Stop and look up

What a day! I felt the tingle as the forces of the universe aligned at 11:11:11 today on 11/11/11 and granted everyone in my timezone a wish* right then.

Or maybe I didn’t. I may have been rewatching the best college story ever delivered and giggling like an idiot. (That’s a step up from the first time I heard the story, when it looked for a few moments like I might suffocate from guilty, horrified laughter.) Apparently there was also some kind of event between the moon and Jupiter last month, which I did notice at the time but didn’t know what I was noticing. Both time and the stars are pretty regular, reliable things that we attach names to and track, so I suppose it’s natural that we’re going to get excited when things line up.

Perhaps we’re really celebrating predictability, which is about the closest thing to stability we’re likely to be able to enjoy in an ever-shifting life.

Perhaps it’s another point in the constellation of celebration season, that time of year when it’s dark longer than it’s light, so we grasp at reasons to turn all the lights on and push back the dark with the sheer force of our cheerfulness.

Probably it’s really just a fun excuse to type a lot of 1s in a row.

*Since this proliferation of repeated digits coincides with Armistice Day, maybe lots of those people will/did wish for an end to war.

Can’t we all just get along?

Astute readers of my blogular warblings over the past decade or so may have some hunches on why things have been so quiet on my public soapbox. Relative newcomers might point to social media and the allure of sharing short form blogs through the various sites that facilitate sharing quickly. You may all draw your own conclusions.

I noticed some friction recently between “arts and humanities people” and “STEM people” (which I had to look up, since I didn’t realise scientists, technologicians, engineers, and mathematicians had all been herded into one acronym). It feels similar to the animosity between some knitters and some crocheters, which I will never understand and take a certain offense to. As someone who does both, it means I occasionally get crap from one side or another. The STEM/arts debate hurts everyone, and it prevents people from having productive conversations. Not all scientists are antisocial autists. Not all arts people are innumerate. This is a boring debate.

Both artsy and sciencey people value creativity. Devising creative solutions to a problem, whether that problem be a blank canvas or a molecule that hasn’t ever been made, moves humanity forward. If something has been done it’s easy enough to do again; these days you can ask a computer or a robot to do it in many cases. The movers and shakers in any field are the ones who are the most creative. Arts and STEM people should be able to talk to one another about this, as both camps do a lot of thinking about how to facilitate creative work.

All this came to mind when I stumbled over a line from J. J. Thomson (who you may remember from your secondary school chemistry class, if you had one). He was talking about science, but you could easily replace the word “research” with “art” and get an equally salient point:

If you pay a man a salary for doing research, he and you will want to have something to point to at the end of the year to show that the money has not been wasted. In promising work of the highest class, however, results do not come in this regular fashion, in fact years may pass without any tangible results being obtained, and the position of the paid worker would be very embarrassing and he would naturally take to work on a lower, or at any rate, different plane where he could be sure of getting year by year tangible results which would justify his salary. The position is this: You want this kind of research, but if you pay a man to do it, it will drive him to research of a different kind. The only thing to do is pay him for doing something else and give him enough leisure to do research for the love of it.

People know that artists need to be supported but not necessarily pressured to create art, and I think it’s the case for creative work in fields less commonly associated with creativity as well.

How I learned about life from IKEA

Santa brought me a chair for Christmas, where I am sitting right now as I type (though possibly not as you read). It’s my favourite chair, an exact replica of the chair I had back in LA. It is a Poäng chair from IKEA, my favourite chair from my favourite home furnishings supplier.

Despite its many shortcomings, IKEA holds a special place in my heart. It may be like one’s first girlfriend or first car, simply that it was first furniture store in my way when I needed to furnish a space. It could be because it was the cheapest place in town to get breakfast while I was a destitute postgrad. But I think it was because I really enjoy putting things together, making IKEA the drug pusher to my inner crack whore. After putting together my own stuff during postgrad, I pounced on any opportunity to put my friends’ stuff together whenever they furnished a new space. With each bookshelf, bed, chair, or stereo cabinet I pieced together, I noticed a pattern emerging.

It wasn’t that the directions were unclear, or all that difficult to follow. One doesn’t even need to be literate to make it through a set of IKEA directions. But with every piece save the three-piece wonders that one doesn’t need directions for, I noticed there was a point in every assembly process where I got stuck. It’s when I’m more than halfway but less than two-thirds done. It’s where the wheels come off. (Sometimes literally, in the case of a particularly sticky chest of drawers.) It’s the point when I look at the sad little man in the front of the directions and think that I, like the little man, might be able to solve all my problems by ringing IKEA and confessing that I have no idea how to proceed.

I call this the IKEA Point. I have gotten past it every time without having to ring IKEA, though it has sometimes required that I leave the room and have a cup of tea. Oddly enough, I have reached the IKEA Point in other sections of my life, and thanks to IKEA I have some confidence that I can get past it. I had a series of scares while working on my thesis and research proposals, for example, where I was convinced I would have to give up on LaTeX and retype everything in Microsoft Word. I got past it.

