Friday, June 12, 2015

The value of learning and journaling, according to this self-educated man

In his elderly years, Harry mentioned in an email to someone close to him that their regular correspondence "gives me an excuse to write about my life, at least bits and pieces of it." He also said that he would save some of those emails in a file, like a journal. The excerpts below are from those saved emails. For me and other family members, they offer formerly unknown bits and pieces of my father's life.

I've always had a thirst for knowledge, so I read a lot and even studied subjects that interested me. So, in some ways I became what is usually called a self-educated man. That may be satisfactory to some extent, but it's not the same as the education you get in a formal way – in school. For one thing, in school you're forced to study some subjects that hold no interest for you. That in itself, disciplines you, forces your mind to work in ways that you don't like. Just doing that is valuable exercise for your brain.

The greatest value of a college education is the discipline it instills. And, the truth is, that while you may learn a little bit about the basics of a few things, you don't really start getting an education until you're out of school and working at your chosen profession. I missed that for myself. Now, I have to work very hard at trying to learn something that does not interest me.

It's easy for me to learn about things that I'm interested in. There's no end of information on the internet on almost every subject you can name. The trick is to distinguish between good information and bad or phony information. There's plenty of untrue or false info on the internet, too. So you cannot rely solely on what you find there – you also have to look elsewhere if you're doing research.

A little enterprise
Anyway, for a few years, in order to make some extra money, I started a little enterprise called "Articles on Demand." Believe it or not, there is a demand for people who can write articles on any subject. So, I was asked to write articles on some very weird things – for example, a 750-word piece on the number of fresh-water lakes in the world, where they are, how much water they contain, how they were formed, etc. Did you know that Canada has more fresh-water lakes than all the rest of the world combined?

That one went over so well that I was asked to do another on fresh-water rivers in the world. Did you know that the Amazon River in South America has more fresh water flowing in it than all the rivers in the rest of the world combined? Well, to do the research for those two pieces required more than just browsing the internet and, since I had no interest in it, I found it hard to concentrate on it, but I forced myself and ultimately found it interesting. It's the compiling of figures and statistics that I found hard to put together, but the final results after a lot of hard work, I found fascinating. 

At home in 2011, Harry pointed out to dear friends his name in Years of Upheaval, by Henry Kissinger. Could this be the book that Harry discovered his name in while auditing a university course after he retired? Harry refers to those college days in the paragraphs below. The tribute in Kissinger's book: "I owe a belated thanks also to Harry Zubkoff, whose news clipping and analysis service based in the Department of the Air Force has been of enormous value to US government personnel for years and has been an invaluable research aid for my staff in the preparation of White House Years and this volume." 

From mingling to keeping a journal
The year after I retired, I started taking courses at the U. of Maryland – subjects that interested me or that I thought I knew something about and just wanted to see what was being taught in school. Each semester I took one or two courses, and I did that for the next 15 years, from 1987 to 2003.

Now I found myself mingling with students from 18 to 25, because I was taking some undergraduate courses and some graduate school courses. And once again, I found myself treated by my fellow students like an ancient ancestor – or a wise old man who knew everything (that’s what grandchildren think) and someone they could come to for advice and counseling.

[Harry was referring to an earlier reflection, included in the previous post: “The art of listening and consoling”]

And again, I found myself being consulted about all kinds of problems as though I had all the answers. And again, I found that I was most helpful to these young people just by listening to them and asking some pertinent questions – which forced them, in a way, to clarify their own thinking.

And I learned something else – that if you want someone to think clearly about whatever problem he/she has, get him to write it down. Put it on paper. Nothing concentrates your mind on a specific problem or issue as writing it down on paper. That’s why I would urge everyone – including you – to keep a journal and put your thoughts and reactions to events and situations you encounter in that journal, not necessarily daily, but certainly regularly.

By a journal, I mean a loose-leaf notebook, so you can move pages around, rather than a bound book where the pages are fixed in place. I don’t mean a diary, which is simply a daily record of your activities, but a journal, in which you record your thoughts and feelings about people and events. And try to use words and adjectives that convey precisely what you are thinking.

For example, if someone upset you by a thoughtless remark, try to describe your reaction. Were you resentful? Furious? Enraged? Embarrassed? Astounded? Disappointed? Confounded? Disgusted? In other words, it’s not enough to be upset. Try to pinpoint exactly how you feel. You will find, when you do that, that you understand yourself better and you actually are either more or less upset than you thought you were. And maybe even more understanding of the person who upset you in the first place. What exactly did you dislike about the remark? See what I mean?

