A Touch of ME

Warning: this post is not about knitting. It is full of angry, tired and important stuff. While you’re free to skip this in favour of the next time I manage to summon up some sock-based humour or whatever, I would really appreciate you taking the time to read this. It is something that needs saying, and this is the best platform I’ve got.

Those of you who know me in real life will probably be aware that I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the illness formerly known as ME (although this varies based on your doctor, and I’ve never made the switch). If you’ve never heard of it, this pretty much sums it up. It has been, and continues to be, dismissed as “not a real illness”, despite now being officially recognised as such. You may also have heard it disparaged as “yuppie flu”. Only one person has ever dared to use that term to my face, and those present say they’re still not sure how he’s still alive.

Long story short, ME is vert real, and has had a very negative impact on my life in pretty much every way you would expect. I have been trying to claw my way back to having a vaguely normal life since I first became ill three years ago.

Over the last few months, I have found that more and more people are telling me something along the lines of, “Oh, I think I’ve got a touch of that ME”.

No. No, you do not.

While I’m aware that none of these people mean harm, the fact remains that it’s incredibly unhelpful and needs to stop.

Let me explain. First of all, ME does vary in severity, but it is a real disease, one that has diagnostic criteria and specialist doctors. Imagine claiming that you had “a touch of diabetes” because you were feeling a bit peaky. Now imagine the spectacular lack of awareness required to say that to someone actually living with the condition. That is what you sound like.

I can see how it happens though. Many people use “tired all the time” to describe what it’s like to have ME. It’s pretty relatable. We all get overtired sometimes, even utterly burnt out and exhausted. You could almost say that modern life encourages it.

But “tired all the time” doesn’t even begin to do ME justice. Nearly all the fellow sufferers I know make a distinction between “normal tired” and “ME tired”. It’s a deep in the bones tired, the kind of exhaustion that comes with the knowledge that when you stop moving, you’re going to turn into a zombie for a week, minimum, and no amount of rest or sleep will help. It’s needing to lie down from the exertion of changing the bedsheets, and knowing that, if anything, you’re going to wake up more tired than you went to bed.

As previously mentioned, ME is a recognised medical condition, but that doesn’t mean that getting the label applied to you is a straightforward procedure. Because so little is known about it, it’s a diagnosis of elimination. The doctors have to rule out everything else that vaguely matches your symptoms. For about a year, I underwent a series of increasingly convoluted blood tests and scans. At one point, a hospital phlebotomist was reduced to tears by a request for 16 vials of blood out of my dodgy veins. Now, this process only took a year for me because my family intervened and sent me to a private consultant to speed things along (there’s a family history of ME, so we had suspicions from fairly early on). I imagine it takes most people rather longer, given the current state of the NHS. Even with my relatively speedy passage through the system, I have cried at test results that told me I didn’t have a brain tumour, because it could have been fixed with surgery. On the other hand, ME has little in the way of reliable treatments, and nothing that even resembles a cure.

[NOTE: the first person to send me a culty email about the benefit of the Lightening Process or similar will be fired into the centre of the sun]

It’s one hell of a process, especially given that some doctors still won’t take it seriously, despite recognition from the CDC, NHS, NICE, WHO and plenty more. So when you claim to have it, apropos of feeling a bit tired, you undermine not only the reality of living with the condition, but ongoing attempts to get it more widely accepted, and maybe persuading people to fund some research into what the hell causes it, and possibly even some better treatment.

The other problem with describing ME as “tired all the time” is that it’s only part of the picture. Yes, fatigue is the main symptom (if the pain is primary, then the diagnosis is more likely to be fibromyalgia), but ME causes many other problems. For instance, pain (especially in joints and throat). This has improved for me, but at one point I was unable to stand because it felt like my bones were crumbling under my own weight. When I was still dragging myself to an office job, I would cling to the walls on my way in because of the dizziness, praying my colleagues wouldn’t think I was drunk. Digestive problems are also common, along with mental health problems, because – surprise! – being too ill to get on with your life can make you fucking miserable.

