LIFE 101
Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life In School -- But Didn't


I call this book LIFE 101 because it contains all the things I wish I had learned about life in school but, for the most part, did not.

After twelve (or more) years of schooling, we know how to figure the square root of an isosceles triangle (invaluable in daily life), but we might not know how to forgive ourselves and others.

We know what direction migrating birds fly in autumn, but we're not sure which way we want to go.

We have dissected a frog, but perhaps have never explored the dynamics of human relationships.

We know who wrote "To be or not to be, that is the question," but we don't know the answer.

We know what pi is, but we're not sure who we are.

We may know how to diagram a sentence, but we may not know how to love ourselves.

That our educational system is not designed to teach us the "secrets of life" is no secret. In school, we learn how to do everything--except how to live.

Fred Sanford: Didn't you learn
anything being my son?
Who do you think I'm
doing this all for?

Lamont Sanford: Yourself.

Fred: Yeah, you
learned something.

Maybe that's the way it should be. Unraveling life's "mysteries" and discovering life's "secrets" (which are, in fact, neither mysterious nor secretive) may take the courage and determination found only in a self-motivated pursuit.

You probably already know there's more to life than reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. I'm glad you learned reading, of course, or you wouldn't be able to read this book. I'm also glad I learned 'riting (such as it is).

And 'rithmetic? Well, as Mae West once said, "One and one is two, two and two are four, and five'll get you ten if you know how to work it." That's what this book is about: knowing how to work it, and having fun along the way.

Although a lot can be learned from adversity, most of the same lessons can be learned through enjoyment and laughter. If you're like me, you've probably had more than enough adversity. (After graduating from the School of Hard Knocks, I automatically enrolled in the University of Adversity.)

I agree with Alan Watts, who said, "I am sincere about life, but I'm not serious about it." If you're looking for serious, pedantic, didactic instruction, you will not find it here. I will--with a light heart--present hundreds of techniques and suggestions, and for each of them I make the same suggestion:

Give it a try. If it works for you, fine--use it; it's yours. If it doesn't work for you, let it go and try other things that may. When you find things that do work for you, I advise you to follow Shakespeare's advice: "Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel."

Naturally, not everything in LIFE 101 will be for you. I'm laying out a smorgasbord. The carrot-raisin salad you pass up may be the very thing another person craves, while the caviar you're making a beeline for might be just so much salty black stuff to the carrot-salad lover.

If I say something you find not "true," please don't discount everything else in the book. It may be "true" for someone else. That same someone else might say, "What nonsense," about something which has you knowingly muttering, "How true." It's a big world; we are all at different points on our personal journeys. Life has many truths; take what you can use and leave the rest.

We don't receive wisdom;
we must discover it
for ourselves after a journey
that no one can take for us
or spare us.


If you take from this book ten percent--any ten percent--and use it as your own, I'll consider my job well done.

Which brings me to the question: Who is the real teacher of LIFE 101? I'll get to that shortly. (Hint: It's certainly not me--or I, as the grammatically correct among us would say.) (Second hint: It is definitely not me.)

For now, welcome to LIFE 101 . When you were born, you probably had quite a welcome, although you may have been too young to remember it. So, as you begin this "life," please feel welcome.

Although it may be "just a book," it's a book of ideas from my mind to yours; a book of best wishes from my heart to yours. As James Burke observed, "When you read a book, you hold another's mind in your hands." (So be careful!) Here's to our time together being intimate, enjoyable, and loving.


Why Life?

Life is far too important a thing
ever to talk about.


What's it all about? Why are we here? What's the point? Is there a point? Why bother?

Why life?

At some point, you have probably pondered The Meaning of Life, and you came up with a satisfactory answer, which either has or has not stood the test of time, or you shrugged mightily, muttered, "Beats the hell out of me," and ordered another cheeseburger.The Meaning of Life . Very funny; very true.

The question which precedes "What's the meaning of life?" is, of course, "Is there a meaning to life?" Beats the hell out of me. I'm going to explore the first question as though the answer to the second question is yes.

If it's true that life has no meaning--no purpose--then it doesn't matter whether I've consumed a few pages speculating on the meaning of life. So let's play a game called "Life Matters."

We'll start the game by assuming there is a purpose. The first question of Life Matters: "What is the purpose of life?"

Here's my answer:

Life is for doing, learning, and enjoying.


Things won are done;
joy's soul lies in the doing.


One thing about humans: we are doing creatures. When we're not doing something, we're thinking about doing something, which, in its own way, is doing something. When we sleep, we toss and dream. We exercise to keep our bodies in shape so we can do some more.

