Tag Archives: learning

Oil can for the my rusty brain

A short while ago, I wrote a post about feeling my life was lacking in intellectual stimulation.

My formal education ended long ago with a Bachelor’s degree, and while I remain a reader as well as intellectually curious, I could see that in recent times, I was looking more for entertainment than education. I don’t think that was entirely wrong – there are times in my life that I just don’t have it in me for whatever reason, to keep challenging myself. Times when just basically taking care of myself – and dealing with problems du jour or problems l’année – is enough.

I had slowly moved away from self-education. I no longer knew what I knew and what I didn’t. I was aware that math and science were pretty much gone, but overall I had no measuring stick. Was I losing my edge?

I started with taking two online IQ tests. The results of each were very similar – and let’s say I was happy with the number. My wits were still about me. I was going to take a third test to seal the deal, but never quite got to it. Perhaps my gray matter was taxed from all the exertion.

As a book and movie buff, I’m a regular at the library, but I now had a specific mission, and that was to ramp up the difficulty/challenge level of the material.

One of the places I began was a huge SAT book, complete with practice tests. I focused on the tests only – no ” brushing up” or “studying” for me – beginning with the language related tests, which are divided into two areas: Critical Reading and Writing. My scores were fine; Writing was good and Critical Reading was very good. Here’s my “cold test” answer sheet.
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I wasn’t going to even bother with the math, but ultimately tried the math test too, and it was laughable. It’s not that I never did well in math – I did B-student okay – it’s that I quickly saw that the math SAT test was almost entirely based on knowing formulas, and those, save one, are now lost to me. Whereas the math on IQ tests, I realized, is more about reasoning and recognizing patterns – that I can do.

Despite being a lifelong reader, I can’t read as I once did. I’m restless, physically active, and often in motion. When I sit down to read, I’m often distracted; something on the page will start me to thinking, and soon I’m either lost in thought (no longer reading) or hopping up to to go do something. Because of this, I opted to focus more heavily on educational DVDs, choosing topics I knew something about or was genuinely intrigued by. There weren’t going to be no forcing myself into watching The Complete History of Calculus or Nuclear Fission and You (No, these titles don’t exist, at least I don’t think so).

Here’s where I began:P_20150215_151900

I got lucky; there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. I didn’t get around to the LSAT review before it had to be returned (and it’s not like I’m headed to law school; I was just curious what’s on the test), but otherwise I watched them. Some were better than others and I count titles I’d watch again.

I can only gush about the multi-part nine-hour America the Story of Us. The series, had it been on TV when I was a kid, struck me as the sort we’d gather around the TV set to watch. It’s beautiful-looking to start with – what they can do now with film and animation just blows me away. If history had been taught more like this in my time, I might have actually cared. The film relies heavily on riveting reenactments, and highlights historical tidbits I never knew. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the film since my credentials are slim but since it was produced by the History Channel, I generally trusted that they knew their stuff.

Throughout the film, there’s an emphasis on what WE did and how clever and forward-thinking WE were, but I knew they weren’t talking about me. I felt a little guilty sitting in my comfortable chair watching those people take on the British, or lay those ridiculous miles of train tracks linking East to West, or producing goods out the wazoo during WWII, or bringing water to CA through building the seemingly impossible California aqueduct. And all the people who died doing these things, not to mention so much loss of life in so many other ways – loss which would make things better not for those people, but for others to follow. Watching the film, I was struck by how much was accomplished in growing this country in such a short time. It’s boggling.

By the time the film moved to the waves of immigration, it was well along, and it was then, when they specifically mentioned and showed Northern Italians as among those arriving at Ellis Island, that I got emotional. My people had arrived; only now, in however tiny a way, could I feel part of the story.

The film packs a lot in, and can’t cover it all, but my criticism is that it’s too self-praising at the cost of passing over serious problems. The current state of crime, drugs, and race are left out. The issues immigrants and nonwhites face in this supposedly equal and class-less society are short-shrifted. Nonetheless, this is a film I’d watch again.

