Never stop learning

When were you last in a classroom? Some of you probably still are, while some of you may not have been in one for years, outside of the inevitable parents’ night for your own kids.

Next question: When did you last learn something new that was not related to your job? And by “learn something new” I don’t mean picked up a new fun fact on the internet or heard some juicy gossip. I mean actually studied a skill or subject in an effort to master it.

If the answer to the second question is a longer time than the answer to your first, then I have some advice for you. You don’t need to be in a classroom to learn, and you shouldn’t stop learning new things just because you’re no longer in school.

Now, I know the excuses a lot of people probably have. Number one: “Learning new things is hard…” Number two: “Learning new things is too expensive!”

As for number one, it’s really not that hard at all. The only block is the thing you stick in your own way that says, “No, I can’t!” It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, you know what? Self-fulfilling prophecies are utter crap. They only stop you because you put them there. If you want to learn a thing, the only obstacle in this age is not lack of resources, it’s the lack of you trying.

Imagine if you’d had that response to learning to walk or talk. You’d still be stuck in the corner babbling incoherently and relying on your parents to carry you everywhere. Short of actual physical impediments to learning — e.g., a blind person is probably not going to become a photographer — the only impediment is the defeatism between your own ears.

Regarding the expensive part, that used to be valid. But even then, not really. There were and still are things called libraries, where anyone can have access to books and other materials (including audio and video) on any subject for free. And for the last 25 or so years, we’ve had this thing called the internet, which is the world’s biggest, vastest library. If you have access to that — and if you have a smart phone or computer, or if you’re reading this, then  you do — then all of the knowledge in the world is at your fingertips, and resources for what you want to learn are just as far away as a simple search.

Sure, some things cost money, but a lot don’t. Funny thing about humans — some of us who acquire knowledge love sharing it for the sake of passing it on. And if you’re already paying money for a streaming or music service, then you probably have access to videos and podcasts on your subject via those, so it’s really a free bonus included in an amount you’re already willing to fork over.

As for learning things way after school, I have a few examples. The earliest one was not long after school, but of necessity, because I no longer had professional IT people to help with computer issues. So I basically learned how to be a PC mechanic, and so have installed, built, rebuilt, repaired, rehabbed, recovered, and re-everythinged a ton of computers in my day.

One of my proudest moments, in fact, was when I figured out — without any manuals or guidance — how to internally rewire a keyboard that was designed for one system to be compatible with another. Of course, I don’t have any official certifications for any of this and, unfortunately, it’s one of those fields, like being a doctor or lawyer, where you really can’t just walk in and say, “Hey, I can do that!” and get a job. Oh, if it were, though…

But life and learning goes on, and here are two recent examples, long past the day they handed me my degree.

I’ve discussed both of them here frequently. One is relearning Spanish after having learned it and forgotten it in high school, and my only expense has been voluntary costs for Spanish language magazines and books I bought to study with or read, many of them gotten cheaply at a local used book store.

I’m currently a third of the way through my first novel in Spanish and, although it’s a translation of the English book Ready Player One, I’m really following it easily, and that’s not a cheat, because I haven’t seen the movie yet. And yeah, it’s a YA novel, but that’s probably my Spanish level at the moment anyway. Cool how that works out, right?

The other example is improv, which I’ve also discussed here. While I’ve always loved to watch it, I didn’t start to study it until about two years ago. I had never studied it because the mere idea of trying to do it scared the living feces out of me. What — go on stage without a script and just make stuff up? Yes, I’m a writer and an actor but writers take time with their words and actors get scripts and rehearsal. Throw both out and go there and… whaaaat? No. I thought I could never, ever do that. But the chance came up, so I took it. (Note: This part was not free, but the minimal cost has been worth it. Don’t negate my thesis over that, please.)

Anyway… trying to improv scared me through all of those early classes and into actually doing it weekly onstage. But then a funny thing happened. I let go of the fear and started having fun and, suddenly, improv became enjoyable, and the more I learned how to do it, the more I learned how to be myself. Ironically, the big secret was learning how to shut up my writer brain and let my body take charge. And this tapped into another skill I had avoided learning for way too long only to find out that I enjoyed it: Dancing. But that’s a whole other story.

But the same thing happened with Spanish. The more I just forgot about the little grammar Nazi in my head and just strung words together with abandon, the easier it got to speak, and letting people know that they could correct me if I got it wrong and agreeing to not take it personally just helped with the learning. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And probably the key point in learning a new thing is to never take correction personally. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers are bad at giving correction without making it personal (like every math teacher I ever had — a-holes!). But the best teachers give correction by suggestion or question. “That was great, but have you considered…?” “Amazing, but now let’s try it this way…”

Now, I’m not saying that you have to learn a language or improv, but what I am saying is this: No matter how old you are or how incompetent you think you might me (you’re not) pick a thing you would like to learn, and go take a shot at it. If you can’t afford lessons from the pros, don’t worry. You’ve probably got a local library and can find tons of instructional books. You can probably also find groups of willing volunteers who do the same thing and want to help. That thing can be… whatever. Quilting. Scrapbooking. Trainspotting. D&D. Gaming. Activism. Some sport. Fanfic. Cosplay. Improv. Please let it be improv… or playwriting. Yeah, I’m that kind of nerd.

But I love all kinds of nerds. And, full circle. The common thread, I think, about us nerds, is this: We never stop learning about whatever interests us. And we need to spread the word to the muggles, and it’s this: Never stop learning ever. Period. Full stop. Learning to humans should be like swimming to sharks: To stop is to die. Unfortunately, way too many people chose to die when, instead, they could really enjoy living.

Quartets on the Deaths of too Many Children… Part 1

Sometimes, I write poetry. Sometimes, it’s inspired by real-world events and not who I’m in love with that week. This is one of those sometimes. Feel free to share.

Thoughts and prayers do nothing, you know
Except make you feel no guilt
One more shooting, and one more blow
This is the world you have built

How many children, how many deaths
How many guns do you need?
Suffered enough of their terminal breaths?
When will we learn to take heed?

You’d think we’d be better than that
Learn to transcend our animal past
But we kill like a hungry house cat
So our species ain’t destined to last

The secret is this, the secret is love
The secret is learn how to share
Take other people and put them above
Learn how to tell them you care

This planet is old, our species is not
But all life that lives here is kin
Learn to be happy with what you have got
Learn how to let all life in

The problem, I think, is that words interfere
Let’s tackle emotions instead
Settle on being in the now and here
List’ and react to what I just said

So here are my quartets
And here are my words
Take ‘em or leave ‘em, ta-da
Breaking the format
To bring you this point…
Smile and hug me… voila!

Look — an interview!

Meet Jon Bastian of The Word Whisperer in Sherman Oaks, courtesy of Voyage L.A.

As I move now from writing the book to rewriting and editing to get it ready, I won’t be having the regular chapter updates. But I do have this bit to share: an interview I did recently for the website Voyage  L.A. Check it out! And while you’re at it, don’t forget to check out the book, beginning with the Prologue.

Chapter Fifteen

With Chapter Fifteen, we come to the end of the line. This is where I reveal the lesson of the safety pin from the prologue — but not in this excerpt!

Closing the circle

And so we have made it to the final chapter together and, I hope, you’ve already begun to see some progress. For me, it’s always helpful from time to time to think back to August 25, 2016 — who I was, what I had become, and how I have changed since then.

I wasn’t happy with myself then, and hadn’t been for a while. I had ballooned up to a ridiculous weight and had been living in such denial that it took my scrotum blowing up to the size of a cantaloupe just to get me to the doctor — despite having excellent health insurance. I smoked at least a pack a day, could barely walk across a room, and pretty much only left home to go to work, pick up my mail, or buy groceries. Dating? Not even a remote possibility.

A brush with death will definitely change you, but it wasn’t until afterwards that I started to realize that my uncle’s heart attack had affected my parents a lot more than it seemed at the time. Not only did my dad go on a diet to help prevent heart disease, but my parents got me a social security card at the time. For non-Americans, this is effectively a national ID number although it’s technically not supposed to be used for identification (spoiler: it constantly is). It’s how your employers track you and report your wages and income taxes, and it’s how you collect retirement benefits from the government after you’ve spent a working lifetime paying into them.

In the 1980s, the rules changed so that infants had to get social security numbers, mainly because a certain political party went through one of its frequent moments of anti-immigrant muscle-flexing, but combined with the legitimate need to keep people from creating fake babies to use as tax deductions. When I was a kid, though, it still wasn’t necessary to get a social security number until you were about to get a job — unless you were going to collect someone else’s benefits, i.e., a deceased parent’s pension and death benefit.

So yes, my parents took my dad’s brother’s heart attack quite seriously. It was also not long after this that my dad started taking me to the movies — usually science fiction — which totally changed my life. Again, I never made the connection between “specter of death” and “spend more time with your son” until I’d gone through the same thing myself. Minus the son part, of course.