Add in flu-like symptoms, palpitations, nausea and an inability to cope with temperature changes, and you’re starting to get the idea. For me, the biggest non-fatigue problem have been the cognitive issues collectively known as brain fog. I have difficulty concentrating, my short to medium term memory is screwed, and I frequently have trouble finding words (notable example: I once took ten minutes to remember the word “wheelbarrow”). You should be able to infer what this did to my copywriting career, where speed is of the essence. “Tired all the time” is convenient shorthand, but doesn’t even begin to cover what living with ME is like.

And bear in mind, my symptoms are classified as “moderate” (or mild on a good day). This disease puts people in wheelchairs, leaves people housebound, and makes some resort to feeding tubes because they don’t even have the energy to swallow. You do not have “a touch of ME”, and I sincerely hope you never do. Please find a less infuriating way of saying you’re tired.

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Smitten with Mittens

Firstly, a ballgown update: I’m just about to join in the fourth ball of yarn, and it does appear to be growing, albeit very slowly, rather than just chewing up my yarn and giving  me nothing in return. Progress!

One of the upsides of knitting just enough of the damn thing each day to make progress is that I have time and space for totally different knitting that can border on the obsessive. Today, I want to tell you about one of those projects.

Last year we went to Riga for a few days as part of a wider Baltic odyssey. Naturally, I looked up woolly places to visit, and discovered the wonders of Hobbywool. By sheer bad luck, the two days we were in Latvia fell on the summer solstice, which is the basis for a massive summer party/celebration of national pride – in many Eastern European countries, this is particularly important, given the repression of national identity during the Soviet era. Also, most of these countries are the same age as me in their present incarnations, which is pretty mind-blowing. Long story short, this meant that everywhere was shut because both days were national holidays, so all I could do was look mournfully in their window as I went past. On the plus side, all public transport was free for the duration of the festivities, which is something I can get behind. As I sat in the shade with an iced tea, I told myself that it was far too warm to do anything (40C, or 104F in old money), least of all play with warm, sticky wool.

But I was still disappointed, especially when watching the evening celebrations, which featured men wearing suits printed with popular mitten motifs (mittens are a HUGE deal in Latvia).

In a stroke of good fortune, I happened across the Hobbywool stand at Yarndale (of which more here) and picked up a mitten kit. I went for Autumn Leaves Number Four, but could quite happily knit any and all of them.

Now, maybe I’m just a bit simple-minded, or maybe it’s just that I’ve not done colourwork for ages (possibly both), but I’m utterly enchanted. I’ve been smoothing my work out every row to admire the magic tumbling from my needles. The needles in question are 2.25mm DPNs, for the record. The pattern recommends 1.5mm, but I found this came out absurdly tiny and ripped back.

I even learnt how to do lateral braids to make the mittens extra fancy, and I’m delighted that just purling and twisting the yarns in the front of the work can make something that looks so clever. Although note to self, this mitten has a RIGHT-LEANING braid, must replicate this on the other hand.

 

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Needs a block, but it’s so pretty!

I think I may be in love. This definitely isn’t travel or TV knitting (carrying three colours in one row is making my head hurt), but there’s something so hypnotic about watching the charts slowly unfold that they’re working up quickly. The instructions for the afterthought thumb placement took a bit of puzzling out, as the pattern has been translated from Latvian, and it sometimes shows, but I managed it in the end, Now I’m flying. And I may have ordered a book of Latvian mitten charts.

NOTE: A great deal has been written about the incredible tradition of Latvian mittens by people who know far more than me. If you want to learn more, the authoritative books seem to be Latvian Mittens by Lisbeth Upitis and Mittens of Latvia by Maruta Grasmane. Have fun falling down *that* rabbit hole.

Clawless

So, about those gloves… It turns out that adding four tiny tubes to the end of fingerless mitts is actually… not that bad, Ok, it’s a little fiddly, but nowhere near the massive stumbling block I had previously assumed.

I think a lot of knitters have a similar experience with socks. I missed out on this, because my second knitting project as an adult was a pair of socks, and therefore I didn’t know they were supposed to be scary. After a bit of digging, I came across a tutorial (Silver’s Sock Class, which I still think is excellent) that soothingly told me all I needed to be able to do was cast on, knit and purl. It would teach me the rest. And it did. It took a while, but I managed turn out a perfectly usable pair of socks that I still wear to this day. I’ll probably have some kind of existential crisis when I walk them to pieces.

