Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Tied Up In Knots

Chinese Lanyard Knot

Since 1998, I’ve written more than 3.5 million words in my journal. When I search through the files, the word “knot” comes up a number of times in the context of feeling like I’m “tied up in knots.” (On one occasion, “tangled in knots.”)

Usually it’s related to some struggle with a computer or programming challenge, when I’m trying to keep my mind wrapped around all the loose ends in the creation process.

When grappling with a writing project, I don’t think of it the same way; I don’t have a recurring metaphor. Maybe it’s like crawling around in the mud and the dark and desperately groping for the door to escape. But the door is actually a window and it’s easy to find and pass through. It’s called a web browser.

Instead of a metaphor for my writing process, I have two words: resistance and avoidance. And fear. And… well, there are plenty of words, but this isn’t a post about my writing hangups.

It’s about tying knots. Literally. Mostly.

(Oh! For a knot-themed writing metaphor, I could have gone with the noose. But again, not about that…)

I’ve taken up knot tying as a hobby over the past couple of months. It’s great for a fidgety person like me. Carrying around a couple pieces of rope in my pocket, I’m always ready to entertain myself. (Although in the knot-tying business, thinner cordage isn’t referred to as “rope.” That’s reserved for thicker stuff. Smaller stuff is referred to as “small stuff.” But I won’t say I have small stuff in my pants.)

As a way of passing time and occupying your mind, it’s a nice alternative to fiddling around with a smartphone. It’s cheaper and less intrusive. It can be a meditation. Disconnected, yet making connections. Maybe there’s even a Taoist element to it: Doing yet not doing.

There’s something pleasing about tying knots, whether practical or decorative — something about making the twists and turns and tucking things into place, the satisfaction of drawing them up and dressing them correctly, of carefully removing the slack to bring a complicated knot into shape.

Situations where you actually need a knot may be rare, but when the opportunity arises it is gratifying to have a chance of employing something remotely functional for the job.

ABOK #471

And of course you start looking for places to put knots to work. I wanted to add a shelf to my closet for a while, but was finally inspired by entry #471 in The Ashley Book of Knots to make a hanging shelf, experiencing the joy of tying three bowlines — the king of knots, you know — and one adjustable loop.

The movie Jaws has taught us there’s always a chance you’ll be asked to tie a sheepshank in order to prove your seamanship bona fides.

Or maybe one day you’ll find yourself in a cave with stalactites hanging down, holding a rope in your hands, and then… suddenly lava starts flowing into the chamber! Don’t panic. Calmly “make fast” an icicle hitch to one of the stalactites, tie a loop on the other end, and you can then suspend yourself safely above the molten rock. (In our scenario, the lava only rises so far.)

More likely in the near term, the adjustable grip hitch will serve you well, and, when you want to bring home a large and ill-fitting item in your car, the trucker’s hitch will secure your trunk lid with style.

You should also be aware that the Zeppelin bend is efficacious for much more than securing your family’s dirigible in a strong and secure yet non-jamming manner.

And then there is the handcuff knot: indispensable for restraining would-be assailants and adventurous sex partners. I’m entirely too strait-laced and mundane to dabble in bondage, but I have to admit to a small thrill when my wife agreed to let me try this one on her.

In his master work of knot lore, Clifford Ashley includes a long chapter on “Occupational Knots.” While he seems to have omitted a discussion of the knot requirements of the dominatrix, he does cover the handcuff knot in several places, along with the related Tom Fool’s knot. He observes that the Tom Fool’s knot is “not so satisfactory a Handcuff Knot, as it is more difficult to draw snug and make fast, if the prisoner proves fractious.”

An analysis of the relative merit of knots based on the potential fractiousness of prisoners. I love it.

About the occupation, “The Burglar,” Ashley has this to say:

I would do nothing to encourage the activities of this archenemy of society, but I will urge him to consider the awful sequence of the following knots with all its direful implications: the Basket Hitch (#2155), the Handcuff Knot (#412), and the Hangman’s Knot (#366). If his interest is a morbid one he can find several more Hangman’s Knots in the chapter on nooses. And if he has any choice, I am told that the last wish of the hangee is always granted.

I like that, too. I love the unexpected fun in passages like this, just as it made me happy to discover one knot that ended in “1/2.” Why re-number everything for a late entry when you can simply sneak it in between two other numbers?

The Ashley Book of Knots

The source of all knowledge says Clifford Ashley lived from 1881 to 1947 and was an “American artist, author, sailor, and knot expert.” He spent 11 years creating The Ashley Book of Knots, whose cover claims 7000 illustrations and 3900 knots. Many of the knots are covered in more than one place, making the number of unique knots much lower. But, still. What a great book, this bible of knots.

I’m inspired by people like Ashley who pour their energy and their love into works like this, producing something useful and delightful, even if only appreciated by a relatively small audience of knot enthusiasts. It’s a pleasure just to flip through it, looking at the drawings.

Ashley gives credit to sailors for most knots, and tells us that the “knotting arts” flourished in times past when literacy and books were in short supply at sea:

…the isolation of the sea was such that the sailor’s inability to read and write was an almost intolerable hardship. In order to keep his mind occupied when off duty, it was necessary for him to busy his hands. Fortunately there was, aboard ship, one material that could be used for that purpose. There was generally plenty of condemned rope with which to tie knots.

Which brings me to an occupation in our modern society that could benefit from more knot tying. Or rather, a common occupational role: bored corporate meeting attender.

As mentioned, I’m a fidgety person. I like to “busy my hands.” While I am marginally literate, it’s clearly unacceptable for me to bring the latest Neal Stephenson novel to a meeting to pass the time. But how about if I semi-surreptitiously tie knots?

I’m listening! Really. No disrespect intended. I’m probably listening better, since my hands are happily occupied with the knot tying and my brain isn’t grimly mulling over the slow, slow, slow passage of time. I’m also much more likely to maintain consciousness.

Trust me: your meeting can only benefit from me tying knots. There is no downside.

Would it be any worse than the tap-tap-tapping on smartphones and laptops? These are frowned on by some, but seem to have become permanently established in meeting rooms — tolerated for their utility in keeping tabs on important and urgent matters, although we can be pretty sure that on the smartphones, people are shopping or watching YouTube videos of turkey attacks, and on their laptops are just trading smartass comments via instant messaging.

At home, my five-year-old daughter has taken an interest in knots as well. It’s something she can relate to more than the abstract work I do at the computer. She sees me with a book and a piece of rope and she understands what I’m doing. I think she likes that I’m more present while tying knots and sitting with the family, and not absorbed by the computer in my office.

She likes to pick out colorful pieces of rope and tie and untie her own knots. She says, “Now watch me untie it. You have to watch the whole time.” Her favorite knot is the figure-eight, for its mnemonic: “Make an alien, choke it, and then poke it in the eye.”

One day I came down from the office and explained to her that I had been writing. I said I was sorry to be away like that, but I really wanted to write and so I had to spend the time. She said, “I thought you wanted to tie knots.”

I love that it’s as simple as that for her.


Not all tied up in knots.