Monday, January 6, 2014

The Way We Do the Things We Do

A recent bout of flu has activated a marathon knitting session, with nearly everyone in my immediate radius now supplied with a hat or two as a result of my drowsy, sofa-ridden industriousness. I've also started a sweater, which, thankfully, is complicated enough to keep me occupied for days. When fellow knitters see the things I make, they usually ask about the pattern. And my reply is that I don't use a pattern. I know the basics of knitting and sort of improvise from there. I visualise designs in my head and implement them without even sketching anything out on paper. I gauge sizing by looking at a person and guesstimating. The whole process is so intuitive and unconscious for me, that it is almost automated: From conception to completion, I don't pay much attention to what my hands are doing, until - voila- the thing is magically finished, and with some luck, looks and fits as intended.

This approach to knitting has its benefits. However, it also means that I am terrible at explaining to another person how I made a particular garment. It seems so obvious to me, that I find myself saying things like, "well, just - you know - knit a beret shape!" (they: "but… ??!!")

In the midst of such conversations, I am fully aware how frustrating it must be - particularly for a novice knitter - to talk to someone like me. Because that's how I feel talking to anyone for whom cycling is so intuitive, such second nature, that any attempt to break down technique into a step-by-step process is beyond them. "What do you mean how do you climb standing?" such a person might say, "you stand up on the pedals and do it!" Right. Just like you'd pick up the needles and knit a beret.

It may seem that cycling and knitting have little in common. But in fact every productive and performative activity involves, on some level, mastering a sequence of distinct steps. The earlier in life we learn this activity, the more naturally we take to it, and the more frequently we practice it, the less aware we are of those steps - the more seamless and unconscious the sequence becomes. We go through it automatically, unthinkingly, and in so doing we might even genuinely believe that the act is, or "should be," that way for everyone. But the thing is, it might not be. It really might not.

If I consider the way I do the things I do, I realise that cycling is one of the very few activities I do on a regular basis and enjoy doing, where I give any explicit thought to process. Everything else - be it cooking, photography, painting, knitting or dancing - I do on a more unconscious, automated level. Technique is involved, but I've internalised it to the point where it has become invisible unless I really, really force myself to acknowledge it. Maybe over time, it will be the same with cycling. Or maybe it never will. In the meanwhile, I try to be more mindful of the way I explain my process to others, if they ask me questions about activities that to me seem self-evident.

36 comments:

  1. Seeing as you don't take instruction well, in my experience, and find it very difficult to apply even simple instruction to a physical manifestation, there doesn't seem to be much use in explaining this to you. Perhaps you view it as an intellectual exercise rather than a physical challenge.

    I say that b/c it is solely a physical challenge and, as such in your case, must be overcome by shutting out direction until the accumulation makes it "your own". The original impetus may have been forgotten, but it seems your learning process is, let's say, unique to you. It's not fair to generalize to others.

    I learned to wheelie in my 40s due to have the correct equipment.

    I'd think explaining how to knit a beret shape you'd be expert at describing it. That's not a physical challenge, but a strategic one, big dif.

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    1. For example:

      On level ground sit on bike, get going a bit. Shift to a higher gear, put your strong foot forward, lighten the pressure on your hands, smoothly take your butt off the saddle and place the weight on the forward foot.

      It's not hard, people make it hard.

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    2. I hear you Jim, but I have to say, some of us just don't learn things that way and sometimes can't explain what we have learned. Which isn't to say that we should be allowed to just throw up our hands and give ourselves a pass.

      I've been trying, off and on, for 40+ years to learn to swim, and while taking classes and practicing like my life depended on it helped, I still can just about get across the pool before I stop swimming and apparently go to chopping wood.

      Likewise with flying, lesson after lesson without being able to co-ordinate rudder and elevator with the stick, did the drills, studied the text and all that till I just talked a friend into letting me sit up front in his Cub and just do what seemed intuitive, Bing! There it was. I can explain how that mechanism is constructed and draw an illustration of the control system in that aircraft without leaving out any part right down to the fasteners. But I can't explain how you make the magic.

      Pre CAD, I used to do quite a bit of illustration work for service and instruction manuals but I struggle to make sense of them sometimes when I'm working on something new and complicated. It might be the difference between the "Art package" and some of the other options, I'd be happy to trade a bit of it for some of the "Coach Package" or the "Teacher Package".

      Spindizzy

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    3. Yes, but the difference is you've practiced diligently to prep the Eureka moment. Not sure V is visualizing standing while knitting all those hats. Maybe collecting opinions about it is the way she does the subsuming.

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    4. You were in your 40s?? Hm okay. Gives me hope.

      As far as knitting - there is no conscious strategising in it for me. I just know what to do and it is immediately a physical activity (hands manipulating needles, etc), not a mental one. Of course on some level, there must be strategising, but it is not explicit. I will usually be talking to people or watching a movie while knitting, so my mind is otherwise occupied while my hands do the work.