Anyway, the gloves. I love them! They are so cozy! As it’s me, I made a few adjustments to the pattern, because I can’t leave well enough alone, even when I’m learning something new.

This included repeatedly trying on the gloves to make sure the fingers were long enough (I have pianist’s fingers, just with none of the associated keyboard skills). I also managed to obtain some conductive thread to work into the fingertips, so I could use my phone while wearing them. In practice, this hasn’t worked so well, but never mind. I only had enough for one hand, so it became apparent I was going to need something to tell each hand apart.

I had a little think, and then decided to work a set of purl rows in the fourth finger of the non-conductive glove (I’m right-handed). It’s subtle yet effective.

It also seemed thoroughly appropriate. Because there’s been a recent acquisition that goes under the glove…

Yes, after nearly six years, the Yarn Widower decided he wanted to make things official. Shortly after he asked, he pointed out that he’d had the ring made “without a claw setting, so it wouldn’t catch on your yarn and stuff”.

I think I’m keeping this one.

The Finger Dilemma

Good evening. *Adjusts glasses, adjusts lecture notes importantly* Today, I would like to talk to you about gloves. They’re things you wear on your hands… No, not the same as mittens, there’s an individual tube for each – no, I don’t mean fingerless mitts. You know, I really didn’t think the basic concept was going to be so challenging.

While I’m (mostly) joking, you have to admit that there aren’t that many glove patterns out there. The stumbling block seems to be the making of fingers – mitt patterns and arm warmers abound (and goodness knows, they’re useful in a chilly house during the winter), and mittens are widely regarded as an arm form. Especially when combined with thrums, mittens can be the warmest option of all, on account of how they keep your fingers all smushed together. While great for dexterity, fingerless gloves are not the cosiest, hence why I find them most useful for taking the edge off indoors. Living in the North, gloves with fingers are probably my best bet for not freezing and not having to peel them off my hands every time I want to unzip my handbag.

The Yarn Widower and I are taking a little trip to Munich at the beginning of next month. With all the exploring and trolling around Christmas markets and so on, I’ll need something to keep my hands warm. While I own a (very lovely) pair of sheepskin gloves, which are definitely coming with me, they are thick enough to throw up the aforementioned dexterity problems. And since I have weirdly long fingers, they also don’t fit terribly well.

I have lots of lovely sock yarn, I thought to myself. I bet I could whip up a pair of gloves in a couple of weeks. Sure, I could buy them, but as a knitter, that’s tantamount to heresy. Also, they probably wouldn’t fit very well, as outlined above. Visions of wearing said beautifully hand knitted gloves while sipping mulled wine instantly began to dance in my head. While seductive, I am aware that these visions are not entirely accurate, as in them I am outside in the cold with rosy cheeks, but without a freezing, streaming nose or the accompanying supply of tissues. Regardless, the idea stuck.

No! cried another part of my brain. Gloves are frightening and fiddly, and you’ve never made them before! You can’t do that!

I will allows my readers to decide whether it’s bloody-mindedness or an admirable desire to push myself, but my knee-jerk reactions to anyone telling me I can’t do something (yes, even myself) is to say, “Just watch me.”

There are all sorts of ways I could explain this impulse. Imagine where would be as a species, for instance, if no one ever did things that were new and maybe a bit scary. We would never get anything done. Innovation and adaptability are two of humanity’s greatest strengths, after all.

But this is just high-fallutin’ post-hoc justification. The real reason is this: while I’ve on.y been at it a few years, I see myself as a confident, willing-to-try-anything-once kind of knitter. I felt a trace of doubt and hesitation cross my mind at the thought of gloves, and it challenged my perception of myself as both a knitter and a person, overdramatic as it sounds. Also, I really do need a pair of gloves.

There’s really only one solution to this.

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If you’re curious, the yarn is Crazy Zauberball in Herbtsonne, and the pattern is Very Basic Dancing at Lughnasa Gloves (free on Ravelry). So far so good, but wish me luck.

