S3E12. The Leafy Greens Rabbit Hole

I’m not one to shy away from going down rabbit holes and this week found me tumbling my way down to Wonderland once again.

It all started with a report I read of a study published in Neurology this month that found (upon autopsy) that people who most closely adhered to the Mediterranean Diet had far fewer harmful plaques and tangles in their brains than those who did not.

What was surprising about the result, though, was that almost all of the benefit was found to be associated with consumption of leafy greens. I don’t want to get this wrong, so here is the finding verbatim: “People who ate at least seven servings of leafy greens per week had brains that looked 19 years younger than the brains of people who ate greens once a week or never.”

The authors, in typical researcher understatement, suggested that the findings are “enough for people to consider adding more of these vegetables to their diet.” 

Duh! Ya think?

After reading that, I packed my bags for the rabbit hole!

First question: What are leafy greens?

A quick google search answered that pretty definitively: “Leafy greens include various types of lettuce (e.g., romaine, Bibb, butterhead, Boston, arugula, spring mix, red leaf, green leaf, etc.) as well as spinach, Swiss chard, watercress, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, and kale.

Since I was headed down a rabbit hole, though, I asked which were the most beneficial in terms of nutrients. The ranking, from most to least, is: kale, microgreens, collard, spinach, cabbage, beet greens, watercress, romaine, Swiss chard, arugula, endive, bok choy and turnip greens. (Keep in mind that they are all good for you. This ranking is like seeding the Top 10 basketball teams in the country.)

I then got to thinking about the 7 servings part. That’s one serving per day. Since (1) I don’t consider leafy greens a breakfast food (and my breakfast granola is already a complete and completely filling meal) and (2) I don’t really eat a lunch, the math compels me to (3) get my one serving at dinner every night.

But what, I asked, is a serving of leafy greens?

Ladies and gentlemen…welcome to the leafy green rabbit hole!

Of all the options, spring mix with baby spinach is the one I most prefer. It frequently forms the base for a large salad with multi-colored peppers, red onions, mushrooms, avocado, tomatoes, salmon or anchovies, dulce and an olive oil dressing. (It’s also how I most often honor the research suggesting that brightly colored vegetables are better for you.)

But 7 nights a week? I don’t think so.

So exactly how much spring mix do I need to nibble to reach my daily quota?

Back to the google. Several reputable sites agreed that one serving was equal to 2 cups of loosely packed leafy greens.

‘Loosely packed,’ though, is not a clearly defined term, now, is it?

I tried putting spring mix into a measuring cup, but the act of grabbing the leaves and getting them into the cup inherently led to some amount of packing. When I poured it out into a bowl, it was definitely more than what I would consider a reasonably-sized serving, but I couldn’t see any way to pack it more loosely. 

Come to think of it now, isn’t ‘loosely packed’ pretty much an oxymoron?

Then it occurred to me that I could look at my spring mix’s package for guidance. I knew there would be a nutrition label on it that indicated serving size and how many servings there were in the container.

Are you ready for this?

The label said that there was 1 serving per container.

Are you kidding me???

The label also told me that the contents weighed 5 ounces or 142 grams. So back to the google I went once again to see how much a serving weighed. The answer was a little ambiguous: 60-90 grams, depending on the vegetable. Using the midpoint of 75 grams would suggest that there are really 2 servings in that package, not 1. 

Even if I went with that formula, though, it was still an impossible quota to meet.

It seemed that implementing the dormouse’s urging to  ‘feed your head’ was not as easy as it ought to be!

Deep from within the recesses of my early memory banks, though, an image surfaced of Archimedes dropping objects into his bathtub and discovering that they displaced an amount of water equal to their volume.

‘Eureka!’ I cried.

I’ll empty out the container of leafy greens and fill it with water using a measuring cup. That will tell me exactly how many 2-cup servings there are in the container.

I’ve kept you guessing long enough. Four. There are exactly four servings in a 5 ounce package of loosely packed leafy greens.

And that amount meets the eye test. It looks like a reasonably-sized side salad.

I can handle that. 

Needless to say, there are any number of ways to satisfy your leafy green requirement other than doing it all with spring mix. You can cook spinach, kale, mustard or collard greens, for example. But I’ll leave it up to you to figure out the serving size for each of those.  😀


S3E11. And The Winner Is…

This year I invested a good amount of time (and for the purposes of this blog, cognitive effort) watching all 10 films nominated for Best Picture along with the 5 nominees each for Best Animated Short and Best Live Action Short. I also watched 1 film for its Best Actor nomination. Having done so, all I can say is:


I’m old enough to remember when movies had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m old enough to remember movies that had plots you could follow and you didn’t need a libretto to know what was going on.

I’m old enough to remember when you didn’t have to google the meaning of the movie after you watched it to find out what it was you just saw.

I’m old enough to remember when there were only 5 nominees for Best Picture, not 10.

I’m old enough to remember when the Saturday matinee cost 35 cents and you got to see not one, but two movies.

I’m old enough to remember watching on the big screen with its thunderous sound in a theater where ushers used their flashlights to find seats for latecomers and to hush you if you made noise.