Memory of the Camps, a PBS film, initially begun but never finished by, surprisingly, Alfred Hitchcock, showed what are likely the most hideous, heinous footage I’ve ever see of the concentration camps. The footage was taken immediately after liberation. It’s shocking, even if you think you’ve seen all this before. I watched because I think it’s important and the discomfort – although that seems too weak a word – it causes me seems small a price. The thing is, this just wasn’t all that long ago, historically speaking. We can’t call it “ancient history” or say “that will never happen again.” Especially when we’ve already got a movement saying it never happened.

I could go on about the various DVDs, but I should probably curb myself for purposes of this post. Let me leave you with the next round I checked out, and the current one:
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I have to say, lastly, two things. One is that I’m feeling a lot sharper, I’m thinking about things. And the second is I’ve noticed WWII comes up frequently, or at least regularly, in my selections; it’s like I keep coming at it from different directions. I think I’ve underestimated its role or place in modern culture/history. I really didn’t know a whole lot about it but I’m paying more attention now that it’s been turning up on the radar. I’m not about to become ANY kind of war buff, but it’s good to fill in blanks in my knowledge.

You know what? This has been kind of exciting for me. It’s good to be back in learning gear.

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I think I need a high school education

I want to go back to high school. Not to relive “glory days” or hang out with friends or in order to be 16 again. No. It’s the taking classes part that is on my mind. I think I might appreciate a high school education now. I’m wondering what did I learn in high school? I’m drawing a bit of a blank. When I look back, it’s my friends, relationships, and various moments outside the class room that stand out. Not history. Or math. Or geez, what DID I take in high school? And why don’t I remember it?

Graphic Arts. I took Graphic Arts. That was pretty cool. Prior to that class, I’d had no exposure to the subject. We made pinhole cameras and took and developed b&w photos I have to this day. I had Child Development (or rather was stuck in it after “Single Living” for which I’d signed up, was filled). We made lesson plans for little kids who were brought in by their parents for half days. Spanish. Two years of Spanish. But I didn’t use it and it fell away quickly. Pablo esta en la casa. No hablo Espanol. That’s about it.

Would I be bored in the average high school curriculum today? Or would a modern education be more suited to my learning style than the one I actually had? I.e., sitting quietly in standardized rows for hours on end. Would the teachers’ personal biases and opinions and personality quirks bother me even more than they did when I was a teenager? Would I find the environment stifling? Would I learn?

I’m reminded of Cameron Crowe’s memoir about going undercover posing as a high school student, which was the precursor to his film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s been a long time since I read the book, but remember that Crowe, in his twenties but passing for a teenager, wrote of misinformation being taught by high school teachers. If I recall, he said the gym teacher was also teaching another subject – History? – and clearly getting facts wrong. Does that still happen? (In 9th grade, I had a gym teacher for Health class and I remember very clearly that he decided to entirely skip the text chapters on sex. Just flat out said we wouldn’t be covering them.)

Why is this on my mind? I think it’s because I’ve been away from formal education for so long. I’m starting to wonder what I know – and don’t know – any more. So much of what I studied in college even, is just very hazy. I actually went to college with the desire to learn. Yep, that was my overarching plan. That didn’t entirely work out. College was undeniably better than high school but it still left a lot to be desired. I was frequently bored in my classes. Too many instructors used their class time to pontificate and hold forth on their pet topics to a captive audience, often about subjects that weren’t on their syllabus. I didn’t have a slew of great teachers, but many average ones, including poor planners who farted around all semester and then tried to cram 3 months of lessons into a week or two before finals.

So that kind of messed up my plan of going to college to learn. And, the intensity of the experience rather quickly became about surviving it, more than about broadening my horizons. Yes, I was exposed to a lot of information, but all crammed in at once. That’s not how I retain stuff. And — to pay for school, I depended on, in addition to part-time jobs, grants and scholarships. For that I needed good grades, and grades became my focus; A’s meant cash. I’d do it no differently now.

One of the things I did really like about college – outside the classroom – was all the free lectures that were available on campus. I was – and am – a consummate bulletin board reader and I’d find interesting, or potentially interesting topics, familiar and not, advertised on flyers. They were held right there at the school and often during the day, which was great – I’d go to my classes and if I hung around awhile, I could attend an open lecture, perhaps by a guest speaker or one of the school’s professors. Or a panel forum. Talks and lectures would be attended by students and instructors alike, which raised the level of interaction and discussion. It kept me engaged and up-to-date. I really miss that, and I started missing it as soon as I graduated.

