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Knitting up a storm. March 5, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Knitting means many things to me: relaxation (I love the soothing repetitive action); comfort (the warmth of wool on my lap on a cold day as I knit, or one of my scarves keeping me or our friend Ben warm as we brave the winter blasts); beauty (the gorgeous colors and textures of the yarn); wonder (to see how it looks knitting up); sharing (the joy of creating a scarf for someone in colors and textures I know they’ll love). So I’m always thrilled when someone gives that gift of joy to people who need it most.

This morning, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal, “Japanese Elderly Knit a Safety Net.” It’s about how a group of tsunami survivors formed a knitting group, Yarn Alive, in the temporary box homes to which they’ve been moved, sometimes indefinitely.

Having watched as all they owned washed out to sea, losing loved ones, homes, and businesses, and now living in 210- to 320-square-foot spaces in prefab housing with small hope of recovering their lives, hope must have seemed an alien concept to the 326,000 people whose lives have been reduced to these bitterly cold boxes. According to the article, as many as 30% of these people are elderly, living alone and on a pension, with little chance of affording another home or getting another job.

But now, thanks to Yarn Alive, a number of them (using yarn, knitting needles, and crochet hooks donated from around the world) are creating community through the knitting club, making new friends, and finding new purpose. Each week, they have a special “homework” project, such as knitting scarves or blankets for others whose lives have been shattered by the tsunami, or making legwarmers and other knitted wearables to sell in Tokyo to raise money to help rebuild their town, Shichigahama. 

The ladies of Yarn Alive, the recipients of their work, and their town aren’t the only ones to benefit from the project. Those who send yarn and supplies also have an opportunity to participate in bringing joy to others’ lives, often in incredibly thoughtful ways. Take Zonna Fenn, a member of a church knitting group in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, which sent yarn and supplies to the Yarn Alive group. Ms. Fenn “says she heard it was hard to get bright-colored yarn in Japan… [so she] made a point of picking out multicolored, variegated yarn—the kind she said looked ‘fun to work with’.” If you know how much fun it is to pick out special yarns, fabrics or jewelry for yourself or as gifts, imagine the delight of choosing something special for someone who would really appreciate it.

This is also a case where one person with a vision can make a real difference. Thinking about 326,000 people still living in unheated, unairconditioned, makeshift box homes a year after the tragedy that wrecked their lives and washed away their world, you may feel helpless. I remember how appalled I was watching an episode of “No Reservations” in which Anthony Bourdain visited New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina. The city was still in ruins, whole areas abandoned, its famous restaurant district a ghost town.

But Tony Bourdain made a difference by devoting an episode of his hit show to highlighting the city’s ongoing distress. Emeril Lagasse made a difference by keeping his restaurants open and finding work for all his employees either there or at his other restaurants across the country.

Yes, you may be thinking, but they’re famous. What about normal people? What could they do? Well, in New Orleans, every person who chose to stay, who chose to rebuild, or who chose to come and devote some of their time, skills, and resources to the rebuilding also made a difference. In Shichigahama, one American woman, Teddy Sawka, a longtime resident, had the vision for Yarn Alive and pulled strings (sorry, I couldn’t resist that) to raise awareness among knitting groups worldwide to make her dream a reality for a group of elderly widows who loved knitting and desperately needed a new vocation, new friends, and something to look forward to. “It cheers me up so much that I don’t even feel lonely at night, I just feel like knitting some more,” one 80-year-old Yarn Alive member was quoted as saying.

As it happens, I know firsthand what a difference one person with a vision can make. In my case, the time was October 2008, and the person was Kathryn Hall of the popular blog Plant Whatever Brings You Joy (http://plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.com/). Kathryn heard about a group of refugee children, many of them girls, facing a freezing winter in the foothills of the Himalayas. She decided to do something about it, and the Scarf Initiative was born. (You can read all about it in my post “Scarfing it up” by typing the title in our search bar at upper right.) Kathryn appealed to knitting garden bloggers and anyone else who wished to contribute to knit and donate a scarf to the children. At the end of the project, she had almost 80 scarves, and I was very proud to see a photo of mine displayed with the others before they were packed and shipped. I vividly remember the delight of choosing just the right yarn to make a small, cold child happy and brighten her life, and of course, the pleasure of knitting the scarf myself.

