Never Stop Learning: Confessions of a Dilettante

When I was a kid, I used to read encyclopedias.

We had two sets. The World Book 1975 was my favorite. It had a few color photos and it was amazing. Pick a letter off the shelf, open the book up and learn about something.

I loved learning about things.

I still do.

My parents set the example. My dad started his career on a slide rule and finally retired just a few years ago using 3D printers and computer modeling.  From moon boots, to grocery checkout scanners to actual jetpacks for astronauts, my dad enjoyed a rich and varied career in the world of industrial design.

The trick he always says, is to never stop learning.

As a newspaper reporter, learning new things about the world was part of my job -- the absolute best part.  As the editor on an online news site during the dot-com boom, I taught myself the nuts and bolts of how to design and publish using HTML code. We were trying to create a model of sustainable success on the web before anyone thought there was a future in online journalism.

The dot-com bubble burst, I changed careers.

A Whole New World

Next came nursing, where I went from an expert in one field to a complete novice in another. I had a whole world of medicine that I had to understand.

Continuing education is required for doctors and nurses because medical science changes rapidly. If you don’t keep learning, you aren’t practicing good medicine.

I try to teach myself how to fix things. Often, doing it yourself is barely worth the time and materials, but learning how to do it is where I find the reward.

The internet, of course, makes all this much easier. When we bought this old house 24 years ago we had to learn restoration and repairs ourselves. I thumbed through old handiman books that I picked up at thrift stores to teach myself the basics getting an old house livable.

My motto is “there is nothing I don’t know how to do, only things I haven’t learned yet.”

I am a notorious dilettante. I’ve taken flying lessons and classes in wood carving.  Sometimes I find a new skill or area is just not for me.

Often I just fail.

A couple years ago, I bought a bass guitar and tried to teach myself how to play. I’d picked bass because I played trombone in school. I figured I’d try bass because I could still sort of read the bass clef. It didn’t work.

Learning from Failure

The most important part of failure is learning, and sometimes the most important part of learning is failing.

This year I swallowed that failure and am trying something new --
I have always been in love with the sound of the banjo. Probably a side effect of watching too much Hee Haw when I was a kid.   I knew nothing about it other than I liked the sound. The open backed banjo is a perfect accompaniment to a rainy day.

With a Christmas gift card I bought a kit from Backyard Banjos and I’m trying to teach myself to play.
I had to start by putting the banjo together myself -- staining the wood and assembling the components to make the musical instrument. Then I had to learn how to string it and tune it.  

A few books from the library and an online video lesson plan and I’m starting to actually make music.

When the rain forces us inside, it is a great time to open our minds. We have libraries at our fingertips, experts a few clicks away.

The internet is wonderful, especially if you live in a rural community. It opens up all sorts of opportunities to learn new things. That said, it has its limitations. I’ll try my online lessons but I may need to resort to in person classes.

Lifelong Learning

Thankfully lifelong learning opportunities abound in our community. We have two excellent community colleges and amazing libraries as well as a host of opportunities for learning all manner of skills to test and expand our minds and bodies.  I’m dying take a class at the Barbey Maritime Center someday where you can learn everything from building boats to basket weaving.

For now, however, I am focused on my little blue banjo.

I think it will be good for me.

Learning to play an musical instrument at any age seems to confirm neurological benefits. Music keeps our brains young, even if we don’t start taking lessons until we are much older.

One researcher studied the impact of piano lessons on adults between the ages of 60 and 85. According to an article in National Geographic, she found that after six months, those who had received the lessons showed gains in memory, verbal fluency, information processing, planning ability and other cognitive functions when compared to a control group.

"People often shy away from learning to play a musical instrument at a later age, but it's definitely possible to learn and play well into late adulthood," University of South Florida  researcher Jennifer Bugos explained. "Musical training seems to have a beneficial impact at whatever age you start. It contains all the components of a cognitive training program that sometimes are overlooked, and just as we work out our bodies, we should work out our minds."

Musical training has been shown to help improve motor skills recovery after a stroke. Other research is ongoing to see whether choir singing can help stave off the advance of dementia.

“Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t,” University of Westminster neuropsychologist  Catherine Loveday told the Guardian. “It’s a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way that nothing else does, and the evidence that musical training enhances things like working memory and language is very robust.”

So even if I never play a note for anyone other than myself, I’ll still get some benefit from whatever neural connections come together during this learning experience. That will help keep my brain in good shape to learn other new skills in the years to come.

I’m determined to never stop learning.