Both before and after my college years, I had jobs on other college campuses, but it wasn’t the same. When you work somewhere, usually the last thing you want to do is hang around longer after your work day is over or worse, come back to attend this or that. No, you want the hell out of there.

I don’t go to classes of any kind now. I have little interest in pursuing more formal education, like a Master’s. Instead, I read books and spend time online. Online I don’t learn who was the 15th President of the United States or what’s in the Bill of Rights or where Madagascar is located or how to conjugate verbs or anything whatsoever about Sartre. No, I learn trivia and gossip and innuendo and scandal and what’s been linked to cancer and who’s died and what sports figure is drugging and all about the latest shooting spree and terrorist bombing. All that without even trying. The dopey path of least resistance. I bet there’s a study out there that correlates point drops in I.Q. to time spent online.

I don’t mean to denigrate the internet. I love the internet. And it’s brought me a lot of good things. But lordy, does it need to be managed. It requires so little of you. That’s the problem. I’m a critical thinker. I don’t tweet. I don’t even WANT to try to think in 140 characters. Not ever. I don’t have a Facebook status. I don’t haves inane arguments or flame people. I require more of myself. It’s too easy for it to become your world. Suddenly you find yourself caring about things you don’t care about. Your head is full of rubbish and you wonder how it happened. Didn’t you used to think bright thoughts and contemplate important things?

I don’t know what I know any more. I think the things I’ve learned or studied on my own, since my formal education, have been relatively narrow. I think about doing it, but I’m not learning Italian on CD or online. I’m not trying to teach myself Algebra or god forbid, Calculus. I don’t try to understand the current state of the Middle East. Nutrition. Psychology. A bit of Literature. Gardening. Some American History. These are the things I’ve been interested in and studied on my own. Not a broad selection. I don’t have cable so I’m limited there, but I used to watch NOVA and other science programs – they’re SO much more interesting than any science I was ever taught in school – but I’ve gotten away from that. Is the internet and the culture ruining my attention span for anything else or is my restlessness stemming from elsewhere? A combination ? One thing now – I’m intentionally quite active – and I neither want to sit around for hours on end or can. Further, when I do stop and relax, I usually want to be entertained. Documentaries are about as scholarly as I get.

There is a particular saving grace. I like crossword puzzles and in doing them, I realize I know more than I would have thought. That is, I can retrieve information I didn’t know I knew. I could never offer it up voluntarily, but when prompted by the puzzle and given a little time, information evidently buried away, finds its way to the surface. How did I know that?? I have no recollection of learning it and yet I know it. This is encouraging.

Sometimes I’ve attended public lectures, but I often lose patience. So few people are good teachers and I’ve grown so particular about that – maybe by all the years of having to sit through what was at hand, like it or lump it. The other thing – the problematic thing – is the other attendees. A lot of adults feel pretty free and easy when attending a class or lecture. They hold forth, dominate class time, talk to their neighbor, and even – in some lectures I’ve attended – get up and wander around the room. This makes me want to knock heads together. It’s so distracting and annoying. The way I feel is this: I’ve come to hear the lecturer or teacher, not to listen to other adults carry on. But that is too bad, yes?

I’ve taken IQ tests online and done respectably. But it’s been several years since I’ve even done that. I’ve never taken a practice SAT but I’m wondering if that would be a good idea. I imagine I’d find one online or in a book. (I recently read an essay by a columnist in his sixties who took the SAT and was pleased to receive the same score he had in high school – although I believe he noted that the way they’re scored has changed.) The thing is I’m not sure I want to know what areas I’ve fallen way behind in, maybe because I’m not certain I’d do anything about it. How much do I care? Enough to do anything?

I do know this. I’m thinking about what I know and don’t know for a reason.

A medium-sized story about saving things for “good”

There are 3 pieces to understand as background before I launch into the rest of the tale.

1) I am the sort of person who tries to pay attention and learn things from my life. Some things I have learned, others have taken me an abysmally long time to learn, and still more, I clearly haven’t gotten yet.

