The Nation's Pulse

The Thing I Don’t Understand

On getting it wrong.

By 6.6.08

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A long time ago, I leased the first and only new car I have ever had, a Mazda RX-7. I was involved with a certain woman. The first time she and I got into the car in the morning, I explained to her that the Wankel engine needed a three-minute warmup, and that I had to keep the windows closed during that warmup, else the passenger compartment would fill up with the nasty fumes of the rotary engine.

We climbed into the car, which was very hot, in a Los Angeles summertime. The woman instantly began to shriek, "I can't stand it! I can't stand it!" And she opened her window, and in came the exhaust fumes.

I found this behavior beyond belief. On the other hand, I should have taken her conduct as a warning not to get involved with her any further.

That's one example. Here's another.

My son Bud studied Suzuki method violin when he was four and five years old. In the beginning, Suzuki students play "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star" in a number of rhythmic variations. (Do not attend a primary Suzuki recital; it is one of the agonizing ordeals of parenthood.)

To play a musical instrument successfully, you need to hold it the right way. From the beginning, Bud refused to hold the neck of the violin properly, resting on the ball of his left thumb. Instead, he laid the neck against the web of his thumb and forefinger. That limited his reach.

The early rhythmic variations of "Twinkle" -- the mnemonic for one of them is "Mississippi Hot Dog" -- educate the students in the rudiments of bowing. Down-up-down-up, down, up, goes the bow on the highest string. Developing the tune, you repeat the phrase on the next lower string, also down-up-down-up down, up.

Bud wouldn't do that, either. When he moved to the next lower string, he let his bow move in reverse, up-down-up-down, up, down. So, from the very beginning, he never got his rhythms and his bowing technique organized.

His progress came to a dead halt at the age of five.

THE MUSICAL EXAMPLE provides a wealth of riches. In Don Asher's memoir, Notes From a Battered Grand, he recounts how both he and his brother started piano at the same time. They were equals in talent, Asher says, but his brother quit piano after a few years, while Asher became a professional musician.

Asher wonders why, and can only conclude, "I guess I was just more of a grind."

John Derbyshire, of National Review, in a recent column, contrasted his daughter and his son, who began musical lessons, daughter on violin, son on piano, according to the Suzuki method. Now, he wrote, his daughter "plays the violin as easily as riding a bicycle," while his son has been allowed to "take a vacation" from piano for the summer.

Which, of course, means he will never play again.

HERE IS WHAT I do not understand. When it is so clear what makes for success in life -- doing the work, and doing it right -- why do so many people refuse to do the work or do it right? When it is so clear that letting emotions rule your conduct makes for unhappiness and destruction, why do most people let their emotions rule their lives?

I thought that was what it meant to be a grown-up: That you took charge of your emotions and you took charge of yourself.

A glance around the contemporary political and social landscape shows clearly that most people have not gotten that message. In fact, as a people, we honor just the opposite. Advertising? Politics? Oprah?

I just popped my biceps tendon. Obviously, logic will not handle everything. Diligence will not solve every problem.

But if you don't start there -- reading the directions, as it were -- you won't go anywhere.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.