While writing my master’s thesis…I became bored and unmotivated, so I turned to knitting for help.
-Catherine Stinson, in “Stitch ‘N Bitch”, Debbie Stoller (2003, Workman Publishing, New York)
I’m an archaeologist. Last year, I finally finished my PhD. At that time, a few months before I turned 40, I had spent approximately 18 years of my adult life in college. I did try to be a grown-up for a few years after finishing undergrad, but I found it over-rated and decided to go back to school to see if I could be something other than a waitress/ retail worker (not that there’s anything wrong with those jobs! I was just feeling very…stabby at my jobs at that that time). Since I was student for most of my life, that also meant I did not have a lot of disposable income for hobbies. So, I’ve had to be creative with my creativity.
One of the earliest hobbies I adopted was cooking. This was purely a form of self-preservation. My single mother, god love her, didn’t have a lot of time for cooking and didn’t particularly like it. So, we had a lot of boneless, skinless chicken breasts sautéed in butter with a side of Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice from a box, and a vegetable from a can. But, since it’s cheaper to buy ingredients than it is to buy frozen meals, we kids had to learn to actually make food if we wanted an after school snack. I used to boil cut up potatoes in the microwave and then melt cheese over them for a cheesy mashed potato dish (I was a bit young to be boiling potatoes on the stove at that point). But I learned that cooking was fun! My first job at 16 was a line cook at Pizza Hut. Later, in college, I moved up to working at a real, sit-down restaurant that served Cajun cuisine and I discovered something called “spices” that were not commonly available in my Midwestern home town. It was magical. My favorite shifts were the Saturday and Sunday morning shifts when I was prepping and I spent 8 hours just chopping vegetables and making bread pudding and hush puppies. Repeated motion, I later learned, is very calming and relieves stress, so the chopping vegetables probably helped me manage to finish undergrad without as much difficulty in the mental health department as I could have had. I still find myself making dishes that require a lot of vegetable chopping when I’m under stress.
After undergrad, I moved to California. Because I lived in Wisconsin and I didn’t want to. In SoCal, I discovered what it meant to pay rent in California and not Wisconsin, so I ended up working two jobs because you pay a price to live in paradise. After a few years of that, I decided to go back to school to see if maybe I could work one job instead of two to pay rent. I didn’t have a lot of time for hobbies during that period of my life.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, I ended up working at a restaurant when I first went back to school. This was a Thai restaurant and I was able to discover lots of fun new flavor combinations that Midwestern me hadn’t experienced before. That was fun. After a year or so, I was able to get jobs on campus that paid rent which was great for my resume, but kind of a bummer for my belly.
I made spring rolls based on my old restaurant’s recipe because driving the 8 hours to San Diego seemed a bit much for a spring roll.
It was during this MA program that I first discovered knitting. I was TAing for a prof and he invited me to a family dinner. His wife and sister were discussing this new book called “Stitch ‘N Bitch” and all the fun knitting patterns in it. Apparently, all the cool kids were taking up knitting, but in an ironic way. As a GenX person, this all sounded fabulous to me. So, the next day I went out, bought the book, some yarn, and needles. And never looked back. Remember when I mentioned repetitive motion is stress reliving in a previous paragraph? Yeah. Who needs Prozac when you have knitting (who can afford Prozac on a grad student’s wages before Obamacare? Not this girl!)? It was awesome. However, living in SoCal meant that I didn’t really have a lot of need for knitted goods. But my family back in Wisconsin did! Everybody got scarves and hats (and after a few years and more practice, mittens and gloves) for Christmas!! They loved the hand-knitted goods, I loved having something to do with my hands when I was reading books and articles so my brain wouldn’t get distracted. And I loved not having a bunch of un-used scarves sitting around my studio apartment. Hooray! Then I got into a PhD program up in Seattle and I moved somewhere where the knitted goods were actually needed. That was nice.
Baby hats because my friends keep breeding and science hats for the science march.
I discovered selbuvotter mittens due to the Scandinavian influence in Seattle. One year, I made 8 pair for Christmas presents. I honestly haven’t made many since then…
I had a lot of left over half-skeins of yarn from making all the selbuvotters, so I made a baby blanket with ‘em.
