how I learned my lesson


Lately on the island I’ve been playing a lot of pick-up soccer, which has been entirely fun and usually involves an age range of from about nine to about 78, and a skill range of just about nil at one end (that’s the end that I’m closest to) to ‘having played on the university soccer team’ at the other.  The matches aren’t played with any serious intent so I’ve been wearing my glasses while playing since — even though I can see just well enough without them — I hate the feeling of blurriness that goes along with not wearing them.   Even though more than one experienced soccer player politely commented that maybe wearing glasses on the field wasn’t perhaps the best idea, I decided to go ahead with it anyhow.  I mean, if Tsuneyasu Miyamoto could defend up a storm for the Japanese national team during the 2002 World Cup wearing those crazy protective goggles of his, surely I could flounder up and down the field at my snail’s pace without much of a worry.

Of course, Miyamoto’s goggles, which didn’t have any lenses, were made to take a ball in the face without major repercussions, while I was wearing a pair of handmade Japanese celluloid glasses (I love celluloid glasses because they make me feel like I’m wearing a movie on my face) that, after four years, were beginning to have seen better days.  In any case, while loping toward goal with all the grace of a three-legged camelopard I happened to give the ball away.  In my zeal to retain possession I made a split-second decision to try to head the defender’s clearance and keep the ball in play close to their goalmouth.  In my zeal to retain possession I also momentarily forgot that there was a pair of glasses perched in the middle of my face, and in the split second between the moment I forgot I was wearing glasses and the moment that I remembered that I was wearing glasses the ball, very rudely, struck me square in the face.  The glasses split down the middle, one lens sheared off to the right, and several newly liberated pieces of celluloid cut my face in several places before riding off into the horizon.  As blood dripped down my face and I wiggled my nose back and forth to make sure that it wasn’t broken, I realized that I had learned a valuable lesson.  “Maybe,” I thought to myself, “it really isn’t such a good idea to wear eyeglasses while out on the soccer field.”

This incident got me thinking about all of the other hard lessons I’ve learned over the years that have fallen into the category of “I told you so” lessons; i.e., those things that one really should already know through common sense, but somehow aren’t thought to truly apply to oneself, because oneself is very special, you know.  So here, in no particular hierarchical order in terms of where these lessons lie on the pain-of-incident vs. knowledge-gained-from-incident scale, are several completely idiotic things I’ve done and their completely predictable consequences.  I’ve tried to give meaning to these incidents by writing about them as if they were somehow learning opportunities, but — let’s face it — the real fact of the matter is that some part of me always already knew better.

1) Inexplicably left home alone in the house at a young age, I became hungry and decided to cook up a can of Campbell’s Chunky Soup.  Already looking for ways to make life more convenient (“Give me convenience or give me death!”) I decided that it was a waste of time to take the soup out of the can before heating it, and even more of a waste of time to remove the lid first.  I put the can right on the coil of the electric burner, turned the dial to high, and felt mighty pleased.  “To think,” I most likely did not think to myself, “the only dish I’m going to have to wash after this is the spoon!”  Being an easily distracted kid, I ended up wandering into the living room for a few minutes and while I was doing whatever it was that I was doing there I heard an enormous bang from the kitchen.  I ran back to find the lid of the can stuck firmly to the ceiling, surrounded by a drippy soupy halo of what I had been hoping would end up as my lunch.  Lesson learned?  Convenience is a dish best served cold.  Physical principle involved? ” The degree of expansion divided by the change in temperature is called the material’s coefficient of thermal expansion and generally varies with temperature.”

