Tuesday, February 25, 2014





     WITH ENOUGH CHOCOLATES, I swear, you can persuade anyone to do anything.   
      Which is how I induced my friend, Carol, to accompany me on a trip she should have avoided like a meerkat avoids a hawk.  A few days before the trip, I’d laid a path of chocolates from her house to my car, and when she came out the front door there they were, soft-centered and chewy, snaking down the path and across the sidewalk, and stopping right at my passenger door.  “Of course after that,” she said, “I had to come.”  Carol is one of those women who would surrender her soul for the right two pieces of Sees candy. 
     But then, so would I. 
     The fact is, that fall of 1981, I needed Carol to travel with me to a neighboring state to sell my first published book, Manbirds: Hang Gliders and Hang Gliding. In spite of the excitement, the thrill of seeing my name on a jacket cover, the cracks an author could fall into were suddenly becoming evident.  Quite casually, someone at Prentice-Hall mentioned a fissure big enough to swallow a whole new career.     Mine.         
     Just as I came aboard, the publisher found itself without a publicist—-their promoter of retail sales.  If I didn’t become the book’s nursemaid, its chief advocate, its gung-ho salesman, who would?  
     Until then, I’d been a peanut butter mom and casual tennis player living with my husband, Rob, and the youngest  two of our six kids, both in their twenties, on a half acre in Southern California.  From the street our property looked normal enough: sun-faded shingles on a ranch-style house, and a row of overgrown junipers that held up obliging arms to shield Rob when he ventured out in his underwear. 
     But the backyard still sported trappings from a wondrous era: a double-decker bicycle propped against a tree (reminder of our first son, Bobby, no longer with us), and lengths of aluminum tubing once used to create hang gliders for Bobby and Chris, back when our two oldest boys were U.S. champions and swept us into that awe-inspiring sport.  I remembered those days constantly—both the excitement and the terrible way they ended. 
     Now our definition of “normal” had changed.  No longer following where our children led, no longer streaming in the wind as tails on their unpredictable kites, Rob and I sought new ways to find excitement . . . and he more than I, for he was a restless man who thrived on stimulation. 
     Which is why he seemed a natural, at first, for my book-selling trip—-though he hadn’t actually said he yearned to attend a hang gliding meet in Nevada.  
       “All those pilots I’ve profiled in Manbirds will be there,” I said.  As always, we plotted and dreamed at the breakfast table.  “I ought to go, don’t you think?” 
     “Maybe.”  Lawyerlike, he considered me over his coffee mug.  “Seems chancy to travel all the way to Carson City, just to sell a few copies.” 
     A few copies?
     “You may find, Babe, after expenses, it’s a loser.”  (He’d called me Babe for so long I doubted he could spell my name.  Or that I’d recognize it if I heard it.) 
     “Then you won’t come?” I said.          
     “Don’t think so.  But go if you want.  You don’t need me.”  Once more, he was turning me loose to grow up.    
     My psyche drooped.  But I can’t go alone. 
     And then I thought of Carol and dreamed up my chocolate ploy.  We’d been close friends and tennis partners for years, a bond strengthened in spurts by Carol’s quips and my fondness for startling humor.  I never knew what she was going to say.  But neither, I suspect, did she . . . else how could she have laughed as hard at her jokes as I did? 
     Ready to go without him, I imagined Rob was pathetically wrong about the Carson City event.  I calculated the number of books sold as closer to several cases, a hundred books at least. 
     Over the years our marriage has been like that: I nurture rosy images of literary success--generous spending to make a good book turn into a bestseller, a la Danielle Steele, whereas Rob sees my promotional efforts as the equivalent of a kid’s lemonade stand in the rain.    

CAROL AND I needed another woman—-and suddenly I thought of the ultimate good sport, our son’s wife, Betty-Jo.  Always the bright spark attached to Chris’s escapades, she’d climbed mountains to film his hang gliding, perched on rocks reading books while he flew.  “Will you go, Betty-Jo? And bring Christy?  Five is a perfect age for traveling.” 
     Two days later she said they’d both come.   
     “Great!” I cried.  “An all-girl road trip.  What could be more fun?  Talk about adventure.”     
     “But a hot adventure,” added Betty-Jo, who radiates warmth and looks like everybody’s idea of a classy PTA mom.  “We go through some real bake-oven country.  I’m glad we’re taking your new Cadillac.” 
     “Why would we take anything else?” I said.    

     IT WAS ONLY LATER, the night before the trip, that Rob said, “Don’t take the new Seville, Babe.”  We were out in front of our blue house, hidden behind Rob’s junipers, with suitcases and book boxes stacked nearby.  “You’re crazy to pack that pristine trunk with all those heavy books.  Put the hard miles on the station wagon.” 
     For a moment I just looked at him.  “You actually expect a bunch of women to set out in that station wagon?  With its two hundred and eighty thousand miles?  When I have a dependable car sitting right here in the driveway?”   
     “Why beat up a new car?” he said, and I just shook my head.  The excessive miles weren’t the wagon’s only problem.  The air conditioner blew only on the left side, the horn blew whenever it felt like it, and the engine sputtered and popped after you turned off the key.  Rob had everything backwards--as if we humans existed to serve our vehicles.  I glanced at my brown Cadillac.  “Rob, I’m taking the reliable car.  Okay?”    
      He shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”  
      Then, proving he was a decent guy, he got up at five the next morning, loaded my four boxes of weighty books into the trunk and handed in my “MANBIRDS” sign on its very long pole; the pole reached from the dashboard to the back ledge and effectively blocked both passenger doors.  He watched Carol crawl in under the sign.  “Call me from Carson City,” he said. “I expect you’ll be there about noon.” 

     WELL, SWEET RELIABLE TOOK us two hours from home, meaning part way up the steep grade to Victorville, before it abruptly and very quietly died.  All at once I pressed the pedal and nothing happened.  There was no noise.  No fanfare.  No last, gasping cough.  Just a silent end to everything.  A T.S. Eliot moment.  It seemed the car had suddenly lost its engine. 
     Astonished at my useless gas pedal and all that thundering quiet, I said to the others, “Can you believe this?  The car just quit!”  I barely muscled it to the left shoulder, and there we were, at a quarter-to-eight in the morning, three women and little Christy, standing by the side of the road with this dead machine and no idea what killed it.     
     “What do you think the problem is?” asked Carol.  She was very pretty—-dark, laughing eyes, short raven hair. 
     “I haven’t a clue,” I said.  “But I suppose we should look under the hood.”
     “That wouldn’t do ME any good,” said Betty-Jo.  “I wouldn’t know what I was looking at.”  Of course she spoke for all of us. 
     “Well,” I said, “at least we’d know if something was steaming . . . or smoking . . . or pouring out on the ground.”  
     “But we wouldn’t know what that something was,” said Carol, and I realized nobody had said we needed a man. 
      Still, there seemed little else to do, so the three of us took turns grappling near the hood.  At last I found the obscure latch, and with all of us heaving as one person we managed to hoist the lid into the air—-like raising a barn wall.                    
     After peering down into the pipe-and-wire tangle and ascertaining that no liquids were dripping and no hoses perceptibly parted, Carol recalled that neither had the panel of lights come on with any of those helpful red messages like, “Engine Tired.  About to Quit.”
     Just as we were closing the hood, a California Highway Patrol car pulled up behind us and the officer offered to call a tow truck.  We held a quick caucus—-three women, with Christy poking up between Betty-Jo’s legs—-and we made a decision.  “We think we’ll let the motor cool and try it again,” I said. 
     Which I did, and ground the starter until the battery died.  When the CHP officer came back to check on us--and thank God he did--Carol said, “We’ll take that tow truck now.”
     He drove off, and after a while a tow truck--presumably ours—-struggled to climb the freeway grade on the slow inside lane, its turn signals flashing hopefully in our direction.  Just as we knew for sure we’d be rescued, we realized the man was foolishly trying to outrun a Maseratti, which of course he couldn’t do climbing a grade in a two-ton truck.  We turned as one to watch him flash by, still three lanes away, and    disappear up the hill.
     Betty-Jo said, “That was sure dumb!”
     Carol said, “Do we really want to be towed by anyone that stupid?” 
     “Maybe not,” I said, suddenly grateful I wasn’t in this alone.  With them standing beside me, this setback had a different feel, like a minor crisis in a light-hearted play. 
     About then the CHP officer returned; he was beginning to look like family.  He, too, was disgusted and said he’d call a different tow company. 
     Not long afterwards a second tow truck arrived and lifted my ailing Cad by its tail.  Soon, with all of us in the truck’s cab (Carol pressed against the driver’s thigh and Christy on Carol’s lap and Betty-Jo on the front edge of the seat between my knees), five of us rode like desperate hitchhikers to the Cadillac dealership in Victorville.
     The first thing the head mechanic said was, “We don’t have time to deal with your car.  Our mechanics and our racks are all busy.”
     All busy?  At eight-thirty in the morning? 
     Carol and Betty-Jo and Christy and I went to the waiting room for what would become a familiar conference.  We were all starving.  But our combined intelligence told us it would be folly to go off and eat.  “Let’s go back to the service area,” Carol said with a wicked grin, “and hover.  If we annoy them enough, they might find a way to get to our car.”
     I smiled down at tiny, tow-headed Christy.  “Do you suppose if I pinch her she’ll cry a few tears?”
     Christy looked up.  “Why would you pinch me, Grandma?”
     “Never mind, honey, I won’t,” I said, and we all hung over the nearest mechanic and it worked.  To get rid of three lurking females and a small, wide-eyed child, they lifted the hood and began studying the  insides  in earnest.  With that much progress, the four of us went to Wendy’s for a late breakfast, little dreaming this would be our last meal of the day. 
     An hour later, a confident mechanic told us we’d blown a fuse (now replaced) and the cause of the blown fuse was probably a failing fuel pump (not replaced).  He was an intelligent-looking fellow, neat haircut, alert expression.  In all seriousness, he also explained that if the problem was indeed the fuel pump and it happened again, we had only to wait by the side of the road thirty minutes to let it cool and our car would start immediately. 
     We realized later that he’d done a bit of play-acting equal to ours, at the very least concocting a scenario based entirely on our womanly ignorance of auto mechanics.  But he did succeed in getting rid of us.      
Cheerfully, we sailed out of the Cadillac dealership in our good-looking brown car and returned to Highway 395.
     It was now obvious I’d be getting to the hang gliding meet well after noon, meaning I could only hope that the pilots would fly until late that day---and all the next day.  Without the competitors, the trip had absolutely no purpose.  As we rocketed up the highway toward Carson City, I prepared myself mentally for some intense and truncated book selling. 
      As Betty-Jo took a turn and drove, I could see heat rising in shimmering waves from the pavement.  Thank the fates, I thought, for competent mechanics and reliable air-conditioning and a lovely, restored Cadillac.      
     My superstitious self should have known better than to offer premature thanks to anyone—-still miles from Carson City.  Suddenly the car, as it had done before, went ominously quiet.      
     I stared out the window in disbelief.  Why hadn’t I learned my lesson . . . you never thank Lady Fate in   advance.  She’ll find a way to yank your chain, just to prove she’s still in charge.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014




