The day I repaired my lawnmower, I remembered that sometimes we limit ourselves by how we define ourselves. I learned that I am better off appreciating the things I have accomplished rather than by what I don’t think I can do. I also realized something I hadn’t thought about before. That with me at least, although memories of ability can lead to greater accomplishments, the process of remembering can be extremely challenging. It seems to feed on itself as a process, building and expanding and deepening, the more I use it which in turn increased my sense of ability.
For example, I’ve installed a programmable thermostat, I’ve replaced my thermocoupler in my hotwater heater, done some minor plumbing, and I’ve replaced the car battery and headlights. I’ve even built a desktop computer by ordering parts and assembling them. Sometimes, the directions that were included with the computer parts were written clearly enough and diagrammed clearly enough that I could follow them. Yes, I use instructions. But sometimes, I was successful because I used video found on YouTube.
You can find how to do anything yourself on YouTube. You might have to look at three or more videos before you understand the actions you need to take, but with a little patience and focus and time, YouTube is a goldmine for doing it yourself. However, this time, I solved the problem without a YouTube video telling me what to do. I puzzled it out myself.
I AM the Champ! Now, Who Am I?
First of all, I don’t consider myself “handy”. “Handy” people are usually guys–real men, for one thing–who know their way around a toolbox. They know their tools, and know how to use them. They know what they want, and what to do.
If you show one of them a dirty, bleached deck, for example, the handyman will tell you how to pressure wash it. He will tell you which washing fluid he recommends, and he will offer a variety of stains you might choose. He will also talk of the qualities of wood planks versus synthetics, their pros and cons, all from his own experience.
The handyman has tuned up his car, changed the oil, and rotated his tires. If he has to bring his car to a mechanic, he will narrow down what the problems could be, because if he brings the car to a mechanic, he has done so only because handyman doesn’t have a forklift or he would have done it himself. He would explain all this with a repertoire of problem solving processes and rule outs because the mechanic needs to know that the handyman will not be taken advantage of. The negotiation over price has begun, even though he hasn’t really gotten the estimated price lower, because the handyman needs to know how much he is really paying for the repair and how much is he paying for his own ignorance. It’s as if he’s saying, you better be doing what you said you will be doing, because I will know–I assure you–if you do not. And you won’t like it.
I have never changed the oil in a car by hand, I have never given a car a tune up. Yet, even with this self-defining label that I am NOT handy, I realize that I HAVE done a few repairs and installations myself. Maybe I can’t build a deck, but I actually have done some handy things. I have even pressure washed my deck myself, a fact I have only recently come to remember after accomplishing the lawnmower repair.
Which is weird…
…and has led to a personal, developing understanding of identity and character.
I remembered that my neighbor across the street helped me with a snowblower problem. I needed a part. So, he looked in the manual and found the part in the diagrams provided in the manual. He matched up the part to the part number and he called a local company that sometimes had parts for sale. He actually talked to a person on the phone and the person looked “in the back” to find the part.
One thing about my memory is that I remember this process but I don’t remember if the parts-lady had the part or if this helped me repair the blower. But I remembered the process.
So, I decided I was going to make it happen. I was going to repair the lawn mower.
I should say that this was not my first rodeo. About a month or two ago, I had twisted up its blade on a tree root. The thing wouldn’t work anymore. So, I watched a YouTube video, got the size of the lawnmower blade, and I went to the local home repairs franchise, one of the big ones, and bought the blade. To my surprise, I replaced the blade and was able to mow my lawn the same day.
This time though, while mowing the lawn, I discovered a problem pushing it. Then I saw the rear wheel was tilting inward. I was having trouble pushing the mower because the wheel was leaning against the big thing that holds the engine. What is it called? The body?
I thought I could fix the problem by bending the wheel back, but that was a major fail. While pushing the lawn mower the wheel’s axle cracked clean off.
Now, I had every right to lose my cool. First of all, I was stressed. I had to cut the grass because it was already too long, and it seemed that we were the only house on our street that needed the grass mowed. Meanwhile, we were about to go on vacation in two days. It was a beautiful day. Really hot. Sweat was dripping down my face and the baseball cap wasn’t keeping the sweat from running into my eyes. Sweat burns. It really burns.
