Learning How to Learn

I hope to inspire you and prove that you can do and learn whatever you would like.

We seem to have an illusion that everything requires lots of money and time to get started.  If you want to learn guitar, you are put off by the exuberant prices of the instruments, and extra equipment you think you need, and the high cost of lessons.  When I was considering learning darkroom photography, I was faced with the prospect of learning the chemistry and concepts that I had never come across.  I remember reading articles about darkroom that were full of words like “stops” and “fixer” and “emulsion” and thinking “how will I ever learn ANYTHING if I can’t even understand the language being used???”

How did I overcome the problems that faced me when I was trying to learn darkroom photography? I created a well defined goal. 

Day 1-2     I knew I wanted to do film.  My dad had an old film camera that no one was using, and I’ve always loved the way film grain makes a photo look.  I’m also a huge DIY fan, and I knew I wanted to eliminate anyone else touching my art.  The goal was:  I want to be able to take, develop, and print my own pictures from start to finish with the least outsourcing possible.  From there, I read everything I could on each step of the process.  Having that well defined goal illuminated those steps. 

Taking Pictures.

Developing Film.

Printing/enlarging photographs.

Day 3-10 After I had figured out WHAT I wanted to learn, I needed to invest in my own learning, so I bought a camera and an enlarger and paper and film and all of the equipment necessary.  I purchased everything on craigslist, or borrowed it from family and friends, keeping the cost to an absolute minimum.  Even if I didn’t have EVERYTHING in perfect working order, it didn’t matter.  BECAUSE I had invested in my OWN LEARNING and not hesitated once I had a defined goal, I couldn’t turn back!  I improvised a missing foot on my enlarging easel.  I used the wrong size film tray, and used paper fixer for both Film and Paper, etc.

This is key.  Investing in your own learning.  We are wired not to invest in something unless we know we will succeed.  If you TAKE that initial risk, you are much more likely to follow through to the end.

Nike’s motto of “just do it” rings very true to me.  If you just do something without thinking of whether or not you will succeed, you are bound to learn.  If you hesitate at the beginning of an endeavor, you will hesitate at each step on the journey.  Your hesitation can happen before you define your goal, but once you have positively defined your goal, simply do the next thing.

Day 11-28 After I had gotten all my equipment, I took two or three rolls worth of pictures.  I knew I wasn’t ready to begin developing yet, as I was still learning how the chemicals worked, and how to block light out of my tiny apartment bathroom.  I had to prove that I was learning at least a little, right?  If I was to continue down this path I needed to know that I wasn’t just taking blank pictures.  I sent off a couple of the rolls I had exposed to a company in California to develop, and print, and send back to me!

By doing this I AFFIRMED my learning.  I accomplished part of my goal, and outsourced for the rest, to prove to myself that I had progressed in the right direction if only a little.  This gave me the courage and inspiration to continue my journey.  By affirming this to myself, and rewarding myself for investing in my own learning, I re-lit the fire that had sparked my initial interest.  Half of the pictures were terrible, but they were better than not taking any!

After that, it was just a matter of following through with researching and executing the necessary steps to achieve the other two steps.  Once I had gotten the basic process down, I could begin really diving deeper into each aspect of darkroom photography without any fear of failure or consequence.  I feel fully equipped and confidant that I can create my own pictures from start to finish!  All in less than a month!

The key to being able to do anything you want, is to set a goal, invest in your own learning, and affirming your progress.  Map out the things you need to ensure that you are learning the subject, not just repeating processes.  Following orders isn’t fun, and neither is following step by step instructions.  Learning dynamically like this leads to better retention and builds confidence.  Go learn something new!

The Cat and the Rain

A cat realizes its raining and thinks, “It’s raining, better go find somewhere cozy to snuggle up for the night and enjoy the sound of droplets hitting the ground”.  The human realizes its raining, and muses, “I wonder how this is happening?  I wonder if I could make rain and sell it?  How can I recreate this?”.  The cat spends the whole night cuddled up inside his cozy kitty-cubby, while the human, stands and studies in the rain, and catches a cold.

This was the beginning of the biggest argument Rebecca and I have had so far.  While our banter was sporting and silly, the problem at hand held heavy significance to me.  Why do humans do so much to change the world around us, instead of just enjoying the things mother nature has given freely?  Why do we feel driven to create things to keep us entertained, when we could entertain ourselves with the simple pleasures of the earth?  What causes humans to be so destructive, in the name of progress, and distracted in the name of boredom?

Our argument started with a simple question: are humans more intelligent than animals?  My answer was a resounding no!  Rebecca, astounded, pointed out the achievements humans have made over millennia to improve their living circumstances and the general longevity of the species.  I argued that humans (stupidly) spent so much energy on trying to progress that they have forgotten to simply sit and enjoy the sunset. *I* think humans are smarter ONLY because we believe we are smarter.  We can only be intelligent if we contrast our intelligence to that of other humans.  (I’ll fight you tooth and nail on this.  SUE ME!)