Lots of stuff in life doesn’t come with instructions, but some stuff does. Often those instructions are confusing, but it’s possible to get past it. Not a bad thing to remember, when facing down a room full of pine and you’re armed with only an allen wrench.

When I don’t like Christmas

Three times I have been prodded, and so it shall be. I am bound to blog, unlucky are ye.

I usually like Christmas. A lot. This year a series of mildly irritating circumstances in the immediate runup to the holiday reminded me of all the stuff I really despise about Christmas.

I’m lucky that although I am technically a part of the retail phenomenon that is the problem, neither I nor anyone else in the shop feel the need to force Christmas down anyone’s throat. In general? I blame retailers for everything I hate about Christmas. Starting as soon as they possibly can, sometimes before Halloween, we are whipped into a frenzy of spending and preparing and stressing to create the perfect day, which nearly always falls flat because we are all of us human. After months of preparation, Christmas leaves people exhausted. This is perfectly timed, as people are thrust into contact with their extended families with whom they may not get along even on the best of days.

We are told to shop for everyone, regardless of whether they want anything or can use the token you’ve procured for them. We either abstain from shopping for ourselves, or we buy stuff anyway and feel guilty. And then we still binge shop the day after Christmas. There are even sales for facilitating this.

Meanwhile, as Dublin is hit with weather we’re not equipped to handle, some people are left stranded and unable to travel wherever they’d planned on spending their Christmas. It throws things into sharp perspective, when you’re out shopping at the last minute for someone you may not get to see after all. You remember that what you (and they) really want is just to be home for Christmas.

I am lucky in that I usually get what I want for Christmas, which is to be home. After the frenzy dies down and everyone is enjoying the results of their frantic shopping, I can enjoy being home. It’s a lot easier these days than it used to be, but I don’t appreciate it any less.

I hope you’re enjoying your Christmas, wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you’re doing.

On ageing

Last week I joyfully celebrated my 30th birthday. My sister was in town with her husband, and I enjoyed several days of being showered with attention. Thursday we went out for sushi after stopping by to see the knitters at Brooks, Friday a couple friends hosted us for dinner and drinks, Saturday we headed out to watch the US/England match and drink some more. The universe gave me a birthday present, as the Mr. was offered a job last week. It’s only a 6 week contract, but it’s a job. As a result, I’ve had more time than usual in the flat on my own, giving me the opportunity to catch up on little things.

Some people go to pieces on their milestone birthdays (after about 25). I knew one guy who spent the entire year running up to his 30th birthday exercising and eating protein shakes so he could say he was in the best shape of his life when he turned 30. I think he did the same thing for his 40th. Another guy gets depressed every year around his birthday. I can only imagine what his 30th was like. I’ve known lots of people who jokingly refer to their birthdays after 29 as “the fourth anniversary of my 29th birthday.” And, of course, it’s not polite to ask a woman her age.

Me? I couldn’t turn 30 fast enough. Being older means you’ve experienced more, which I’m on board for. It also raises your credibility (however unfairly) in other people’s eyes. It’s been a little while since I’ve said something and gotten that look that says “Oh, you’ll understand when you’re older,” and the only thing that’s changed is that I am older, rather than any age-induced paradigm shift. I rarely get carded when buying alcohol anymore, though I suspect that’s more due to the change of scenery.

I like having a tidy pile of experiences to build upon. I like being old enough to be allowed to make my own choices, like whether to drink, vote, or spend money. I like being “old.” Happy birthday to me.

Treacherous Noro

In some ways, I am living the dream. I work in my LYS, surrounded by luscious fibres in every colour of the rainbow. I am given free reign to devise patterns, match ideas with fibres and colours, display things so they look awesome, and knit until my fingers fall off. It’s the kind of thing knitters dream of, and I am still bowled over by how lucky I am.

There are drawbacks, however. The proximity of bales of Noro is a real issue.

Kureyon

I have a Noro problem. There are so many reasons to dislike Noro. It costs a fortune. It’s single-ply. It’s kind of scratchy. It often has bits of straw or whatever in it. (One of my favourite comments about the Silk Garden range was, “I’d like it if it had a little more of the silk and a little less of the garden.”) It sometimes goes thick and thin which makes tensioning awkward and drives beginners round the bend. And there’s always one colour in every colourway that just looks awful. Some knitters cut and join the yarn just to avoid that one colour.

I know all these things, and yet the siren song of Noro pulls me in every single time. I have made an entire Klaralund (Rav link), two scarves, a hat (which I can’t wear because it’s Kureyon and it’s too scratchy), matching fingerless gloves (which have been replaced by softer ones), and a beret (which got stolen, boo). I have a beautiful Noro entrelac scarf that was given to me last summer, and I have wool set aside for yet another Noro scarf and a Baby Surprise Jacket (Rav link).

This is all despite the fact that every time I knit with the stuff I note the drawbacks. The way that the wool in the ball doesn’t give much of a clue as to what the whole colourway looks like. The one or two colours in every ball that I hate. The ridiculous cost. Every time I think “This one will be my last. I am done with Noro.” Then I head in to work and stare at this all day:

More Kureyon

Is it any wonder my resolve wears down?