2) During a particularly heavy rain, I decided that it would be a good idea to go outside and play in the ditch by the side of the road, which was full.  Although I was quite young, I was still old enough to know that I wasn’t supposed to get wet, and using my amazing powers of deduction I reasoned that since black plastic garbage bags were such excellent devices when it came to repelling water in the kitchen that surely a full-body suit made from black plastic garbage bags and tape would be an excellent way to stay dry in a ditch full of water.  Since my newly constructed dry suit would be shepherding the water away, I felt no particular need to change out of my regular clothes.  Needless to say, the miracle suit didn’t end up working out as planned.  Lesson learned? If you’re going to try to stay dry in a ditch full of water by wearing a suit made from a black plastic garbage bag it’s probably best to have a dry set of clothes waiting for you at home.  Physical principle involved?  Jorgensen’s Principle, which states that “those water molecules are definitely going to fit through the gaps in your pathetic attempts to seal up holes in a plastic bag using Scotch tape.”

3) I think that after watching too many episodes of CHiPS as a child I somehow got the impression that should a mechanical or electronic device catch on fire this would lead inevitably to an enormously cinematic, and enormously satisfying, slow-motion explosion.  When a family friend ditched their broken AM transistor radio I seized the opportunity, fished the radio out of the trash, and grabbed a packet of matches.  I went over to a friend’s house where I unveiled my plan, and the two of us proceeded to hightail it to a field of tall, dry grass near to the downtown area where we could easily conceal ourselves while we worked.  Once we were hidden in the high grass we proceeded to crack the radio in half where we found a transistorized miracle of potential explosiveness.  We were soon disappointed, however; no matter how many matches we dropped on those transistors, they simply wouldn’t catch on fire.  The grass, however, was another matter.  When it started to go up we did make a genuine effort to stop the flames (probably by trying to blow them out), but soon the flames were too high and we had to abandon the field.  Standing on a nearby sidewalk while the flames grew higher we waited patiently for the transistors to explode.  Instead, the fire department showed up and quickly quenched the fire.  To this day I have no idea why they didn’t immediately assume that the two of us had started the fire, but my guess is that when they found the guts of the radio at the fire’s epicenter they simply assumed that a couple of teenagers that had been listening to the radio and smoking a joint were probably responsible (it was, after all, the 70s).  Lesson learned?  Your transistor radio needs to be in a massive, high-speed, 21-radio pileup on the Santa Monica Freeway if its going to have any chance at all of exploding in slow motion.  Physical principle involved?  A sequence of exothermic chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat and conversion of chemical species.