Oh, Seattle. Oh, my PhD program. So much good came out of that, but it was HARD. So hard. Knitting and chopping vegetables just didn’t work anymore. To paraphrase Huey Lewis, I needed a new drug. But I didn’t know that. I was having a very back depressive episode in about my 3rd year of my PhD program and I was a wreck. But because I had developed all these coping mechanisms (cooking, knitting), I didn’t realize that I had depression so I wasn’t treating it in anyway. My solution at the time was to get two puppies. Because of course that’s a reasonable solution. But two things came out of that decision. #1 I realized that I had depression, and knowing is half the battle! I still couldn’t afford Prozac, etc. (still pre-Obamacare!), but the dogs helped and they led to #2 hiking with dogs. I joined a local meetup group that was a bunch of other dachshund owners (I got dachshunds, btw) who went hiking with their dogs. Getting out and about in the open air (when it wasn’t raining, it was Seattle, after all) was fun! The Seattle area is actually quite beautiful (when you can see it) and there are a few large parks to get in a quick urban hike and further afield there are quite a few hiking trails.
My dogs recreating the opening scene of “Little House on the Prairie.”
My dogs climbing boulders.
My dogs wondering why I do this to them…
So, what –ology do I do? I mentioned archaeology up above. And I’ve been super lucky to be able to travel in my studies. It took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to do and I’ve bounced around, literally and figuratively, quite a bit. In undergrad, I went to Belize and got to dig up Classic Maya houses. I went to the Russian steppes and dug up kurgans (which are burial mounds, not just the bad guy from the first “The Highlander” movie). One of the strangest things I’ve done in my life was cooking jambalaya over a campfire on the Russian steppes. It wasn’t than any of the things themselves were odd, they were just odd in combination. For my dissertation, I decided to research whether people were using food to signal social identity on colonial era nutmeg plantations in Indonesia. Because it had to come back to food, right? So, I spent 5 months in Indonesia. For the three months I was at my sites, I woke up every morning to a volcano outside my hotel. It was an awesome view. There weren’t a lot of volcanoes in Wisconsin, so I loved it. I went to the Netherlands to do some archival research. I also got to go to Australia as part of a fellowship. I finally got to pet a wombat, something I wanted to do since I was 7. As part of my research in Southeast Asia, I went to archaeology conferences in Cambodia and Paris. It’s a rough life, I tell ya.
My future is in ruins. Indonesian nutmeg plantation ruins, that is.
Dutch East India Company insignia on a building in Amsterdam.
Paris catacombs. Nothing to do with my research, but I had to go.
Sadly, though, I wasn’t able to get an academic job based on my research, so I had to get a job in environmental compliance. It’s still archaeology, it’s just not in foreign countries. I’m back in California, but the northern bit instead of the southern bit. Now that the PhD is over and I have to enter adult life and I’m not “a grad student” anymore, I’ve been trying to figure out who I am when I’m not a grad student. And, well, I’m not that different than I was. I still cook, A LOT. Thanks to watching “The Great British Bake-Off,” I’ve started making bread. I was having issues with yeast, so I made my own sourdough. Now I’m making sourdough on a weekly basis because I have to keep my started going. But I have been having better luck with yeast and I made kouign aman a few weeks ago. I still knit A LOT. I just finished two baby blankets for my sister who doesn’t have a baby or plans to have one soon, just wanted to give me plenty of time to start a blanket. I finished it in a month. It was small. And I’ve been hiking with my dogs. Not as much as lately because it’s 100+ right now, but there are some good trails and we’re working on exploring more.
I made kouign aman!
More GBBO recipes. This is “schichttorte.” Or, that’s what it’s supposed to be…
GBBO: Povitica. My friend kindly pointed out that it looks like a slightly sad person wearing glasses, with the mouth at the bottom right corner of the loaf and the glasses kind of diagonal in the load.
It was supposed to be soufflé, it ended up being flourless chocolate cake in ramekins.
Typical Thursday night. L- samosa filling cooking in front, chile relleno filling cooking in back; R- pot roast in crock pot, pita dough rising on top the crock pot.
When I started cooking as a kid, it was a form of self-preservation because if I was hungry, I needed to feed myself. What I didn’t realize (because I was 8) was that it would become so much more than just a means to maintain appropriate levels of blood sugar so I didn’t get hangry. Cooking got me my first job and many others. But my hobbies also preserved my mental health and did such a good job that I didn’t realize I had issues that I was accidentally treating for decades. My interest in cooking led somewhat indirectly, but somewhat directly, to my dissertation research. Knitting didn’t do anything for my research. In fact, the 5 sweaters I knitted in one year may have set back the completion of my dissertation, but if I hadn’t knitted all the sweaters, I probably wouldn’t have had the mental strength to continue. And my dogs have not made it easy to find rentals and made it hard to leave the country for a few months at a time, but they make me get out and get into nature which also helps with the mental health. I may have finally finished school, but I find myself constantly trying to learn new things, whether it’s learning to cook something new, or learn a new knitting technique, or find a new trail for the dogs.
The dogs are not as interested in trying new things (like swimming) as I am…