“Plenty of practice!”

knightMy first kayaking adventure here in Szolnok brought back memories of the White Knight in Through the Looking-Glass. On Tuesday I biked down to the kayak club, opened up the shed, brought out a kayak and paddle (one of the staff had already pointed out which ones I should use), set the kayak in the water, stepped in, and promptly tumbled upside down, boat and all. Not only that, but like the Knight, I was laden with contraptions: regular clothes, sneakers, and a canvas pouch. Some young men rushed over and hauled me out of the water; they seemed amused that I would have even used regular clothes. In the U.S. all my kayaking experiences (“I’ve had plenty of practice!”) were with beginners’ kayaks, those hefty boats that don’t tip easily. It was normal to wear regular clothes into them; you might get a splash or two, but that was it.

I told them that I was ok, explained my situation to a larger group looking on, and set about to try again. Once more: upside-down. So the person who had originally helped me with membership came over and gave me a few tips. He also showed me a locker room where I could leave my things when going out on the water.

The truth is that I don’t know how to kayak (except in those larger boats) and probably won’t get good at it, given my other commitments. But it will be possible to go once a week or so, work on balancing, and reach the point where I can enjoy paddling around.  That’s worth it for me. But this is beside the point; besides the double-dunk in the water, and the silliness of my mistakes, I enjoyed remembering the Knight (my favorite character in Through the Looking-Glass):

Whenever the horse stopped (which it did very often), he fell off in front; and whenever it went on again (which it generally did rather suddenly), he fell off behind. Otherwise he kept on pretty well, except that he had a habit of now and then falling off sideways; and as he generally did this on the side on which Alice was walking, she soon found that it was the best plan not to walk quite close to the horse.

`I’m afraid you’ve not had much practice in riding,’ she ventured to say, as she was helping him up from his fifth tumble.

The Knight looked very much surprised, and a little offended at the remark. `What makes you say that?’ he asked, as he scrambled back into the saddle, keeping hold of Alice’s hair with one hand, to save himself from falling over on the other side.

`Because people don’t fall off quite so often, when they’ve had much practice.’

`I’ve had plenty of practice,’ the Knight said very gravely: `plenty of practice!’

 

Image credit: Sir John Tenniel, Falling off his horse. Wood-engraving by Dalziel. lllustration for the eighth chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1865).

 

On Beginnerhood

kayaking

Yesterday I went kayaking again and managed to take a photo from the unusually tippy boat. The first time I went, I was charging ahead with confidence; this time, I wobbled and veered. I can blame the boat, but the truth is that I don’t have technique yet. The first boat was more forgiving. (Two very kind volunteers gave me  a little lesson; by the end, I was making good progress.)

Having been a beginner at many things, from languages to electronics, I can speak to some of its joys:

In a short time you can move from knowing nothing to knowing something (and seeing that there’s still much more to learn). That can be exhilarating.

You can usually do something with what little you know. That includes thinking about it. This means the mind has more good things to carry around.

Initially, there’s a certain charm in ineptitude, and others treat it generously.

Then come the drawbacks:

The charm of ineptitude fades quickly; after that, there’s nothing but excellence to strive for, and little chance of reaching it.

Beginners struggle to perform even simple tasks, like rowing, saying a sentence in a new language, or playing a simple melody. More work for less beauty doesn’t seem fair.

For the most part, beginners know that they can progress if they practice long and well. It may take considerable time. Perpetual beginners have chosen, in some way and for some reason,  not to take on that commitment. This can be embarrassing to admit.

All that said, it’s good that there’s room for beginners, even perpetual beginners, in the world. There’s only so much that we can do well, and it would be a shame to give up the rest. I may never be an expert kayaker, but I hope to go out on the water many more times in my life.

Kayaking Down the Street

kayaking

That’s an ambiguous title—”Kayaking Down the Street.” It could mean kayaking on the street, in the downward direction, during a flood, for instance. That’s not what I meant. I meant, instead, that right down the street from me there is kayaking. I took a stroll this morning to the Inwood Canoe Club, got in a kayak, and paddled off. Here’s a photo I took of the group that went just before me. My group went fairly close to the George Washington Bridge; we turned around when we reached a little stone peninsula.

Now, I don’t typically use the blog to talk about what I did this morning. But this morning’s kayaking merits an exception. To my knowledge, I have never lived in a place where I could walk a few blocks, step into a boat, and paddle off.

Also, it isn’t something I associate with Manhattan. Granted, there are paddle boats in Central Park, but that’s a different order of things. There, if you paddle a little ways in any direction, you’ll reach a shore. Not so with the Hudson, the waterway of regal barges. The Hudson tastes mildly of salt; freshwater and saltwater come together in its tidal estuary. The paddling is long and serene (with a wake now and then). The river stretches out of sight; the cliffs rise up on either side.

Also, one would imagine this as a tourist attraction with a high fee. No such goings-on here; the open house kayak  tours are free (with voluntary donations), and they draw people from nearby. Some come upon the place by accident and find themselves paddling a few minutes later.

I hope to do this many more times. It is one more semi-secret beauty of my neighborhood and the city. I am still amazed at the simplicity of it all, the ease of going out on the water.