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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Learning to Learn

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, 
but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

My father’s ambition when he was graduated from Perth Amboy High School was to be an attorney, but it was the time of the Great Depression and he entered the workplace instead, as a laborer.

He could:
  • Drive a truck
  • Hang wallpaper
  • Paint a house
  • Repair cars
  • Build furniture
  • Sew slipcovers for sofas and chairs, and curtains for windows
  • Build a doghouse
  • Put up a fence
  • Work as an ironworker in constructing whole buildings
  • Pass Civil Service exams to become a cop and then a sergeant
  • Tend bar

When he had his heart attack, he was at work as a taxi dispatcher. 

They used to call guys like him a “Jack of All Trades.” Today we call it lifelong learning.

The annual report on mortality rates by the National Center for Health Statistics, released this week, confirmed that in 2012 life expectancy for older Americans continued to climb. People who reach 65 have an average 19.3 more years ahead of them -- an all-time high.

What are we going to do with all this newfound time? If you’re a lifelong learner – plenty, because you understand that learning is not a place, but a process whose endpoint has been extended.

Learning as we used to understand it occurs in institutions designed to deliver education. The informal learning that is lifelong is most often pursued outside the walls of learning institutions.

A lot has been written about the benefits of lifelong learning: personal development, employment and earnings, economics, sense of wellbeing – even as a defense against dementia. Governments are promoting lifelong learning as a way to nurture competitiveness, innovation and growth. Some governments see lifelong learning as contributing to social cohesion.

But what about the value of a life? Does lifelong learning heighten the value of our lives?

In 2008, Time magazine reported that a human life was worth $189,000. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency set the value of human life at $9.1 million. The same year, the Food and Drug Administration put it at $7.9 million. Each of these reports crunched various numbers to come up with their assessments.

My father was deft at adding value to his life by using his hands to shape the physical environment around him. Lacking his aptitude, I’ve brought value to my life through my writing. I’ve tried to add to its value through continued learning. In recent years, for example, I’ve learned to swim and to snorkel, to sail, to operate a well-regarded bed-and-breakfast. I’ve taught myself to cook well enough to serve paying guests. I’m wrestling with Rosetta Stone to learn Italian. And I’m in the process of publishing six books.

Mary Ann Evans – the acclaimed English novelist of the Victorian era who wrote under the pen name George Eliot – said it well: "It's never too late to be what you might have been."



In my next blog, “The Yuck Factor”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fat Guy in a Fat Boat


The classic New England catboat.

“One thing about being at sea is that you don’t really get to stop. A boat simply does not allow for genuine rest. Its essential nature is peril, held in check only through enormous effort and expense.”

A Mile Down; The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea
David Vann, 2005

The year that David Vann’s disturbing book was published, I took ownership of the sailing vessel Copy Cat, the last 23-foot New England cruising catboat built by Bill Menger -- who would pass over the bar two years later.

I could write a book. So I am. Next spring – as recreational boats are being put into the water – Pamet River Books will publish The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat.

This Columbus Day weekend, however, it is being hauled out of the water for winter storage. My 2014 boating season is ended. 

Much of buying a boat is nautical foreplay:
  • Obsessively driving out to the boatyard each weekend to observe the slow birthing of the vessel
  • Trying to sound unpretentious in mentioning your upcoming “sea trials” to friends
  • Throwing a launch party, right down to a bottle of bubbly cracked against hull
When I extended my hand to accept the keys to the boat, I didn’t appreciate the “enormous effort and expense” described in Vann’s book.

Copy Cat’s homeport, for example, is Red Brook Harbor, at the upper end of Buzzards Bay, just outside the Cape Cod Canal. Frequent brisk winds over the funnel-shaped Bay cause contrary interplay with tides in the Bay’s relatively shallow waters, resulting in a phenomenon known as “standing waves” – as high as six feet -- near the Canal. So Buzzards Bay always makes the Top Ten lists of “Most Challenging” bodies of water in which to sail.