2) I was raised on the school that says there are everyday things, and then there are “good” things which are to be stored away and rarely, if ever used. This way of thinking was thoroughly drilled into me. “Good enough,” patched, and mediocre described the stuff that should make up everyday living. It’s taken me a very long time to challenge and replace these beliefs, and it continues.

3) I am wild about popcorn and eat a lot of stove-popped corn. My favorite popper for many years has been Wabash Valley Farms Whirley Pop©. These poppers have traditionally not been cheap, and I was fortunate to initially receive one as a gift. I wore that thing into the ground. I replaced that with a second and at some level noticed it wasn’t quite the same. It still made brilliant popcorn but the pan dented more easily and looked shabby sooner.

The Main Story:

A few (3?) years ago I had what I considered the magnificent fortune to land  an unused Whirley Pop from Freecycle. I carefully put it away to “save” it. I wasn’t going to hop onto a brand new one just because I had it, no sir. I needed to get full use out of the one I had first.

So comes the day recently when I decided it was time for the new one. I put the old one out in recycling and away it went. I was going to use the nice one saved for “good!” I deserved the new one now, I told myself.

First thing I noticed when I removed the popper pan from the bag it was stored in, was that one of the little wood knobs on the lid was cracked. How had I not noticed this before? Had it happened while it as in storage? Cracked wood usually suggests cheap wood to me. The wood parts on my old poppers had always been fine, as had the basic turn-crank mechanisms. And then there was that; I started using my popper but something seemed amiss. The popcorn wasn’t as good. I examined the popper and one of the two metal wires that spin the popcorn wasn’t even close to the bottom of the pan. Surely it was just traveling over the top of the kernels. Scorching on the bottom of my nice, new pan seemed to indicate the same. Inferior was the word that kept coming to mind.

Then the cracked wood knob broke completely in two and fell off. It could not be repaired nor did I see a simple way to jury-rig a replacement. This knob is how you open the lid when the popping is done without giving yourself second-degree burns on the hot pan. I tried to work without it but its absence irritated me.

The new popper with its missing wood knob

The new popper with its missing wood knob

I went online and looked at recent reviews of the popper. Many people wrote of a change in quality from earlier versions they’d owned. They said the popper was flimsier (some mentioned “aluminum foil”) and dented more easily. They said the turning gears broke. Hmmm. Sometimes I can be a little slow to grasp points like this; I think something represented as a product, sold as the same thing, is just the same as it’s always been, even in face of evidence to the contrary.  My mind will even make strange, compensatory leaps to account for failings in an item. (I even briefly blamed my poor, innocent, great-as-always Jolly Time© popcorn, even though I was still popping kernels from the same bag that had been fine with the dearly departed popper.)

Boy, did I feel gypped! Here I had carefully saved the fresh, unused popper for “good” and unbeknownst to me it was junky. Just sitting there quietly waiting to be junky. Now, I’m not saying ALL the Whirley Pop© poppers must be this way but I’m certain this one is not as good as the first one I ever owned. And it’s not as good as the one I sent off to the recycling graveyard. And THAT was another mistake. Never get rid of the old but still serviceable  thing till you try out the new thing. I know this! I SHOULD know this!! Why don’t I know this?!

So. If this isn’t a good kick in the head to reconsider my saving-for-good philosophy – a solidly direct message that supposedly good things aren’t even necessarily so or if they were, may turn to crud while they wile away the years unused – I’m not sure what is. And should I ever let go of a serviceable item before making sure its replacement is okay, I expect I’ll deserve whatever results. And my popping situation? I bought a new popper, a different brand. It was time. We will see. Lesson(s) learned. Oh I hope so.

The “Hope Chest”

I’ve got a couple different thoughts on my mind today. I think there’s a theme tying them together – at least I hope there is, because thinking about something and writing it are not the same thing. Ideas that seem connected in mind are not always so connected once put to “paper.” That being said, let’s see how this works out.

I am one of the youngest children from a large, middle-class family. I grew up thinking we were poor but that had a lot to do with what I was both told and experienced firsthand, and moreover I was a naive child (or is that redundant?) and knew little of the world. No doubt “poor” is a relative concept, but a child’s perception has everything to do with what they personally experience. Once those ideas are formed, they become very hard, sometimes impossible, to shake. My childhood view was tiny and ill-informed, but my response nonetheless, was to take everything to heart.

