Learning that I'm never too old to learn

In life, there are people who fix, and people who live with.

Being one of the latter (I can live with a broken light bulb till I no longer notice it), I regard fixers with a mixture of admiration and irritation.

Why do a tedious chore yourself when you can pay someone else to do it?

Fixers probably ask the same question in reverse.

Indeed, I know they do, as it has been a longstanding argument in our household, since I, the ultimate lazy sod, married him, the ultimate DIY geek.

If there is anything to be repaired, installed or made for the home, the man will instantly say, I can do it!

I try to talk him out of such foolishness, but it usually falls on deaf ears.

Isn't it our duty to generate employment for others, I'd fume.

Why waste money on something I can do myself, he'd plead.

Small breaks are easy peasy. Fridge on the blink? Let's see if I can fix it before we call the repair guy. Sewer line choked? I'll clear it; plumbing fees are daylight robbery. Car needs servicing, or tree needs cutting down? I can do it. Kids want a zipline? Let me make one.

Some of those jobs he's done before. The ones that he hasn't? No problem.

Then will begin the fascinating but time-consuming ritual of reading up everything he can about changing the motor oil and rotating the tyres, or building a zipline so he can do it.

In the meantime, I'm stewing because the money we are saving has been traded for time.

I don't know why it took me so long, but it finally dawned on me that my husband doesn't like DIY because he wants to save money. Sometimes he does, and sometimes it is a point of pride to be self-reliant. The rest of the time? He thinks it's fun.

Slowly, I am coming around so that the admiration half of the scale is beginning to tip the irritation half.

I concede - grudgingly - that this predilection is actually a form of lifelong learning. I am even beginning to wonder if it would not behoove me to adopt some of that attitude myself.

In fact, in a country where labour can be expensive and gargantuan businesses such as Lowes and Home Depot supply every last thing you need to build anything yourself, I have lots of role models.

Americans, with their love of self-help books in all realms of life, have a healthy appetite for learning and applying new skills to problem-solving.

Not everyone has the spirit of a pioneer, of course. But people respect the desire to venture into uncharted territory, and much of the time, my husband being a prime example, it's not about making money or getting a job.

I, on the other hand, from the time I was a child had tended to separate all the knowledge of the world into stuff that I needed to know and stuff that I didn't.

The stuff I needed to know was what would get me through school and earn me a qualification to find paid work. It was also what aligned with my interests and the various life roles I played.

Naturally, I espoused the idea that one can learn from all corners of life and all kinds of teachers. You know this from being a student of the arts. But even so, there were whole swathes that I, consciously or not, would shut my mind to, through a lack of interest. For instance, I love how travel broadens the mind, but I would have no curiosity about how to fly a plane because I never could.

It was a sort of tunnel vision that only deepened as I got older. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking of myself as a student. I mean a student in the true sense, who delves into a topic to learn something new, apart from passively absorbing the lessons of life.

My school days are done, I declared.

Well, now people like me have been thrown a challenge by the Education Minister to exercise a muscle that may have atrophied a long time ago.

Mr Heng Swee Keat said, in his invigorating speech to Parliament last week: "This is not about 'study book'. It is about learning in every domain, any time, anywhere for a purposeful, fulfilling life."

To make it real, training subsidies will be given to Singaporeans aged 40 and up.

Of course, as I am here on the other side of the world in North Carolina, it's not a promise that holds any real benefit for me.

But it fired my imagination. What other place would invest its faith in people my age learning for as long as they want?

It is, simply, wonderful.

Oh, I have plans. I would like to give calculus another shot. I would like to practise the piano again. And pictures of an old school friend's bountiful harvest in Florida has inspired me to download a planting calendar for North Carolina.

Perhaps I'll even give my husband a hand with the stone wall he is making, now that spring is here. Spring is here and something long asleep is awakening.

sharonl@sph.com.sg