Whether we are more intelligent than other animals is unimportant to me.  What IS important is that humans don’t take a moment to enjoy, rather than to improve.  I’ve found, especially in the past few months, that it has become increasingly hard for me to sit still without looking at my phone, or reading a book, or watching the news.  I seek to find some answers or some new step-by-step happiness guide.  We crave answers, rather than embracing mystery.  The happiest moments in my life are the ones experienced unhindered by the need to conquer or solve.  On top of a mountain basking in a sunrise on a cool morning is true bliss.   Uninterrupted communion with nature, and family are the pinnacle of ecstatic pleasure.

Humans also tend to overcompensate for their problems.  Shoes are a perfect example.  One day, a cave-man stepped on a thorn.  He first yelped in pain, and then he thought, “I could make something to cover my foot with when I go hunting that way I don’t have to worry about thorns stabbing my feet.”  His invention caught on.  At first he only wore his shoes when he was hunting in the woods.  He then began to wear his shoes while he was around the cave, because sometimes his cave-wife (or husband) was clumsy and sometimes dropped spiky rocks on the floor.  Eventually, our cave-man wore his shoes all day, keeping them on from the moment he woke up, to the moment he went to sleep, even when it wasn’t necessary.

There are current scientific studies that overwhelmingly prove the positive health benefits of “grounding”.  Grounding is the simple, (but apparently controversial?), act of taking ones shoes off, and standing on the earth.  Getting some grass between your toes and dirt under your feet is proving to be one of the most overwhelmingly powerful ways to overcome minor depression.  We have created shoes for work, shoes for playing golf, shoes for walking, shoes for hiking, shoes for walking to the bathroom from the bedroom, and in consequence, we have lost touch with the ground beneath us (pun intended?).

The next time you see a beautiful flower, don’t pick it, just let it sit there and do its thing.  When you’re with your loved ones, don’t pull out your phone and hope to find spiritual or human connection through its 8 inch screen.  Reach out and hug your family and friends and dogs and cats.  I don’t intend to try to convince you that shoes are destroying humanity.  I’m also not arguing that humans are inherently stupid.  I only hope that you’ll be inspired to look at the rain, and just let it fall.

The Choice You Don’t Have

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The question that Rebecca asked me while we were trapped in the woods for two days is still resonating in my head. “What is something that you’re proud of?” It’s a simple question, but one that was very very hard for me to answer. I found it so difficult to name any achievement that I felt proud of. It wasn’t that I hadn’t accomplished anything worth mentioning; I could have talked about the music I’ve written, or the comic book I’ve been working on. One thing was common in all of the things that came to mind, however. None of them ever felt completed. I have a confession to make: I’ve never beaten a video game. As a matter of fact, I cant truly name anything that I have TRULY completed. I’ll begin to write a song and once I feel it is satisfactory I save a recording of it and move on to the next one KNOWING that I could have added more reverb. I’ve begun writing my first blog post at least 15 times. Habitually, I begin working on a project, or creating something, until I am satisfied with the mediocrity of it, or become bored or frustrated and move on. Enter two day backpacking trip.

Two and a half weeks ago, Rebecca and I were discussing possible destinations for our two week trip this summer. We had some good ideas, but for some reason, none of them felt right. The idea of hiking part of the Appalachian trail felt perfect. I wanted something that would challenge our relationship, and Rebecca had expressed interest in trying to hike on the AT but didn’t want to do it alone. It seemed like something that was achievable and not too expensive. It also fit well with our timeline! The next morning we were already discussing gear with an employee at Walkabout Outfitters in Richmond. I knew that if we wanted to hike for two weeks on the Appalachian trail we would need some practice, so we decided to go on our first hike as soon as we could. We had two weeks exactly to buy, plan, and prepare everything. Rebecca planned out food, I took care of logistics, and somehow we made it to Reed’s Gap, VA.

We donned our Osprey Atmos 65 AG packs, skeptically extended our walking poles, and trod giddily up the dirt path into the unknown. About fifteen minutes in, I was overwhelmed with excitement. My eyes were darting everywhere, looking at the trees, the plants, the rocks. There was an overwhelming sense of excitement, joy, and fear (admittedly we are both a little afraid of the dark). My brain was going wild with ADHD moments. It continued like this for the next thirty minutes until we arrived at our first camp site. Then I turned into my father.

