The Octogenarian: 7. Grocery Shopping

It was one of the high points of every week for him, driving into the village to go grocery shopping. Since he could have had all of his meals prepared by The Community, it gave him a feeling of being independent and it fit his self-image as one who bucked the system. He liked that feeling. And, then, of course, there was the simple fact that because they had opted out of the full meal plan, he needed to shop each week to keep himself and Sally fed. What’s more, he liked being in the supermarket and he liked walking the aisles, thinking about what he would cook that week, getting ideas, looking for the freshest produce and unblemished fruit. 

He enjoyed being there so much, in fact, that he had taken to walking up and down all the aisles—even those where he would never buy anything, like the baby foods section—just to prolong his stay.

Perhaps his biggest reason—and one he would never admit—was that it sent him down memory lane every time he went. So many thoughts, so many memories, so easily triggered by something as mundane as the label on a can of diced tomatoes.

He was old enough to remember when you didn’t buy milk at the grocery store at all, when it was delivered in glass bottles by the milkman. (That would be the same milkman that appeared as a central character in the first dirty jokes he heard in the schoolyard.) That was back when milk helped build strong bones and was good for you and came from cows. What a far cry from now when milk’s fat content, antibiotics and pesticide traces could contribute to a slow death. And definitely not like now when all the milk that was safe to drink came from plants.

He enjoyed reminiscing about the days when milk tasted so much better with Nestle’s instant chocolate. He had learned how to make it from the television commercial with Jimmy Nelson, Danny O’Day and Farfel. He and his sisters  would sing the jingle together: N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle’s makes the very best…choooooocolate! He could still hear Farfel’s mouth slamming shut at the end.

Oh, the power of early television advertising! He didn’t like Good ‘N Plenty, but he wanted to buy it just so he could shake the box like Choo Choo Charlie. He was no fan of  Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, either, but he ached to smack it and crack it.

As a child, he hadn’t been allowed to go to the supermarket with his parents because they needed all the room in the station wagon with the seats down to carry the groceries home. They clipped coupons from the newspaper and drove from one supermarket to the next to take advantage of the different weekly discounts. They bought extra when there was a big sale on ice cream or meat and kept it in the freezer that they bought just for that purpose. The idea of having a freezer was pretty radical at the time. His father told them that it was a good deal because it would pay for itself in a year, what with all the money they saved on food.

Wonder Bread helped build strong bodies in 12 ways, but his parents bought the store brand because it was cheaper.

He got to help carry the bags in (brown paper bags that would be folded and saved, to be used as covers for school books, if nothing else), but he wasn’t allowed to put things away. There was a special system that his parents had and he would only mess things up. But the anticipation from seeing all those bags full of goodies covering the kitchen counter and table ranked right up there with the first night of Chanukah.

He was old enough to remember when grocery stores became supermarkets by adding another eight aisles of non-food items. At that point, you could get almost anything you needed right there in that one store. It was the 8th wonder of the world long before Amazon was a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye.

He wasn’t so old that he remembered the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company stores. They were already being called  ‘A&P’ by the time he came along. But he did witness the birth of Pathmark Supermarkets and even owned stock at one point. 

He was old enough to have been caught up in the Swanson TV Dinner craze. He remembered the little folding tray tables that you would set them on in front of the couch in the den where the television was. He liked the ham but hated the peas and carrots. Lean Cuisine and Hungry Man long ago replaced Swanson.

Some of his old favorites were still around. You could still get Yodels and Twinkies, but neither had passed his lips in three generations.

He recalled buying freshly-baked lemon meringue pies as a special treat for his first wife. She was the one who taught him how to eat an artichoke without killing himself and how to soak the steamed hearts in butter. Funny…he couldn’t recall the last time he saw a fresh artichoke in the market.

Sally loved a nice baked potato and so he’d buy them individually wrapped in plastic. They were microwaveable in just 8 minutes. He’d only buy one or two at a time to make sure that they didn’t sprout before he got around to serving them. What a far cry from the twenty-pound bags his parents used to haul home and store in a dark stairwell behind the kitchen!

Standing in the middle of the cereal aisle, he chuckled to himself as he ran through the inventory of all the products that had been his favorites, on and off, over the years: Cheerios, Honey-Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Special K, Meuslix and Kashi (but not Wheaties or Grape Nuts), Maypo, Farina, Cream of Wheat, and Quaker Oats (but not Wheatina). Hell, as long as he was making a list, we might as well include Pablum! 

He had never been a fan of the hyper-sweet Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch, Froot Loops or Count Chocula. For nearly 17 years now, he had rejected supermarket cereals altogether in favor of his own homemade granola.

Surveying the sea of brightly colored boxes that stretched out on either side of him, he wondered if civilization really needed this many cereals. Ignoring the evidence of his own mercurial tastes, he concluded probably not. Besides, 5 rows of boxes stretching down a 55-foot aisle made it really difficult for him to find the small box (not family size) of Kellogg’s (not Post’s) original (not extra crunchy) Raisin Bran for Sally. 

In stark contrast, going down the pet aisle made him sad. Week after week, month after month, it never seemed to get any better. Why was it that seeing Alpo, Purina and Pedigree products reminded him of the pain of losing all the pets he had loved with all his heart and soul over the course of his entire life? Why didn’t they remind him of the good times? 

He was old enough to remember when the supermarket used to be crowded in the morning. Now, you didn’t see anyone under 45. They all shopped on their phones with an enhanced AI app that knew when they were low on staples, placed the order, and arranged for delivery when they would be home. No walking aisles for them, no sir. No memories, either. And that was sad.

As a result of the child-bearing demographic staying home, there were no kids or toddlers in the stores, either. Alex liked that. He didn’t miss the tantrums thrown by the little imps when their parents refused them something. Good riddance!

This was also probably why the latest generation of shopping carts that had bar code scanners didn’t have the basket near the handle with leg holes where mothers could place their wee ones to keep them out of trouble. And, no, he didn’t remember if he had ever ridden in a kiddie seat like that.

There weren’t many people around his age there, either, mostly because they had given up driving which, in most cases, had been the wise thing to do. The majority of the older folks who were there were the ones who had never been able to master the technology that would allow them to shop from home. They tended to bag slowly and methodically, using a carefully designed system that would facilitate the transfer from bags to refrigerator and pantry once they got home. He prayed each week that he wouldn’t get stuck behind one of them in the lone check-out lane that still had a human cashier in charge. It’s not that he was on any kind of schedule or had to be somewhere, he had just become more impatient recently. He didn’t know why, but he was aware it was happening.

He assumed that his days of grocery shopping were numbered. He knew that at some point he would have to give up driving. He knew that at some point, he would become as slow-moving as his peers, and he didn’t want to inconvenience other people in that way. He knew that at some point, he wouldn’t be able to lift the bags and negotiate the transfer from car to pull-cart to kitchen counter top.

These are the kinds of things that Alex thought about as he perambulated down the supermarket aisles every Wednesday morning. It never got old. He knew it wouldn’t last forever and that sooner or later these weekly outings, too, would just be a fond remembrance. Sooner more likely than later. Until that time, though, he would enjoy his weekly strolls down memory lane and the feelings of accomplishment that welled up inside him from knowing that he was still an independent octogenarian.


The Octogenarian: 6. The Community

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear right from the start. ‘The Community’ is not the same thing as ‘The Home.’

‘The Home’ was a fictionalized fancy that their friends had created as a caricature of what life would be like, years down the line, when they were all doddering nonagenarians, loosing their faculties, in need of assistance with their activities of daily living. Whenever someone misinterpreted someone else or made a flagrant error that left everyone in stitches, the inevitable cry went up, “This is what it will be like in The Home!”

Although the Memory Unit was a locked wing for those whose dementia was further advanced and could have served as the template for their image of The Home, The Community was not the same thing as The Home.

No, The Community was a real place and a reasonable option for older folks desirous of finishing out their days in comfort. 

It was Sally who first suggested they move there from the apartment building which had become their home when they downsized upon turning 70. They first applied for admission 15 years ago and finally made the move just 5 years ago.

They had loved their old place with its convenient location, ridiculously high ceilings, indoor parking, manicured grounds, outdoor pool and, most of all, residents of all ages, even though they rarely interacted with any of them. 

The decor of the apartment was a little quirky…no…make that borderline bizarre…what with the kites they suspended from those too-high ceilings with transparent fishing line, the bathroom shower curtain of a Renoir painting that they hung on the wall in the living room, and the half dozen solar powered revolving crystals on the floor-to-ceiling windows that sent rainbows twirling about their heads until noon on cloudless days. 

As much fun as they had there, they knew even before they moved in that it wouldn’t be their final destination. As wonderful as it was not having to shovel snow or deal with a leaky roof or climb a flight of stairs to go to bed, they realized that at some point, they would appreciate being somewhere that provided even more support, like meal preparation, heavy cleaning of their living quarters, and shuttle service to the nearby mall and cultural events. They also knew that they needed to make preparations for when their physical and mental capacities dwindled even further, necessitating their move into assisted living and, ultimately, the real-life version of The Home. And they needed to make sure that the one who survived the other would be ok.

The Community, in addition to its 256 accessible and trip-proof living units, had every amenity imaginable gracing its 87 acres: 2 heated indoor pools (one for water aerobics), miles and miles of manicured walking trails, a pond stocked with both trout and koi with a fantastic fountain that pulsed along with the sounds of classical favorites along with full-orchestra covers of hits from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s emanating from hidden surround-sound speakers, weekly maid service, two nice restaurants, a clubhouse with meeting rooms that hosted gatherings of enthusiasts of every interest imaginable, a larger auditorium for concerts, movie screenings and guest lecturers, golf cart stations scattered around campus where you could borrow and drop off a cart when you didn’t feel like walking, a local shuttle to the supermarket and other nearby attractions, its own security system with computerized wristbands for every resident that alerted the on-site medical staff if someone had fallen or was in the midst of a medical emergency, and more. Much much more.

It was utopian. Optimists saw it as the perfect place to enjoy their later years. Pessimists saw it as the place where people who could afford it went to die.

Alex was somewhere in the middle. He had never trusted utopias. Something always bad happened with them, or there was some dirty little secret that turned their heaven-on-earth into hell-on-wheels. Think about it. As believers will tell you, right from the beginning, Eden had its snake. There were any number of examples from literature to the movies that delivered the same message about perfect places: Shangri-la, Brigadoon, Xanadu, Westworld, The Stepford Wives, The Prisoner, The Truman Show, Wall-E, and Pleasantville, to name a few. So Alex figured The Community had its dirty little secret, too, but he hadn’t yet figured out what it was.