             The Dark Side of Fruit

     When I look back on this year, I admit that some of my grumpiest thoughts concerned fruit.  I only concede this to defend myself in advance, aware of how unnatural it will appear to wage war on something as universally beloved, as presumably innocent, as a plum.  But there you have it.  As of this year, I am fed up with this particular fruit—-thoroughly disenchanted with our own, homegrown variety, meaning those that arrive with rounded, dark purple exteriors and bright pink interiors . . . fat and lumpish, as though they were pregnant.  Don’t care if I ever again see another plum.   
     My vexation began early in the season.  Instead of a rush of gratitude over what would soon be a bountiful gift from nature, I was secretly annoyed that out of view along the side of our house, the bees and the plum trees were carrying on scandalously and in secret.  Never mind that the products of their mating were dark, succulent, and juicy.  Before summer was fully launched, the plum trees had driven me to guilt and not a little resentment; how dare those sneaky, self-righteous trees go at this reproduction thing with so much pride, so much gusto!    
     Had they no self-control, no sense of proportion?   
     And why had our trees never figured out that fruit would be under-appreciated, even disdained, when a whole year’s worth of effort ripened within the same ten minutes?       
     One second there was no fruit and the next the plums were dropping like hail stones. 
     It was late June when the first of them began thumping the ground.  Big, ripe, purple, and (begrudgingly I admit this), delicious.  Except most of those that fell spontaneously suffered a split down the middle of their fat, ripe bellies, and within the split was sand and/or fruit flies.  As the days dropped, so did more plums.  Each morning Rob would peer through the only aperture that opens on our tiny orchard-—the bathroom window--and proclaim gravely, “Babe, we’ve got fifty plums lying under the trees.  Something has to be done!  Immediately!”                
     We groped for solutions.  I called our four middle-school grandkids to come pick plums, but it seems that youngsters who play baseball have no time to harvest fruit.       We made frequent plum patrols ourselves, picking up what was salvageable and bumping others down from their limbs with a clever little “nudger” created by Rob.  A small mesh basket on the end of a long pole, the nudger enabled us to jiggle a single plum until it dropped into the mesh . . . while shaking loose a half dozen others, which cascaded down to split-bellied destruction.      
     I began noticing that “salvageable” had a broader meaning for Rob than for me.  I looked into his collection basket.  “Why are you saving that one?”
     “It’s edible.”
     “It’s full of sand.”
     “I can cut away the sandy part.”
     “Why?  The trees have a hundred more with no sand.” 
     He looked at me with disgust, a thrifty Scot arguing with a stubborn German.  “I see no reason for wasting perfectly good fruit.” 
     “I have only one stomach, Rob.  How many have you got?”
     My protests were bouncing off the wrong person.  This was the guy whose garage was crammed to the rafters with Salvation Army coffee tables, sliding closet doors made into picnic tables, thirteen military surplus file cabinets--all full--empty coffee tins, 40 woven baskets that once held floral arrangements, cans of thickly-crusted paint, empty jelly jars, chunks of shipping Styrofoam, and tools that were impossible to reach, all defended vigorously against sorting and discarding by that classic Depression-era mantra, “We might need it some day.”  Meanwhile, there was talk of bringing home a portable storage shed. 
     Sometimes Rob sent me out to pick fruit alone.  For the first half hour--when he wasn’t looking--I tossed damaged plums into the bushes (an aerial burial), gathered masses of almost-okay plums on a large tray, beat cobwebs out of my hair, tried to keep mashed plums out of the treads in my tennis shoes, and came into the house looking purplish and webby.  
     The second half hour I washed and sorted while Rob polished and dried, and together we arranged plums in lovely presentation baskets, then left messages on the answering machines of our grown children and anyone else we knew to come get our lovely fruit.   
     Nobody ever came.
