Magnetos & Compass Points

At my brother's garage I see a circular piece of what I assume to be cast iron or steel with bent pieces of metal radiating out from a central core. Next to it is a magnetic compass he bought at a camping store. The woman at the register said, "you know, there's an app on your phone that's easier and probably more accurate than this thing." My brother said it wasn't for finding his way. It's to help him work on one of his Model-T Fords. The bent pieces radiating from the core are magnets each with opposite polarity from the ones next to it. To know what's what, he uses the compass. I picked up the compass and watched the needle swing north to south as I moved from one magnet to the next. I smiled and kept moving back and forth around that circle, the act of it delighting and pulling me.

We were at my brother's garage because my 2010 Prius had gone 6,500 miles since I had bought it and I've no idea when it last had the oil changed. Synthetic oil lasts 10,000 miles but I hate leaving things up to chance and don't at all trust that the dealer (ugh, the dealer) changed the oil when I bought it. At 6,500 miles, it was close to time and now I get to do things right.

I could have taken it to an oil change place or, God forbid, the dealer, but I dislike paying upwards of ninety dollars for an oil change when my brother has a full-service garage complete with a lift. We bought five quarts of synthetic and a filter on sale for thirty-three dollars and drove to his garage, talking about this and that as we tend to do.

Driving the car onto the lift, figuring out where the filter might be and how to remove it, lifting the car and draining the oil, all these things were tactile, physical, literally within reach and we did them together. The oil warmed and stained my hands. The filter cover had to be persuaded with a hammer and punch worked carefully so as to loosen but not damage the thing. We stood beneath the car, a lead-lamp on a cord lighting the way for our failing eyes, fetching tools for one another, figuring things out. We kept talking too.

My father came up in the conversation often, as he does in the garage he loved and where his cars still reside. Banging with a hammer sounded like him. The oil smelled like him. The place is inhabited by his friendly, invisible, silent ghost. And there were my brother and me, imitations of the old man, newer models working with his tools and in his ways.

After we lowered the lift, refilled the oil, ran the engine, and checked the levels, my brother wanted to move cars around to line up his Model-T Fords and have access to the cars he was likely to drive over the next few weeks. We moved cars out of the garage, rolled the un-engined frame of a Model-T by pushing it around, and parked things where he wanted them to go. The whole thing was an exercise in joy, the simple kind that most people call contentment but which was, for me, too filled with wonder to leave with such a bland name. Afterward we stood talking and admiring the garage, the cars, the work of a garage.

As we made to leave, I took another look at the magnets and the compass. I touched a magnet as if to discern the direction of its pull. No such luck, but it exerted a whole other kind of pull on me, into the past, sure, but also forward, leading me where I'm meant to go. At least that's exactly how it felt.

Learning Is Messy

It turns out that learning is messy. Go figure.

Sunday, having had in my possession since Christmas a doorbell/camera, I decided to install it. I'd put off doing so for, well, seven months because I'm afraid of electricity and figured I would need my brother's help to install it. I kept meaning to set up a time we could work on it together, but that time never seemed to come. Doing it alone meant attempting something I feared and would have to learn. No wonder I put it off.

What possessed me Sunday, I'm not sure. I had finished mowing the lawn (not exactly brain surgery) and wondered what to do next. I stood outside the garage next to where I planned to mount the doorbell/camera. I was appropriately bored, dulled by the July heat, and figured I'd give it a shot. I had little idea how to install it, but what the hell.

I ran wires from a low-power switch that opens and closes the garage door. Two problems: it provided too little power for the camera and pushing the doorbell button opened or closed the garage door. Which really isn't ideal.

Okay, start again. This time I wired into another low-power line, thinking it was just power. It was a reasonable assumption, but wrong. The line runs to a second garage door switch upstairs. Once again, pushing the doorbell opened and closed the garage door. Oh, and it still lacked sufficient power for the camera. Damn it, damn it, and damn it.

