“Reach beyond your grasp. Your goals should be grand enough to get the best of you.” — Teilhard De Chardin
“Something new every day” could easily become my motto. I am one of those “weirdoes” that becomes energized by learning new facts, trivia, quotes, or assorted tidbits. I glean them from the web, newspapers, TV shows, radio news, emails, reading, crosswords, lectures and sermons, and travel. And if you have your antennae sharply attuned, it isn’t very hard. In short, a goal easily within grasp.
For instance, I was watching “Jeopardy!” (a “must” for every lifelong learner), and the Final Jeopardy question was about an item whose image was fashioned by Gustav Vigeland, described as depicting three naked men with their hands on each other’s shoulders. And the answer turned out to be “the Nobel Peace Prize.”
I had heard of Gustav Vigeland, having traveled to Oslo, Norway and visited Frogner Park, where his impressive sculptures are on display. The collection of sculptures is a tribute to the life cycle of man, with statues and poses showing men and women, naked, in all phases of the life cycle, from infancy, childhood, young adulthood on through decaying old age and even some showing skeletons which symbolize death. The display, collectively, is magnificent though considered controversial by some. I became quite an admirer of Gustav Vigeland after this visit. And yes, I’d heard of the Nobel Peace Prize, but had never thought about the actual images on the medal itself. The front of the medal has the image of Alfred Nobel, and the obverse has the image of the three naked men. That was my “something new’ for April 10, 2012.
I work crossword puzzles and in almost every puzzle, depending on the level of difficulty, I find at least one item (or several) that eludes me. And I look it up and learn something new, such as:
- engram – a neural change linked to memory: a hypothetical physical impression made in neural tissue by a mental stimulus. The crossword clue was “memory traces.” Who knew?
- arum plant – genus of low-growing tuberous perennial plants, that includes cala lily, philodendron, anthurium, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and the taro plant. The clue was ‘arum plant,” the answer was “taro.” Who knew – I mean, unless you are a botanist?
- peri – a pretty and graceful, fairy-like girl from Persian mythology. Who knew? Well, maybe a comparative lit major.
I learn new words playing Scrabble. I play against the computer using a software program. I can play on my home computer, my Kindle, or my Palm handheld. Invariably the computer plays a word I’ve never seen before, so I look it up. Here are a couple of recent ones that the computer surprised me with:
- boodle – a great quantity, especially of money
- kirtle – a woman’s gown or outer petticoat; a man’s tunic or coat
These kinds of “finds” always make me have immense respect for kids in spelling bees. I mean, I’ve been crosswording and reading and Scrabbling for decades now, and I was an English major so read more than many, and I am still astounded at the amount of arcane stuff I never knew about. And some of these kids can spell that stuff.
As you can see, some of us are easily amused. So in a few years hence (hopefully quite a few), when I’m retired and not as mobile as I am now, I’ll have lots to keep me busy, as long as I have Scrabble, crosswords, a TV and the internet. And books of course, and my cats. And I just don’t get those retirees that moan “I just don’t know what to do with myself now that I’m retired.” Hello? There’s tons of stuff out there to learn, for pity’s sake. Get crackin’. You can’t possibly learn it all by the time you die.
I hear new words when I listen to audio books as I commute to and from work, and now and then have to look some of them up. I hear some mispronounced too, sad to say. And there are others, though, that I’ve seen only in print that I hear pronounced and think “aah, so that’s how you say it.” I can tell a book reader is “not from around these parts” when I hear words like “Sepulveda” and “Tehachapi” mispronounced (California words). And I learn lots of “Britishisms” from reading English novels, including a lot of contemporary detective and crime novels – like “Bob’s your uncle” (one of my favorites). Typically, a Brit says it to conclude a set of simple instructions or ideas to mean, “And there you have it”, or “You’re all set”. Such as:
“You follow the directions, you insert part A into slot B, fold over the widget, attach the carrying handle with the spanner, and well, Bob’s your uncle.”
“You leave the motorway, stay in the left lane near the verge, follow the first roundabout around to the left, exit at the Red Lion pub, and Bob’s your uncle.”
I’m currently planning a trip to Southern Africa, and I’ve been having a great time (part of the anticipation that goes with travel) looking up factlets about animals and climate and customs. I’ve learned that the African bush elephant is the world’s largest land animal, and that the cheetah has the ability to accelerate from 0 to 62 miles per hour in three seconds. That’s faster than some cars!
Now, some might ask of what use is this obscure knowledge? Well, my most obvious answer is “for going on Jeopardy, of course!” Duh. But, it could come in handy for conversations at cocktail parties, in the exhibit halls of conferences where you have to mill around with strangers, even at airports where you chat with other travelers at boarding gates during delayed arrivals or departures. Or even for those meet-ups from computer dating sites, where you meet the other party at a coffee bar, or other well-lighted place (beware of stalkers, cranks, liars and perverts), and you sense it is starting to go badly. You can sprinkle in some tidbits of arcane knowledge and impress the other person, or if he is a total Luddite or dullard, then at least you can amuse yourself while his eyes glaze over. I mean, if it is a total disaster, you might as well have fun in the process. Not that I’m being mean-spirited; I really do believe everyone has worth and dignity. It’s just that not everyone’s worth and dignity is readily discernible at a first meeting with certain types in a coffee bar or sports bar. And, this could be the start of your becoming a Renaissance man or Renaissance woman. To be such a person is to know a lot about a lot of fields, interests, endeavors and persuasions, from art to applesauce, and zithers to zebras. There, quod erat demonstrandum. I rest my case.