Catching Words With Crosswords

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 17, 2017

I like to imagine my conscious mind as a small boat floating on a sea of memories. Words I readily use swim in schools near the surface. I can  grab them quickly. Other words swim deeper, take longer to catch. Some words dwell in the darkest deeps of my memory sea, taking hours to reel in. Doing crossword puzzles helps me catch words I haven held in my mind for a long time. After I release them, they swim close to the boat for a while, making them easier to catch again.

crossword_puzzle

For most of my life crossword puzzles had little appeal for me. I’ve never been good at games. But last year I started doing the mini-puzzles in the New York Times. I liked them because I could actually finish the grid, which I couldn’t with the full-size puzzles. The mini-puzzles provided positive reinforcement, and only took a few minutes. Which is the limit of my gaming patience. As my confidence grew I looked forward to doing the mini-puzzle each day. My wife Susan, who works out of town, does them too. We do them before our last phone call at night, and compare our completion times. I’ve only beaten her once.

Recently the New York Times sent me an sales pitch – get a year of the full-size puzzles for just $19.95. My new sense of crossword ability con my ego into pressing the buy button. As soon as I started the first full-size puzzle I had buyer’s remorse. They were way too hard for me. They were over my head. I did find it satisfying that I could answer many clues, more than ever before, but felt bad about leaving most boxes empty.

I’m not giving up. I just figured I needed more practice. Then my friend Linda told me about the Dell Crosswords puzzle books. I bought one called Easy Crosswords. And they are easy! Maybe too easy. But it’s very encouraging to complete whole puzzles, and they’re more practice than the mini-puzzles. I’ll get to the big puzzles someday.

I noticed something else. Doing the crosswords made me think of words I seldom used. Ones that swam deep in my sea of memories. This must be why the social security set love doing crosswords. I’ve already started my battle of recalling words (which I know I’ll ultimately lose but will fight the good fight anyway). Every year more nouns and names hang out on the tip of my tongue. Which reminds me of a poem by Bill Collins my friend Connell sent me, called, “Forgetfulness.”

The poem begins:

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

In my struggle to recall words, I’m not sure if they completely disappear, or merely sink too deep to be captured. I’m always surprised by forgotten vocabulary suddenly returning. Doing crossword puzzles churn the words in my sea, keeping them near the surface. One scientific study found that doing crosswords could delay the onset of memory loss by 2.54 years. Other studies show elderly minds can retain elasticity and even grow new brain cells and connections, although those studies focus on aerobic activity, and not games.

Then there is the issue of speed. I feel my mind goes slower than other minds. My wife Susan and my friend Linda can do the mini-puzzles 2-5 times faster than I can. That might explain why I’ve never liked games. It makes me wonder if people who think faster are attracted to games. When I first started doing the NYT’s mini-puzzles they took me 5-12 minutes to complete. I now do the easy ones in 2-4 minutes. Susan and Linda often finish in 1-2 minutes, with occasional times below a minute. I think Susan’s best is 43 seconds.

I’m wondering if I think slower than other people. My wife used to get very impatient with me, finishing my sentences before I could. I complained and she’s been more patient. Which is nice of her, but I can tell I’m slowing her down. Maybe that’s why I like writing better than talking. I can say what I want at my own chosen speed.

Anyway, the point of this story is to express my thanks for crossword puzzles. Hope I didn’t take too long in doing it.

JWH

5 Goals vs. 25 Goals

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 6, 2017

Grit-by-Angela-DuckworthI’m reading a wonderfully inspiring book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. Duckworth won a MacArthur “genius” grant, pursued several interesting careers, and is currently a teacher focused on helping students find their true passions, showing how grit will get them what they want. The book was often praised in 2016 book reviews, getting on several best-of-year lists, and was featured on PBS’s NOVA program “School of the Future” (also at YouTube). Grit is Duckworth’s first book, and continues to blaze the trail set by other books I’ve admired on the same topic: The Outliers, Talent is Overrated, The Talent Code. They all preach effort counts more than natural abilities. Duckworth observes people who apply themselves persistently getting ahead, a quality we know as grit. Since I’ve never been a particularly gritty person, I love reading this book.

