My two kids, 13 and 10, spout Latin verbs and the philosophy of Confucius. In one afternoon their spongy, fertile brains can absorb Wilco lyrics, Macbeth lines and the mechanics of a baseball swing. If only my brain were as spongy.
I keep mum at dinner parties for fear of confusing the Sunni and Shia, or botching a Winston Churchill quote. When I hear about a 106-year-old army vet who recently returned to high school, I contemplate joining him. But instead I steal a different idea: a UCLA junior’s project of doing a daily “learning hour.” His mom told me about it at a dinner party, adding excitedly that he’s been doing “the hour” for four years, starting back in high school, and keeps impeccable records of each day’s subject. So when More asked me if I wanted to break out of a rut, I instantly thought of Jeremy and all his enviable new knowledge. I would try my own daily learning hour.
For three solid weeks, then, I dove into postmodernism, poetry, the Constitution—something new every day. I’d already stored a number of must-explore topics in my brain, from the origins of human life (how did we get from primordial soup to cells and organisms?) to the principles of American foreign policy (are our leaders following some kind of playbook or just winging it?). I also browsed the library for subjects, which led me to a book on Alexander Calder’s mobiles and the classic Strunk & White grammar primer The Elements of Style. I surfed the talks on FORA.tv and TED.com and visited iTunesU and the not-for-profit khanacademy.org. When I hit up my friends, one of them recommended her favorite Buddhist readings. Another, upon hearing of my desire to learn to hula-hoop, blurted, “Ah, I know just the person!”
The 21 days felt both easy and hard. Often I yearned to relax with my New Yorker but was twisted in string theory instead. Exploring the history of cancer, the science of aspirin, the evolution of kissing, the discovery of the polio vaccine, I decided all backstories are fascinating. (In the 1950’s, when a breast-cancer survivor wanted to advertise in the New York Times for women interested in forming a support group, the paper told her it couldn’t print the words “breast” or “cancer.”) Now that my learning spree is over, I feel a little smarter, but a lot more likely to stop waiting to quench a curiosity someday, and instead, tackle it today.
Diana Kapp's work has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco magazine, Elle and elsewhere.
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