Friday, December 16, 2011

Knitting and the Binary Code

Here's a checklist to help you figure out if you are no longer in that sweet spot demographic of 18-35 years:
  • Some of your friends have reading glasses and you know you aren't too far behind.  Double points if you find yourself looking at the fancy colorful ones and find yourself thinking, "I will definitely be buying a beaded chain to match."
  • Your oldest child fingers your hair and says, "Momma, you have a A LOT of gray hairs."
  • Your learned to type...on a typewriter.
Mrs. Huebner, I would like to thank you for drilling us mercilessly that, "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country."  Because of you, I became a very good typist who never needs to look at my hands while typing.  Unfortunately, this may soon become an unmarketable skill as I now apparently need to only type with my thumbs into a keypad sized for Barbie and Skipper.

What happened?  I think I can pinpoint the day that it all began to change.  It was when my parents came home with our family's first computer.  It looked like this:

A Commodore 64, my friends.  And, no, the entry level did not come with a monitor.  Instead, it came ready to plug into this:

A Sony Trinitron TV complete with several dials and absolutely no remote control.  I wasn't fooled.  I knew that the Commodore 64 sans monitor was a joke.  I mean, if my parents were really serious about us having a computer, we would have had a keyboard that was attached to the monitor and they would have bought a modem that looked like this:

Given the set-up we had going in our house I wasn't too interested in computers.  I figured that I would leave the computer programming to the geeks. I, on the other hand, would happily continue to type my school papers with my dad's very fancy electric Olivetti.

Imagine my impatient intolerance when we seniors were introduced to a little something our teachers liked to call the "computer lab".  I remember that room well.  It was down by Mr. Shogren's (a perennial favorite as the psych teacher) office and I am pretty sure that it was windowless.  I seem to remember the lights being dimmed and the screens flickering with a special green light as we sat down to learn to write our papers using a computer language called "BASIC".  I hated it, of course, as most of us did.  I went through the motions of writing papers using this "language" but was only too happy to get back home to my dad's Olivetti and White Out.

There was one thing that fascinated me about computers, though: the binary code.  I was stunned when I found out that at its most elemental, computers run on configurations of two numerals, 1s and 0s.  What?!?!  That just blew me away.  I have never been able to comprehend how this could ever be...until I started knitting.  Mmmm hmmmm, knitting.  Before I began to knit I figured that there were untold numbers of stitches that a person needed to learn in order to be able to knit.  Not so.  Imagine my surprise when I was met with the binary code for the second time in my life.  Instead of numerical digits were the simple words: knit and purl.  Think about that.  If you can knit and purl you can knit pretty much any pattern out there. 

It sounds so simple.  In a way it is.  The simplicity takes a dive, however, when a knitter is faced with a complex pattern.  This is especially true when a knitter has ADD (ahem, just clearing my throat).  I have glanced at directions to some intricately beautiful patterns and felt my brain fold like punched dough.  And yet, at the core, it all comes down to knit and purl.  Knit and purl.  Zero and one.  Zero and one.  The only variable is the sequence.

This was forcefully brought to my attention when giving it a go at the seed stitch.  After learning the garter stitch (straight on knit stitch) and then stockinette stitch (one row of knit followed by one row of purl) I was ready to tackle the seed stitch (knit one, purl one, alternating stitches).  I compared the directions in two different books.  One of them gave the unenlightening directive to, "knit the stitch as it appears."  Well, thank you very much, Knitting Author, I'll do just that.  After a few rows I said to Husband Jim, "this doesn't look right."  (I have to add at this point that regarding knitting, whenever I express any emotion on the scale of annoyance (1) to horror (10) Jim becomes instantly uptight because there is absolutely nothing he can do to help me resolve the problem.)  A few more rows of "this really doesn't look right at all".  And then, "Is this...are you kidding I RIBBING???"  Yep, I sure was.  Apparently, I didn't know what it meant to knit the stitch as it appeared (I still don't).  I grabbed my book, read the directions again and thought, "well, why don't I try ribbing based on my understanding of this gibberish and see what I get?".  I guess it is a foregone conclusion that while attempting to rib, I accomplished a very nice seed stitch.  How did this happen?  Do you really want to know?  It happened because my sequence was one stitch off.  Just one.