You know what's tough about these learning experiences? By now I was far enough into it that I couldn't just stop. Part of that was pride. And then there were holes I had drilled and the bracket I had mounted. Those things would have mocked me. Still not quite sure what to do or if I could make the thing work, I drove to the hardware store, thinking about how learning sucks.

At the hardware store I bought a 24-volt transformer to hook into the house current at a junction box in the garage. It was a good plan with one problem: I really am scared of house current. At my funeral I'm sure someone will be shaking their head and reporting that I neglected to shut off the power at the box. Still, I had to go forward and see if I could get it done. I drove home thinking, learning really sucks.

Moments after I returned home, my brother arrived, God bless him. He understands electricity and so doesn't fear it. I wanted him to take the tools and do the work, but he knows better. He left the tools in my hands and talked me through. I (we) wired the transformer into the box and we (he) made sure it was connected safely. I (really me this time) wired the doorbell/camera to the transformer and went into the basement to flip the breaker.

"Well?" I yelled out to him.

"It's got the blue light it's supposed to," he said.

The rest was simplicity itself. I installed and configured the app. No fear there. We rang the thing and it lit up my phone. Hooray. All set. Except the chime at the top of the stairs remained silent. Learning totally sucks.

I thought I had wired it correctly, but obviously not. We tested the front doorbell, sending the dog into apoplexy. We tested the back doorbell. Same results for bell and dog. We tested the doorbell/camera at the garage. No sound. Damn it. But hey, no big deal. It rings our phones and the Google Home units we have. Good enough. My brother went on his way.

At bedtime, the back doorbell sounded. The dog went nuts. I was perplexed. No one had pushed the button. I looked things over but couldn't imagine what was going on so I went to sleep.

The next morning, just before six, I woke to a menacing buzz from the door chime. Crossed wires? Fire hazard? I felt a rising electrical worry. I went to the basement and tripped the breaker for the chime and two other breakers. Whoops. I flipped the wrong one back on, set off the doorbell and the dog, woke the family, and startled myself into a brief panic. I tripped the breaker again and went to see what I could do to reset the dog. She was having a fit. Whether it was about learning I don't know.

I was wondering why learning couldn't be just a little less messy. Maybe it can be for other people. Sometimes maybe it's neater even for me. But often enough it's a mess.

There's a lesson in this. Something about kids and teachers in schools. I've been out of teaching school for a few weeks and don't know if I'll ever go back, but I still think along school lines and probably will for a long time. I always used my own learning as the model for my teaching. Messy learning seems as good a model as anything neater.

After I got the dog and my own racing heart calmed down, having shut down the electricity to the chime, I stood wondering what it was all about.

Maybe it's about how ridiculous it is to think that kids learn whatever they're taught and that if they don't learn it right away it's the teacher's fault. I had directions for installing the doorbell and they were clear. It's just that things didn't go as they were drawn up because I didn't know enough. I had to make mistakes and learn from them.

Kids aren't allowed to do that very much at school any more. Neither are teachers, at least not where I used to teach. Mistakes still happen at that school, but making them guarantees that tenure will be denied and the teacher will have to move on. Step on a crack, break your mama's back. If installing the doorbell had been a school project I would have been fired three times over.

Sometimes learning is a messy process done all alone. And when good teachers come along sometimes they simply stand by, doing what appears to be nothing while I fumble around feeling foolish and making mistakes. The outsider, or the passing administrator, wonders what good the teacher is doing standing back, maybe nodding once or twice, but mostly just being there.

All learning has the potential to be messy and deliver shocks. That can hold a learner back, sometimes for seven months.

Who knows what gets us over that. Maybe the good teacher or necessity or boredom on a hot summer day. Maybe it's embarrassment or desperation. Whatever it takes. Then, when we break through the fear, we bungle things until the bungling teaches us what's what. We find an imperfect but working solution that signifies, more than anything else, how much there is left to learn.

I have plenty more thinking about learning and teaching, planning and doing, fearing and trying. If you want to talk any of that over, stop by the house and ring the bell. Let's see what happens. Could be almost anything.