Duckworth profiles many successful people, and I was particularly taken by a story she heard about Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor. Buffett’s advice was to write down 25 career goals. Then do some soul searching and select the five that matter the most. Finally, look at the leftover twenty, and accept they must be ignored at all costs. This bit of ambition triage is a common advice among productivity gurus. It’s old wisdom about focusing. However, I was intrigued by applying this advice to my general goals. Could I boil them down to just 5?

We all want too much, own too much, do too much, befriend too many people, consume too much. It’s much easier to narrow our desires down to a manageable number. But is 5 the right number? If we list everything we want out of life, it will tally more than 25. Now Buffett was specifically referring to career goals, but I want to use his advice for general ambitions. To apply his wisdom holistically.

Rationalizing Buffet’s Advice – Approach #1

I’m also going to do a bit of cheating. I could say my goal is to finish reading Grit. That’s something I can accomplish. But is it what Buffett meant? He meant something bigger. I could say I want to read 52 books a year and I want to get good at math. That would be two goals. Is it cheating to say I have a goal of being well educated and combine my reading and math goals into it? Reducing two to one?

Let’s say we have sixteen hours a day to divvy up between our goals. That’s a little more than three hours for each if we have five goals. But if you have to work, that has to count as one of the goals, and it takes up over half of the day, leaving little for the other four.

Now that I’m retired, I won’t have to waste one of my goals on working. Because of aging, my biggest goal is health. Staying healthy means I can pursue my other goals. Should it count it as a goal? Shouldn’t it just be part of living? I say yes it does count as a goal, because pursuing my health is hard. I show the most grit in life when it comes to staying healthy. I have to, because it’s so easy to careen into unhealthiness.

If I listed every last thing I want to do each day, it would run more than 25 items. But, if I list goals by their intent, I can get them down to 5 items:

  1. Constantly work at improving my health
  2. Constantly work at improving my writing
  3. Constantly work at improving my relationships
  4. Constantly work at learning more about reality 
  5. Constantly work at making the world a better place

Notice that all my goals will never be accomplished? And to be honest, I do very little towards number five. And because I’m getting older, and my mental and physical abilities are in decline, means my ability to work harder is declining. All my goals are losing battles. I can’t stop and cross off any as finished.

Below are many goal categories that could cover countless specific goals, but in general, they are goals that do have finishes. For example owning a new car or learning statistics with R.

  1. Possessions
  2. Careers
  3. Pleasures
  4. Hobbies
  5. Entertainments
  6. Skills
  7. Games
  8. Accomplishments

Improving my health does require many sub-goals like eating better, exercise, taking medicine, going to the doctor, learning to cook healthy meals, shopping for natural foods, etc. I no longer eat for pleasure, entertainment or even socializing. If I was a gourmet, I’d have to list it as one of my main goals. If I loved cooking or growing food, they would have to be a separate goal too. If I loved playing golf or cross-country biking, I couldn’t count them under health as exercise, I’d have to count them as sports goals. If I pursued both passionately, they would count as two.

I don’t know if this is cheating on Buffet’s advice or not. I think of a goal as a specific quest, but all the things I’ve defined as goals can’t be finished. Buffet might have been thinking of something that could be accomplished, and scratched off a list – like making a million dollars. My goals are states of being I constantly strive to attain and never abandon.

With all my present goals I could show more grit. I would be much healthier if I could lose weight, and that would take some severe persistence I haven’t shown in a long time.

My shifting away from specific goals is due to aging. Take for example games. I’ve never really cared much for winning games, and generally when I played them it was to be social. When video games first appeared in arcades I felt challenged to get high scores, but tired of that after turning over Space Invaders. Now I play games like crosswords to improve my memory and focus. Pleasures like eating, drinking, drugs, travel, are becoming pointless because my body can’t handle them. My plant based diet isn’t miserable, but it’s certainly not something I desire. Eating for fun only hurts now. My only indulgence is dark chocolate covered almonds. It meets the requirement of the diet – barely, and I enjoy them, but it’s hardly a goal of eating gourmet food.

My main goal after health is writing. I could call that goal seeking identity. We all need a goal that defines us, where we find a sense of identity by pursuing. I think of myself as a blogger. When I worked, I thought of myself as a programmer. I can say that blogging also applies to my goal of health. Regular writing exercises my brain. Writing also gives me to look forward to and to get up and do each day.

I put friendships and socializing as my third goal, even though being social is also part of staying healthy. I’m mostly a hermit, but I do feel a certain need to socialize. At one time I would have put movies and television as two of my major goals because I loved them so much, and spent so much time with them, but I use both now as methods of socializing. I’m slowly fading away from enjoying fiction as a solitary pursuit.

Number four is about education. My reading is veering towards learning, and not pleasure. Nonfiction might be my new entertainment. Learning has become my new fun, maybe even my escapism. And in this crazy world of Donald Trump, learning to tell shit from Shinola is more vital than ever.

My last goal, and one I spend almost zero time on, is helping the world. I suppose if I wrote something useful, that could count, but if I’m totally honest, writing is for me. I work a recycling, conserving energy, consuming less. I try to be ethical in my behavior. I donate a little money here and there. At minimum I try to do no harm and maintain a small footprint on the environment. I’m 99% selfish though, and I think most of us are. I think all the problems in the world are due to selfishness. We all should give more time to altruism. I admire people who spend a great deal of their time being selfless. This is where I show the least grit.

Following Buffet’s Advice Without Rationalization – Approach #2

  1. Get a book of nonfiction published
  2. Get a novel published
  3. Get an essay published in a print magazine
  4. Get a short story published in a print magazine
  5. Learn to draw simple scenes of nature
  6. Learn to program digital music
  7. Digitize all my photographs and store them in three cloud locations
  8. Relearn math through calculus, linear algebra and statistics
  9. Write a blog about the best albums that came each year since the invention of the LP
  10. Become a really good minimalist
  11. Live in New York City for a year
  12. Build a parallel processing super-computer out of Raspberry Pi modules
  13. Write a program to produce meta-lists from multiple lists
  14. Sell the house and get a perfect apartment in a high-rise in a 55+ community
  15. Learn to travel cross country and not be afraid to travel alone
  16. Create a blog post that outlines the history of impressionistic art
  17. Learn to grow plants indoors for healthy air, herbs and maybe fruits and veggies
  18. Write an essay about the best jazz albums of the 1950s
  19. Learn Python and get into machine learning and text processing
  20. Learn R and statistics
  21. Decorate the house so it reflects my personality
  22. Move to a city where I can live without a car
  23. Build a robot that does something interesting
  24. Move to a foreign city for a year – London, Paris or Tokyo
  25. Take up bird watching

These are 25 things that popped into my head that I want to do. I could list a lot more. If I opened my folders of unfinished essays, novels and nonfiction books, I’d have hundreds of items to add to the list. What Buffett really meant was to pick 5, and to stop thinking about all the rest. What Duckworth’s book is all about is finding the few goals that align with our passions and persist at working towards those goals hour after hour until they are finished.

What I need to do is figure out which kind of goal oriented person I want to be. My first approach works well with my retired lifestyle, and my actual personality. The second approach is about succeeding at specific accomplishments. I’ve never been that kind of person, probably because of a lack of grit. But I’ve always wanted to be.

When I woke up I had the single goal of writing “7 Generations of Science Fiction.” I thought the many ways I could write it before I got up. I still plan to write that essay, but for some reason this essay grabbed me in the shower and wouldn’t let go. Every morning I get up and something grabs my attention, and it becomes my goal of the day.

Ultimately, it comes down to one goal, the one you work on.

JWH

The Memory Gym—Exercising Our Words

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 26, 2017

I don’t believe I have Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia – yet, but I am having memory problems, ones that are common to getting old. All my friends are having this problem. We especially have trouble recalling names, titles or proper nouns. Quite often we say things like, “Oh, you know, what’s her name, you know, who was in what’s that film, the one about, you know, that thing …” Everything is on the tip of our tongue. Often the word or name we’re looking for will pop up in our head hours later, which implies an access problem and not a storage issue. It’s like having a junk drawer with all kinds of stuff, and we know a 1/4 teaspoon measurer is in there somewhere, but we can’t find it. We can usually find the 1 tablespoon measurer because we use it more often.

