Lessons in Lifelong Learning

By Ernie Witham   |   January 30, 2020

After six years of high school, I figured there was nothing else to learn. (Just kidding… it only took me five years to graduate.)

But I was wrong. Soon I got a job and found I needed new skills. “So, I won’t be needing Algebra or English Lit?”

“No, and you probably won’t need your gym bag either. Just the ability to properly use tools. Not to worry though, even apes have learned to use tools in nature.”

So, I worked really hard and soon I mastered the skills needed to operate high-powered machinery. “Oops. Hey boss, the machine just grabbed my screwdriver and now there is smoke coming out of it.”

“I should have hired the primate.”

Having discovered how much fun learning new things can be, I moved to California in 1977 and decided to go back to school to become a photographer. I learned that you really need to develop your own niche to become successful and I quickly found mine. “I’m going to take a whole series of photos of me. I’m going to call them self-Es, for Ernie. Get it?”

“That’s stupid. No one takes a bunch of photos of themselves.”

Turns out he was right. After graduation, it became obvious I might need to supplement my photography income or eat instant ramen for the rest of my life, so I decided to learn all about publishing and got an interview at a specialty magazine.

“Will I be required to figure out lighting ratios and use exposure compensation techniques?”

“No. And you can leave the tripod at home, too.”

I caught on quickly, though I did mess up the copy machine a few times. That’s when I learned one of the most valuable lessons to-date: if you screw up doing the easy stuff, they make you a manager and salt you away in an office somewhere. But it can be boring being a manager. So, I decided to teach myself the craft of writing in my spare time. “Is this funny?” “No.” “This?” “No.” “How about this?” “Yes!”

Fast forward 25 years, hundreds of columns, and several publishers later and I came out of my office one day and said: “I’ve decided to retire.”

“Really? Who are you again?”

Retirement was great at first. I watched ESPN all day and night and learned which was the best beer for each sport. But… boredom set in. I was having learning withdrawal.

So, I decided to take a class on the Art of Bonsai. I quickly learned how to carefully prune a miniature juniper with ultra-sharp bonsai scissors. “Ow! Need another Band-Aid over here. Hurry my tree is turning red.”

The instructor quickly intervened. “Perhaps you would like to learn all about soil preparation. You can begin by sifting. Use the plastic sifter.”

Eventually, I mastered beginning bonsai techniques and figured there was nothing left to learn. But then a gentleman from the Bonsai Club of Santa Barbara, who’s been doing bonsai almost longer than I have been screwing up, gave a class on the art of grafting foliage onto bonsai to make them more aesthetically pleasing. So, I’m going to try it. All I need is a razor-shape grafting knife, some tape, and wire. Looks easy.

I have also been training in the Japanese Garden at Lotusland in the art of pruning trees Niwaki style, which is similar to bonsai only the trees are much bigger, so I need to use larger pruning shears, branch cutters and tree saws. Seems simple enough.

I have also been contemplating taking courses in martial arts, skydiving, and trapeze artistry for fun and exercise.

“I have an idea that might save your life and the lives of others,” My wife said. “You should join Vistas.”

“Vistas? Like views? Will I need my extraordinary photography skills? Self-Es on the edge?”

“No! Vistas is a non-profit lifelong learning organization. They have all kinds of classes – history, science, music, politics. Great presenters, and there is a cookie and coffee break at each session. You can learn something new every week and snack to your heart’s content.”

“Wow. Science huh? I always wanted to be a scientist. I almost passed science twice in high school.”

“Perfect. And the best part… no tools required.”

(Vistas Lifelong Learning, mentioned in this piece, is an excellent source of continuing education for adults. More information is available at vistaslifelonglearning.org)


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