I’m old enough to remember hundreds of moviegoers in a packed theater gasping, cheering, holding our breaths and crying as one.

I must be getting old!

This year it seemed that more of the movies presented cognitive challenges than in previous years. I mean, sure, we had ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ back in the day, but NOBODY knew what that was about, and there was no way in the world you could intuit or glean from the images he presented what director Stanley Kubrick intended. Reminiscent of watching that movie, I was still trying to divine the meaning of ‘Triangle of Sadness’ well after it ended.

How long did it take you to figure out what was happening in ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once?’ There was a rapid-fire explanation of the multiverse and the discovery of how to travel between universes, but…geez…really? Do you think that the multiverse theory is a comprehensible subject for a movie? If so, I’d like to introduce you to the Best Picture of 2023!

‘Women Talking’ was a very cerebral movie about an extremely emotional subject. It’s basically shot in one location (the loft of a barn) and the characters and relationships between them are developed solely through dialogue. Boring, you say? Far from it! It took me a few more days to process it all after the final credits faded from the screen. 

Even knowing what the movie was supposed to be about before watching it, I still didn’t get ‘Aftersun.’  It seems that the reflection of the grown-up daughter on a television screen at the beginning of the film (which I didn’t notice) was the only context given for what unfolds in the next 1 hour and 36 minutes. Needless to say, there was no dialogue at the end to wrap things up, either.

Am I getting old? Is this what age-related cognitive decline looks like? Or am I just too stodgy to appreciate the latest in cinematic chic?

On the positive side, not only did I love ‘Banshees of Inisherin,’ but I was able to figure out that it was an allegory for the Protestant-Catholic troubles in Ireland. It takes a pretty high level of cognitive functioning to come up with that. I surprised myself! It was especially gratifying when my theory was confirmed by a google search.

Did you notice that ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ was a re-make of ‘Star Wars’ where the impossible task of destroying the death star was replaced with the equally impossible task of blowing up the nuclear enrichment plant?

You probably didn’t see it, but the winner of the Best Animated Short was ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.’ It didn’t take me long to equate the boy’s quest to find his home to Dorothy’s in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’

It would appear, then, that my abstract reasoning is hitting on all cylinders. What’s more, a week after seeing the last movie, I was able to name all 20 nominees from memory, without having rehearsed them or creating a mnemonic to aid my recall. I’ll take that as a win!

So I’m going to conclude that my facilities are still intact and that it’s the voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences who have a penchant for weirdness in selecting their nominees.

And to be honest, I thank them for it. It’s clear that gone are the days of ‘just’ being entertained, of sitting back and letting the images wash over you, transporting you to a magical world. That is exactly what ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ was supposed to do, and I didn’t like it at all. Complain as I might about the quirkiness of many of the nominees, I’m actually glad to have been challenged, to have had to think about what I was seeing, even when I came up short, which was often the case this year.


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!


S3E9. Lavender? Better Sleep On It!

Check out this conclusion from a 2021 study that had participants inhale lavender essential oil mist while sleeping:

“Our finding suggests that lavender aroma may be used to increase [slow wave] sleep and help prevent neurodegenerative diseases even when total sleep time is limited. As [sleep time] is often limited due to the work constraints in modern society, sleep-time lavender aroma may provide a cheap, safe way to improve sleep quality and prevent diseases like [Alzheimer’s] with minimal alteration of personal schedules and/or sleep/wake cycle.”

Pretty impressive, huh?

Digging a little deeper into the findings, the researchers found that lavender increased the time spent in deep, slow wave sleep which is the time during the sleep cycle that restores your body. But it’s also the time when the brain gives itself a bath in cerebrospinal fluid and washes away harmful detritus from the day’s activities. That’s were the suggestion that it might be protective against dementia comes from.

But they also found that inhaling lavender increases the time spent in REM sleep, which is when memory consolidation takes place. 

But there’s more: fast alpha waves were reduced throughout the night, thus resulting in fewer periods of remembered wakefulness. 

As a result, participants reported that they felt better after a lavender-suffused night’s sleep.

It doesn’t get much better than that!

So are you going to get a diffuser for your bedroom and try lavender essential oil? Or if not a diffuser, will you put a few drops on a piece of cloth and put it under your pillow?

I think it’s worth a shot. The way I see it, sleep is critical to brain health and using aromatherapy in this way boosts the quality and therefore the efficiency of your sleep…without your having to expend any effort at all except to fill your diffuser with water, add the oil drops, and turn it on. It’s the lazy man’s sleep workout!

I’ve been trying it out this week and so far the results are mixed. I’ve had good nights and not-so-good nights. I wake up often, but I fall back to sleep quickly. I’m feeling rested when I wake up most mornings.

But is it fair for me to expect to notice a significant difference? Probably not…even though the participants in the study reported they felt they slept better with the lavender. I expect I’ll still have good nights and bad nights. Will the bad nights be not as bad as before? Will I notice that I only wake up 5 times instead of 7? Will I feel more rested most mornings? Maybe, maybe not.

I went back to the data to try to see if I could find out how big the reported improvements were. It turns out that participants enjoyed about 2.5% more time in deep sleep with the lavender which is about 12 more minutes over the course of an 8-hour sleep. I’m willing to take it on faith that the extra time spent in deep, slow wave sleep will improve my brain health and reduce my risk for dementia by some meaningful if not consciously noticeable degree.

Conceptually, I like the idea of adding something to my brain health regimen that utilizes the olfactory sense. It always bothered me that most brain health exercises and recommendations feature vision and hearing, giving short shrift to olfaction which is, after all, the most ancient of the senses.

Structurally, the nerves from your sniffer go to the olfactory bulb in your brain which has direct connections to the amygdala (emotion) and hippocampus (memory). Is it any wonder that scents from our past can trigger such strong reactions in us?

Recent research has also revealed that a loss of smell can be an early predictor of dementia.

So if we subscribe to the use-it-or-lose it theory of brain maintenance that applies to all the other parts of the brain, then it seems we ought to be engaging in an olfactory workout each day right alongside our time spent in the gym.

I now start my day making sure I pause to enjoy the smell of Sally’s freshly ground coffee brewing and then the earthy smell of my spiced granola when I pour it into the bowl. After that, I crank up the diffuser in the living room for a 4-hour blast of rosemary (for mental sharpness) while I do my morning puzzles. At night, I now enjoy—and more importantly, my brain enjoys—a six hour lavender bath.

That’s 3 out of 5 senses stimulated. I’m looking forward to figuring out what workouts look like for taste and touch. Should be interesting!

(This is the 3rd episode I’ve posted about sleep and sleep hygiene. If you’re interested, you can check out the other two at S2E31 and S2E40)


S3E8. A Most Unlikely Music Man

Have you ever thought about your relationship to music? I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week in the context of writing this blog episode. My intention was to write about the brain benefits of playing and listening to music, but I got seriously sidetracked.

If I had to pick one word to describe my lifelong dance with music it would be ‘inadequate.’

Although my parents didn’t listen to music at home, they offered music lessons to their children. My older sisters played the accordion and piano, but I quit the piano after just 3 lessons. 

I’ve long regretted that decision for a number of reasons, but now you can add to that the fact that playing an instrument is correlated with a reduced risk of developing dementia later in life. The current thinking is that, like learning a second language, it develops a cognitive reserve that can be recruited when your primary circuits start to fail you. The good news is that you can still reap some of the benefits of learning to play an instrument at whatever age you decide to do it. For me, that was 70.

I’ve always envied those who could play an instrument and those who could sing. By elementary school, though, I knew that I couldn’t carry a tune. When Mrs. Wolfe, the music teacher, visited our classroom each week, I’d mouth the words to try to slip by unnoticed. Unfortunately, there was one day when she had everyone else stop singing so she could hear me. It was humiliating.

Even though I had no aptitude for music, my world was shaken when I was 10 and I went to the drive-in with my parents to see ‘West Side Story.’ I couldn’t get the tunes out of my head, I was in love with Maria and I started talking with a Puerto Rican accent!

Through my teens, though, my music insecurity increased (as did a boatload of other insecurities) as I realized that my friends all liked and had opinions about music but I did not. What was wrong with me?

Like all of my friends, I was captive to AM radio’s Top 10. We all had a bedside radio to play music to wake us up and to put us to sleep, and a transistor radio to keep us company the rest of the time. I pretty much didn’t like any new song when I first heard it and wondered why the DJs played songs like that, but then the more I heard them, the more I liked them.

I thought that that was a failing on my part, because I had friends who would get excited the first time a new song was played. In hindsight, I now know that what I experienced was pretty normal. It’s called ‘the mere exposure effect.’ Simply put, the more you see or hear something—unless there is something fundamentally offensive or odious about it—the more you like it.

Coming out of high school, I considered myself a soul man, happiest when listening to Motown artists like The Temptations, Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes and Smokey Robinson. But I enjoyed the popular lineup of artists from that era, too: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Simon & Garfunkel, Mamas and the Papas, et al. I had also developed a fondness for the doo-wop sound of the 50s which is what Cousin Brucie and Scott Morrow played on WABC-AM as ‘oldies.’ 

In college, EVERYBODY had strong feelings about their music, except, it seemed, me. I clung to my R&B and resisted acid rock for a long time, but exposure to new music was inevitable as the occupants of every dorm room had record players which were blasted at all hours of the day and night.

Two doors down on my floor freshman year at Brown was a 6’9″ basketball player from western Pennsylvania coal country who loved Broadway musicals. I owe him a debt of gratitude for introducing me to ‘Hair.’ 

Sophomore year, three Canadian hockey players shared a suite next to the triple where I lived and played Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Helpless’ over and over again because they were homesick (‘There is a town in north Ontario…All my changes were there…’). Thank you.

I inhaled Janis Joplin, James Taylor, The Band, Led Zeppelin, Santana and—at long last—Cream. Sally brought me to her college’s library, sat me down in a listening room, placed earphones on my head and played ‘Abbey Road.’ OMG! Friends turned me on to Laura Nyro and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The only artist I ever ‘discovered’ by myself was Elton John. I had decided not to go home on winter break my junior year and was listening to the campus radio station WBRU one snowy night when ‘Your Song’ came on. I bought the album the next day.

Yet somehow, 4 years later, a guy who had no musical aptitude and whose musical tastes were dictated by his surroundings and who had never seen an opera or a symphony found himself the director of a 3,365-seat performing arts center that was the home of the New Jersey State Opera and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Talk about feeling inadequate!

I knew I was ignorant when it came to classical music so I decided to attend performances and sit in on rehearsals when I could, hoping to learn what all the fuss was about. What a rare and wonderful opportunity I had!

The problem, though, was that after settling into my seat, my mind would soon leave the music behind and think about anything and everything else. One night, I found myself composing a memo while I was supposed to be watching ‘Madame Butterfly!’

This inability to focus bothered me for years. What was wrong with me? Years later in graduate school, I learned that there were different attentional systems in your brain, some that attended to outside stimuli and some that attended to your internal dialog. I theorized that my internal attentional system must have been stronger than my external system. That would explain both my failure as a concert-goer and my ability to tune out distractions when studying. It certainly was a double-edged sword.

While doing research for this blog episode, I discovered that my guess was on target. That internal attentional system focuses on what is now called ‘mind-wandering’ or ‘self-generated thought’ and it is believed to be your brain’s default system. This means you have to expend cognitive effort to focus on outside stimuli, thus consuming units of a limited amount of attentional resources. When your brain gets tired of sustaining its attention on something in the environment, it will revert to ‘listening’ to what you have to say to yourself.

Fast forward to the present.

My music exposure is way up since I re-connected with Sally who has a truly enviable and remarkable relationship with music. I’ve attended more concerts with her in the last 12 years than I had in my first 60! Earlier this month, we saw Mandy Patinkin in Wilmington and last night we saw a Linda Rondstadt impersonator at a community theater here in West Chester. Next month, we have tickets for Yo-Yo Ma in Philadelphia and in June we’re seeing Bryan Adams. In between, we’ll probably go to nearby restaurants a few times to hear Sally’s nephew Jake perform. (He’s really good. You can check out his latest single here.)

Going back to that Yo-Yo Ma concert in March, it will consist of Beethoven’s 4th symphony and his Archduke Trio. I’ve been listening to those pieces and having a fabulous time doing so. I’m hearing classical music like I’ve never heard it before, tracking the various instruments as they flit about one another, being tickled by the trills and thrilled by the crescendos. And now that I’ve heard each piece a number of times, I actually LIKE them! Admittedly, my mind drifts away periodically, but I seem to be better able to sustain my attention than in the past. 

Inspired by that success, I decided to try to spend an hour each day listening to all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies with the goals of staying focused and learning to like them.

As luck would have it, that decision makes brain-health sense. Sustained attention is an important cognitive function which has been linked to other cognitive functions like learning and memory. The research also tells us that listening to new music is protective against cognitive decline. I’m pretty sure, though, that you actually have to listen to it and not just have it as background music while your mind jogs off in other directions.

Now when you add an hour each day listening to Beethoven to the time I spend practicing the recorder and the time I’m listening to my playlist while working out on the treadmill, you get more than 2 hours each day when I’m immersed in music…and all of that time is challenging, interesting, fun and brain healthy.

And you know what else? I’m not feeling musically inadequate anymore!  😀


S3E7. Rosemary, Baby!

When were you going to tell me?

And why is the brain health blogger apparently the last to know?

I’ve been researching this stuff for about two years now and not once can I recall an article extolling the praises of rosemary…and it’s not because my memory is failing me!

Last week, my step-son Chris tagged me on a meme he shared on Facebook that simply read: “Scientists discovered an herb that fights off dementia and enhances memory and focus…” Naturally, I bit, clicking on the link to see what it was referencing. 

I landed on a site claiming that rosemary could improve digestion, avert brain aging, protect from macular degeneration, prevent cancer, enhance memory and focus, and protect neurons from damage. 

Needless to say, I was skeptical, but then my niece Wendy, who is a doctor of naturopathic medicine, commented on Chris’ post saying that when she took her board exams, all of the applicants had sprigs of rosemary on their desks.

So I decided to follow-up on the brain health claims and, lo and behold, there is actually some there there!

The preponderance of research is on animals, so there is reason to hold one’s exuberance in check until more studies can be done on humans, but the animal record is pretty impressive.

In a review of the literature, it was found that rosemary’s effects were consistent across types of administration (eaten in food, drunk in tea, or inhaled in a diffusion) and the effects can be induced with small doses, similar to the amounts you use in cooking. That’s pretty impressive.

It has quite a few chemical compounds in it that are important for brain health, giving it antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective qualities.

It also influences at least 10 different chemical reactions that are important for memory formation and recall.

The human record, though, is thinner. One study showed that students performed better on memory tests when in a room with a rosemary diffusion. Another showed an increase in speed of recall (average age of participants was 75) after receiving a dose of rosemary extract. But these studies were performed more than a dozen years ago, and so one has to wonder why no further results have been reported in the last decade, even as the animal research continues apace. How does such a promising line of research just go dark?