To house their growing family, my parents built their own home before I was born. Later, when other children, from school or friends, learned where we lived, they said in so many words that my family was well-off, i.e., “you live on the rich street.” This was news to me. I didn’t have much, and a lot of what I did have, was shared. My clothes were hand-me-downs from older sisters and cousins, or home-made. One pair of “good” shoes for school and church, one pair of play shoes. Toys came on Christmas and birthdays and often those were shared. I had to “share” a used bicycle, although later I did get one of my own. There was one phone, one family TV. We had a big yard to play in (which I loved), but the house itself was not fancy or especially well-maintained. For years there was a curtain, which was probably an old drop cloth, instead of a door on the second bathroom in the unfinished basement. The rooms were cold and drafty. The basement flooded. There was a concrete side porch with no railing on it for years, where a misstep could have pitched a child off the second story to the concrete walk or patio below. I was frightened any time I had to go out there. Things didn’t get fixed, or got fixed slowly.

I only could have what food was served to me; I could never just “help myself” and was shocked times when I saw one of my older brothers do so without repercussion. The rule at the dinner table was that my father got second portions, not the kids. During the day, when I said I was hungry, my mother would either tell me I was not hungry, or dinner was in “2 hours” or, nonsensically:

“Have a glass of milk, it’s the best food for you.”

(Now, decades later, I continue to thrill at the ability to walk over to the refrigerator or pantry and take out what I want and eat it. Not only that, but I can eat it in the living room, or while watching TV, or seasonally, outside. I’m not being sarcastic either. Despite the fact I’ve been on my own for years, I still relish these pleasures.)

We were all sent to parochial school for our first 8 grades, but I don’t have a lot good to say about the quality of the teaching or how children were treated. The school, despite charging tuition, was poorly supplied and used out-of-date texts. Many of the teachers were hateful and abusive even (I never got hit but saw classmates on the receiving end), and frankly, I was often afraid. My point being, I never saw this private school as any kind of privilege. It was a trial to endure, and given how a child experiences time, I thought it would never end. And almost no matter what went on there, the school was “right” and never, ever, would I have been placed elsewhere. It would have never even occurred to me.

There was an implication that my older siblings might one day do something other than continue to live in the family home. I’m not going to tell you that detailed, elaborate, thoughtful care was put into planning their futures because that would be a lie, but some attention was given. My older siblings, with parental support, took stabs at college. Despite having several daughters, my parents funded and orchestrated precisely one modest wedding, for my oldest sister. They assisted another to live away from home and get a two-year professional degree. An older brother also attended college away from home. Money and things were being parceled out, but selectively (and that would never change).

If you’re not familiar with the (dated) term, “Hope Chest,” it was a literal box of some sort, that parents set aside, typically for a daughter, filled with items she would need and use for later life on her own (presumably in marriage, though not necessarily). My mother started these for my older sisters. Even my sister two years older had a full set of dishes, among other things, in hers. My “Hope Chest,” which was an old shoe box, contained one tea towel, a plastic salt & pepper set and one plastic leftover container. You know, I was trying to write this piece straight, to let the pathos of it come through without too much editorializing or commentary or snarkery on my part. But I can’t. I snorted when I typed that last line. I finished virtual key-stroking the words “leftover container” and out it came. Hope Chest? HOPE CHEST?!? How pathetic is that? I’m serious, when I got the hell out of my parents’ house – and that is how I phrase it when I say it – at 19, those items were what I had To Start My New Life. If I’d had any sense, I’d have left my “Hope Chest” behind, maybe on the bed I wasn’t allowed to take. The truth however, is at the time I was naively glad to have those 3 cheap items. For years, I’d convinced myself they were somehow special (and a child will tell themselves all sorts of things). I didn’t know better. Sure, I took note of my sister’s full set of dishes and things given to other siblings, but I tended to wildly rationalize the discrepancies. Besides, I accepted that my sister got dishes because she was “older” and hence, would need them sooner (although, ultimately I did move out before she did.)

