Things that I can do:
- Bake bread (although it turns out differently every time, and my cake results are even more irregular)
- Make clothes and patchwork quilts (clothes are usually from the scraps of other clothes, and I leave a lot of woggly seams and threads hanging out)
- Make encaustic, multi-media collages (but no one has ever wanted to pay money for one)
- Write short stories and novels (but I can’t sell them)
- Draw a passable free hand caricature of a pig (but not consistently)
- Cook variations of Chinese, Appalachian American, Italian, Indian, Tex-Mex, and Hippie American food (but not necessarily consistently)
- Read music (but I can’t play or sing worth a damn)
- Use most hand tools and small power tools (but I’ve only ever built things out of 2x4s and plywood, and even then they didn’t always sit level).
- Bead necklaces (but they tend to fall apart because I use the wrong thread)
- Grow kale (but not dill, apparently) and keep a rose bush (but not houseplants) alive.
- Braid a rag basket (but I can’t control the shape or size at all well).
- Dye my hair (but not all of it, and I always stain my fingers)
- Polish my nails (but I can’t color inside the lines)
- Cut my kids’ hair (but not evenly)
- Needlepoint (but I get bored, even when I improvise the design)
- Hammer a copper ring brooch (but I don’t how to replicate it)
- Carve an owl from a cedar scrap (but I can’t replicate that either)
- Float and swim on my back (but I can’t side breathe, so I can’t actually swim effectively)
- Design and sew large stuffed animals (but their eyes come off and their seams fail)
I’ve tried about half of these things for the first time in the past two years. I always learn something, but the main thing I’ve learned in the aggregate is how little tolerance I have for my own errors. When I make mistakes, I tend to just tie a bigger knot, add more glue, skip to the next step, drive in another nail, fold it and seam over it, and if none of those things works, I walk away. I lack the patience or discipline to make repetitive errors and do boring shit on my way to the end product I envision. Nor am I willing to do any single thing long enough to get good at it.
What the hell?
My father was a bit like this. He may possibly have had a better success to effort ratio, but it’s hard to tell. My father could:
- Grow a vegetable garden
- Cook just about any Chinese cuisine he had ever seen or attempted, good enough to support a family
- Practice, teach, and lecture on tai qi and qi gong
- Sing baritone and bass voice parts (and claimed he could once sing tenor, but broke his voice shouting at people as a drill sergeant in the army)
- Provide simultaneous translation for spoken Chinese to English and vice versa
- Raise animals (although he wasn’t particularly fond of any of them, individually or in the aggregate)
- Write classical Chinese poetry and calligraphy
- Compose music (although I don’t know if anyone besides him thought it was any good)
- Build furniture (although the only thing I ever saw him finish was a footstool, for someone who was not a member of our family)
- Make clothes (I once saw a pair of swim trunks that he knitted, when he was in a Taiwanese prison in the 50s)
- Butcher a chicken
- Catch catfish and crayfish with his bare hands.
- Make miscellaneous household objects (walking sticks, baskets, brushes, cooking implements) out of other items.
- Make fruit liquors (although they did occasionally explode and stain the ceiling)
I only knew my father between the ages of 50 and 80 (roughly), but according to his own telling, he had at various times in his life been a star athlete, admired vocal music soloist, successful army officer, and intellectual of note. From what I could observe, there was probably some truth to most of what he believed about himself, but I also knew he had a peculiar relationship to reality and a irregular relationship with patience. He had a good faith belief that he could do anything, and he was successful enough, enough of the time that he didn’t come off as outright crazy.
One of the things that my father flat out could not do was make an apple-nut cake. My mom had an apple nut cake recipe that she made every year for her birthday. My mom followed recipes. She used the exact steps and ingredients, measured eggs by volume, and used a knife to level measuring spoons of baking powder. My father was pretty confident that anything anyone could do in a kitchen, he could do better, and if he couldn’t it wasn’t worth trying. One year he made the apple nut cake. Actually he made it twice, with different processes, or ingredients, or both. And both cakes sucked. We sat around and thought up descriptions for how bad they were (“The flavor is like the smell of a burnt vacuum cleaner belt!”). My mom told him he should have followed the recipe and he said something dismissive of recipes in general and this one in particular.
There was one recipe that I knew him to follow. The woman across the street made a
Black Forest kirsch torte and he thought that cake was magic. He got the recipe from her and wrote it down, with measurements, in English, annotated in Chinese. He bought special ingredients that he didn’t use for anything else and were never in our house for any other purpose (Swan Cake Flour, bittersweet chocolate and canned cherries). He followed the recipe the same way every time, making the cake in the cake pans, layering it with whip cream, lining up the cherries one at a time, and frosting it with more whip cream, flavored with kirschwasser (also bought special). It was a beautiful and delicious cake and I asked for it for my birthday just about every year between the ages of 10 and 20.