Instant gratification

Hats are great.

Red Hat

I knitted this as a command performance for a friend, who wanted a red hat. It took me a while to deal with the fact that she wanted a basic beanie rather than a floppy hat or a wild hat or some otherwise interesting hat, but once I came to terms with the idea I managed to finish this pretty quickly.

I teach knitting to “beginners,” and we always start with a scarf. Scarves are traditional starting projects, and although this opinion hasn’t stopped me, I think it’s a really bad idea. A scarf is a huge piece of fabric. It uses a lot of yarn, requires a lot of stitches, and can be incredibly boring. This is great if you’ve decided to take up knitting as a Zen kind of meditation exercise, but about half the people who come to me wanting to learn have very specific desires for finished knitted objects. I still teach scarves because a basic scarf is the simplest item to construct, and the most likely to be used. (Yes, a dishcloth is easier to make. But fewer knitters have knock-down, drag-out fights about the utility of knitted dishcloths.) But a hat is almost as easy, and goes a lot faster. I teach them as second projects, to introduce knitting in the round.

Yes, I could direct students to make a hat flat, then seam it. This went really, crazily wrong once and I still bear the scars. So it’s scarves first, then hats. Luckily it’s possible to get a respectable scarf out of three balls of chunky wool, which doesn’t take long to knit up. Then we can get on to the hats, which is where beginners can really shine. A hat knitted in the round is easy, introduces basic decreases, offers a chance to learn basic pattern reading, and can be done in a couple nights. Perfect.

Even you have time to knit

When I started knitting, very few people had the temerity to suggest that I must have had lots of spare time to be taking up such a hobby. It might have been because I was in grad school and therefore short on spare time to begin with, or it might be because I’m generally kind of a busy person. It might have just been because that’s kind of a rude thing to say. In any case, while I became familiar with the standard knitters’ rebuttals of the time issue, I only rarely had to trot them out with any seriousness.

During my VodaKnitting adventures, that reversed itself completely. I’ll admit to being a little extra sensitive these days, but the overwhelming sentiment rolling off of many people I talk to has been, “That knitting is all well and good, if you have a lot of time to sit around and do nothing. Which I don’t.” One woman even went so far as to say “When you have kids to take care of, you don’t have time to knit.” That was a surprise to me; some of the most famous knitters I know not only have kids, but have full responsibility for taking care of them and keeping the house in order. Elizabeth Zimmermann had kids, and at least one is now a designer in her own right.

I am tired of the implication that knitters are lazy or idle (or were before they took up knitting as a way of passing the time). I also resent the idea that knitting is simply a way of passing the time. It’s true that many hours of work go into a hand knitted item, but how many hours a day does one person waste?

You can knit while waiting to pick up those kids, while queuing at the grocery store, during a lunch break, just before bed, while you’re waiting for food to simmer, on the bus, and while watching TV. That last one really gets to me. The same women who sniffed at me and said they didn’t have time for knitting could probably tell me all about what’s happening in whatever TV shows they watch regularly.

Knitting isn’t for everyone, just like stamp collecting isn’t for everyone. I don’t mind that. I don’t mind if someone just doesn’t enjoy it or isn’t interested in learning a new skill. It happens. But chances are, if you have the time to wander through the mall and stop to check out a promotion, you have the time to knit. You just don’t want to.

On coffee

People give out to me for ordering decaf coffee. I’ve even been denied my chosen order because the barista didn’t feel decaf was worthy of our consideration. Today, I got a small amount of shit because I’d asked for a double latte (decaf). “What’s the point of getting a double decaf?”

I’ll tell you the point.

The point is that I like the taste of coffee but don’t want to be a cranky monster for the rest of the afternoon because of caffeine overload. Why a double? Because that’s a better coffee to milk ratio. (Why don’t I just get a cappuccino? Because it’s gone too quickly.) I’m going to start sounding like Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” but I make no apologies. I worked for Starbucks before there was one on every corner, and as a result of the training and exposure I am very, very particular about coffee and will order exactly what I want if given the opportunity.

That last bit is important, by the way. If I’m in a friend’s home, or if I’m in an eatery that doesn’t specialize in coffee, I’ll take what I’m given and I will enjoy it. Seriously. But if I’m paying €4 for a professionally pulled espresso drink from a place that boasts about the quality of its coffee and range of options, I will take them up on it.

I drink lattes because I want the protein, and I often (unhealthily!) substitute coffee for breakfast. I drink doubles because then I can taste the coffee rather than the milk, and it tends to be a little warmer (without having to ask the barista to burn the milk). And sometimes I drink decaf because if I’m already in a bad mood caffeine will make it worse. Yes, I know the process sucks a lot of the flavour out. (I also know it’s not completely caffeine free.) So yes, I know that a double decaf is not going to taste as good as a standard double. It still tastes better than a single decaf.

Much of this will be moot soon, as I’m going to change my standard coffee order yet again. Still, it’s good to finally explain myself. The full explanation usually takes longer than anyone is willing to sit through.