     It’s not that anybody ever said, “I’m not coming to get your blasted plums,” it’s more that they put off doing non-essential errands, and leaving the house simply to fetch ripe fruit became one of those jobs you could put off indefinitely.  I’m sure if I said, “Come get the plums or your dad will die,” they’d have been there.        
     When our kids didn’t come, I delivered the best of what we’d harvested (and washed and dried and polished), leaving the rest for Rob and me---who aren’t so fussy---to eat.
     On each occasion the plum project consumed more than a couple of hours.  I simply couldn’t do it every day.  Let’s be reasonable---who has fourteen hours a week to devote to FRUIT?
     But the problem was compounded, right before my eyes, on our kitchen drain board.  I quickly discovered what happens to a split plum that you don’t eat immediately.  It turns into plum soup.  You can almost see it happening.  The plum leaks a tiny bit at first but the process accelerates, and within two days you’re looking at a purple swamp.   Nobody would eat it.  Nobody would suggest you keep it around hoping for a better outcome.              
     But STILL Rob issued daily bulletins.  He was so much better at bulletins than picking.  “Babe, do you know how much fruit we’ve got out there—-just rotting on the ground?” 
     Oh, I knew, all right.  And so did every fruit fly in Orange County.  Who could miss the shiny purple lumps, glowing and oozing?  Who could ignore the guilt--that all over the world people are starving, yet there’s no way to reach Darfur with something that rots within an hour. 
     By now, a few practical souls, none of whom I know personally, are surely thinking, Why doesn’t she boil them?  Turn them into jam?  The idea crossed my mind, and so did the further thought that I might simply be cooking up a batch of botulism.   
     Eventually I found a remedy—-someone to trade with—-a woman who swapped a large bowl of my perfect plums for two great sacks of her dwarf peaches.   At first I protested that she’d given me too many, and she said, “You can freeze the peaches,” but still I drove home feeling guilty.  I vowed to bring her more plums soon.  Maybe one of my signed books.  
     And then I learned that not all home grown fruit is created equal.  Our plums were scrumptious.  Her peaches were not.  Like much of the fruit from our supermarket (those peaches, for instance, that are picked too green), her little nubbins went straight from Rock-hard to Rotten without stopping at Edible.  Clearly she’d been solving her fruit problem.  So now I had moldy peaches littering my drain board, and I’d even delivered some to our kids.  I no longer felt guilty about the peach lady.  In fact, she owes me a book. 
     The defining moment came toward the end of the month.  I happened to be at daughter Tracy’s house when she glanced at an array of my hand-washed, hand-delivered plums, just starting their downward drift, just beginning to leak bright, staining juice into her grout.  She gave me a quick, dubious look—-not meant to be hurtful.  She said,  “You know, Mom, this fruit’s becoming a real nuisance.”  The way she said it, the word FRUIT had pejorative overtones.  A sinister subtext.  Definitely not something you’d want foisted off on you.       
     Unfortunately, I understood perfectly.  Spring would be around again in no time, and I didn’t feel ready for another guilt trip brought on by plums.  I couldn’t face them again in eleven short months.  It occurred to me there was only one reasonable solution: chop down the trees. 
     Of course that was no solution, because Rob would be out there saving every limb and twig, making piles, hoarding, stacking, laying in plum-tree firewood against California’s arctic winters.  Deep in the woodpile, black widow spiders would start making baby spiders, scandalously and in secret. 
     The only solution is never plant fruit trees in the first place.  But for us it’s too late.  If you’re going to have something propagating around by the side of the house, I suppose plums are better than black widow spiders. 
     There may be a respite.  Erv, the resident expert in my writers’ critique group, reports that one year out of four, plum trees take sabbaticals.  “I trust it’s now,” I said to Rob.  “Erv just gave me hope.  We deserve a year off.”   
     “That’s okay by me,” he said.  “And by the way--you’ll be pleased to know that this fall the apple tree produced only one apple.  And I ate it.” 


Monday, February 10, 2014

SO YOU'RE SEVENTY . . . SO WHAT? How to Love the Years You Thought You'd Hate

                  CHAPTER THREE


Your Brain and . . . What Was That Other Thing?  


     IN OUR HOUSE THERE’S a lot of ongoing competition, which I freely admit to friends, but as one of them says with a laugh, “It’s rivalry just short of warfare.”
     For no particular reason, Rob and I keep measuring each other, comparing what we do with what the other one does, as though there’s some Otherbeing out there keeping track—as though it’s Rob’s duty to keep that Otherbeing informed.      
     “You cheated on the Crossword, Babe. I gave you one of the answers, so it doesn’t count.”
     “Doesn’t count for what?”
     “You can’t claim you did it.”
     “Do you see me claiming anywhere? Besides, you only helped with one clue.”    
     “Well, don’t say you finished, because you didn’t.”
     I stare at him and shrug. Who would I say it to? We go on like that, both of us vying for the catbird seat. Who plays the better game of Sequence, who saves the most gas when he drives, who spends the fewest minutes looking for misplaced papers, who has the better memory.  
     Privately, I concede that Rob wins on memory. Except when he doesn’t. For a man who manages to outscore half the contestants on Jeopardy, it’s amazing how little he remembers of my various golden words . . . spoken aloud in the hope they won’t vanish forever.
     But they vanish anyway. “Marital deafness,” he says, though my friends agree it’s Bad Memory. Or maybe a male thing, a testosterone-driven ability to tune in or tune out.
     If she’s gorgeous, he definitely remembers her name and most of what she says.
     Rob, in fact, reminds me of the husband of a close friend; she happens to be a charming television personality. Recently, after she’d introduced me to her husband, we wandered into another room and there she said with a smile, “He’s deaf in one ear and he doesn’t listen out of the other.”
     After I stopped laughing, I said, “And that goes for my husband, too.”      

     SO TODAY, I’VE JUST come up to my office to get something. But now I can’t remember what on earth I came up for. The letter I just wrote? My class attendance record? Something I left on the floor?
     Bugger it, I’m not going to remember, and there’s lots of stuff on the floor, but not THAT--whatever it was.
     Anyway, I’m here now, so I might as well sit down and write. The item I needed will come rushing back to my brain fairly soon; the next time I go downstairs it’ll strike me, splat, like a bird-dropping on my head.  
     And that’s how our brains function after they’ve been serving us well for seventy years. They still work. But they’re like computers with too many open files.
     They’re slow.
     Lucky for the world, I don’t work for the CIA. And you probably don’t either. I’m not a medical malpractice defense attorney (like my husband), or an airline pilot, so it doubtless doesn’t matter to anyone but me whether I remember the exact altitude of Denver, or how many bones are in the human wrist, or in which month it’s predicted that all the computers will fail in Cincinnati. (Or was it Columbus?)    
     In the meantime, a stuttering memory is merely a nuisance. We’re tired of hearing our kids say, before we’ve had a chance to ponder, “I didn’t expect you to remember, Mom,” or a friend grinning as he says, “I know perfectly well where I met you--but I’m having a Senior Moment.”
     In fact, most of us would rather we never again hear the words Senior Moment.
     Anyway, in my private estimation I’ve never been a Senior. I’m just a regular person with a few extra years under my belt. And that’s where most of them are. Under my belt. 

