Can I move? I’m better when I move.

The Sundance Kid

Last year, my wife and I moved from Edmonds, Washington to Portland, Oregon to help with our newborn grandchild. At least that’s the explanation I put out. The real reason? I was scared to go out at night in Edmonds. I was afraid I’d run into the notorious gangs of dentists, lawyers, accountants, and the most chilling of all, the “lords of Edmonds mean streets,” the financial advisors. How else can I explain my continued practice in martial arts that I took up at age forty-eight? Yet, even with martial arts training,1 I was still intimidated by the ravenous hoards pushing their way to an eighty-dollar filet mignon. Hence: to Portland.

In truth, statistically, the most dangerous thing in my life would become the drive to the dojo, but after watching a documentary on the grace of Aikido,2 I wanted some of that. Unlike the Sundance Kid, I’m not better when I move, but I wished to become better when I move. Seven years in Aikido ended when the dojo closed. Two years in karate ended when my daughter could drive herself to the dojo. For the last fifteen years, my wife and I have pursued the more gentle-on-the body art of Tai Chi.

Speed thrills

“Oh, my-my, what a sensation”

—the Beach Boys

In a nearby Portland park, we initiated our then ten-month-old granddaughter into a new sensation. Nana (Joan) sits Nova on her lap, arranges the infant’s extremities for safety, and wheeee down the park slide. The one-second adventure is Nova’s first thrill of speed.

At my age of ten (years, not months), we visited the relatives we left behind in Chicago. My family took our first ride on a commercial jet. The acceleration on takeoff was so thrilling that for years I anticipated another jet ride for just those seconds.

As thrilling as those rides are for Nova and were for me, it’s more fun when you’re the driver not the passenger, that is, when you get to control the speed that gives you thrills, such as when I learned to ski (badly), and when I pretended I was a race-car driver in the sports cars I owned in my early adulthood.

In infancy, our caretakers tend to our needs and fulfill our desires. But they fulfill our desires only as they see fit. Nova’s smile informs us that she likes the ride down the slide. Her kicking and screaming as we put her back in her stroller informs us she’s displeased that she has no control over when the sliding fun ends.

When Nova gets a little older, she’ll get to go down the slide by herself, and she’ll get to speed down the sidewalk on her trike. The older she gets, the more control she’ll have over speed and other sensuous thrills. Perhaps, she’ll take up a team sport such as soccer or an individual sport such as her big brother’s rock climbing or her mother’s martial arts.

Calvin and Hobbs

When our kids were ready for chapter books, Joan and I created our own bedtime-story habits. I read our son adult books and his younger sister, young-adult books. Joan read our daughter newspaper comics and our son, from Calvin and Hobbs books.3

One day, we found Adam sitting on the couch reading through a Calvin and Hobbs book on his own. He had realized he had learned to read by following the words in the book. Could he read, or did he just memorize the words in the one book? The answer came when he picked up the nearest novel in sight and began to read Jurassic Park.

The yearning for “mastery,” and by that, I mean attaining and maintaining a skill that brings independence4 starts at the breast (or substitute)—the umbilical cord has been severed, and I’m hungry—and lasts throughout life.

We associate learning with school, and school with children, and we associate learning with practical needs such as reading. But most learning has no obvious utility, and we could go about our lives just fine without. To pay the bills, we could learn law or plumbing and spend the rest of our time watching Netflix. If I cared to acquire only practical knowledge, I’d forget training in Tai Chi and study the manual that came with our new computer disguised as a washing machine.5

But there’s no difference between baby Nova and me. She didn’t recently learn to walk because she foresaw soccer in her future, and I don’t train in martial arts for self-defense or for the health advantages promoted in the Harvard Medical Journal. We both pursue mastery for its own sake because we’re humans and that’s how our species evolved.

  1. Despite the years of training, I’m not good at martial arts, but I think I could hold my own against the older accountants and financial advisors. ↩︎

  2. I saw the documentary seventeen years before I started to train in Aikido but my intention persisted. ↩︎

  3. When she learned to read, our daughter read the Calvin and Hobbs books on her own. ↩︎

  4. Mastery is used in two ways: competence, which is how I’m using it, and excellence. ↩︎

  5. Seriously, I doubt a Google engineer could understand the Miele manual. ↩︎