Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Oh, the Things that I have Learned! – Part 1

© 2024 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In my formative years, I lived in rural areas on farms with no nearby neighbors, and with siblings at least five years older than me who, for some years, boarded away from home during the school week. I learned how to entertain myself and I developed a vivid imagination. I explored, I experimented, and I found a way to earn money.

I don't know when it happened, but at some point, at least subliminally, I realized that reading could lead to learning, learning could lead to doing interesting things, and doing interesting things could lead to a fulfilling life. I also recognized that no-one else—least of all, my parents—was going to help me on that path, so I'd have to go it alone. And I was in a hurry! While I went the formal education route, I never shied away from investing in my own learning outside any formal structure. And now, with access to the internet, the world really is my oyster!

I've always been curious. I want to know what's on the other side of that hill, or what's around the next corner. And I'm always interested in the bigger picture, at the national and international level. This is reflected by the fact that I am a traveler rather than a tourist. I'm more than happy to discover things for myself rather than have someone lead me to them. I'm always asking questions and talking to strangers, especially if they have well-behaved dogs.

I didn't always have confidence, but I was never afraid to make mistakes, even large ones, publicly! (As Nietzsche famously said, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger!") And especially not when I was learning and trying out foreign languages as I traveled. With respect to getting noticed, I've long claimed that being different is far easier than being better, and I have no trouble whatsoever in being different.

I'm a life-long learner, but for most topics, I'm not interested in becoming an expert; I just want to know enough to have a basic understanding and to be conversant enough to discuss and ask intelligent questions, and to appreciate the knowledge and its impact.

When did I first consciously set out to learn something? It was always there in some form, but I didn't really recognize it formally until I was in my early 30s. While I was waiting to get permanent residency (my Green Card, that is) here in the US, I started researching topics that I thought I might learn and use as the basis of the consulting business I'd start once I could be self-employed.

While I certainly learned a lot of things in the 25 years prior to moving to the US, the vast majority of what I have done in the 45 years since then is based on skills and knowledge that have been self-taught after my arrival.

In this multi-part essay, I reflect on some of my areas of interest and experience, and what I've learned about them and myself along the way. And the learning is far from over; I set out to learn things small and large, on a regular basis, and that's one reason I don't ever expect to retire in any traditional sense. There is so much new and interesting stuff going on in my professional world that I want to learn, and if I can make money from it along the way, that's OK too, but that's not a requirement.

Note that while there are "Lessons learned" in each of the sections below specific to that section topic, at the very end, there are some general lessons that apply to many or all topics.

Reading for Pleasure

As far back as I can remember, I've liked reading. However, surprisingly, it wasn't until I was 60 years old that I got a public-library card and started borrowing books on a regular basis. (As I write this, in a typical week, I read 500–600 pages of fiction, along with 100–200 pages of nonfiction.) While I was in elementary school and high school, I borrowed the occasional book from the school's library. At the start of each school year, as my dad happily wrote out a check for school supplies, I bought all new textbooks and support materials, more than a few of which I kept until my late 50's. Later, I mostly bought books, especially those deeply discounted or second-hand.

[A favorite cartoon of mine shows Hägar the Horrible, the Viking raider, with his son, Hamlet, who's a lover not a fighter. Hägar asks Hamlet why he is always reading. Hamlet replies, "Because books tell you things!" In the next frame, Hägar takes Hamlet's book and holds it up to his own ear, but he can't hear a darned thing!]

Here in the US, we have a non-profit organization, Little Free Library, "that promotes neighborhood book exchanges, usually in the form of a public bookcase." I have a number of such bookcases in my town, and I see them regularly when I travel by car. In fact, I am so eager to get books that I carry spare books in both of my cars to exchange whenever the opportunity arises.

For details of my reading history and book ownership, see my essay "October 2010: Books by My Bed."

Lessons learned:

  • I love printed books, and I love reading them. And while I do read a lot of reference material on-line, I have little interest in reading fiction or certain reference materials—think encyclopedic books or atlases—that way.
  • When looking at prospective novels to read, I generally reject them if any of the following are found, regardless of the storyline: Chapters longer than 20 pages, very narrow margins, small font size, passive writing, or very long paragraphs.
  • During high school, given the material, the teaching approach, and my very young age (I finished Year 12 a week before I turned 16!), I developed a distaste for literature. More than 50 years later, I still feel the same way, and that's OK with me!
  • When I stay in someone else's house and they have books, I always browse through them, looking especially at topics that are new/unknown to me. It's good to occasionally read outside one's preferred genres!
  • I've become a huge fan of Wikipedia, and a regular donor towards its maintenance.

Writing for Pleasure

I came to writing much, much later than reading! I've never kept a daily diary, and when I left Australia in 1979 and traveled in Asia and Europe for five weeks on my way to the US, I never made any notes of that trip. (Forty years later, my essay describing that trip, "June 2019: Travel – From Adelaide to Washington DC," was written entirely from memory!)

The first time I wrote anything personal that was non-trivial was a diary covering my 2-week trip across southern Chile and Argentina in 1991, at age 38. I wrote in a medium-sized, spiral-bound notebook, and I glued in all kinds of things like plane and bus tickets, postcards, receipts, and admission tickets. I continued this habit for about 10 years until I got my first electronic device with which I could travel, a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and, later, a small laptop computer (see my essay, "June 2011: Just Me and MiniMe: Traveling with Technology). In 2023, I used MS Word's speech-to-text facility to transcribe my paper diaries into an electronic form, which I then linked many items to Wikipedia.

In 2012, I started thinking about all the places I'd lived. After a short while, I got so much information in my head that I started typing notes on my computer. A bit later, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I'd flesh it out into an autobiography. After sleeping on this idea for a few weeks—which allowed me to look beyond the romantic aspects of such an endeavor and for reality to set in—it still seemed like a good idea, despite the fact that I knew it would be a lot of work. It was, but it was worth it. It ran 125 pages, and covered the first 25 years of my life, up until the time I moved to the US. (More than a little of that diary has appeared in autobiographical essays on my blog.)

Lessons learned:

  • I love to write, although it's all technical or about personal experiences. I've never tried writing fiction, and my writing rarely contains dialog.
  • One early morning, while lying in bed in Germany, jetlagged, I came up with an idea for a series of short pieces, each with an accompanying photo, built around the travels of an inanimate object. I occasionally come across the notes I recorded at that time, but I have not yet turned them into anything concrete. That said, given the right motivation, I might have some fiction in me!
  • Despite my early ruination with literature, on very rare occasions I have written some credible poetry.
  • Despite having written many thousands of pages, I have never, ever been interested in learning how to type. I'm strictly a hunt-and-peck guy, which works for me. As a consequence, unlike some other prolific writers I've met, I've never suffered from repetitive strain injury (RSI).
  • One of my greatest takeaways about writing was from Strunk and White's well-known book, "The Elements of Style." It was, "Less is more." Don't write more words than you need to describe a situation!

In 1995, during a 4-weekend university English course, I discovered written essays, and then went on to appreciate spoken and video versions thereof. I also found that I could write essays. In fact, when I started my blog in 2009, I adopted the essay form for each installment.

My (extensive) experience in writing for publication is covered in the next section.

Writing for Publication, Editing, and Publishing

For the past 40 years, I've been writing for publication, either as a paid feature writer or columnist, or as the editor of formal IT specifications. Along the way, I dreamed up the idea for a new publication and was its founding editor, and later I was the editor and publisher of a quarterly journal. For details of these activities, see my essay, "February 2022: Oh the Things that I have Written."

Lessons learned:

  • There is nothing quite like a deadline to get the creative juices flowing. While sometimes struggling to get started on a piece, more than a few times it finally took off and was so long it had to be broken into two or even three parts!
  • Following the adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words," in technical writing, I've found that a visual aid such as a not-too-long-or-complicated computer program, a table, or a figure can be the key to writing understandable narrative. While it might take a while to get the right illustration, once found, the explanatory text easily follows.
  • A lot of people can write well but can't deliver on time. A lot of people can deliver on time, but their material is mediocre or worse. It's a rare writer who can consistently deliver quality material in a timely fashion!
  • Books on the mechanics of writing often stress the need to write, rewrite, and rewrite again. I have never followed that advice (which, I think comes mostly from teachers of writing rather than from successful writers themselves). For a technical piece for which I have a deadline, I write it, I proof it once for content accuracy, and once more from an English-language perspective. The proofing stages might take place over some days, which gives the piece "time to bake." Then I ship it. If you look at things you wrote much earlier, you'll always find ways to tweak (maybe even improve) it, but is it good enough as it is for its intended audience?
  • The shelf life of a publication matters. What goes into printed books can have a very long lifetime and can't be amended. However, magazines are "throwaway" materials; you read them the week they arrive or in the Doctor's office. Of course, having all kinds of publications online changes that, both in lifetime and the ability to make changes.
  • The choice of page-layout options is important regarding things like font size, typeface, whether lines are right-justified, and whether bad line- and page-breaks exist. Though rarely used in most writing, nonbreaking spaces help to make writing aesthetically pleasing to read. (See my essay, "December 2011: Making Good-Looking Documents.")
  • Understand and use your word processor's grammar- and punctuation-checking options.