     SO WHAT, IF ANYTHING, CAN we do to re-ignite our brains? How do we keep them bright and functioning and ready to react at life’s most important moments?
     For one thing, there’s a computer program called Posit Science, a brain-enhancing course for older adults, developed by numerous professors at the University of California San Francisco, at San Diego State University, and at the University of California San Diego. The program was evaluated and tested by MDs and PhDs at universities like Yale, Johns Hopkins, USC, and MIT.   
     Because the course was considered an experimental study, and thus offered free at the college where I teach, Rob and I decided to participate. As it turned out, the hours we spent there were so engaging and stimulating that we both took it twice.
     The time commitment was huge—a total of 90 hours—which translated into four days a week for two-and-a-half hours each day, all in a ten-week session.   
     Posit Science is a memory-and-hearing course that works through stimulation of the auditory cortex. The designers believe that the memory, the whole brain in fact, of anyone who completes the study will end up being ten years younger—a benefit that does not disappear with time.
     Ten years younger! Who wouldn’t sit in a chair for a year to end up with a memory on steroids.   
     Everything depends on the student working in front of a computer screen for the requisite hours and listening hard as he reacts to information that comes to him through headphones. 
     If the following proves to be Too Much Information, feel free to skip it and go to the conclusion.
     Among the six exercises (fifteen minutes each), is the one called High-Low, where you decide whether a succession of little bird-like chirps go up or down. With time they’re played ever faster, making them harder to distinguish.
     Then there is Story Teller, which is exactly that--a goofy story told quickly and in various voices, with the listener striving to recall minor details. The people with good memories love it.   
     In the exercise labeled Match It, the listener tries to  remember and pair together--then eliminate--matching sounds hidden under a grid . . . made easier if you develop sneaky little systems. (Which I did.) As you work, the grid gets ever smaller, turning the end into a real “Ah ha!”        
     Tell us Apart means distinguishing words, like “doe” and “toe,” that sound nearly alike, but aren’t. At first you think your hearing is marvelously acute and this exercise is dead easy. But as the semester progresses the computer-enhanced voice slurs the words so badly you’d swear the designers of the exercise are cheating. There IS no difference, you decide, and what can you do but guess? And it’s a pain to guess wrong. Nobody likes this one much.   
     Sound Replay requires the listener to repeat back a series of sound-alike words—in the same order they were presented. Some of us couldn’t remember anything past four-in-a-row.    
     Finally, Listen and Do means following an ever-longer set of instructions to move little people, like doctors and postmen, around on the screen. You send them from the gift store to the barbershop, to the library, to the ice cream parlor. Rob and I both loved this one.
     Altogether, it’s very hard work, and while some exercises are less enjoyable than others, none are boring, and the time literally evaporates.
     The changes in our fellow students were miraculous. Shy seniors became bolder, people slept better, some claimed they drove with keener attention to the road, many reported they were less apt to lose their keys, more inclined to remember why they went to another room in the house.
     Rob and I both felt energized, re-vitalized, if nothing else. We loved both the course and our teacher, and found ourselves pushing other distractions out of the way. We’re both so competitive, neither of us wanted to miss a day. Yet the competition was never against anyone else, it was only us competing with ourselves.
     On the way home we always compared notes. “I didn’t miss a thing in Story Telling,” he said.
     “And I was a whiz at Match It.”
     “But how about Sound Replay? I couldn’t tell one word from another. “Gee” versus “Kee.” Give me a break.”
     “And today I couldn’t remember more than four of those sound-alike words in a row. When we got up to five, I was  dead. Dig. Bib. Pig. Fig. Rib. I couldn’t make a story out of it, like the pig is digging with the rib, so I stopped caring.”  
     The designers of Posit Science included lessons about other ways to keep older brains young, leaving us with a paper titled, USE IT SO YOU DON’T LOSE IT.
     Here, developed by neuroscientists (and stolen--then paraphrased--by me) are their key points:
     Choose activities that A. Are challenging. B. Teach you something new. C. Get Progressively Harder. D. “Engage your Great Brain Processing Systems”—hearing, seeing, and feeling. E. Are Rewarding. F. Are Novel or Surprising.
     Among the activities they suggest are: learning to cha  cha, improving your Spanish, taking up juggling . . .  all pursuits, they claim, that challenge the brain and get progressively harder.   
     Our teacher, much-liked Lynda Gunderson, also suggested that we try brushing our teeth with the left--or minor--hand (I still do it.). . . that we choose ever more challenging crossword puzzles . . . that we try memorizing the names of all the people in a new group. To demonstrate, on the second day she amazed us by calling out the first names of all twenty-seven students in our class.     
     More than once Lynda noted that we could google “Brain Games” and find other brain-challenging programs on the Internet. With a smile she added, “I’ve played quite a few of them. They’re always fun. And some are free.” 
     My own suggestion: that we make it a point to listen. And listen intently. Like the two husbands mentioned here—like me, of course—right in the middle of something, our attention drifts off. And there goes the old recall.     
     Near the end of the first brain class I tried an experiment. The next time I gave a writing seminar at Leisure World, I forced myself to pay close attention and remember every name around the table—seventeen names in all.
     Somehow I did it. (But God help me if any of them had moved.)

