letters from the landlord with barely a glance. My policy is, if it's in German and overly wordy, I toss it. Short German things I'll read, but when I see a dense page full of specialized administrative or technical vocabulary that's not in the dictionary, I just dump it. I've come to believe that if it's important enough, they'll either write or call again, or someone will clue me in (Didn't you get the email about the mandatory meeting that starts in 5 minutes?).

My entire experience here is colored by my lack of ability to speak and understand German. This has turned out to be a pretty traumatic item which I will leave for another post.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

On my radar

Bizarre sightings

It's a sad day when even the National Renewal Energy Lab has to set goals for reducing carbon emissions. Don't they already use their own research results?

Apparently the best way to make sure you get a good's night's sleep is to, among other advice, get a good night's sleep. Hmmmm.

Cool science

I am obsessed with the lake under the ice at Vostok. Drill tips have been poised just above the top of the lake for years while scientists try to figure out how to sample the lake water without contaminating it. Here, they took a sample of ice from just above the lake. This contains water that had been in the lake but was sort of convected out during the freezing/thawing that goes on in such a bizarre body of water.

I haven't fully explored this dataset about biomes but I'm already totally enthralled. I'm fascinated by land use and how to categorize it and I think this has been long overdue.

Depressing science

Uneven changes in food prices, in which the healthy food gets far, far more expensive than the junk. I recently read When Work Disappears by William Julius Wilson, about the world of chronic joblessness in inner cities. It was pretty depressing, which probably explains why I've had it on my shelf for 10 years but never got around to reading it. Even sadder is that nothing has changed since it was written. Anyhow, one of the things which really rocked my world was the discussion of the institutional factors that influence joblessness. We all know the blue collar economy in the US changed from manufacturing to lower-paid service jobs, but the problem goes a lot deeper. US culture is obsessed with individualism, which can be good (freedom) but it can also be bad because it means we tend to blame focus on individual shortcomings while ignoring the external factors. I think the same can be said of our fixation on obsesity.

Toxic soup we live in. Infertility epidemic, anyone? Or how about: oops, lead is even worse than we thought!

Something good

And finally, so we don't get too depressed, this awesome post on joy.


Firebag, and some startitis

[Squeal]! (If you know me, you know that's a very loud noise!) I finished the fireflowers bag!! Here it is in its improvised blocking situation (erm, please, no making fun of the book on self esteem which is showcased in this shot):

I might have overfelted it, but not disastrously so. The flowers don't have much definition, but maybe that would have been the case regardless. I'm not sure if I should try to shave them a bit, to remove the layer of purpley lint on them? The strap was a bit short--I ran out of yarn (that thing ate yarn like it was going out of style). I think I can always rewet and stretch the strap.

Here it was before blocking:

It went from being 19" high, 15" wide, 6" deep (the body) to 14x12x6. The flap went from 14" long by 15" wide to 11x11, and the strap went from 4" wide (after the bag-edge-decreases) and 53" long to 2.5" and 47" long. Funny how asymmetric it is. I haven't weighed it yet but it is pretty heavy. But it can double as an impromptu bullet proof vest! It's like a superhero accessory!!

And then, as a reward, I indulged my startitis and cast on a scarf using the "Hearts of Oak" pattern in Barbara Walker's 4th Treasury. It took me 5 tries to figure out the pattern. I kept running out of stitches and then finally figured out I was misunderstanding the increases at the beginning and end of the first 4 pattern rows. I'm using Lang Silkdream (silk and merino blend) in one of my favorites--gloomy winter skies grey. Sigh. I love this color and the yarn is unbelievably soft!


Monday, December 03, 2007

I have my own action figure

I almost peed my pants when I saw this--I have an action figure! For those who don't know, I spent a year at the south pole. I'm pretty sure that's a face mask/gaiter, not a beard, so that this toy can be either gender.

The bag is coming along--I put the side stitches on holders so they can become the straps, and bound off the front with icord, and I'm halfway through the flap. I would have preferred to do it all in purple but I realized I don't have enough yarn. Oops. This bag is getting really heavy--it's used a lot of yarn. Good thing it will be felted and thus able to bear its own weight....

I'm reading several books, as always.

  • Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy. This is in-bed reading, which I've limited to novels only as otherwise I lose chunks of information when I read past fully-awakeness. I've read 2 others by this author, both of which I enjoyed, this one is not grabbing me so much. She writes about the Jamaican immigrants/children of immigrants in England. I'm very into immigrant experience right now, since I'm struggling through my own expat, temporary immigrant experience...
  • When They Severed the Earth From the Sky by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This was the last non-fiction I tried to read in bed (bad move), so now I've started it over in the light of day. It's about how our cognitive process, especially the language pathways, frame our experience and thus how we encode myths. Or, its about decoding myths into the historical events behind them, which is aided by understanding how we process language itself.
  • How to Get a Job You'll Love by John Lees. Self explanatory. The latest of many in this vein, indicating I still haven't come to grips with this issue. Sigh. The author is British and this book is very ... british. I actually threw it across the room yesterday in frustration. Not understanding plain english is very frustrating. Did I mention my blood sugar was a bit low at the time?
  • Stalin's Peasants by Sheila Fitzpatrick, about the forced collectivization of farming in the 1930s. I read a book 2 years ago about the gulags (Gulag by Anne Applebaum) which was riveting. This book is a bit more academic and slower going. I read the gulag book right when I started working with a bunch of historic Soviet data at school--kind of gave me some bad juju. Of course, the Nazi data I was working with took the juju cake. It's meteorological data, FYI. It's data, it's good data, but I still feel creeped out using it.
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler, also a bit academic and thus slow going. These last two books are also physically quite heavy, so I'm not so keen to carry them around. I do a lot of reading on the tram, apparently.

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