For him, the inevitable transitions from independent living to assisted living to memory care were how he would mark the stages of a slow death. He knew that by accepting the perks of each stage, he would be ushering in a shrinking world, inhabiting a lesser world than the one he had enjoyed just a decade ago. Far from the limitless horizons of his youth, his world was in the process of closing in on him, inexorably, until both he and it would disappear. It’s as if he were being sucked into his own personal black hole.

He was 87 but had yet to accept the fact that he was old. Whenever he attended an SRO concert in the auditorium, he would look around and wonder what he was doing there with all those old people.  He knew that he wouldn’t forgive himself if he ever admitted that he was one of them. Clearly, his once-vanquished outsider spirit was burning brightly once more.

He didn’t mention any of this to Sally, or anyone else, for that matter. He covered himself pretty well. If you watched him going through his daily routine, you’d never guess he harbored any misgivings about the place. He met people, he made friends, he played his recorder in a baroque ensemble and watched University of Connecticut women’s basketball games on tv with the UConn Club.

It would take the all-seeing eye of a Hercule Poirot to recognize the signs of his resistance. For one, he continued to cook dinners three nights a week even though dining at either of the restaurants was included in the package they had purchased.

For the first 3½ years they were there, he avoided the manicured trails and instead jogged through real woods in a nearby park where the dirt paths threw tree roots and stones and wet leaves at him. His risk of falling was high and, to make matters worse, his emergency wristband was of no use to him there, but he didn’t care. Instead of being anxious, he thrilled to the rush of independence he felt every time he went.  

And although he would deny it if you asked him, his name change wasn’t just for shits and giggles or to shed the baggage of a name that he had never embraced. In some small way, it made him, Wayne, feel less visible to the powers that controlled The Community. It made him feel more like an undercover agent and less susceptible to their manipulations.

Although Alex couldn’t quite yet put his finger on it, there was something about The Community that was not just fine with him. 


The Octogenarian: 5. Jogging

You heard right. He was still jogging. At 87.

How could that possibly be? 

He had been running on and off since he was a freshman in high school. He liked the way he was tired after a workout. He liked the sense of accomplishment when he was able to run faster than the week before. He liked running at night when it felt like he was running a lot faster than he really was.

In his early 70s, he spent time researching brain health and dementia. On that quest, he discovered that running helped protect your brain and significantly reduced your chances of dementing. Fear of dementia was a strong motivator, so he re-committed himself to keeping his body in motion.

Achieving that goal, though, wasn’t all that easy. When he was 50, he had challenged himself to be able to run 2 miles when he was 80. No special reason for the distance or the age. Like a lot of things he did, it just seemed to make sense at the time.

He was sailing along until he got COVID. The after-effects included feeling weak and having a diminished lung capacity. Jogging wasn’t so much fun then. It was a real challenge just to complete one loop of the trail around the nearby park. His heart pounded violently just to keep him moving when he came to a hill. He started to worry about overdoing it. He thought about the irony of working so long and hard to protect his brain only to have his heart crap out on him.

You thought about things like that when you were in your 70s.

And that was just about the time when the good chemists at Eli Lilly announced their breakthrough.

Lilly had missed the boat on COVID vaccines and treatments, but their related research into helping patients who had breathing problems had finally paid off in a big way. They came out with a time-released oxygen pill that by-passed your lungs altogether. It was intended for hospitalized COVID patients and those with sleep apnea and asthma. One 100mg dose raised your O2 level up into a healthy range for 8 hours.

Sales took off, though, when the athletes found out about it. Talk about a performance enhancing substance! And one with no known side effects, to boot.

Alex was skeptical when he first heard about it. Skepticism, in fact, was his first reaction to most new things. He was definitely not an early adopter and he absolutely detested fads.

So he waited until he could find no more excuses not to try it. That first dose changed his life! He ran like the wind (or so he felt). The drudge, the slog, the fear were gone, replaced by the simple joy of running.

As long as he was making changes, he added one more element to his routine: he took 2 Advil along with his oxygen pill. He had learned about this trick from friends who had broken bones when they fell and used the analgesic to make their physical therapy sessions bearable. He figured that pain was pain and he didn’t need to break something before he could try it, so he did.

The combination was like a fountain of youth. When he ran now, he didn’t feel a day over 75. Life was good!

But what, exactly, does it mean to jog at 87? It’s definitely nothing like running at 17 when you can go forever with long, loping strides and recover in minutes instead of hours. It’s nothing like the confident striding of middle age when you can strut a little bit because you’re still healthy enough to do it and your friends have all given up and turned to golf. It’s not even anything like the clipped staccato of your 70s when you shortened your stride to keep from falling.

He worked out every other day instead of every day to give his body a fair chance to restore itself. Nonetheless, each workout took the starch out of him and he was worthless for the rest of the day unless he took a nap after cooling down and re-hydrating.

No…what he was doing was a different animal altogether. In fact, it required a little poetic license and suspension of disbelief to call it jogging at all. Technically, it met the dictionary definition of jogging, and that was good enough for Alex.

He knew he wasn’t walking because there was only one foot on the ground at any time. But just barely. And his arms weren’t dangling by his sides. He pumped them vigorously (or at least what felt to him like vigorously). He made a point of raising his knees, but that was to protect against falls, not in pursuit of good running form. His stride was measured in inches, not feet.

He was in constant motion…but going nowhere fast. His pace was only a little bit quicker than what was considered normal for walking. 

Bottom line: he was maintaining a really good illusion of jogging…and he was ok with that.

Regrettably, the hills now bested him. In his earlier days, a hill was an opportunity to challenge yourself. Keep your head down, look a few feet ahead and not up at the top, shorten your stride, pump your arms…and don’t stop until you feel the terrain level off. That’s how you conquered hills. He used to own every hill he encountered, but now they were his nemesis and, even with his O2 pill working full blast, they were winning every contest.

He had placed 3 arch supports in his running shoes. They helped him keep his balance, avoid falls and take some of the pressure off of his knees. His running shorts had no corporate logo on them; they were just plain black and hung mid-thigh, albeit more than a bit on the baggy side. His tee shirt was uneventful. He wouldn’t be caught dead in a ‘World’s Greatest Grandpa’ shirt and wasn’t inclined to advertise anybody’s product. On his own, he just would have worn a plain gray tee, but Sally said it was boring, so he bought some brightly-colored solid tees and wore them. But he stuck with his gray wrist and head bands.

He wasn’t all that tall and he didn’t weigh all that much, yet he still sported a little paunch around his midsection. His legs had never been muscular, but now they were downright spindly. The skin on the backs of his hands was thin and papery and the network of veins beneath showed prominently. He noticed them when he was pumping his arms especially high to climb a hill.

Although he had escaped male pattern baldness (which should have been his hereditary destiny), his hairline had been receding for decades. His bare forehead now extended 3 inches above his headband. He combed his thinning hair straight back so that when you looked directly at him, it formed a kind of halo close to his head. He liked that. It didn’t quite cover the bald spot at the top of his head, but he couldn’t see it, so he didn’t care.

Apparently, the disappearing hair had migrated to his ears and nose. Sally was fastidious in attending to them, but like weeds in a big garden, there was no keeping up with it.

He kept his beard fairly short and trimmed his eyebrows whenever he shaved. They, too, had gone rogue in recent years. His hair, no matter where it appeared, had seen the end of its salt-and-pepper days and was now working its way through its gray en route to white phase.

But his eyes hadn’t changed. They still smiled…just with a few more crow’s feet in the corners and a few more wrinkles above in his forehead. If you didn’t notice his neck, you’d think he was younger than he was.

Part elf, part leprechaun, part hobbit, he cut quite a figure as he ran on the trails in The Community. All the walkers recognized him and said hello or waved when he passed by. For the younger residents, he was a role model. For the older ones, he was a reminder of days gone by. As for himself, well, he was just happy as shit to be out there!


The Octogenarian: 4. Sally

Sally was incredulous the first time she heard about it.


“Really? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?”

She had a point. She usually did have a point when he came up with some hare-brained idea. At the very least, he should have discussed it with her before deciding to re-christen himself (not that he had ever been christened the first time around, of course). His usual fall-back that it seemed like a good idea at the time was starting to wear thin. No, that’s not accurate. That excuse wasn’t starting to wear thin…it was already threadbare.

“What am I supposed to call you when we’re out with friends. No way I’m calling you “Alex.” No freakin’ way!”

“Well, maybe you could just avoid calling me anything…use pronouns…point to me…refer to me as your husband. I don’t know…be creative.”

“And what if I don’t want to be creative? I’ve been calling you “Wayne” for 70 years and I’m not about to change that now. End of conversation.” And with that, she walked out the door, leaving Wa—her husband—to figure out his next move.

To be absolutely non-partisan about this, I feel obligated to point out that she hadn’t actually been calling him “Wayne” for 70 years. It’s true that they had first met when he was 17, so 70 years had, indeed, elapsed since then. But there was a gap of 41 years from the time they stopped seeing each other to when they re-connected following the death of his first wife. It’s not known whether or not she ever mentioned him during those gap years which overlapped with the years of her own marriage. There’s some evidence that she thought about him on occasion during that period (as did he her), but thinking about someone isn’t the same as calling them by their name, is it?

What is incontestable, however, is that she had been calling him “Wayne” for the past 26 years, so her point was still a valid one.

How’s that for fair and balanced reporting?

This wasn’t the first time he had done something that resided on the bizarre side of normal. She had somehow managed to make the needed adjustments on each of those prior occasions. Sometimes it took her a little time, but she eventually found her path, ultimately reaching acceptance and forgiveness…

…except for when he broke up with her for no good reason at the end of his senior year in high school. Her hurt and anger knew no bounds. In fact, it was one of the first topics on her agenda when they started to date again after their 41-year separation. They re-played that scene a dozen times trying to find a suitable home for it in their respective memories, and to understand it in a way that would allow their new relationship to move forward. Sally got to acceptance, if not forgiveness, and that was good enough to let them get married four years later. That was 22 years ago.

(Amazing to think that the night he broke up with her was 70 years ago. 70 years! Yet, in his mind’s eye, she still looked to him like that girl of 17.)

