This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in “Genderwonky” on Blogger.
My mother taught me to knit. Mind you, I didn’t learn how to knit from my mother, but she taught me nonetheless. She also taught me to sew. I don’t know why. My brothers weren’t taught these things, as far as I know. I don’t even think my sisters were. Maybe I was the only one who seemed interested. Maybe I just tended to hang around Mother too much.
I think I was probably 9 or 10 when she taught me to knit, but I didn’t actually begin learning how to knit until I was 58. I enrolled in knitting classes at a local knitting shop. Richmond, my hometown, has at least five knitting shops. For reasons I can’t fathom, I chose to take lessons at the oldest, best established store in town: the “West End” shop, whose habitués are mothers of children enrolled in the city’s exclusive local private academies. They are the wives of lawyers and doctors and politicians—no that’s not quite right. They are the wives of judges, chief surgeons, and governors of the Commonwealth. I drive to my lessons in my ratty little ‘72 Beetle. They drive in humongous Lincoln Town Cars, 700-series Beamers, and Range Rovers.
There are other places to learn knitting and to buy yarn. There’s the store with all the high-fashioned glitzy yarns and the workshops taught by international knitting stars. There’s the newer shop full of hip, high-end luxury fibers, all natural of course, down in what passes for Richmond’s version of Greenwich Village. Then there’s that newer shop with the laid-back, crazy, funny women who smoke too much and, I wager, keep bottles of whiskey or brandy tucked away with their stashes. They are fun-loving yarn-addicts, pure and simple. But, for reasons still unclear to me, I wound up in the high-brow shop with the tennis-club and equestrienne set. Go figure.
Let’s make one thing very clear. I am the only man taking these lessons. I continually hear rumors of other men who knit, but, so far, they are just rumors. “Lots of men knit these days,” says one of the shop’s owners. “But Dan’s the only straight guy, isn’t he?” Straight guy? But I knit! Some would say I can’t be straight by definition.
I point out to all who will listen that men do the knitting in Peru, that men were traditionally knitters at various times in “The Old World,” and that male soldiers in World War I routinely knitted their own socks! I get quiet, knowing smiles. No sense trying to tell anybody anywhere anything about gender. It is, after all, completely “natural,” and everyone knows all about it practically from the day they’re born.
I am working a cable row in the front on my alpaca sweater. I hope to complete it by the time it’s cold enough to wear an alpaca sweater. The ladies of the shop love to talk about the multi-colored socks I knit myself last year. “He even wears them,” one hastens to add. While I quietly knit away, my teacher, the shop ladies, and the other students all talk about babies. Always. Someone at the table is always knitting a baby sweater, or baby booties, or baby blanket, or a baby hat. Sometimes these items are being knit from a pure-white soft cotton or washable wool. More often, they are either pink or blue.
The talk invariably turns to when “the baby” is due, and whether the mother or grandmother in question yet knows “what it is.” That means, in case you didn’t get it, whether the fetus in question is on its way to becoming male or female. Even in this day of sonograms, lots of people don’t know. The parents-to-be all know, but they’re not saying. So even the expectant mothers are not revealing the big secret: they knit in white, or they make one item blue and one pink… “just in case.”
“Why don’t you make something green? Or purple?” I ask, playing the devil’s role, of course. Nobody bothers to answer. It can’t possibly be a serious question. I don’t follow up, because I’ve tried dozens of times. That conversation just doesn’t go anywhere, and, anyway, I’ve just dropped two stitches in the middle of a “cable back,” and that demands all my attention.
When the conversation isn’t about babies, which is rare, it’s about the older children: the boys in St. Benedict’s and the girls in St. Catherine’s. They don’t talk about the students’ grades or their sports accomplishments. Instead they discuss their summer art programs in Florence, and their intensive language programs in Moscow, and their pending appointments as congressional pages. But the real concern is not for this ascending generation, but for the babies, for what is being knit for them, and “what they are.”
Doing It In Public
My cousin recently needed someone to accompany her to the hospital for a surgical procedure. I knew I’d be stuck in the waiting room for three or four hours, so, naturally, I took my knitting. As time passed, other patients and their drivers/helpers/loved ones arrived. And every so often one would have a bag of knitting. Each of these knitters gravitated to my side of the room, made friendly inquiries about what I was making, gave their compliments, then took up an adjacent seat. After a couple hours, we had a phalanx of knitters, all sitting along one wall of the waiting room, chatting away merrily.
