Confusion Corner: Learning mechanics of the real world

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August 28, 2009

2:11 AM

It’s a Sunday afternoon when my three roommates and I decide, like thousands before us, that the most productive use of our time as college students is to go out and watch a mindless superhero movie. We are heading to see “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” a movie I have already streamed online, yet still have the somewhat masochistic desire to subject myself to again.

We are in the William and Mary Hall lot, just about to get into the car, when two guys walking across the parking lot yell over, “Hey man, can you help us jump our car?” Turns out, they had been heading out to dinner with their girlfriends, only to find that their battery was dead. “Probably left on the lights,” they explained.

Despite some audible groans from the backseat — “Let’s just leave them,” someone suggests — I get in the car and pull it next to theirs. Worst case, we’d miss ‘Wolverine’ and our lives would probably be the better for it. But I was also oddly excited; I had never jumped a car, but surely that wouldn’t be a problem because it’s one of those things that people just do. You help a guy change a flat, and you help your neighbor change his oil. They are all car-related, and you do them now that you’re an adult. And that’s what adults do.

“You ever do this before?” he asks as I pull my car up.

“Nope,” I reply, not even feigning experience. He seems untroubled.

“Me neither.”

So what, we tell ourselves. So we don’t know exactly how cars work. How hard could it be to jump a car — we’re college students. So we blundered forward with blind conviction, temperaments both similar, I assume, to that of an overconfident bullfighter about to be skewered. It’s not until we are about to attach the cables when his friend speaks up. “Watch out. If you hook it up wrong, it could explode,” he tells us, earnestly. “It happened to my uncle once.” We freeze in our tracks and turn to face something so obviously outside our realm of experience. We just stare, barely fighting off the desire to slowly back away.

It’s exactly times like these that make you question why you thought you had the right to call yourself an adult. Because surely basic auto maintenance ought to be among the skills an actual adult possesses. Despite owning a selection of ties, of varying colors and widths; despite filing your taxes separately for the approximately $200 you earned as a camp counselor this summer; despite flossing on a near semi-regular basis, your previous claims to adulthood still seem entirely shallow — like using a Burger King crown as a claim to royalty.

But that college students could be caught so unaware seems to astound us the most. College is sold to you as the place where you prepare you for life, for the real world as high-school counselors always sternly stated. But the idea starts to form — despite having taken geology, philosophy, creative writing (surely a practical course-load if there ever were one) — that you couldn’t even survive the real world, much less anything with tangible responsibilities. You can recite the major themes in Alfred Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” but can’t find a circuit breaker to save your life. You can derive an integral but you can’t drive a car with a manual transmission. And despite the debt that’s accruing every day — every hour, every second — in order to finance it, you’re suddenly faced with the possibility that your life has at some point taken a drastically wrong turn — as if you’ve steered your pastel-colored tricycle, streamers and all, straight onto the interstate.

“Um, you know what?” the first guy’s girlfriend interjects, breaking a pause so pregnant it may have had triplets. “I think I’m just going to call my dad and ask.” There’s an audible sigh of relief. Both girlfriends begin to dial.

We all try to multitask, simultaneously attaching the cables and tending to our bruised egos. So what if we have to call our parents every once in a while, we tell ourselves. It’s not like that means we’re not independent. We just need some help every now and again, that’s all. Come to think of it, that may be the most adult decision we can make. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

__Kevin Mooney is a Confusion Corner columnist. He still hasn’t jumped a car, so if you see his car on the side of the road, pull over.__

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