Yet, somehow, I kept it together. I did something else instead.
I overcame the hopelessness, the helplessness, and my fear of being incompetent. This was nearly overwhelming. It was like expecting to fail, but feeling afraid to confirm that failure. It was a fear of trying and fear of failing wrapped up together. So, to beat the fear, I had to give myself permission to fail. To do this, I told myself I would just look. There’s no harm in looking. Maybe I can’t fix the lawn mower, but on the other hand, maybe I can.
The anger dissipated. I steadied myself. I released my tension with a decision. I was not going to give up. There will be no excuses. I lifted a weird blindness that I could only describe as not knowing where to look or how to look. It was a blindness full of shapeless color and visual noisiness. That’s what it was. One moment, I didn’t know how to see what I was looking at. The next minute, I could.
I looked at the breakage carefully with my new found vision. I compared one wheel to the other wheel. Left side. Right side. I did this back and forth comparison exercise and in the process began to see more. For one thing, it wasn’t an axle like what I had expected to find, one that connected two wheels. The axelrod only held one wheel. And it wasn’t one part. It was something attached to an L-shaped piece of metal which was bolted to another part that was, in turn, attached to the lawn mower’s body. I examined it close. So, the axle-thing was a small part that attached to the cutting height adjuster. I reasoned that what I needed to do was to find out the name of that part. That way, I could find a way to replace it. I needed the manual.
I knew I had the manual around the house somewhere, but I figured I could more quickly and easily find the manual online. I did when I returned to the lawn mower, copied down its P/N number, and included that number in my search. I opened a link to the company.
The hardest part to this task was matching the part’s shape to the technical drawings in the manual. For one thing, the parts were hard to see. It was hard to distinguish them from each other. It was even more difficult to match the part to the number that corresponded to the parts description in the list on the right of the drawing. This took some trial and error.
I copied down the parts number and the name of the part and searched for them separately in another Internet browser tab. In the process, I found the part I needed, even though I ignored the word “discontinued” that appeared every time I clicked on the part’s image.
I scribbled the information onto some paper so that I wouldn’t waste expensive printer ink. Then I would press my luck. Maybe I could find a store with the part lying around somewhere in storage. Maybe someone didn’t enter their inventory into a connected database.
I couldn’t find the part in the three stores I visited. One saleslady told me they had discontinued the part and there were no suggested substitutions. She didn’t have any ideas. She didn’t know what I could do.
I returned home and searched one of America’s biggest department stores online, found the part, and ordered it along with my son’s birthday present.
A week later, I got to work on the lawn mower. I resolved to focus on getting it done, not on any worries that kept cropping up. They were nebulous. I wasn’t really sure what I was really anxious about. It wasn’t going to blow up and it wasn’t life threatening. What was it? I gave myself the commitment to think about this later.
I collected the tools and discovered that I was missing a piece. I call it a ratchet. I think it goes by another name. (Some people call it a kaiser blade, I call it a sling blade mm hmm). I went to the local hardware store with the piece the tool needed to fit. What if the piece wasn’t there? What if I found the handle but it was too expensive? What if they didn’t sell single handles and I have to buy a whole new set? What if…?
I got to the store, again by consciously setting aside my ruminations and meanderings. The radio music helped. But when I got to the store, the choices and sections threatened to overwhelm me again. Access mental store map. The tools–just the regular hardware–was near the stores other exit. Don’t ask for help. You have the socket. But what if the tools are closed up so I can’t check the fit? What if they think I stole the socket? It’s a socket! No one is going to think you stole a socket. But still. They might. I push back the ensuing questions and walked. I just walked. With determination.
