In life, you never arrive

I’ve rounded the corner on three years in the Peace Corps. I have less than four weeks until I “COS”, or see my close of service.

It’s arriving with little fanfare.

Peace Corps service is like climbing a mountain, and then climbing back down again. The peak was somewhere in the middle. Little heralds the return journey. There is no culmination in the last steps.

Maybe that’s why it feels so strange. I’m looking for that final moment, the finish line, a nice and neat wrap-up to everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve done, everyone I’ve met along they way. And then I realize, the culmination was all these little things, all these moments that have already passed me by.

I think in some ways I knew that. I could feel it in those moments. Those moments where your surroundings dim and you see everything by the light of a smile. Those moments where you’re simply present, enjoying and being washed in the immensity of now. You don’t see those moments while you’re in them. You somehow can only recognize them afterwards—these times of deep satisfaction, of eminent value.

Maybe it’s also the fact that I’m coming back. I’ll finish my contract in June, be back in the States for a couple months then return to Kyrgyzstan in August to live, study Russian, work a little and finally get to live close to my girlfriend who’s in the capital, Bishkek. I don’t have to have closure. I don’t need to summarize my experience. I don’t need to face the fact that I will be leaving people I love.

Part of me doesn’t want there to be an end. Maybe that’s why I’m coming back—so I can have an excuse to not hold any going away parties, to not wrap things up, to let it just trickle out, to simply say, “See you later” instead of that final and crushing, “Goodbye.”

It’s just life

Those familiar with Peace Corps lingo immediately recognize the term “RPCV.” For everyone else, it’s Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. This phrase has always meant one thing or another to us volunteers on this side of the finish line. I don’t know what yet, but I guarantee you this phrase is going to mean something totally different once we do finally finish our service.

Some might see it as a culmination—see that label as a final stamp on two years or more worth of work, of experience, two years of blood, sweat and tears. But if we couldn’t see the peaks of service until looking back, it’s likely to be the same for all of the rest of life.

I used to think life was marked by these large milestones: high school, college, first job, spouse, house, family. But anyone a good ways into it can tell you it’s a bit more convoluted than that. Things come in spurts, or never at all. And once you hit a moment where you think you’ve arrived, you find that life keeps rolling on and there’s little time to realize those significant moments in your life.

When you live life for the culminations—for the arrivals—you end up missing so much in between. So live now. Take your eyes off the future significant and dwell in the immense significance of now, in the momentous moments of today.

A life mantra


Always. Choose joy. Deal with the hard stuff in its time.


Make mental maps of places, people, experiences, thoughts. Read lots of books.


Keep your hands busy and do good, keeping a sober mind and body, and a disciplined spirit.


Share your joy and observations through the end of a pen and pushed out through fingers on a keyboard.


Love God and love people, dedicating special attention and time to the important people in your life.

The best kept secret to improving your memory

Remember more through ‘spaced repetition’

Remembering stuff is hard.

My usual technique is reading while making grunting noises, lifting and forcing the facts into my brain, bench-pressing each line until little beads of sweat form at my temples.

Luckily, there is a scientifically tested strategy that is proven to work better than brute will or force. (Plus it requires less deodorant.)

The answer is found in what’s called spaced repetition. It’s as obscure as it is life-changingly useful; I don’t know why it’s not part of mainstream education yet. Here I’ll go over the theory briefly and then propose my own simple reading technique based on this principle. I also suggest a couple of software programs you can use to help you remember just about anything.

A(nother) really old, smart German guy

Hermann Ebbinghaus’s (try to remember that name) research on memory in the late 19th century led to the development of what he called the ‘forgetting curve.’

This forgetting curve graph shows us five curves. Each curve represents an engagement with a specific set of material, say a vocabulary word. After the first time you see a new vocabulary word (the first engagement), your brain “forgets” the word quickly. Thus, a steeper curve.

Forgetting means not being able to recall the word without being prompted. The point at which you “forget” is marked with the horizontal grey line.

The next time you see the word and its meaning (the second engagement) it takes your brain longer to forget the word. The third time, even longer. Therefore, the material stays above your recall threshold longer.

Because of this discovery, Ebbinghaus concluded correctly that the best way to remember stuff is to space out your review sessions in increasing increments of time. The most efficient way to do this is to engage with the material again right before you’re about to forget it.*

Researchers are still trying to discover just how long our recall ability lasts between engagements. Engage too quickly and your brain never lets you jump from curve one to curve two, counting shortly spaced reviews as only one engagement. Too much time in between engagements and the material has completely slipped below your recall ability and you again get stuck on the same curve.

Divide and Remember?

Several memory software companies claim to have found the perfect algorithm.

