The other day, I found myself speaking with a total stranger about where our parents came from. It seems we both had a parent from Hungary, so I asked her, “Where in Hungary?” I saw the gears grind to a halt behind her eyes, and decided to try something. I shifted my stance alongside hers.
“Hungary is here,” I said, placing my angled left hand in front of us. “The former Czechoslovakia is above it, here.” I placed my right hand above my left, tilted. “Remember, Hungary is this big country here,” I repeated, “and the Czech Republic–it’s not Czechoslovakia anymore, remember–is here.” She nodded. Comprehension was beginning to dawn. “Poland is over here.” My right hand moved just right of its previous position. I reiterated, very quickly, “Hungary. Czech Republic. Poland. Right?” In a space of a minute, I had overcome her obvious apprehensions about geography. She was delighted that she could “see” what I “saw”.
I love information. I especially love it when someone figures out how to repackage the dry stuff we all should know and present it as something interesting and relevant. You know that guy on the Food Network, Alton Brown, who gets into the science of cooking? Or some of the articles on Cracked.com that examine geeky topics liberally sprinkled with expletives? I realize these are not highbrow presentations, but they are fun, and having fun is half of real learning. Information is an ingredient. Relevant context is the entrée.
Being a fact hound is not enough. Information has to matter, or we disconnect from it and lose it. My memory might be better than yours, so if I can retain and access information, I become a curiosity, a candidate for Jeopardy! Information in quantity is only water in the water tower. I want to make the crops grow and give the filthy a quality shower. And to destroy this poor metaphor utterly, I want to give everyone I can the best water I can deliver.
I looked at this woman and explained that in my line of work, I constantly have to assimilate information. I run into people all the time who are afraid of the new. “You have to make the strange and new your own,” I said. “Geography, history, politics–it’s meaningless unless you start seeing it as belonging to you. That’s when it stops sounding scary.”
The initial obstacle to absorbing information is you seeing it as that topic over there. It’s not like that; any topic is yours when you dispel the conversation that it’s foreign or new. If you welcome the effort of understanding and learning, it will be easy and fun.
Neal Klein loves Firefly, Doctor Who, Monty Python and Girl Genius. He has been an information technology expert for over two decades and barely stands it most days. When he grows up, he aspires to be a writer.