Monday, November 10, 2008

Clamming and competency

By the time you hit your 5th or 6th decade, you're mostly competent at what you do. You've long abandoned the things you're incompetent at, and mortality precludes starting a whole lot of new things.

As a result, most older folk forget what it means to learn new things, forget what it means to be a decade or two old, when everything requires climbing a wall to gain mastery.

"Potential" becomes an albatross around the neck of the young. (Go read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner if you have not. Yes, it's Coleridge; yes, he can be onerous; yes, it's worth your time.)

I got a clam rake last spring. It's an old rake, and a good one.

I can only imagine how many clams ended up in a pot after being pried out of their homes before I got it. The tines are rusted brown, the handle oiled by the sweat of others before me.

Still, as good a rake as it is, it was almost useless in my hands last June.

Can you remember when you first drove a car? When every twitch of the wheel required thought?

Just about every 17 year old Homo sapiens on the planet has faster reflexes than me. Just about every Homo sapiens in the western hemisphere has more facility with technology than me. Still, All State Insurance charges me a bucketload less for auto insurance than any 17 year old I teach.

Teachers need to remember how hard it is to drive the first time.

Or else go clamming.

Back in June, the rake was a weapon--plow through the mud, rip out whatever it hit, say (yet) another prayer for the unfortunate creature impales by its tines. Horseshoe crabs, whelks, worms--but very few clams.

Now the rake is an extension of my arm, its tines tickling the mud beneath the water. I can feel shapes, I can feel density. A tine or two bump against a clam, my sympathetic system reacts. Against a stone, nothing.

The horseshoe crabs are safe again. The clams are not.

I like clams.
I really, really like clams.

I practiced and practiced and practiced because I like clams, and slowly my brutal assault against any critter large enough to suffer from misguided tines evolved to a gentle prodding of the mud.

My students like driving.
Really, really like driving.

They practice and practice because they like driving, and slowly their jagged starts and turns evolve to hugging the road unconsciously.

Here's my plea to anyone of us arrogant enough to presume we have something to offer to the young. Try something new.

Try to master something you suck at but like to do anyway.

Now imagine trying to master something you suck at and don't really care for.

Welcome to high school.


Unknown said...

Great post! And we dare look at them like there is something wrong.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Michael!

What a hoot. Great post. Great writing.

I enjoy a read that's reality from another's peephole. And your peephole is up through the inkwells of reality's school.

"By the time you hit your 5th or 6th decade, you're mostly competent at what you do." Yes.

I recall not too many years ago, I had been playing fiddle at a folk festival. I'd been playing non-stop for almost five hours in the Saturday night barn dance band when a young admirer took me aside and asked about my music.

"How long have you been playing fiddle?"

"About 55 years", I said. His mouth remained half shut and he nodded while his eyes drifted out of focus.

"What do you play?", I asked. "The flute," he said - the smile coming back to his face.

"Tried the flute way back," I said. "Was useless as." And I watched his confidence come back.

But hey, it's a cultural thing, this idea that only the young can learn easily. A facile mind can learn quickly at any age - I believe this.

And a sullen young mind can look on learning as if it were a real chore.

Experience counts for a lot. It can also make learning easier. Get that. Experience can make learning easier. A truism.

Ka kite

doyle said...

Thanks for the kind words.

I've been playing guitar for over 30 years and I still suck at it--but I enjoy playing, Leslie enjoys listening, and that's enough.

I do agree that experience can make learning easier--if nothing else, after a few decades you realize that putting time into something worth doing will yield results.

Ka kite.