Researched and developed in the 1970s and 80s, SuperMemo chops up all your information into flashcard sized items, recycling them back onto your screen at the perfect moment. (Or so they claim.) This means, however, that everything is game for the chopping block—your online magazine articles, textbooks, e-mails, language vocabulary lists—you name it. The eccentric founder of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, lives his entire life by this fragmented algorithm, sleeping, exercising and answering bits of e-mails whenever his model tells him to. It has allowed him to learn several languages fluently, but makes him seem batpoop crazy to the rest of us plebeians struggling along trying to remember what day it is. (It’s 2015, right?)

Then there’re slightly more mainstreamed companies like Anki. Built as a user-input flashcard program, Anki works off of a similar algorithm to SuperMemo. Each time a flashcard pops up, users rate the card based on how well they remembered it. This allows Anki to determine the length of time until it shows that flashcard again.

Pimsleur language learning software operates on spaced repetition theory as well, and quite effectively. I’ve started studying Russian using their audio CDs and am remembering almost everything. Because the lessons are all listen-and-repeat with prompts, Pimsleur gives you a huge boost in pronunciation too. (Just click the link in my banner ad…heh.)

A simple reading strategy for memory

While my method below has not been developed through decades of algorithm research, I believe it does a fairly good job at approximating the increasing periods of time necessary for spaced repetition. Plus it’s simple, user friendly and doesn’t require you to take a scissors to your biology text book.

Here are the steps:

  1. Flip through the entire length of what you are about to read. It could be one chapter, a research paper or even a whole book. Make mental note of chapter titles, topic sentences and summaries.
  2. Put the book down and do something else. Make this time no less than five minutes but no more than thirty.
  3. Now read the first two sections. Depending on your reading material this could be the first two chapters or it could be the first two headers or whatever.
  4. Put the book down. Now try to recall the first section.
  5. Use the 5Ws to get you started. Who were the characters, the players, the authors? What happened? Where is it set? When did it all occur? Why is it important?
  6. Pick the book back up and read through section three.
  7. Stop and try to recall the second section keeping with the 5Ws.
  8. Proceed until the end of your reading for the day. When you finish, give yourself a short break (as long as it takes to read one section) before recalling the last section.
  9. Again, take another break. Answer e-mails. Have lunch. Stop thinking about what you read for awhile. This break should be longer, at least a couple of hours but not longer than one day.
  10. Next, write a simple outline of what you just read. You can choose how much time you want to put into this from just a few bullet points to listing major and minor characters, subplots, writing out theorems, etc.
  11. Immediately compare your outline to what you read, skimming back through the text and adding to and correcting your outline.
  12. Take another break but this time wait at least 24 hours before going back and reviewing your notes.

It’s important to note that when you return to the material in future engagements, you shouldn’t simply read over the information again. You need to quiz yourself on the content. (Like answering the 5Ws.) Just like with a vocabulary word flashcard where you make yourself recall the definition, you should be doing the same type of thing with your math theorems, comparative politics, etc.

You may need to adjust the times somewhat for your own biology. In general, if you find yourself not remembering things when you go back a second or third time, you need to shorten the time in between your engagements. If recalling the information is really easy on your second or third time, you can wait longer until you engage the material again.

And seriously–check out some software for memorizing stuff, like mnemosyne. It might just change your life.

Good luck out there on the memory slopes—have fun and hang 10!


*(Incidentally this curve also proves why cramming for a test works really well. The next time your professor tells you to review, review, review, you can tell her she’s partially correct.)


http://lifeinthefastlane.com/learning-by-spaced-repetition/ – More thoughts on spaced repetition from a fellow life student





http://psy.ed.asu.edu/~classics/Ebbinghaus/index.htm – A compilation of Ebbinghaus’ writings

http://archive.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/16-05/ff_wozniak?currentPage=all – A neat article about the uber-disciplined Piotr Wozniak


http://www.gwern.net/Spaced%20repetition – A comprehensive look at spaced repetition. Gwern is probably one of the neatest things on the internet you’ve never read. Get lost in this site for a few years.

https://www.examtime.com/blog/study-hacks/ – Tried and true suggestions like drinking water and getting enough sleep. Also useful. And necessary.

Discipline through Deadlines

This is the fifth installment in a seven-part series on being disciplined. We all would like to be able to think a little clearer, feel a little better and enjoy the things we need to do in life a little more. No matter where you are when it comes to being disciplined, these thoughts can help you better achieve your goals and continue along your path of being disciplined.


So you’re a procrastinator. Welcome to the club.

This isn’t generally a cause to celebrate. Epic procrastination sessions are more likely to land you in the hospital than garner a standing ovation for productivity and accomplishment. And since procrastination is an incurable disease, it’s best to just stop fighting against it and learn how to work with it from the hospital bed instead.

Us procrastinators have it the worst. It’s not that we want to be lazy. We just physically can’t get anything done until the last minute. However, this can be worked to your advantage to get things done by setting real deadlines that are out of your hands.

