The other day I signed up for a class called “Cake Decorating Course One: Building Buttercream Skills.” Happily, each weekly session of Building Buttercream Skills is only two hours long, leaving me plenty of time for the other classes I will be taking in the next month: Taxidermy 201, Adult Beginning Swimming, Terrarium Building, and, finally, Life-Casting and Palm Reading (a combined class where you learn both life-casting and palm reading).
In the last eighteen years, I have taken classes in skiing, snowboarding, SCUBA diving, pole dancing, fencing, ballroom dancing, burlesque, ballet, jazz dance, yoga, tap, spinning, kickboxing, Pilates (prenatal and post-), Bar Method, karate, and wu shu; CPR, the Bradley Method, breastfeeding, infant care, and early childhood education; German, French, Old English, Latin, and Chinese; taxidermy, knitting, crocheting, quilting, needlepoint, candle-making, spinning, and sewing; drawing, singing, and sketch comedy; French cooking, wine tasting, olive oil tasting, landscape design, driving, and, due to a regrettable misunderstanding of the course description, geriatric water aerobics.
This does not even include the many things I have tried to teach myself at home from books, videos, CDs, and now “Massive Open Online Courses,” or MOOCs, from sites like Coursera and edX. A glance at my bookshelf reveals attempts to educate myself about personal finance, gardening, free-range chickens, beekeeping, canning, pickling, calligraphy, massage, musical notation, sailing, Drupal, Linux, Hindi, Greek, Russian, and several volumes on how to build a deck. I am currently enrolled in four simultaneous MOOCs, including Python and Introduction to Mathemetical Philosophy, though I’m at least two weeks behind on the coursework for all of them. Every semester, when new online classes are announced, I go crazy adding one after another. It’s like being a kid in the world’s saddest candy store.
And so from my lofty perch, atop almost two decades of voluntary learning, I can tell you with authority, I am just terrible at all of it. Other people may have the vague sense that they aren’t good at that many things, but few can enumerate five dozen specific things at which they have failed. If it weren’t for adult education, I would never know how many things I can’t do.
All of which begs the question: why do I keep doing taking classes? A signature blend of humility and arrogance so endemic to me that I could egotistically name the condition after myself and then demurely refuse to call it by name. A life’s worth of evidence suggests that I am not good at doing things, and yet, some secret part of me feels that I must be simply marvelous at something. The trick is to eventually one day find that true thing — and sooner rather than later. If not, one day I will be signing up for geriatric water aerobics on purpose.
Recently I considered a class on Jazz Appreciation despite knowing full well that I don’t like jazz. But then again, maybe I do? Maybe I would, or could, if I just knew more about it. Maybe I could cultivate a singular understanding of and appreciation for jazz. Maybe, my logic goes, jazz has always been my thing! Maybe all these years, as I was failing to properly frost a cake or read a palm, I was just waiting for Jazz Appreciation to find me. There’s only one (expensive, laborious, disheartening) way to find out! I may not be able to speak Spanish or read music, but if there were a class in dogged, self-flattering delusion, I could teach it.
At the end of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s father produces a list of resolutions his son had made as a boy, things like “Read one improving book or magazine per week” and “Be better to parents.” If I ever wind up floating dead in a swimming pool, rest assured my own parents could produce notebook after notebook filled with similar lists. Even now I’m fond of making pledges to myself like “Donate 10% of every paycheck to charity” and “Do 50 squats every morning” and “Start washing your hair in vinegar!!!” I am inspired by any magazine article that suggests you can learn something in 5 minutes a day. There’s something boundless about it, and hopeful, as if to suggest that all the tools you need to be smarter, prettier, stronger, and more able are right there in your grasp.
Last Friday, I turned 35. Thirty-five is not a boundless age. There are only so many classes left to take, so many more hobbies to try. I’d like to say that taking all these classes has enriched me, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think a person can lead a whole and satisfactory life without ever having done origami (but I have, in the same day camp where I tried papier-mâché, juggling, building model rockets, and reading fingerprints). I never learned how to make a perfect paper crane, but I did learn how to try, and how to fail, and how to try – stupidly, happily- again. Sure, maybe it would have been better to learn restful self-acceptance, but the rec center hasn’t offered a class in that yet.
Looking back at two decades of embarrassing, expensive failures, at time wasted, at money spent, if there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s that I’ve never entirely lost hope. That, and I’ve never taken improv.
Summer Block has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in McSweeneys, The Rumpus, Identity Theory, DIAGRAM, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications.