Learning Curves


Wissahickon Valley

When you are in the moment, life can take you to some unexpected places. Recently I was walking with my beloved along a stream in Philadelphia. It was a cloudy afternoon, but the air was fresh. Sycamores, oaks and black walnuts towered over us forming a vaulted green canopy, enclosing us in nature. The gravel road following the stream was wide and well trafficked. People walking, cycling, running singly, or in groups.

We paused on a bench, backs to the hillside above us, facing across the road and the stream below. Resting, meditating and taking in the water and trees on the hillside across from us. A cyclist I had noticed earlier downstream, stopped across from us. An older man, lanky and lean, dressed in layers of athletic clothes without any particular pattern. Using the rails of the fence along the far side of the road he started to do limbering stretches.

Unexpectedly, he turned and addressed me, in a thick local accent, suggesting that I must be strong and work out. It’s been a while since I have exercised regularly. Surprised and somewhat amused, I made a non-committal reply. He continued to ask oblique questions and while I sensed he was driving at something it was not immediately clear what that was. His manner was enthusiastic, not threatening but still slightly odd. His accent and ragged teeth contrasted oddly with his evident interest in keeping fit.

He beckoned to me to join him at the rail fence and I thought that he might want to show me a stretch or other exercise. The conversation moved on to drinking in bars and armwrestling, and it became evident that he wanted a competitive partner. Sometimes life just is what it is. I was pretty sure that he was stronger than I, but I stepped up and placed my elbow on the fence. It turned out that I could use my t’ai chi training to drop the force he was applying down into the fence rail. I had no will to beat him and didn’t really try, playing at simply not letting him beat me.

We later tried it without the rail, just in the air. It was harder for me to counter his strength. He pushed my arm over and seemed satisfied. He said he sometimes competes in bars for drinks and was concerned that he not wrestle anyone too much more powerful then himself. So he was apparently using our engagement to help him calibrate other men’s abilities. He said he would improve best by engaging those roughly at his level.

In college I came to a similar conclusion about studying academic subjects. If the learning curve is too shallow I learn slowly and get bored, if it is too steep I become overwhelmed and frustrated. This man was, improbably, reminding me of this lesson. He was showing me that it is good to know how strong we are at something. So that we can estimate before hand when the curve is going to be well matched. What experiences are likely to help us learn, as opposed to overwhelming us.

Being open to this curious and amusing interaction provided me a good lesson. It also pointed out that I never know who will be my next teacher.

(© 10/2017)

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