Saturday, January 22, 2011

It's About The Attitude, Mostly.

We were watching some DVD or other last night -- 'Fringe' season 2, I think. Yeah, that was it. And there's this dying kid character. He's been learning to do that thing where you roll a coin across your knuckles. You've seen it a zillion times. Looks cool as the coin flip-crawls from one side of your hand to the other, yep.

Anyway, the Younger Son pipes up. He says: "Can you do that, Dad?"

Without thinking, I answered truthfully: "I don't know. I haven't tried."

I didn't really give the exchange much consideration until later, when I was tucking the boys into bed. But it was relevant: young Jake is off to a sort of music camp next week for a few days, and he's come over all timorous, so he got into one of those stupid, non-productive arguments with his mum.

He does this crap. Always has. Faced with a new thing, he gets nervous, and retreats. Then Natalie tries to jolly him along, and he starts defending his own position, there in the corner. The more she talks up the positives, the more he starts envisioning the potential negatives, and building up his own fears.

It's a f__king stupid cycle, and I'm waaaay the f__k over it. It happens time and again: with learning to swim, learning to ride his bicycle, reading his first novel, wading around the rocks at Cataract Gorge, and a dozen other things. He gets nervous, and negative, and the talk goes round and round and round, and eventually someone (usually me, but occasionally Natalie) just loses their patience and throws him in the deep end.

And of course, every time his basic native abilities rise to the occasion, and in short order he's not only dealing with the new situation, but enjoying the hell out of it. And he's even willing to admit that he's enjoying himself, and to apologise for behaving like a ninnyhammer - but it doesn't change.

Natalie's a kinder, more patient person than myself at heart. She'll still have these arguments with the boy. I won't. Once he starts inventing reasons to dislike something new, I give him the Blank Stare of Doom, and say something like: "Tough tittie, kid. You're doing it anyway, so best you start figuring out how to get the most out of it."

Thing is, that attitude of his is the flipside to the one that's carried me through most of my life. My father - bless his anarchic little boots - provided me with considerable impetus at a young age, and also a hell of a role model. Father is smart, thoughtful, and fit. By and large, anything he ever chose to do, he did well. (Except maybe write. He's more a visual person.) And he did it by observing, thinking, planning, extrapolating, and most of all, by getting in and making the attempt.

I hardly ever think about it, to be honest. But when you put down a list of the stuff I have done/can do... eventually it gets a little embarrassing. The truth is, though, I'm pretty sure most people could keep up, if they really gave it a shot. It's interesting, what you can achieve with a modicum of thought, research, planning and discipline.

Of course, there's a difference between a hardcore professional and a thoughtful dilettante. I'm not going to be renovating a house from the ground up on my own any time soon, for example. And while I can take a decent photograph when I want, I'd have to work a lot harder to be a real pro. Likewise the cooking: I can put together a pretty damned good meal here in my little kitchen, but I'm not planning on opening a restaurant any time soon, y'know?

There is a difference. Yes. And it's a big one; no question about it. (Although having a full professional toolset and a proper, professional workspace also makes a hell of a difference!) Yet in the real world, high-end professional skills are not required for most jobs and situations. You think a pro photographer really sweats over family portraits and wedding shots? You reckon that Jamie Oliver goes for the Michelin star when he's turning out a decent dinner for a bunch of mates? Do you need to be Frank Lloyd Wright to put a decorative screen on your verandah?


Most stuff out there you can do yourself, if you're prepared to think, plan, ask for advice, and put in some effort. I swear: it's true. You can learn enough of a language to get along in a foreign country. Play a musical instrument well enough to sound good with a group of casual players. You can execute a hip throw, grow roses, take impressive photographs, turn out a creme brulee with a crackly crust, hang a door, fell a tree, do a handbrake turn, hit a head-size target at 50m with a small-caliber rifle... and so forth. You're a human being. You are the most adaptable, most dangerous animal on the planet because the thing inside your skull gives you an infinity of options, if you just take the time to pay attention to what it's telling you.

There's nothing to it, really. The trick is simply to forget the words "I can't," and replace them with "I don't know how... yet."

That's the one thing I really, truly want to pass on to my kids. More than anything else. If they take that attitude to heart, they can learn anything else they need for themselves. I don't know how to get that into them - not for sure, but I'm going to keep trying every way I possibly can for as long as it takes, because there is nothing I've seen in all my forty-odd years on the planet which compares to this single not-very-secret piece of knowledge.

And by the way: as of last night, I can roll a coin across my fingers. Slowly, yes. But I'll get faster. It's just a matter of a little practice.


  1. Some of us never really get past the rationalising of The Fear. Others like myself get some bits right, avoid others and eventually through that avoidance learn a lesson. Might take seventy years and that's another ongoing story of lost human potential. I guess the way they'll best pick it up is by what you're doing. You have to hope that by living it at least some of it sinks into their core.
    Someone once tried to define to me what a renaissance man really is after I called their bluff on it. I still don't know but I have a couple of clues.

  2. "Faced with a new thing, he gets nervous, and retreats."

    Thomas does this as well. It annoys the Hell out of me. We might as well have flushed the money for his bike down the toilet, but at least ice skating is going well.

    BTW - Fringe is currently one of my favorite shows. s2 builds extremely well on s1, and manages to mostly escape the 'monster of the week' formula they needed to pad out the reveal of s1. So far, s3 has been downright superb.

  3. Example is the best way, I think. It's not like you can get into their heads and change things. The Spawn has all that in spades. She either won't try something new (never the first time she encounters it) or will try, have difficulties and declare she can/will NEVER, EVER do it. It gets tiring. Luckily for her, I never hold her to that NEVER, EVER.

  4. Jyggdrasil -- according to the very useful and thoughtful child psychologist(specialising in gifted kids) who had to assess young Jake, the Fear Factor is often quite high in bright kids. It comes down, simply, to having a bit more imagination, and a better capacity to envision possible disasters.

    Unfortunately, the psych didn't give me any clues on how to get the kid through. Living up to your own rhetoric is probably the the best way to do it, I guess, as Sue observes.

  5. I was talking to my father the other day about something we used to do together when I was a child, which he was pleasantly surprised I remembered - I am certain that your example of living with that attitude will be strongly remembered and embraced by your children, even if the effect of that is not immediately apparent :-)