Is that the key – using our words more often?

Brain-Fitness

I had an idea in the shower. What if I made a list of all the subjects I want to retrain mastery of as I get old, and then for each topic make a list of key words and names that associate with that idea, and then study those lists regularly, would that help? Or does it matter? I have to consider I might be forgetting these words because they aren’t worth remembering. On the other hand, maybe I’m becoming forgetful because I’m not exercising those words enough. What if language is like muscles and could be exercised? We go to gyms to keep our bodies in shape, why not have a gym for pumping words?

Yesterday’s experience of “What Was Her Name?” left me feeling slightly despondent. I have two natures, ones I call Western and Eastern, for their philosophies. My Buddha natures allows me to graciously accept the fate of getting old. It’s natural and inevitable. On the other hand, my Puritanical heritage tells me I should fight till the bitter end – to conquer nature, to stomp it in the ground. If I had been on the Titanic the western side would make a raft out of deck chairs. My Eastern side would sit in a deck chair cherishing the experience.

What’s fascinating about this morning idea of a memory gym is realizing there are cognitive areas I want to maintain and those that I would abandon. That I’d be willing to commit triage on my memories. I’m also fascinating by which topics I’d pick to study. Would I study jazz or politics? Science fiction or science? History or current events?

When they attacked what’s his name for not knowing any world leaders I thought, “Well, shit, I can’t think of any either.” Actually, as time passed I thought of a few. Should I waste time learning the names of Trump’s cabinet? Or would those memory cells be better used memorizing the best jazz albums of the 1950s?

I had a friend who told me before he died, and it was probably suicide, that he had gotten down to loving  only two things in life – Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. I thought that very sad, because I loved countless things at the time. I thought his depression had limited his interests, but now I wonder if it was memory. I can’t remember all those things I loved when I had that last phone call with John.

Growing up we chase after many interests, but as we get older, it gets harder to keep up with all our passions. Our brains get stuffed, and then they start to leak. Do we need to consciously make an effort to retain what we love most?

I’m learning there’s a relationship between words and what we love. Without words to define our memories, everything fades into the background chaos of reality. I have had two experiences of losing my ability to use words. Once in the sixties when I took too much acid, and once when I had a mini-stroke. In each case, as my ability to use words returned I realized their power. I can’t tell you what that feels like, but I can give you something to contemplate. Think of you, your dog and a ball. Both of you see the ball, but what does words give you?

For a Zen master, collie dog, baby, and old person without words, a ball is just a ball. Now think about a football player and fan, and how words let them make so much more of a ball. Right now I love listening to jazz and knowing its history. When my words are gone I’ll still love listening, but I’ll miss the history. What is “A Love Supreme” without the words of the title or the words John Coltrane? Without words it will only exist when playing, like a tree falling in the forest. With words it can exist as part of my personality.

A Love Supreme

JWH

What Was Her Name?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 24, 2017

Today I went to a lecture on Berthe Morisot by Dr. Pamela Gerrish Nunn at the Dixon. The whole time I kept telling myself to remember those two names, practicing them in my head. But later that afternoon when friends asked me what I did today I had forgotten both names. That is very frustrating.

Woman and Child on a Balcony by Berthe Morisot 1871

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was a French women Impressionist painter who’s work was concurrent with all the other Impressionist painters we now think of as famous, and she showed in nearly all of the famous Impressionist exhibitions. I’ve probably heard about her before, seen her paintings, and just don’t remember. Of course, I’ve seen the one the Dixon owns.

Here are 30 paintings by Morisot to view online at good resolutions and color reproduction.

