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In which John makes a video about Auld Lang Syne and Robert Burns and Frances Dunlop and J. D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield and why he still likes learning?

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Good Morning Hank, it's Tuesday. I'd like to tell you a story today about why I still like learning new things even though I am long out of school, and don't, like, need any new certificates or degrees in order to do my job, insofar as I even have a job.

So I was thinking about the song "Auld Lang Syne" recently - you know the one that goes: "Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?" etc...

I started reading up on it and found out that there are parts of the song that are at least four hundred years old, but the version of "Auld Lang Syne" we have today comes from the great Scottish poet Robert Burns, who claimed he got it from "an old man," but Burns probably wrote at least three of the verses himself.

Originally Burns had a different tune in mind for the song, but then "Auld Lang Syne" got grafted onto a different Scottish folk melody, and it became a popular New Years song in Scotland, and then Scottish people emigrated to Ireland and the Americas and elsewhere, and it became the World's New Year's song!

Anyway, the first record of the song is written on the back of a letter that Burns wrote in 1788 to a woman named Frances Dunlop.

Side story - Burns and Dunlop had a fascinating friendship; she was almost thirty years older than him, and she once wrote him: "I have heard Voltaire read all of his manuscripts to an old woman and printed nothing but what she would approve. I wish she would name me to her office."

Burns didn't, but he did really value Mrs. Dunlop's opinion and her friendship. In fact, he wrote her more letters than he wrote anyone else.

They also had really big disagreements, including about the sexuality in Burns' work - she once wrote him: "indecency is below you."

Their biggest disagreements though, were political. In that divisive age, as in this one, political disagreements were often personal.

In fact, Mrs. Dunlop was so angry with Burns for his celebration of the American and French revolutions that she didn't write him for two years, and then, when Burns lay dying at the age of 37, he wrote her one last letter with what a biographer called, "the last use he made of his pen."

In that letter, he told Mrs. Dunlop he was speedily headed for "that borne from whence no traveller returns."

And he said how much their friendship had meant to him, and that "the remembrance adds one pulse more to my poor, palpitating heart."

Mrs. Dunlop's kind reply was read aloud to Burns just days before he died, and so, at the end of his life, eight years after first writing - or at least, editing - the words to "Auld Lang Syne," he was still trying not to forget old acquaintances.

So that was all interesting and fun to learn, but that is not the point of the story. The point of the story is that I was thinking about Burns, and "Auld Lang Syne," and Mrs. Dunlop, and her disapproval of his sexually explicit poetry. And that made me wonder about the Burns poem "Comin' Thro' the Rye," which was originally sung to a tune very similar to the one we now associate with "Auld Lang Syne."

These days that song is perhaps most famous for inspiring the title to J. D. Salinger's novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, mishears the lyrics to the song. He hears: "if a body catch a body coming through the rye," when the actual lyrics are: "if a body meet a body coming through the rye."

The actual lyric is very frankly sexual and Holden's misinterpretation of it is really innocent. He imagines a bunch of kids in a field of rye who are near a cliff, and his job is to catch them to keep them from going over the cliff.

The cliff, of course, is the loss of all kinds of innocence, and Holden wants to protect these kids in a way that he himself hasn't been protected.

He doesn't yet get that the poem, "Comin' Thro' the Rye," is about two adults hooking up with each other because he's not ready to understand that, but the social order - and arguably, one of the adults in his life - treat him as if he is.

Reading the actual words that Holden so profoundly misinterprets helped give me a new way into the book, and a new way to understand Holden's heartbreak. He is a boy who is trying to hold in so much, and also to hold off so much.

And that, is why I still like learning, even in my extremely advanced age, because new learning can reshape old learning, and because learning is a way of seeing connection.

And all the little connections across time and space are reminders to me of how deeply connected we all are. Even to the fictional. Even to the dead.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.