Elaine Nelson

Web developer (etc) since 1998; writer since 198something; cyclist since 2004, and knitter since 2011. Also plays role-playing games.

Published Thoughts

This was going to be about how to better understand your processes by giving presentations about them. Maybe someday I’ll write that piece. But I’m dealing with some other things in life right now, so in the meantime, enjoy this cat looking thoughtful.

Trixie, a good cat with a thoughtful face

Knitting people are the best people

I've written several blog posts about knitting in the last four years: patterns & open source; learning; knitting in meetings; and even just a general "knitting is awesome" post.[1] But somehow I've never written about one of my favorite things about knitting: the people.

I didn't start with the intention of connecting with others. I went to one knitting meet-up, which was cool (and Cathy taught me long-tail cast-on), but it was in a part of town I didn't often get to. I joined Ravelry[2], but mostly as a place to keep track of my stuff.

But two things happened.


first socks, almost complete
I wouldn't have made these socks if it wasn't for my local knitting gang. Now I've made quite a few socks!

He noticed a woman's bag at the coffeeshop, and complemented her on it, and then she said it was a knitting bag. Or something like that; in any case he is garrulous and curious, where I would've been tongue-tied, so he found out that she was in a knitting group, which met in our favorite weird little coffeeshop.

When I finally showed up, I was nervous as hell, but ended up finding great people and making. I've lived in the same town for more than a dozen years, and volunteered until I was exhausted and overwhelmed, but had found only a few friends.[4]

Like volunteering, we are there for the thing, and I've learned lots about knitting and gotten more daring and more patient with it. But unlike my volunteering experiences, we're also just there to hang out, relax, take a break from whatever else is going on. The very action of knitting is also conducive to chit-chat; the stereotype of ladies gossiping over their handwork isn't entirely wrong.

We all work in different fields but have overlapping social groups and personal histories. We're all a little odd, a little nerdy in slightly different ways, close to the same age but far apart enough to be interesting. (Also: So. Many. Tattoos. I might be the only one without?)

So friendships grow, in small ways, until these strangers become people I'm excited to see, people I trust. People who road-trip an hour together just to go to yarn shopping and have lunch with margaritas.

Conference knitting

Which is like meeting knitting, but fully in public. And when you knit in public, there's a pretty good chance that someone's going to say something, especially if they also knit.

Two things from that: first, we've got something interesting to talk about that isn't tech. Sometimes my brain is so overloaded that I don't want to talk about tech in between sessions, and my introvert self is overwhelmed by the usual "where are you from/what do you do" small talk. Talking about knitting keeps me manageably social; it also means I might end up talking to someone who does something really different in their work. We're bonding over something else.

Then, because for whatever reason[5] knitting is coded as a women's hobby, usually the people who will come up to you at a technology conference and talk about knitting are women. Given the ratios at some of the conference I've been to, it's really lovely to connect with other women. And again, we're not just meeting up as "women in [X]", we're connecting over another shared interest.

So one of my best Drupal event experiences has been a knitting "birds of a feather" session: taking over one of the meeting rooms and knitting, about a dozen women, one or two guys. Talking about knitting, of course: projects, yarns, yarn stores, but not entirely a break from the tech, either. Because we may look like a clutch of middle-aged crafters, but we're all still tech people, and we end up talking about the things we care about, because knitting is a perfect thing to do while having a chat with friends.

sweater in progress
This is what I was working on. It turned out quite nice.

So talking about Drupal projects, our work lives, what we'd do with Ravelry if we could. Because all conversations with technology-minded knitters end up being about Ravelry. Partially because we like to think about what it could do better, but also because it does what it does so well. Sharing your Ravelry handle goes with sharing your Twitter handle.

Because, also, the people that I've met because of conference knitting have become people who are some of my favorite internet friends. And vice versa: I've met knitting people in tech on Twitter and then delighted to meet them in person.[6]

I want to cram in all the amazing connections I've made with so many wonderful people because of knitting, and I just can't. And for someone who is as introverted as I am, who struggles almost all the time with social anxiety, that itself is amazing.

This hobby, that I took up out of a what-the-heck impulse, then discovered that I enjoyed purely for its own sake, has also been a stepping stone out into social worlds I might never have found otherwise. For that, I am immensely thankful.

