Lately I’ve been thinking of the things my parents taught me — all those habits that were handed over to me one by one when I was a child. These are the sorts of thoughts I always have when I’m teaching writing, which is partly the act of revealing bad habits to their surprised owners. What got me thinking this time was the discovery that I’ve been tying my shoes wrong for more than half a century.
I’ve been tying a granny knot in my laces, a lopsided knot that tends to come untied even when doubled. It’s the knot my mother taught me. But thanks to a tip on the Internet, I learned that if I wrap the lace around the first bow the opposite way, I get a reef, or square, knot, which lies evenly across the shoe and doesn’t come untied.
(You can see for yourself at http://bit.ly/92NW56.)
I believe that if my mother had known about the reef knot, she would have taught it to me. What mother wants her child’s laces to come undone?
Here’s another example. My dad taught me how to adjust the sideview mirrors on a car. In their reflection, I learned, I should be able to see the edge of the vehicle I’m driving — as though vertigo might set in if I couldn’t locate a mechanical version of myself in the mirror. But this is exactly the setting that creates a blind spot on both sides. There’s a better way (http://bit.ly/cY2dtl). I’ve been using this new setting on the freeways of Los Angeles, and I realize now that I’ve been driving with my mirrors improperly adjusted for more than 40 years.
These are small things. They’re also deeply embedded and as close to unconscious as learned acts can be. To tie a reef knot in my laces, I have to try to tie a reef knot. That means beginning to do what I’ve always done and then undoing it — reefing the granny, in other words. I’m sure my dad didn’t want me to have blind spots. He simply passed along the blind spots he’d inherited. Now I’m having to learn to trust what the mirrors show instead of what they don’t.
One of the beauties of the Internet is its ability to cough up tips like these from the collective experience of humanity. I’ll discover more, I’m sure — slight, but somehow significant adjustments to the things my parents taught me, the deep habits of a lifetime. I don’t imagine that I’m driving without blind spots in reef-knotted shoes on my way to the examined life. But something has changed, and I welcome it.