It’s funny how adult eyes can change your perception of things your parents did. For example, my parents decided to try to sell the house I grew up in and buy something bigger and better, although that never happened because the seller’s market was bad at the time. Again, though, it wasn’t until years later and as an adult that I realized they did this almost immediately after my dad’s youngest son from his first marriage turned 18 and my dad didn’t have to pay child support anymore. (Alimony must have been a thing of the past, because his ex-wife had remarried almost as soon as he did.)

But I do digress.

In my case, almost dying gave me a second chance, and almost six months after I wound up in the hospital — just in time for my birthday! — I was very happy with myself. I was thinner than I’d ever been as an adult except for one brief window when I was about 26, I had discovered that my fear of doctors and hospitals was largely an illusion, based on past experiences that just didn’t apply anymore, and not only had I quit smoking (saving over $260 a month), but I now found the habit to be beyond disgusting. I was athletic and energetic again, had started taking improv classes, and noticed an incredible difference in the way people treated me — friends and strangers alike. My social life took off and, although I didn’t get back into dating quite just then, I did start to meet a lot of new people in 2017.

Since I like statistics, here are some as a reminder, because I’ve told you this before. My top weight was 277.6 lbs. I brought that down to 167.8. My measurements were 44-42-48. Now, they’re more like 36-30-34. My shirt size went from XL to less than S, and the one belt I own that had gotten too tight at its loosest I now regularly crank down to the last hole. Yeah, I guess I should buy a new belt.

Certain body parts always stay the same size, so now my head, hands, feet, and… other bits all seem enormous — there’s your diet incentive right there, guys! The smaller you get, the bigger it looks. It’s funny, because there’s kind of a stereotype that it’s always the skinny guys who are the most well-endowed, and now you know why that seems to be…

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Fourteen or start with the Prologue.

Chapter Five

We all have irrational fears — but the only way to find out how irrational they are is to get over them. I explain in this excerpt from the next chapter of “The Amateur’s Guide to DIY Miracles.”

Strap in for this ride…

When I was seven years old and on a trip to visit my mom’s family back East, my dad took me to one of those rinky-dink pop-up carnivals. You know the type. They show up in public parks and church parking lots seemingly overnight and generally consist of a few shady sideshow games and a few shadier rides, all run by even shadier people.

At this carnival, my dad took me on a roller coaster — my first, actually. As a roller coaster, it wasn’t much to speak of. It was a single loop that covered the area of maybe two semi-flatbed trailers, and a single circuit couldn’t have lasted a minute, if that — probably more like thirty seconds. The tallest point on it was maybe twelve feet.

We strap in and the operator starts the ride. We get to the first insignificant drop, and my seven-year-old mind freaks out. I do not like this at all — the sensation of falling, and of being out of control.

We pull back into the station and I’m all ready to get off when the operator gives a look and a nod.

That wasn’t the only lap.

As I try to protest, we take off and run the course again. This time, it’s scarier, because I know what’s coming. This is sheer terror. I’m confined in a metal car, we’re careening down rickety tracks that are only not scarier because I’m too young to realize that they were probably slapped together by a disinterested minimum-wage crew on summer jobs. I hear other people laughing and hollering and having a great time — my own father included. How could he? And then we make it back and come into the station again and…

Oh, holy shit, the operator is giving me a big grin and signaling to me, “One more time.” He is the most evil man in the world. My seven-year-old mind turns to thoughts of homicide. They will never find his body!

The only reason I didn’t curse up a blue streak at him is because I didn’t know the dirty words yet. Around we went again, and I only don’t kiss that hot, smelly asphalt once my dad and I had gotten off of the death machine because, again, I was too young to have met that symbolic gesture yet.

From that day forward, I knew that I hated roller coasters and avoided them. And then, in high school, we were on a grad night trip to Disneyland — band friends Janet, Sam, Anne, Mike, and I, although I could be remembering the dramatis personae totally wrong anyway. The important part is that they all want to go on Space Mountain, and I don’t. Cue the peer pressure.

“You’ll love it,” Janet insists.

“Nah, I don’t like — ” I protest.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Mike chimes in. Did I mention that this Mike was kind of a dick?

“It’s really not that bad,” Anne adds in her quiet but confident way.

“There are lots of places to back out before the end of the line,” Janet explains, hopefully.

