Argh!guy

I’m a perfectionist. There’s no way around it. I like to do things right from the get go and then move on to something new. I don’t do well with errors or mistakes. They stump me. Which is why I’m tangled up in knots with knitting.

For my first project, I’m making a pair of fingerless mitts. All I need to know to complete the mitts are casting-on, knit and purl stitches, sewing, and binding off. These are knitting’s basics, and everything after that builds on these skills.

I know how to cast-on; most of the time I’ll use a Long-Tail cast-on. I certainly know how to knit. And I’ve grown to love to purl. The stockinette patterns is, to date, my favorite. I can combine the two, as the mitt’s instructions ask for, but – try as I might – I have not finished any of the attempts I’ve applied my hands and needles to. Something always goes wrong that makes me want to start over again.

While someone else might plod along and continue stitching, I pull the yarn and start over. I’ve started the mitts about six times already. I’ve gone through several balls of yarns, and last night I botched and started the mitts over again.

I thought about abandoning this project and starting up a different one. Maybe mitts are not to be part of my knitting repertoire. But, as the class goes, this is the most basic of assignments, so, what does it mean when I can’t finish a basic pair of mitts?

The errors I make are common ones: adding a loop without meaning to, decreasing the number of loops without wanting to; dropped stitches, glaring holes in the fabric, knots, frayed yarn, and inserting the needle the wrong way and ending up with a mess.

Knitting, thus, remains fun and a practice for self-reflection. With each row, I notice something about myself I try to work with in between each stitch.

When I began to knit, I wanted to have fun. I have my infinity blanket and practice pattern swatch to knit and try new things. On them, I hardly make any errors and knit along while listening to podcasts or partaking in conversations. Knitting those two projects is fun. The mitts, not so. They are becoming a chore perhaps because I want to knit perfectly. Every time I see a error, I get upset and wonder what I’m doing. Every time I end up with more stitches than what the pattern calls for, I feel like I haven’t made any progress.

I keep forgetting, at the moment, that part of what I’m trying to learn is to let go of this need to do things perfectly. I remind myself not to compare and expect to knit like others who have been at it for years. As I pull the yarn, I imagine myself to be the old woman of Lakota lore who wakes up every morning to find her knitting work undone, lest the world comes to an end the moment she knits her last stitch.

So I grunt and Argh at every mistake I make, but I try to learn something in the process. I’ve learned two diffrent types of casting-on to needles in addition to the Long-Tail. I’ve begun using circular knitting needles for my work and enjoy their compact size and efficacy. I’ve decided to start working on a shawl for my mother, in addition to the mitts, as a long term project. I’ve begun to develop my yarn-snob attitude and look down on synthetic fabrics from MegaCrafts stores.

Knitting, thus, remains fun and a practice for self-reflection. With each row, I notice something about myself I try to work with in between each stitch. Each row may be devoted to my wanting to knit perfectly, or to my frustration of not getting every stitch right. While knitting, I feel the real me slowly come out of his shell and assert himself. Last weekend, during a family lunch, I took up my knitting on the couch while the rest of the the men-folk watched a soccer game and no one said a word about it. Except my brother in law who asked, “What’s that you’re doing?” Knitting, I said. “But why,” he asked again. Because in all the years you’ve known me, haven’t I always done something crazy? I’m just taking it up a notch just to keep you on your toes. He nodded and said, “You certainly have.” And we left it at that.

I’m in the Argh! period of knitting, but that’s to be expected. I gave myself six months of trying to make something before deciding what to do about this new hobby of mine. So far, I’m pleased with my progress and I look forward to learning more. Of course I’d love to be knitting sweaters, scarves, and blankets for myself and other people, but I have to wait and practice enough to get to the point where I’m able to taken on such projects. That day will come, sooner or later. Until then, Argh! I’m starting them mitts again.

Purl

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The view from my room’s balcony.

I’ve just come back from vacation. I spent a week in Cancún, frolicking in the ocean blue waves of the Caribbean, with my sister and nephews. We had a grand time of it, enjoying the last days of summer before the boys head back to school and my older nephew starts his freshman year of college. This was a week I won’t soon forget!

As the boy’s crazy uncle, it was fitting that I should bring my knitting needles and yarn along so I could embarrass them at every turn. Teen boys are so caught up in their Instagram image, that they’d rather keep 200 feet away from anything or anyone that would make them lose followers. I was surprised, however, that the boys took my new craft in stride, didn’t mind seeing me knitting by the pool or at the airport terminal, and – in fact – began requesting scarves and mitts once I felt comfortable enough to start working with patterns and larger projects. I was glad by their reaction and promised them something to take with them for Christmas, now that I know the stitching basics and was able to learn ribbing to finish a project.