Harry's little black notebook 
Well, guess what else we found in the smartly cluttered office Harry left behind? Right – a loose-leaf notebook filled with brief, handwritten entries. However, rather than a journal containing his personal thoughts and feelings, it appears he jotted fictional musings that he could go back and grab for his story-writing hobby. Or, had he grabbed these musings from the stories he'd finished? Could the blurbs be factual, not fictional? Or, maybe, based on fact? You decide. See some samples from his notebook below this photo.

Harry's little black notebook is undated, though he may have 
kept it while he was attending U of MD classes after he retired 
(1987 - 2003). Future generations of our family should enjoy the
 look and feel of an ancient handwritten journal.

  • Why do I fly? I thought. For space? Might as well ask why I breathe. I guess, I thought to myself, sounding pompous in my own mind, it’s because I like the feeling of being part of a huge and powerful machine that’s been tuned to perfection but that takes its direction from me. The feeling of independence and linkage, operating in unison.
  • She had large (gray) eyes, a straight narrow nose, a nicely rounded chin, and a determined mouth with lips that looked eminently kissable.
  • The flickering fire threw pictures on the wall, shadows chasing each other around the room.
  • You probably don’t realize it yourself, but you have a look – well, when you look at someone like that, I think you scare them. They suddenly realize that you are … could be … dangerous?
  • I had grown adept at instilling confidence in people – usually a few kind words would do it. And after all, what does that cost?
  • He looked harmless; a short bald-headed, mild-mannered man, but behind that bland exterior was a mind as agile and sharp as any I’d ever known.
  • Once on the trail of something or someone, there was no turning back. Impossible to quit with the job undone, the chase not concluded.
  • The expression on her face mirrored her uncertainty, her doubts, her nervousness. Still half child, part woman, she did not yet know how to deal with men like me – too old to be a boy-friend beau, too young to be a father figure or uncle!
  • He saw the funny side of everything, and his lips twitched, continuously, as though he were about to break into laughter.
  • Everything we did was a sort of river, just rolling along like the song says, through time and through generations, with new people just like us coming along while the old ones floated slowly away, transients on the water’s surface, passing from view and from memory. No matter how well known, how celebrated and honored, in a short period of time as history goes, we’re all forgotten, nobody caring that we lived and accomplished and died and scarcely made any difference at all to the current crop of newcomers. Not good for the ego, is it?

I haven't read Harry's unpublished stories, still piled in old cardboard boxes. When I do, I'll keep an eye out for the musings from his little black notebook. He may have shared stories with friends or relatives; did he share any with you?


  1. A friend of Harry's wrote:

    "He looked harmless; a short bald-headed, mild-mannered man, but behind that bland exterior was a mind as agile and sharp as any I’d ever known."

    I don't know who Harry thought he was writing about, but that person can only be Harry. Your father was indeed an "original."

    I enjoy reading these postings. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Harry's friend, Gene Sands, wrote:

    This is incredible material and pure Harry Zubkoff! Again, thank you so much for including me in this wonderful project you’ve launched. Am enjoying these very much and it’s so kind of you to do all of this. It’s a way we can still be in touch with Harry. He was a major figure in my life and I learned so much from him!

  3. Harry's friend, Les Evjen, wrote:

    Very, very interesting. Unlike most "educated" folks, Harry's self-education produced wisdom. His talents and background continue to amaze as much as they first did when we "met" on Tom Sherman's Internet forum. His journal entries identify a man with a keen skill of observation and a gentle way with words. I would love to read his unpublished stories and hope you include some of them in your blog.

  4. This is a terrific article. I believe that it should be required reading for every student from ages 15 - 25, not just because of what Harry wrote about the value of a college education, but because of what he wrote about learning after one graduates from college.

  5. Harry's younger-generation cousin wrote:

    Cousin Harry was an incredibly wise person and I am glad you are doing this [blog]. I always felt that each of us only knew one facet of a very complex man.

  6. Harry's friend, Mike McRaney, wrote:

    I was Director of Air Force Public Affairs from ’85 to ’89 and saw your Dad several times a week regarding the Early Bird and other pubs. He was always the trusted source I could go to for advice, information and good cheer. What a wonderful man. He was one of a kind, a dear friend and one of the wisest people I ever met. Without knowing it he guided me to the right pathways and I am forever grateful.

    I have only the fondest of memories of our interactions in the Pentagon. Your project [blog] is a worthy one and I look forward to reading whatever is produced. Harry will be pleased and proud.