Well, in that case… what did I have to lose except my dignity and honor? After all, we were all graduating from high school in a few weeks and, as far as I knew, nobody I knew from Taft High was going to the same college I was, so what the hell? I let them lead me into that line, and I was as nervous as a first-time Oscar-winner giving an acceptance speech on the deck of a sinking Titanic during an earthquake in the middle of a tornado while watching their spouse and side piece run into each other and figure it out.

Or, in other words, I should have been wearing my brown pants. Ah, that’s the one — I was as nervous as a bad guy facing Deadpool.

But I made it through the line and past all of the emergency escapes — which I think Mike described as “pussy chutes.” Did I mention that I think he wound up working in his uncle’s gas station well into his 30s before I lost track of him? And then, fascinated by the design of the queuing area, I missed the last escape, and there we were, getting into the cars.

Oh, hell no.

Except that there I was, surrounded by friends, ride attendants hustling us forward, and the only thing I could do was get into that car, let them strap me in, and decide whether I was still religious. (Spoiler: nope). At least it was science fiction themed, though, and I love me some science fiction.

In retrospect, that may have been the carrot that got me past the stick, and then we were climbing up that long ramp into the dark and I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into, but it was nice to look at as we finally reached the top, circling in a moment of silence and peace, projected stars and galaxies above us.

“Oh,” I thought. “That’s pretty…”

And then the car tipped, turned, dropped, shot into the ride, and I learned something really amazing…

I totally love roller coasters!

Space Mountain had me hooked, and from then on I’ve looked forward to riding. The only exceptions are rides with steep vertical drops. I do not like those, but at least I figured that one out through the clear eyes of adult experience, and gave it a couple of tries before I decided that I don’t like that physical feeling.

But that decision came after some actual testing, instead of as a seven-year-old’s panic over nothing that turned into a pseudo-phobia that lasted over a decade.

I kind of had the same issue with doctors once upon a time, and that fear and reluctance nearly killed me. The biggest surprise? Once I put myself in their hands, I realized, “I’ve been afraid of nothing all along.”

That is the state that too many of us live in: Afraid of nothing all along. So my challenge to you is this: Figure out your thing that you’re very reluctant to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be because of fear. You can call it disgust, or nervousness, or any negative emotion, really. Next, figure out where that reluctance came from. Is it something that happened in your childhood? Is it for some reason you can’t even remember? Is it because of one bad experience as an adult?

Now: Go do that thing. You only have to do it one time, but the important part of the exercise is confronting your reluctance and finding out whether it’s real or imagined.

The worst that can happen is you confirm you’ve been right all these years, but at least then you get to be justified in your dislike of something. But I’m willing to bet that most of those fears and distastes are imagined, and you might even discover a new thing that you really, really like.

Like I did with roller coasters. But I never would’ve found that out without taking one more ride.

* * *

Image: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons

Read excerpts from Chapter Four or Chapter Six, or go back to the Prologue.

 

The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles

In the middle of 2016, I almost died. By the middle of 2017, I had turned my life around, lost over a hundred pounds, and rediscovered happiness — and I want to tell you how I did it.

While my main job is providing my writing and editing services in order to make your business and communications stand out above the rest, I do have my own story to tell, and the title of this post is the title of the book I’m working on.

Here’s the thumbnail version. In August, 2016, I weighed 278 pounds, I wound up in the hospital when my heart failed, and my cardiologist told me flat out, “You are going to die if you don’t make some changes.”

Well, I made those changes, and a bit over a year later, I weigh 167 pounds, my blood pressure is in the low-normal range, and I’ve been told that I have the resting heart rate of an 18-year-old athlete. My heart also made a full recovery., and I managed to kick a decades-long smoking habit cold turkey with absolutely no desire to go back to it.

When that same cardiologist started asking me for diet tips, I knew I was doing something right — and I knew that it was time to share my how-to story with the world. It wasn’t easy to do what I did, and I’ve been told that it was also theoretically impossible at my age, but losing over a hundred pounds and a full twelve inches off my waist size says otherwise.

The only downside was that I had to replace my wardrobe three times because I kept getting too damn skinny for my pants. Yeah, first world problems, I know!

The thing is, if you have the desire, you can do it too, and make a radical transformation that will make you healthier, happier, and more self-confident. Not only did I transform myself physically, but I went from being a shy introvert to a complete extrovert — and became pretty athletic and energetic in the bargain.

Basically, it was like hitting a “reboot” button and going back to my late 20s all over again.

So that’s what I’m working on for myself and I’ll be sharing it with you soon. Trust me: If I could do what I did, then anybody can. Watch this space for updates on the book’s progress, coming soon!

Read the book’s prologue.