[Another favorite cartoon of mine is from Shoe, in which all the participants are birds, working in a newspaper office up in a tree. The editor asks a staff writer how his column is coming along, to which the writer replies, "It's all finished except for the words!" I can certainly relate to having an empty page not too long before a deadline.]

See my essay, "April 2013: Standards – The Secret Life of a Language Lawyer."

Coming to Grips with English Grammar

Having attended a 1-teacher school in my early years, with 28 students in seven grades being taught simultaneously, I never got a solid grounding in English grammar and punctuation. And by the time I got to high school, it was assumed that I had one. Unlike US liberal arts universities, in Australia in the 70's, one did a 3-year degree, specializing in one's major from day 1, with no general education classes (such as English composition).

To me, grammar was an awfully dry subject to learn as an adult, unless one had a purpose, and for the longest time, I didn't. In any event, as a writer-for-publication, I had editors whip my submissions into shape. However, in 2012 (at age 59), I got into "formal English" mode, and started researching and writing about punctuation and grammar for my blog. (The 7-part series ran from June 2012 through October 2017.) I became so interested, I had to guard against having missionary zeal!

Prior to that, I had at least some need to understand grammar when I started learning Spanish and German. It's challenging to learn the grammar of another language when you don't know the grammar of your own!

Lessons learned:

  • I love the US university liberal arts model partly because of its emphasis on helping students to have better written and oral communication skills.
  • I love Patricia T. O'Conner's "Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English."
  • While ending a sentence with a preposition is frowned upon in the British-English world, it is not in US-English. That said, when I find myself about to speak in that manner, I often turn it around in my mind before I say it. And I automatically avoid that in my writing, at least as often as it makes sense. I'm reminded of the time Winston Churchill—a great writer and orator—was accused of ending a sentence with a preposition. He replied something like, "You are correct, Madam; that is something up with which I will not put!"

Dabbling in Foreign Languages

See my essay, "November 2011: A Little Foreign Language Goes a Long Way."

My first foray into learning a foreign language was teaching myself German from a set of cassette tapes. I had no real purpose, it was rote learning, and I couldn't ask questions. It was not very successful! In any event, no-one seemed to actually use the recorded phrases in real life.

My first formal course involved 30 hours of introductory Spanish over 10 weeks with three hours each Saturday morning. It went very well, and, soon after, I started traveling in Latin America to try it out. Next up, was a similar course in German, but it turned out to be taught in German with materials in German. I did OK, but only because I bought a supplementary German grammar book in English. I then went back for a second class in Spanish, but I didn't much care for the teacher's style, nor the teaching materials.

Then just for something completely different, I set out to learn basic spoken Japanese from a book written in English and using Romaji, a way of writing Japanese using a Latin script. And all without speaking it or hearing it spoken. It was quite straightforward, and when I was first able to actually use it, it went quite well.

Over the years, I've looked a bit at Russian (Cyrillic alphabet), Greek (Greek alphabet), Dutch, and French.

Lessons learned:

  • One needs to be realistic about the effort needed to learn a language as an adult. Each week, can you learn and remember 20 new words and the basic conjugations of 5–10 new verbs?
  • Almost all my language learning has been self-taught by reading, trying it out, and asking questions. Most people who have learned a language don't use it that often, and as a result can understand more than they speak. I'm the complete opposite. I can speak far more than I understand. To get good at it, one must not simply learn the mechanics, one must master comprehension (which I have not), and that requires lots of listening.
  • I don't do well at all in a language immersion class. I need the materials and teacher to at least start in English.
  • I don't care for language labs that involve recording and playing back one's voice. I'd rather be out there "living it and making my own mistakes."
  • I want to be able to communicate rather than be fluent.
  • When I started looking at Japanese, my first writing system that did not use Latin letters, I quickly decided that up to a point, it is OK to speak a language without being able to read or write it. (Technically, that is being illiterate!)
  • While German has three genders, Spanish has only two, which is still one too many! And so, when I discovered that Japanese has no gender, no articles, no plurals, and no verb conjugation, I was ecstatic. (Of course, they complicate things a great deal when it comes to reading and writing.)
  • My German grammar textbook tells me, "There are eight common ways to form a plural in German." Really? I don't even want to think how many uncommon ways there are!
  • I like to be correct, but when one learns how to say in perfect Japanese, "I do not speak Japanese." that can confuse the listener.
  • Those foreigners have words for everything! Just when you think you know something, such as the words for dog or flower, you realize that you don't know the words for any breeds or species!
  • Even if you learn only a few words and phrases (along with a few cultural gestures), when you use them in the right context, they can gain you considerable respect.
  • No matter how much formal training you receive, in the real world, people do not use the same statements and questions you learned! You must learn the phrase patterns and be ready to substitute different nouns and adjectives (for example) in those patterns.
  • You need to stop thinking in terms of English. Spanish (and some other languages) has the adjective after the noun, which is OK. Russian has no articles. Their rules are not stupid or wrong, they are just different!
  • Not all written languages use an alphabet. (Japanese uses Kanji ideograms and kana syllabaries.)