A Woman, Without her Knitting, is Nothing

Recently, the Yarn Widower and I went out for the evening. This in itself isn’t terribly unusual or noteworthy, but something happened that was very revealing.

We had gone to see a band called Public Service Broadcasting at the Manchester Academy. Now, because this is quite a big venue, and Manchester in particular has had some terrible things happen at concerts recently, security was tight. Think metal detectors and bag searches.

I was prepared for this. Earlier, I had gone through my handbag and removed the hipflask half full of whisky (yes, left over from Yarndale; and no, I very rarely clear out my bag) because venues don’t normally approve of you bringing your own alcohol. I had even taken out the stabby embroidery scissors.

It hadn’t occurred to me that knitting needles would cause problems. I’ve flown with knitting in my hand luggage many times before, even when Brussels was locked down due to an ongoing terror attack.

“What’s in that little bag?” asked the security guard.

“Oh, just my knitting,” said I, blithely.

“Can I have a look?”

“Of course.”

He caught sight of my 3.25mm KnitPro Zings (circulars, of course) and sucked his teeth. Long story short, he called his supervisor, who called his supervisor, and it was determined that my knitting needles were officially deemed “offensive weapons”.

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Offensive weapon, with thumb for scale

Mutter, mutter, could do as much damage with a biro, don’t you realise I’m far more dangerous without my knitting, and all the things knitters traditionally say when faced with over-zealous airport security (knitting needles and crochet hooks are allowed as per UK government guidelines, for God’s sake). However, as I mentioned, the UK in general and Manchester in particular is currently feeling very twitchy about security, so there was no point arguing. For those of you concerned about the fate of my poor, blameless knitting, don’t worry – I was able to leave it in the security office and pick it up on my out. Just as well, as that’s about a third of a jumper on those needles.

So that in itself wasn’t overly interesting: it’s what comes next that tells. We had arrived shortly after 7pm. The support act was due to start at 8, with the main band on at 9. Because I have CFS/ME and we had standing tickets, it was decided that I would sit in the bar during the support, so as to hopefully have enough energy to stay upright during the headline set.

In other words, this meant that I had an interrupted period of sitting from about 7.30 (once we had obtained drinks and so on) to just before 9, with no knitting. Just let that sink in.

Readers, it was horrible. At first, I was compulsively checking my phone and bombarding people with texts to pass the time. If you were one of the victims of this frenzied activity, I’m sorry!

However, it then became apparent that a) I was sitting in one of the few signal blackspot in central Manchester, and b) I had brought my battery pack, but not the appropriate cable, so I would need to preserve my battery for the journey home. Therefore, my secondary distraction was now also useless.

By this point, as the Yarn Widower will attest, I was getting quite cross and fidgety. For the record, we were having a perfectly pleasant conversation and generally enjoying each other’s company. That’s not the problem. I just need something to do with my hands to keep me calm and fit for human society. Shut up, it’s not an addiction, it’s a coping mechanism.

Luckily, I had my bullet journal with me. I am aware it makes me one of those people. In my defence, it’s supremely messy and in no way Instagram or Pinterest fodder. So I set up my November pages, got a few lists up to date, and then…

That had taken ten minutes, tops, and I still had ages to wait. No I understand why normal people get so cross when they have to wait for things. It’s mind-numbingly, face-meltingly boring, rather than the gift of guilt-free knitting time.

The sweet, blessed relief of getting on the penultimate train home after I had been reunited with my knitting cannot be overstated. It’s moments like this that underscore just how important knitting has become to me. It’s also an illustration of just how much it helps me to cope with the vagaries of daily life.

It’s good for me. Not an addiction. Now, just a few rows to take the edge off.

Yarndale

Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness! Yes, autumn is drawing in, and for me, that means two things: knitwear season is upon us, and Yarndale time has arrived once again.

The festival, which takes place at the end of September in Skipton’s auction mart, wasn’t on my radar until we moved to Leeds for the Yarn Widower’s Masters. Once we had settled in, I found a knitting group that didn’t hold meetings during my working hours, and promptly proceeded to make a group of excellent friends, which is most unlike me. One of the first questions they asked me (in November) was, “Are you coming to Yarndale?”