This essay was originally published in the Daily Astorian, March 31, 2017.

Light in the Darkest Days

Newgrange in Ireland via
These are the darkest of days.

Overcast skies rob us of precious minutes of sunlight in the late afternoons. Veil the sunset in coal dust, ink black with a mist of rain swirling ‘round a 4:30 porch light.

We of northern latitudes and coastal storms hunch our shoulders and steel our minds against the short tongues of daylight wrapped in anemic gray, punctuated by occasional  shards of sunlight, silver knives cutting through woolen clouds down to sodden earth.

This season of dwindling day, coldest days and chill, longest nights robbed of stars, December’s cruelty.

The days shrink and wither away, an erosion or life-giving hope that ebbs as we approach the nadir of the year. Winter solstice arrives Dec. 21st at 2:44 in the afternoon when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. It is the shortest day of the year, late sunrises and early sunsets. Long nights of starless forever-skies.

It is the day when the Sun reaches its southernmost migration on our horizon. It is the first day of astronomical winter - yet from the solstice forward, each day will get fraction longer, each noon the sun will be a little higher in our horizon.

It has been a year full of darkness.

Long before it had a name, or before we really understood what was happening human beings  understood this cycle of ebbing light.

I have stood inside Newgrange in Ireland - a 5,000 year old monumental structure of massive stones and white quartz designed to permit a shaft of light on the winter solstice such that on this one day each year - sunlight will travel down a 60 foot passageway and the interior of this man-made mountain will be illuminated with golden light.  

Newgrange is older than stonehenge, older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Men and women designed and built this complicated structure with stone imported from miles away. Intricate neolithic architecture celebrating light that marks the end of creeping darkness, the return of the hope.

We do not know the minds of Newgrange’s creators, nor  their system of beliefs to be sure. We know only that they went to great effort to capture the sun on the solstice each year - to illuminate hidden decorations deep within.

We know a little more about other solstice traditions that came later.

Yule logs  are a remnant of the Norse feast of Juul. Bonfires were lit as the sun “stood still” on its lowest point on the horizon. The fires heralded the return of the sun -- feasting would carry on while the Yule burned for days.

Yalda was an ancient Persian celebration of light over dark and the birth of the Sun God Mithra. Similar pre-Christian traditions exist around the world.  In parts of Pakistan, the Kalash Kafir celebrate Chaomos -- a time ritual purification with torchlight parades and bonfires. Slavic traditions celebrate Koliada or Koleda in similar fashion.

Jewish families celebrate Hanukkah, the rededication of the second temple, lighting a candle each night in the festival of lights. Symbolizing knowledge and creation, here too was a miracle marked by light as a single night’s oil burned bright for eight days.

Lindsay as St Lucia
Some Scandinavian countries still celebrate St Lucia’s Day -- a festival of lights that evolved out of Norse solstice traditions of lighting bonfires during the longest nights of the year.  Honoring the Christian martyr St. Lucia, young girls dress in white robes with a wreath of burning candles on their heads and serve bright yellow saffron buns to signify the return of the sun.

Early Christians focused more on Easter than Jesus’ birth. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the Church decided to celebrate Christmas and fixed the date in December to coincide -- and perhaps co-opt -- the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus -- the birthday of the “unconquered sun.”  As Christianity spread, the birth of the son of God and the festivals that celebrated the return of the sun co-mingled and influenced each other.

We fight against the darkness with artificial light. We string up our Christmas tree, light the candles on our menorah or advent wreaths. We make a fire in the fireplace, yule log, bonfire.

It is perhaps not surprising that these cold dark days are when our hearts are most open to our fellow man, when we give a little more, care a little more. Charity and cheer, generosity and forgiveness  are built into all of these solstice traditions because it is understood that in the darkness is when we most need the light.

This is a dark time for our nation and for the world.

Hatred has sunk its teeth into our flesh. Many of our brothers have turned a cold eye to those who don’t look like us, worship like us, love like us. We point fingers rather than open our arms. Hopelessness and fear threaten to curdle our goodwill.

In these darkest days, we can be the light that travels down the cold stone passage, that illuminates the darkness and brings hope of better days.

We can be the light that opens hearts with kindness, charity and goodwill to our neighbors around the world and in our backyard.

We may never know the words or ceremony of 5000 years past or exactly how that thread may be woven into our modern traditions and beliefs.

Yet we understand the need to capture the golden light in darkest December days.


This article originally appeared in the The Daily Astorian on December 19, 2016

Buyers Remorse

Republicans in Washington DC have got to have mixed feelings about this election.

