Only the Dead Have Nothing Left to Learn

by wlancehunt, November 19, 2021 in Personal Narrative, psychology, resilience

  Ideas from literature sometimes leap from the page and take up residence in real life. Such as the familiar trope of the kid who started training young, and by the time they grow up, no one can match their skill. They are quiet demigods waiting, almost in disguise, to spring their skill on the unaware.

    A subtle if unintended message this brings along with it tells us that if you don’t start learning a skill as a kid, you’ll never be that good. Like Arya Stark training with Needle or Grasshopper dedicating himself to learn the five forms of Kung Fu, start young or don’t bother. 

    This parasite of an idea has infested cultural mind.

   Basically, “Sorry. You’re over the age of 14. Forget about getting great.” 

   Another way of packaging the canard that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks

     But, worry not. After middle school, you can still grow up to be a stick-in-the-mud, close-minded antagonist. You can turn mean. Grow brutish. Perhaps sell your soul at crossroads. Get wicked. Tricky. Manipulative. I.e., turn villain. Put all your life experience to good use, defeating the, usually, young hero. 

     Course, these now-grown kids always whup the bad guys’ butts in the end. Wisdom and knowledge be damned. 

     Oh, I hear you—what about Obi-Wan Kinobe? 

     Well, Old Ben Kinobe started Jedi training young. And was a mentor when he met the young hero who’d been bulls eyeing womp rats in his T-16  since he was a kid. 

In Real Life

     Over here, in mostly real life, we’ve got the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, just about every Olympic athlete. Most professional athletes, for that matter. Start young or watch from the stands. 

    Really, once you’re in middle school, you don’t have the 16-18 years to  completely dedicate yourself to learning like kids do. 

     Plus, some of us, well, we’re old†. And old means we can’t learn. (Old dog doesn’t do new tricks.) Or if we do, it’s in slow motion. While we’re fighting off senility and senescence.

†out of school for longer than spend in it, family or not—grey hair optional 

     Hell, even if you don’t want to be a champion swordsman or woman, or a master of Crane, Snake, Praying Mantis, Tiger, and Dragon, look at all these little kids inhaling new languages as if that were nothing. Soaking ’em up like sponges.  

     By the time we learn much well, we’re older still—a bit stiffer, stuck firmer in our ways, brain ossifying just that much more. 

     Hell, if you’re 40, 50, or older—what’re you even thinking?

     Sorry, I call bullshit on that. 

     See, Arya Stark, Grasshopper, Obi-Wan are all fictional. And not everyone is aiming to be an Olympic athlete. Nor yet a polyglot speaker of the three-plus languages ’cause of mom and dad and grandma and pa. 

     More importantly, not everyone needs nor wants to be. 

     Here in Brooklyn, I don’t have to fight to keep myself alive. Nor save the rebel alliance, nor gain the Iron Throne. Nor do I have a desire to become an Olympian nor professional sportsman. 

     I want to get my son into a good college and help him start his life, enjoy time with my wife and write more. Recently, I taught myself the basics of HTML to create an ebook of A Perfect Blindness that I could do whatever I wanted with. Not to make a career in coding. Better, no sweaty armor needed.

     While it would be useful to speak Russian decently around my house, I don’t need to. The little Spanish I’ve kept alive is helpful around the city and on trips. The German I once spoke has atrophied to a handful of phrases and words. (But with a wicked good accent—you see, I learned German quite young, living in West Germany.)

      Most of us will never be larger-than-life heroes, achieving Homeric arete—”fame on the lips on men.” 

     Nor do we need that kind of fame to live a full and fulfilling life. My mother went back to Ohio State to finish up her degree fifty years after she started it

     And  this great, great grandmother María Josefina Cruz Blancas y García got her college degree at 93.

     Lke these two women, the one thing we all need is flexibility. Especially of the mind

     Looking at 60

I turn 59 this month and keep finding out that I’ve still got a stupid amount to learn. 

     Not talking learning about life and the universe and other people. That stuff, well, once you stop learning about those things, you’re dead—even if your body is still walking about, going through the motions of life. That’s existing, simply not being buried yet. 

