The Couch of Knowledge: A Love Story
The Beatles were wrong
It all began, as these things so often do, with a painfully boring conversation. I had gotten together with my friend Bob, who is approaching the age of eighty. He still has all his marbles, but lately he has been playing repeatedly with a smaller and smaller set of them. In other words, Bob had begun to repeat himself. I don’t mean just a little bit. I mean Bob would bring something up, then bring it up the next time I saw him, then the next time and the next time. For one particular subject, Bob had brought it up twenty-three times in a row. I know, because I started counting after thirteen.
Bob does not have dementia, nor is he cognitively impaired, nor does he have memory loss, short-term or long-term. Bob was just in a whopper of a rut. I’ve seen the same thing in people a quarter of Bob’s age, and it’s even more embarrassing and tiresome in a twenty-year-old.
I love Bob. We’ve known each other for years, and have been excellent friends, but I was approaching my limit of tolerance for his repetition. I just couldn’t take it any more, but I was also baffled as to what I should do. Should I bring it up, and risk offending or alienating him? Should I go all wimpy, and just see him less often? Should I devise a crafty passive-aggressive approach and begin matching his level of repetition, to see if he complains? Should I just stage a vast volcanic eruption, and try to make my escape in a haze of falling ash? Believe it or not, I was tending toward that last option.
Instead, in desperation, my hand twitching and my heart pounding, I did the unexpectedly unexpected. I reached for a nearby copy of the Ultimate Trivial Pursuit Question & Answer Book, opened to a random page, looked Bob square in the eye and calmly but loudly intoned the following:
“Bob, what is the capital of Nigeria?”
Bob looked at me, startled, perhaps because of the strangely tense expression on my face. After a few moments he responded tentatively “I don’t know what the capital of Nigeria is, but I’d like to.”
“I’m pleased to inform you that the capital of Nigeria is Lagos. Shall we continue with more questions?”
“Yes, please,” Bob said.
And so we did, for about half an hour: geography, science, history, movies, art, television, nature. It was amazing, and such a relief. Most of all, it was so much fun for both of us. Suddenly, I was no longer considering either volcanic eruptions or passive aggressive pathos, but was instead looking forward to my next study session with Bob, and he was looking forward to his next study session with me.
The true miracle was what happened next. For the remainder of our visit that day, Bob didn’t once bring up a single thing he had ever brought up before. Our conversation became entirely fresh, wide-ranging, exploratory, vibrant.
What the hell had just happened? I wasn’t sure, but I was sure that I liked the result; my friendship with Bob had suddenly gone from months of excruciating tedium and repetition to vibrant, expansive, exploratory conversation, and all that was required was a large enough burst of new, interesting information. Had the sudden onrush new information stimulated new mental circuits that had lifted Bob out of his terrible mental and conversational ruts? Apparently it had. Then it all came to me in a flash:
What are the implications of this in the ongoing global struggle against boring, repetitive conversations?
What are the implications for stale marriages? “Honey, in an attempt to save our marriage I bought us a set of the AP Exam flash cards in environmental science.”
What are the implications for friendships that appear to have run their course, but perhaps have only run aground in the shallows, awaiting a fresh tide of flash cards?
What about flash card stocking stuffers for the whole family?
What if the whole world started holding flash card parties?
What if people all over the world, instead of staring at their “smart” phones that make them so stupid were studying some flash cards instead, that might help them actually be smarter?
What a wonderful world it would be.
For a couple of days I mulled all this over, and being the deeply intuitive nutjob that I am, one evening I found myself walking into our bedroom at home and asking my partner, who like me was born in the U.S. and has thus been a citizen her entire life, the following question:
“Could you pass the U.S. Citizenship exam?”
Answering immediately and with complete confidence, she replied “Absolutely not.” My partner is honest in all matters, great and small. I reciprocated: “Yeah, me either.”