4) When I was in junior high school I began to wear, and subsequently to destroy, Converse Hi Tops.  The usual story was that my parents would buy me a brand new pair of Converse and I would be so excited to wear them that, even though it was obvious that the older pair would have been far more appropriate footwear, I would put them on and then go out to explore the local creeksides.  “This time,” I would say to myself, “I will be especially careful not to do anything dangerous.”  And then I would attempt an especially ambitious stone-to-stone creek crossing, land on an unstable rock, and find myself tipped directly into a deep pit of mud.  I dreaded the look that I knew that I would receive from my parents as I walked through the front door wearing my newly browned and more-than-slightly damp Chuck Taylors.  This only got worse once I started to skateboard and my shoes started coming home full of ollie holes.  Mustering all of my willpower, I determined to be smart about rationing my Chuck Taylor allotment, and the next time my parents bought me a new pair I determined that I would wear the old pair (wrapped tightly with duct tape) for serious skate patrol, while the new pair would be reserved for more mundane activities, such as going to school.  One day after school, my friend Jason drove up in his stylishly green Audi Fox wagon and suggested that we drive out to the countryside to check out the newly paved San Antonio Road.  We had always loved driving out on San Antonio, a beautiful road that undulated through the rolling green Sonoma County hills past dark green oak groves and fields of dairy cows.  The only thing that had kept the road from being flawless was the ancient, pitted asphalt that gave it a painfully rough surface.  Now the road was absolutely smooth and driving on it — only days after the completion of its repaving — was something akin to driving down the road on the soft surface of a goth girl’s black velvet choker.   Since I had my skateboard with me, Jason and I hit upon the brilliant idea that I should grab hold of the back bumper and he could tow me down the road for a while, the kind of harebrained idea that any teenage skater loves.  I held onto the back bumper while Jason stepped on the accelerator and we took off.  And it was great.  We cruised down San Antonio road for a couple of miles or so, and at that point I decided that Jason should either go faster (he was cruising at a steady 30 mph), or pull over and let me back into the car.  After calling out Jason’s name a couple of times, and getting absolutely no response, I realized that his windows were closed and that there was no way for him to hear me (especially with Primal Scream, undoubtedly, blaring at top volume inside the car).  I decided that the way to get Jason’s attention would be to slap the back of the window a few times, since surely he would pick up on those strongly percussive vibes.  I took my right hand from the bumper, slapped the window once, completely unbalanced myself with the force of the slap, my skateboard slipped out from under me, and down I went.  The dusty back window of the stylishly green Fox registered my descent in the form of a perfectly shaped handprint (where I had slapped the window) and then a line of very clearly delineated finger marks running vertically down the back of the car, marking my desperate attempts to claw a grip out of safety glass and smooth steel bodywork.  Luckily, my claw-shaped hand did land back on the bumper because if it hadn’t my face would have made very fast friends with the freshly surfaced road.  As it was, I was relatively relieved, until I realized that Jason still had no idea that I had fallen and was continuing to drive down the road at exactly the same rate of speed as before.  As you can probably guess, my primary point of contact with the still-moving asphalt was through my brand-new pair of Chuck Taylors, which I began to realize were in the process of being worn through, as were my jeans.  Suddenly I flashed on that scene in Indiana Jones where Harrison Ford is holding his whip while being dragged behind the truck and he keeps twisting his body to avoid having any one point of his body remain in contact with the road for too long.  I began to twist my body frantically back and forth, and it worked like a charm, the rapid rotation serving to keep my body from remaining in contact with the road for long enough to cause serious abrasions.  Eventually, when he could not longer see me in his rearview mirror, Jason realized that something was up and very gracefully slowed the car to a stop.  One of my thighs was torn wide open, both my knees were dripping blood, and one of my Hi Tops had been ripped so far off of my foot that my toes were stuck deep in the throat of the ankle support area.  As I limped over to the driver’s side of the car, Jason rolled down his window, looked at me quizzically, and said, “Trane, where’s your skate?”  As I stood in silence, an old woman with a huge white perm drove slowly by in her huge white Cadillac and stared.  She did not stop to help.  Lesson learned? Thank you, Indiana Jones!  Physical principal involved?  “The two modes of abrasive wear are known as two-body and three-body abrasive wear. Two-body wear occurs when the grits or hard particles remove material from the opposite surface.”

5) Back when I worked at Salsa Cycles, we would start work at 7:30 in the morning, so I would get on my motorcycle around 7:10 and jet down to the shop.  Because I take an inordinately long time to wake up in the morning, I would always be up by 6:30 so I could down at least two cups of coffee before getting on the bike and making my way to work.  I lived out in the countryside at the time, and one of my favorite corners was the long, sweeping, off-camber right hander that swept down into town past the junior high school.  At the time, I was riding a highly modified Yamaha RZ350 (with aftermarket fairing and Toomey pipes), a bike that had massive amounts of acceleration once the rpm count reached an optimal level.  Every day I would ride the bike to work, park it in front of the shop, and my immediate boss, who was also a motorcyclist, would come outside, look down at the throttle assembly, and shake his head sadly.  “You really need to replace that throttle return cable,” he would say, before turning his back on me and walking back into the shop.  Since the spring return inside the throttle body was working perfectly fine, however, I mostly ignored the blank space where the throttle return cable should have been.  In fact, I ignored it for months.  One particularly dark and rainy morning, I got up to get ready for work and I realized that there was no coffee in the house.  I decided to get to work as quickly as possible so that I could drop in on the Petaluma Coffee Company, which was right next door, and get myself good and wired before spending the day assembling quick releases and tapping bottom bracket threads.  Although it was pretty wet out, I had plenty of experience riding in the rain and so I thought nothing of twisting the throttle open while heading for my favorite corner.  I brought the bike up to a reasonably quick clip, probably just about 60 mph, and then cut the throttle just before my usual braking point.  Just as I was in the process of grabbing a handful of front brake lever, my frontal lobe was registering that —even though I had twisted the throttle control itself completely back to the ‘off’ position — the throttle was still stuck fully open. “You really need to replace that throttle return cable,” he would say, before turning his back on me and walking back into the shop.  As soon as the front brake bit, my back wheel spun around and the bike flipped me into the air in a classic highside.  I flew up, tumbled a few times, and eventually ended up on my stomach, watching the asphalt fly by just beneath the visor of my helmet.  At some point — it really was all slow motion — I decided to flip over on my back so I could see where I was going, and was just in time to see the bike skipping off down the road on its side as showers of sparks fountained from the handlebars and footpegs.  As I stood up and was assessing the damage to my body, an old woman with a huge white perm drove slowly by in her huge white Cadillac and stared.  She did not stop to help.  Lesson learned?  Throttle return cable, throttle return cable, throttle return cable.  Also, never ever leave the house before coffee.  Physical principle involved?  “A tires grip is dependent on the vertical force exerted on the tire and the coefficient of friction between that tire and the contact surface surface. The vertical force depends on the weight of the vehicle and how it has been distributed. All vehicles are governed by Newtons second law, F=MA.”