      Sure I sometimes visualise standing while knitting, doesn't everyone?

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    5. I visualise lying down a lot.

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  2. If your sport is rowing or archery or XC skiing or golf everyone knows that technique is more than half the game.In those sports you hone your technique endlessly, for your whole life. If you were lucky enough to be alive in the right time and place cycling was just the same. I grew up taught by some of the genuine greats of the sport. If you don't know who Torchy Peden or Jimmy Walthour are you need to look them up. Technique was discussed on every ride. No exceptions. I still can't pedal a stroke without some awareness of what I'm performing.

    What I see now is that most riders are just hostile to any mention of technique. Instead of technique there is positioning and equipment and theories of training. And drugs.There will always be some riders who are naturals, same as you can knit without a pattern. Everyone else is losing out

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  3. Very interesting. I ran a music school for 16 years, and in that time I came to the conclusion that the best musicians aren't necessarily the best teachers - in fact, they're often terrible teachers because they are not conscious of what they're doing, or how they learned the skills they have. I remember talking to a local blues singing "star" and asking her if she'd like to do some teaching at our school. She looked at me and said "I wouldn't have the faintest idea what to tell somebody - I just open my mouth and sing."

    On the other hand, some of my best teachers had almost zero natural talent. These were people who had been forced to break down virtually every step, so they understood how to show someone else what to do.

    Anyhow, there's an old saying that says "Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach." But I think the opposite is also true sometimes... "Those who cannot do can teach. Those who can do cannot teach!"

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    1. A few winters ago I offered hats in trade for bike parts, which worked out very nicely at a time I was constantly having frames built up. Might do something similar this time, or else put up something up on Etsy.

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    2. Put me on the list, there must be something I can bodge up for you to swap for a hat. Or maybe there's still some mouldering trifle under the heap in my basement that would make your happiness complete...

      Spindizzy

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  5. I admire your damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed ahead approach to knitting. My wife follows knitting patterns pretty religiously, figuring that it gives her the best chance of success. And if something isn't turning out quite right, she's not afraid to unravel it and start over. And her projects turn out super swell 99 percent of the time.

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    1. Hmm if I think about my success rate, it is probably 90%. With the ones that don't work out, it's usually a question of them not looking right on the person they are meant for.

      There are benefits to working from a pattern, such as precision and replicability, as well as having a common reference point with other knitters. When I try to visit knitting forums, I've no idea what they're talking about most of the time!

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  6. Your parallel to knitting is fascinating - when I sew, I always make a pattern first... but when I cycle, I rarely think about it.

    I'd venture that even you don't think much about the basics of cycling. For example, do you realize you countersteer to lean the bike, that is, you steer to the outside of the curve? I don't think anybody thinks about it, yet everybody does it that way (it's the only way to get a bike to lean). (My kids found out when they tried to ride their friends' bikes with training wheels, and they went the wrong way. They couldn't figure out why!) So there are different degrees of being aware of what you are doing.

    Obviously, when you corner, you can't think much about it, otherwise, you won't make it around the corner in a smooth arc. You just go...

    With some practice, even trackstands become second nature. It seems that you are well on the way...

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    1. I have been thinking about dealing with curve on a bicycle : it’s vicious to understand because of several causes. It depend first on frame set , especially fork’s angle. With proper angle it would naturally smoothly steer if body with frame drop right : the result is a balanced system, bicycle go more or less straight.
      Countersteer (a little bit) is useful to brake really on the right for instance, it’s available with appropriate fast speed; last but not least, if I have good understanding, it’s counter-rule and more simple with small speed (steer right and the bike will go right): difficult to learn by intuitive way.
      L

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    2. I distinctly remember my dad teaching me, when I was big enough to not need training wheels and keeping a bike upright comfortably, how to countersteer. It wasn't at all intuitive for me. Now I do it without thinking about the steps involved, but I am aware of it if I focus on what I'm doing. (I noticed it a bunch this past summer, while riding with a group that uses the right hand for right hand turn signals, rather than standard American signaling; I'd never had to take my right hand off the bars while turning before, and it threw off my whole turning motion for a bit.)

      If one ever is badly enough injured to need rehab walking, it's really kind of fascinating to be taught how to walk correctly. Such an instinctive, intuitive motion.

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    3. You don't needs hands to countersteer. Hands off bars you throw the bike to the left with your hips, it will turn right.

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    4. Hell, you don't even need a bike to counter-shteer, just stick out yuor hip while wakling and if you do it right you'll stagger off tha oppasite way every damn time. Don't go nutz with it or yu'll spill yer beer...

      Spilldizzy

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  7. My mother taught me to cook. Rather, she taught me the way she cooked: "I don't know, honey - I just *make* it!" As a result there are very few things I make for my daughter and me that are made the same way twice; and I probably couldn't give you a recipe for my best stuff if you threatened to break my fingers - it's intuitive, you just sort of know what goes where and by how much, and if you want to experiment, you know what is likely to work and what isn't.

