Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Learning to Drive

One summer in Vermont approximately twenty-five years later ... he told me he really wanted to learn to drive.  Would I consider giving him lessons?  Recalling our initial attempt, I had him sit on the driver's side and acquaint himself with the various controls.  He assured me that he had been studying Kenward at the wheel, and by now had a pretty good idea of how things worked.  "O.K.," I said, "let's start at the beginning.  First, put the key in the ignition.  No, it goes the other way.  Good.  Notice that the gearshift is in park, where it should be.  Now turn the key clockwise and when the engine starts, give it a little gas -- I mean push gently on the accelerator."  Joe turned the key, but the engine would not start.  How could that be?  Kenward's car always started easily.  Joe tried again.  Rrruh rrruh rrruh.  Nothing.  "Let me try," I said.  We changed places.  Vroom, the car started right up.  I shut it off.  We changed back.  Joe turned the key again.  Rrruh rrruh rrruh.  So I reached over and started the car and told him to hold down the brake pedal with his right foot and to shift into reverse.  Fruump,the engine died.  Joe, with a look of total dismay, said, "I think we had better try again later."  As in never.*
I found this story in Ron Padgett's memoir of his lifelong friend, the artist and writer Joe Brainard.  It is a beautiful, moving, and loving book, often quite funny, and well worth reading even if you don't know anything about Brainard or Padgett.

The reason I wanted to quote this passage here is that it made me think of all people who have trouble learning.  Brainard was not "stupid" (though he was simple in the best sense of the word, a direct and honest person) nor was he disabled physically.  He was a very fine draftsman and craftsman, capable of drawing beautifully and of assembling intricate objects on scales raging from the very small to the large.  Padgett's memoir gives plenty of examples of Brainard's artistic dexterity.  So why couldn't he learn to drive?  Plenty of less intelligent people who couldn't draw a straight line can do it; but confronted with a modern (mid-1980s) car with automatic transmission, Brainard became helpless.  The lesson here is that we should not be surprised when ability, even great ability, in one domain isn't matched by even minimal ability in others.  That seems obvious enough, but many people, myself included, tend to forget it.

* Ron Padgett, Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), page 278.