If he had been religious, he would have considered himself blessed to have her in his life. As an atheist, though, he considered himself fortunate and extremely lucky. How many other women in the universe would put up with him? He was convinced it must be an extremely small set and that Sally was probably the only one among them who spoke English.  

He worried about her. More precisely, he worried about losing her. Her body had started mistreating her when she was only 19, but she fought back, refusing to let it limit her. With each passing decade, various organs and systems crapped out on her, yet with each setback, she found a way to overcome the new physical challenges and continue to live a full and active life.

She had every right to be callous, cynical, resentful and angry. Instead, she had forged a path to empathy, caring, and gratitude. She could have been all clouds, but instead she was all rainbows. He figured that her ability to do that must have been innate. He imagined she was born smiling. In her 80s, he considered her a walking miracle…which was cause for him to be grateful.

His biggest complaint about her was that she celebrated too heartily the fact that she was younger than he was. Her eating with her fingers didn’t bother him all that much, nor did her refusal to acknowledge her pain when she was hurting, nor her sacrificing to help others, even at her own expense. But the age thing got to him. Does anyone really believe that a 101-day difference in the ages of a married couple is really meaningful or relevant by the time they reach 87? But for three months and ten days out of each year, she took every opportunity that came along to jump in that puddle and splash him with the fact that she was the younger of the two. For reasons unknown to him, it bugged the hell out of him. Yet at the same time, he loved the fact that she was still, in many ways, a little girl who got a kick out of splashing in puddles.

He knew she would find a way to live with Alex. 

And she did. 

And he loved her for it.


The Octogenarian: 3. The Outsider

Have I told you that his name was Wayne? No? Sorry about that. His name was Wayne. Or Alex. Depending on who you asked.

From the time he could first pronounce it, he didn’t like the name ‘Wayne.’ It didn’t sound right. From the time he could write it, he didn’t like the way it looked, with its two letters from the end of the alphabet and that silent ‘e’ at the end.

When he got to school, he realized he was the only one with that name. Lots of boys in his generation were named Jim, Tom, Jerry, Brian and the various forms of Richard, but he was the only Wayne. It didn’t make him feel special or unique. It only made him feel different, like an outsider. And that was before they started teasing him with ‘Wayne the Pain.’

Perhaps that was the very beginning of the outsider complex that he nurtured for the next thirty years. He was one of only 3 Jews in his class. He had dark wavy hair and a typical Jewish nose while his classmates were mostly blond Protestants with little pug noses and straight hair.

At Brown, he was a public school graduate while all the guys who seemed most at home there had gone to private schools. At his first job after graduation, in Newark, NJ, he was a white guy working in a Black administration. Everyone else on the staff had arrived with the mayor when he was first elected in 1970 while Wayne hadn’t shown up until two years later.

When he moved to rural, conservative Pennsylvania, he was a liberal newcomer from the city in a tiny farming village that measured change in generations, not years. That’s pretty much the definition of an outsider, isn’t it? He could hear them thinking ‘You’re not from around here’ even though they never said it out loud.

In graduate school, there was an assignment in his Family Systems class that required him to draw a picture of his family. He stared at a blank sheet for a long time before he could put pencil to paper. Bereft of any artistic talent, he drew stick figures. He placed himself in the lower left-hand corner of the page looking towards his family which was assembled in the center. Clearly, he felt himself an outsider even within his own family. Although that drawing was cause for considerable concern among several members of the faculty, he managed to ace the course and they granted him his Ph.D. anyway.

It didn’t matter where he went or how successful he was, in his eyes, he was an outsider, first, foremost, and forever.

Take a moment to imagine what it must have been like going through life feeling like you didn’t belong, no matter where that was and no matter who you were with, and you couldn’t fix it by going somewhere else.

In the early 90s, he tried to write a novel. The protagonist was an Englishman with a university education in an esoteric major that had left him to a great extent unemployable, who had moved to America because that is where his wife lived. You can guess the theme: an outsider’s attempt to fit into his new environment. Spoiler alert: he never made it. Surprised?

He was discussing his draft one night with friends who were visiting from the city and he opened up to them about his lifelong feelings of not belonging.

They were shocked because, from their perspective, he had been the ultimate insider in city government. 

Now it was his turn to be shocked! Was that even possible? They were both pretty high-ranking figures in the New Jersey arts community and he respected them both.  He had no reason to doubt them. He knew they weren’t just blowing smoke up his ass.

He thought long and hard about what they had said. He finally realized he had always focused on one aspect of his situation that separated him from others while ignoring all the commonalities. It hadn’t kept him from achieving his goals, but it had certainly sucked some of the joy out of it.

So he made a resolution never to do that again. From then on, he was going to walk into every room like he owned it. He would focus on the ties that bound him to others, not the forces that separated him.

And it worked.

Nonetheless, converting himself into a professional insider didn’t prevent him, 47 years later when he moved into The Community, from telling people there that he wanted them to call him ‘Alex.’ Oh, he didn’t deny that his name was really ‘Wayne.’ But he did inform them that as a child he was obsessed with Alexander the Great and so his older brother started calling him ‘Alex’ and it stuck. So he asked his new acquaintances to call him that as well. And they did.

It was a fine story except for two things: (1) he had never had any interest in Alexander the Great and (2) he didn’t have an older brother. But as they say on the playground, no blood no foul.

Interestingly, he noticed he stood a little taller and his steps were a little more purposeful and he was a little more steadfast as Alex than he ever had been as Wayne.

And his newfound confidence was justified. After all, who would you rather have a beer with? An 87-year old guy named Alex or one named Wayne?

Why, he wondered, hadn’t he done this decades ago?


The Octogenarian: 2. Religion

For a while now he had been spending time each weekend attending religious services. He sat with the Jews on Friday nights and the Protestants on Sunday mornings. Don’t ask him which Protestant sect it was as he could never keep them straight in his head.

In fact, he wasn’t at all religious. Although born a Jew, he was now—and had been for a long time—an atheist. He had been a believer in his childhood, but before his bar mitzvah, at a time when he was already having doubts about religion, he read a book that described The God Paradox:

Student: Can God do anything?

Rabbi: Of course He can.

Student: Can he make a stone?

Rabbi: Of course!

Student: Can he make a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it?

Rabbi: Get out of my office!

The image in his head of a Hercules or Atlas kind of god struggling with a giant stone really tickled him…and simultaneously convinced him that all the rest of it was bunk.

God wasn’t in the air all around us.

God didn’t know everything.

God didn’t really care who lived or died and actually had nothing to do with anything good or bad that happened on earth.

You were on your own.

When he first showed up at services, people made a fuss over him. They smelled fresh meat…a death bed convert…a salvageable soul…a new donor. But he was none of the above and he quickly let them know it. He just wanted to sit quietly and enjoy the show and the music. After a while, the real congregants gave up asking if they could sit with him…and he was fine with that. 

These few hours each week gave him a little something to look forward to. Nothing more; nothing less. He took it up the same way he took up watercolors: because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

He respected the true believers, though. He admired their adherence and faith and the comfort they felt from their relationship with their God. He forgave them their daily hypocrisies, but he didn’t envy them. The price they paid for their solace was too high. It required a suspension of disbelief and, although that was fine for watching a movie, it didn’t appeal to him as a lifestyle.

Besides, there was the corruption of the fundamental teachings that each religion’s social structures had perpetrated. Look at what the Evangelicals had done to Christianity. If Christ hadn’t ascended to heaven, he would have been turning over in his grave at the sight of their bastardization of his teachings. 

And don’t get him started on the good fathers of the Catholic Church!

Saying that the institutions are corrupt, though, does not mean that all the believers are. He once lived next door to a Baptist pastor, oh some fifty years ago. Pastor Eric was nice enough, with two well-behaved kids and a faithful wife. It was with him that he had his last interesting exchange about religion.

He hosted a little going away breakfast for Pastor Eric who was being sent to a different church down state. For some long-forgotten reason, the conversation turned to the likelihood of space aliens with advanced technologies paying us a visit. He said he thought that was within the realm of possibility and that, if they didn’t annihilate or enslave us, that event would probably unite people all across the planet and usher in a new era of peace.

Unexpectedly, Pastor Eric nodded in complete agreement and added, “It looks like we’re both waiting for the same thing.”


In fact, though, he wasn’t holding his breath waiting for a space invasion. He really didn’t care. He had long ago accepted the nothingness of it all. His inability to grasp the incomprehensible vastness of the universe made it pretty clear that his presence on this tiny pebble was absolutely meaningless in the great scheme of things.

He didn’t know a single fact about his great grandfathers and he expected that no one in future generations would know anything about him, even though his thoughts and images would live on in cyberspace long after his ashes were scattered.

Childless, he hadn’t even made a contribution to the gene pool, so there was no chance of any kind of deferred future effect from his progeny, either.

And that was fine with him.

Did that make him a nihilist? An existential nihilist? Evidently so, but don’t tell him that. He had never been able to wrap his head around the various philosophical ‘-isms’ and he wasn’t about to start now.

What he did understand was that the meaning of life was in the here and now, not in the wisp of a hint of a soupçon of a mirage of a hope of an impact on the future.  

Having the experience of conscious awareness while it was available to you was all there was. And that was more than enough for him. What you did with it, what you thought about it, and how and if you shared it with others was icing on the cake.

It didn’t take him long to figure out that getting the most out of the here and now wasn’t just about absorbing physical sensations. It required meaning and purpose and he found both inside his head. Sure, it was nice when he succeeded at something and it was a nice bonus when something he did helped someone. But performing good works wasn’t what truly motivated him. It wasn’t money or power, either. It was the act of thinking that sustained him.

Seriously. He loved to be in new situations and to have to figure things out. The bigger, the more difficult, and the more unique the task, the more he liked it. He didn’t just like it, he craved it. It was his addiction. In fact, it was his true religion and the altar at which he worshipped.

His first career coming out of college was dedicated to the long-shot revitalization of New Jersey’s forsaken largest city, Newark. He moved on to running a bed and breakfast with his wife in northeastern Pennsylvania (he was the cook). His friends were incredulous and had laid down bets that he wouldn’t survive the city-to-country transition and would be back in 6 months. Clearly, they didn’t really know him.

After that he went to graduate school and became a clinical psychologist working in acute in-patient wards. When it was time to retire, he became an officer in the local Democratic Party. After that (yes, even into his 70s there was an “after that”), he tried his hand at blogging about research into brain health and dementia prevention.