Cancún was fun. It’s been a few years since my last visit, but the beach resort is as busy as ever. We stayed at my favorite hotel, and enjoyed perfect weather. The ocean was fresh and clean; the rooms comfy and cool; the food like in no other place. I’m sure I gained a few pounds while indulging in tacos, quesadillas, and fresh fruits — all of which beat anything I could eat in Miami. The best part of the fun was watching my nephews enjoying themselves, asking me to join them in their adventures, and suggesting I go along with them to strip clubs where they could drink and have a good time. I declined on the last one – straight strip clubs not being my “thing.”

Chichen Itza

El Castillo, Temple of Kukulcan, Chichén Itzá

One day, we hopped in the car and traveled to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá to walk around the archeological site and wonder at the marvels of Mayan architecture. It was a hot, humid day; we didn’t think we’d enjoy the tour of the ruins. But not twenty minutes into our visit, Chaahk, the Mayan god of rain, struck his lightning axe against the clouds and poured a refreshing rain shower over the park, soaking us, blessing us with a cool breeze and a much cooler afternoon. Our tour guide informed us that rain was precious to the Mayans, and given that we were in a sacred site, the rain could be thought of as a blessing. The boys, oblivious to the gods, ran out into the field, got themselves soaked, and posted pictures to their feeds with thoroughly soaked Ts clinging to their bodies for likes on Instagram. I rolled my eyes at them.

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I could knit here all day.

The visit to Cancún wasn’t all fun in the sun. Continuing my knitting classes, I tried my hand at ribbing. This was trickier for me than I anticipated. Switching from knit to purl, and making sure my yarn was in the right position took time and rows to learn. Eventually, I fell into they rhythm of moving my yarn back and front, alternating knits and purls, and pointing the needle in the right direction to get a few ribs done and enough rows to tell the difference. I was proud of my efforts, though I need to focus and concentrate while I do the stitches correctly. Also, it turns out I have been half-purling, as my purl stitch only had a one sided V when doing the stockinette pattern. Apparently, moving the yard to the front is not the same as moving the needle and yarn to the front as the instructor told me. I had to look at several videos on YouTube to finally get the full V done correctly. Now my test fabric looks better and is more elegant than my previous practice stitches.

There’s not much to tell, other than this was one of the best vacation trips I had in a long time. Spending time with both my nephews made all the difference. Each memory of our trip is knitted into my infinity practice piece that I’ll keep adding to until I can’t any longer.

 

For knit’s sake!

The other day, as I was browsing Facebook and Instagram, I was bombarded by ads that made me feel less than adequate. The ads promised to help me read ten or more books in a week or less; practice a kind of yoga that would make me look fit and ripped in less than a month; and dress like a Hollywood star but at a quarter of the cost. One ad promised to help me travel around the world by posting nothing more than selfies on Instagram, making money in the bargain. How could I say “No”?

But “No” is exactly what I said. Instead, I turned off my computer, set my cell phone to night-time mode, picked up my yarn and needles, and began to knit.

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I worked in advertising. I was a MadMan for several years. My job as an art director was to make sure people wanted what we were peddling. The images, words, models, and layouts were designed to make anyone who saw them want, crave, and think they needed our goods. How? By preying on people’s insecurities and self-doubts. By tugging at people’s fears and making them think: if I have this, I’ll feel happy and fulfilled. If I buy those things, people will like me and I’ll be popular.

Happiness is something I do, not necessarily something I feel

We made a lot of money for our clients. Peddling their goods was good business for us, and it helped me live in one of the most exciting, and expensive, cities in the world. I loved living in New York, and to a degree, working as a MadMan. People thought it glam, fun, and exciting. I had “made” it in the big city, and I felt important.

The job was not without its detractions. I worked long hours; sometimes I had to work weekends. The stress was relentless; deadlines were near impossible to meet. Clients were never happy. Everyone always wanted more, faster, better, cheaper. It was a never-ending cycle of madness.

When I couldn’t take things any longer, I turned to meditation as a way to manage stress. I was tired, unhappy, and losing friends fast. I had no social life, and the few friends I had left stopped inviting me out because I was undependable. I didn’t know if I would be able to attend a show for fear of having to work another late night.

The point is to knit and let go of any expectation of perfection or getting it right. The endless fabric is a knitted journal of my knitting work.