For much of the past 40+ years, I've travelled extensively, both in the US and abroad. (See the trip diaries and travel-related essays on my blog, many of whose titles begin with, "Memories of ….") As I am not a fan of cold weather, each northern winter I look to go someplace warm for a few weeks (think, Central America or the Caribbean). However, several years before the Covid pandemic, I just couldn't get enthusiastic about going anywhere, not even on one of the many free tickets I had in my frequent-flyer bank. It occurred to me that after two million air miles (see my essay, "May 2010: Travel – Fly Me to the Moon") and 65 countries/regions, I'd had enough! That said, although I didn't get on a plane for three years after Covid hit, I have more than a few flying trips in the planning stages should I ever get motivated.

Travel has greatly improved my language skills, my geography and history appreciation, my understanding of government and local conventions and customs, and it inspired my long-running blog series, "What is Normal?"

For some details of my travel accommodation, see my essay, "December 2014: Travel – Oh the Places I have Stayed."

Lessons learned:

  • Normal is relative and changes every 100 miles (or 100 kms) in small and large ways. You would do well to understand this regarding travel in your own country, let alone travelling to another. It's OK that your normal isn't the same as other peoples' normal; embrace it and learn from it! (See the section, "What is Normal," below.)
  • When you travel, if you want things to be just like when you are at home, then perhaps you should stay there!
  • Always have a Plan B, even for Plan B! (See my essay, "January 2018: Having a Plan B.") This advice is applicable to life, in general. Don't ruin, or let others ruin your trip because you or they aren't flexible.
  • Being in possession of an airline ticket is no guarantee you will get on that flight, or any other flight!
  • For ideas of what I've learned about packing and luggage, see "January 2012: Travel – Packing and Preparing."
  • For my experiences with airports, see "January 2017: Travel – Airports."
  • Be prepared for unexpected wait times/delays at airports, train stations, and such, and take along an activity (such as a book to read or a puzzle to do), especially when traveling with kids.
  • Ranting at a hotel desk clerk, an airline employee, or other such travel-related person who is just trying to do their job won't do you any good. (He says, having witnessed firsthand numerous such confrontations, one of which ended in the offending woman being arrested at an airport and her small children taken away by child-custody services!)
  • Remember that you are an ambassador to your hometown, state, or country.
  • Always take some small sheets of aluminum foil with you. It has a myriad of uses and takes no space to carry.
  • When planning any trip, it's good to ask yourself, "How do I expect to be changed/improved by the experience?"
  • To really engage with the locals, stay with host families or rent rooms in private houses.
  • To learn a lot about a culture
    • Walk through a store or market and try to identify what everything is and how its name differs from what you are used to.
    • Sit in a public place and watch everyone go by.
    • Watch tradesmen at work. There are alternate ways of getting things done.
    • Hop on a local train or bus, ride to the end of the line, and spend some time in the terminating village/area.
    • Try to communicate with the locals.
  • While I'm a traveler rather than a tourist, each has its advantages and disadvantages. It's OK to be one or the other, or a hybrid of the two.
  • Traveling completely around the world on a few, long flights, going east is tough (I've done it four times.) I find it very challenging to pretend that each travel day is (sometimes significantly) less than 24 hours. Although I am in no hurry to do it going west, I suspect that would be much easier.

When someone says to you, "Why do you travel so much? We have everything we need right here, at home. We have no need to go anywhere else!", you might think it a lost cause to try and convince them of the benefits of travel. But if you are inclined to try, quote to them the following from Mark Twain: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." (He is widely recognized as having written the first modern travel book, The Innocents Abroad.)

What is Normal?

I've written extensively on this topic. For the first blog essay on that blog series, see "What is Normal – Part 1: Getting Started.")

Lessons learned:

  • Never say never about possible cultural differences and conventions. For example, some writing systems go left-to-right, top-to-bottom; others go right-to-left, top-to-bottom; while still others go top-to-bottom, right-to-left. While I don't know of any that go bottom-to-top, I wouldn't be surprised. Afterall, it's just a convention!
  • Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it's silly or stupid. Saying so just displays your ignorance and/or unwillingness to understand (and even appreciate) an alternate approach or viewpoint.
  • I am very proud of never having been accused of being normal!


Without a doubt, the biggest lesson that I've learned in my 70 years on this planet, is that my three worst enemies are frustration, frustration, and frustration! What are yours?

See you in Part 2!