We are well designed for doing. Unlike trees, our bodies can move from place to place. In a matter of seconds, our emotions can move from happy to sad and back again. Our thoughts move us to places we can't go physically--our memory moves us back in time, our intelligence anticipates future movement, and our imagination takes us to places we've never been.

As to nature-you name it, and humans have either changed it, processed it, painted it, preserved it, moved it, or done something to it. (At the very least, we named it.) We seem bent on rearranging the world.

The theatrical director Moss Hart had a country home. He would visit on weekends, and request of his landscape designer that a few trees be put over there, a stream over here, and please move that mountain a few hundred feet to the left. When playwright George S. Kaufman visited Hart's home, he remarked, "This is the way God would do it if He only had money."

The shortest answer is doing.


It's often been observed that, from afar, the doing of humans resembles the bustling of ants. We must occasionally wonder, "What is the purpose of all this doing?" We are not, after all, rocks, which don't seem to do much at all. We have the ability to do, but why?

We must, of course, do in order to meet our bodily needs (which would not be as great if we did not do as much), but even after these needs are met, we keep on doing. Why?

My suggestion:

Our doing allows for more learning.

Learning is not
attained by chance,
it must be sought for with ardor
and attended to with diligence.



Wear your learning,
like your watch,
in a private pocket:
and do not pull it out
and strike it,
merely to show
that you have one.


Life is for learning? Learning what? You name it. There's a lot to learn. In just the first five years of life we learned physical coordination, walking, talking, eating, going potty, interaction with family and playmates, a great many facts about this planet, and all the other things that differentiate a five-year-old from a newborn infant.

From age five to ten we learned reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, science, music, sports--and when we weren't watching television we learned some more about people: friends, relatives, enemies, allies, rivals, supporters, detractors.

Some of what we learned early on turned out to be true (the earth is round; if you want a friend, be a friend; cleanliness is next to impossible) and some of it turned out to be false (Santa Claus; the Tooth Fairy; Kansas is more fun than Oz).

Some things had to be relearned-or unlearned-and while relearning and unlearning, maybe we learned what to do about disappointment--and maybe we didn't.

Looking in on most lives, we see dramatic growth until the age of fifteen or twenty. Then the growing slows, stops, or, in some cases, regresses.

Most people declare themselves "done" when their formal education is complete. What is it about renting a cap and gown and receiving a scroll of paper that makes us think our learning days are over?

I call that mind free which jealously
guards its intellectual rights and
powers, which calls no man master,
which does not content itself with a
passive or hereditary faith, which opens
itself to light whencesoever it may come,
which receives new truth as an angel from Heaven.


It's not that there's nothing left to learn. Far from it. "Commencement" does not just mean graduation; it means a new beginning.

The more we learn, the more we do. The more we do, the more we learn. But in all this doing and learning, let's not forget one of the most important lessons of all--enjoyment.

How good is man's life,
the mere living!
How fit to employ all the heart
and the soul and the senses
forever in joy!



Seek not, my soul,
the life of the immortals;
but enjoy to the full
the resources
that are within thy reach.

518-438 B.C.

Joy is an interesting word. It does not have an automatic opposite created by grafting "un" or "dis" or "in" onto it. There is pleasure and displeasure, happiness and unhappiness, gratitude and ingratitude--but there is no unjoy, disjoy, or injoy. (Can you imagine the word in enjoy?)

The old story comes to mind: Two brothers went to ride ponies on their uncle's ranch, but first the uncle insisted that they shovel a large pile of manure out of a stall. One brother hated the project, grumbling his way through a few halfhearted scoops. The other brother was laughing and singing and shoveling with abandon. "What are you so happy about?" the first brother asked. "Well," the second replied, "with all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere!"

So it is with life. When life seems truly excremental, we can moan and groan, or we can--even in the midst of anger, terror, confusion, and pain--tell ourselves, "There must be a lesson in here someplace!"

The trick, I think, is to learn to enjoy the process of learning. As Confucius observed 2,500 years ago, "With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow--I still have joy in the midst of these things."

"With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy," wrote Wordsworth, "we see into the life of things."

A man's life of any worth
is a continual allegory.


Life Is a Metaphor

There are many models for life: analogies, allegories, and metaphors to help us understand something as complicated, intricate, and seemingly un understandable as life.

There is the Life-Is-a-Game school of thought (and its many subschools: Life Is a Baseball Game, Life Is a Football Game, Life Is Like Tennis, Life Is Chess, Life's Like Monopoly, Life As Croquet).

"Life is like a game of whist," Eugene Hare pointed out some time ago. "From unseen sources the cards are shuffled, and the hands are dealt." Josh Billings completed the thought: "Life consists not in holding good cards but in playing those you hold well."