What troubles me about my poor memory is I remember just enough to know I’m accumulating a bit of knowledge about Impressionism. But those memories are just a vague pile of blowing leaves. I’ve seen many exhibits of their work, read novels and books about their lives, watched movies that fictionalized their times, attended lectures on the movement, but I just can’t hold all the details together in my mind. As Nunn spoke, things she said would make me recall other facts I had once encountered, but only in the vaguest of ways. For example, I knew I had heard a lecture on another female Impressionist, but I couldn’t recall her name until Nunn said it – Mary Cassatt. And I’ve seen some of her paintings, so it’s a shame I can’t remember her name.

During the lecture I even wondered if I should create flash cards about Impressionism to see if I could burn the essential details in my mind. Last year I wrote “Why Read What We Can’t Remember?” for Book Riot about this frustration. Why spend so much time learning when I can’t retain what I study? Would it be of any value to study facts at night, in hopes I could retain them? I wonder if I made up a pile of cards of everything I’d want to remember how many cards would I have?

The answer to why study what I can’t remember, is for the hour during the lection, and an hour creating this essay, I was focused on Berthe Morisot (I have to look the name up every goddamn time). There’s pleasure in those moments, even if I can’t retain the data that describe them. I might not even remember this tomorrow. But someday I’ll attend another lecture on Impressionists, and maybe I’ll see one of Morisot’s paintings, and I’m remember I had seen a slide of it at the lecture. Or just have a vague sense of déjà vu.

I was able to remember one thing from the lecture, and I’ve very glad I did. I guess I can trust my mind a tiny bit. After the lecture I spoke with Nunn and she mentioned one book, The New Painting. Kirkus Reviews says, “Quite possibly, the most important art book published in this decade; certainly one of the most impressive.” So I ordered it. (It looks familiar, but I don’t think I own it. But I might. I can’t find it at the moment. Damn my memory! I do remember the painting on the cover, and who knows, I might have seen the original.)

The New Painting

JWH

Keeping Up With My Routine

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It feels like I’m in a faster rat race now, in retirement than when I worked. I haven’t published anything at this blog for twelve days. I have all my time free, but every night I go to bed wishing I had more. I mostly work at writing essays. I’ve started a couple dozen in January, and they are in various stages of completion.

Four were published at Book Riot this month:

And a couple at Worlds Without End:

I’ve been trying to find time to get back into programming. I have an idea for a little program I want to develop to help me manage book lists, but I just can’t get down to work. I keep thinking I want to embrace Python and dedicate myself to learning it. But it’s not GUI based, so I wonder if I should be more ambitious and aim for C#. But that might be as realistic as wanting to become a rock star this late in life. I keep watching documentaries about computer history and they make me want to play with computers. I sometimes wistfully wonder if that time in my life is over.

I also wanted to start learning how to draw, but I keep putting it off. I did start coloring. Here’s my third effort. Coloring is a pleasant activity to do while listening to an audiobook or visiting with a friend.

3rd

I hope I stick with it and see if I can develop a sense of color. It might inspire me to eventually try drawing. I know my work above is about what a second grader could do, but I sense I have room to progress, even at age 65.

Here’s one from my friend Connell sent me, which I like a lot. He got into coloring and it inspired me to give it a try.

2017-01-24 12.30.39

Of course I’ve been watching a lot of TV. My recent favorites are The Crown, The OA, Victoria, Chance, and The Man in the High Castle season 2. I’ve gotten out of the habit of watching a Perry Mason every night, and I miss that. I went to lunch with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years and found out she watches Perry every night at 10:30. That makes me want to get back into that habit. (Time, time, time…)

Which brings up the topic of routines. Retired life is one of routines. My usual routine is to get up, shower, exercise, eat breakfast, and then start writing. If I’m lucky, I’ll write for hours and exhaust myself. I then eat a late lunch, followed by a nap in the den while listening to loud music (mostly jazz of late). I love listening to music while drifting in and out of sleep.

After I get up, usually around four, I wish I could squeeze in a new hobby around this time. But often this is my social time. Friends come over to watch TV, and sometimes stay for dinner. I like having people over in the afternoon or evening to watch TV, and consider TV watching a wonderful social activity. I would never want to give up social time for another hobby, but I still wish I could squeeze a couple more hobbies into my routine.

