Back in Time?

For a moment, not so long ago, I was back on October 24th.

October 24th, October 24th

I have a page-a-day calendar on my desk.  The other day, I tore the sheet off for the previous day and, after glancing at the picture – a nice pinto horse – I went back to work.  Later, when I was checking the date before making an appointment, I glanced at the calendar again.

Neat black letters informed me that the date was October 24th.  I stared at it.  Until a moment before, I’d been certain that the date was sometime in November.  After all, why else was I wondering what to get one of my nephews for his birthday?  Why was I thinking ahead to Christmas gifts?  I tend to plan ahead, but not that far ahead.

My head felt floaty, courtesy of some rather heavy-duty cough medication I’m taking, but certainly I was not so out of it as to have imagined living through much of a month.

I considered the facts.  I felt certain the month was definitely November.  When Jim and I went to Weems Art Fest last weekend, the date had been November 11th.  People kept making jokes about it being 11/11/12.

Surely there was an error in the calendar itself.  As I turned the pages, my sense of being grounded in time was again shaken.  There in neat sequence, yet unviewed, were the days from October 24th forward.

I pulled open the drawer where I keep old calendar pages to use as scratch paper (and to make paper balls for the kitten to chase when she gets too annoying).  At first, I found very few pages from November 2012, which didn’t add to my sense of confidence at all.  Then, I came across a couple.  Finally, I came across October 24th.  I set it beside the other October 24th, just to reassure myself.

Yes.  For some reason known only to the calendar company, an extra half-month or so had been duplicated.  Mystery solved.  Reality re-established.   Nonetheless, I found myself struck by how seeing that page proclaiming that the date was actually October 24th had made me question my memory.

Is this part of the legacy of being a member of a culture that relies so heavily on written materials?

Very few people memorize things any more.  Even when I was a kid, rote memorization was dying out.  Now, with various search engines making it easy to look up information, I’ve repeatedly been told that such foundation skills as memorizing dates or state capitals or bits of poetry are wasting time that could be used to learn more productive skills.

Most often cited as “productive” skills are those that involve computer use.  However, I wonder…  Computer programs rapidly become obsolete.  Even once “basic” skills like “keyboarding” (aka “typing”) are being replaced (or so “they” say) by touch pads or sensitive screens.

I’m not sure I agree that memorization is useless.  Memorization does more than load a person up with information.  It trains the brain to understand foundations.  I remember thinking a lot about how 2 x 10 = 20, but 4 x 5 also equaled 20 and so did 5×4… and so did 1×20.  In other words, memorization (and I hated those multiplication tables) did more than fill my brain with information.  It supplied me with the means to think about how numbers relate to each other.

The same was true for memorizing poetry.  Not only did it give me a few verses with which to amuse myself, it intimately introduced me to rhyme and reason on a “gut,” rather than intellectual, level.  Even those state capitals gave me something of a feeling for the “whys” of various places, since a state capital is often named for some important person or event.  Trying to remember why the capital of Maryland was Annapolis, not Baltimore, gave those places a reality.

Handwriting is another skill that isn’t being taught in many schools.  As anyone who has ever received a handwritten note from me can testify, my handwriting is far from the best.  However, I firmly believe (and some studies have begun to support my wholly experiential deduction) that writing something out by hand uses an entirely different part of the brain than does using a keyboard.

I know that, when I’m stuck on a story, a trick I use to get myself out of the hole is writing by hand, rather than on the computer.  It’s as if my handwriting is tied more closely to my subconscious.  Many of my novels have begun in handwritten form.  Only after I have the ideas flowing do I shift to the keyboard.  And even then,  I prefer to use an old one that my fingers “know,” because it has become an extension of my creative process, not an intermediary.

Inspiration comes from odd places, sometimes, even, from a misprinted calendar…   I’m not saying all old skills need to be preserved, but I do think sometimes we’re too eager to throw away the old skill in favor of the fast, easy, practical new skills.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter…

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11 Responses to “Back in Time?”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Personally, I think memorization is essential, perhaps because I got my degrees in ecology, where a good memory is a critical. It’s impossible to put together anything resembling a big picture, if you keep forgetting all the details. It’s like trying to speak a language with your face pressed in the dictionary, looking up every third word.

    While I use computers every day, I still spend time learning and remembering, because memory is like a muscle, use it or lose it. Moreover, you have to learn to use it]. It’s not a skill that arises spontaneously.

    I’d also say that it’s critical to teach children how to memorize as young as possible, and that our schools are raising a generation of cripples right now, people absolutely dependent on their computers for things that, a decade ago, were normally done in their heads.

    Even when I was in grad school teaching freshman science a decade ago, there were a few kids who had never been taught to memorize anything, who had never learned a foreign language or played music from memory. They struggled horribly just learning a short vocabulary list. At eighteen, they couldn’t do something that most of their peers had been doing for over a decade.