Meditation helped. I learned to manage stress. I became more proactive in managing my emotions. Meditating even helped with my insomnia. The more I practiced meditation, the freer I felt and the more I began to understand the unhappiness I was causing through the ads and advertising I was creating. I was part of the problem, I decided. I made people feel anxious and bad about themselves. I urged them to buy things they didn’t need. My work was the reason why people turned to meditation – and medication – so they could feel good about themselves!

Over the years, I’ve learned to practice mindfulness: being aware and staying present in the moment. From cooking, sitting, drinking tea, or knitting, mindfulness helps me unwind, relax, and let go of thoughts and feelings that make me feel less than happy. Over time, I’ve come to realize that happiness is something I do, not necessarily something I feel. When we practice an activity that brings us joy, peace, and contentment we find happiness not at the end of the process, but immediately in the moment.

Knitting, and learning how to knit, has become a way of meditating — of practicing mindfulness —  and feeling happy. When I knit, I turn off the television, unplug my cell phone, play classical music, and I knit and purl rows. I can do this for several hours. From the beginning, I told myself to never mind the errors, dropped stitches, frayed yarn, flying needles, or botched castings as I learn to knit. I’m a beginner, after all. Mistakes are inevitable.

What’s happened is that whenever I knit a feeling of well-being and calm settles over me. I feel lighter, better, quiet when I knit. I’m happy!

I knit for knitting’s sake without a specific project or goal in mind. I sit and decide that for the next ten rows I’ll do a garter stitch, and the following 30 will be a stockinette stitch. Once I learn how to rib, I’ll throw that into the mix and whatever else I learn to do in the future will be included as well. The point is to knit and let go of any expectation of perfection or getting it right. The goal is to learn from mistakes and, as the endless fabric evolves, keep a record of my work and improvement. The endless fabric is a knitted journal of my knitting work. The goal is to keep on knitting. Knitting for knit’s sake!

KnitMan.pngIn this way, I stay present with my knitting, watch as my thoughts rise and dissolve, take those pesky little thoughts that undermine my confidence, and gently dismiss them as mere thinking. The process is no different than when I sit to meditate. I’m not trying to stop thinking; I’m only becoming aware of my “monkey mind” and returning to the task at hand. Breath by breath; stitch by stitch.

That’s how I quiet my mind. This is how I de-stress. That’s how I feel better and how I undermine the ads on Facebook, Instagram, or wherever else that try to make me feel less than. By knitting, for knit’s sake, I’m learning to stay sane and happy in the moment.

Dropped stitches

Knitting is filled with opportunities to fail, make mistakes, face disappointment. Dropped stitches, wrong gauges, missed pattern repeats. Knitting is a slow craft, and when mistakes come up they can be slow to fix. Tearing out hundreds of stitches. Starting over. When something wrong comes up, it’s a ripe time to practice non-attachment, letting go of expectations.
– from: “Zen Mind, Knitting Mind” by Jennifer Urban-Brown in Lion’s Roar

It’s inevitable. Whenever someone sees me knitting the first thing they ask is: “What are you making?”

“Mistakes,” I answer.

When the questioner looks at me puzzled, I tell them I’m learning to knit; I’m far from pulling out a pattern and trying my hand at a project. The conversation then turns to stories about mothers and grandmothers knitting. Sometimes, a story of an uncle who knits slips into the conversation, but not as frequently.

Around the knitting table where I’m learning to knit and purl, stories are told of aunts, grandmothers, and family members who spent afternoons sitting on a porch knitting. The stories date back to the days before the revolution when these grandmothers and aunts lived in Cuba. Back then, what we regard now as a hobby or a way to relax, were daily activities on par with cooking and cleaning. Knitting socks, dresses, shawls, and table runners were common knitting projects. One of the ladies related to me how her mother taught her to knit, and how now, years later, she still hears her mother’s words when she stitches and mends her garments.

I have no such stories or voices to share. I don’t know of anyone in my family who knitted before me. In old family albums, there’s nary a person holding skeins or knitting needles looking soberly at the camera. I don’t know that any of my mother’s aunts knitted, and I have never heard my father say that anyone on his side of the family spent a minute stitching. Unlike the ladies around the table, I have no voice in my head telling me how to purl a stitch.

Making mistakes is inevitable as I learn. Prevalent among my errors are dropped stitches, jumping needles, confusing a knit-stitch for a purl-stitch on the same row, pulling too tightly, knitting loosely, not stitching the slip-knot, and choosing the wrong type of yarn to learn with. In the past week, I’ve unraveled and started over so many times, I haven’t been able to make a square shape piece of fabric.

During my last class, I made the entire table gasp in horror as I cut away the long tail of my yarn and dropped the misshapen piece in the trash. “What are you doing?” one of the ladies exclaimed. When I told her I was going to start again from scratch, she reached into the trash, took the piece of mutilated yarn, unraveled it, and said, “You can start all over with this!”

I decided then never to do that again in public. From now on, start-overs are to be done in private.

Part of the reason I took up knitting is exactly because of the do-overs. I’m a perfectionist – to a fault. I like to do things right, nice and neatly, on my first try. I hate to make errors; I loath making mistakes. If I can’t do something right the first time, I quit and look for something I can do better. Over the years, I’ve quit many a project I couldn’t do right from the start. Be that playing piano, strumming a guitar, sketching, drawing, yoga, eating-vegetarian, smule, math, coding, balancing a check-book, or dating, I’ve quit enough times to earn a spot in a quitters hall of fame.

If I hear any voices while I’m knitting, it is that of my inner Critic and the Perfectionist who are front and center pointing out why I shouldn’t be playing with yarns and needles, and why it would be best for me, and everyone involved, to never mind.

When I decided to learn how to knit, and now as I practice every stitch, I knew I’d be wrestling with these two voices in my head for the upper hand. I knew right off the bat that I would be making errors that Critic and Perfect would step in every time and say, “See? Now put those down and never mind knitting. There’s something on Showtime we want you to see instead.” This is why when I took my first knitting class I also made the decision to ignore Critic and Perfect and give myself at least three months before I decided if I had any hope of stitching a cap or scarf.

Critic and Perfect are indeed wondering why I’m pursuing this, and they both sit quietly nearby sipping Pinot ready to raise and eyebrow and say, “Dreadful!” But I’m becoming more clever than they, and even when I make a mistake, a needle jumps from my hand, or fifteen stitches slide off a needle, I turn my back to them and start over again. I’m enjoying this far too much to give it up!

In her article, Jennifer Urban-Brown says that zen and knitting “offer opportunities for noticing the mind and returning to the action.” Both activities allow us to be present, mindful, to what we’re doing, and offer an insight as to what is going on in our heads. Be they pleasant thoughts or not, or an on-going monologue by Critic or Perfect, we can learn to tune into the thoughts that benefit us, or we can turn the volume down on those thoughts that do not. For me, knitting offers a chance to ignore Critic and Perfect, let go of my need to knit perfectly every time, and allow myself to learn from my mistakes.

The point is to concentrate on the activity and let go of the expectations of any results. Rather than say I’m working on a scarf, gloves, socks, or cap, I’ve allowed myself to work on my errors and learn from them. “The practice,” says Jennifer, “is to come back to the action—insert needle, loop yarn, pull through; breathe in, breathe out—without holding on to the promise of the finished object.” Doing that is what keeps knitting, and learning how to, fresh and fun in my mind.

When I give up my expectations of what knitting or my work should be, Critic and Perfect leave the room, and I’m freed to have fun.

Casting on

When you’re a man of a certain age, you start doing inexplicable things. In my case, I took up knitting.

Last weekend, I drove to a local yarn store and enrolled in a knitting class. I don’t have a specific reason for doing so, nor do I know why I chose knitting specifically. It could have just as easily been sewing (still on my To Do list), cooking (though I’d continue to gain weight), or making organic homemade kombucha (my stomach would thank me for it). In the end, I turned to what meditators and knitters swear is the next best thing to meditation. Having met several knitters in the past, and after admiring their needlework, I decided that I, too, wanted to try my hand at the craft. Besides, with two nephews moving north to go to college later this year, I thought I had the perfect [victims] audience to practice knitting on. Come winter they’ll be needing sweaters, gloves, and woolen hats, so what’s an uncle to do but knit them some.

When I stepped into the Knitting Garden in Coral Gables, the store owner asked if she could help me. I must have looked lost, out of place, as I stood uncertain at the door wondering if I should turn around and forget my plan. Instead, I mustered as much courage as I could, took a deep breath, and exhaled, “I’m Walter, and I’d like to learn how to knit.”

There! I had done it. There was no way of getting out of it now. I declared my intention and it was now up to me to follow through or quit like I’ve done in the past.