When I was little one of the things that bothered me about my father was how organized he was. He made sure, ESPECIALLY during camping trips, that everything was in order WEEKS ahead of time. He made sure to pack, and re-pack over and over again, and take a log of every bit of gear he had. When he arrived at our designated camping area, he wouldn’t waste a second getting everything set up perfectly. The tent had to be up before dark with the sleeping bags unfurled and ready to be occupied, the foodstuffs had to be safely stored away, our lights had to be correctly mounted on trees nearby, and any loose objects such as pots, pans, knives, blankets, and chairs put in their place. When we arrived at our first campsite, I immediately made sure the tent was up as soon as possible with the sleeping bags unfurled and ready to be occupied, hung a lamp light perfectly illuminating the campfire area, organized my backpack and cooking items neatly, stored away our foodstuffs, and scrutinized every single detail about the order in which I would execute the night’s tasks. If you don’t know, ADHD doesn’t lend itself to organized behavior, but somehow, I turned into my father that night.

The next day we awoke and began our journey. We needed to walk approximately 7 miles to the next campsite, and we felt great. My mind was entirely overwhelmed that day. Rebecca even mentioned that I seemed unusually distant. Part of it had to do with my difficulty multitasking but even more had to do with the almost constant spiritual epiphanies I was having. Most of my time hiking was spent in deep contemplative thought. My feet, legs, and arms were moving as if I had no control, almost separating my consciousness from my body. I wasn’t looking at the path in front of me, but at an image of my entire life, my purpose. The duality between the monotony of the walking, and the variety and beauty of the scenery was profound, and thought provoking. Even our conversation was philosophical, peppered with questions of reality, life, death, and self worth. Aching and tired, we finally made it to the top of Three Ridges Mountain and decided to make camp. We needed a nap, so we set up our hammocks and while Rebecca slept, I thought. There was a particular question on my mind. “Thomas, what’s something you’re proud of?” Rebecca was reaching out to me, trying to pull me closer, and trying to close this invisible gap between us.

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After a while nap time was over, and we decided to make a fire. I sat and stared at the fire, while Rebecca sat and stared at me, wondering why I wasn’t talking, wishing I would snap out of it. We discussed my greatest fears, and my current mental dilemma. Nothing helped. Hearing her voice has never failed to comfort me, but not this time. The beautiful sunset before us was drowned out by this emotional turmoil that had built up inside of me. Just before we went to sleep, I managed to snap out of it, and I wept with happiness. I was ecstatic to be able to break through the emotional wall in my head and see the face of my closest friend. Finally I had a sense of relief. My mental paralysis had dissipated, and I was happy again. Finally, I could sleep.

The next day was different. I woke up, feeling challenged and weak. My body was sore from the previous days walking, and we still had a long way to go. Just as we buckled into our (fantastic and perfect) packs, a thru-hiker named Brian passed us by. We caught up with him at the nearby vista, and he shared with us the story of his travels. He looked confused, a little scared, and extremely tired. He looked and talked almost like he was trying to ignore something important. We met up with him a few more times, each time getting a better sense of what the thru-hiking was doing to him and for him. The last time we saw him he asked if I was having fun, and I said I was having a great time. He responded, “Me too! … in some sort of… strange way….” I understood exactly what he meant.

Finally, our journey was almost over, and Rebecca and I were excited again. We found a large cliff face, took in the awe-inspiring view, stopped to eat an invigorating meal, and plodded along happily to the end. Wait, what? I actually finished something! At first I was ecstatic and proud. It was satisfying to have completed the entire fifteen miles, and I was happy to have recovered my emotions. We said our goodbyes and drove home (we won’t see each other for another five weeks!!!!) and immediately I wanted to turn around and do it again. I wasn’t finished.

I lost something on those mountains. So did Brian. I could see in Brian’s eyes that he felt the same way I did. Dazed, without any other choice but to continue on, but undoubtedly happy to keep going. I lost my sense of control on that mountain. All of that writhing back and forth in my head, that relentless dialogue of self-searching, was a desperate attempt at control. The mountain tore away my free will. It told me that I had no choice but to face the trail. It buffered me with wind. It unapologetically dazzled me with its beauty. It tested my mental constitution, and even my relationship. And I loved it.

Right before a difficult climb, Rebecca asked whether I wanted to continue or rest for a moment, and I jokingly responded, “There’s no choice like the one you don’t have!” No sentence could better encompass what that hike meant to me. I had no other choice but to keep walking, no choice but to face the fearful thoughts I had, no choice but to overcome my self-doubt and defeat the trail. Thanks to this lack of options, I finally perfected something. I had something to be proud of!

Something still feels wrong, though. I never really did get the mental closure I was looking for, and I believe the answers I’m looking for are in those mountains. So in a way, I still feel as though I haven’t completed anything. These mountains tease me with the promise of a task completed, and a challenging one at that. The Appalachian Trail and I have unfinished business, and in “some sort of strange way” I love it.

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The answer to Rebecca’s question is this: I am proud that we are both somehow okay after a physical and mental fist fight with a mountain. I’m proud that I can be proud of this accomplishment, even though it doesn’t feel perfected. And I am proud that I can’t wait for round two.