    I suspect there are far more students like this now. Of course, universities will dumb down courses rather than fail these otherwise bright kids, but the fault is in the school system, in the communities who refused to pay for a quality education, and in the school systems who didn’t fight for it hard enough.

    For parents, I suggest going old-fashioned, and making a game out of teaching your kids basic calligraphy (or get them interested in it as a rebel’s game–after all, you can tear up a passed note, but an email is forever). More importantly, I’d suggest playing memory games with them. For example, my mom played a variant of Kim’s Game with me, and I’d suggest that it’s worth playing with kids too. Remember, to be true play, you have to take a turn with the kids, not just organize it like some stupid random practice thing that will improve their character. It’s good practice for everyone. If they’re musical, have them memorize songs. Help them become bilingual. Just get them working their brains, rather than trusting a keyboard.

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Anyone know their home phone number anymore?

    First thought that came to mind. In the modern age of cell phones, smart phones, and high tech land-line phones that would impress Captain Kirk, we’ve stopped remembering people’s numbers. My aunt has a cell phone I don’t know the number to. Same with a brother. But I got em in my own phone.

    Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t have that stuff. Being dyscraphic (not dyslexic, different disorder), my short term memory is terrible, so it helps me a lot. But I do think we’ve lost a lot of those skills thanks to technology. I mean, how many numbers do we call on a regular basis, do we not know? Speed is the name of the game. Too bad it’s come at the cost of accuracy. I wish so many fast food places would take the extra minute to make sure the cheeseburger I order is actually intact, instead of the meat sliding out one side, the cheese being half on the meat, and so on.

    On a different note entirely, it’s interesting that you mention the part about typing being different than writing long hand. Because of dyscraphia, I have a hard time writing long hand. But typing is so much easier. Though I hear you about going for a keyboard I know. I tend to look for ones the same size now-a-days so I don’t hit keys I don’t want to hit.

  3. shibiku Says:

    Do the studies you talked about say anything regarding handwritten printing vs. cursive? I found cursive to be pure torture, and I confess to being a bit surprised in subbing for elementary schools how frequently it is still being taught as a matter of rote rather than preference. I’m curious to know if my refusal to properly learn cursive was intellectual disservice to myself.

    But in regards to your experience, I think that like the different parts of the brain that activate when writing with different methods, we’re also dealing with different parts of memory. Experiential memory is going to be different (and provably problematic) than, say, memorizing the multiplication table or a piece of music.

    Tying experiential memory to rote learning, though, now that’s where I think the real meat is. I can memorize the chorus to almost any song in a relatively short amount of time, and I remember the tunes of folk songs that I haven’t heard in years, because the learning was tied more to the experience of listening or singing than it was to sitting down and saying “I had better learn this.”

    • janelindskold Says:

      I don’t recall if a differentiation was made between printing and cursive.

      I’ll let you know but I did have the impression that “cursive” was considered important.

  4. Barbara Joan Says:

    Very interesting discussion. Cursive if learned by the Palmer Method which I was not only looks pretty it also increases your memory, since you need to learn the pattern of the letters and where they swoop up and down, it also increases your small motor skills and as a klutz in many things I was always grateful for that. For me printing is important for others, it’s easier to read but again (for me) it’s slower than cursive.

  5. Paul Says:

    I often wonder how people who don’t learn cursive can sign checks, or other things. I do find writing something by hand differs from typing (keyboarding?) it, although the amount of difference seems to have changed over the years — I suppose as I’ve gotten more used to composing at the keyboard. I guess printing would have gotten the same result, but it would have been much slower. At times in school or in my profession when I’ve had to take rapid notes, I developed my own “shorthand” but cursive was vital to keep up. (That business of finding the wrong day on the calendar could be the opening to a good short story…)

    • janelindskold Says:

      Signing checks… I know one editor whose signature is basically two long, squiggly lines… But the bank takes his checks, so Palmer method is apparently not needed!

      Thanks for the story hint… I’ll certainly use it if the rest of the idea comes to visit!

  6. CBI Says:

    I mainly do physics and computer science nowadays, but I find that I very, very often do my initial programming and calculations (and outlining of reports) longhand. Not necessarily Palmer, but pen, ink, and sheet of paper. It might show my age, but doing so seems to be much easier — and is an easier method to relate concepts (using lines and arrows).

    On the other hand, making corrections and insertions is a real bear.

    (Playing catch-up with my reading.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      And delighted to “see” you again!

      • CBI Says:

        And I’m glad to be back and have the time to do more stuff that I enjoy — such as reading your Wednesday and Thursday posts.
        Now . . . I need to get my Bubonicon ticket . . . .

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