My first response was, “What is a Yarndale?” My second response, after a quick explanation, was, “I am now!”

Since we moved, I don’t see those friends as much, but I know that I can pretty reliably bump into them at Yarndale, even if I don’t make any specific plans to do so. For me, like many knitters, Yarndale has become a major part of my social, as well as yarn-acquisition, calendar.

So, here is how it all went this year.

I looked at getting there by train, but quickly realised that this would take forever, thanks to three changes and a rail replacement bus each way. Luckily, the Yarn Widower had a gig in Leeds, so he was prevailed upon to give me a lift both ways. Ergo, more money for yarn, right?

I remembered being a little child last year, so I set off wearing now fewer than four hand-knitted items (a Featherweight Cardigan, a scarf for which I can’t remember which pattern I used, some Regency Socks, and my beloved Scalemaille Mitts). It quickly became apparent that I was going to overheat in a big way, but I couldn’t bear taking any of it off. After all, it’s not often that I get to be surrounded by so many people who really get how special hand knits really are.

On running into the Leeds contingent, it became apparent that I’d been a bit of a bad influence. Last year, I’d turned up with a hipflask full of scotch, and a few people had decided to follow suit this time (and yes, mine made a repeat appearance). Much as I enjoy the event, I find it easier to cope with densely packed people with a little bit of added mellowness. I have also now seen a friend who shall remain nameless under the influence of an ungodly mixture of whisky, energy drinks and yarn fumes, so don’t even try telling me I’m the one with a problem.

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Even amongst the chaos of knitters on a yarn excursion, it’s still a wonderful way to catch up with friends from all over. To the vendor who had to listen to my off-colour anecdotes while trying to convince a friend that she didn’t need a Starry Night/Tardis themed crochet hook (she had limited funds and can’t even crochet), I am sorry, but the joke was just too good to pass up.

So, the haul. Before I show you this, I want two things noted for the record: firstly, I donated a substantial bag to the Oxfam yarn amnesty, so I technically came home with less yarn than I set off with.

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Secondly, the Yarn Widower continued his Yarndale tradition of adding a new musical instrument to his collection (a marching baritone this year, an orchestral tuba in 2016), so even he wanted to complain about my acquisitions, he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

Anyway, I now have: two skeins of Aruncania Botany Lace. They discontinued a lot of shades when they were bought out by Debbie Bliss, and I absolutely love the yarn, so I tend to buy it up whenever I see nice colours, as the ends of lines are almost always discounted.

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These two lovely skeins from the Dye Ninja, which are going to be the basis of my version of Woman Must Make Her Own Arrows, when I finally get around to it.

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Two skeins of John Arbon Knit by Numbers, plus beads, for when I manage to make a Fabergé Shawl without messing it up (there are a few painful attempts in my past).

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Pretty fibre from John Arbon. No plans for this yet, but it’s always fun to spin with pretty colours.

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This gorgeous braid of Blue Faced Leicester, from a vendor that has shamefully vanished from my memory, and hasn’t included any branding on the tag…

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And finally, a Latvian mitten kit from Hobbywool. I was so glad to see these guys at Yarndale, as I tried to visit their shop in Riga when we visited last year, but didn’t realise that the summer solstice was a national holiday and therefore everywhere was shut.

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We then repaired to Leeds for restorative burritos, and I got to stand on a street corner in town for half an hour on a Saturday night waiting for my lift (“I’m literally five minutes away, honest!”). I don’t recommend this, but I did get to see a man so drunk by 9pm that he was trying to punch his own shadow in the doorway of a McDonalds. Never change, Leeds. But maybe sober up a bit?

In short, the day was overwhelming, exhausting and occasionally infuriating, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year.

Rematch

img_0726I am currently knitting the Lush Cardigan from Tin Can Knits’ Handmade in the UK, in purple Explorer Coast DK. Those of you who know me offline may be wondering if you’re experiencing a glitch in the matrix. Yes, this is identical to a project I finished two years ago. However, I proudly sewed on the buttons, and within the space of a single wear, the blasted thing went from three inches of negative ease to more like eight inches of positive ease.