They should be happy.

On the one hand, they can now have everything they want. They control all the levers of power -- the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. They can finally repeal Obamacare, pass tax cuts for the 1 percent, privatize medicare, defund medicaid, planned parenthood. They can finally privatize social security, eliminate environmental regulations.  They can eliminate access to birth control, discriminate at will.

Trump can use the government to exact revenge on his enemies. He can embrace Russia and turn his back on Europe and Asia. He can start trade wars -- which will increase prices for food and other goods.

They have a mandate, but there are smart wonks in Washington and they have to be sounding a note of caution.

You see, all those things aren't very popular and now they have no excuse not to carry out what they have promised to do.

Donald Trump's real victory was based on low voter turnout after a horrible negative election. Only 25 percent of eligible voters, voted for Donald Trump.  Many Trump voters voted against the supervillain mastermind in a pantsuit rather than for the tax-cheating infantile con man.

It was a close vote. That Hillary won the popular vote -- by close to half a million ---  is immaterial from a strategic perspective. From a electoral college perspective just a two percentage point shift could make all the difference in the swing states. Demographics will continue to move against the Republican party -- the future is young and diverse.

Moreover, Trump showed that a lot of the tenants of conservatism are no longer popular with voters.

Many young evangelicals cast their lot for the debauched Caligula because they wanted the political power to overturn abortion rights. Once that key issue is gone, will they continue to stick with him?

Sooner or later enough of them are going to read something Jesus said in the New Testament and realize that maybe they should care about the poor, elderly, diseased and marginalized people that Trump and the Republicans will make life Hell for over the next four years. Young evangelicals are already mobilizing for action on climate change, and even Liberty University students protested the leadership's embrace of the sinner-in-chief.

Trump and the Republicans want to do a lot of things that are the opposite of what people thought they were getting with Trump. Trump has vowed to deregulate Wall Street, repeal Obamacare, and cut taxes for the very wealthy. Paul Ryan wants to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid and privatize social security.  Just repealing Obamacare will leave 22 million without health insurance and there are current no plans to replace it with anything. That will increase health care costs and reduce access - right before the midterm elections.

There aren't a lot of good ways to spin this when the results of their actions start having a real effect on people's lives.

Moreover, Trump's anti-science cabal will be a disaster for health issues far and wide and there are no Republican plans to address the crisis in the Healthcare system. More doctors are going to burn out, fewer will enter the profession and access will get worse, not better.

 Finally, if they go along with Trump they will be helping construct an oppressive and intrusive police state. He is already appointing virulent racists to the highest positions of power. A number of these Republicans got elected saying they wanted to oppose federal intrusion into people's lives.

There really hasn't been much media coverage of any of this - more time was spent on Hillary's emails than any policy question - so some of this going to be a big surprise when in the harsh light of day.

In short Republicans now have no excuses -- they have to fix everything and deliver the impossible -- and they don't believe in facts or science or the data that shows that trickle down economics doesn't work. What they have proposed will make life worse for the majority of Americans.

You only need 1 out of every 100 Trump voters to have buyer's remorse.


Required Reading:
What a Difference Two Percentage Points Makes
Trump's Economic Prescription: First DO Harm
What Trump and the GOP will mean for your Health
Paul Ryan's Better Way is Only For the Wealthy

Building Bridges, Not Walls

Inside a bridge is a strange place for dinner.

Built in 1911, the Grays River Covered Bridge is the last of its kind serving a public road in the state of Washington.

Eight years ago the local WSU Extension office and 4-H organizers had a great idea. A fall community harvest dinner featuring donated salmon and local veggies grown in the valley - served by by 4H kids inside the bridge on a beautiful October night.

While tourists may occasionally venture off highway 4 to see the bridge, for us locals it remains an important way to cross the river to reach the other side of the valley. Just as it has for the past 100 years, this bridge brings us together.

Hans Ahlberg owned both sides of the river back in 1905. He and his neighbors saw the need to get crops and cattle to pasture and to market.  There was a foot bridge at the time but the only way to get a cart across the river was by ford the waters at low tide. Ahlberg and his neighbors convinced the county to pay for it, but many of the locals invested sweat equity in the project to offset their taxes.

It became a covered bridge in 1908 to protect the wood from the ravages of wind and rain. A century later, the bridge was weather beaten and at risk of being torn down. The people of the valley, however, worked to secure funding for a major restoration.

Rarely are bridges manifested by the hands of a single individual. Bridges are creations of community -- monuments to cooperation, knitting peoples across geographic barriers into tighter daily relationships.