     I’m talking learning about writing. The art and craft I’ve dedicated myself to for 39 plus years, including getting an MA in English. 

     (Take that whoever my high school English teachers were. My mother recently showed me a note I wrote apologizing for something or other back then. I was practically illiterate. Nope. That will not appear here. It is thatbad.)

     Just now, approaching near four decades of striving, I’m learning things about writing that would have changed my life had I known them 30 years ago.

      Changed my writing life, at least. I’m still hoping it’ll change other parts of my life. At least a little bit. A few more fans. Pay off some of the costs of a website. And, dare I think of it: turn a profit? 

Secrets

     Secretly, I’m working towards earning more writing fiction than my wife does translating. Pipe dream? 

Perhaps. (Read probably—she does quite well.)

     But, you see, I’m not merely hoping. Wishing. Fingers crossed. Waiting for luck. I’m practicing. Learning. A lot. And, it’s accelerating. Even nearing the end of my 50s.

The Places We Learn

      Last year, a good friend of mine (that’s you, Sofi Stambo) gave me a free subscription to Masterclass. This gave me access to every teacher. N.K. Jamisen. (Done.) Dan Brown. (Done.) Salman Rushdie. (Working.) Malcolm Gladwell. (Up soon.) Neil Gaiman. (Up soon.)And the rest of the roster of seriously good and successful writers spreading wisdom and in some case damned good practical advice—Brown was especially generous with that.  

     This, coming off the Brandon Sanderson lectures at BYU I found several months back. 

     Add to this the BSFW. Specifically, the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers Story Genius sub-group, which dives deep into that book. 

     I’d heard of Story Genius before. Never bothered with it until I overheard the folks here at BSFW talking about it. Then, just at the right time, a new BSFW sub-group started working its way through, chapter by chapter. All of us workshopping each other’s ideas. 

     And with all these new tools and growing insights, I’ve been listening to audiobooks and reading much more lately. Dissecting how scenes are put together, the way characters develop, and all the ways backstory can be introduced. I use these lessons even while catching TV showsKarina and I settle in to watch many evenings. Mostly recently Goliath, and Line of Fire

     This has been… eye-opening. 

An Old Itch Scratched

     For a long time, I’d known I needed help with stories—the character’s internal  journey. I’d felt the problem in my fiction. Glimpsed shards of the solution. But Story Genius, finally, puts it all together in a cogent, practicable way. 

     And I love it. Damn, I wish I had had that vocabulary and these tools when I wrote A Perfect Blindness. It would have been a stronger book. 

     Now, all these new shiny tools are in the hands of a man wiser than he was when he started dreaming of writing as a teen.

     So look out, villains and antagonists: I’ve got heroes coming at you to kick your butts. More than one is middled-aged. 

     I haven’t been this confident of writing something kick ass in, well, probably ever. Assured not merely by sheer ego. But with new knowledge. And clear insight. 

     Makes me feel like an undergrad again

     Okay, not as awkward nor as seemingly indestructible as an 18-year-old tearing into college. But touched by the same enthusiasm and desire to rock the world. 

     Feels good again after forty years. 

     With age comes the wisdom to accept a certain amount of inevitable physical decline. I shan’t look 35 again. Nor shall I try. I shan’t slalom down double-black-diamond mogul fields. Nor pick up swording fighting. But will keep myself as limber as possible. 

     Flexibility vs Stiffness

Especially flexibility of the mind. For only then can one be open to the wisdom that comes with age. 

     For those who accept this wisdom, learning follows. This too keeps the mind fluid. Plastic. Open. Able to use insight to fend away the poor idea and rotten thinking. 

    Always remembering that the primary characteristic of death is inflexibility. 

     Nothing moving. 

     Nothing changing. 

     Statis.

    Dead.

     Just hope my 16-year-old son won’t ever buy into the nonsense that we ever get too old to learn. That’ll give him 40 years’ head start on me. 

     Right now, he’s at La Guardia High School (yes, the one of Fame fame) and is already learning among talented artists. That makes me optimistic. 


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