In the dimming days of winter, many of us turn to the screen for warmth and comfort, much the way our ancestors turned to the hearth. Movie rentals increase, video game sales spike, and computers --- with their instant access to e-mail and the Internet --- take on new significance. It's easier to stay inside and sit 'n' click than it is to go outside and slip 'n' slide.
But the flickering screen does not make a good substitute for human interaction. I know because I've been relying on e-mail too much. In order to get work done this fall, I started my hibernation early, spending more time at my desk and less time hanging out with friends. I moved my social life to e-mail and it didn't take long before I learned the truth about the Internet's false promise of connection and intimacy.
E-mails aren't crafted, they're dashed off. E-mails lack more than just punctuation and proper spelling. They lack the texture of conversation: the facial expressions, body language, and voices. These hurried missives can lead to misunderstandings and disconnection.
Luckily, I've found an antidote to our seasonal reliance on technology in general and on e-mail in specific: knitting.
Hey, don't laugh. No one is more surprised than I am. Before I started knitting a few weeks ago, I was the first one to sneer at those sensible-looking women who knit in waiting rooms and on airplanes. And, as a mother and the daughter of strident feminists, I had to make damn sure this was a female stereotype I wanted to reinforce. In my childhood home, if anyone was going to knit it was my father. But he was too busy shopping and cooking.
Times have changed. I can take up a traditionally female craft safe in the knowledge that doing so will not threaten the gains women have made. In fact, it's strengthening my relationships with other women. Although it's easy to learn, knitting is hard to master. I've had to visit the yarn shop several times with questions, and the owners and other customers are helpful and generous with their time. My next-door neighbor, a knitter par excellence, took me under her wing and now I'm cranking out scarves. Every few days I bring another knit creation to the bus stop where the other parents ooh and aah, and sometimes offer helpful pointers.
"You should rip out this bunched-up section," someone suggested.
"Redo this scarf only use different yarn and larger needles," my next-door neighbor said.
It's ironic that this humble, retro craft put me in closer contact with people than all those hours spent maintaining e-mail friendships and reading stupid spams. You'd think that, compared to writing to friends, knitting would be a fairly solitary activity. But in addition to the kibitzing, knitting makes me feel closer to my inner circle because I'm making them scarves as holiday gifts. I think about them when I knit. And I think about them when I mess up. And I think about them further still when I impatiently yank out several rows and start all over. E-mail, to its credit, is never this hard.
Why knitting, why now? The onset of winter and the holidays always make me want to do something sedentary and cozy, usually involving a large amount of Dutch cocoa. Knitting not only accommodates my hot-chocolate lifestyle, it can act as a metaphor for email. Consider the "reply" function. If you and the person you write to reply to each other without erasing the previous missive, the e-mail grows longer and longer, like a scarf. It's as if --- to introduce another textile metaphor --- you're both weaving, passing a wooden shuttle through the loom of cyberspace, making a long scarf. Each reply adds another stripe of words to the conversation.
But e-mail is false knitting. Because we churn out quick responses, forward dirty jokes, and issue calls to action without a second thought, these e-mail scarves are full of holes. Holes where there should be thought and consideration. Holes where there should be facial expressions and intonation. Real scarves, if they have holes --- and I'm not saying mine do --- are authentic. Their holes were made with love.
If love was one ingredient in the sweaters my Italian grandmother knit me, the other was ugly, itchy wool. Luckily now there are hundreds of seductive textures and colors: eyelash yarn with tiny clumps of fluttering fringe, yarn shot through with shimmery gold or silver thread, and colorful pom-pom yarn that makes a festival out of every finished product. These lively yarns are forgiving; If I need to, I can hide the occasional flaw among their dazzling colors and textures. As if.
So, this winter I'm knitting instead of hunching over my laptop seeking warmth. Hanging around the computer just doesn't compare with the simple pleasure of listening to music (I recommend Sean Paul's Dutty Rock) and thinking about someone I love while knitting him or her a scarf for Christmas. I've made one for my mother (muted blues with a strand of silver) and am working on one for my little brother (grunge-brown with flecks of red and yellow).
You'd think that my husband and kids, who have witnessed miles of knitting pouring off my needles, would have requested scarves by now. They probably don't want to appear pushy. I was tickled, though, when my husband recently showed a genuine interest in my new hobby. "Is it supposed to be that lumpy?" he said.
Of course I expect my mother, brother, and friends will wear their new scarves proudly, lumps or no. And if they don't, I might have to forward them the "25 Truths to Life" spam ("1. If you're too open-minded your brains will fall out") or perhaps the bullying "Nice Person" spam that demands a reply as proof of friendship.