I dug a little deeper and it appears that research on herbs is very difficult to do because it’s nearly impossible to guarantee the same chemical properties from one batch of plants to another. Everything from soil to sunlight to moisture to age of plant at harvest to parts of the plant used to the method of processing the leaves affects the final product. If you can’t standardize the treatment, then your results can’t be challenged or replicated. What’s more, you can’t get approval for and market the product as medicine if you can’t guarantee the batch you are selling has the same properties as the batch that was used in the research…and therein, apparently, lies the rub.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of waiting another decade for large-scale human studies to be conducted. There is some really old ‘research’ that suggests using rosemary might be good for your brain: the ancient Greeks wore it while taking exams to enhance recall and placed it under their pillows to reduce nightmares and better understand the meaning of their dreams. 

Paradoxically, one of the few recent human studies found that inhaling rosemary essential oil decreased sleepiness and increased alertness among night shift nurses. What do you think the ancient Greeks would say about that?

Eager to incorporate anything into my lifestyle that might give my brain a leg up in navigating the next 30 years, I immediately bought powdered rosemary to add to my daily tea infusion. I’ll add some to the spice mix next time I make granola, too.

But the biggest leap of faith I took was to buy an essential oil diffuser for the bedroom. Here’s my thinking: long-term memory formation takes place while you sleep and inhaling rosemary enhances recall, so maybe combining the two will super-charge the process. Makes sense, no?

I’ll be the first to admit that that’s more of a crap shoot than a scientific hypothesis. I don’t understand the chemistry of how rosemary affects one’s brain, so it’s just as likely to interfere with the memory formation process as it is to enhance it. I could easily argue that the stimulating effects that the nurses experienced will result in a lighter sleep for me with fewer hours of the deep sleep needed for memory consolidation.

I’m a betting man, though, and I decided to go with the Greeks on this one.  So I set up the diffuser in the bedroom, added 3 drops of rosemary essential oil to half a cup of water, turned it on, and settled in for a productive night’s slumber.


It usually takes me no time at all to fall asleep, but not that night. My mind refused to drift below the sleep line for what seemed like forever. Then when I did sleep, it felt shallow, like I was just an inch or two below the surface. 

I must have slept some because I had dreams, but they weren’t sharp or colorful. It was like watching them through gauze.

I woke up frequently, tossing and turning. And then I did the worst thing possible: I tried to write a summary in my head of this night’s experience for the blog!

Did I mention that my heart seemed to be beating a little faster than normal? Yeah, there was that, too.

So it appears I experienced the nurses’ arousal and anti-sleepiness effects instead of the Greeks’ insight into the meaning of my dreams effect. Bummer. 

Sally, on the other hand, reported a better than normal night’s sleep.

So I’ll give it another shot next week, just in case there was some extraneous factor that kept me awake during this first trial, but I’m not hopeful. The rosemary diffusion apparently had a stimulative effect on me and that’s not consistent with the kind of deep sleep your brain needs every night to stay healthy. If the second trial fails, I’ll take a shot at using it in the morning in the living room when I do my puzzles.

I’ll keep you posted.


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!


S3E5. Isolation vs. Engagement

We were out to dinner with two other couples. I wanted to join the conversation, but when the current speaker finished talking, someone else jumped in before me and changed the subject. Having lost the opportunity, I leaned over my bowl of pasta and tried to slurp a mouthful without spraying red sauce all over my white sweater.

*  *  *

I’ll be the first to admit that social engagement is my weakest suit among the 5 pillars of brain health (exercise, diet, sleep, cognitive challenge, and social engagement). If I weren’t married to Sally and she didn’t schedule us to be with friends and family on a regular basis, I’d probably meet criteria for a hermit or recluse. That’s why I keep an eye out for research that might provide insight into what is an acceptable level of social engagement and what, for that matter, is even considered a social engagement.

In the scene I described at the top of this post, I was out with people, yes, but what if I hadn’t said anything at all the entire evening? Does it count as social engagement if you are with people but don’t talk? Does the mere presence of other people trigger whatever mechanisms are protective against dementia? Or does it require the full deployment of cognitive skills like listening for subtext, being tactful, reading faces, and spinning humor from previously unconnected snippets of conversation? In other words, did I get social engagement credit for my dinner the other night even though I didn’t talk a lot? Would I get credit if I went out by myself and interacted with the waitress? Is that enough to stave off cognitive decline?

I talked about this at length in S1E30: People Who Need People. Recently, though, it seems as if the research effort has shifted from how social engagement is protective to how social isolation is a risk factor. It’s an important difference.

In a study released last month, researchers found a 27% increase in dementia among older Americans who were socially isolated. Social isolation was defined as having few relationships and few people to interact with regularly. The study measured this based on whether or not participants lived alone, talked about “important matters” with two or more people in the past year, attended religious services, or participated in social events. Participants were assigned one point for each answer that reflected social activity, and those who scored a zero or one were classified as socially isolated.

That’s a low bar that I can pass as long as Sally is around! In fact, a 2017 study separated out the effect of being married from other forms of social engagement and found that marriage was protective against dementia but the extent of your social networks was not. The inference was that it might be loneliness that is more determinative than frequency of contacts. 

Interestingly, a separate study showed that talking on the phone and texting reduces social isolation. The Luddite in me has so far resisted the cell phone’s siren song, but in the pursuit of brain health, I just might have to consider taking up texting at some point in the future.

Another study highlighted the advantages of socially engaging with people of different generations. I’m guessing that doing so forces you to assume different roles, with each one stimulating somewhat different brain regions. If this is the case, grandparents who live near their kids have a big built-in advantage.

Isn’t research fascinating? I’m really looking forward to studies that tease apart the unique contributions of loneliness, isolation and social engagement to your risk of developing dementia.

Finally, a recent large-scale study out of China suggests that social engagement is helpful but may not be necessary if you engage in a number of other protective measures.

The researchers focused on six modifiable lifestyle factors (which should all be familiar to regular readers of this blog):

  • Physical exercise: Doing at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
  • Diet: Eating appropriate daily amounts of at least 7 of 12 food items (fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil, eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts and tea).
  • Alcohol: Never drinking or drinking occasionally.
  • Smoking: Never smoking or being a former smoker.
  • Cognitive activity: Exercising the brain at least twice a week (by reading and playing cards or mah-jongg, for example).
  • Social contact: Engaging with others at least twice a week (e.g., by attending community meetings or visiting friends or relatives).

It turned out that people living lifestyles that included at least four healthy habits were less likely to progress to mild cognitive impairment and dementia. So it seems it’s possible to protect yourself even without a strong social calendar.

This gives me great hope as I definitely pass muster for at least 5 out of the 6 factors…but I’m still going to try to engage more when Sally schedules me, just in case!


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 Amazon.com.

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 www.MistakesOnTheJourneyToNowhere.com. 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!  


S2E50. Granola Revisited

It’s astonishing what can happen to a bowl of granola over the course of a year!

In S1E47: A Granola Ritual, I described the results of my effort to make my own sugar-free granola. Here’s what it looked like then, oh so many breakfasts ago:

1 cup each of chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds

1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

½ cup each of chia and flax seeds

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon each of turmeric, cumin and ginger

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup olive oil

1 dried fig, chopped

1 prune, chopped

¼ apple, chopped

15 red grapes, halved

6 raspberries or blackberries

A handful of blueberries

Enough flax milk to fill the bowl

I know rituals aren’t supposed to change, but the apostate in me just couldn’t resist. Every time I read the results of a new study linking a different food to brain health, I just had to figure out a way to get it into my diet…and my granola bowl every morning was the easiest place to do it.

The first thing that happened was that my annual physical showed my cholesterol getting a little high, so I immediately added 2 cups of oats and a cup of oat bran to the recipe. (I also started adding oat milk to my nightly kefir cocktail.)  With the addition of oats, my morning mix now officially met the criteria for ‘granola.’

Next came cacao. Studies showed brain health benefits for cacao, but I couldn’t figure out how to ingest it without  adding a lot of sugar. Then it occurred to me that I could mix it into my granola where the prune and fig might provide the desired level of sweetness.

So I bought some cacao powder and put a few tablespoons in the mix. It turned out that it added a little sweetness on its own, so I added some more. Now I’m up to 8 tablespoons of cacao powder, which is enough to give the flax milk a little color when I stir it all together, and just a hint of chocolate flavor without turning it into Count Chocula or Cocoa Puffs.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t really tasting the spices in my recipe, so I increased the dosage to 1 tablespoon each of cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, and ginger, and I added a tablespoon of nutmeg to the mix. Having done so, there wasn’t any difference in taste that I could discern. A warning, however, is in order. One evening, for a snack, I tried eating just the mix with flax milk but without the fruits. It was god-awful! A ton of stevia made it palatable, but it isn’t anything I would ever do again.

So why add all these spices, you ask? Well, because each one has been linked to improved brain health. But you are only getting minute amounts in each bowlful, you say, so are you really getting any benefit from them? Good question! My hopes are buoyed by two pieces of data. First, there was a study out of India that showed eating curry twice or more each week was protective. And so I thought, “How much spice can that be?” Surely, my daily mini-dose (plus the additional mini-doses of these same spices that I get in my daily matcha green tea brew) must add up to a significant level. 

Secondly, studies show that, in supplements, massive doses of these things must be taken to generate a measurable effect. But other studies suggest that eating a brain-healthy diet that includes them on a regular basis seems to offer just as much protection. So, yes, I think I am benefitting from this approach.

Now in an experimenting mode, I started adding things that I had read about but hadn’t included because they didn’t tickle my gustatory fancy. But the experience of adding things without fouling the taste gave me courage. So I added a cup each of sunflower seeds and hemp hearts. They added new textures, which were interesting, but left the flavor intact.

Turning to the fruit section, I quickly discovered that I could substitute a date for a fig and that it was even sweeter. After going through a few bags of dates, though, I think I prefer the figs.

It was several months into the new year before it dawned on me that I didn’t have any strawberries in the bowl. I couldn’t fathom how that had happened, so I bought a quart and pulled out the 7 largest, dicing one each day and adding it to my bowl. (The rest of the berries go into my kefir, as do 3 bananas, when I make 2 quarts every week.)

At this point, my bowl was overflowing and I had to switch to a larger one!

I always wanted to add raisins, but couldn’t find unsweetened organic ones at my supermarket. But then one day it happened: there they were on the shelf! The same held true for dried cranberries, so I added a cup of both to the recipe, mixing them in after it had finished baking and cooled.

But something strange happened. Even though I store my granola in an air-tight glass container, the raisins and cranberries turned into little rocks, barely chewable and sticking to my teeth when I crunched into them. With deep regret, I dropped them from the recipe.  😦

And then came Thanksgiving and the arrival of fresh organic cranberries to the produce section. I tried adding a handful of them, halved, and, boy oh boy, were they tart! But a recent study had them outperforming cacao and so I thought it was worth it to keep them in. Unfortunately, I’m guessing that they will disappear after the holiday season.

And now for the piece-de-resistance: vitamin gummies!

Sally has a prescription for medical marijuana to help her sleep and she takes it in gummy form. But as we prepared for our trip to Greece in October, we learned that it’s illegal to bring marijuana—in any form—into the country. I came up with the idea of smuggling it in by mixing hers into a bottle of vitamin gummies. By the time the bottle arrived, though, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk, which meant that I now had 170 vitamin gummies that I couldn’t use. Or could I?

I was never a fan of taking vitamins even though they pretty much can’t hurt and they often help. I tried the gummies and they tasted fine, with a hint of citrus, and the texture was interestingly rubbery. When I read the label, it said to take 2 every day with food…and that is when it hit me: I could quarter them and add them to my granola in the morning. So I did…and it’s a hoot! I play this game where I try to identify all 8 pieces when I bite into them. So now I’m taking a daily vitamin and have added a bit of whimsy to my morning ritual.

Reflecting back on my granola’s evolution over the course of this past year, it occurred to me that Forrest Gump had it all wrong: life isn’t like a box of chocolates…it’s like a bowl of granola!

For the adventurous among you, here’s the current recipe:

1 cup each of chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds

2 cups oats

1 cup oat bran

1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

1 cup sunflower seeds

1 cup hemp hearts

½ cup each of chia and flax seeds

8 tablespoons of unsweetened cacao powder

1 tablespoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and cumin

1 teaspoon vanilla

¾ cup olive oil

1 dried fig, chopped

1 prune, chopped

¼ apple, chopped

1 large strawberry, chopped

15 red grapes, halved

A handful of raspberries or blackberries

A handful of blueberries

A handful of cranberries, halved

2 gummy vitamins, quartered

Enough flax milk to fill the bowl

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then drizzle in the olive oil and vanilla and toss until the nuts are coated and the seeds stick to them. Spread the mixture out on a cookie sheet (no need for parchment since there is no sugar to stick to the bottom) and bake for 25 minutes at 300 degrees. Voila…granola!


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!


S2E46. What Will I Remember?

About 25 years ago, when I was in my late 40s, my wife and I spent a week in Venice. Reflecting back on that trip, though, I only have a handful of memories…certainly not a week’s worth. Which makes me wonder: How much of our just-completed 12-day journey will I remember 25 years from now, when I’m 96?

I slept well every night with a lot of dreaming both on the trip and the week after, and I didn’t experience any anxiety or depression, so my brain has no excuse for not consolidating a lot of memories. 

I’m pretty sure I’ll remember that we visited Greece, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, but the names of the ports are already eluding me. Without looking at the itinerary, I can name Athens, Santorini, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Zadar, Koper and Venice, but I already need help to fill in Katakolon and Kotor. I’ll be happy if I can recall 5 out of 9 a few years down the road.

One thing I know that I am certain to remember is tasting the fruit of a cactus that was growing alongside a cobblestone street. I picked one pod from a cluster and split it open with my thumbs to reveal its juicy, bright purple meat. It tasted bitter so one taste was enough. After dropping it on the ground, though, I noticed a smear  of juice on my hand and so I licked it.


Immediately, I felt the prick of a hundred tiny needles all around my tongue and the inside of my mouth. Unseen by me, the fruit was protected by a legion of tiny spikes that had come off in my hand when I opened it. That one lick transferred most of them to my tongue. Lesson learned…and never to be forgotten! (On the walk back to the bus, our tour guide identified the plant. It was an aptly-named prickly pear cactus!)

On the other hand, I already can’t remember on which excursion it happened. 

I probably won’t forget the olive trees, which I had never seen before, that were as ubiquitous in Greece and Croatia as are vineyards in France and corn fields in rural Pennsylvania.

I tried to replay in my mind our tour of Lubljana, Slovenia, and did pretty well. Sally was impressed with the detail of my recollection. But I’m unable to recall the other excursions with as much certainty. A few images pop up, but I know that there is a lot I’m forgetting, and I have trouble connecting the images to the locations. Reminiscing with Sally should help remedy some of that.

Telling friends about our adventure should foster preservation of some memories. It will be interesting to see which experiences emerge as important enough to share.

