Hoping to Make the SuperAger Team

I think I am driven by a kind of survivalist mentality when it comes to learning: I keep signing up to learn every skill it takes to be a completely self-sufficient media outlet. Being “just” a writer makes me feel inadequate; I want to be photographer, designer, graphic artist and any other -ers or -phers, which may include coder and editor and probably videographer.

I am well aware it will take discipline and a great deal of practice before I can catch the dangling modifiers and vague pronoun references and gaps in logic and specious arguments – the nitty gritty – of those fields the way I can with grammar and content in writing.

So I was happy to find that at least I am not on a fool’s errand; turns out all that learning is adding years to my life. Apparently the struggles to find the right combinations of tiny checkboxes buried in Adobe Captivate Object Style Manager is the “temporary unpleasantness of intense effort” and I am on my way to becoming a Superager. Considering that when I want to bail, I like to bail to the gym, I am totally on track to a youthful brain. The study folks at Massachusetts General Hospital did is pretty encouraging, but to feel really on my way, I guess I’d have to take the California Verbal Learning Test Long Delay Free Recall Test. I think I will start by closing my eyes and trying to recite the name of that test. Nah, I have client work to read. I bet I can catch a dangling modifier.img_2180

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Models in Milano

Milan from the Duomo

A day or so after sitting in the public library Palazzo Sormani in Milan, which is
” la principale biblioteca del Sistema Bibliotecario Urbano e una delle maggiori biblioteche di pubblica lettura della città” – one of the cities main libraries and a one of its largest, I took this picture from the roof of the Duomo. As I looked out, I thought of all the people busy in the nooks and crannies of the hot city whose activities are essentially invisible from the top of the city’s iconic landmark. There were two people, however, who had made significant impressions on me the day I spent in the library Palazzo Sormani, a patron and a librarian.

The first was a man who had been sitting across from me at a table in the periodicals area; we had both gravitated to the spot by the open window through which a sporadic cool breeze teased. I judged him to be in his early thirties. For the weather, he seemed overdressed: long-sleeved tee shirt and jeans, and his speech, features and articles he carried indicated he was from North Africa. He spent his time in intense concentration huddled over a small notebook copying and recopying sentences from a book.

Across the room, a friend of his inquired in a mash-up of Italian and perhaps French how to find information. The librarian, a thin, middle-aged woman demonstrated the process as they both peered at a computer screen. He tried; she repeated; he tried and she repeated patiently until he seemed to get it.

I, too, was there in search of good examples. I had taken some plays off the shelf. I looking at the cadence of written language Italian-style in contemporary drama; the writing slowed down the pace of the words that spun around my head daily in coffee shops and on the tram. It was reassuring and enlightening to have the world pinned to the page so I had time to study. I had a similar goal to the (apparently) North African patrons and I also sought models to show me.

Copying, imitation and re-reading come from the maligned “drill and kill” school of learning, a system I chafed at myself in school. What made the difference in Palazzo Sormani that day was, in my opinion, the earnest motivation of the two men and myself to decipher the world into which we had immersed ourselves.

It has been a year this week since I sat in that library and I am just getting back to my summer 2012 journal. I hope the two men found the mastery they sought. I am still on my journey. I had, in fact, hoped to write about my experiences spending time in Milan’s public libraries, but when I returned I was given a pressing, time crunched opportunity to learn some software, then teach it to a group of about 70 adults. I did indeed teach myself the software with a combination of trial and error and YouTube videos. I got a message late in the process of preparation that, due to time constraints, I would, unfortunately, only have 90 minutes to teach groups of 20 something that had taken me weeks to learn. Unsurprisingly, ninety minutes did not prove enough;participants begged for hands-on practice, time to experiment and time for question and answer sessions: essentially demanding time for copying, imitation and, in a sense, re-reading.

What are you motivated to learn? Does this cycle help you?

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Touring Milan by Visiting Its Public Libraries

On a steamy July morning, I followed my phone’s GPS to the coolest spot in Parco Sempione, Milan, Italy:  the public library. The small, modern building sits on a knoll surrounded by mature evergreens and a bright flower garden; this particular day, dozing elderly rested on benches nearby.

Though Milan allegedly empties in the summer, the  library at Parco Sempione and any number of other libraries I visited were full of silent patrons, intense in their concentration with books, periodicals, and at computers. Often I found myself looking for a seat, which surprised me because of the usual advise to avoid Italy in July and August “because no one is there” and “everything stops.”

