Old Head

You only get one clean slate. That’s when you are a kid. After that, you can scrub at it, but it’ll always be a sort of palimpsest, with bits of the old layers faintly showing from below. So you can never totally scrub it completely clean. I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s part of learning and incorporating the old with the new.

Being in a craft or art is the same way. First, you start fresh but soon find that answers often are found by working through mistakes. Some people take the process of working through failure as a sort of crusade. “Onward, despite the cost!” I’ve found it’s wiser to put a loss aside for a while and move to another project. Leave the puzzle where you can see it, and let your mind nibble about the edges of the problem. Eventually, you’ll solve it or leap ahead into finding a different way of doing things. 

Thrusting blindly at a problem wastes energy and leads to frustration. As in war, so is it in a craft; the value of frontal assaults is greatly exaggerated.

The process of attaining mastery is one of learning, making errors, correcting errors, learning effective habits, and freeing your mind to be creative. A pivotal concept is that learning is not a one-way process. You backtrack, learn new things that overwrite old ways of doing things, make modifications, and synthesize the new out of old all the time. You have a palimpsest.

If the term master is disagreeable, try this one – Old Head. An Old Head is a person who has been around, learned the ins and outs, works efficiently and makes it all look easy. Warning: Old Heads are not necessarily good verbal teachers. I had a Judo Sensei who could not tell you how to do a particular throw, but he’d show you a thousand times or until you mastered it.

Old Heads are not always formally taught. Old Heads work on railroads, in boatyards, art studios, and factories. If you need to learn something, look for an Old Head. Their clean slate days are long past, the smudges and stains are there to be seen, but they are a wonder to watch at work.

Judo to the Rescue

When I was 15, my father enrolled me in Judo classes at a downtown New York City dojo. The instructors, my senseis, were young Japanese Judoka ( Judo enthusiasts). Their English skills were minimal, and much of the instruction required interpreters and much show and – “do it this way” demonstration.
In today’s terms, I had an attention deficit disorder. Teachers despaired of me. But the dojo seemed a good match for a kid who otherwise appeared to be only interested in his guitar. And to some extent, this is a story about the guitar.
At the dojo, I had two instructors: Sensei Ishido belonged to the school of throwing them around until they get the idea and learn to counter the technique. This method worked best with the former military in the classes; they had a Karate and Jujitsu background and already understood what was going on. Not so much with me, who gang members used to clean up alleyways. A conference among senseis placed me in Sensei Watanabe’s class instead.
Watanabe Sensei did understand that I had a problem at dojo focusing on technique. His method for focusing me on my learning problem was to painstakingly breakdown each throw and have me practice and practice until my muscle memory began to develop. Eventually, I flawlessly executed each technique. Twice a week, week after week, I traveled to the dojo to pound my body against the mat as I got thrown, and in turn, threw my fellow students.
Eventually, I improved and began to move up the ranking system of belts. Sensei decided that I needed a challenge and at randori ( sparring) matched me with a much taller, very advanced student who initially used me to clean the dojo mats. It didn’t help that the senseis found this amusing.
The amusement irked me more than a bit. But in a flash of inspiration, I used a surprise technique I had watched a visiting teacher from Japan use. Moving in as though I was preparing for a hip throw, I instead pulled the gi ( a heavy canvas practice jacket) off my opponent’s shoulder. In the tiny amount of time that this distracted him, I jerked his body off-center, stepped in, and tossed him to the mat with the most straightforward footsweep technique that all students learn in week one. To add insult to injury, he landed badly. I had won the randori, and the senior student went off to practice ukemi ( correct falling technique).
Over time, I found that while Watanabe Sensei’s teaching technique did not solve all of life’s problems, it applied very well to learning guitar and later carving.
We all learn in different ways, but I think the test of an excellent learning technique is how the student adapts it for use in other areas.

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