     AND NOW THE CAPPER to our story. During our sessions in the two brain classes, Rob and I met and became friendly with a number of new people, some of whom I encouraged to join my writing class.
     The following semester, on another floor of the school, a new student came up to talk to me. Darn, you look familiar, I thought, though I had no idea where I’d last seen her.
     “I’m Barbara,” she said.
     “You know, Barbara Simmons.”
     I’d never heard of a Barbara Simmons—as she knew all too well from the strained expression on my face.
     “You know,” she prodded. “Barbara Simmons. From the brain class.”
     “Oh. BARBARA! Of course!  How could I forget?” (Actually, I’d never heard her last name.) “Barbara! How nice that you’re here.”
     After she sat down, I thought my students might be amused by the story—how I’d managed to forget where I knew this new student from one of my brain classes.
     My students were amused, all right.
     And then, from the back of the room, Barbara piped up and said casually, “Actually, I was in both your brain classes.” 
     It was ten minutes before my students stopped laughing.

Monday, February 3, 2014

SO YOU'RE SEVENTY . . . SO WHAT? How to Love the Years You Thought You'd Hate



Balance and Tripping

     THIS MAY SEEM WILD, crazy, and a big fat lie, but for many of us the years from seventy to eighty are one of the best decades of our lives.
     We don’t catch many colds (our immune systems have already met most of the available bugs), we don’t seem to need much food (and younger relatives keep inviting us to dinner), we’ve learned not to take off-handed comments personally, and senior discounts seem to pop up everywhere.
     But there’s more. If we’re still married, we’ve figured out that marital fights are mostly a waste of energy. Even brief separations can make us wives feel like teenagers, ridiculously thrilled to see that wonderful old guy once again. Hey, who’s the handsome, gray-haired fellow in the chair, looking up with a grin as you come in the door?
     Appreciation for each other becomes a palpable ingredient in a long marriage.

     AS LONG AS YOU FEEL good, what’s not to like about seventy?
     As a normal part of every age, though, keeping a grip on happiness takes effort. For instance, there’s the issue of balance and tripping.
     Unless you’re watching an astronaut preparing for the moon, there are better things to think about than what becomes of a body flying through space.
     That is, until the body is yours.
     For some of us, catching a toe on the ottoman and sailing away like a stretched rubber band, is an everyday possibility.
     One of my very dear friends was plagued, in her late seventies, by frequent falls. Each one was a physical set back . . . and some later became calamities.
     Though Barbara was a gifted artist and a mental giant—as sharp as any college professor—her body betrayed her and she kept stumbling over normal, everyday objects, like garden furniture and sidewalk curbs.
     None of those falls did her any good, and some were followed by trips to the hospital, where a few days in bed only made her legs more wobbly.

     FRANKLY, I’D NEVER THOUGHT much about balance—mostly because it had never been a problem. Until something bugs you, why worry about fixing it?
     And then one day I had the craziest accident.
     I’d gone out the front door to retrieve some theater tickets off the porch. Bending over has never been a challenge. But as I started to straighten, the inexplicable happened. I couldn’t get my feet under me.
     Whether it was my new, extra-fat tennis shoes or a simple loss of balance, I’ll never know. I was only aware that I found myself lurching, pedaling, flailing, slap-stepping in my bloated tennis shoes, trying to regain my feet. And somehow not managing to do it.
     Instead, all that fancy foot work launched me off the porch and out over our two front steps. Literally out into space.
     I was airborne long enough to realize there was no soft landing in sight, that cement was everywhere and I would inevitably hit our inlaid-stone walkway. Horrified as I sailed, I came down from an exaggerated altitude and smacked hard onto the stones.
     For seconds I lay sprawled, unable to move. It hurt to breathe. But I was alive. I was conscious. And I hadn’t hit my head.
     I could see my right wrist was torn up, and God knows what else.
     From my ungainly splat on the walkway, I yelled through the still-open front door, trying to attract my husband.
     He didn’t seem to hear. Which was nothing new.
     Struggling to sit up, I could see him across the family room, calmly watching television.
     “Rob!” I screamed. “Rob! Help!”
     He paid no attention, seemed riveted to the TV.
     “Rob!” I screamed even louder, “Rob! Rob! Rob! Help!”
     Some part of me wondered how, for an injured person, I’d managed to yell so loud.
     At last he stirred, as though awakening from a dream.
    “Babe?” He leaned forward. “What’s going on?”
     “Help me!”
     “What?” He pulled himself to his feet, ambled out to the porch. “What happened? What are you doing down there?”
     Taking a nap. “I fell.” A shallow, painful breath. “Off the porch.” Another breath. “I’ve been yelling.” 
     “Jesus, that was you? I thought it was the television. They were showing the Challenger coming apart. People were screaming on TV.” 
      He now stood over me, baffled. “I finally realized it wasn’t all television—it was you. Where are you hurt?”
     “I don’t know. Everywhere.”
     He reached down a hand. “Can you get up? If I help?”
     “I’m not sure I can lift you, Babe. You’d be a dead weight.” He thought a moment. “I’ll call Chris. Maybe he’s home.” He looked down at me again. “Good God, look at your wrist.”
     “I know. It’s a mess. I’m probably a mess in other places.”
     “I’ll go call.”
     Chris was our son, an orthopedic surgeon who lived half a mile away. Rob disappeared and was back in minutes.
     “He just got home, Babe. He’ll be right down.”
     I nodded, instantly relieved. I was alive. And Chris was coming. For the moment nothing else mattered.

