This weekend marks 10 years since I first set foot in Turkey. Funny thing, as I started doing the math, I realized that I have several converging milestones that illustrate some lessons about knowledge and learning, with a little help from a computer.
If you want to skip the history and jump ahead to the moralizing, just scroll down.
1973. Thirty-five years ago I took a computing class in high school. It was basically a mash-up of binary code, the mechanics of card punching, and the virtue of cards as a sortable database record (although I don't recall learning the 'd' word then). Our final exam had problems like converting between binary and decimal numbers, and reading the alphanumeric codes in cards like the one in the photo. Of course we students never actually touched a computer. Let's hope that today all teachers can see what went wrong. I still got an A, but I had a lot more fun in my music independent study and hanging out with friends in my Rambler.
1982-83. Twenty-five years ago I used an Osborne portable computer-in-a-suitcase to work on indigenous language publications in Guatemala. It looked like something out of an old spy movie, with the world's smallest green screen, and couldn't handle more than one keystroke per second. I originally went to Guatemala to get away from a problem (even though the civil war in Guate was at its peak!), but while there I had to face up to some things inside me, and in a manner of speaking start over and move on.
1988. Nearly 20 years ago, in Guatemala again, I got my first Toshiba laptop. It had two 3.5 inch floppy drives: drive A to run your programs, and drive B to hold your data disk. That same spring I nearly died of typhoid fever and malaria (at the same time), which resulted in me learning a lot about the fecal-oral vector and the most effective ways to kill flies (my record was 72 in 10 minutes).
1998. After finishing my masters in development administration in '96, we were back in Houston using our Packard-Bell PC for international job searching. I was designing CVs with graphics on WordPerfect for Windows 95, and attaching them in email to people I was meeting on usenet and --get this-- the World Wide Web, which can never be fully appreciated by anyone who has not used Gopher, a system for online information retrieval that closely resembled climbing in and out of very deep abandoned wells.
Thanks to the web I networked, followed up on leads, and finally made contact with a friend of a friend who offered to set up some appointments for me in Ankara. We met up ten years ago this week. My appointments led to other contacts, and after I returned to the US I was able to use email to keep in touch with those new contacts. A year later one of them wrote to offer me a job and the rest is, well, history.
That was the short version of my digital odyssey. Through the years I also learned a few languages, a few musical instruments, and I even learned how to teach. What's better, though, is that I learned how to learn: how to work up a guitar piece, how to form linguistic questions in a new language, how to do field research, how to read the look in my wife's eyes.
Here's my take away after 35 years at the keyboard of life:
Knowledge is a means towards doing what you really want. You don't learn databases just because they're there. You learn them because you're data's in a mess and you can't see the patterns. You learn MS Word because you need to update your resume. You learn Spanish because you want to sing like Enrique. You learn music remixing because you want to impress your girlfriend. The corollary to this is:
Latin America was my gig for nearly 20 years, and living there was practically second nature. Turkey is so different that after we came here we had to learn an incredible amount from scratch, including how to live together as a family in our new environment. But here we are, living here for eight years and doing a lot better than just getting by. That's because:
The more stuff you learn, the more you (should) learn about yourself. Which, by the way, is not a new idea. You really get to know yourself when you're uncomfortable (that is, experiencing change). You find out what motivates you and what doesn't. You reconsider the goals you set for yourself back when you were on easy street. You figure out that what matters most is not what you know, but who you are. So...
Don't act your age. I was 45 when I learned Turkish. I was nearly 50 when I learned how to blog, wiki, and Skype. Now I am enjoying these new skills and sharing them with others. Good thing, because our kids in the US are tethered to Facebook and use email, like, never (it's sooo 1999). I have to confess that I've had a lot of personal trials in the last year, and I felt the wear and tear of the last 30 years catching up with me. So now I'm learning that you need others near you to help you wake up again and undo some of that maturity (this is why God created kids). Get renewed, like it says in these lines from Stephen Dunn. And speaking of the butterfly effect...
It's all connected. My first trip to Guatemala in 1976 was led by my human geography professor. He's one of the world's best teachers, and we still keep in touch. In fact, I wonder if the personal bond is both cause and result of our collaborative exploring. I loved his class and the study trip, but by far the biggest lesson was that geology, topography, climate, social organization, technology, were all connected. Everywhere. Sociology, biology, psychology. Body, mind and soul. It's all there, and they're all in us.
When studying linguistics I learned about splitters and joiners. Some people are better at seeing contrasts (splitters) and some are better at seeing similarities (joiners). I am definitely a joiner, building bridges of comparison, analogy and metaphor, from what I know into what I am learning. I think that has made life a lot more fun. Which is a good thing, because...
It never ends.