Then there’s my own ineptitude. In the years I’ve skippered Copy Cat, I’ve kept a growing list of blunders:
  • Raising the peak spar first instead of throat and peak spars together
  • Forgetting to loosen the topping lift after the sail has been raised
  • Confusing the 2nd reef outhaul with the first
  • Running aground
  • Running out of fuel
But the heart will not be denied. From earliest times, our ancient ancestors clustered their dwellings near bodies of water – ponds and lakes, rivers, the seas. As a species, we come from water and are so much composed of water that we instinctively regard it as our natural habitat.

In her memoir, Paris France, Gertrude Stein wrote:

“Writers have two countries. The one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic. It is not real but it is really there.”

This is true not only for writers, but for sailors, too. Which of the two is our real country?

Sailors have a romantic anticipation in our mind’s eye of how we want things to unfold aboard the private little country that is our boat. But factors as simple as worsening weather or a failed shackle or a dry fuel tank wrench us back to the real.

Still, I can’t wait for spring, when I can return to the private little country that is my boat.

In my next blog, “Learning to Learn”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Life in Black and White


Everybody has to have an Aunt Sally in their lives. Without one, life is less.

My Aunt Sally would have been 97 today if Parkinson’s disease hadn’t taken her in 2001. 

Unlike my mother, who quit school after the eighth grade, Aunt Sally was a high school graduate. She carved a life-long career for herself as head of Personnel for the IRS headquarters in lower Manhattan.

And she was such an influence on me that my mother was jealous of her.

I had inherited Aunt Sally’s severe overbite, and she must have known that this malocclusion would adversely affect my self-image as it had hers. So she took me to an orthodontist while I was still in middle school and paid for braces to straighten my severely buck teeth.

She took me on an eight-grade graduation trip to DC, encouraged me to study for the priesthood and visited me in the seminary every parents’ day because my mother and father never did. When I determined that I did not have a calling to the priesthood, she steered me toward Fordham to complete my university studies.

Like the movies that were the dominant cultural centerpiece for so many people in the 1940s and 50s, she was a woman who lived her life in black and white. Decisions, choices, directions were easy, and to this day I cite Aunt Sally’s many aphorisms as worthy and relevant guideposts along life’s journey:

“You never want to look chintzy” …

“Don’t act hoity-toity around people” …

“It’s God’s baby, not yours …”

The “Aunt Sophie” character in my novel-in-progress, Down the Edges, is drawn in part from the real-life Aunt Sally:

“Jenny was sure her Aunt Sophie would hate the house. After all, she had appointed herself arbiter of what in Jenny’s life was good or bad. Aunt Sophie wasn’t coming to Cape Cod to eat clam rolls and lobsters, but to pass judgment on Jenny’s new place. Presuming the infallibility of the Pope, Aunt Sophie proclaimed ex cathedra on the range of life’s decisions – Colgate is the only toothpaste to buy; beds should be made up immediately upon rising; Milky Way candy bars are preferred to Snickers; Martinis may commence precisely at noon, earlier if you have company.”

Unlike fictional Aunt Sophie, though, real Aunt Sally was a reverent woman. You would find her at the first Mass of the day every Sunday, occupying the same pew in church. During her long commutes to work, she read and re-read the essays of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen as if they were divinely inspired. She even had a schoolgirl’s crush on the handsome pastor with the beautiful tenor voice.

After spending her prime years alone, she fell in love -- at 54 -- with a co-worker. A divorcee and an irreligious Protestant, he was far from her type. But he was a Yale man, and that counted for a lot to the high school graduate that Aunt Sally was. It was not a good marriage -- not the congenial relationship she had anticipated and deserved. Alone again after her husband's death from advanced alcoholism, Aunt Sally’s latter years were sad ones. 

French Novelist Simone de Beauvoir said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

My Aunt Sally didn’t know she was strong, wasn’t aware she was an inspiration. She thought she was, simply, a woman.

In my next blog, “The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat”