Why Don’t I Do What I Know Is Good For Me?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 12, 2019

From all the studies I’ve read, I’d be a much healthier person if I ate a plant-based diet, and regularly lifted weights and did aerobic exercises. So, why don’t I?

I’ve never been a very disciplined person even though I know from limited experience that being disciplined has its rewards. If I eat right and exercise I feel better than when I don’t. Now that I’m getting older, the importance of health is becoming much too obvious. Yet, I do less to help myself. Why?

Popular wisdom now nags us that inactivity is as bad as smoking. I was disciplined enough to not smoke, so why can’t I make myself stay active? I’ve been a rather inactive bookworm my whole life. It’s hard to believe that my Walter Mitty ways are killing me. Laying around daydreaming feels perfectly natural to me. But I must admit that my energy levels are dwindling as the years go by. Not only do want to do less as I get older, but my muscle strength and overall stamina are fading too. But isn’t that plain old getting old? Can diet and exercise equal rejuvenation?

I tell myself to exercise more. I do. And I feel pretty good. However, naps are more alluring than ever. My doctor says all my blood work numbers are good. She says trying using the exercise bike twenty minutes a day. I do. Maybe I feel a tiny bit better, but I still love naps and daydreaming, and I can’t lift furniture or untwist jar tops like I used to. Is that because I’m racing towards 70? Or because I’m not moving enough?

I wonder if lifting weights or going to the gym would give me back my strength and stamina?. But it’s so much nicer to just read. I ask myself if going to the gym is the solution, why isn’t every oldster not in tip-top shape?

I have my best luck sticking with physical therapy exercises, doing Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, and walking. I gave my exercycle to my wife. I got rid of my big Bowflex machine because it was just too damn big. And I’m thinking about giving away my little Bowflex machine because I’ve found the back pains it cures are also cured by the Miranda Esmonde-White exercises.

Since I hate going to the gym and I’m getting annoyed exercise equipment, I’ve been telling myself to embrace body-weight exercises. I’ve been collecting how-to articles, but I haven’t put them into practice yet. I know it would be good for me, but I can’t make myself start.

I’ve reached a state of equilibrium with my diet. I no longer pursue the plant-based diet that I did after I got my stent. I eat cheese, eggs, and yogurt. I eat some sweats, but not much. I’m still a vegetarian – I have been since 1969. This is my 50th anniversary. But I just can’t make myself go vegan even though I think I’d be healthier and live longer.

In other words, I’ll eat and exercise moderately, but I won’t make a big effort to become healthier. Why? I spend between 20-60 minutes a day exercising. If I spent another 30 minutes I might have more strength, stamina, and longevity, but I won’t go that distance. Why?

I know people who are physical fitness fanatics, spending hours each day exercising, and I know people who are epic couch potatoes, who never exercise or even try to eat right. I’m not sure if there’s any consistency in who is healthier. Both groups are more energetic than me, and both groups suffer from various random health crises.  I know exercise nuts who have gotten heart attacks, strokes, and cancer, and I know do-nothings living into their nineties still cramming down the junk food nightly.

I think the illusion is we want to control our fates. I hate that I’m losing my stamina, strength, and energy, but maybe that’s the fate of this particular body.

My new diet is to stop eating anything that makes me feel bad within 24-hours. I have a whole list of foods and drinks that my body doesn’t like. I also exercise just enough to avoid aches and pains. I can tell when my body needs some stretching or activity. After that, I can’t make myself do things on the assumption that I’ll live longer. There’s just no feedback.

Before I got the stent in my heart I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was dying. That was a wonderful incentive to do something. But that was back in 2013. I now avoid fatty foods. If I eat too much fat I can feel a lack of oxygen. That inspires me. Feeling pain in my back or numbness in my legs inspires me. But the pleasantness of a nice nap while listening to music, or the contentment of sitting and reading doesn’t inspire me to move.

JWH

 

 

The Case of the Overactive Bladder

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, April 28, 2019

Old men often reach a stage in life where they have to pee frequently because of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). This is caused by our prostates enlarging. Just another annoying aspect of aging. Depending on what I eat and drink, my bladder normally makes me go about every two hours, which means I get up three times in the night, and once during long movies. Not a terrible debilitation, but inconvenient. Yet, on some rare days, when I accidentally do the perfect routine, I only have to get up once in the night. That suggests I could do something to change things.

However, there’s something I also do that give me “pee spells” as I call them. They last about two hours and I have to pee every 10-15 minutes. This is extremely annoying, and I want to figure out what causes these spells. Maybe some of my readers might have this problem too and have already figured it out.

Of course, this case of the overactive bladder might be much too much information for some readers, so I expect most of them to have quit reading by now. But it is an interesting mystery, and I find people like solving mysteries.

My guess is I’m eating or drinking something that annoys my bladder since the condition only lasts a limited time. Figuring out that irritant is the mystery to solve. Sometimes I can go weeks without a pee spell, and other times it’s every afternoon. It’s the most annoying when it comes in the middle of the night. When it happens during the day I feel tired and try to nap. Of course, getting up every ten minutes to pee during a nap bugs-the-crap out of me and pisses off the two kitten who sleeps on my lap.

I had a pee spell yesterday. So here are the current clues. The week before I was on a sugar bender eating ice cream and oatmeal cookies twice a day, but I quit after one week. One theory is going between healthy and unhealthy diets does something to my bladder or hormonal system. I often feel like I have pee spells when I’m losing weight, but it might because I’m eating something healthy that’s triggering it and not the weight loss.

Because I hadn’t been eating much fresh fruits and vegetables last week I gorged on them this week. Another theory is my fruit salad might be the cause. I remember having frequent pee spells in the past, and maybe they were during the times I was eating fruit salads regularly.

I like fruit salads, and vegetable soups and salads because I can cram in many servings of each into one meal. However, that makes figuring out the culprit harder. I get all kinds of weird ideas like maybe I don’t wash my fruits and vegetables well enough and the suspect is a pesticide. Or maybe some fruit or vegetable is a natural diuretic.

I seldom take pain pills because they end up upsetting my stomach. This week I did take one ibuprofen for my back. So now its a suspect. I wonder if their occasional use is my problem and I’ve never noticed it before?

I’ve also wondered since I’m drinking less to pee less if this makes my urine more acid, and thus aggravates the muscles of my bladder. I’ve thought of drinking more, which is counter-intuitive, but I will test it. However, when I have tried drinking more in the middle of a pee spell it only makes it last longer. I wonder if there’s a way to get pH test strips to test my theory?

Another theory I’ve worked up relates to bacteria. Our gut biome is a big topic today, with claims it affects our thinking and personality. Could I be consuming something that alters the balance of warring bacteria in my intestines and that eventually affects my bladder?

When I was in high school and working at a grocery store after class, I’d often drink two 16-ounce Cokes on my commute home at 10 o’clock at night. I don’t remember it affecting my sleep. I also remember a few times of eating two Whoppers, a Coke, a shake with two orders of fries and not feeling stuffed. At 67, such a meal would kill me.

Getting old is so goddamn weird. I don’t want to be a hypochondriac, but my body has gotten hyper-sensitive to everything. I have to think about my health all the time, and I don’t want to. My body has become so sensitive to what I consume that I’ve thought about inventing the perfect bland diet. I wish Purina made People Chow. Or like in some science fiction story, I wish I could transfer my brain into a robot where I didn’t have to eat or eliminate at all. I’m a very happy person if my body didn’t keep nagging me. I’d be in my own Nirvana if I was a robot and could just read, write, watch, listen, and contemplate.

I tend to think the agent of my annoyance is something physical I consume, but I’ve also wondered about it being a psychological problem. I know that I’m weird, but am I that weird? My doctor once suggested trying Zoloft for anxiety and said one positive side effect of it might be to relax my bladder muscles. I did try Zoloft but not for long, it bothered my stomach. But this has gotten me to wonder if anxiety might cause my pee spells? Normally, I’m very happy except for when I have to go somewhere. As I’ve gotten older I just dread going places. This week I was dreading going to the book club last night.

I did ask my doctor about the medicines I see on TV for overactive bladders and she advised against them because of their side-effects. I was happy with that recommendation because I hate taking medicine.

So, there are the clues I have so far. Any health detectives out there that have already solved a similar crime?

JWH

 

Chocolate and Back Pain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 18, 2019

I doubt many people will associate chocolate with back pain, but I’ve experienced a connection. I’ve been dealing with spinal stenosis for many years and I’ve learned how to control it with diet and exercise because pills that fight pain and inflammation bother my stomach. I’ve learned that food can cause inflammation. I hate this idea because it’s all my favorite foods that indirectly add to my back pain. Inflammation causes the stiffness and numbness which leads to pain. Most people learn to relax back pain with an anti-inflammation pill, but if you pay attention, avoiding certain foods also has an anti-inflammation effect.

I was doing great this year. I’ve been on 16:8 intermittent fasting since 9/21/18, and off junk food since 1/1/19. About ten days ago I started experimenting with a few minor treats. However, one thing led to another and I fell off the wagon, binging on chocolate for two days. What stopped me was stomach pains. As I’ve gotten older, my stomach has gotten wimpier. Not only had I gotten my back almost pain free and a good deal more limber, but also stabilized my stomach into its quiet state. Going off my diet quickly let me know that value of eating healthy.

I don’t know why, but in recent years my stomach has become extra sensitive to two of my most loved foods: peanut butter and chocolate. When my stomach started hurting I immediately quit my chocolate binge. That’s when I realized that my back had taken quite a setback, proving how much diet contributes to inflammation. I was back to walking hunched over with a slight limp. Just last week I commented to myself that I was feeling much sprier in ages.

When I feel good, I become weak to temptation.

Needless to say, I’m back on my diet. I keep thinking what I eat shouldn’t affect inflammation that much, but it does. I created the above headline to sound absurd hoping to entice people to read this essay. However, I searched on this title and lo and behold, other people are writing about chocolate and back pain too.

I hate having to give up everything I love to eat. But I feel like Pavlov’s dog. Certain foods now come with a kick in the gut or whack to the back. The trouble is I can only remember my conditioning for so long before temptation strikes again. I’m hoping I can remember the miserable stomach pains I felt Saturday and the back pains from yesterday.

JWH

 

 

Marie Kondoizing My Groundhog Day Loop

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 10, 2019

Do we ever change? Can we ever stop rolling Sisyphean dreams up a hill? Can we ever escape the hardwiring of our genes? Can we overcome the destiny of our unconscious impulses? My regular readers know I end up whining about the same exact fate over and over again. I feel like Bill Murray stuck in a Groundhog Day loop. It works something like this. I’ll write this essay to find a revelation of how to escape this loop. I’ll then try very hard to follow that insight. Over the next few weeks, I’ll get distracted by a growing number of other ambitions. I’ll get happily lost in frittering away my time in endless pursuits. Eventually, I’ll get exhausted chasing seventeen cats leoparding in twenty-seven directions. My real and virtual desks will overflow with aborted projects. Then the day will come, like today, when I decide I absolutely must Marie Kondo everything in my life. And finally, I’ll write this version of the essay. It will be much like the essays I’ve written before.

The last version I wrote back in June even has a nice mind map of all my diversions. My absolute, positively-no-matter-what conclusion was to always write fiction in the mornings. I diligently tried writing fiction for a while, but eventually, switched back to writing blogs. I told myself, “all you can ever be is a blog writer,” at which point I start working on more ambitious blogging projects that pile up in my drafts folder. Then the realization comes I can never juggle more than 1,500 words before an essay falls apart. I deeply realize the limits of my ability to focus. Then I start blaming all the physical clutter around me for not being able to concentrate.

Of course, in every iteration of the loop, I firmly feel I’ve discovered a new way out. Yet, is that illusory because I can’t remember all the other loops? This time the revelation is: the problem is not the clutter in my house, but the clutter in my mind that keeps me from focusing on my creative ambitions. The old belief was physical clutter caused mental clutter. The new idea is to Marie Kondo the mental clutter and I’ll naturally just start giving away the physical clutter.

When I’m in this phase of the loop I ache for simplicity. That’s why I crave Marie Kondoizing my possessions. I feel owning less will free my mind. I have fantasies of dwelling in one bare white room with no windows, a recliner, a few shelves of books, one desk, and one computer. I picture myself working on one writing project. When I’m tired, I sleep in the recliner. (In this fantasy, I somehow magically don’t need to eat or go to the bathroom.)

This time I feel different. I might have felt that before because my emotions loop too. However, I’ve been intermittent fasting for 100 days, and that has given me a new sense of discipline. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped eating junk food. Giving up junk food was far easier this time. Is it due to the discipline gained from intermittent fasting? It’s even affected my writing. This time I’m going to try to break the loop not by getting rid my junk, but my Marie Kondoizing my thoughts.

If I write this essay again in six months you’ll know this hypothesis was wrong.

The reason why I never break out of my Groundhog Day creative loop is that I can’t stick to my chosen single project. I’ve known for countless loops the solution is to focus on one project. However, for the last many iterations of the loop that I can remember, I pick the same science fiction short story to finish. I’ll commit to that goal, but after several days, I slowly get distracted by a bunch of other desires.

That happens because I begin believing I can chase more than one goal. I’ll slowly rediscover all those hobbies I’ve pursued in the past and start ordering crap from Amazon again (even though I’ve given all that crap away many times before in other loops). For example, I just bought a microscope because I wanted to study biology. I pricked my finger using a gadget for testing blood sugar levels, looked at my blood under the microscope, planned to go get some pond scum next, but got distracted by going bird watching with my wife instead, piddled with about a dozen other projects, and forgot all about the microscope, and my story.

I envy people who can relentlessly stick to doing one thing, even if it’s just watching TV all day. I wake up in the morning with the urge to accomplish a specific goal. This morning I woke up wanting to build a MySQL database to collect and organize all the themes of science fiction. This particular project could take weeks. Instead of writing on my story, I got sidetracked into databases. And before I could finish that project, I started two more.

Usually, while showering, I’ll come up with 2-4 ideas of things I want to do that day. So far today I’ve wanted to listen to “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury and write an essay about it. I also decided to read all I can about bodyweight exercises and develop a set of routines so I can get rid of my Bowflex machine and stationary bicycle. And I wanted to read the four issues of BBC Music I already own to see if I want to subscribe and dedicate myself to learning about classical music.

Getting old is increasing my desire to accomplish something substantial. I guess it’s the fear of not completing the only goal on my bucket list. I might live another 10-20 years if I’m lucky, but if I’m ever going to get any fiction published it better be soon. The odds are already against me now. My guestimate is only one in a million would-be writers sell their first story after 60, and and that goes down to one in a billion by 70. I’m 67. (By the way, if you’re young and reading this, start now!) I began writing classes in my fifties, and I’ve wondered why creative success is usually found only by the young. In my fifties, I didn’t feel that mentally different from my thirties, but all through my sixties, I’ve felt my mental and physical abilities dwindling. I’m beginning to understand how and why aging reduces our chances to succeed with new creative endeavors.

We lose impulse control as we age. It just becomes easier to follow the urge of the moment. The older I get the more I don’t give a damn about how I dress or what the house looks like to friends. And it’s so much easier to give into Ben & Jerry’s than to make a salad. And boy is it getting easier to believe dying fat is better than dieting.

But, the siren call of less is more philosophers keeps enchanting me, and I think I can escape the loop by giving away all my junk.

When it comes down to it, escaping this loop requires discipline. And discipline is hard to come by at age 67. I’ve always known I could break out of the loop by giving up. But I always come to the same conclusion: the only item on my bucket list is to sell a science fiction story. I wrote dozens of them in my fifties and failed to sell any. Should that failure tell me to stop trying or try harder? I keep thinking I should keep trying, but poor impulse control tells me that pursuing little pleasures is far nicer than embracing the delayed gratification for having one extra-large pleasure.

Up until now, the hope of breaking out of the loop was to make myself keep writing science fiction stories. Maybe the real exit strategy is to give up that goal.

Not yet.

JWH

 

Creating My Atheistic Prayer

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 14, 2018

For almost a year, I’ve had an item “Define my health goals in a daily prayer” left undone on my ToDoist list. I believe my original intent was to write a statement I’d recite every morning in meditation. I pictured it helping me stick to the habits that would make me healthier.

The trouble is atheists don’t believe in prayers, although, I try not to be a typical atheist. I want to keep an open mind about recycling concepts from religion that might have some scientific validity. Plus, I admire a handful of religious words like prayer, soul, grace, redemption, spiritual, that I want to refashion for atheists.

Praying does provide several problems for atheists. First, prayers generally appeal to a superior being for help. We don’t believe in such beings. Second, praying assumes there’s a telepathic phone system networking all beings in the universe. Well, we don’t believe in telepathy either. Finally, people who pray often want miracles, and atheists reject them too.

So, I’ve got to assume atheist prayers are thoughts directed at my unconscious mind or verbal affirmations I want my subconscious to overhear. That assumes my unconscious mind has the ability to hear my prayers, understand English, and could influence my behavior, but probably just in tiny ways.

Most people who pray attempt to change reality. They are rejecting what is. When my friends tell me about their health problems, they want me to help initiate a cure. Basically, I’m wishing them to get well. Does that really do any good? There’s no reason to believe thoughts from one person can affect another. What I’m wondering if our own wishes can change our behavior?

Physically being with another person when they’re sick and talking has been shown to help people, and even believing people are praying for you might help, but there’s no evidence that thoughts travel beyond our physical self.

The thing about atheists is we want to believe in things that exist and work. The whole point of skepticism is to get away from delusional thinking. That means I must find a real reason for praying if I’m going to embrace the concept.

I need a working hypothesis to test. There’s growing scientific evidence that meditation does affect us. To what degree is not known. What if praying is like meditation, in that it has a subtle effect on our health and psychology? What if it’s like the power of positive thinking? Of course, the power of prayer will be limited. No miracles. People with cancer pray like crazy, but does it affect cancer cells? What works with cancer is modern medicine.

There are prayers of acceptance, where we wish we can cope with what’s given to us. I’ve always considered the Serenity Prayer to be one of the wisest of all prayers:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

If we removed the word “God” from this prayer, it would be suitable for atheists. But what could we substitute for the word “God” in this prayer? Aren’t we just talking to ourselves? But which part? Isn’t the conscious mind hoping for cooperation from the rest of our being for disciplined? Aren’t we really trying to reinforce a mental habit so we can change our lives?

I could say, “Jim, grant me the serenity …” because I am talking to myself. But, I think Jim is just a label for my conscious self. I’m really addressing my whole self. I’m seeking to integrate my conscious mind with my unconscious mind to discipline my biological urges. But what’s a good name for my whole self? For now, I shall open my prayer with, “To my whole self, grant me the serenity …”

When people pray the serenity prayer they must know they aren’t accepting the things they cannot change, and lack the courage to change the things they can, and don’t know the difference between the two. If they had those abilities, would they even be praying? So, what are they really praying for? The discipline to be different.

Most people can’t make decisions and stick with them. Look at New Year’s Resolutions. Aren’t we praying to our unconscious minds to stick with the decisions the conscious mind is making? Aren’t we begging our body to adapt to what we’ve learned at a conscious level?  Aren’t we praying to our reptilian and mammalian brains to follow the learning of the neocortex?

I need to edit and add a few lines to the serenity prayer. But I also need to think about other people too. To me, The Golden Rule is about the best guideline for that. I need to work in, “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” But I want to update it some to include all life and the environment.

Here’s my working prayer for now. I suppose it will evolve over time, but I think it’s enough to finally close out my ToDoist item.

To my whole self,
grant me the ability to accept what I can’t change,
the discipline to change what I can,
the wisdom to know the difference,
the scientific knowledge to know what’s real,
the skepticism to know what’s not,
the empathy to respect all life,
and the generosity to help others.

JWH

Can Meditation Overwrite the Unconscious Mind?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 9, 2018

My friend Linda has been getting into meditation. That made me think I should give it another go. I’ve tried meditation many times since the New Age of the 1970’s, but never stuck with it. I currently face two obstacles I want to overcome and wondered if meditation could help. I see at least one article a week show up on Flipboard touting the successes of meditators. They claim science supports the claims of meditation, but I’d want to verify that before I claim it too. I’ve written before about how I feel there are two wills occupying this body – the conscious me, and my unconscious mind whose will seems much stronger than my conscious mind.

older-adult-meditating

The two of us fight over health and creativity. My unconscious mind wants to follow my biological urges. The conscious me wants to become disciplined and be more creative. The conscious me wants to control or eliminate my biological urges and apply all my energy to achieving my goals. My unconscious mind loves to go with the flow and puppet-mastering me into doing whatever it feels like.

This morning I sat erect in an upholstered straight chair, put 20 minutes on my iPhone timer, sat on my hands, and closed my eyes. Meditation usually involves following your breath or focusing on a mantra. I decided to pay attention to my senses and always bring my mind back to one thought: I want to write a short story. I already know which story. I’ve written several drafts but left it unfinished several years ago.

I have two barriers I face every day. My declining health and my declining ability to focus on work. As I sat, and let my mind quiet I noticed the regular tick of the clock on the wall. I observed that tick which was more of a quiet thump, thump, thump…

Then I noticed the faint wail of a train whistle far to the east. I told myself to think about writing. I worked to just empty my mind of words and hold just the urge to write. Time and again my thoughts would flare up. They’d be about writing, but I tell myself to stop thinking words and just observe.

Then I noticed the sound of the HVAC in the attic starting the furnace. My mind went back to the clock and then wail of the train that was getting closer. I had three sounds to follow. My mind felt like it was in a golden sphere of nothingness. My mind began to chatter again, thinking about the details of writing. I brought it back to just the three sounds and the urge to write.

I have no idea how meditation is supposed to do its wonders. Does merely learning to slow and stop thoughts alter the unconscious mind into new programming?

My mind drifted to other thoughts not related to writing. I reigned it in again. I observe the sound of the thump, thump, thump of the clock, the concurrent sound of the approaching train, the sound of the HVAC now blowing air through the vents, and a new sound, the little crashes of the occasional acorn hitting the roof and then rolling off. Then I noticed constant Tinnitus sound in my ears. My ears were singing louder than all the other sounds.

It came to me I should write a thousand words today. Then it came to me I should write about meditation. Then it came to me I should write the fiction first. Then it came to me I should write 1,000 words of fiction the first thing every day. Then I stopped my thoughts and went back to observing the sounds outside the golden glow of my mind.

After a while, my mind got away, and it gave me the first sentence of the story. I thought up more sentences but told my mind to stop. I focused on quieting the mind and observing the sounds.

It kept doing this until the alarm went off.

I got up immediately, went to the computer and wrote 1,039 words of new fiction. The first in a very long time. Is that success due to meditation? I don’t know. Let’s see what I do tomorrow and the following days.

I doubt the success of today’s writing is due to twenty minutes of meditation. I felt good today, after a string of feeling poorly days. I got up and did a Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch workout, and then 30 minutes on the exercise bike. I then took a nice warm shower. I was feeling pretty damn good when I meditated, so maybe just the momentum of following some positive endeavors help me write fiction. I’ve been wanting to get back into writing fiction for years but just couldn’t make myself try. Mainly, because all my efforts ended in disappointment.

