Taking Hard Subjects — The Golden Apples of the Sun

There are no hard subjects

Though I am old with wandering

Contact juggler Richard Hartnell, Photo by Mike Kepka, The SF Chronicle

Why, who makes much of a miracle? —      Walt Whitman

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And  pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.”

— from “The Song of Wondering Aengus,” W. B. Yeats



The Easy Way to Do Hard Things

Long ago, I gave a little ten-minute talk as faculty speaker at a graduation ceremony at at my college.  I called it, “Things We Forgot to Tell You.”  The gist was that everyone is lots lots smarter than they realize.  When you think of what all you’ve  learned from the instant that sperm hit that egg, never mind what all the sperm and the egg brought to the party,  it would be incredible if it weren’t such an everyday event. Here’s just one infinitesimal thing you deliberately learned when you were a tiny little kid:  You learned to pick up a pencil.  If you look at a little baby at McDonalds  amusing herself with a bunch of her mommy’s keys, you see how you did that.  You were educating your fingers, you were educating your eyes, you were educating your taste buds (you were always putting things in your mouth) — and your parents didn’t even notice.  You did that on your own.

No one taught you how to learn; you were born with that ability.

Contact Juggler at Work

Contact Juggler at Work


The mere process of learning to pick up a pencil involves innumerable bits of data collected into a pattern of knowledge stored in your brain and in all the stuff that makes up a human organism.  And you know what?  It was child’s play.




Your Own Very Personal Computer

If all my students — and all readers of this site — understood this one thing about how they learn, what really happens when they solve a problem or when they learn how to do something, I’d be even happier than I am now. You have to get over the idea that you solve problems with your conscious mind.  You never do. It’s always done elsewhere, out of conscious awareness, in your non-conscious mind.

Prove this to yourself by watching how your mind works as you go about figuring something out.  Have you noticed?  You can actually watch yourself thinking.   Give it a shot. You’ll see

                       You have a brain that solves problems for you.

I didn’t know this about myself till in the late 70s when I was pushing 50 and bought my first personal computer.   It cost a lot of money, and I didn’t have anybody to hold my hand while I tried to figure out how to make the damned thing work.  All I really wanted it for was word processing.  I was sick of having to re-write manuscripts, re-number the pages over an over again as I plowed through even tiny revisions.  So here I was with this thing that should have made composing and editing easier, and I was sweating and having lots of self-doubt.  Even the simplest word processing — bold print, italics,  all sorts of things, spelling errors, commas — required special instructions to the computer. It was hard, and I was not happy about it. Then I left the computer at home and went up to Flathead Lake for the summer and never thought about it  — or anything academic — all summer long.  Now here is the good part, and this is the part you have to  “get” totally, so pay close attention:  When I got home and fired up the computer, everything that had seemed so  hard made all sorts of sense and was effortless!  Wow!  It was the first time in my life — geez, what a slow learner — that I sensed a powerful brain solving a problem for me without my consciously lifting a finger.


Man’s Best Friend


Then I reflected on how I had actually “learned”  things in my life that had seemed hard and then weren’t hard at all.  How much better and surer I was driving home from getting my driver’s license than I had been on the way to the test, learning to read, to ride a bike — all that stuff we all know how to do but once didn’t.

Since that day, I’ve used this awareness time and time again.  No matter what strange country I visit — from  wiring up a three-way switch, to teaching myself Spanish, to matting  and framing paintings, to designing this website, to learning some HTML coding —  I know I have a pal inside my head who loves to figure things out.  That’s how I came to develop the Mess-Around Method For Every Occasion that I explain elsewhere on this website.

So here it is, reader.  What I learned to do on purpose is this:

Mess around till it’s clear what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s the big question:  What the hell is it I want to happen here?  What do I want to be able to do?  What do I want to understand?  If you can mess around and boil it down to a clear question, I can guarantee you your brain will get to work on that and will send you the answer — if you’re listening, of course.

When you’re in the mess-around phase, you’ll be amassing bits and pieces of unconnected junk.  You’ll be noticing things here and there, some of it even making sense.  Meanwhile your non-conscious mind will be piecing all that together, making a pattern, making it all add up.  Yes, it will.  This I guarantee.

Before you decide I’m totally nuts, try it out.  Watch your brain go into gear.  See how it works.  Once you see what and extraordinary thing you have up there in your head and see how to use it, you’re on your way to a full and joyful life.





“Always the beautiful answer the more beautiful question.”




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