  1. Eight longer posts (and 2 follow-ups) about knitting. I might have enough to put together a chapbook or something!
  2. Ravelry is the most amazing resource for knitters and crocheters. Project and stash tracking, a humongous database of patterns (including many available for free), and forums of all kinds. Also a great lesson about long-lived sustainable social networks. You can find me there as epersonae.
  3. I don't know where the name came from; they'd been meeting for maybe a year before I started, and it's what the Facebook group is called. If you happen to be in the Olympia, WA area, holler me up.
  4. The local librarians I've met through Goodreads are awesome people and good friends, but they all work together. So sometimes I feel like an outsider.
  5. Patriarchy sucks for dudes, too. I know there are men who knit, but it's definitely a more feminine hobby.
  6. One of my favorite "everyone is connected" moments is seeing someone I used to play Dungeon World with, who knits and studies insects, become connected to someone I started following because of Drupal & Git, who knits and keeps bees. (IIRC, they both also have bee tattoos.)

Fighting overwhelm

I like being organized. I like the idea of being organized. I like organizational systems and tidiness and a place for everything and everything in its place.


I switched computers and accidentally messed up my SpiderOak setup and haven't quite got it back. Oh, and I also have a Dropbox account, and some of that stuff is in both places. Plus of course there's a USB key that's basically a decade-plus worth of files, and a couple of different computers, and a couple of Github repos, and maybe an old hard drive that has all my college files?

My desks -- at home and at work -- are a riot of piles and papers and trash and flotsam and jetsam. D&D stuff mixed with architectural design. Bills stacked with grocery lists.

I have calendars in at least three different places. I have half-a-dozen unfinished book reviews in Goodreads. I have partially started projects of so many kinds that it makes me a little nauseated thinking about it. (Knitting, home improvement, writing, programming.)

The proliferation of things and the desire to be creative runs up against the need for some sort of order and reason. (I feel like I'm not alone in this.)

And then time.

I'm certainly not as busy as she is, but still I feel hedged in by time. "I was going to..." sometimes feel like the sentence I say most often. The instinct is to then try to do ALL THE THINGS, which is a terrible idea. So little things.

Today I'm consolidating some photos, doing some laundry, sorting some papers. Writing this. Maybe I'll finish writing another thing I've promised to someone. And you?

PS to Relly: Knitting has taken most of what used to be my reading time, but OMG The Killing Moon was amazing.

PS to Jack: How Soon Is Now because it's entirely perfect.

Hobby enthusiasms

my electric car
We call it the Bubble Car.

In May I bought an electric car, and then I wanted to track how much electricity I was using and whether the range was as good as given in the specs. [1]

I happened to have a blank notebook handy; it even had robots on it. (Thx, Lullabot.) But then I had to type everything into a spreadsheet to learn anything! I guess at least I wasn’t checking it with a calculator and pencil and paper like Mom with her VW van in 1980.

So I decided to make a web app. It’s been forever since I’ve made anything really entirely completely 100% from scratch. I have a blog for my personal site and at work I have a CMS. I’m used to using something else to do the fiddly bits. [2]

I’d already decided that my favorite CMS [3] was probably overkill. After staring at a blank text editor for a bit, I went poking around frameworks. Got annoyed and frustrated and went back to starting at my blank text editor.

Then our intern [4] overhead me talking to Justin (the designer) about my quandary. She recommended one that she’d tried, and her recommendation was purely on the quality of the tutorial!

Which this was the first one [5] that really explained how it worked, what it was for, and gave me an easy entrance to start doing stuff. Yes, of course the tutorial was a to-do list. But I was suddenly up and running, thinking about what I wanted my app to be doing. And with just a few hours of work I had something I liked, and that I enjoyed working on.

Which is the point, really.

I’ve had two other projects over the last few months: new projects, smallish projects, and projects where I’m scratching my own itch while learning something new. A photo gallery site, where I’m discovering the magic that is flexbox and re-exercising my design muscles. And a tool for Dungeons and Dragons games that I can share with my friends, while also learning some advanced Drupal data management techniques. [6]

Both of them have been fun to goof around with. I’ve learned some things I needed and some other things that are just interesting to know. They’re both related to things I want to do that aren’t really about the web itself or my day-to-day work.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a generalist by nature. What I’ve rediscovered with these projects is that there’s a lot of fun as a generalist to be had making hobby projects for the web. If you’ve been a web professional for a while, and if you have the time, try carving out a bit of it for something new and not terribly serious. You too may be able to rediscover a little bit of that fun.

  1. A 2012 Mitsubishi M-iEV, bought used with VERY low miles. The range is listed as 62mi/100km, and it looks like it gets about that, depending on how you drive it. I adore it!
  2. WordPress for the blog. Cascade Server is our current CMS; Drupal is our future CMS. For me, fiddly bits = authentication, writing to a database, reading from a database, sanitizing data. YMMV.
  3. I like Drupal a lot. Like, super a lot. OTOH, it’s not for everyone or for everything.
  4. She’s isn’t really an intern, but instead a “fellow”, but it sounds weird to call her that. Also, enjoy this Vine I made of her final project from her class this summer!
  5. Meteor, FWIW. I actually don’t think it’s important which one, only that it clicked for me.
  6. None of these projects are publicly available yet, and the car tracker may never be.

