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Adult learning


"The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell." This, I remember from high school biology too many years ago, a sentence that resurfaces every now and then like debris from a long-ago plane crash in the pacific ocean of my brain.

It's a memory that is not entirely useless, as now it is telling me how to live. I held it up closely today and read about programmed cell death, a healthy and necessary cellular suicide that allows fingers and toes to form themselves, among others, but not cancer. Some cells must die.

I didn't understand at fourteen that death is programmed in the body in the same place that gives it life. I know this, because if I had, maybe I wouldn't have fought too hard to keep all the things alive long enough for many of them to turn malignant. I had to learn it the long way: some things must die.

Now listening

I discovered a love for audiobooks today. On a whim, I decided to play one (The Sadness of Beautiful Things, by Simon Van Booy, an author I hadn't read before) while making dinner, and two hours later, I was still hooked.

It probably helped that I was listening to a collection of short stories, with each story being read by a different voice, and with each voice reading the lines of each character a little differently.

It was surprisingly relaxing, so long as I could hear the story clearly. (I write this because I tried to listen to one story while taking a bath--told you I was hooked--and that wasn't a good idea.)

The stories were beautiful too, closer to the kind I want to write. Van Booy collected true stories told to him during his travels, used them as starting points, and turned them into this collection. That background was what got me interested in the first place.

I'm a story collector as well, but I never thought of using them in my fiction--at least not deliberately. But now maybe I will try.

Interestingly, I'd always assumed that I wasn't an auditory person. I love visual aids and pretty fonts, and I like to watch mouths moving as people speak. But I think I like listening to nice voices and beautiful sounds just as much.

The last time before this that I listened to a story being told was during the first season of Serial. It was my initiation into podcasts. I loved Serial, particularly its game-changing format. I think that podcast had inactive parts of my brain working again.

The first time I listened to a story being told, it was by my mother. When we were children, she would read to us in the afternoon, before our naps, and the longest book I remember her reading was Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

It didn't have as many pictures as the other Disney books we had, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and I remember very well looking at blocks of text and being frustrated at not being able to decipher them. I couldn't read yet, so the task was my mother's. Except that she would fall asleep before us, and because we wanted the story finished, we'd pry open her sleeping eyes.

Soon after that, I was reading on my own, happy to be free from needing interpretation. Thinking about it now, reading was my first taste of independence.

I used to think I'd hate being read to, now that I can read on my own. But now I think it's just a matter of finding the right material, the right voice. A new door has been opened!

Uncertainty

There is a joke that has Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of quantum physics, speeding down the expressway. He is pulled over by a policeman, who sternly asks him, "Sir, do you know how fast you're going?"

"No," Heisenberg replies, "but I know exactly where I am."

***

I'm thinking about this now because last Sunday's writing prompt, carried over from two weeks ago, is "Heisenberg Principle."

Since January, my friends (Eric and Donna) and I have been challenging each other with these prompts. It's been a fun exercise that has also been helpful in reviving our blogs from the throes of abandonment. But it's also a frustrating exercise because we're people with non-science degrees who agreed to having Heisenberg Principle as a prompt.

To be honest, I hadn't thought of this principle in years, maybe not since freshman or sophomore year in college, until Breaking Bad brought it to the forefront of my consciousness. But I do remember learning about it in my senior year in high school because of something our physics teacher said during that lesson: "The act of observation affects what is being observed."

Of course, it's so me to latch on to that one line and run away with it. I remember going home that day, thinking of how my act of observation would change my horrible teenage life. It was a wild concept: by simply observing, I could turn things into ... well, no longer what they were, at least. What a super power!

It did work, in a way. I stopped escaping my reality and started looking at it closely, hoping it would turn into something different. Sometimes it made me even more miserable, but many times--and this is important to teenage me--it led to deeper understanding, compassion, and acceptance, even.

***

Mulling over the Heisenberg Principle now, my thoughts drift towards trade-offs: how in measuring A, we are forced to lose precision in measuring B. When we try to know A better, we understand B a little less.

I used to find uncertainty upsetting. When you're an anxious child, you want everything spelled out for you, no surprises. But my personality isn't suited for precision planning either, and it took me a while to accept that.

Now, I think I'm okay with knowing A, and leaving B for some other day. And if I never figure out how fast I'm going, I think I can be happy with just knowing I am here.