Learning to learn and not be lost

Nobody has escaped the ravages and surprises of 2020. Practically everyone has written their reviews of the year. And while this posting speaks to it, it goes beyond it as well.

Death was around me in 2020 even before the pandemic kicked in in March. First, it was my first cousin R. who died tragically in a house fire in January. Then in February it was my therapist Dr. B. I learned that he had complained of back pain, went to Brigham & Women’s Hospital to be checked out. Completely taken by surprise, he was diagnosed with a malignant blood cancer which had already spread throughout his body, and was immediately admitted to the hospital, to hospice and died barely two weeks later. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, a big help to me, and as a result, my family. Then later in the spring before the pandemic took hold in the Midwest and South, my former marketing manager G, with whom I worked with forty years ago, and whom I had just spoken with a few weeks prior, unexpectedly died in her sleep. She had survived lung cancer six years earlier (and had never been a smoker). Her daughter from Maine called to fill me in. She didn’t die of Covid-19; she was spared that agony. (I’ve written about her before. She was a charitable, socially conscious progressive who in retirement was helping the homeless and elderly, and others in need. We also shared a common love of books and literacy).

In the scheme of things I’m pretty lucky because through 2020 will go down as the year of death and disease, of unnecessary hardship and devastation, I’m keeping the end in mind. I’m practicing the simple best practices to ward off becoming infected and continue to exercise. While I know two elderly nursing home seniors who have died of Covid-19 (mothers of two acquaintances), none of our contemporaries or family have been effected and I pray we all continue this way. Those that died didn’t deserve to die from Covid-19. I call that the DDDDs (didn’t deserve to die).

While my plans for 2020 were upended, I’ve still been able to make adjustments and still live a pretty full life and a year of gratitude. With Covid-19 upsetting the social order, I have had to learn a few new tricks and make some habitual changes. So what? That’s what happens all the time. I’m grateful for having the judgment to follow the wisdom of the infectious disease professionals. I follow news items that I didn’t before. I drew some portraits, cooked more vegetarian foods, woke up without an alarm clock and continue to sleep well. What a gift! I call that WAG (what a gift).

In fact, before I fall asleep, I count my blessings. I take less for granted. Recognizing the small things that I could count on and appreciate. And recognize when I have erred. I am more aware of myself being overly critical, and made a pact with myself to ease up on it. Ease up on them! Ease up on myself! This is not the time to take it out on one’s loved ones. I call that OOOO (out of one’s loved ones). It’s easy to get angry, or perhaps hold a grudge, but to what end? It’s nicer to just let it go. Be kind. Be considerate. Love thy neighbor. These are not trite little sayings for only children. It’s time for adults to practice them too. Even during a pandemic.

2020 is also a time to allow myself to feel good about myself and to extend kindness to others. That’s my objective for the balance of 2020 and 2021 and beyond. One friend has allowed me to be sort of a career counselor with acquaintances of his who have lost jobs. If I can help someone whose out of work with counsel or connections that’s a joy for everyone. Being out of work is hard on one’s self, one’s identity, aside from the loss of income, the loss of healthcare benefits. I’ve been there. I’ve been riffed. I’ve been let go. It’s traumatic. It’s painful. One time I lost my job while my son was in college. The pain effected my health, as I literally landed on my back for three months with sciatica. But life goes on. I landed on my feet. G (the woman I spoke of above) mentioned my name in a job interview that she was on, and halfway through stopped, and told the interviewer that I was more qualified for the position than was she! Now that’s a friend! I was called in, interviewed for the position, and was hired (with stock options) with a local start up that six months later was acquired by Cisco Systems! What a deal that was!

Thinking about those who have died, what they meant to me, and the adjustments I’ve made in 2020 has allowed me to think about other challenges. I’ve been willing to address some longstanding, nagging problems having to do with thinking and learning and aging.

My ability to learn, remember and solve problems big and small slows down with age. Multitasking is more difficult, distractions are more common than when I was younger. It’s not unusual to notice changed as we age starting in the 50s and 60s. Most memory and concentration problems don’t stem from an underlying brain disease lie Alzheimer’s. Scientists and behavioral neurologists say it reflects slower information processing, encoding and/or word retrieval. I was fortunate that someone told me about “brain plasticity” and the work of Dr. Michael Merzenich. He believes as do others in the brain science field, brain development is ongoing and does not occur just in a child’s tender years. The brain continuously adapts throughout one’s life, and older adults can re-learn habits and new techniques as we age.

One tool I’m using is the Cornell Note-taking System from Cornell University Learning Strategies Center. It’s really not new; it’s just new to me. The Cornell systemhttp://www.lsc.Cornell.edu helps me listen, attend to, order and organize the messages spoken, and then record it in a template that is easy to use and easy to refer back to.

Let me explain how to set up an 8×11 sheet of paper according to the Cornell system. You don’t want to take notes using a regular lined sheet of paper.

You start with a blank sheet of paper, and using a pen or pencil, line it up starting at the top of the sheet. Draw a rectangular box at the top that runs the width of the sheet and is 1”-2” high. Use it to title the lesson, date and your name. Then make two vertical columns beneath the top most rectangular box, drawn almost the length of the sheet. First there’s a narrow column about 1-2” wide on the left side, and a larger column on the right side that takes up about 75% of the rest of the space. The narrow column is for keywords, questions, main idea. The larger column included typical “notes” like dates, details, key word definitions, examples, and could include pictures or sketches that help one remember the subject. (I use asterisks and lettering for emphasis). There is another rectangular box at the bottom below these two columns running the width of the page which is labeled “today I learned summary”.

By setting up the page this way, listening is more active or focused on the subject’s key points. My notes make more sense. I am more likely to retain the messages. Scientists have found that handwriting is preferable than typing into a computer when listening to a presentation. Listening and writing through the Cornell system provides structure which is so important for someone like me who has ADHD, and is older. Without structure and a system to help me stay focused, I’m learning how to learn and not be lost. I call that LLL (listening to learn and not be lost).

Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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