     CHRIS IS ONE OF those doctors who makes you feel better simply by showing up. That goes for his wife, too. 
     They arrived together, Betty-Jo with a warm look of sympathy, Chris with his usual aura of concern, almost a smile. The smile, or near smile, is reserved for non-emergencies. I was breathing, talking, clearly not a life or death case.
     Chris looked me over, felt my ribs.
     “Ouch! Ouch!”
     “May be broken. We have to get you up.” He turned to his dad. “Still got that walker—the one with a seat?”
     Rob said he did, and minutes later, Betty-Jo, Chris, and Rob eased me up onto the seat and pulled me up the two steps and into the family room. I explained what had happened.
     With a gentle touch, Chris once more probed and prodded my ribs. “Well, Mom,” he said cheerfully,   “they’re probably broken, but even if they are, it won’t make any difference. We don’t do anything. Just let them heal on their own.” He grinned. “Don’t try to lift any pianos.”
     “I’ll make it a point.”
     “For awhile it’ll hurt to breathe. Take a few painkillers.” He examined my torn-up wrist. “Here, we’ll clean this. Anyplace else?”
     I pointed to my well-scraped ankle.
     “Okay. We’ll take care of that too. You got off lucky, you know. All your other bones are intact. From now on you might also try to avoid the front porch.” 

     THE REPERCUSSIONS WENT ON for a few weeks. X-rays showed I was even luckier than Chris imagined: no ribs were cracked. But then my son has often remarked on our family’s inherited sturdiness. “You and I, Mom, have the bones of a dinosaur. Hopefully we’ve got a better future.”    
     The second thing I did was send back those extra-fat tennis shoes.
     Eventually Chris suggested that Rob and I go to rehab for balance training. For a month the two of us played balance games: Walked on uneven surfaces. Threw a ball back and forth as we strolled. Balanced on one leg. Strengthened our legs on a resistance bicycle. 
     It all helped. But then our allotted Medicare visits termed out. So I tackled the balance issue another way.
     On my own, each day I stood near a table I could grab onto and practiced standing one-legged, first on one side, then the other, always for a count of 50.
     Eventually this quick-and-easy trick paid off. I seemed to recover from momentary stumbles. To my astonishment, I was finally able to put on my trousers any old place, any old time, without sitting down.
     I doubt that putting-on-one’s-pants will ever qualify as an Olympic event . . . meaning there’s no gold medal in my future. But hey, I’m now dressing the way I did at age forty. If that isn’t some kind of victory, I don’t know what is.

     FOR SEVENTY-PLUSERS THE balance issue is huge. But then so is the matter of tripping.
     A few years ago I learned a painful lesson about leaving big things in bad places—like the mid-day when I dropped off a box of books in the service porch, and how I came home after dark and didn’t see it, and did a half-gainer right into our extra freezer. Luckily, it wasn’t open. 
     There’s a rule in our house: never leave anything in your normal pathways. Push everything off to the sides, to places where you don’t walk.
     A temporary solution for stuff you should put away--but organized clutter is better than an unexpected journey to the emergency room.
     There’s a mantra going here: anything you can do to stay on your feet, to remain upright by choice is definitely worth the effort.