Whatever it was about that cake made my dad not only want to follow a recipe, but set aside whatever quirks and ego he had invested in being anti-process. And the return on investment for following the steps was worth it to him.
I have not been consciously looking for my own kirsch torte, but I am well aware of my Chin-of-All-Trades, Master of None tendencies, and I know from whence they come. I have no difficulty telling the difference between the craft product I can turn out and what my sister can make (her blog is mostly food, but trust me, she can make chain mail jewelry, oil paintings, and precisely sewn, couture confections) or even what I see at most craft fairs around town.
About two months ago, I took one of my kids to get a knitting lesson from a friend of mine who is a Very Good Knitter. My town abounds with good knitters. There are yarn shops, knitting hours at coffee and wine shops, craft fairs, and a regional Fleece and Fiber festival where you can see spinning, sheep and alpaca on the hoof, and all the beautiful skeins and accessories you could imagine. My sister is a Very Good Knitter. My mother taught me how to knit (sort of), when I was about 8. I’ve tried it once or twice since and it absolutely doesn’t speak to me. But for some reason crochet does. So when I saw a crochet handbook among my friend’s many knitting tomes, I asked to borrow it.
I studied (studying is one thing I’ve done a lot of in my life, and has historically been pretty easy for me). I watched YouTube video. I re-watched YouTube video. I figured out how to do a straight row of single crochet. I learned how to make flowers. I repeatedly watched one particular woman (who I think is English, although possibly Australian) reciting and demonstrating a doily coaster. And when I made a mistake, I actually tried to re-do it. On the doilies anyway. The pieces of fabric I made turned hour-glass shaped because I can’t count stitches and turn rows consistently.
I shortly accumulated about six hooks, three left behind at my house by sister and three from Scrap, the craft material rummage shop. When my kid expressed an interest in knitting, I grabbed a couple of sacks of remnant yarn from the goodwill, so I had multiple weights and fibers: gross, scratchy, gaudy acrylic, natural wool that still reeked of lanolin, single balls of expensive cotton and silk blends that retail for $10.00 a piece, shiny thread and fluffy chenille.
I started carrying yarn and hooks with me everywhere, crocheting in meetings and on the playground at school. One of the other moms asked me about it and I explained that I had found something that I could stand to tear apart and re-do. Whatever is in me that makes me unwilling to correct my mistakes, or do boring, repetitive small pieces seems less prominent in the process. Something about the single hook and the physical mechanics of the loops works for me and I can make myself do the mental investment to get past the basics.
After listening to me for a bit my friend said, “So basically you’re looking for a hobby that induces just the right amount of self hate.”
“Self hate” seems like a strong word, but it sounded perfect in the moment. It’s the balance between frustration and incentive that makes me want to do it right, while actually being enable to envision the steps to getting something right. Most of my life I have approached things with the attitude that I can do them, because that’s what people do. It’s what my Dad did. You see a thing (a shirt, a cake, a shoe rack, a role in a play) and you do a thing. But when it doesn’t immediately turn out well enough for your own standards and aesthetic sensibility what do you do?
In my case, it usually means acknowledging (quietly or not) that I Have Embarrassed Myself and trying something else. Because there’s always something else to try and if something doesn’t come naturally, I wasn’t meant to do it, right? The self loathing and self scrutiny kicks in, collides with the ego that tells me I can do anything and I cannot make myself do it poorly (or worse, mediocrely) over and over and over. One of the only times I’ve been able to change that pattern is aikido, where the incentive structure was much more complex (involving relationships with other people, as well as sense of self). For twenty years I was able to do repetitive basics, with the hope and expectation that I might one day get better. Improvisation by beginners is discouraged and can be acutely unrewarding. Of course with aikido there is much less in the way of concrete product than there is with fiber craft or cooking. There is rank, but promotion is infrequent and the skills themselves are somewhat intangible.
I haven’t figured out yet if crochet is more like the kirsch torte or the aikido. Or both, or neither. I can see myself struggling to deviate or imposing obstacles. I made an owl, but I got stymied with the beak because the instructions called for sewing on felt and for some reason I couldn’t bear the idea of getting out anything except a crochet needle. So I tried to crochet a beak and it looked terrible. The owl sat neglected for some days, but not as long as my last three interrupted sewing projects. I tried to join a bunch of crocheted hexagons together, using the principles I’d learned, but not any actual pattern. It worked, after a fashion, but it looked like arse. I still can’t read a written pattern at all well and I know that I can’t attempt a garment. Nor am I sure that I will ever be able to. But I have a stack of doilies of varying sizes and materials. And I haven’t run out of steam. Yet.