Mulling the matter further, I consulted the behemoth that is Amazon, gaping maw of the holy and unholy, cosmic spigot of cardboard boxes and packaging material, pimp of free shipping, opiate of one-click ordering, in search of some flash cards for the U.S. “naturalization” exam. My partner and I were by now weary of being so unnatural, and were thus in need of some down home “naturalization,” and what with the Trump administration being what it is, and ICE being what it is, and that very German-sounding “Homeland Security” agency being what it is, we thought it a good idea to study up, just in case the government suddenly decided to kick us out of our own country by demanding that we answer fifty questions, and get a score of at least thirty-five.
The cosmic spigot of cardboard boxes that is Amazon soon kindly sent us a box containing U.S. citizenship exam flash cards, and my partner and I began studying, always wary of a knock on the door.
“Who was the first president of the United States?” Ok, fine.
“How many amendments does the constitution have?” Oops.
“Who does a U.S. Senator represent?” Um…lobbyists? /s
“When was the constitution written?” 1776? Wrong! The correct answer is 1787. Uh oh. They’re definitely going to kick us out of this country any minute now.
In a panic, I called a friend whose mother had been born in communist Czechoslovakia and became a U.S. citizen, passing the dreaded exam. I described the situation to my friend. All he said was “Send me those goddam cards right away so that my mother won’t be ashamed of me anymore.”
Paranoid fantasies of deportation aside, I had hatched the plan of meeting my friend Bob at the farmers’ market on Saturday morning, scene of many of Bob’s tedious repetitions. Naturally, I would be armed with a set of U.S. citizenship exam flash cards. My partner Andrea would also be there, ready to study with us. The three of us met two Saturdays in a row, studying fifty questions per session. We could definitely pass the exam now, but we are now also absolutely convinced that most U.S. citizens born into citizenship could not.
So if America is “a nation of immigrants,” and most of the people who were born here couldn’t even pass the citizenship exam, shouldn't the people who can’t pass the exam have to leave now, or shouldn’t we at least build a wall around them until they could pass the exam? Perhaps either México or the Pentagon could pay for such a wall. It also seems more than likely that many older white people born in this country would end up on the inside of that confining wall, that security barrier, sporting their MAGA hats, unable to pass an exam containing only fifty questions about their own country. Build that wall!
Basking in the glow of my newly invigorated citizenship, and feeling a bit smug, during the next few weeks I further consulted the behemoth that is Amazon for flash cards in additional subjects: biology, American history, psychology, anatomy, statistics, medical terminology, American Sign Language, 100 birds of North America, 500 advanced vocabulary words, the bar exam, European history, environmental science, The Photographic Card Deck of the Elements With Big Beautiful Photographs of All 118 Elements in the Periodic Table, and my all-time favorite, the Police Officer exam.
All this time, I was humming “What A Wonderful World It Would Be,” and occasionally breaking out into a bad imitation of Louis Armstrong singing. I would occasionally call friends up, taking an innocent survey: “Do you ever find yourself trapped in hideously boring conversations?” The results of my survery spoke of a desperate need for a solution to the global crisis of boring, repetitive conversations. I knew that I had that solution, or at least one solution. I also had a burning desire to share my solution with the world. But first I needed to conduct further experiments.
The Couch of Knowledge is born
My first experiment was conducted in the mornings, at our home. I had ordered flash cards in biology, psychology and American history, flash cards specifically for the AP Exam in those subjects. You might think that an exam for high school students wouldn’t completely kick your ass, but you’d be wrong. My partner and I would study a batch of flash cards during breakfast, always marveling at our profound ignorance of many a subject, and always happy to be learning new and important information. The true nature of this experiment was not in the mere learning of new information however, but to discover the effect of doing so on our relationship.
Andrea and I have been together twenty years now, and have a wonderful relationship, but yes, a certain amount of repetition had accreted like barnacles on the hull of our vessel. We both read broadly, and share what we learn from our reading, but there is something about suddenly being confronted by the challenge of multiple questions in an unfamiliar subject that lifts the mind out of its familiar patterns, awakens the slumbering giant of curiosity, and makes for a better breakfast together. Much of the repetition in our relationship began to be replaced by fresh discussion and exchange, and the yearning for yet more knowledge.
We continued our morning sessions of study, only about twenty minutes per day, but the effect was marvelous. Every day felt fresh, every day was ripe with opportunity, every day new ideas would occur to me, based on the knowledge we were gaining. Andrea and I were also having a great time together.