Some believe Life Is an Intricate Machine (very popular in Germany). In Northern California they believe Life Is a Computer. Buckminster Fuller synthesized the two: "The earth is like a spaceship that didn't come with an operating manual."

Is life work or play? Karl Marx said, "Living is working," and Henry Ford, of all people, agreed: "Life is work." Disagreeing is Leon de Montenaeken, who said, "Life is but play," and Liza de Minnelli, who sang, "Life is a cabaret."

The very purpose
of existence is to reconcile
the glowing opinion
we hold of ourselves
with the appalling things
that other people
think about us.


Seneca said, "Life is a play. It's not its length, but its performance that counts." What kind of play is it? Jean de La Bruyere suggested life's "a tragedy for those who feel, a comedy for those who think." Kirk Douglas called life "a B-picture script." (From Seneca to Kirk Douglas in one paragraph. Not bad.)

Shakespeare, of course, called life "a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage" and James Thurber continued: "It's a tale told in an idiom, full of unsoundness and fury, signifying nonism." George Bernard Shaw also took the Bard to task: "Life is no brief candle to me. It is sort of a splendid torch that I have got hold of for the moment."

There are those who like musical analogies. "Life is something like a trumpet," the great W. C. Handy pointed out, "If you don't put anything in, you won't get anything out." Samuel Butler said, "Life is playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on." Ella Wheeler Wilcox sang, "Our lives are songs: God writes the words / and we set them to music at pleasure; / and the song grows glad, or sweet or sad / as we choose to fashion the measure."

One of the nicest literary analogies comes from the Jewish Theological Seminary: "A life is a single letter in the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning."

One of the greatest letters in the American alphabet, HELEN KELLER, proclaimed, "Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." George Bernard Shaw agreed: "Life is a series of inspired follies. The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn't come every day."

How about closing this chapter with the Life-Is-Food contingent?

"Life is an onion," Carl Sandburg wrote. "You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep." "Life is like eating artichokes," T. A. Dorgan tells us. "You've got to go through so much to get so little." Or maybe it's more as Auntie Mame pointed out: "Life is a banquet, and some poor sons-of-bitches are starving."

Don Marquis called life "a scrambled egg." Make of that what you will--but then, we could say that about life itself, couldn't we?

And what do I think life is? What model do I use to describe our time together? Please turn the page.

Life Is a Classroom

Universities should be safe havens
where ruthless
examination of realities
will not be distorted
by the aim to please
or inhibited by the risk of displeasure.


It should come as no surprise that, if I think life is for learning, I would view the process of life itself as a classroom. But it's not a dull, sit-in-neat-little-rows-and-listen-to-some-puffed-up-professor-drone- on-and-on classroom. Life is (as I'm sure you've noticed) experiential . In that sense, life's more of a workshop.

I like to think the workshop/classroom of life is perfectly arranged so that we learn what we need to learn, when we need to learn it, just the way we need to learn it.

The operative word in all that is need, not want.

We don't always learn what we want to learn. In tenth-grade biology there was only one animal's reproductive methods I was interested in studying, but I had to start with splitting of amoebas (yawn) and work my way up. The biology teacher had a lesson plan different from mine.

And so, it seems, does life.

Life's lessons come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes what we need to know we learn in a formal way, such as taking a class or reading a book. Sometimes we learn by an informal, seemingly accidental process: an overheard comment in an elevator, a friend's offhand remark, or the line of a song from a passing radio ("Don't worry, be happy").

I like to think there are no accidents.

The most important
function of education
at any level is to develop
the personality of the individual
and the significance of his life
to himself and to others.
This is the basic architecture of a life;
the rest is ornamentation and
decoration of the structure.


Positive lessons are not always taught in positive ways. A flat tire (hardly a positive occurrence) can teach any number of lessons: acceptance, the value of planning, patience, the joy of service (if another person has the flat tire), the gratitude of being served (if another person helps you), and so on.

We can also use the same flat tire to learn (or relearn or rerelearn or--in my case--rererelearn) depressing lessons: life isn't fair; nothing can be trusted; if anything can go wrong it will (at the worst possible moment); life's a pain--then you die; nobody loves me.

Do you begin to see your role in all this? The classroom of life is not third grade, where all you will learn each day is neatly planned--including recess. In life, you choose what you learn from the many lessons presented to you, and your choice is fundamental to what you learn.

There are any number of lessons we can learn from any experience--both uplifting and "downpushing."

Experience, it is said, is the best teacher--providing, of course, we become the best students.

But who, really, is the teacher?


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