Each career lasted about ten years which was how long it took him to explore all the themes and variations involved in that particular endeavor. He didn’t like repetition. When fulfilling his occupational responsibilities became rote, he got bored, chucked it all, and set out for greener, unexplored pastures. 

The one thing he never got bored with, however, were his wives. They were both an endless source of inspiration and challenge, and in different ways, unfathomable. They meant the world to him.

So now he found himself living in The Community with Sally by his side, attending religious services twice each weekend, painting with watercolors when the spirit moved him, playing his recorder, solving crosswords, exploring all the nooks and crannies that were accessible to 80-somethings, and wondering what his next career would be.


S3E15. Meet “The Octogenarian”

Chaucer is credited with the first usage of the phrase “All good things must come to an end.” In that vein, then, last week’s episode of “Mistakes On The Journey To Nowhere” was the last as you knew it.

I have written 117 weekly episodes over the past 2+ years without missing a beat. Of late, however, it has become harder and harder to unearth interesting content that I haven’t covered before. This past week was really bad. By Thursday, I had nothing. Bupkis. Nada. Zippo.

Fortunately for me, earlier in the week I found myself musing about what it might be like to be 87, which, following Bernard Baruch’s formula, is when I currently believe old age begins: “To me old age is always fifteen years older than I am.” 

I decided to write down my thoughts. I liked how it read and so I wrote a little more. It occurred to me that what I was doing might make interesting reading even though I had no idea where it was going. So I wrote a few more episodes…and both Sally and I liked what we saw.

Today, then, I’m shifting gears in “Mistakes” from a science-based report on the state of brain health research to a serialized, autobiographical novel about an 87-year old man. The themes of aging, brain health, memory and dementia will transfer to the new format, but science will no longer be the dominant focus.

I know that this is not what most of you subscribed to and I understand if you decide to drop the page from your weekly reading list. I do hope, though, that you’ll give it a shot for an episode or two. Who knows…you just might like it!

So without further ado, here is the first episode of “The Octogenarian.”


1. Art

He pencilled in two horizontal marks about ⅓ of the way down from the top at the outer edges of the first sheet in his new sketch pad. He did so because he remembered seeing a movie in which the film director John Ford told a young Steven Spielberg that putting the horizon in the middle was boring. 

This was his first attempt at painting with watercolors. He had no aptitude for it at all, but it popped into his head one day that it was something that he might try…just for shits and giggles.

At 87, you could do unexpected things like that and people would praise you for it, so long as it was ‘age appropriate,’ whatever the fuck that was supposed to mean.

He didn’t need their approval. Never had. But he got a kick out of them anyway, smiling inwardly about how they didn’t realize that they were talking to him as if he were a pre-schooler with newly discovered potential.

It is true, though, that the set of watercolors Amazon had delivered the day before was meant for the elementary school set, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to see what happened. He wasn’t re-visiting a high or low point in his life (although he had done that a number of times over the decades). He thought it had something to do with his cataract surgery. Colors were so much brighter and vibrant with his new artificial lenses. He now saw 50 shades of green when he jogged in the park. (No, that’s not a typo; he still jogged.) From daffodils to roses to lilacs, the beauty touched his heart…and that was a new experience for him. He liked it.

On second thought, maybe he was revisiting a past regret. Did you ever have a Venus Paradise Coloring Set? It included a rainbow of colored pencils and pictures that were divided into numbered, outlined areas. All you had to do was fill in each area with the matching numbered pencil and you wound up with a pretty nice picture.

He did have an aptitude for staying within the lines, and so at the age of 10, his parents bought him the same kind of set, but this time with oil paints and a brush instead of pencils.

It was a disaster. He couldn’t control the thick paint as it oozed beyond the boundaries. It looked terrible. He was frustrated. He hated it so much, he flushed the paints down the toilet. His parents weren’t pleased.

As punishment, they made him keep his unfinished picture to remind him of how bad he had been. One day, he noticed that it looked better from a distance than it had up close. He placed it on the fireplace mantle in his room and stepped back as far from it as he could.

It was beautiful.

What an asshole he had been. He felt like shit. Right then and there is when he learned the meaning of the word ‘regret.’

He was 10. Now he was 87. He was a lot closer to 110 than he was to 10. Maybe that boy was still in him somewhere, hoping for another crack at it, but he didn’t think so. He just wanted to see what would happen. Nothing more, nothing less.

And he wasn’t in any rush. In his mind, he was ‘only’ 87. People who were born in the generation before him were living to be 100 with increasing frequency. In fact, the last census showed that it was the fastest growing age group in the country. And since each generation seemed to be living a little longer than the last, he honestly thought that 110 was within reach for him. If so, he had 23 years to figure out this watercolor thing…so long as he didn’t get frustrated and flush it all down the toilet. He was pretty sure that The Community’s maintenance crew would not appreciate that gesture at all.

He wondered how people would refer to him if he did make it to 110. When you passed 100, you became a centenarian. But what was the word for someone who survived yet another decade? He didn’t know, so he googled it. 


He doubted many people would bother to google it. They’d probably just refer to him as ‘the old man.’

And that was perfectly fine with him.


S3E14. Old Age: What Is It?

For the purposes of this episode, I don’t mean biological old age. We’ve already explored that. We know that all of us will experience both physical and cognitive decline. The unknowns are how much and how fast. The goal is to die from natural causes in your sleep before either of those problems become cataclysmic. 

To pursue this further, though, I think we need to define our terms. After all, what do we really mean when we say ‘old age?’

I started with the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry:

“There is no universally accepted age that is considered old among or within societies. Often discrepancies exist as to what age a society may consider old and what members in that society of that age and older may consider old. Moreover, biologists are not in agreement about the existence of an inherent biological cause for aging. However, in most contemporary Western countries, 60 or 65 is the age of eligibility for retirement and old-age social programs, although many countries and societies regard old age as occurring anywhere from the mid-40s to the 70s.”

Pretty nebulous and not really all that helpful. Old age is about a lot more than retirement, no? To get some ideas, I tried googling ‘famous quotes about aging’ to see what others have said about it. Interestingly, everything that came up was either upbeat or humorous. I tried searching for ‘negative quotes about aging’ and I got the same feel-good lists. I tried ‘Who said getting old sucks?’ and a good clip popped up of Michael Douglas and Robert DeNiro discussing aging when they were both around 68-69 in 2013. Spoiler alert: they were both pretty upbeat about their future prospects.

Evidently, you can’t say anything bad about getting old on the web. Why is that?

Bernard Baruch came up with a creative way to get around the problem: “To me old age is always fifteen years older than I am.”

Strangely enough, I have to agree with him. Seventy-two doesn’t seem all that old now that I’ve reached it. When I read obituaries about people dying in their 60s and 70s, I think, ‘So young!’ Looking forward, my gut tells me that 85 might be old, but then I meet someone who is 85 and they blow-up my stereotype.

This raises the possibility that, perhaps, there is no such thing as being old. Maybe being old is a social construct like race and exists only in our minds and our world view. What do you think?

Oh, sure, you can rack up birthday after birthday and you can be the oldest person in the room and you’re probably not as spry as you used to be, but is that enough to classify you as ‘old?’ 

I’ve never sat down and created a list of criteria that I could use to tell me when I was old. Is it when I can no longer jog 2 miles? Is it when it takes me a long time to organize my thoughts and say something? Is it when I need help with my activities of daily living?

It might be that, to a great extent, we confound deteriorating health with old age. For most of us, the two go hand in hand, but it’s the health issues that eat away at our quality of life, not our numerical age.

The same can be said of our cognitive abilities. Because the vast majority of dementias occur in ‘old age,’ we confound the two. In fact, it is the disease of dementia that is the problem, not our age.

The ageless Satchel Paige raised a good point: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” What I like about this idea is that it puts the determination in your hands and not in the hands of those around you. It assumes, though, that you’ve still got your wits about you. I’m guessing the answer he might have provided is something along the lines of: “You are as old as you feel.”

There is, in fact, some research that suggests having a perceived age (“How old do I feel?”) that is lower than your actual age can be protective against age-related decline.

Sally and I have adopted a motto to help us manage some of the challenges we’re now facing in our early 70s: “Smart, not brave.” It acknowledges that our bodies and brains are not what they were in our 20s. It relies upon our having the insight and wisdom to know when we are pushing our limits…and to accept that conclusion when we are.

So it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to come up with a good definition of what it means to be old. Perhaps being old is, after all, a state of mind and not a chronological fact. Maybe being old is not a problem, but the diseases and declines that correlate with it are. Or maybe it exists, but it’s really hard to define. Perhaps we don’t need to define it, but just recognize it, à la Justice Potter Stewart who, when asked to define pornography, answered: “I know it when I see it.”

Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’m not there yet. And given the current state of my physical and cognitive health, I have to agree with Maurice Chevalier: “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”

Finally, let me leave you with Mark Twain’s view on the subject: “Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”


S3E13. Wait…I’ve Been Here!

A déjà vu experience is one in which a new situation feels so familiar that you think you have been there before. In reality, though, your brain is making a cognitive error triggered by some aspects of the current situation that really are familiar to you, but then fails to complete the fact-checking that would confirm the uniqueness of the moment.

What happened to me this week was the opposite of a déjà vu. Let me explain.

We booked our flight to Seattle two weeks ago after learning that the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team would be playing there in the NCAA Regional Finals this past weekend. I was looking forward to it not only to see the game, but also for the chance to explore Seattle, a place I had never visited.

In fact, I didn’t recall ever being in the state of Washington until my sister reminded me that even though our niece lived in Portland, her wedding was held on the Washington side of the nearby Columbia River. So I had been to Washington but not Seattle.

We flew out last Friday and attended the semi-final game on Saturday. Much to my disappointment—and to the shock and horror of UConn fans everywhere—we lost. I was so devastated that I wanted to change our flight and go home the next day. Sally’s good sense prevailed, though, and we decided to enjoy the rest of our time exploring Seattle.

The next day (Sunday), we booked a 3-hour coach tour of the city. It turned out that we were the only people aboard, so it turned into a private tour just for us. Our guide Brian was wonderful and we had a blast.

At this point, I had had Seattle on my mind for more than a week and we were into our second day of actually being there, including nearly 3 hours learning about the city and its history in great detail.

Towards the end of the tour, Brian took us to an overlook that provided a fantastic panoramic view of downtown. He apologized for our not being able to see Mt. Rainier because of the low cloud cover that day. Bummer.