I ordered further sets of flash cards: 500 Advanced Vocabulary Words, 100 Birds of North America, Music Notation, Medical Terminology. Andrea and I would always use the couch to study together, and soon the couch became so overloaded with sets of flash cards that we began storing them out of sight under the couch, to forestall the prospect that neighbors or visitors might discover our forbidden experiments in actually learning something useful.
Thus, the Couch of Knowledge was born. Our plain little couch had suddenly taken on a vast, transformative power, invisible to the outside world.
But that was just the beginning. Further experiments led to further transformations, which led to further ideas, which of course only led to further improvements and transformations. But the best was yet to come.
Cut the cable, and replace it with something better
More than ten years ago we had decided to cancel cable TV service, and that one decision had made a profound improvement in our lives. No more hideous TV ads. No more stumbling on the horror that is Fox News. No more sitting and watching other people talk. No more partisan pundits spewing swill for the willfully gullible. No more being reminded that much of the population wastes vast amounts of time watching the idiocy that is sports. No more Viagra or Cialis pushed in our faces. No more noisy, ugly ads for synthetic substances falsely called “food.”
We had replaced all that horrible, pernicious nonsense on cable with high-quality books, and saved thousand of dollars in not paying for something that only rots the mind. Perhaps specifically because I hadn’t been watching “normal” television for more than a decade, I suddenly had an idea:
Combine YouTube with Google Chromecast to create an education center
We still had a television, which we hadn’t used in years. We had a fast Internet connection. We had YouTube, and had ordered a Google Chromecast unit. Why not combine all this into a multimedia education center, a vast enhancement to the Couch of Knowledge?
So we did. I began building a watch list on YouTube of interesting, educational programming. I loaded the YouTube app onto my phone, and could now control what appeared on the television from my phone. Instantly, the Couch of Knowledge had gained video and audio capabilities, as well as access to a functionally infinite library of educational programs.
Ecosystems of California
We live in California, by far the greatest, most varied and spectacular state in the U.S. No slight to Rhode Island or Alabama or North Dakota intended, but California is truly amazing in the diversity of its ecosystems. The first programs we decided to watch were a series on the ecosystems of California, produced by Erika Zavaleta, a globally renowned Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There are twenty-nine programs in the series, that high number an expression of the diversity of the natural world of California. Each program is only about fifteen minutes long, just right for breakfast viewing on weekdays, or watching multiple programs on weekends.
Oh my. We have now learned so much about the natural world in Calfornia. Every time we walk out the door of our modest condo in Northern California now, our eyes and ears and even our noses are acutely aware of the complexity, the subtlety, the profound beauty and the combination of power and delicacy of the natural world all around us. The very idea of watching even one second of Fox News or ESPN or even NPR fills us with horror now, and rightly so.
Of course, further programs await us beyond the wonder that is Ecosystems of California. Yet the multimedia form of the Couch of Knowledge should not be confined to documentaries or academic subjects. Why not learn how to tie some useful knots, or add a few handyman skills to your abilities? How about a bit of dialogue en français, en español, auf Deutsch, по-русски or بالعربية? For that matter, you could change your YouTube settings to a different language, and explore a different culture in the language of that culture, all from your couch. Such is the deep power of the Couch of Knowledge if only you will engage, expand your mind, and be transformed by the power of knowledge.
The Car of Knowledge
It was only a matter of time before my experiments in inoculation against the perils of boring conversation moved out of our home, and hit the road in the the rolling form of the Couch of Knowledge, the Car of Knowledge. We drive a Kia Soul EV, an absolutely wonderful, spacious and highly functional car whose acceleration puts many a gas-powered sports car to shame. We also have solar panels, and generally charge the car at home, so even when driving at night we are still “driving on sunshine.”
What a horrible waste of time it generally is, driving hither and thither and yon, waiting at lights, waiting in traffic. And yet, nearly all of us have these “smart” phones with us. Why not use that “smart” phone for something actually smart, like learning a language in your car?