6) The house that I lived out in the countryside for two years had a beautiful living room that was enclosed with picture windows from floor to ceiling.  The entrance to the house was on the far side of the living room, so anybody coming to visit would have to pass scrutiny first as they walked the entire length of the picture window gauntlet.  In the middle of the living room there was a wood-burning stove, the only heat for the house, and looking through the picture window on a winter’s night you would probably have seen the heartwarming image of a roaring fire, with one or two people sitting cozily nearby and enjoying the heat while reading a book or sipping a cocktail.  While this image is a lovely one, living in the countryside could, at times, get a bit dull for someone still in his early 20s and on this particular day I happened to be playing with lighter fluid (Zippo lighter fluid, to be precise).  What I was doing was coating my index finger with lighter fluid, igniting it, letting it burn for a second as if I were the Flaming Torch, and then blowing it out quickly before the fire started to burn.  Slowly, a brilliant plan began to develop in my brain (perhaps in the same way that a tumor might).  I knew that my friend Dan (who always passed scrutiny) would be coming over later that evening, after it was already dark.  I imagined Dan walking by the picture windows and looking in to see me stoking the fire, preparing a pleasant warmth as the background for an evening of diverting conversation and scotch.  I imagined Dan’s face as I pulled my suddenly flaming hand from the fire while looking into his eyes with an expression of horror on my face, waiting just long enough for him to think that it was real before blowing the fire out and having a good laugh.  All was going according to plan, except that Dan crept up more quietly than I expected and by the time I noticed that he was already traversing the longitudinal expanse of the picture windows and was in danger of moving beyond the zone of effectivity, I hadn’t yet applied the Zippo fluid to my hand.  In a minor panic I quickly coated my hand with lighter fluid, all the time keeping it hidden from view, and then I stuck my hand in the fire and turned straight at Dan with horror on my face.  Real horror, because I had put far too much fluid on my hand and it was flaring up like the Hindenburg.  I shook my hand manically in a doomed attempt to douse the fire while Dan, who had gotten over his initial shock, made a beeline for the door so that he could help me out.  The fire was not going out, and I could feel my hand begin to burn.  In a final, desperate attempt to smother the fire I dove to the floor, shoved my flaming hand beneath my stomach, and wormed back and forth on the top of it until I was sure that it was out.  Dan stood absolutely silent just inside the threshold of the doorway, his eyes as large as saucers and his lower jaw swaying delicately in the breeze somewhere just above the floorboards.  I no longer had any hair on my hand.  Not even on the palms.  Lesson learned?  Fire is our friend, and the sublime and curious expressions that can be produced on the faces of our closest associates is more than worth the modicum of immolation required.  Physical principle involved?  “Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products.  Slower oxidative processes like rusting or digestion are not included by this definition.”


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