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Use By:

by on August 24, 2014

                                                                Use By:

                                                       by Marco M. Pardi


                              “Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today.”

                               Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) Brave New World, 6.1, 1932

When we were kids, my brother, 3 1/2 years senior and left-handed, suggested I could be a more effective baseball pitcher if I learned to pitch with my left hand as most kids were used to batting against right handers.   Several hours of at first unpredictable throws later, I became equally proficient with either hand.  Unforeseen at the time was my later record high scores in the Rapid Kinetic Firing courses I took through military and government years.  Complete flexibility with firearm, edged weapon or bare hand, from any position, had become “natural” to me.

Looking back on that I wonder about the kids who did not have an older brother “of the other hand” and see that as a metaphor for how we navigate through our lives, never knowing what we could have done but didn’t.   

We have long known that success in acquiring another language or languages is made much more likely through starting the learner at an early age.  Looking at the neuro-muscular structures of the brain, the head and the neck of children developing into the language acquisition stage we see a fantastic gossamer of musculature and associated nerve paths, theoretically a road map open in any direction.  As the child babbles, imitates, and initiates sounds we reward some and ignore or discourage others.  While unused pathways do not entirely atrophy, the eventual result is a child identifiable by speech habits as precise as regional dialect.  And, the older the child becomes the more acquisition of another form of pronunciation becomes like throwing the ball with “the other hand”; the “accent” is fixed.

And so I wonder how I am “fixed in my ways” and what those developmental circumstances were.  Obviously, each of us is the current and temporary apex of a complex convective upward growth cumulus cloud of events we call a life history.  Shunning the tedious process of psychoanalysis, we can at least look back and trace, sometimes amusingly, the pathways we took and infer the ones we didn’t.  I was 70 years old when I first drove a jet-ski.  Perhaps riding (mostly bareback) and owning horses and driving a Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle through my 16th year made the open ocean jet-ski drive just another spin around the block.  When someone is described as “a natural” it is tempting to have a much closer look.

A recent study enumerated “the 5 regrets of the dying.”  Basically, the common denominator was, “If I had known…”  For those of us in the field of death & dying, the only surprise was that the study generated so much surprise.  We don’t know when we will die.  Oh, we can calculate likelihoods.  Insurance companies do this on us routinely.  But only a fool relies entirely on such calculations.  And, only a fool falls for all of the “use by” dates on the items we buy.  Day old bread stores, to which I refer as “used bread stores”, are fine with me.

But what about personal attributes and abilities?  Like those ubiquitous gift cards that merchants love so much because so many people do not use them completely, or at all, until they expire, what do we neglect to use until it is too impractical, too complicated, or just too late?  Always wanted to try sky diving?  The older you get the greater the chance of serious bone fracture.  

Got a Bucket List?  The popularity of the recent film cemented the term in the American lexicon.  But as with so many other popular terms it is used without much understanding of its meaning.  It derives from the phrase, “kicked the bucket”, vaguely referring in some minds to the last act in dying.  Few seem to know, or care that it originated in the American farmland among families losing their farms.  Large buckets were staple items on farms, used for carrying feed or collecting milk.  When the bankers in their gartered sleeves signed the foreclosure documents on farms, not a few farmers went into their barns, slung and secured a rope over a crossbeam, tied the other end around their neck while standing on a large, inverted bucket, and either kicked the bucket out from under themselves or, as the rope and their neck stretched, kicked the bucket in their final thrashing.  Now, who knows?  Who cares?  A product or idea comes to market seemingly sui generis.  Lego (pronounced Leego in Danish, where the super-secret R&D lab is situated in Billund) actually translates from Latin as “I put together.”  And, the new ziggurat like SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) headquarters on Vauxhall Cross, London is known among insiders as “Legoland”, not as a Sumerian ziggurat. Everything old is new again.

Knowledge is out there.  Do we get it, or do we say there’s always time?  While working at the Federal Centers for Disease Control I came to know several physicians who were observant Jews.  In conversations with them they sometimes mentioned that some of their non-Jewish peers assumed they went to medical school to get into a profession that made for a high income (“because they were Jews” – of course).  Were that true,  they certainly would not have gone into Public Health.  Instead of choosing the lucrative private practice, they chose to live and practice what they believed their God intended and valued for them: “God gave us these brains.  Not developing and using them to their full potential is an insult to God.” Conducting research which could potentially help millions was an easy choice for them.  I’m not a God person, but I certainly valued their beliefs.

Yet, we are increasingly living in a technological culture wherein a greater number of basic tasks are either being assumed by technology or relegated to a narrow group of specialists.  Once in a while a “disaster flick” comes along proposing that a man made or other catastrophe has negated technological functions and, for example, mankind must make due without electricity (EMP, or Electro Magnetic Pulse emissions from a nuclear device or a solar mega-flare would do).  But films aren’t needed; “rolling blackouts” are frequent enough that it would seem people would get the message.  Survivalists have gotten it and more, with their cult like obsessions for after-the-event preparedness.

On a more mundane level,  I have owned several unusual sports cars since I was 16.  Not trusting the average independent garage but unwilling to afford the specialist shops, I learned to do much of the maintenance and repair myself.  The manual for my last such car weighed close to ten pounds.  And the cost of the tools and instruments could have gone nicely for a “normal” car.  Yet, learning was an enjoyable challenge, even if costly at times.       