So I did. I loaded five entire language programs, beginning to advanced level onto my phone, and now whenever I’m in the car I am studying one of the five languages. If you do enough driving while studying languages, you might eventually become a hyper polyglot, defined as someone fluent in a minimum of eleven languages. But for the moment, I’ll keep it to five.
French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian
It’s very easy to set this up on your phone. I use the programs from Living Language, which are structured specifically so that you can use either the audio and the accompanying books, or just the audio, or the audio as a refresher of the material in the book. Each entire program, beginning through advanced, is only about $35. For that modest outlay you get three books, and nine hours of practice in the language.
Running a few errands? Hey, learn a few useful phrases in the language of your choice. Stuck in traffic? Make good use of it, and learn some more useful expressions. Taking a road trip? You could become fluent in Korean by the end of it.
The Wonder that is Wikipedia
Driving an electric car, I sometimes have to stop at a charger along the way to add range. It’s like going to the gas station, though much more pleasant and not at all smelly, but it does take a bit longer. At a fast charger, you can add about 50 miles of range in twenty minutes or so–just right for reading articles on Wikipedia, whether in multiple languages or not.
Many of the Whole Foods stores now have fast chargers out front, so I go buy a sandwich and some fruit, eat a quick meal in the car, and study articles on all different subjects, sometimes in the languages I am studying, which enhances my learning of those languages.
The Lyft Ride of Knowledge
I began driving for Lyft two years ago mainly as a way of promoting electric cars, and specifically the combination of electric cars and solar panels, in order to help speed the global conversion away from fossil fuels. Of course, because the Car of Knowledge was now fully operational, the next logical extension of my experiments was to turn the Car of Knowledge into the Lyft Ride of Knowledge.
So I did. I began asking my passengers if they wanted to study a language with me, and would offer them the choice of the five languages loaded on my phone. This was great fun, and many passengers left the Car of Knowledge after their Lyft Ride of Knowledge with the intention of ordering a language program for themselves, for use both at home and in their car. I made sure to mention the idea of flash cards as well, and suggested some subjects.
I also began bringing the Ultimate Trivial Pursuit Question & Answer Book with me during daytime hours of driving for Lyft, and would invite some passengers, though generally not the ones stupidly pinned to their “smart” phones, to open to a section of their choice (Geography, Entertainment, History, Arts & Literature, Science & Nature, Sports & Leisure), and read aloud as many questions as they were inclined to, and see if either of us could answer them. For every passenger who did this, the ride was more interesting and more fun, both for them and for me. A little tiny bit of the world was definitely getting better, one Lyft ride and a few interesting pieces of knowledge at a time.
Alexander Scriabin (1871–1915)
Yet the matter of elevated culture and the current shameful general neglect of elevated culture haunted me, even as the Car of Knowledge was zipping about, filling my mind with tasty, nutritious knowledge, and even as my passengers during Lyft rides both absorbed and contributed knowledge as well.
This question of the current abysmal neglect of elevated culture filled my mind, and occupied me deeply, and then suddenly took quite particular form. What about Alexander Scriabin, the Russian creative genius who bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? What of Scriabin, worshipper of the transcendent, mystic of music and master of the pianistic miniature? What of his lifelong efforts to elevate the art of music, and specifically that of the piano, to unprecedented and transcendent heights? Surely the music of Scriabin deserved as much of a hearing as any hip-hop ditty of yesteryear, or any horrifically repetitious techno beat of now or then, or any cover of a cover of some song that was never that great to begin with. Why should the Car of Knowledge not also be the Car of Transcendent Culture? No reason at all. Let’s do it.
So I did. I loaded the entire solo piano works of Alexander Scriabin onto my phone, and began playing them through the Kia stereo system during Lyft rides, always asking innocently first “Do you mind if I put on some piano music?”
The music of Scriabin is of extremes: tenderness, violence, meditation, impulsiveness, serenity, painful agitation, disturbing ugliness, profound beauty, and yet more qualities difficult to put into words. Most of all though, it is full of intense curiosity about possibilities, backed up with courage, and is never predictable.
Thus the Car of Knowledge became also the Car of Transdendent Culture, in the form of an introduction to the music of Alexander Scriabin. Nearly all of my passengers had never heard of Scriabin, let alone heard any of his astonishing music. Now they have, and a tiny part of the world is a little bit better for it, and a few more minds have been given an infusion of new possibilities, and perhaps a bit more courage.
But back to those flash cards
Meanwhile, further experiments with flash cards had continued at a steady pace, consisting of breakfast sessions of study with my partner Andrea, and meetings with Bob and Andrea at the farmers’ market. Having made short work of preparation for the U.S. citizenship exam, we moved on to biology, psychology, 500 Advanced Vocabulary Words, 100 Birds of North America, and Music Notation.
After a couple of weeks of study of 500 Advanced Vocabulary Words, about 75 words per session, I noticed something. All three of us, Bob, Andrea and I, had become much more adept at defining words, providing synonyms and antonyms, and using specific words in sentences that provided appropriate context and correct usage. Beyond that, our use of language in general had become more interesting, broader, more nuanced, and more colorful. This had happened in a matter of only three weeks, with only three total hours of engagement. It was as though all three of us had taken a pill that had enhanced our verbal capabilities. Talking together became fun in a whole new way.
Music notation for the fearful, made easy
There were more discoveries. For instance, most people who do not know how to read music are terrified of the attempt. The thicket of musical symbols appears bewildering and impenetrable. I have known truly talented musicians who never learned to read music, and never reaped the benefits of literacy in musical notation, because they felt intimidated. What a terrible loss, what an absolutely needless barrier.
But with flash cards in musical notation, the bewilderment and panic disappear, because each card is presented by itself, with a lone symbol, clearly explained. Andrea has been afraid for years of trying to learn music notation, yet when we began using the flash cards, she burst out and said these magic words:
“Hey, this is easy!”
Naturally, this made me love her even more. Bob also began to be able to read music, and suddenly became interested in being able to transcribe some of the tunes he hums to himself. Naturally, that made me love him even more.
Thus somehow Bob’s excruciating repetitions had led, by means of flash cards, to a renewal and strengthening of our relationship, to many new possibilities and almost no repetition, and to greater love in our friendship. My relationship with Andrea had take on a new additional basis of shared knowledge, shared study, and a shared appreciation of the world and all its possibilities, in part through flash cards. Once again, a mystic power stored under a couch in the form of flash cards had led to a deepening of love.
Saving the world from boring conversations, one flash card set at a time
You might be inclined to think that the world is on fire with boring conversations, but that’s not the case at all. Actual flames would be too interesting for this massive mess of global self-inflicted mutual boredom. The world is only smoldering endlessly and everywhere with boring conversations, and people are smoldering with disappointment in each other, smoldering with boredom with each other, only bringing about further spreading of mutual smoldering. Flash cards can break this terrible cycle of rigid repetition and mutual disappointment.
If you’ve ever had the experience of thinking that an issue in a relationship can be solved through discussion, only to find that discussion makes matters worse, please consider flash cards instead. At least you’ll both learn something instead of just talking at each other, and ratcheting up the disappointment and locking the patterns in place.
If you’ve ever gotten bored with someone, but had a nagging suspicion that you may be part of the problem, please consider flash cards. At least you’ll both learn something, and the fun of learning together will provide a new form of positive, dynamic bond that replaces the repetitive patterns that lead to boredom with each other.
If you’ve ever wondered whether there couldn’t be more to your life than your life as it is now, please consider flash cards. The worst that could happen is that you’d acquire a vast amount of inspiring knowledge, expand your mind, be constantly stimulated and refreshed by new ideas, and wake up every morning looking forward to more.
Love isn’t all you need
Every relationship has multiple aspects, and changes over time. Some relationships are complex, others simple. Nearly all relationships at some time enter plateaus, or descend into valleys, or go aground in the shallows. In many cases, neither party to the relationship is able to make the relationship fresh again and, in more cases than the therapy industry wants to admit, a relationship may not be amenable to therapy.
So please consider flash cards, because the The Beatles were wrong. Lennon and McArtney had a charming, naive idea, but that idea was completely wrong.
Love isn’t all you need. Sometimes you need a good set of flash cards, too.