Let me show you how to peel that banana: on imparting a legacy of gestures

When I was about ten years old, my mom won the boxed VHS set of Indiana Jones in a gas station raffle. It was thrilling. The whole family was thrilled. I watched the videos endlessly, along with my sisters, and it properly entered my psyche. I think I can probably recite the whole film verbatim. (This puzzles me in hindsight because we weren’t really allowed to watch films or television. Indiana Jones must have been the exception to the rule, alongside Sister Act and Cool Runnings. As with most things, including value systems, my parents were wildly inconsistent.) Inevitably, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade entered into my play. In the film, Sean Connery keeps a little notebook of drawings and facts on the Holy Grail. His life’s work was trying to patch together clues to its whereabouts and meaning, and this spoke to the ten year old paranoid heart of me. I re-appropriated a little mauve faux leatherette diary to fill with facts about the world. I gleaned from everywhere- I wasn’t sure what to select, so everything was left in-making careful little drawings of a Nefertiti head brooch my sister Sasha would wear, pinned to her t-shirt. That seemed important. Maybe ancient knowledge. I didn’t know how to do maths beyond basic column addition even though Maxie, our neighbour and playmate was already on to a mysterious thing called, ‘algebra’ in the very grown-up sixth-grade. When I requested to be taught this alleged ‘algebra’ my mother breezily informed me that there was no need to teach me algebra because, ‘Diana, you think algebraically.’ Requests for formal education, for procedural knowledge were often turned down as a matter of course. My response to the denied access to shared, human, generational, institutional, taken-for-granted knowledge was to morph into a sort of intellectual human magpie, picking up bright bits of esoteric facts, unable to distinguish glitter from gold.

And I am still dazzled by method. Procedural knowledge fascinates me. I am the mutant child of bohemian anti-establishment experiments and I am blown away when someone has a consistent approach to putting together a puzzle. Like, start with the corners. I followed the vegans around our shared kitchen at art school because they had interesting processes in relation to vegetables. There are certain friends, when I visit them, I am on safari in their homes. They shake the wrinkles out of their washing before stretching it on the washing rack. Or they have cataloging systems for their books. Their children roll their squeezy yogurt packets neatly from the bottom up, and in contrast, I watch my own child scrunch his into a crumpled fist. These friends know which pots to buy, when to check their oil, how to pair socks, what to do with ketchup stains, how to clean the bathroom, how to keep a sofa mark- free. (Wash your feet when you get in, don’t eat on it, wipe the babies hands after the meal) They impart this knowledge to their kids, they hand down ways of doing things, how to start.

I want in on this legacy of gestures.

There is value in procedural knowledge. Maybe its not the Holy Grail, but its time saving. I know the counter argument well: It is indeed fun and creative to puzzle stuff out for yourself and I shall write about what Winnicott has to say about cooking sausages and living a creative life in another post. But it is knackering to always invent the wheel when one wants to know something or when one wants to do something. It is a relief to have knowledge to fall back on, to do automatically, to not question. At the age of six, I remember puzzling out how to tie my shoes, and I watched with fascination as a friend’s mum sang a little rhyme and showed her daughter a fool-proof sequence and little ditty for remembering the steps. I remember wanting desperately to remember the rhyme so I too could effortlessly sort out my shoes situation. This sort of scenario was the norm in our family culture, and it produced in all of us this sense of weary-melancholia. Everything was harder than it should have been. There is no need for certain tasks to be so difficult. Even now I have to battle with a feeling of despair and when learning new skills- I have to remind myself that there will be instructions if I want them, and I am not alone on a desert island, the first woman to cement in her garden washing-line.

These learned, handed-down gestures are social. They mark us as human, one of the tribe. I was raised by wolves, and I feel like my lack of procedural knowledge marks me out as feral, as not-quite-human. And I want R enfranchised as well. I want him to be bilingual, able to fluently switch between the language of social convention and the idiosyncratic pleasures of puzzling-out-for-himself. There is room for both, and it is nice to be able to choose, to decide when it would be useful to do it step by step and when it might be interesting to feel-his-way-through. I watched him fold a boiled egg into his mouth the other week and it has made me think. What procedural knowledge would be useful to impart? Should I teach him how to peel a banana in the conventional way? Or should I let him strip off one flange at a time because it is outrageous fun to work out your own trademark way of peeling a banana. One of my most precious memories was being taught How to Pound A Nail Into Wood by an uncle. Procedural knowledge is a ticket-in. Imagine the vistas that would have been open to me in my twenties if I hadn’t been head-down, absorbed in learning the basics: how to have a respectful fight with a partner, what to do with my fingernails (File? Polish? Manicure?), how to use a drill and a saw, what sort of clothing suits me, how to pour cream over a spoon into hot espresso. Procedural knowledge is the stuff of identity. I know how to cook artichokes and asparagus because my grandmother taught me. And this draws a border around where I exist: in terms of class and taste. Not that that line can’t be re-drawn or expanded, but it gives me a little plot to start from. I’m not left wondering what to fill my mauve leatherette notebook with.

Also. When I finally took a correspondence course at twenty eight to pass my maths GCSE, the only unit I couldn’t teach myself or puzzle my way through- the only unit I had to ring my allocated phone tutor to teach me- was algebra.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

During an above-average chat in a noisy bar last year with a randomer I’d just met, a book was recommend to me that has incidentally become a favourite text. My understanding of a history of gestures is informed by the gorgeous, ‘The practice of everyday life’ and specifically, chapter twelve, Gesture Sequences. I don’t have words for how much I love these essays, and I’m super grateful to the randomer (now friend) who said I might enjoy them. He was right.

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