But July and August is the only time I could spend five weeks away visiting family in the city, so July and August it was. And while I deeply respect the city’s overwhelmingly impressive art and culture and made sure to spend contemplative hours in Pinoteca Brera and the Duomo as well as hundreds of other significant heritage sites, I made a decision early to visit as many libraries as I could. My library-themed tour gave me a refreshing alternative view from opinion of the city found in guidebooks.

Because the selections librarians make for their collections reflect the interests of their patrons, I was particularly interested in displays and featured books and magazines. But on the day I climbed the knoll to Biblioteca Parco Sempione, I had walked several miles in the heat to get there and my first priority was one of the scarce seats, and the only one open was in the back corner. I plopped down and gulped some water, I glanced up to a propped copy of a volume of poetry that made me feel like the librarians here knew my tastes and saw me coming: Ballistics, by Billy Collins.

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Space to William Hazlitt

Essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) observes in “On Going on a Journey” that “the world in our conceit of it is not much bigger than a nutshell…the mind can form no larger idea of space than the eye can take in at a single glance. The rest is a name written in a map, a calculation of arithmetic. For instance, what is the true signification of that immense mass of territory and population known by the name of China to us? An inch of pasteboard on a wooden globe…”

Hazlitt makes the case for several sorts of journeys; if you are headed for a long walk in your own country, go alone, because those who know you will spoil the change of scenery by bringing up the very topics of life you need to escape; when you wander into a new town and meet a stranger, that person is a nonjudgemental part of the scenery who comes to you without preconceptions. But headed to a foreign country, he advises us to take a close friend with whom we can find close relief from the pressures of immersion in everything strange. He closes saying that he wish to have a life of travel abroad, but also want another whole life to spend at home.

Hazlitt would have loved, I think, listening to This American Life’s episode about ex-pat American Kaiser Kuo and others who have lived in China for long periods. Hazlitt would probably begin by being amused at how much we can know about one another today, yet how little we thoroughly process how that information should inform how we view and interact with one another.

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Reading Social: A Day in the Boston Public Library

The cathedral-like atmosphere in the Boston Public Library gave me the peace I needed last Tuesday to settle down in one spot for a good long time and to really read. I was not alone; in fact, probably hundreds of people nestled in the courtyard, the corners, at the computer spots, at tables, and in aisles. The ambiance created by the architecture of the building and the collective act of reading helped me concentrate in ways that I don’t do at home, even in a comfortable chair in quiet moments. I never had to leave the building to have my vacation: I had a coffee break in the library cafe and I changed the pace with an art break in the print exhibit. Through it all, alone with my thoughts, I was surrounded and encouraged in my meditations by the presence of others setting a good example: focused, quiet, pondering.

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Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library

Inspiring, peaceful

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May 1, 2012 · 2:03 am

Ask Questions

Ask questions. If you can’t think of any, one of the best is “why”. Don’t quit until you find out “because.” “What if…” works really well, too. Little kids are great at these questions; after all, it is how they – we all – learned about the world. Questions take us beyond learning what exists, they are what get us to the next step: innovation.

Torie Bosch, of Slate asks, “Are we in the midst of a new era of innovation?” she is inspired by “New technologies are making it easier than ever to turn an idea into a reality. Three-dimensional   printers, open-source software, hackable products, and collaborative communities have turned traditional tinkering into a full-scale “maker movement” that allows—and encourages—everyone to tap into their inner entrepreneur.” She is excited about Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State Washington, D.C., Future Tense event on Wednesday, Feb. 29, called “Tinkering With Tomorrow.”

Tinkering may not be enough, however, especially when competing with a generation of highly-educated, highly skilled innovators. MIT is working hard to expand that pool beyond the students who study at its campus. MITx is “a portfolio of MIT courses for free to a virtual community of learners around the world.” Tinkering will be done by a lot sharper “DIY” crowd.

On a petty level, I found a DIY mindset saved me a bit of money recently. I was checking with my cell phone provider about using my 4G Android phone in Italy – it won’t work. But the service rep eagerly offered the number of a company who would give me “preferred rates” to rent a phone that would work. That sounded like money I didn’t want to spend, especially unattractive since two years ago, the same cell provider offered loaner phones free of charge, but no more. I wrote down the number for the rental company and hung up. But I called back a few minutes later with an inspiration about whether any of the old phones I had upgraded from would work in Italy. “Customers prefer the rentals,” I was told, an answer to a question I didn’t ask. I started asking about each model in the pile of discarded handsets. “Hey would my old Blackberry 9630 work in Italy?” My provider wasn’t volunteering the information, but at least was honest enough to say when I got to the right one, “Yeah.” I had the technology I needed right in my hand; I just had to ask.

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