    I'm a land surveyor for a living when I'm not at my Reserve drills; however, for just this reason my Commander considered me the "subject matter expert" in teaching things like Land Navigation.

    It was hard for me to train because it's so intuitive after having been at it for so long I ended up "over-teaching." I'd lose people by putting much more in the class than needed, and leaving the basic task more-or-less untaught. This doesn't say anything to my credit - everyone is an expert at what he or she does best - but points out my deficiencies as a trainer.

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    1. Are you one of the Officers that were recruited to work on the Jakubowski Factor e Farm? Just curious as I was reading about it the other day.

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    2. Never heard of it. Sorry.

      I'm a Non-Commissioned Officer in a Reserve Company that runs Army Post Offices downrange. In other words, we have no stateside mission.

      I'd be worse than useless on a farm. The only "F" I ever got in first grade was the bean-in-the-dixie-cup.

      gvi

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  8. I hope you feel better soon. If you were still in the States, I might show up with a pot of chicken soup!

    I have never tried knitting. Perhaps I will, some day.

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  9. A knitted hat something or other works for moi. Just say'n :o)

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  10. Cycling and knitting/crochet/handspinning are all things that came really easy to me. They're intuitive, and like you said, quite difficult to explain to others how you do it. Yet several years ago I was pursuaded by local fiber artists to teach knitting, spinning and crochet as part of a primitive arts workshop at a local historic park. I accepted the challenge, and found myself needing to learn how to teach! Apparently I did learn, and three years later I'm still teaching. It hasn't become any easier for me, but my students tell me that I do a great job… If anything, for me, this has been a facinating study in how differently people learn.

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  11. "days" to knit a sweater! Teach me your method :)

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    1. Ah but I didn't say how many days...

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  12. Long time ago a woman asked me to teach her to drive a manual transmission.

    Several guys I knew told me this would be a nightmare. Turns out she took it up very quickly.

    When I complimented her, she replied driving a manual is just like sewing.

    Some day I will have to try sewing to determine whether the opposite holds.

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    1. Hmm I'm trying to understand what she meant by that, but not really getting the connection. Will have to get out the old sewing machine myself one of these days.

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    2. I think the sewing thing refers to engaging or clutching in the machine. I use my 1929 Singer (Great Gramma's) to repair my boat's canvas and I don't have a foot control, there's and L shaped iron lever that sticks into the base of the machine that you operate with your knees. Swing to the left and the machine receives no power, start swinging to the right and the little motor receives more power as you go and slowly engages (operates a "potentiometer?). So you start with the clutch pedal down and raise to engage the car's engine more.

      My old flight instructor was awesome, flew like a bird, had limitless patience, and was always able to articulate stuff in different ways based on how he saw your grasp of an issue or lack thereof. He said "you'll hear me in your sleep - 'Rudder and Aileron, Rudder and Aileron...' 'Little bit of this (rudder) and plenty of this (stick/aileron)'" Making S turns on the bike, I can still hear him...

      vsk

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    3. Nice. Mine is a 1950s Singer. I think of the foot control as the gas pedal on an automatic car rather than the clutch on a manual.

      As far as flying, I've had a few more goes in a glider. Sadly I have a hard time tolerating the 360deg turns (instant nausea, headache) so I'm by no means a natural.

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    4. Yes. Per Anon 11:33's post, her sewing machine had a lever she moved with her leg.

      My ignorance on clothing manufacturing is showing I fear. My friend and my mother's sewing machines were the same style if not model. Until reading your replies it did not really occur to me there were different sorts out there.

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  13. Out of interest, how old were you when you learned how to knit, and how did you learn / were you taught?

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    1. some ridiculously young age like 4; my mother taught me so that I could help her

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  14. I was taught to knit when I started school at the age of 4, but I never really got the hang of it, in spite of my mother being an avid knitter. Oh well, at least I can sew.

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  15. Sheltie the GripmuncherJanuary 10, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    Forget the pasta and the bar grips, these hats look yummy. You could always knit more. And leave me some of the wine, will you?

    *burp*

    Happy New Year, btw ;)

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  16. I am a novice knitter, but I can see what you mean by intuitive. Most hats start with a certain amount of stitches and you just keep increasing until it looks big enough. Tricky things come in with keeping in pattern (cables, etc).

    I also don't stand and pedal. Weirdly enough, when I was switching from training wheels to 2 wheels (this would've been 10yo), I knew how to stand and pedal. And quite enjoyed it, too! Now as an adult I cannot do it. Sure I lift myself out of the saddle, but full on standing and pedalling, I haven't been able to do it. I asked a colleague who does cyclocross and she was like you just do it! Luckily, it's not very useful in bike commuting as it is tiring and doesn't really make you go faster. It does look like fun though.

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