Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Not the Hands of a Writer

Cricket McRae
I went for a manicure yesterday. Apparently, I should go more often, because within seconds of sitting down, I detected the distinctive sound of tsking under the nail technician’s breath.

Finally, she asked, “What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

That usually results in a question about what kind of writing I do. Not this time. This time I received a single quirked eyebrow and a look that said, “Sure you are, honey. These are not the hands of a writer.”

Which is true. I have the hands of a gardener. Of a cook. A soap maker. And that’s just the beginning. I’ve kept chickens, made cheese, baked bread (and a lot of other things), canned and pickled and dried a ton of food, made jerky … hell, once I even butchered a deer in my living room when I was a starving college student (not as messy as it sounds, honest). And for the record, I’m not a farm girl.

I know, I know. Nutso. Crazy. Wacky. They’re coming to take me away, ha ha.


Seriously, why does anyone do this stuff? I mean, I canned grape leaves for dolmades last week, for heaven’s sake. I make my own cultured butter.

Frugality. Nostalgia. Uniqueness and/or a gourmet touch. Self-sufficiency. Creativity. Tradition. Stubborn neo-Ludditism. A Martha Stewart complex.

All these apply to me to some degree, except the last one. But mostly? It’s about knowing how things work. About being in on a process from the ground up.

Of course homemade soap is satisfyingly practical: inexpensive, better quality than commercial soap, milder, customized with my scent blends, a source of creativity while at the same time providing sudsy cleansing goodness on a daily basis.

And yes, my great-grandmother saved her bacon grease all year, and each fall she and her neighbor built a fire under an iron tripod in the driveway between their two houses in Sheridan, Wyoming, where they spent the day making the lye soap she used to wash everything from her toes to her clothes.

But I don’t know if she thought about how cool it is that you can mix oil (acid, sort of) and lye (alkaline) and through the chemical process of saponification end up with soap (which is essentially a salt, however weird that may sound). But I do. Think about it, I mean.

Okay, I know not everyone is fascinated by how yeast creates maltose and alcohol as bread rises, or what a mesophilic cheese culture will produce as opposed to a thermophilic one. I know I’m a little odd that way. But you know who is interested is finding out what makes things tick? The protagonist in my home crafting mysteries, Sophie Mae Reynolds, that’s who.

I’m often asked the ubiquitous question, “Is Sophie Mae really you?” I always used to give some variation of the answer, “sort of.” Now I’m starting to wonder whether the qualities that cause me to research natural fiber dyes and actually consider using the traditional mordant to set those dyes (urine, honest-to-God, and no, I’ve not gone down that road), are the same qualities that make her not only run a handmade toiletries business, but also poke her nose into the whys and wherefores of neighbors dying and cases of botulism that make no sense. She’s curious. She wants to know the guts of how something happened.

And you know what else? Between her gardening and chickens and preserving and soap making, I have no doubt Sophie Mae is badly in need of a manicure. Let’s just hope her friendly neighborhood nail tech isn’t a tsker.

What are you nerdy about? What odd fascinations do you have that aren’t exactly cocktail party fodder? Come on, give.


Mark Combes said...

I've got a bit of MacGyver in me - you know the TV show? I keep misc. crap in my garage like old ceiling fan brackets and u-bolts and all kinds of washers and bolts and nuts. Oh, and you never throw away scrap lumber. You just might need a 23" piece of 2"x2"......

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Cricket, you tickled one of my fancies!

I LOVE learning about the unusual. Or about things that strike me a bit off. Maybe that's because I am, or might be, a bit off myself.

For example, the first time I heard about deep-fried Twinkies, I researched it. Really. I did. I wanted to know who in their right mind thunk it up in the first place and how did it become widespread. Though I've not yet tasted one. I did the same the first time I heard about the company called Life Gems (they turn carbon from dead people and animals into diamonds, and now can do it with samples from live people). And the first time I heard the "F word" on The Tudors, I was sure the writers didn't do their homework. I looked up the etymology on the very popular and modern (or so I thought) swear word and discovered it has been around and in use as a curse for centuries.

I've done the same with occupations that are unusual. I once met the man who invented the Whizzinator (fake pee for drug tests) and spent at least an hour (over drinks, not drugs) learning how the product came into being. Fascinating story and man.

So much to learn, so little time.