Thank you to the D&D&Drupal Birds of a Feather at DrupalCon for ideas for my D&D project; to Chad for introducing me to D&D and being my co-conspirator; to Justin McDowell for initiating me into the MAGIC! world of flexbox; to Naomi for the intro to Meteor; and to Justin (again!) and Anne Gibson for reviewing this piece.

For weeks now, the daytime temperatures have been hovering around 85 or 90F; if you're outside the United States, that's above 30C. The average for the Pacific Northwest in late June: 70F/21C.

I mean, summer doesn't start for real until after Fourth of July, which is often cool and overcast with sprinkles. We have words to describe what it usually does for a big chunk of the month: June Gloom, or when it's really overcast and chilly, Juneuary.

No Juneuary this year, not even a nice June. Do not pass go, do not collect $100, skip directly to the hottest week of the year. And stay there. This after not really having a winter either. If we had June, it might've been in March.

All my rhythms are broken. All the plants that I measure spring and summer by are off. The daffodils and tulips came up before I was ready, so too the lilacs. The radishes had already bolted before I got to eat them. There's an organic farm at the college where I work: a guy at the farm stand said that everything is four to five weeks early. I missed strawberry season, and I bought zucchini in June, when usually I'm gorging on it in August.

The grasses that go brown at midsummer have already gone over, and nearly every day I see something about a grass fire by the highway. North of us, fires rage in British Columbia, and a fire east of the mountains destroyed 29 homes. Everything early, everything off-kilter.

On top of the fretting in the back of my mind about OMGWTFBBQ GLOBAL WARMING, I'm freaking out about how much I'm not getting done.

I always have a bunch of projects that I swear, for real this time, I'm going to get done once it stops raining. Sometimes the weather is an excuse, but never this early in the year, and rarely for this long.

Pulling together the emotional and mental fortitude to tackle what needs to be done is hard enough. "Tomorrow is forecast to be warmer than today" and last night I couldn't sleep. I wash dishes early in the morning and I'm already sweating. How do I tackle the hard stuff?

And my rhythms aren't built around the weather being this hot for this long. When I was a kid in southern California, we had a rhythm of how to get at least a little bit of yardwork done, when to do errands, and when to just lay low. Twenty-odd years in a climate with at most three days a year over 90F reset all that. And our longer days further north mean that even those patterns don't make as much sense. So I'm tired and irritable and angry, all while being too damn hot.

I haven't figured out how to deal with it yet. I just come home and throw open all the windows, turn on all the fans, get a cold drink, and worry.

Just a hair over three years ago, I changed jobs. My new job came with a new title: CMS Specialist.

For the first time since 1999, I was working on the web not as a generalist, but as someone specializing in something. I shuttered my "Web Generalist" blog and got started in my new gig being responsible specifically for tending to a content management system. But I don't think I ever stopped thinking about  a generalist.

Then the other day I got into a conversation on Twitter with a former coworker about that very subject, and I realized that while my job may be more specialized than it used to be, I'm still a generalist in my heart.

When the need has come up for writing, or content strategy, or [something else], I've never been able to stay content with just tending to my own little field. I've gone towards things that have expanded my understanding, led me into fields that are near mine, and tried to keep up with those that I've left behind.

But why? To what end? And I realized there's different parts to it: I'm a bit of a control freak. No, scratch that: I'm a lot of a control freak, and if you know how to do lots of different things, you can control them pretty well. Most of the time. It doesn't always hold up well over time, though.

There's a more flattering side of that, which is curiosity. The friend I was chatting with used the word polymath, with the caveat that you can't call yourself a polymath. But I'm happy to claim the spirit of curiosity behind the word. If I hadn't been so set on being a writer, there's no way I could've decided on a major in college. I was interested in too many different subjects. Even now, outside of my work, I'm curious about lots of subjects, and my reading list and my Netflix queue tend to reflect that.

Then, finally: not to be all both-ways-uphill-in-the-snow about it, but when I started out on the web, one person could pretty much do ALL THE THINGS. Before the turn of the century, I wrote HTML, CSS (early ugly CSS), and then ASP "Classic" in Pagemill, made buttons and optimized photos in Photoshop.