But as we got back on the coach, I started thinking about Mt. Rainier. I had the feeling that I had seen it before. Slowly, two different images formed in my head: one of Mt. Rainier as it would look from an airplane and one from the top of a building. Were they memories from a tv show or movie I had seen? Or were they real memories of being there?

A few moments later it came to me: I had been to Seattle in the spring of 2001!

The memory was only 22 years old, but it must have been pretty deeply sequestered inside my head, though, to resist being recalled until triggered by the words ‘Mount Rainier.’

Here’s what I remember:

It was during my internship year for my Ph.D. in clinical psychology and I was living in Lexington, North Carolina, while working at the VA Hospital in nearby Salisbury. I had finished my academic work at UConn around 8 months earlier.  

My advisor at UConn wrote to me about the upcoming annual conference of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis outside of Seattle and suggested I present a paper there about an experiment I had completed before leaving UConn. I agreed.

Although I have no memory of the details, it was likely that I wanted to minimize the time spent away from my internship and so I probably booked a flight from Charlotte to Seattle on a Friday and the return trip on Sunday after delivering my paper on Saturday. That sounds like something I would do.

I recall feeling very uncomfortable about the entire undertaking. For starters, several members of my old research team were there, but not having attended weekly meetings for nearly a year, I no longer felt connected to them. To make matters worse, the paper I was presenting was very esoteric and tangential to the major threads of hypnosis research and, to my mind, wouldn’t be all that interesting to those in attendance. 

The location on the outskirts of Seattle was far enough away from downtown that getting into the city and sightseeing within my limited available time would have been challenging. Consequently, I stayed in the hotel the entire time I was there. The one thing I did do, though, was to take the elevator to the top floor so I could get a good view of Mt. Rainier.

Evidently, seeing the mountain was the most memorable thing that happened to me on that trip. And as the weekend itself wasn’t a very pleasant experience, I’m sure I didn’t spend much time talking or thinking about it during the ensuing two decades, thus minimizing the strength of its memory. 

I’m pretty sure, though, that 20 years from now I’ll remember this past weekend’s journey much more vividly. Even though the team’s loss was heartbreaking, the sightseeing and exploration of a place I actually had not been to before was exciting and memorable…as was the discovery of just how fickle some of my memories really are!


S3E10. The Road Not Taken

We just returned from a 5-day trip to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, where we watched the UConn Women’s Basketball team play in the Big East Tournament. Spoiler alert: They won!

We love getting away on little trips like this (it’s only a 4-5 hour drive from home) and immersing ourselves in something totally different from our normal routines. Watching 6 basketball games in 3 days in an arena with 8,000 screaming fans definitely qualifies as different.

On this trip, though, I became acutely aware of just how different it really is and what I did and did not do to maintain my normal brain-healthy routines. 

Let’s start with waking up in the morning. I normally drink matcha green tea steeped with lion’s mane mushroom powder, turmeric, rosemary, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin and a little black pepper. Obviously, there’s no way I’m going to find that combination on the road, so I suppose the best I could do would be to ask for green tea. But I didn’t do that. I had coffee with half&half and sugar every morning. 

Shame on me! What is it about being away from home that makes me want to break all the rules? For reasons unknown, there is something very satisfying about doing that. I rationalize by telling myself that a couple of days off of my regimen won’t significantly jeopardize my brain health. Looking ahead to our next trip, though, I suppose there would be no harm in mixing together my powders at home, taking them with me and then making my own tea every morning.

The hotel had a decent breakfast buffet and I really enjoyed their granola (made with sugar), yogurt (sweetened) with a mixed berries sauce (sugar again) and some fresh fruit. This concoction had a distant relationship to my usual granola feast (kind of like mice and humans both being mammals) but it clearly wasn’t the same. Once again, there is nothing stopping me from packing a bag of my granola and using the buffet offerings to complement it to get a little closer approximation to my normal morning meal.

But it wasn’t just the granola. Breakfast pastries were also offered and I’m incapable of resisting them. Knowing full-well that they are processed foods loaded with sugar and trans fats didn’t stop me from sampling them all. At home, I can make sure we don’t have them in the house so I can’t be tempted, but on the road, I haven’t the will power to abstain.

My normal morning routine includes doing word puzzles and half an hour of BrainHQ training. I did the puzzles, but bailed out on the training which seemed like work. I suppose I saw myself as being on vacation and just didn’t want to do anything that required mental effort. 

I could have brought my recorder and practiced each day, but I didn’t. I doubt I would have practiced even if I had brought it, though, as doing so would have been completely incongruent with the whole mind set of the trip. The same went for listening to classical music for an hour each day. 

The hotel had a fitness center and a pool, so I brought my workout clothes and a bathing suit. Nope…that didn’t happen either. I could have found time to hit the treadmill, but I didn’t want to be tired when game time came around. I had my priorities!

Most restaurants had vegan and/or organic options, so I made some effort to stay on track with my eating: a veggie hoagie (or grinder as they say in New England), fish tacos and a turkey sandwich. I had no justification, though, for scarfing down the pizza and chicken wings and chocolate brownie. And I’d rather not go into what we ate at the service areas on the New Jersey Turnpike.

I try to read for an hour each night before bedtime and I could have since I download books and read them on my computer, but I was too keyed up after the games to do that. The truth is, I was only interested in checking out the box scores, watching highlights and seeing the post-game interviews with the UConn players and coach on YouTube.

Fortunately, the bed was comfortable and we slept well. It occurred to me afterwards, however, that I could have brought the diffuser and lavender oil as they wouldn’t have taken up much room in the suitcase. I just might do that when we go to South Carolina in 2 weeks for the NCAA Regional Finals.

So although I missed a number of opportunities, there was a brain-health upside to the trip. I was exposed to cognitive challenges galore, from navigating our way around the cavernous, architecturally-stunning Mohegan Sun complex to absorbing the sights, sounds and energy of the live college basketball experience, from the pep bands and spirit squads to the players battling on the floor. It was invigorating and I’ve got to believe it more than made up for the incremental brain-health losses I might have accrued from abandoning my regimen.

In hindsight, I really don’t feel any guilt about bailing out on my daily routine. I mean, it was a get-away and when you get away, the purpose is to get away from your routine, right?

The bottom line here is that I don’t regret taking the path I took…not one single bit!


S3E6. Of Fogeys, Coots, Curmudgeons and Codgers

Grumpy Old Men (1993) Walter Matthau & Jack Lemmon

Old Man Yells At Cloud (2002, The Simpsons) Dan Castellaneta

Gran Torino (2008) Clint Eastwood

A Man Called Otto (2022) Tom Hanks

So when did the trope of cranky aging men become a thing? And why do we have so many pejorative words to describe them? Like:

Fogey: a person, typically an old one, who is considered to be old-fashioned or conservative in attitude or tastes.

Curmudgeon: a bad-tempered person, especially an old one.

Codger: an elderly man, especially one who is old-fashioned or eccentric.

Coot: a foolish or eccentric person, typically an old man.

And why do you rarely hear these terms applied to women? 

And is there any basis for the stereotype? Do men really become more cantankerous, crotchety, irritable and stubborn as we age?

One theory is that it has to do with a drop in testosterone levels after age 65, but that notion is hotly contested. Other suggested causes include dealing with physical decline, lifetime losses of loved ones, difficulty adapting to changing technology, and dissatisfaction with living arrangements. 

The bottom line, though, is that men do appear to get more cranky as we progress in years.

Bummer.  😦

Unfortunately, there is another pathway to curmudgeonhood that is related to dementia.

One of the early signs of dementia is a change in personality. Typical at this stage are increased irritability, reduced frustration tolerance, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, social withdrawal and apathy. (Please remember that for any of these to be considered symptoms, they must reflect a significant change from prior behaviors.)

The cause of these shifts is probably related to a weakening of the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for higher level thinking and has a primary role in modulating our emotions. For example, you can make yourself very angry if you can’t find your car keys and you think your neighbor stole them. Conversely, you can calm yourself down by thinking it through, retracing your steps, and realizing that you left them in your coat pocket. In both cases, the situation is the same: you can’t find your keys. Your emotional and behavioral responses, though, are determined by what you believe about that fact. That’s prefrontal power at work.

That is why I am monitoring my own increasing irritability and decreasing frustration tolerance. I used to be bomb-proof: very few things rattled me. And I could work for hours on a project with little progress and still not get frustrated. Now, though, I’m aware that I don’t have the patience I used to have. When doing crossword puzzles, for example, I’m far quicker to google an answer than I was in the past.

Thinking that this shift may have more to do with testosterone levels than it does with prefrontal atrophy is rather comforting in a lesser-of-evils sort of way.

What’s more, I don’t think I currently meet criteria for curmudgeon, coot, codger or fogey. For the most part, I keep my irritations to myself. I’m not firing off emails to my PBS affiliate complaining about a schedule change. I’m not unleashing a torrent of epithets (albeit creative) at other drivers who don’t signal before cutting into my lane. I keep pushing buttons on the remote until my Roku tv gets me to what I want to stream with the captioning on. If I had a lawn, I’d like to think I wouldn’t be chasing kids off of it.

I’m still interested in politics even though I’ve lost the fire in the belly to actively engage in getting out the vote. I enjoy my daily recorder practice sessions, even though I can’t hit all the notes or play certain passages fast enough. I look forward to watching UConn women’s basketball games twice a week in season…even when they lose two games in a row for the first time in 30 years. Come to think of it, if I ever stop watching, please schedule me for an evaluation!

The results of this most unscientific review, then, suggest that my personality is still intact while showing normal signs of aging. It would appear that I’ve got a ways to go before earning the right to be called a curmudgeon!


S3E4. Seventy-two…and counting

It was my birthday last Friday and so I suppose some reflections on the view from 72 are in order. 

Seventy-two is a funny age because I don’t think I ever had any expectations for it. After all, it’s not a milestone year like all the years that begin new decades. 

When I was in my late twenties, I thought getting old happened when you were in your fifties. I wrote this about a visit to my parents home:

“They’ve been grandparents for almost 2 years now. Grandparents twice over, that is, and a third expected momentarily. As I stepped through the doorway, I was met by a heavy-sweet menagerie of home-cooked aromas. Outside, it was a crisp spring afternoon; inside it was a trifle too warm. They had both mellowed in recent years, but just now, for the first time, I felt as though I were entering a grandparents’ home. They’re growing old.”

I was 22 and they were 52 and 53.

Back then, I thought 68 was synonymous with decrepitude. That was because elderly friends of my mother had lived with us for a while when I was 10 and the wrinkled husband, who was 68, spoke and moved slowly and only with a great deal of effort. I was delighted to have this image shattered when I sprinted past 68 four years ago.

From my current vantage point, though, it seems like all of us in our 70s are just middle aged. When a celebrity from our cohort dies, I think “Too young” or “Too soon.” When David Crosby died last week at 81, though, I didn’t react that way. He had lived a long and impactful life. I was sad to learn of his passing, but it seemed ok.

I am, nonetheless, growing old. I see it in the wrinkled skin on the back of my hands. I feel it in my bones. I can document it with the heart rate monitor on the treadmill.

A few days after I turned 50, I found myself jogging in a park near my home in Lexington, North Carolina. For  reasons long lost to me, I set a goal of running two miles (at any pace) every year until I was 80. At the time (2001), it seemed like a ridiculously impossible challenge. With each passing year, though, it has started to seem more do-able.

It’s now an annual tradition for me to take up the challenge right after each birthday. For many years it was no problem, but this year was different. I don’t know if it was because I’m getting older or the after-effects of COVID or just being out of shape or a combination of all of the above, but this year I struggled.

Fewer than 5 years ago, I could jog the full distance at a 6 mph clip. This year, though, I knew I couldn’t set the treadmill any faster than 4 mph, which meant it would take me 30 minutes to complete the challenge. 

I was already breathing hard after only ¼ mile and my pulse was up to 126. Just a year ago, my heart rate wouldn’t get up to 126 until I was 2 miles into my workout at a 4.5 mph clip.  

After 15 minutes—halfway there and 1 mile into the run—my pulse was up to 136. Last year that didn’t happen until after I had gone 3 miles.

I had to really push myself to finish the challenge, with my pulse climbing to 151 at the end. That just didn’t happen last year.

So I’ve got my work cut out for me. I know I need to establish a regular workout schedule to get in shape. I’m pretty sure, though, that I won’t be able to get back to where I was a year ago, probably due largely to a long-term COVID effect.

I’m having trouble wrapping my head around that. I had been harboring fantasies of running another 5k, but now I don’t think that’s in the cards.

I don’t like this new trajectory at all. I know I should be celebrating the fact that I’m 72 and I can run 2 miles, but a sense of foreboding is preventing me from taking that victory lap.

I’ll work on it.

On a brighter note, I spent my birthday indulging myself. For breakfast, I had a bagel and lox with all the trimmings, using lox that I had made myself. It was the lox of my childhood, brined instead of the smoked salmon you get at the supermarket. At noon I had an hour-long full-body massage and then feasted on lobster for lunch. That night, Sally and I had a birthday party for 2 in the apartment, with delivery pizza, ice cream sandwiches, music from Crosby, Stills and Nash, and a “1-hit wonder” joint gifted to us by a friend.

Life at 72 is pretty freakin’ good after all!


S3E3. Brain Eaters

In this season’s first episode, I mentioned that I was in awe of the symbiotic relationship between microglia and neurons. I’m ready to explain why.

Let’s begin with the basics. We’re all familiar with neurons, the sexy cells that connect with each other, transmit electrical signals, store all of our memories and control our abilities to perceive and do things. We have about 86 billion of these cells and they form about a quadrillion (1,000 trillion) synapses with one another. And, yes, we use all of these cells, not just one-tenth of them.

There are about 100,000 miles of blood vessels providing oxygen and nutrients that enable them to work non-stop as long as you breathe.

Please take a moment to embrace the awe inherent in these numbers!

But neurons only comprise about half the cells in our brains. The rest are known as glia. Early on, these cells were just believed to provide a structure within which the neurons could function, like trellises for grape vines in a vineyard. But there are several different types of glial cells and they do a whole lot more than just provide the scaffolding and glue that hold the brain together:

Oligodendrocytes attach themselves to the long axons that stretch out from the neuron bodies and cover them with fatty tissue known as the myelin sheath. This is the brain’s white matter. It acts like insulation on a wire and improves the quality of the electrical impulses. If the myelin sheath breaks down and the signal is sufficiently compromised, that neuron may not be able to communicate with other neurons.

Astrocytes wrap around neurons and are involved in a variety of functions ranging from providing nutrients to enhancing synaptic activity to regulating blood flow to creating neurotransmitters to signaling the presence of invaders which triggers an immune response.

Pretty impressive, huh? Feel free to take another moment to let another wave of awe wash over you.

Then there are my favorites, the microglia. These cells have a variety of roles that change over one’s lifetime. 

It turns out that you are born with way too many synapses and so you experience a period of synaptic pruning where inactive connections are eliminated by microglia who eat them. 

Eat them!

Then as you mature, the microglia take on the role of janitor, cleaning up chemical garbage that accumulates between neurons, including the dreaded beta amyloid. They are also responsible for the primary immune response to local infection and injury. But that’s a two-edged sword: the inflammation caused by an immune response in your brain has been linked to dementia. They also eat damaged neurons as part of their protective role, but sometimes that process runs amok and they eat healthy neurons, as well.

Finally, the glymphatic system has a network of tubes that transports fresh fluid into your cranium, mixes it with the waste-filled fluid surrounding brain cells, and then flushes the solution out of your head and into your bloodstream where it can be excreted. All of this occurs during deep sleep.

The more I think about this elaborate, complex, elegant system, the more awestruck I am.

If any of these types of cells weren’t present, the entire system would break down pretty quickly. Or put another way, we wouldn’t exist if all of these tiny organisms hadn’t evolved together in their interdependent microscopic biome.

Try to imagine the process, played out over hundreds of millions of years, that led to this current iteration. How many combinations and permutations of chemicals stressed under different environmental conditions did Nature experiment with before stumbling upon one that would cause a cell to extend itself out from its body in search of similar cells, thereby giving birth to neurons?

And what does it take for a second…and a third…and a fourth type of cell to evolve that depends upon a neuron for its existence yet enhances the functionality of the host cell itself?

And how did they all come to coexist only inside a cranium?

And if what we see now is the culmination of a billion years of evolution, what will the next billion years bring?

Just thinking about the brain and how it works is truly mind-boggling!


S3E2. No Shock; Just Awe

Last week I mentioned a video about the role of microglia in maintaining brain health and I said that I was in awe of the symbiotic relationship between microglia and neurons.

That got me thinking about what it means to be in awe of something. One morning this past week, I found myself dawdling in bed, conjuring up images of things that inspire awe in me.

The time I looked up at the sky on a crystal clear winter’s night and saw five planets came to mind. For the first time ever, I could visualize the fact that they were all in the same plane as they circled the sun.

As I stood there, I tried to think about the context in which this was happening. I tried to imagine my standing on the dark side of the earth, looking out at the planets, spinning around a star that is hurtling through a galaxy that is but one of billions in a universe that is ever expanding.

You want awe? That’s awe!

But then I took it in the other direction and imagined billion-year old light from faint stars reaching my eye, triggering an electric impulse down my optic nerve into my brain where it made a multitude of connections that triggered chemical reactions in countless synapses as electrons were traded among atoms that were composed of even tinier bits of matter and charges that floated in an indeterminate quantum soup whose forces control the universe.

Yup. That’s awe, too.

And then there’s the awe inspired by the the colors of fresh-cut flowers on the coffee table rejoicing in the morning sun. 

I stand in awe of musicians whose hand-ear coordination moves their fingers at lightning speed to produce a sequence of a mind-boggling number of notes that seem to defy the standard laws of memory.

Forget about our modern world of digital wizardry, I’m still awed by the magic of radio. Think about it: we can emit an electromagnetic impulse from a single point that expands to occupy every cubic inch of space for miles around in a way that allows anyone anywhere within that range who has a few transistors to detect those oscillations and translate them back into the sounds from which they were made.

I’m in awe of

Being at the racetrack and watching Secretariat win the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in world record time was the epitome of awe-in-motion. Watching the video still gives me goose bumps.

I’m in awe of the fact that last year, there were 19,603,733 people living normal lives in Chile. No, there’s nothing special about Chile in this context. I could have chosen Namibia (2,658,414) and experienced the same awe. It’s just that I don’t often take time to think about all the things that are going on at any moment, but when I do, it’s often awe-inspiring.

Closer to home, I am in awe of Sally’s resilience, compassion, energy, and uncanny ability to expose the questions lurking within every passing moment.

Finally rousing myself from exploring the wide world of awe, I sat down at the computer to check overnight emails, my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the headlines from the New York Times. As I scrolled down, there were the usual articles about politics and Ukraine and COVID, but then there was this: “How A Bit Of Awe Can Improve Your Health.”

Talk about serendipity!

Or was it? Just a few days earlier, I had typed the first draft of last week’s episode and wrote that sentence about being in awe of microglia. Is it possible that one of the cookies The Times has placed in my computer monitors my typing and uses that information to select articles for my feed? If so, I am DEFINITELY in awe of that technology!

I’ll never know whether it was serendipity or cyber stalking, but in any event, the article was most interesting. First of all, it provided a definition of what awe is which validated my morning’s mental meanderings:

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”

Nice. Simple. Clear.

The article went on to explore the emerging research suggesting that a daily dose of awe can be healthy for you. Needless to say, non of these studies had yet been done when I was in graduate school from 1996-2001, and we spent no time discussing the emotion of awe in class. Awe was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind on the acute inpatient psych wards where I worked for 10 years where most patients were battling for survival and not self-actualization.

But awe does seem to have value in contributing to a sense of well-being, lowering stress and enhancing happiness. Although the proper ‘dosage’ of awe (both in frequency and intensity) hasn’t yet been determined, there is evidence that a couple of moments each week may be beneficial.

How do you get those moments? The key seems to be in mindfulness, or just taking time to think about what is happening, where you are, and what you are doing in a context greater than yourself. For example, you could put your internal dialog on pause while brushing your teeth tomorrow morning and ask yourself: “How did this water get here?” I’ll give you a hint: start with water evaporating from the earth’s surface and rising into the air to form a wisp of vapor in search of a cloud.

As you can see, it doesn’t take much…awe is all around us just waiting to be unleashed. 

I wasn’t able to find any research directly linking dosing yourself with awe and brain health, but, clearly, it can’t hurt you, and it sure does feel good when it happens, so you might as well go for it!


S3E1. Another Opening, Another Show

Welcome to Season 3! Where does the time go? And what on earth will this year bring?