However, if I’m not socializing I usually end up reading. I just don’t have the energy to write at night, nor start up a new project like programming. I have discovered I can muster the energy to color and listen to an audiobook, or color and listen to an old favorite movie. The other night I colored while watching an old John Wayne movie. That’s rather a strange contrast, don’t you think? The childlike pleasure of coloring while listening to people violently killing one another.

I bought myself a little mini-MIDI keyboard for Christmas, but I’ve yet to make it work with the software that came with it. I leave myself so little creative energy after I stop writing that I don’t have none left to even figure this out. But that’s what I dream of doing. I know this will sound like a Catch-22, but I want to do something creative that’s not writing, and not give up writing either, but it seems I’d have to give up writing to do it. I hate to think I’m a one hobby person. I’ve wondered about setting aside some days for writing, and dedicate other days when I’m mentally fresh to try something new and different. On the other hand, if I don’t write during the day, I feel like I wasted that day.

In some ways I feel the movie Lifeboat is a great metaphor for getting old. The characters in the lifeboat have limited resources to survive, and must ration them out carefully. But instead of food and water, I have to ration mental energy.

Oh, I have been reading some great essays lately:

JWH

Am I Going Blind in My Dreams?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 12, 2017

For months now I’ve been noticing how my dreams are getting darker. Not psychologically dark, but dark like the night. Events seemingly take place at night, or the daytime feels like nighttime – like those old day-for-night shots in westerns. I don’t know if this is a new condition of my dreams, or they’ve always been dark. I can vaguely remember having some well-lit dreams, but I’m not sure. Memory is such an unreliable source of information. Do you dream about brightly lit places?

Milky-Way

Last year I realized I had aphantasia, what some people call mind blindness. It’s the inability to recall visual memories when you close your eyes. I wrote “What Can You See That I Can’t” and “What Do You See When You Read?” I thought it was 2016 when I first discovered this condition, but I found an older essay, “How Good Is Your Visual Memory?” from 2012. What I wrote prefigured the 2016 discovery that the condition has a name. Last year I assume I had poor visual memory during the day, but my brain could generate visuals just fine at night in my dreams. Now I’m wondering if that was a false assumption. Or, am I changing, and my dreams are actually getting darker. I woke up the other night and wondered if I was going blind in my dreams.

Sometimes I feel like I live in a black and white world and crave color and brightness. Now this might be my own fault. In recent decades I’ve become an indoor person and even more of a bookworm. Maybe I spend too much time looking at black and white letters and not enough time at the full spectrum world. I also spend more time listening to music with my eyes closed thinking about what I’m writing, and that’s not very visual either.

I should say that I see color. And my daytime world is bright. I am very nearsighted, but my vision is healthy enough.

In recent months I’ve been getting out of the house even less. I used to walk and ride a bike for exercise.  I have spinal stenosis and in the last couple months my back, hip and leg pains have been reduced 90%. I learn that when I stopped walking or biking because of bad weather. I’ve been feeling better by not exercising outside. But that means I spend even more time indoors. Could this cause reduce light in my dreams? I’ve been wondering if my dream world is becoming darker because I don’t feed my mind enough light during the day. Maybe I should sit outside, or go on drives.

I’m also looking at art less. I’ve stopped going to museums and studying art books. Can art fuel visual imagery in dreams? I wish I could draw. I see websites like Urban Sketchers or bloggers like Peggy Willett and wonder if I paid more attention to the visual world if it would improve my visual memory, and enhance my dreams with better lighting and color?

I also have to consider aging. I know getting old means mental and physical decline. Maybe darker dreams and fading visual memory is just a side-effect of getting old?

The other night I had a beautiful dream. It was dark, and I was outside with other people. Someone pointed up and said there was a comet. I looked, and there was a greenish comet in the sky. I said, “That’s a good one. I never seen one so bright.” It actually looked very realistic, and not like astronomy photos. It was just a bright green head, bigger than any star, with a long triangular trail of faint green gas behind it. But even inside this dream I wondered why everything else was so dark.