In graduate school, the sanctum sanctorum of “higher learning”, a fellow student had car trouble.  I diagnosed and repaired it in under an hour.  When that got around students said to me, “Why go through this grad school stuff? Why don’t you become a mechanic?”  I have to walk OR chew gum?

A recent film, “Lucy”, looked interesting until I saw the premise that, since humans use only 10% of the brain it would be possible to boost usage to higher and hence unknown levels – enter Lucy.  That such a miserably flawed premise (the 10% idea) could become the foundation of a film was not surprising; the appearance of Morgan Freeman as the pitchman was surprising, and disappointing.  Of course, talking about the brain is not talking about the mind.  And so I wonder how much of my mind I have not used, letting opportunities pass by as something that will always be there, something I can get to later.  In the very occasional academic discussion meeting with my mother the Headmaster of my prep school used to glance at me and rhetorically pose, “When will he ever realize his potential?”  My unspoken rejoinder, as I set my eyes on the ever present bowl of fruit on his desk was, “When something matures, the next phase is decay.”

And so I look back and wonder.  What could I have learned, but didn’t bother to?  What more can I learn?  Yes, I have heard the skeptical mantra, “Eat well, exercise, die anyway.” I have wondered if learning some things makes sense, and what, in this case “sense” means, if the things I have learned will make any difference for me once my spirit shakes loose from this body.  I confess I haven’t learned that last part.  But I suspect I won’t be tuning any exotic sports car engines. Or, maybe I will.       

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  1. If i were you, i guess I`d have a hard time trying to think what i didnt learn 😉 or what I haven`t done !!
    Reading your Blog posts I am always here pondering and wondering `What did he not experience or what did he not learn ?`
    I am stunned at the vastity of knowledge, and diversity and multitude of experiences, and all the innumerable talents and skills and so much more that you have !
    I daresay it`s a life well lived and am sure that at your passing time the ` evaluation` of your life will skyrocket because of all you`ve learnt and done !! 🙂


    • Thank you, FOAL. Indeed, the claim that the “afterlife” is a place of continuous learning is what makes it most attractive. I’m spending more time trying to uncover and understand the principles underlying learning experiences more than the A + B = C stuff we acquire in everyday life. Marco


  2. To me, learning is the meaning of life. And the joy of living. And learning when least expected some of the most fun. I just returned from a conference I was dreading because I was certain it was going to offer nothing but boredom. To my surprise it was very entertaining and I learned many a new thing. I have returned home uplifted and rejuvenated. If learning is the meaning of life, Marco you have given much meaning to the lives of others.


    • Dana permalink

      “If learning is the meaning of life, Marco you have given much meaning to the lives of others.”

      Well said, and so true.


      • Dana permalink

        …spoken by Mary, who has also greatly enriched my life.


      • Thanks, Dana. Learning as I do from you and the others with whom we interact has enriched me beyond measure. Thank you. Marco


  3. Thank you, Mary. Reading your account really brings happiness that you had such a great experience. Marco


  4. There are so many brilliant points made here that it is hard to know what to comment on first! Learning begins the day we are born and, if we are wise, continues until the day we die. A good education is not just a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.

    Whether that lesson is of a mental nature or a physical one is of little concern; the rule is the same. When I was a child and was afraid to try something new, my father would say, “you’ll never learn a day younger”. You are never too young to learn a new (age appropriate) skill. Physical limitations not withstanding, you are never too old to try something new.

    Language formation fascinates me. I noticed this first with my niece, and later with my granddaughter; babies speak a language all their own which goes far beyond the “goo-goo” we so often speak to them. (That sort of “baby talk has always been forbidden in my house, as was the silly pronunciation of regular words; you only get one chance to learn it right the first time.) From the beginning of sounds, we noticed that they would repeat the same “word”, and especially if you asked them what they said. My joke is that they were speaking Elvish!

    I can’t honestly say I am fluent in anything but English, but I have enough of several other languages to successfully travel in those countries in which they are spoken. Since children do the most learning before their sixth birthday (or thereabouts), it’s good to set their “ear” to the words of another language as early as possible. From birth, I have used words and phrases from Spanish, Italian, German, and even a little Turkish interspersed with my native tongue whenever speaking with my children, and now grandchildren. Morgan responds to those phrases as she would to the same ones spoken in English; not just that, but she has picked up a few words of Spanish, and even Chinese (from her cartoons, no less!). Just a few days ago, she asked me how you say certain words and phrases in French. I shared with her the French words I know, and later she told my husband that I had “given her a lesson” in French; I was so proud!

    I never knew where “bucket list” came from, so thank you for that new bit of knowledge. I have an ever evolving list of things I want to do before my life comes to an end, and I intend to do as many of them as possible. Who knows, I may even finish my formal education. If the question is “what more can I learn”; the possibilities are practically endless. We have “reached our potential” only when we stop learning and doing new things. You are never too old to try something new; so here’s to never reaching that potential so long as we live! It’s only by reaching for the stars that we are able to touch the moon. Rose


  5. Thank you, Rose. Your comments certainly portray the intent of the college program “Continuing Education” and in a far broader sense than we see applied in those programs. I used to smirk at colleges which granted credit for “life experience”, but in your case we can be sure of congratulating you on a Ph.D. In fact, I would chair your Doctoral Committee with enthusiasm. Marco


  6. Dana permalink

    Rose, I never used “baby talk” with my own children, either.

    However, my dogs are definitely subjected to a lifetime of baby talk, along with “shmoopy woopy” nicknames and the like.


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