For those of you who haven’t been following this blog from the beginning, here’s a little background. I began writing in December of 2020, at the age of 69, having discarded my latest career as a political activist and wondering what I would do with the rest of my life.

I must have been feeling a bit down, because the future I saw was one of either (1) a slow march towards my demise with the inevitable declines in physical and cognitive abilities that are part of normal aging or (2) developing a dementia—the greatest fear of pretty much everyone who makes it this far—and slowly disappearing into a living oblivion. My thought at the time was to document my decline—no matter which path it took—until I couldn’t write anymore. I thought there might be some value for others if I catalogued my mental slip-ups and tried to figure out whether they were normal or pathological, thus the title “Mistakes On The Journey To Nowhere,” with ‘Nowhere’ being either the vacuum of memory loss or death. Nothing hopeful or uplifting about that world view, eh?

Searching for content for my weekly essays soon led me to explore the research about aging and dementia, a topic I had pretty much ignored in graduate school when I was earning my Ph.D. in clinical psychology in the late ’90s. Much to my surprise (and relief!), I discovered that, although there is no medication that can effectively ward-off dementia, there are things you can do to minimize your risk of developing it. So my writing followed that thread, exploring and documenting the 5 pillars of brain health: diet, exercise, sleep, cognitive challenge and social engagement.

More recently, I’ve begun exploring what it is that actually goes wrong in the brain to cause it to break down as we age. Although I quickly get lost in the chemistry, I’m fascinated by the elegance of the various biological systems that have evolved to make this most complex and vital of organs work so effectively for as long as it does.

So if you haven’t been here from the beginning, now might be a good time to go back and check out the first two seasons. Here’s the link to the first episode: S1E1. Happy Box. At the end of each episode, you can scroll down to find the link to the next. It might make for some fun binge-reading on a long winter’s night.

So now I’m on the cusp of turning 72 and still writing a 750+ word essay every week. I suppose that’s fairly good evidence that whatever ‘senior moments’ I’m having are probably age-related and not indicative of anything more sinister. I can still think creatively, research, find words, spot errors and edit, avoid using the same words repeatedly, and put together a coherent narrative. So far, then, so good. And the simple act of doing so is good for my brain health as it presents a cognitive challenge for me each week.

Where will this blog go this year? I haven’t a clue! I’m not writing from some master plan or outline. Each week is an adventure and I don’t know what will tickle my fancy until I get there.

For example, this week I came across a fascinating video that explored the symbiotic relationship between glial cells and neurons. When we think of the brain, we normally only think of neurons, the sexy cells that link up with each other and communicate via electrical signaling to encode, store and retrieve our experiences. But it turns out that there are far more glial cells in the brain than neurons and that, among other things, they clean up the chemical detritus generated inside your skull as by-products of your immune system and daily wear-and-tear. Without these janitors, the gunk in your brain would accumulate until it snarled all your circuits and you succumbed to a dementia. Conversely, the glia are using all this neuron-related trash as food, so without neurons, they couldn’t exist. It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship…and watching the video left me in absolute awe that such a thing could develop over the millennia as we evolved from the first worms with a nervous system to the noble piece of work that is the human brain.

But then I started writing and, as you’ve read, I got sidetracked onto a brief review of the history of this blog and the story about glia was put on the back burner. Maybe, if I remember, I’ll get to it in episode 2. If not, here’s the link to the video: Meet Your Microglia.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for Season 3, even though neither you nor I know where this road trip will take us. In any event, I’m glad to have you riding shotgun!


S2E52. The 2022 ‘Journey Awards’

The end of the year is traditionally a time to compile ’10 Best’ and ‘Best and Worst’ lists, so I thought I’d take a crack at it with some of the best and worst brain health events of the year for each of the 5 pillars of brain health. I thought about calling the list the ‘MOTYs’ for ‘Mistakes of the Year’ awards, but that didn’t seem to leave much room for celebrating the good news, so I went with the ‘Journeys’ instead.

Here they are:

1. Cognitive Challenge

There was plenty of competition in this category: playing computerized games on BrainHQ, traveling to foreign lands, reading books, writing this blog, and learning to play the recorder. As stimulating as they all were, I’m going with learning to play the recorder as the most rewarding cognitive challenge pursuit of 2022. It’s there for me nearly every day and it’s a rush to be able to play a piece or hit notes that I wasn’t able to master a month before. Learning to play meaningful melodies from across my lifespan never gets old. All in all, a pretty nice experience for a guy whose musical aptitude probably falls in the bottom twenty-five percent!

2. Exercise

One of my favorite lifetime brain health pursuits became an unexpected challenge. I was barreling along during the first three months of the year, working out 5-6 days/week, gaining strength, feeling great and losing weight. Then in April we went out to Minneapolis for the NCAA Women’s Basketball finals and I came down with COVID, which knocked me for a loop. It left me with a weakness that persisted for nearly 6 months. Working out was hard and definitely not enjoyable and I never got back into it consistently. My workouts now, when I do them, are shorter and slower. The weights I lift are lighter. So exercise definitely gets the ‘worst performance in a brain health pillar’ Journey Award for 2022.

3. Sleep

There really was only one contender for this award: my month-long experiment to change my circadian rhythm and sleep pattern in preparation for our Mediterranean cruise. It led to quite novel experiences, like going to bed at 6pm and waking up at 2am, but I think it worked. Upon arriving in Greece, I was tired pretty much when I was supposed to be tired and woke up within an hour of when I was supposed to wake up. The results, though, were somewhat confounded by the fact that I didn’t sleep at all on the plane and spent a couple of days recovering from that sleep deprivation. So now that I’ve figured out the circadian rhythm thing, I’ll have to work a little harder on the sleeping-on-the-plane thing next time we travel abroad.

4. Social Engagement

Thank goodness for Sally! She sets my social calendar and keeps me engaged. Without her efforts, I would definitely meet criteria for ‘hermit.’ But I don’t feel as though I’m meeting my obligations here. I enjoy being out with people and I enjoy listening to the conversations, but I’m finding myself talking less, so much so that Sally has commented on it several times. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I’m not talking as much at home, either. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. My mind is going all the time, I can hear just fine, I don’t have any word-finding difficulties and I have no problem following conversations. It’s just that I don’t often feel the need to say anything. Isn’t that weird? Becoming more subdued and withdrawn are often listed as warning signs of an impending dementia and fall under the category of ‘personality changes,’ so there’s that. Come to think of it, I get frustrated and irritated more easily than I did a year ago, so maybe this is something to keep an eye on.

5. Diet

This is a no-brainer: the 2022 Journey Award for best brain health dietary contribution goes to granola! (See S2E50: Granola Revisited). On the other hand, there have been several notable lapses in my regimen. I gave up overnight fasting, not for any empirical reason, but just because I lost the will power to do so once I reached my weight loss target. And now Sally and I are treating ourselves to an ice cream sandwich nearly every night. Again, no reason to do that except for the sheer delight of indulging in a guilty pleasure. This year’s Journey Award, though, for the biggest diet disappointment, was my attempt to drink a small glass of red wine with dinner each night. I conducted a noble months-long search for a palatable, organic pinot noir, but alas, to no avail. As good as it was, I just didn’t like it. And to make matters worse, even nursing a 4-ounce ‘dose’ left me a little tipsy. I reviewed the recommendations on drinking red wine and the bottom line was if you don’t already drink, then don’t start. In my case, it appeared that the neuro-toxic effect of the alcohol was greater than the augmentation of resveratrol effect. Since I eat red grapes every morning in my granola and I’m not a fan of supplements, I dropped red wine from the menu. 

And that’s my brain health year-in-review best and worst list, the 2022 Journey Awards.

Thank you so much for reading the blog. I hope it’s been helpful, interesting and/or entertaining. If so, I’d appreciate it greatly if you’d recommend it to your friends and family at It might be a nice change for them from bingeing on Netflix.

Wishing you a happy and brain-healthy New Year!


S2E51. Cholesterol? Bah! Humbug!

What kind of a Scrooge blogs about cholesterol on Christmas Eve eve when he should be decking the halls, harking the herald angels and making spirits bright?

Uh…that would be me!

I didn’t plan it this way, it’s just that I had my annual physical last week and my cholesterol is high, so my primary care provider put me on a statin. Some holiday gift, eh?

I’m a bit befuddled by it all. In my late 50s, my cholesterol numbers were good, but of late, they’ve been hovering at the high end of the safe zone or a little above. I have no idea what changed.

About 2 years ago, I tried taking a statin and it worked. Shortly thereafter, though, I began my quest to lose 40 pounds and to eat a brain healthy diet, which includes foods to help control cholesterol. So I came off the medication and did the experiment to see if weight loss, exercise and diet could bring my numbers into line.

I’ve been eating all the right things for about 18 months now: almonds, olive oil, asparagus, beans, blueberries, tomatoes, avocados, cacao powder, eggplant, apples, and salmon. And then last year, I added oats, oat bran and oatmeal to my daily regimen. On the flip side, I don’t eat fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, or junk food, all of which can raise LDL.

I worked out religiously and lost 40 pounds.

I was pretty sure my behavior had earned me a spot on the lipid screen Santa’s “nice” list, but instead, I got coal in my stocking. 

Since it didn’t work, I did a post-mortem.

Getting COVID last April definitely threw a wrench into the works. It left me weaker and unable to do the intensity of workouts I had been doing up until then. To make matters worse, I went off my diet during our cruise last month. I’ve gained back 12 pounds.

I decided to face reality and accept the fact that I probably needed the medication, but there were still a few things that were confusing me, and I wanted some answers.

In spite of the overall bad news, there were two bright spots in my blood work. First, it appeared that my efforts had paid some dividends in terms of raising my good HDL cholesterol level. I had succeeded in raising it to 60 mg/dL, which is very good. Consequently, my LDL/HDL ratio was also an excellent 2.4. 

So I could make the case that the reason my total cholesterol had moved into the danger zone (219) was that my HDL had increased…which is a good thing. 

So why did I need medication?

I asked my PCP about it when we met and she explained that the American Heart Association developed a formula for predicting the likelihood of heart and vascular disease emerging within the next 10 years. It takes into account factors such as age, gender, smoking history, blood pressure and total cholesterol levels. Their guideline is that your risk factor should be below 7.5%

She typed my numbers into her computer and swiveled her display around to show me the results. My risk factor was at 16.7%.

I felt like I had just been visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

That sealed the deal. I’m now taking a statin.