I switched from ASP to PHP and from Pagemill to Dreamweaver. I learned Javascript. I became a CSS wizard. I learned just enough SQL to get by. I figured out my own XML vocabulary (don't ask) and learned enough XSLT to transform it.

I did troubleshooting on other people's Frontpage code, and decided that we needed a CMS to avoid that sort of thing. At one job I set up WordPress site; at another I converted hand-coded HTML to Drupal.

I was on Blogger when it was a little server under Ev's desk; I had a MySpace account -- for work; I figured out and got creeped out by Facebook ads; I struggled with email newsletters and was grateful for templates.

Like a homesteader out on the prairie, having to do all the things, because there isn't a town yet. You do what needs to be done, because otherwise it's going to be a cold winter.

It's easy for the homesteader to harden into a survivalist or anachronism: if it was made after my time, it's not worthwhile.

And if you're always just staying ahead of the wolves or trying to protect the wheat from locusts, there isn't time for finesse or going into depth or putting in real glass windows.

Which explains why I stepped away from being a generalist and was glad to specialize in something, but not why I find myself drawn back into adjacent subjects. If this were a proper simile, I'd be like Laura Ingalls Wilder's dad, always looking for the next frontier. But that's not really me either.

Maybe it's just that self-reliance is a habit both hard to break and still useful.

“Two moves is as good as a fire”

When my grandmother died, my grandfather and my step-aunt had to clean out her “Chamber of Horrors,” the room stacked floor-to-ceiling with things, with a narrow corridor running around it. The times I went to visit, it didn't look messy, just full of boxes and shelves, and boxes on shelves. She was the one who wrote the label on the door, and her expression was ruefully self-deprecating when she referred to it.

But there wasn't just the chamber of horrors. The bookshelves in the narrow main hall, full of old Reader's Digest and Time-Life books. The metal storage shed in the backyard, never opened in the dozen years they lived in that house.

So when I was home from college for a couple of weeks, Mom drove with me and my two younger sisters out to Arizona to help Grandpa and Aunt Billie with the cleanup, sorting boxes on the back patio.

Turns out the boxes in the storage shed had been packed when my grandparents got remarried in the early 70s after almost 30 years apart. We turned out box after box, every one a little different, every one a mix of mysterious newspaper clippings, photos of my father as a child, photos of unknown people, coupons, jewelry, mayonnaise jars, whatever.

And the last box I opened... Southeast Arizona does have its share of cockroaches, and while Aunt Billie threw a bug bomb in the shed, it didn't quite kill everything. So I opened a box from the back, and before I could even dig into the mysterious contents, the surviving bugs swarmed out. That was the point, in the middle of a 90F afternoon, when I stopped to go inside and watch some TV and get that out of my head.

A few years ago I read Stuff which is a fascinating and compassionate look at hoarding. As you might guess, I saw my grandmother in many of the pages.

I also saw myself. One variety of hoarding comes from an emotional attachment to objects: this necklace belonged to my grandmother; that clock was a gift from a friend I haven't seen in years; this bottle is from the time that we had a picnic at the beach. Everyone does it a little bit, I think, but I find I have to periodically ask myself if I need that object for its memories, thinking back on that jar that must have meant something for some reason in 1965.

Another variety of hoarding is a desire to avoid waste, to make sure everything is used. While my tool closet sometimes resembles this, it's relatively easy to look in a room and ask myself if I'm really going to use that pile of hinges or that jar of odd-sized screws. But in the digital realm, it's easy to hoard thousands of photos, bookmarks, or PDFs.

“Oh, this is like cleaning out the garage!”

As we worked on a site revamp, one of the clients realized what we were doing, tossing out pages that no one visited, that duplicated other pages, that were woefully out of date. She said it not with anxiety or horror, but with a sort of delight.

Our team at work has been gradually moving through content reviews and updates of parts of the college's site. As we go, I'm seeing all the reactions that people might have to disruption of their belongings or their surroundings.

The group that didn't think their site needed much change watching a usability study and saying “just burn it all down.” The people who ask “but where are we going to put...?” Sometimes I find myself making a folder called “archive” knowing that it's a box in a metal shed full of things from another life that may outlive (the job of) the person who put it there. At least digital boxes don't get roaches. That memory, of those boxes, and the woman who couldn't or wouldn't control the stuff—it gives me compassion for myself and my folder called “stuff” and our site editors and all of their stuff.

And sometimes, things disappear, and you remembered that they existed once, and you realize that maybe it wasn't necessary. Maybe it was good to let them disappear.

In memory of Susan Kellogg Nelson, 1914–1995

The saying in the title comes from my mother-in-law. I find it oddly comforting.