The librarian smiled at me as he started checking out my books yesterday. "Doing a little light reading?" he asked.
I stared at my pile of non-fiction hardcover books and smiled. "Nah. I didn't want to pay for a gym membership. I'm lifting weights."
Heading towards my car, a man spreading fertilizer looked up at me. "Would you like a bag?" he asked.
"No, I'm fine." And I was, as my car was within ten feet of us.
But it strikes me that the pile of books, which to me seemed normal, were in fact quite unusual--must have been, if even the librarian commented on it.
I was at the library in the first place because I'd been Stumbling around the net (and if you don't know how to Stumble, my firm belief is that it's something everyone should know how to do. Just leave out "humour" and "cats" unless you have lots of time to waste looking at cute pictures of funny kittens...)... Where was I? Oh, yes. Stumbling around the net, and I came across this site and read the phrase: "You just spent 150 grand on an education that you could have gotten for $1.50 in late fees at the public library." Said by Matt Damon in the movie Good Will Hunting, if the site is to be believed. Don't know, never watched the movie.
But there's a kernel of truth in it. Apart from the fact that my late fees have been, over the last four years, considerably more than $1.50 (but I'm getting better!), the books I checked out yesterday and Monday are worth upwards of $400, and they're mostly newly published. Unless you're an English major, you can't get a complete education at the library, but it's a damn good start.
Which brings me to the point of the post. When we baby boomers were growing up, education was something that was mostly the province of children. Oh, my mom took one correspondence course (which she never completed, as far as I know), and my dad taught night school, but generally, once you were finished high school (or university if you were really smart), your education was finished and your "real life" began. School was for the young.
Not any more, and for a couple of reasons:
1) Knowledge is increasing at such a fast pace that much of what you learned in high school is now obsolete, even if you only graduated yesterday. In fact, much of it is obsolete by the time it's taught, especially in the sciences.
If you're not continually upgrading your knowledge, you're out of date. That might have been fine a hundred years ago, when the rate of increase in knowledge was smaller, and when you only lived into your sixties (if you were lucky).
But at age 51, I've got half my life still to live, and I don't want to spend it being obsolete.
2) Learning new stuff may actually help you live a longer, more lucid life. Some brain research I've read indicates that not only can learning new skills prevent loss of brain function and cognitive skills, but that it can increase brain volume in seniors. At an age where most seniors are losing brain mass, you may actually be able to increase yours by learning new skills!
This makes sense to me, since I've studied the brain a little bit, and know something of habit formation. In the beginning, when we're learning something new, our brain has to work overtime to do what we will later do with ease. Once our brain knows what it's doing, it develops and autopilot.
When I first learned to walk, I had to think about every step. When I first learned to drive, I experienced sensory overload. When I first learned to play a scale on my viola, my brain needed to determine where exactly each finger must be placed. I can now do all of these things without putting much thought into them (though my daughter will dispute the last, and, come to think of it, maybe even the first two)--my brain has formed efficient shortcuts so it doesn't have to work so hard.
Learning a new skill, like sewing, will take that kind of effort from my brain until I learn to do it well. It's a "use it or lose it" situation, and sort of a Catch-22. Our brains, being lazy, don't want to work so hard. So they learn, and learn well, and become more efficient. As they become more efficient and stop working, the cells that aren't being used any more seem to just waste away. But the longer we live, the more we need those extra cells, so we have to keep learning, keep giving our brain a work out.
It's apparent to me that the secret to living a long and healthy life isn't necessarily knowing stuff or being smart. I've known former university professors who developed Alzheimer's or dementia. And even sadder, I know younger seniors (in their sixties) who seem to be heading that way, simply because learning and school are something that kids do, and they've gotten the idea that adults can't learn.
"You can't teach an old dog new tricks," in other words.
The thing is, you can. Any "old dog" can learn new things as long as the following are taken into account:
1) If you or your "old dog" has a pre-existing habit, it may take longer and require more patience to override than if you have no pre-existing habits in place. For example, it may actually take me longer than a noob to learn how to play a scale correctly if I've been doing it wrong for forty years.
2) If you're learning something brand new (like sewing for me), remember that it's going to take time, and there will be inevitable failures. We allow kids to fall down, but adults seem to need to have something called "dignity," which means that we must never, ever make mistakes. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Give yourself permission to do things less than perfectly. Forget "dignity." Most of the really sharp oldsters I know (in their late 80s or 90s) are a fun lot to be with, simply because they can laugh at themselves and carry on.
So to return to my pile of books--I'd picked a couple of subjects I was interested in studying (psychology, sociology, social psychology), and found a few books, and I've started "lifting weights"--improving my knowledge of subjects that have always interested me, and in the process, getting my mind fit for the years to come.
Though I may actually design a workout routine using library books, now that I think of it, as physical fitness has shown to be another effective way to reduce or reverse cognitive decline.