What made the decision easier was that I had checked out the research on statins before going for my check-up. For several years, there had been concern that taking a statin could have a side effect of reversible cognitive problems. On the other hand, there were studies suggesting it could provide protection against age-related cognitive decline. So which was it?

A recent study appears to have resolved the conflict: the negative side effect is more likely to appear in those under 45 while the protective benefits seem to accrue to those over 65. 

What a nice stocking stuffer!

So why does someone interested in brain health care so much about cholesterol anyway?

There are about 100,000 miles of blood vessels in your brain and their primary job is to provide oxygen and nourishment to each and every one of your 100 billion neurons and 1 trillion glial cells. So you want to do your very best to make certain that nothing impedes the ability of those arteries to deliver their precious cargo. Cholesterol is the grinch in this story that can gum up the works by sticking to arterial walls and restricting blood flow which, in turn, damages or kills cells.

So now you know what I know.

And on that note, I’ll close by wishing a Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  


S2E49. Indelible Memories

I’ve written about the fickle nature of memories in S2E4: Memory is Overrated and S2E46: What Will I Remember?, but today I’d like to address the flip side of that coin: indelible memories.

The recent heart-wrenching announcement that Roberta Flack has ALS and can no longer sing brought up a fond memory of my brief encounter with the superstar in 1977.

I was the manager of Newark Symphony Hall, a 3,285-seat historic landmark theater in downtown Newark, NJ. It was a Saturday and the show that night was two up-and-coming soul artists: Phyllis Hyman and Peabo Bryson. 

There was a rumor going around that Mick Jagger and Roberta Flack might show up as they were both just across the river that night in New York City and were friends with Phyllis Hyman. It was just a rumor and I didn’t think much of it.

The show began a little after 8pm. It wasn’t a sell-out, but there was a nice crowd of around 1,800. It was about 20 minutes after the show had begun, the audience was seated, and I was talking with the doorman at the main entrance to the theatre.

Suddenly, a group of patrons presented themselves at the door, having come down from the balcony, probably trying to move to better seats in the orchestra section. It wasn’t all that unusual for people to do that and there were plenty of available seats, so it wouldn’t be a problem to accommodate them.

The doorman stopped them from entering and they were giving him a hard time, so I stepped in and tried to mediate. I told them that I’d let them in but they first had to show me their ticket stubs from their balcony seats.

Directly in front of me was a heavy-set African-American woman with her hair in dreadlocks wearing a floppy beach hat, enormous sunglasses and a white print muumuu. She kept shaking her head and saying, “I don’t believe this! I don’t believe this!”

I was in the middle of explaining it again when I heard the elevator from the balcony open and another group of people presented themselves. I looked up and saw Mick Jagger.

OMG! I immediately realized that I had been standing there arguing with Roberta Flack!  

I apologized profusely and led them all into the theater. She was kind enough to tell me not to worry about it and that it was no problem.

Once they were inside, I rushed to find my partner, Roberta, whom I had hired to be our house photographer, to tell her to be on the lookout for them and to get some pictures. She found them all backstage and took the picture of Phyllis, Roberta and Mick at the top of this post. (Note: email subscribers can click here to see the picture.)

But that’s not where the story ends. During Peobo Bryson’s set, Roberta ran into Mick standing all by himself, leaning against a colonnade at the back of the orchestra section, watching the show.

With all the confidence in the world, she went right up to him and asked if she could take some pictures. He said he was really tired, but she begged him—I mean, literally begged him—for just 1 minute of his time…and he agreed!

For 1 minute, it was just the two of them: he posing and making faces; she snapping photos as fast as her index finger could go. It was the dream of a lifetime come true for Roberta, albeit a dream she had never even dared to dream.

After the concert was over, she was packing her camera bag and getting ready to leave when she discovered that she hadn’t had any film in the camera during her exclusive photo shoot with Mick Jagger. She was inconsolable for days!


Two years later, Roberta and I were married on that same stage. There were no famous performers in attendance that afternoon, but the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra was and they played Mendelssohn’s Wedding March for us.

It’s now 43 years after that event and Mick is still performing, but Roberta passed away in 2010, losing her 3-year battle with cancer. Yesterday would have been the 49th anniversary of our first date which we always celebrated as our ‘traditional’ anniversary.

As I said, some memories are indelible.


S2E48. Decision-Making

Judgment, problem-solving and decision-making are closely related activities that require a higher level of processing than, say, memory or attention, because they  require you to invoke a group of brain processes simultaneously.

To do these things successfully, you need to create and maintain a space in working memory where you pull-up and examine memories of similar situations and evaluate them for their relevance and importance to the question at hand. Frequently, you must do this under time pressure (which invokes processing speed) and in the face of strong emotions which obstruct the entire process by narrowing your ability to think things through.

Decision-making tasks activate both the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex, both of which are early targets of the dementing process. It’s no wonder, then, that we start making errors of judgment about the same time our memory starts to fail us.

A few weeks ago, Sally brought some breakfast pastries home from a nearby French bakery. Upon their arrival, I ate half the cheese danish.

Later that evening, I was craving something sweet and reached for the other half. I paused, though, because it is our custom to split delicacies like this and I had already eaten my half. 

Cue the decision-making process:

I knew this particular pastry was really good and I was not all that interested in the chocolate croissants she had also brought home. A vague ‘memory’ popped into my head that Sally didn’t really like cheese danish and preferred chocolate croissants.

“That’s what I’ll do!” I thought, “I’ll eat the rest of the danish and not have any of the croissants to make up for it.”

That, of course, was a bad decision, especially since Sally was sitting right there and all I had to do was ask her if I could have the other half of the danish. Somehow, I forgot to pull up the memory that says you let people decide for themselves instead of deciding for them.

A week later, I was making Sally a grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster oven. It was lightly browned on top which was exactly how she likes it, so I lowered the door and slid a spatula underneath one slice to remove it. Unfortunately, though, I only succeeded in sliding it to the back of the oven.

Using a potholder, I pulled the rack out a few inches and tried again. I got one slice out but then managed to push the other slice off the rack at the back of the appliance where it landed vertically on the heating element.

Smoke started to billow from the unit and I remembered thinking, “Oh lord, will it set off the smoke alarm? Will it blare throughout the building? Will the automatic sprinklers be triggered?”

I knew I had to act fast and decided that if I was really careful, I could reach in and pull it out, which is what I did. The melted cheese, though, was hotter than I anticipated, and my arm reflexively jerked as I was withdrawing it from the oven, tapping the hot metal for just an instant.

But an instant is all it took to singe my skin and leave a 1 inch burn on my forearm.

Once I had Sally’s sandwich safely removed to a serving plate, it dawned on me that there had been a pair of aluminum salad tongs in plain view, sitting in a crock not a foot away from where this all unfolded. How could I not have thought of using the tongs?

Hopefully, the burn has permanently seared that piece of learning into my brain for quick access next time.

As I write this, I’ve made another decision. This time, though, it was a deliberative process that unfolded across the span of a few weeks.

One day, Sally announced that she was going to get her hair cut short after having let it grow out during COVID. I joked that that meant I should get mine cut, too, for the same reason. But then I started to think seriously about it.

I recall making a decision when COVID hit between letting my hair go long or getting a buzz cut that I could maintain with my beard trimmer. It was a coin-toss decision then, but I decided, what-the-hell, Sally has never seen me with long hair and it might be fun to have a pony tail.

So that’s what I did. And although I liked the pony tail, I didn’t like the look when I ‘let my freak flag fly,’ which was exactly the look that Sally adored.

But when I look in the mirror with my hair flying in all directions, I didn’t see me. Add to that the shedding all over the apartment and the maintenance (I actually started to dread taking a shower because it took so long to shampoo and condition it), and the decision pretty much made itself.

So my hair comes off next week. We’ll use a longer attachment on my trimmer than I use for my beard and see how that works. It won’t take long at all for us to learn whether doing it that way instead of going to the barber was a good decision or not!


S2E47. Guest Blogger: Sally!

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live with someone who is semi-obsessed with brain health? Although she didn’t sign up for that job when we re-connected after 41 years in 2011, Sally has found herself in just that position over the course of the past two years. Although skeptical of my latest career tangent, she has shown amazing flexibility and acceptance of the path I’ve led us down. So I asked her if she’d like to write an episode of what it’s like to ride shotgun with me. Here’s what she had to say:

“who knew that wayne’s changing his behavioral and mental approach to brain health would have so many real benefits for my health, too?  

a once “i’ll-never-eat-that” food option is now one of my favorite side dishes. i’d previously tried kale in various iterations but never found it palatable. but that was before wayne discovered the magic of massaging it with a little salt and olive oil. what a difference! 

and then there’s quinoa, for which my attitude had always been: “just not gonna happen.” but lo and behold, now i really enjoy the nutty flavor and look forward to it in many dishes.  

kefir? it took me years to eat yogurt and this was a step beyond that. when wayne told me what it was, my gut reaction was: “no way.” it had no appeal for me whatsoever. but then he made some and now i eagerly enjoy it every night as our after dinner drink.   

we are on this journey together. as you know, his change in habits goes well beyond food. we’ve lowered the night temperature in the apartment, constantly evaluate the air for impurities, and have adjusted the darkness in our bedroom so as to promote better sleep.    

his recent experiment to change his circadian rhythm was so funny to watch! he religiously went to bed an hour earlier than the night before until he was going to sleep at 6pm and waking up at 2am. goodness! i would just shake my head and laugh as he said good night when it was still light out. luckily, my reading didn’t bother him and his turning all the lights on at 2 am didn’t bother me (i was in the bedroom and he in the living room). the reviews are mixed as to whether it was a successful venture, but it proved to me that this man will try almost anything to better his health and mind and soul.  

i never envisioned these kinds of changes in lifestyle but it’s about damn time!  exercising and eating healthy foods just makes good sense. and i love this man so i know we will continue to explore how to be healthy for as many years as we have left to us.” ***

Thank you…and back at ya!

But regarding the question of how many years we have left to us, she’s known my thoughts about that since our first date after re-connecting. We were both 60 at the time, and I asked her what she was planning on doing for the next 60 years. That makes it 11 down and 49 to go! She’s done well adapting to quinoa and kale, but I don’t think she’s quite wrapped her head around the idea of celebrating our 120th birthdays together!

*** Note: No, those are not typos in Sally’s essay. She has eschewed the use of capital letters ever since reading e.e. cummings when she was fifteen….and that was something I had trouble wrapping my head around when I was a freshman at Brown and reading her letters from home!