Life Without a Manual

Once upon a time I was taking a walk in the California foothills, along one of those side-hill paths that follow the contour lines.  It was an eighteen inches wide strip of dusty horizontal.  Above me, on my right, the hill climbed steeply up, while on my left it fell away with equal steepness.

The sides of the hills were covered with that mixture of wild wheat, dried mustard, California Live Oak, scrub oak, etc. that we call chaparral.   Mostly low and yellow with occasional clumps of taller, grey-green to break the monotony.

Not that I was paying much attention.

I was, as hikers often are, more or less focused on the path a few feet ahead of my boots.  I was looking at the fascinating variety of overlapping shoe treads that marked the trail.  Everything from the low grid lines of tennis shoes to the heavy lugged treads of hiking boots.

Mostly, though, I was being irritated by the knobbly lines of motor bike wheels running over the footprints.  While you are enjoying the peace of the great out of doors is no time to realize that at any moment it may be shattered by the yapping of motor bikes.  This is particularly true in an area where they are forbidden.

So there I was, strolling along, staring down at my feet and mentally cursing every ancestor of those bike riding philistines, when I was literally stopped by the sight of a very different pattern on the trail: a pair of wheel tracks that marked neat perpendiculars across the path.

I still remember my eyes panning right, up the hill.  I could see the track of a dirt bike weaving wildly through the low, brown grasses.  My eyes and my imagination followed it down, barely under control, until it punched those two heavy tracks across my path.

Almost reluctantly, my eyes kept panning to the left, following the steadily more wildly weaving track down the hill until the invisible rider finally lost it and went down.  The trail stopped in a large, chewed up area in the center of a much larger clump of green vegetation.

Prickly Pear.

I have never in my life seen such a silent story so devastatingly well told.  Even I, who had lately wished no kinder fate upon all bike riders, literally winced as I thought of some poor soul, battered and terrified, watching as that horrible destination approached. I imagined that poor rider lying there, pricked by God knows how many cactus thorns, looking around and realizing that no matter which way one looked, the route out led through more prickly pear.  As a sort of final insult combined with injury, this sad soul was maybe a hundred feet down a steep hill side, burdened with a couple of hundred pounds of (almost certainly non-functional) motorcycle.

Just deserts don’t come with much more brutally ironic justice.

But, as I said, I winced.  I suspect I winced out of a feeling of kinship.

No, I have never ridden a bike down a hill with such disastrous results.  But I can assure you that I have committed acts equally stupid.  Only the luck of a kindly god has allowed me to escape some richly deserved results.  Still, I cannot count the number of times I have found myself  lying on the ground with a small voice in my head saying, “Idiot.  Idiot.  IDIOT!”

At such times, the mind works with lightening speed, analyzing the event and parsing the faulty logic that led up to it.  Item One: You overestimated your own ability.  Item Two: You underestimated the possible consequences.  Now, if you had only….

On the other hand, it is true that we can learn from these experiences.  There are any number of stupid things I have no intention of ever trying again.  And a vivid recollection of some past imbecility has often (well,  fairly often) saved me from attempting some related folly.  You could say that one of the major tasks of our lives is building a list of hot stoves (animate and inanimate)  we will never willingly touch again.

I am reminded of this as I watch kids testing the limits of their own worlds.

Fairly often, I can see it coming.  Some kid is about to try to stretch the envelope in a particular direction, just as I did.  That kid will fail,  just as I did.  Thank God, that kid will heal, just as I did.  (One of the arguments for a kindly providence lies in the fact that kids are not very brittle and heal quickly.)

Learning such things is a painful part of life.  But, as I remember it, the physical hurts were often much easier to bear than the psychological.  For the young life is a both a physical minefield and a psychic one.  The one heals faster than the other.

Do you remember what it was like?  Trying to figure out the ins and outs of an this world with no user’s manual provided?  Do you remember how hard it was?  Where this action was harmless or even brought praise whereas that action brought anger or, far worse, ridicule?

Some people, I know, seem to be blessed with some sort of instinct about it all.  They carried themselves with grace, made few mistakes and, when they did, somehow managed to laugh it off without scars.

Alas, I was a terminally shy Catholic kid, self-consciously blundering my way through childhood.  The days when I had some important choice to make and missed doing something stupid seem, in memory at least, to be few.

Part of the problem, of course, was that adults were forever assuming that we somehow knew better.  Far too often they supposed that something was obvious when it was anything but to us.  The result was that we were punished for being “bad” or scathed for being “stupid.”

I know this to be true because I remember so vividly one time…

I must have been around eleven at the time, tottering into a puberty that increased the chance for embarrassment manyfold.  For some reason or other (I think it might have been for Boy Scout camp), I was to have my first complete physical.

Fortunately my doctor, Dr. Mack, was a familiar and trusted figure.  We got through the basics without a problem, including the first time I experienced that charming instruction, “Now turn your head and cough.”  (I remember that I could come up with no explanation for that beyond some latent sadism on Dr. Mack’s part.  Adults never explained anything!)

All went well until the doctor left, to be replaced by his nurse.  She asked me a lot of questions to fill out some form, stuck me with a couple of needles and turned to go.  When she got to the door, she turned and, reaching into her pocket, handed me a small jar.  Seeing my confused look, she said, “This is for your urine sample,” and walked out the door.

Another trial.  And the more I thought about it, the more dangerous it got.  I can clearly recall what went through my mind.  “I think I know what they want (why would they want that?), but, if I’m wrong and I piss in their jar….”

The more I thought about the probable consequences of so grave an insult, the more panicky I got.  Needless to say, it was obviously too embarrassing to ask anyone about.  And ask who?  Dr. Mack was obviously in with some other patient by then and the idea of asking one of the nurses….

Finally my fear of the consequences of such an error overcame my horror of asking such a stupid and humiliating question.  I opened the door and the just froze in the doorway.  Busy nurses hurried by, none of them offering the slightest opening.  By the time I nerved myself up to ask the question, the nurse was already gone.

I don’t know how long I stood there, holding that stupid jar, trapped between fears.  Finally, a door opened and Dr. Mack came out.  Now I should say that Dr. Mack moved between rooms at a full gallop.  I never even got a chance to inhale before he was past me.

Bless Dr. Mack.  Something in my body language must have caught his eye.  With his hand on the next room’s door, he stopped and looked back at me.

He looked at my face, he looked down at the jar.  He looked back at my face.  “Bill,” he said, “Piss in the jar.”

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