Thursday, March 3, 2016

Frog It

For reasons largely chemical -- having my pupils dilated for an eye exam -- I'm unable to tackle my nightly writing assignment, since I'm unable to handle any sort of related reading. So far, I have managed to be a nuisance around the house by badly loading the dishwasher and not being trusted to cook dinner for the kids, since I can't actually read the controls on the oven, and thus I've been banished to the far reaches of the house where I can sit in semi-darkness and not harm myself or others or pose a fire hazard to anyone.

So I'm going to ramble here, and talk about knitting.

I learned around fifteen years ago or so, when my then-only child was in preschool: I vaguely remember one of my very first projects was a slightly lumpen and uneven toy bear for one of his classmates who was about to become a big brother. My wife taught me to knit, and I love her dearly, but she and I are of very different mindsets to life, and knitting is one of those things that, if you must be taught by someone, should be taught by someone who thinks like you do, or who you have the proper amount of respect/fear for (a dear old grandmother is perfect.) My wife's lessons, no matter how often she repeated them, did not take, leaving me to my own devices in the pre YouTube days to puzzle it through from diagrams and books, and to finally wind up getting it right in the "Continental" style. Did you know there's more than one style? I didn't, but I learned it the opposite way that I was taught. She knits "English," which basically means that she uses one hand to manage the loose yarn and I use the opposite hand. Luckily, we're both right-handed, or chances are I'd still be learning. Continental is, from personal experience, unusual among the few knitters I've met in my area, and a male knitting is even rarer still, though I did strike up a very pleasant conversation with a gentleman about how he and his siblings had all learned as children, and were put to work by their mother making socks for themselves during the winter months. Having children of my own who tend to come undone during winter, I see this as exceptionally good parenting. Anyhow, those first few attempts at making anything other than odd lumpen animals, or slightly crooked socks (I tried) or overlarge hats were not wild successes. And although it's not really any more difficult than tying a shoe -- it's practically the same motion, in fact -- you're still doing it with a pair of sharp pointy tools and about a million times in a row.

There's three aspects of knitting that make it pleasant, though, and more pleasant than tying endless shoes. First is setting the expectations appropriately. I have little desire to make myself a nice complicated anything, and certainly less desire to impose such a project on another person. Sweaters are involved. Even proper socks are a hassle -- turning the heel, ugh ugh ugh -- but scarves are super easy, and baby blankets are just scarves without boundaries. I do a pretty brisk business in churning out baby shower gifts for my coworkers thanks to the innate simplicity of the rectangular form.

Second, it's very soothing. Once you get past the agony of actually learning the motions and the silly mnemonic rhymes to do them in the right order ("through the fence, catch the sheep, back we go, off you leap") and you learn your knits from your purls, it's possible to become a veritable fibre-slinging machine. When I had a longer commute, I'd work on the train, and provided that someone in my office is expecting, I can be seen hauling a black bag (manly) of fuzzy pink yarn (less manly) to my kids' soccer games, or pulling it out in front of our nightly murder-mystery TV, or whenever. It's easy, almost enough that you don't need to look at your work after a while. You can feel it -- you learn to know when you've placed the needle wrong and can fix it nearly automatically. I doubt I would have believed this all those years ago when my wife was patiently and fruitlessly trying to teach me how to Catch The Sheep. It's meditative, clicking the needles and handling the yarn and feeling the piece grow beneath your fingers. I've heard it releases serotonin even, one of the brain's built in "happy chemicals." I can believe it. The temptation to stay up late to knit just One More Row... well, it's kind of a buzz, actually. A socially-acceptable grandmotherly buzz, but a buzz nonetheless.

Third and finally, though, is overcoming one's fear of frogs. Or of "frogging" one's work by ripping it out when it's beyond repair or just not working. Frogging a piece can be traumatic, especially if you're really invested in it -- like a sweater or some infernally complex sock, and you may be tempted to just forge on ahead, or bargain with yourself to rip back just a little bit, just a few rows. Since I'm in the realm of rectangles, ripping out is not such a big deal. When you take as much pleasure in the pulling-apart of bad piece as you do in the putting-together of a good one -- well, that's supposedly when you've Leveled Up at knitting. That you can embrace the creation and destruction as integral parts of the piece... or something. It can be an infernal pain (pro tip: never attempt to rip out boucle) but it is a literal unwinding and remaking, too. A fresh start, with lessons learned from the last attempt. Taking a new approach to the summit. Insert your own metaphor here -- it's a do-over, and with the added benefit of wallowing in more happybrain chemistry.

So I'm in the middle of a piece now, a pen wrap for myself, and I just ripped it out for the fifth time in a row. I'm working without a pattern, without a plan, just a picture in my head of what the end product should look like and feel like, and I'm far too lazy to make a small sample swatch and do all the math and figure out how it should count out. I'm leaping in, something sharp and poky in both hands. It's taking shape again, and I think it might be right this time. And like the other creative endeavors I've worked on over the last fifteen plus years, it's teaching me more about making mistakes, and trusting instincts, and being brutal about editing (and starting over) and working through process along the way to a finished product.

I'm a computer programmer by hobby originally and by trade later, and there's very much an immediacy and a correctness to that sort of creation -- errors are reported quickly, and results are true/false without a lot of unpleasant nebulousness in the middle. Knitting -- and writing, and typing, and music, and carpentry -- is not like that, thank goodness, and although I'm not sure I'm good at it, I'm not terrible, either. And when I am, I'm happy to haul it off to the frog pond and rip it, rip it, rip it.


Ted said...

Rip It! Rip It Good!

typetheclouds said...

Great writing. I knit too, and this piece made me laugh. Frogging, I love that term. Clickclack.

Cameron said...

My mother learned how to knit when I was about five years old. It seemed to calm her down, and make her more patient. This benefited the entire household.

She knitted sweaters, then graduated to full-length coats. I was amazed at her equanimity when she made mistakes and had to "frog", as you say. She eventually reached her goals and was understandably proud.

Later in life she took up crocheting, and produced truly beautiful afghans. They adorn the various family members' sofas and beds -- treasured things that remind us of our mother who is no longer with us.