The pictures we took will also help, but only if we look at them from time to time. The photos I’ve posted to the blog’s web site are the one’s I’m most likely to recall in the future because of their association with the blog in addition to the visit itself.

I’ll remember that the former Yugoslavia broke into 6 nations: Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. All 4 of the tour guides we had in the first 3 of those countries mentioned it and I realized that I was completely ignorant of that recent history, so I made an effort to commit it to memory.

I sat agape watching people walk by at the port in Kotor, Montenegro, stunned at their height. It turns out that they have the 3rd tallest population in the world. I felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag…which should be unforgettable.

I’ll remember the rubbing alcohol taste and spreading warmth throughout my chest from drinking grappa. I won’t remember any of the paired wines from our gourmet on-board dinner.

I’m pretty sure I’ll recall the glass-making demonstration in Murano. We bought an art glass paperweight that is sure to remind us.

In all likelihood, though, I’ll forget the vast majority of the experience. Like my Venice trip a quarter of a century ago, there will probably be fragments, but not enough to conjure up the full 12-day trip.

Already—just a week since our return—much has faded. Memories are mischievously mingling and blending with one another, so I have difficulty sorting out what happened when and where.

But I’m going to try my level best to preserve the humbling awe I felt as I beheld the elegant majesty of the Parthenon, and the quiet thrill that surged through me as I stood on the starting line for the foot races at the original Olympic stadium where the games were held for more than a thousand years. 

I believe in the maxim that it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters. I’d like to augment that sentiment by suggesting that it’s not the memories (which can fade) but the experience (knowing that you did it) that really matters. And so I’m hopeful that a quiet warmth will still well up within me when I’m 96 and someone mentions Montenegro—even if I can no longer picture it in my mind’s eye—and I’ll smile.


S2E45. Home Again, Home Again!

Greece, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Venice, West Chester, Pennsylvania!

As wonderful as the accommodations were on our trip, it was great to sleep in our own bed last night, especially after having woken up at 4am in Venice to begin the journey home.

4am in Venice. That’s 10pm in West Chester. It’s just mind-boggling that I had to get up at exactly the same time that I would normally be going to bed. 

The flights home were quite the challenge. Did you know that Venice airport is a ‘silent’ airport? No announcements over the public address system until you get to your gate. It was borderline serene walking through the terminal.

Our first flight was a 2½ hour hop to Heathrow Airport in London. We arrived on time, but due to a labor shortage, there was no one to connect the walkway to our plane, so we sat on the tarmac for half an hour…which resulted in our missing our connecting flight to Philadelphia.

Heathrow is a sprawling city. Once we got into the terminal, we had to take a bus, a tram, an elevator, 2 escalators and then walk about a quarter mile to get to our gate. The security lines were long and the technology to move through the various passport and boarding pass checkpoints confusing. Fortunately, though, signage was clear and we muddled our way through in our sleep-addled state.

Once aloft, I decided to sleep as much as possible on the 8-hour flight while Sally decided to stay awake the whole time. We arrived in Philly around 5pm and we both went to bed at 9pm. It will probably take us 2-3 days to get back into our normal routine.

Reflecting back, the journey was both a feast and an assault on our senses, cognitive abilities and biological rhythms. Just the thing the doctor ordered for dementia prevention!

The sights and vistas were breathtaking across the 5 countries we sampled, topped off by the 27-hairpin turn climb to the 3,000 foot view from a mountain top in Montenegro back down to our ship in the turquoise harbor below.

We discovered that sunrises and sunsets don’t get old, no matter where or how often they are viewed.

The various on-board lectures and tour guide narratives filled our heads with new information about the last 4,000 years of history across the region. By the time we did the tour of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, I just couldn’t absorb another byte of information. Fortunately, it was our last day.

Food was a ceaseless adventure. Between the on-board options (ranging from buffet to gourmet with paired wines) and the tastes of local cuisines on land excursions, our taste buds joyously put in a lot of overtime. 

Music was everywhere, from the guitarist in the nightclub to the Beatles songbook in the theater to the violin and cello duo in the atrium to the pianist in the lounge to the string septet concert in a 15th century church on the lagoon in Venice.

I’ve already described in depth the assault on our circadian rhythms as we adjusted to time zone changes. Add to that the assault on my gut biome that I believe was precipitated by my drinking caffeinated coffee every morning. After a few days, I was able to restore a bit of routine to my diet by replacing my usual breakfast granola with muesli and a plate of fruit. On the other hand, I continued to consume more sugar, flour, butter and bread than I had in months.

We didn’t have to worry about performing a lot of mental arithmetic to convert currencies as the euro and dollar are at parity right now. I was surprised, though, at the wide varieties of credit card readers that I confronted. Sometimes it took me a while to figure out whether to tap, swipe, scan or slide and where on the device to do it. Cashiers, though, were more than willing to guide me through it.

All in all, it was quite the adventure. We didn’t get lost during any of our free time (which surprised us) and we managed to muddle our way through every situation we confronted, even if it took us 2 or 3 passes to get it right.

To be honest, I’ve had enough neural stimulation in the last two weeks to last me for a while. I’m definitely looking forward to re-establishing my hum-drum routine and sticking with it…until the next time!