Setting deadlines for yourself doesn’t work because in this situation you’re ultimately only responsible to yourself, and any good procrastinator knows he is perfectly happy to let himself down.

The trick is to create deadlines that are beyond your control. This means giving other people control over when you must finish a project.

Idea starters

  • Project: Organize your living room (vacuum, pick the Cheetos out of the sofa, etc.)
  • Deadline: Invite friends over to watch a movie in the evening
  • Project: Post to your blog weekly
  • Deadline: Write something in the header like, “updated weekly” or “new posts every Monday.”
  • Project: Be a better runner
  • Deadline: Put good money down in a non-refundable 5K race
  • Project: Wash the car
  • Deadline: Get yourself a date for Friday night
  • Project: Get out of bed in the morning
  • Deadline: Lock your alarm in a box and give your neighbor the key
  • Project: Finish A Clockwork Orange
  • Deadline: Join a book club with some English blokes
  • Project: ____your project here______
  • Deadline: _____your deadline in the hands of others here­_____

Forget taking charge. Let others take charge for you, and reap the benefits!

Now that’s a good motto for us procrastinators. I think I’ll bring it up at our next meeting, whenever that happens. Come to think of it, we’ve never had a first meeting. We might have to invite a few non-procrastinators to join the club so we can finally get around to getting together…

IMG_6344Project: Publish an English instruction book Deadline idea: Maybe think about hiring an English speaking editor…


This is the fifth installment in a seven-part series on being disciplined. You can read each of the posts by clicking below:

The battle of the English “moods”

As an English teacher in the Peace Corps, I spend a lot of time explaining points of grammar I never thought about or noticed before. I’ve become adept at explaining tenses and certain points in particular because I’ve either studied them or am asked them over and over, but still every once in a while a new little rule or concept pops up that intrigues me.

Sometimes I’m simply stumped, like when one of my counterparts asked how she should know if a certain verb is followed by a gerund or the infinitive. (For example, we say “I enjoy playing soccer,” but “I want to play every day.” It’s wrong to say, “I enjoy to play soccer. I want playing every day.” But why, and how can you be sure which form to use following newly learned verbs??? I found the answer, but it took a little googling…and not even the BBC’s website had the right answer!)

Some questions make me see English in a whole new way, revealing culture and the way we think through our language.

The use of modals raises just a point. Modals are simply words that set the mood of our verbs, like “can” or “should” and can’t be conjugated on their own. (In a bit you’ll see the word “want” which is technically not a modal; however, it does express modality so I’ve included it J.)

It’s easy to see the modals (moods) at work when you compare these sentences:

  • I should prepare my lessons.
  • I can prepare my lessons.
  • I want to prepare my lessons.
  • I will prepare my lessons.

In the first example “should” implies it would be good if I prepared them, but maybe I will and maybe I won’t.

The second simply denotes ability. I am able to prepare them, but I may or may not choose to.

The third shows my desire. I wish to prepare my lessons. I would like to get them done, but there still may be factors preventing me from doing so.

The last example is the only one where we know I will get the lessons prepared. For sure, I will prepare my lessons, whether or not I want to, should do, or even at present have the ability to.

The battle at Grammar Field

How and when we use should, can, will and want to, tells us a lot about our thinking process, what we value, and how we see the world.

The first task is to listen carefully to which modals you find yourself saying.

I spend too much time on the word “should.”

  • “I really should be more involved.”
  • “I should make handouts for that training I’m giving.”
  • “I should add an extra club for students preparing for their national exams…”
  • And on and on ad nauseam

The problem with this is that I don’t want to.

My modals do battle. Should and want raise their coats of arms and march off to war where should almost always takes the decisive victory. At the very least they reach some kind of uncomfortable truce where should eventually wins by war of attrition anyway. Want starts to die a slow and painful death before surrendering in full under the flag of should.

In some cases should “should” win out over your Wants. You can’t always live a selfish life; I’m not arguing to always follow the whims of your desires.

But when I stop and listen to the situations where I use these words, I find there are all sorts of things I feel I should be doing, and I end up letting should drive my actions out of guilt.

Taking charge

Being aware of the language you use is half the battle. After recognizing what kinds of words you’re telling yourself, the next step in reclaiming control of your life is to make purposeful decisions in how you use these words.

  • There are truly very few situations where should must be your master. You should eat food. You should show up to work most of the time. But, those teachers will live if there’s no handout for the training tomorrow.
  • Can is powerful when you use it in focused ways. You are capable of a lot more than you think.
  • Want helps you discover your desires and leads you to find more joy and satisfaction by spending more time doing what you enjoy.
  • And will helps us go about our daily lives with determination and action. It helps you separate what you will do from what you choose not to do.

Whether your specialty is in teaching English or in another sector of the Peace Corps, placing yourself as Commander-in-chief in the grammar battle not only puts you in command of the English modals, but it puts you in a better mood too.