That night when my knitting pulled a Freaky Friday it occurred to me that I could be in for a long haul as I trek toward becoming an experienced and skilled knitter.  Binarilly speaking, I have been hunting and pecking on a Commodore 64 keyboard.  Knitting a fair isle sweater would be the equivalent of building a Cray computer.  I guess I wasn't kidding in my byline. This really could take awhile.    

Friday, October 28, 2011

Are they really funky?

Um...yeah, they really are funky.  Here's a mulitple choice quiz you can take.  Please choose from the following what was said to me as a child by both children and adults.

1)  "Are your thumbs deformed?"

2)  "Did your thumbs get slammed in a door?"

3)  "They look like big toes on your hands."

4)  All of the above.

5)  None of the above.

Ding, ding, ding.  If you answered, "All of the above", I will knit you a neck cozy. (No, not really, but if you are ever in the area I'll buy you a Whopper.)

I was so self-conscious about my thumbs in elementary school that when we had to sit on the floor I would tuck my thumbs under my palms when I leaned back on my hands.  I would also often look down at my hands and envision the surgical procedure I would perform on myself if I had the proper equipment and plenty of Lidocaine (make a slit on both sides of each thumb and then chisel and file off all the extra bone). 

By the time I hit junior high I was still embarrassed by my hands (what boy would be interested in a girl who had big toes on her hands?).  I also started to become a bit annoyed with the curious impoliteness of people, especially adults. (Hey, all you baby boomers, you were supposed to be setting a good example for all us young'uns!)  I don't remember whether or not I was still embarrassed by my thumbs in high school and college.  What I do remember was falling in intense like with The Far Side sometime in my teens.  One of my favorite cartoons showed two cows sitting on a loveseat and watching TV.  Across the room a telephone is ringing and the one cow says to the other, "Well, there it goes again...And here we sit without opposable thumbs."  I laughed and took it to heart.  Yeah, my thumbs are strange-looking and not exactly pretty, but they are opposable digits and that has made my life a whole lot easier.

At this point you are either saying to yourself, " know...I remember I went to school with this girl...Karen whatshername...she had toe-thumbs!  I bet they look just the same as yours!"  Or, you might be reading this thinking, "I have never seen such a phenomenon!  Do you have a picture?"  Why, friendly reader, as a matter of fact I do!


So what does that have to do with knitting?  The good news is that opposable digits make it possible for me to knit.  The other good news is that my funky thumbs don't seem to hinder me at all except when it comes to casting on using only one needle, a thumb, and a forefinger.  (I learned how to cast on with two needles, but for some projects - I'm thinking one-row buttonholes - it is beneficial to be able to cast on using only one needle.)  The first time I learned how to cast on this way, the yarn kept getting caught on the boney buttresses of my thumbs.  I kept having to shake the yarn off my thumb and I found myself thinking unkindly of my thumbs before remembering my motto, "Hey, they are opposable digits!"

So thank you, Gary Larson.  Your humor signed a peace treaty between me and my funky thumbs.  Perhaps someday I will knit you a hat.  On it will be a cow wearing red lipstick and cat-eye glasses; knitting and talking on the phone.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How It All Began

Back in the day when I lived at home with my parents, we arrived everywhere very early.  We were usually one of the first to arrive at church, recitals, concerts, meetings - just about anywhere.  The only ones that I remember ever beating us was the janitor and some lone female with a bag full of yarn, knitting or crocheting in quiet.  I would think to myself, "that is just so sad", as I would try to sit still but would find myself twitching and jumping up and down a handful of times to get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, anything to make the time pass until others arrived. (Before proceeding any further, I would like to extend an apology to every one of these women who I judged as, err, pathetic.  I so now get it.)

I don't know when I started wanting to knit.  I think maybe it began when a family friend gave me a knitted sweater and bonnet as a present for my first child.  Her sister had knit it and it was gorgeous.  No scratchy, cheap, yarn for my baby, folks! The yarn was soft, the color a beautiful pale pink, and the stitching was so delicate and lovely.  Maybe it was then I thought, "I would love to be able to create something like that."  More babies came, and more beautiful sweater and bonnet sets were generously given to me by our family friend, Sue.  At one point I had four children age six and under.  Any thoughts of knitting were fleeting and then forgotten.

A year ago we went to visit my husband's family in Michigan.  One of my sisters-in-law told me that she had learned to knit off YouTube.  My first thought was, "jealous!"  I got home and watched one video clip and thought, "crazy!"  Yet the desire to knit didn't go away, it only increased.  Six weeks ago we again went back to Michigan to see my husband's family.  We went to the family cottage for a few days.  I have learned that no visit to the cottage is really complete without driving up to Houghton Lake and going to Arnie's, an arts and crafts store.  My husband, Jim, bought a coloring book of military airplanes (Crayolatherapy he now calls it), and I finally bought some knitting supplies.  I asked one of the employees what I needed as an absolute beginner.  I walked out of there with lilac-colored yarn, size 10 needles, and a laminated trifold pamphlet by a company that teaches everything from anatomy to alegebra in the same succinct way.

We got back to the cottage and I was nervously optimistic. (Reading directions is not my forte. I knew a guy in grad school who once bought an unassembled bike from a store to go on a bicycle date with a girl.  He never once looked at the directions and when he got done he had half of the nuts and bolts left.  That about describes me and my relationship with written directions, my friends.  This is what makes for what I shall call "All-Terrain Knitting".  It is bumpy and can get kind of hairy at times.)  I pulled out my supplies and began to labor over the written directions.  I figured out the slipknot and was working so hard to cast on.  I felt like a kindergartner being asked to write cursive with chunky crayons.  I literally had my tongue sticking out the side of my mouth in concentration.  I was able to get to step 6 and then...nothing.  It made not a lick of sense and I was wishing that Monk's brother, Ambrose, would've written the directions.  My not-too-quiet muttering was probably getting a bit annoying and it was at this point that my mother-in-law softly walked over and asked to see the pamphlet.  She glanced at the directions and pronounced, "These don't make any sense.  Here, let me show you."  (What??? She knits???)  She patiently clickety-clacked those needles and showed me how to do it.  I then proceeded to cast on with two needles and knit a row or two.  Here is a picture of my first attempt.

Well, now, I must be pretty determined to learn to knit if I looked at that attempt and thought, "not bad, let's keep going!"

Jim asked me at one point what do I love about knitting?  (I think he may have asked this one Sunday after I knit for so long that my hands cramped to the point of physical pain and I could barely move my fingers).  I've thought about that off and on over the past few weeks.  I think the main reason is that it gives me a creative outlet that fits into this season of my life.  When I was single and in graduate school, my friend, Julie, taught me how to collage.  I was instantly enamoured.  She and I would get together on a Sunday afternoon and collage while the NFL played in the background and we ate Peanut M&Ms and Chanello's breadsticks.  We would spread our magazines out and collage for hours and hours.  At first, I called it my art therapy but my cousin, Tanner, said to me one time, "don't be afraid to call it art, Jen."  I had never thought of it as art because I never saw myself as artistic because that word had such a narrow definition in elementary school.  If you could draw well then you were artistic.  Well, that captured maybe 5% of my class.  The rest of us were sunk.  I have come a long way and I now realize that creativity and artistry can take a lot of forms.  During my late 20s it took the form of collage. 

Then I had kids.  Now, first of all I want you to know that I love my kids dearly.  Secondly, it almost goes without saying that at this time in my life, I don't have blocks of hours at a time to spread out and collage.  I haven't had that for years.  What I have come to realize, though, is that I still desperately need to create something beautiful.  Knitting allows me to do that.  I am able to sit down in five or ten minute increments (yes, sometimes it is that small) and I am able to knit a row or two and I am able to see instantly the fruit of my labor.  (I won't kid you, it is also a great way to positively channel nervous energy - "I'm sorry, did you say you are running behind and I may have to wait an extra hour for my appointment?  No problem, my pleasure, I have my knitting with me!") 

So here I am, a beginner knitter, who is largely teaching herself how to knit.  I am learning by reading directions (ugh), watching YouTube (please Ms. Instructor Person, make your hands stay in camera view while teaching a stitch), and asking fellow knitters with much more experience than I (already I give my thanks to Jan, Kathnelle, Jennifer, Kim, and Emily). Not unlike Julie Powell who set out to cook through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I have set a goal to master (okay, get proficient at or at the very least attempt) an encyclopedia of stitch patterns, roughly 400 or so, but without the pressure of putting a time limit on it.  I will be sharing lots of pictures - the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I will also be sharing my love of knitting as I muscle my way through stiff fingers and undecipherable directions.  Please join me in my creative adventure!