Knitters don’t just knit when they get together. We shared knitting stories. We shared knitting tools. We commented on color combinations and yarn choices. All the other knitters were women, of course. One of them noted my wedding ring and asked me if my wife were also a knitter. Of course I (and all the other women) took her question to really mean, “So, are you married or available?”
And so I comfortably lounged away a few hours, surrounded by women of all ages, knitting, knitting, knitting. Were I to suddenly find myself single, it would never dawn on me to go seeking company in a bar, when I could find myself a corner in any public space—say, a Starbucks Café—open my knitting bag, and soon have plenty of company.
Of course, not everyone is happy to see a man knitting in public. There is clearly something odd, suspicious, maybe even frightening about such a scene. I remember one time taking my knitting to the clinic at the VA hospital. It always takes my doctor way more time than seems reasonable to see me on appointment day. No sense complaining, though. I might as well just plan on getting some knitting done. And so I do.
On the day in question, I noted that my knitting had just the opposite effect as what I had experienced the day of my cousin’s surgery. I soon found I was sitting surrounded by empty chairs. Other patients were giving me a rather wide berth. But then, none of the other patients was also knitting. You see, most of the other patients were men: men my age or older. Men wearing their veteran’s hats, their combat colors, their manly accomplishments on their proverbial sleeves. These guys don’t knit. Or, if they do, they damn sure don’t do it in public! I’m the odd man out. I’m also a war veteran, and I’m wearing my colors, too. My combat engineer’s hat is set off nicely by the colorful stripes in my latest silky-soft scarf.
Finally, into the waiting room came a couple. They were much younger than I. Both were wearing some indications that they were in or had served in the military. I later learned they had both served in Iraq. She carried a knitting bag. After registering at the desk, she walked directly over to me, asked about my project, asked if she could join me, plopped down beside me and pulled out her work. Her partner—her husband, I soon learned—stood across the room glaring at me. He stood! He couldn’t even bring himself to sit. My knitting companion kept gesturing to her hubby to come join us, but he insistently stood and glowered.
After a few minutes, a nurse appeared and called the wife’s name, then took her back into the clinic to test her vital signs, etc. The man slowly approached me. I stopped knitting, met his eyes, and held my hands with the #3 needles angled just enough to suggest that they could serve as defensive weapons if need be. (For some reason, I tend to knit a lot of things with sporting weight yarns and small needles. For once I wished I had been working on a bulky Icelandic sweater. I would have been holding # 13s instead of # 3s!)
He stared into my soul and, I suppose, something he found there told him I was not really a threat to his marriage or his masculinity or anything else. Or perhaps he decided I was too dangerous, or too deranged, to tangle with. He grabbed a hot rod magazine off the rack nearby and walked back across the room to sit by himself.
What would happen to our planet if, all of a sudden, infant girls were swaddled in baby blue blankets? And what disastrous consequences could ensue if baby boys came bedecked with little pink pom-pom hats? What in the world can the world possibly find frightening about a 6’2” 200-pound man with a bag full of wool and knitting needles? What in Heaven’s name leads some people to a murderous rage at the very thought of a man in a dress and panty hose?
A former high school friend is a highly accomplished and respected poet. He’s 60 years old and holds a professorship at an major New England university. He has published numerous books and won many awards. Lately he has been writing to some of us, his former classmates, online, pouring out his heart full of hurt and his still-hot fury about how he was treated by the bullies in high school nearly a half-century ago. I, myself, harbored a fantasy of taking a baseball bat to one punk’s head for more than 30 years for beating me up and calling me a sissy. A recent study suggested that the rash of violent school shootings we have experienced in this country over the past few years were almost all perpetrated by boys who had been bullied and hounded and terrorized for not meeting some arbitrary norms of masculinity. In our culture we seem to think that violation of gender codes is an egregious offense upon society, punishable by torture and death.
It starts, innocently enough, by choosing to knit pink or blue. It proceeds from there by making girls who would rather have a Jedi’s light saber play with Barbie dolls. And if the gender variance hasn’t been shamed out of our children by the time they reach high school, we find it acceptable to let society’s goons try to beat it out of them. Besides schoolyard bullies, we have skinheads, good ol’ boys, queer-rollers, tranny-bashers, and many other sorts of “concerned citizens” waiting to finish the job. Call me Pollyanna, but I think we could end this sort of violence by knitting the rainbow for babies without first stopping to inspect their plumbing.