Learning in Public

Do you remember the first time you rode a bicycle…without the training wheels?  How you perched up on top, way too far off the ground, barely moving forward, but snaking from side to side as you waggled the handlebars back and forth in a desperate effort to keep your balance?  How all too soon, within a few feet, the waggling got wilder as you felt yourself starting fall?  How there was the inevitable crash and, probably, tears?

I think there is a kind of universality there.  There are so many things we desperately want to learn to move up to the next level of maturity, or skill, or independence.  A few, a very few, like dancing or playing the guitar, we can learn in private, with a guide book or a suitably discreet friend.  But most are like that bicycle: They require so much real estate that you have to do them in public.

In my experience, learning in public adds a couple of charming aspects to the process.

First, for most of us, the fear of public humiliation makes it that much harder to learn much of anything.  We know that the best way to learn any physical skill is to relax and let our bodies do the learning while the head just stays out of the way.  But, come on!  I am about to make an absolute fool of myself in public and you want me to relax?!!

The second comes not from the nature of the human animal but from some malevolent aspect of the world itself.  A generous God would surely have designed things so that when we reach one of those moments of failure that comes with learning something new, we would be able to do so with a certain amount of decorum.  On our bicycle, as we felt ourselves beginning to lose balance, we would be able to delicately reach down with our toes, stop the bike, and end up gracefully ready to try again.

Sure.  Instead, what we do is start to panic, increase the rate of our sawing the handlebars, and probably forget to even extend a leg to catch ourselves until it is far too late.  We hit the ground with a nice, ringing crash that tells everyone within a block to turn and witness our mortification.

It’s the publicness of the crash, you see, that I object to.  It seems a meanspirited little addition to what was already a pretty painful event.

Did you ever learn to drive a stick shift?

Like riding a bicycle, using a manual transmission requires a whole set of skills.  You have to learn to coordinate releasing the clutch pedal with feeding more gas to the engine, all the while steering the car, watching the traffic, etc.  Failing to give enough gas to the engine while releasing the clutch results in killing the engine and annoying the drivers behind you.  Embarrassing, but one soon learns how to quickly restart the engine and feed lots of gas to the engine while slowly releasing the clutch.  This over-revs the engine and fills the car with the smell of burning clutch material, but it gets you through the intersection and away from all those snickering witnesses.

Having learned that escape maneuver, one could be forgiven for thinking one had gotten past the worst that learning to clutch had to offer.

The world rarely lets us off so easily.  You are lulled into a false sense of confidence, then you are introduced to Phase Two.

It works like this.  Once you have gotten past the stage where you forget to push the gas pedal at the same time as you release the clutch, you find out what happens when you don’t give quite enough gas to the engine.

Phase One gave you a relatively unobtrusive stall.  In Phase Two your car will display behavior you didn’t know it possessed.  The clutch will suddenly grab and the car will lurch forward like a manic rabbit and make a loud clunk.  The acceleration will cause your feet to automatically depress the clutch and gas a trifle.  The engine will then speed up again.  The clutch will suddenly grab again.  With another clunk, the car will lurch forward again.  And again.

This performance will be repeated until the car arrives at the point in the intersection where it will block the most possible cars.  At that point, the engine will die.

Depending on how much you panic and how much the gods hate you, you can rise above even this high plateau by then flooding the engine.  I still have vivid recollections of having to push my car, all by myself, slowly and painfully out of an intersection.

There is a sort of malign, obscure mathematics about the whole thing.  The more people there are to witness the event, the higher the probability it will occur in a ludicrous fashion.

Ever been skiing?  I have commented before on how there is an amazingly rich potential for looking foolish once you put on a pair of skis.  One would think that trying to stay upright with six-foot sticks on your feet on a low-friction surface would satisfy the most malicious sprite.  But…

Ever gotten on a ski lift?  It works like this: First, as soon as the previous lift chair has passed by, you shuffle madly (minimum friction, remember) forward into the path of the next one.   Then, holding your ski poles in your outside hand (not to stab your partner) and looking back over your inside shoulder, you reach back with that arm to grasp the chair’s center pole when the chair arrives.  If all goes well, you make it into position with time to do all the rest, remember which is your inside and which is your outside, and crouch in time for the chair seat to magically slide under your butt and lift you off the ground while you hold on to the center pole.


Given the fact that all of this has to be done in front of a whole line of waiting skiers, most of whom know what they are doing, you just know that obscure and nasty mathematics will kick in.
I have had the dubious pleasure of poking my partner with my poles (wrong hand), dropping a ski pole (a nice person carried it up to me), and in one of my more glorious moments, falling out altogether.

You see, if you shuffle a bit too far forward, the chair’s arc misses sliding under your butt and hits the small of your back.  Instead of your tail, you end up with your shoulder blades in the seat, the rest of you hanging down.  You are then lifted a few feet until you lose your grip and drop in an uninjured but also undignified heap for the amusement of the waiting line.

Why bring this up?  Well, of late I have gotten a bit of criticism for upholding the idea that there is an ironic spirit to the world that has the capacity to trump any normal rules of probability.  I have even been accused of a bit of cynicism on the subject.

Which is, of course, nonsense.

I know in my heart that this belief is merely the sane conclusion of a lifetime of empirical data.  But, still…  I wonder.

I mean, it’s not just me, is it?  It really is universal.  Isn’t it?

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