There was a wall full of different hand tools. Manual, analog. I worked it out. I made my way looking for wrenches and soon found the ratchet handles. Cool. They did sell them as separate, singular ratchet handles. But they were of differing sizes. I found that I could try the fits into the socket I brought with me, but now I had to decide how big and heavy I wanted the handle to be. What would be useful, effective? How much leverage would I need? Go big or not at all. Memories of dominoes games came back to me from back when I worked in residential centers, cottages, in …STOP. I chose a ratchet handle that was big enough but not too big, and it wasn’t too expensive. Don’t think about the price. Don’t price shop. Get out. I made it to the cash register with only one or two indecisive returns to the tool wall. Caveat emptor. What? Was that buyer beware? Should I look it up on my phone? I chose the tool I had in hand. It’s time to get out. Soon I had the tool and I returned to the task at home.
Things go in order. I had to find a way to remember the order, but I knew somehow that if I went back into the house for a piece of paper and a pencil or a pen if I couldn’t find a pencil then I might take an hour or two before coming back to the task. Just focus. Focus so that I would remember with the intention of remembering. This was the advice in a TED Talk about becoming a memory master…
Focus. Do it.
In my reflection on this task and its difficulty, I suddenly realize why I don’t see myself as handy. I know why i have so much trouble remembering that I am handy and I know why I am so resistant to fixing things. It’s because it’s hard to focus on the task at hand. Things remind me of other things. Memories of quotes and text passages, movie scenes, pieces of conversation keep washing into my consciousness inexorably like waves and the tide. They are relentless. I have a sandcastle that I am building–the repair job–but the waves keep carving away my will to work and undermines my sense of priority,of urgency of my goals and the benchmarks I want to accomplish. I’m like the Time Traveller guy from the movie The Time Traveller’s Wife. His daughter says the key to controlling the suddenness of time travel is music. This is descriptive, because I time travel in my head along memory streams and streams of consciousness.
I have found that music is a powerful distractor, but it can be useful. Music with words are too too distracting. Words pull me back into the memory stream, the river of thoughts, and words keep me from focusing on the task at hand. On the other hand, instrumental music, music without words can help me focus when I need to get through mindless tasks.
The big step again depended on memory. This time, I needed to remember how I can use music to not only change my mood but to focus my intentions. I needed to remember that music is a useful distraction so that I can enter “execution mode.”
I chose a playlist of music and my focus returned. The music pushed away the compulsion to write and remember. I saw the parts of the wheel’s arm assembly. If I were wearing an augmented reality heads up display, parts numbers and instructions would have popped up and scrolled in my view Terminator-style. But they were action steps. I remembered “righty tighty, lefty loosey”, and went to work loosening the bolts. Since it is a wheel and it turns, I had to prop up the lawn mower and brace the other end of the axle with a wrench.
There was a moment that I wasn’t sure about the order of the washer, nut, arm assembly, or where the wheel actually sat among these parts. I kept comparing the complete, untouched side of the lawn mower, looking closely. But eventually, I simply slid everything in place, tightened the two nuts. It worked and rolled. I was done.
In addition to this perfect day, the ratchet handle perfectly fitted in the ratchet set’s case. The original ratchet handle is lost. I had probably lent it to someone, but for my purposes, the handle had returned. Another win.
This experience raises a number of questions for me. One was about the nature of identity. Although research suggests that identity is more dependent on values than on memory, is it possible that, more dependent is not the same as saying that a person is their values rather than they are what they remember. It certainly felt like I became more when I remembered that I could DO more.
Another question is about tacit knowledge. “There is a whole other realm of knowledge that you can only learn through action and practice known as tacit knowledge.” Why did the action I took to repair the lawn mower trigger so many memories as I went about solving problems? I got better at fixing as I did the activity.
This experience also reminds me of students and the learning experience. A lot of the students who struggle the most seem to suffer from doubts and insecurities. Based on the belief that students do well if they can, I see other possibilities in memory and the ability to recall.
If kids have trouble with recall and retention of memory, then they may experience similar experiences to mine. When I didn’t remember my successes at repair and assembly, I described myself as not handy. But, when I remembered my successes at repairing and assembling, I felt more capable and could describe myself as “handy.” This self-definition opened up or limited my willingness to try new things along the lines of repairing and assembling.
This is also true of educators.