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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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March 2011 Archives

Fountain of Youth?

I think I've discovered the Fountain of Youth, but I'm still getting used to the water.

The secret, I've found, isn't just learning something new, as every article on successful aging insists. The real secret is tackling something so new - and so scary - that it makes you feel about six years old. Presto: Instant youth.

A week ago, I started taking a ten-week jewelry-making class called Beginning Lapidary. Advanced Lapidary, I was assured, would involve polishing and setting stones, but the beginning class was just working with silver.

I pictured everybody happily pounding decorative dents in bits of metal, with tiny little hammers on cute little anvils. I did not picture myself holding an acetylene blowtorch on the first day of class, let alone trying to light it or panicking when I couldn't.

There are a dozen people in this class, most of them women, aged from 50 on up into the chronological stratosphere. I watched while the others, one by one, met the acetylene challenge with seeming ease:

Open the valve on the handle, snap the friction lighter at it till the gas ignites, and, well, presto! Out shoots a narrow blue flame with an orange halo - easy as that.

As my turn approached, the inner child I seldom hear from began to fidget like a first-grader. "I am really scared here,'' it was saying.

Of what, I wasn't sure. Blowing up? Getting burned? Feeling stupid? Or just failing while the big kids watched? All of the above, frankly.

For guys who took shop in junior high, this would have been a cinch. But at my school, the only option for girls was home ec, where I had to sew an apron I never wore - on a treadle machine, come to think of it - and cook "goldenrod eggs," among other foods I never made again.

Beginning Lapidary, then, was anything but routine for me. Even the teaching technique was startling. The instructors wasted no time on theory. There was no discussion. There were only facts and tasks. They demonstrated; we mimicked.

That first day, we also spent two intense hours learning the names of scary machines, all of which could hurt us, and being told even scarier rules for using them:

Always wear your safety glasses! Keep the torch aimed away from you! No long sleeves! Wear closed shoes! No gloves when you're using the buffers! Never, ever polish chain - you could lose your thumb!

"This is a lot to take in,'' a woman classmate whispered to me as we were leaving. I agreed. Yes, I had managed to get the damned torch lit without setting anything else on fire or feeling particularly stupid. But this class wasn't just "learning something new,'' it was mental boot camp.

If the learning curve was steep in that first session, it was nearly vertical in the second, which, as I write this, was only yesterday afternoon. I wasn't aware of learning how to do anything, but by the end of those two-and-a-half hours, there were things I clearly had done.

I had soldered pieces of silver together with the blowtorch, heated them till they came apart, cleaned them in an acid wash, soldered them again and then again and finally held the flame on them until everything melted and pulled together into a ball, like a little red-hot pearl - just as the instructors promised it would.

Huh, I thought, watching this transformation. I really did it. I really did it.

Reduced to a few paragraphs, this may not sound like much. But every single moment of that class was like going to Mars - utterly new. When I walked back out into the sunny afternoon, I felt new too: Bright and shiny - like silver. If I'd really been six years old, I would have skipped all the way home.