The Scarf Initiative was a one-time event, but the ladies of Yarn Alive would doubtless welcome your unused yarn, thrift-store finds, or, of course, treasures selected especially for them. I urge you to read more about it (and see a video of the group in action) at www.wsj.com.

And if you don’t knit, are colorblind, break out at the mere thought of yarn? Keep your eyes open for a chance to take something you love and turn it into a vision that will help others in need, in your community, your city or state, your nation, your world. (This of course applies to you animal- and nature-lovers out there, too; “others in need” isn’t just about people.) Yes, as one ordinary person, you may feel powerless. But remember: Vision is power. Passion and compassion are power. Community is power. So reach in, reach out, and use your talent, vision and passion to make a difference. It may make all the difference in the world.

            ‘Til next time,



Goodbye, Gourmet; bon voyage, Bon Appetit. December 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. In a time when chefs are stars, when millions of people tune in to cooking shows for entertainment, not instruction, when cooking magazines outnumber sports magazines on store racks, it’s hard to believe that America’s two flagship cooking magazines are struggling—and, apparently, failing—to survive.

Gourmet, the first American food and wine magazine, sent out its last issue in October 2009 after 68 years of publication (founded 1941). And now Bon Appetit, founded in 1956, is suffering a sea change. Owner Conde Nast is moving the publication from L.A. to New York and replacing the entire staff, as I discovered when reading the Letter from the Editor in the January 2011 issue this morning.

Why would two such venerable publications, which have survived far longer than most of their readers and contributors have been alive, which (in the case of Gourmet) even survived war rationing, be failing when interest in food and cooking is at an all-time high?

Call me cynical if you must, but I’m guessing it’s because these magazines weren’t celebrity-based. Not that editors Ruth Reichl (Gourmet) and Barbara Fairchild (Bon Appetit) didn’t have their own followings; I’m sure they did and do. But their names aren’t valuable commercial commodities like, say, Paula Deen’s or Rachael Ray’s or Martha Stewart’s. Their faces weren’t plastered on the front of every issue. The magazines were about food, not about personalities. Both magazines began life in their own right, not as spinoffs of TV shows.

Not that I’m criticizing Paula, Rachael or Martha for their success. They all worked harder than practically anyone but Oprah to get and stay where they are. I wouldn’t give my life and privacy away like that for love or money, and since they did, surely they deserve their good fortune. I’m just surprised that celebrity chefs like Emeril have managed to resist the siren call of a magazine named for them.

But no answer is quite that simple. Plenty of other food and cooking magazines are still in publication, and they aren’t helmed by TV stars. What they do have that neither Gourmet nor Bon Appetit did, however, is either a tight, special-interest focus—vegetarian or vegan cooking or artisanal cheeses or Italian cuisine or what have you—or a practical focus on getting fast, cheap, homestyle food on the table (Taste of Home, slow-cooker meals, 30-minute meals, etc.).

Could Gourmet have survived? Can Bon Appetit weather this latest storm? I doubt it, because both are (or were) supported not by subscriptions but by advertising, so they were (and are) at the mercy of a very fickle revenue source. (In case you’re wondering, yes, indeed they did charge for subscriptions and have large circulation figures. But the revenues from circulation would have been a pittance, almost a bonus, compared to the money supplied by advertisers.) 

Can a cooking magazine rely on subscription revenues rather than advertising? You betcha. But it requires a great deal of finesse, intelligence, and hard work. Examples are the magazines founded by Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated and (my favorite cooking mag) Cook’s Country. You’ll find nary an ad in either one. But Chris Kimball & co. work very hard to maintain the loyalty of their subscribers, not just in the quality of the magazines but by spinning off annuals, cookbooks, and etc. from both the magazines and their PBS cooking shows. (And, of course, those shows generate a ready-made audience for the magazines and cookbooks.) And, to restate the obvious, subscription-based magazines must have a loyal and passionate subscriber base, which in turn requires a very savvy focus and superb content.

What would my culinary hero, Julia Child, have made of the demise of Gourmet and the shakeup at Bon Appetit, a magazine presumably named in honor of her signature sign-off line from her PBS show, “The French Chef”? I have no idea; maybe somebody out there can tell me. But I’ll bet if Julia were on the air today, she’d have her own magazine, too. And I’d be first in line to subscribe!

             ‘Til next time,