None of this had anything to do with lack of available money but it would be a long time till I understood that. I actually felt sorry for my parents, especially my mother, who talked often of not having the money for this or that and made references to ending up in “the poor house” (wherever that was, I didn’t know but I knew it was bad). As I said, I took everything to heart and tended to feel guilty, as intended, for what little I did get (and not much was given cheerfully and in good spirit). I was not privy to the family finances while I was a child in the house, but later did discover in roundabout fashion what was what. Let us say that in subsequent years what I learned made it very clear that a kind of willful miserliness was a larger issue, certainly when it came to children – some more than others – than anything else.

I think about these things still because their effects are imbedded in my psyche and they continue to influence how I feel and act. It took YEARS to parse all this out. I’m still learning, and tiresome as it sometimes seems, I understand now that it doesn’t ever end. Or it won’t for me. However, the more I figure out, the better it gets. I’m single and while that factors in to my self-reflection, I do believe that single or not, the relationship a person has with themselves is the most important one. Because in addition to determining the quality of your life and ongoing state of mind, it informs all other relationships and even who you’ll have relationships with. For me, getting a handle on how I treated myself, in part by virtue of what I was and was not given (and realizing what I was-and-was-not-given was pretty fucked up), has created the incentive to change. Crap is no longer good enough for me, not from me and not from anybody else. But I had to see it for what it was first.

If I hadn’t changed and wasn’t continually changing, I doubt I’d share this here, but do because a) I’m compelled to think through and make sense of my life and b) not because a reader’s circumstances are necessarily just like mine, but because I know so many people have lived variations of what I’m saying, with their own specificities and personal details.

Giving good relationship advice (and taking it myself)

(Many years back, a woman friend of mine was having problems dealing with a guy. I wrote the following to her in a letter. I saved not the whole letter, but just this part.)

A further thought: It seems to me that once a person knows they’re being manipulated, or knows the other person does not accept the underlying nature of the relationship (or very significant points of it) or knows the other person is misrepresenting themselves, then that [original] person becomes responsible for anything that happens after that. I’d take it a step further by saying that total responsibility would include very thorough “screening” before getting too involved; i.e., really knowing yourself and stacking up the odds in such a way that you are very unlikely to even start involvements with people who will manipulate you, or not accept the nature of the relationship, or misrepresent themselves. This doesn’t mean all the scumbags are off hook — they’re still scumbags, but I just think it’s so important to take the focus off the other party; happiness demands it for one. (I speak not just of you, but from on-going experience; I really want to get this right in my own life.)

As I said, I wrote this quite a long time ago. There’s no date but probably a dozen years back. I know I was on to something, but it isn’t as if I took my own advice. Not for a long time. There are things I don’t learn in a week, or month, or even a year, but over chunks of time. My point to my friend was that she needed to take responsibility for at least some of the problems she was having with this other person. I think we women let ourselves off the hook, maybe prematurely, on occasion, because we figure once we’ve made our feelings clear on a matter with a man, our work is done. But it isn’t – not if the information we’re getting back tells us he is disregarding our words or feelings, or is being deceptive, manipulative, etcetera. It’s easier to blame them. But once you know something about somebody, you can’t unknow it.

I’m reminded of how often (really often) Judge Judy calls women out on this very point. She has no patience for women who return to the bed of a man who has hit them, or give more money to a man who never repaid them for past loans, for oft-cited examples. I’m not talking about either of those two particular situations, but the concept generally. If you know it, it’s yours now. There’s no one to truly blame other than yourself from that point forward. Many women resist this idea. They want to talk about the man who’s done them wrong. And done them wrong again. And done them wrong yet again.

I’m using women as my reference point because I am one, and the friend I wrote the above quote to was one, but the real underlying concept is not gender-specific. Man or woman, you’re an innocent party unless and until you are not. I think people hang on after they have all the information they need to cut loose because they’re getting something they’re reluctant to lose (me included). But if you’re “getting” something from someone who is manipulating you or misrepresenting themselves, or not truly accepting the relationship as it is, what are you really getting? It’s taken awhile, but I believe I now live the words I wrote to my friend. There’s a price for that, but I find that few sound, hard-won practices come without one. It’s worth it, to me.