The hem was rapidly approaching my knees, and my hands had disappeared under sagging cuffs (I had decided to make the sleeves full-length, but still). In short, I had accidentally knitted a front-fastening sack with a fetching lace yoke.

Given that I’d swatched properly and checked the fit throughout, I was fairly sure that I hadn’t had a tension accident. As I was a relatively new knitter and it was my first garment, it took me a little while to work it out, but I got there in the end. Explorer Coast is a lovely yarn, but it’s 55 per cent wool, 45 per cent cotton. I hadn’t considered the way that cotton tends to stretch out under its own weight, particularly when used in larger projects.

We were in the process of moving house and city at the time, so I washed and dried it again, and when that didn’t help, put it in time out for a few months, because there was no way I was emotionally equipped to deal with it while living in a sea of half-built IKEA furniture.

But I knew what needed to be done, and once the dust had settled, I finally got my nerve up, and I frogged my first-ever completed garment. Completely. All while wishing I hadn’t woven in the ends so thoroughly. Then I re-skeined and washed all of that bastard lying yarn and returned it to the stash. Specifically, the box in the attic where I corral all of the jumper project yarn so it doesn’t taunt me on a daily basis. And there it stayed, until a few weeks ago. I hadn’t been ignoring it per se, but I’m easily distracted by things that are new and shiny.

A little while ago, as part of a drive to start using up what I semi-jokingly refer to as the Deep Stash, I pulled out the reclaimed yarn and took a long hard look at it. The temptation was to go with a new pattern, but I bought this yarn and book together, goddammit, and that is how it will be used. Also, I really like Lush and still want to wear it.

Because I’m not a total glutton for punishment (shut up, am not), I am doing a few things differently this time. I’ve checked my tension again, then gone down a few needle sizes. I’ve also chosen a smaller size in the pattern – believe me, I never thought I’d knit an adult size small again either.

Despite the amount of negative ease in Lush, I’m still faced with a challenge. I am, shall we say, full in the bust. To an extent that selecting a jumper pattern based on the “to fit bust X inches/cm” measurement always results in a garment that fits neatly over my chest but hangs pretty loose everywhere else. And what’s the point of knitting your own jumper if it doesn’t look like it was, well… made for you?

Now, I know I made some adjustments last time, and based on the fact that the wretched thing was eight inches too big all over, it clearly worked. I just can’t remember what I did, and I didn’t write it down, so I’m having to do the sodding maths all over again (is anyone sensing a theme with this project?).

Thus far, I’ve settled on a sort of Frankenstein solution, which involves grading various sizes together in the relevant places, mainly by adding extra decrease rounds on top of the waist shaping. It’s hard to tell if it’s working at this point, as the whole thing is working up far too small. This isn’t worrying me too much at this point, although I’m starting to wonder if it should, as last time, it didn’t start to sag until after it was finished. How it will stretch out that much if I can’t do it up in the first place is another matter.

It’s certainly interesting from a process knitting point of view, and not just because Lush is an entertaining and well-thought-out design (which it absolutely is). No, it’s because while there are certain things I knit over and over again, such as plain ribbed socks, this is the first time I’ve ever ripped out an entire project and used the yarn to make the same pattern again. Call it a rematch, if you will. I’m undeniably older, hopefully wiser, and I’m interested to see what a few more years of knitting experience brings to this do-over.

Now, according to most of the rules of blogging, this is where I would close with some sort of defiant statement about how “this yarn/pattern isn’t going to beat me this time!”, but I’m not going to. I know that that sort of public grandstanding is a surefire way to activate the laws of irony, but I’m also acutely aware that this yarn – and let’s face it, it’s the yarn, not the pattern – has behaved so unpredictably thus far that there’s every chance I’m going to get my arse handed to me again. The only certainty is that it will be a different kind of screw-up, and therefore should at least have the potential to be interesting and/or informative.

Just one thing: when it happens, please don’t remind me that I was so annoying smug and Zen about the prospect. Past me is really irritating when she gets like that. But here in the present, I’m four inches past the armholes and feeling cautiously optimistic. Wish me luck.