Amy and I were married at this bridge 24 years ago. She and her bridesmaids arriving by horse drawn wagon through the covered bridge to Ahlberg park.  On hot summer days children cool off on the smooth stone beach and swim clear waters the flow below.

It is one of two bridges that are constants in our lives.

The Astoria-Megler bridge just celebrated its 50th birthday this year.
The Astoria bridge shows how these works of infrastructure don’t happen overnight. It was almost 40 years between the first proposal span the Columbia at Astoria, to the dedication ceremony in 1966.  It was not an easy task. Washington and Oregon had very different ideas about the necessity of the bridge and how it should be paid for. Washington opposed having a toll on the bridge and wanted Oregon to pay the lion’s share of the cost.

When it finally came together, it did so through bare-knuckle negotiation and compromise. Compromise has become a dirty word of late -- as if it is tainted with weakness. Yet compromise is the loamy soil that yields value and progress in a democracy.

When the link between Washington and Oregon was finally established, a reported 30,000 people came down for the dedication of the so-called “bridge to nowhere.” Thousands more paid the toll to cross it each year, the numbers growing each decade.

The bridge was paid off early and the toll taken down. Amy and I remember one Christmas eve on our way to midnight mass in Astoria in 1993, the toll collectors waving us through.

These creations elegantly change the landscape of our possibilities. They open to us easy access to neighbors and friends, jobs and education, culture and life bound no longer by the natural obstruction of indignant rivers.

Stone Walls in Ireland. Credit Amusing Planet
When I lived in Ireland a lifetime ago, I would walk the back roads of crushed white gravel. The hills interlaced by rough little scars of stone. Walls - built up hundreds of years long past as men and women cleared the fields of the hard blue limestone. Walls of stone upon stone without mortar to hold them together. Only the weight of each rock’s indignation kept these crooked little walls standing angry centuries against the coastal winds.

The lots bound by these stones were small and tragic, without gates.

If bridges are built of compromise and community, walls are built up of grievances.  

Like our grievances, walls can last years -- indeed well outlast their builders -- yet be held together by nothing. Gateless hard little grids that let nothing out, or nothing in.

Bridges are different.

This marks 25 years since I first set foot into this valley - a college boy visiting his true love’s parent’s home for the first time. In that quarter century I have become a fixed point in a living, breathing community of characters. I am still best known as Amy’s husband, no doubt, but I have unintentionally made my mark here and there upon the landscape.

Being part of a community is not always easy for me. I am in no ways shy, but I have an inner  hermit that would much rather sit alone by the fire.  Most at ease when I am hiding behind a keyboard or camera, I avoid parties and crowds. I am a poor friend and a distant brother. Never had a clique of friends, never joined a softball team or bowling league.

When I do join, I worry over the poverty of my contributions.

Yet, I have lived here longer than any other place in my lifetime, and I know I am a part of my beloved rain-soaked forest.

The connections we form with other people are the cement that holds our lives together. We are social animals, we thrive with ties to other people. Research has shown that the number of people we interact with on a daily basis is a predictor of our sense of belonging and well being.

Studies indicate that “social capital” is one of the biggest predictors for health, happiness, and longevity,” explains Cecile Andrews, author of Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community, and the Common Good. “The problem: we often do not recognize the importance of social connection. Our culture values hard work, success, and wealth, so it’s no surprise some of us do not set aside enough time for social ties when we think security lies in material things rather than other people.”

Community is what people do to help one another.

In our little valley there is a food bank, community education, a wildly successful locally-organized blood drive. There are adoptions, weddings, births and funerals. Houses hold the names of their previous occupants long after they are gone.

No one is perfect, every face has a flaw. Like a family, however, like your brothers and sisters you learn to live together. As new people move in, they either adapt to the ebb and flow of the river and the rain, or they find a reason not to stay.

We are, after all, a long way from anywhere and the winter is dark and gray.

So it was that we found ourselves inside a covered bridge on a rain-soaked October night. Hundreds of us, feasting on salmon and ham, potatoes and squash, under amber lights and violin, tin roof and wood walls against the early-autumn storm outside.  The rain held off just long enough to get the salmon barbequed, to get everyone seated at the long tables.

So it was that we were warm and dry, shoulder to shoulder while the wind and rain battered aged tin and cedar, while mud-clouded river flowed below our feet.

Here we were together the people of the Grays River Valley.

Here we were together, a community, a bridge.


This essay was originally published in the Daily Astorian and Chinook Observer newspapers.