JWH

Sisyphean Hobbies For My Retirement Years

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 16, 2016

Let’s face it, our retirement years are life in decline. Our minds and bodies turn to oatmeal. Any hobby we pick at age 65 will get increasingly harder at 75, 85, and 95. So the challenge is to pick tasks that works well while rolling our rock up hill. For example, I’ve recently taken up crossword puzzles. I can see why oldsters do them. I started off with the New York Times mini-puzzles and I was flat out horrible. I couldn’t do them. I now finish the mini-puzzle on most days. I’m quite proud of that. To a real cross word puzzler, that’s like telling a friend who does monthly marathons you were able to run around the block today. But I feel a sense of accomplishment. I feel like an old dog telling the world “Fuck you” by learning a new trick.

crossword-puzzleThe other day I subscribed to the full New York Times Crossword Puzzle. I can barely do a seventh of a daily puzzle before I give up. However, I figure I’ll get better. I expect to eventually finish them. It might take months. And I believe I should continue to get better for many years, or dare I say it, decades? At least until my mind goes oat-mealy. Crossword puzzles will be the canary in the mind. When I start getting worse, I’ll know winter is coming to my neurons.

Blogging is a fantastic hobby for the last third of life. It’s a multipurpose exercise machine for the mind. When I go many days without writing, I can actually feel my thoughts get hazier, and I spend more time chasing elusive words around my head. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I finish an essay, so on the days I don’t write feel guilty. I feel lazy, and unproductive.

Retiring is all about not going to pot. (One reason I won’t smoke dope if it became legal.)  It so easy to do nothing. So doing something, doing almost anything, feels good. That’s why hobbies are important. And it’s all relative. I know retired guys who run marathons or build hand-crafted furniture, and know other guys who are happy to walk to the library or read a mystery novel. The key is do something you couldn’t do yesterday, because tomorrow you might not be able to do what you did today.

I’ve realized in recent weeks is I need to pursue more hobbies, ones that preserve my aging oats. Hobbies that exercise mental and physical skills that are currently snoozing on the couch. I need more variety of fun things to do each day. I wish I could do more outside physical things. I was walking and biking, until this summer, when I had to cut back. It was making my back and hip hurt, and making my legs numb. That’s because of my spinal stenosis. Not walking and biking makes my back, hip and leg better, but I worry about my heart. I’ve started small short indoor bike trips to replace the outdoor work. Luckily the plant based diet helps my heart tremendously. I also do my physical therapy and work out on Bowflex machines.

I get a lot of mental exercise out of reading and writing, but I’m starting to worry its not enough. I need some cross-training. Functions not tied to verbal skills need to start doing push-ups. My friend Connell has been getting better at drawing. I wish I could do that. I’ve also wished I could get back into programming. I did that for thirty years, and miss it. For my whole life I’ve wished I had some kind of musical ability, and recently wondered if I could create music with a computer or synthesizer. I could do that without performance skills, and it would get me back into computer programming. And I’ve also wondered, once again, if I could get back into math. I was doing the Khan Academy for a while, and it was pleasurable, but got out of the habit.

That’s the thing. Hobbies require building habit muscles. You have to do a little bit every day. When I do math, I discovered I had to go all the way back to grade school math. It requires being methodical. It’s much easier to go visit a friend, watch a TV show, or listen to music. Being retired is like living with sirens (Greek mythological babes, not fire engines). It is seductively easy for me to read a book, watch TV or listen to music. It’s much harder applying my mind to learning something new.

MPKmini_angle_web_lg_700x438Today I came across something called Csound. It’s a programming language for sound. This is a completely new world to me, and I wonder if I have the mental ability to explore it. I also ordered an Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII. It was only $69 at Amazon. This nifty toy will let me play music with Garage Band on my iPad mini, interface with music programs and programming languages on my computer, plus it comes with some simple synthesize software. I hope to teach myself basic music skill.

I’m making my 2017 resolutions a couple weeks early. I want to learn crossword puzzles, drawing, math and music next year. I’m not particularly ambitious though. So long as I piddle at each a little bit each day, and show a tiny tittle of progress, I’ll be happy.

JWH