The lady smiled and said “Come in, take a seat at the table in the back of the store.” She had just tuned-in to the World Cup semifinals and asked if I was following any of the teams. I said, “No.” All my teams had already been eliminated and returned to their respected countries. England did not “bring it home,” and Spain didn’t Olé as much as I wanted them to. Besides, I was nervous enough about what I was about to do, so the less distractions the better.

I took my seat at the table and I waited for the store manager to return with knitting supplies. She helped me choose a blue merino wool skein to practice with and handed me two new wooden knitting needles. After going over the basics of yarns, patterns, and stitching, she pulled a yard of thread and began to teach me how to tie a Slip knot, the first loop threaded on a needle.

Casting On

One of my first attempts at Casting On

My new teacher was patient with me as my fingers fumbled with the yarn a few times before I completed the first task. When I finally put a needle through the yarn loop and showed it to her, she smiled at me kindly, pulled on the yarn, and unraveled the knot. “Do it again,” she said. And so class, and practice, began.

The rest of the class was about Casting on, putting the first row of yarn loops on the knitting needle, and learning the English method of knitting. Apparently, there’s a Continental method as well, but the English was what I practiced for the remainder of my first class. I spent an hour stitching, pulling, and cursing. I was all thumbs when it came to looping and knotting. If my needles didn’t slip out of my hands, then the yarn would get tangled between my fingers. Sometimes I’d miss stitching a loop and the teacher pulled enough yarn to unravel away my mistake. At other times the errors where so glaring I opted to pull everything off myself and start again from a fresh Slip knot. I thought I might as well get as much practice in the store before leaving so I knew what to do when I got home and practiced on my own.

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After class, I drove to a MegaCrafts store to buy yarn so I could continue to practice. The merino wool yarn I used in class was too nice to unravel and mess up; instead I bought a hideous, multicolored acrylic yarn I didn’t mind tossing in the trash every time I made an error. I bought additional needles of different sizes, scissors, and a bag to keep my yarn stash together. On the way out, I picked up a copy of Stich’n Bitch, The Knitters Handbook by Debbie Stoller, just in case I needed further guidance, and I went home to practice what I had learned.

I spent the rest of the week practicing my knitting. For the first couple of days, I tied a Slip knot and practiced Casting On before unraveling and starting over again. I did this about twenty times until I felt comfortable enough to try my hand at knitting rows. Then, after discarding yards of abused threads, I began knitting bacon strips.

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Falling Leaves, and my bacon strips.

Falling Leaves, the name of the yarn I bought at the crafts store, is made up of repeating fall-ish color blocks. When I began stitching the yarn into rows, the results took on the appearance of bacon strips of varying cooked colors. I didn’t want to knit too long a strip knowing my knitting was not something that should be turned into anything specific. For practice purposes, small, thin strips would give me an opportunity to practice what I’d learn. Repetition, and practice, are the best ways of learning anything. So short and sweet little strips of bacon were my intro to knitting.

Some strips were too loose. Others were so tight I couldn’t feed a needle through the loops. There were some strips with missing stitches. Others never made it past the third row. The point of the exercise was to simply knit, and before I knew it, my fingers began repeating the moves, pulls, and looping necessary to get as far as a piece of bacon, instead of a mere strip.

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Success, at last!

Last Monday, I turned off the television, listened to a podcast, and later I began a new audio book; I knitted for three hours straight. It was an enjoyable evening; by far the best I’ve had in a long time. By the time I put the yarn, needles, and scissors back in their bag, I felt elated, happy, and content with my efforts. Mine was no example of fine knitting. There were so many errors, in fact, that noticing them almost made smirk. But it’s only my first week knitting, I told myself, and part of the reason I took up this craft is to learn and practice patience and not being perfect. I reminded myself that there is so much I still have to learn! So instead of looking at my work with a critical eye, I placed it on the table, took a photo, and proudly sent it to my sisters and friends. A week ago I didn’t know how to knit. I made this after just one class, I wrote. The thumbs up and happy faces began trickling in moments later.

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Learning something new, as a man of a certain age, is not easy. Science, however, tells us that cognitive skills improve and remain sharp as long as we continue to learn and try new things as we get older. What I’ve taken away from this exercise is that I can learn to knit. I can do crafty things if I give myself the time and space to make errors and learn from them. I can also improve slowly, over time, and learn to enjoy the journey of learning to be a knitter. When someone asked me what my first knitting project would be, I said: “The biggest, longest never-ending blanket ever knitted,” I said. “I want to knit a blanket and keep stitching it until I can’t any longer.” The lady sitting across the table from me smiled and said, “Now there’s a project!”