Most creative efforts are achieved by folks when they are young. A few creative endeavors have late-blooming exceptions, and writing is one of them. But I think I’m already older than that oldest late-blooming author I know about. My hope to succeed at something is strictly against all odds. And I understand why. The older we get, the less mental and physical health we have, the harder it is to make ourselves work at disciplined tasks.

I was feeling pretty good today. Except for a pesky hemorrhoid, I’m feeling really good this morning. That’s rare. My back and heart aren’t nagging me at the moment. My mind is a good deal more alert than usual. I have been on this intermittent fast for almost 40 days. I haven’t lost weight, but it seems to be making me feel better and give me more energy. I’m napping less. So one session of meditation probably didn’t get me to write today, but maybe feeling like meditation is another good sign. I hope to do it twice a day from now on. Let’s see if my unconscious mind will stop me, or if I can reprogram it.

I know I’m battling an uphill mental fight while in a physical decline, but I keep hoping there are things I can do to keep the fight going longer. I know at some point declining health and aging will crush my spirit. And even when I can’t actively be creative, I hope for some years of mass-consumption of books, music, movies, and television will keep me happy. I’ve talked to many old people that gave up on everything. I know what the future holds. I’m just fighting a delaying action. But I consider that a positive.

JWH

Breaking the Cognitive Decline Barrier

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 16, 2018

2008-2018

The above two drawings by Grace Murray were taken from “20+ Artists Challenge Themselves To Redraw Their Old ‘Crappy’ Drawings, Prove That Practice Makes Perfect.” They are an example of cognitive increase. Murray’s mind/body skills have progressed over time by an amazing degree. We seldom see such perfect proofs of cognitive progress. I highly recommend everyone visit this site and look at all the before and after drawings – there are now 14 pages of them. Parents and teachers should use this site to show their kids and students.

What I want to talk about is cognitive decline. I am not a scientist, and I am not using this term in a scientific way. I’m appropriating the phrase “cognitive decline” temporarily for this essay. For my purposes, it means both the mental and physical decline in our countless abilities. I believe our mind and body are a single unit. How well our mind works is dependent on the well-being of its integration with our body.

I have a friend that is worried about cognitive decline and wanted a baseline to measure against. I thought that was a fantastic idea. I’m not sure doctors can easily provide medical diagnostics to do such a job, nor do I think we can easily invent one on our own. My theory is we each need to keep an eye on ourselves and develop a series of baselines to follow over time. We have to become our own psychologists.

The baseline I want to describe is the ability to apply myself to a task and improve. It’s exactly what Grace Murray is doing with her drawing skills. I would like to believe that at age 66 I can still learn a new skill and show improvement over time. However, I struggle to do this. There is a barrier that I can’t break through. But I don’t believe it’s age-related per se. I’ve always had trouble applying myself to a task. I give up too easily. The baseline is not the skill, but the willingness to work at a skill.

Persistence pays off. That’s what the article about how artists show improvement over time reveals. They keep practicing and improving. The first cognitive decline barrier benchmark I want to observe in myself is that quality that makes me keep working to improve. That’s a very slippery target. My theory, as we age, we give up trying. We fall back on comfortable routines, rationalize the enjoyment of our indulgences, tell ourselves we can’t do it anymore.

This is not the only baseline I want to track. I’m noticing plenty of problems with myself, but this benchmark is a critical one to me. Most of my friends tell me they struggle to remember words, especially names. And again, we laugh about how those names pop up hours later. It’s like we haven’t forgotten but just can’t find our memories right away. Could we also improve our recall ability with persistent effort?

And it’s not just memory. We make fun of ourselves for not being able to do physical things that we once found easy to do. And we compare the times we’ve fallen or left the car keys in the refrigerator. Getting old is loads of fun when you can laugh at yourself, but it can be mentally wearing. We can even give up on fighting the good fight.

The worst thing about my cognitive decline to me is giving up. It’s so easy to just let things slide, or tell myself I can’t do that anymore, or accept I’d rather take a nap than do something on my To Do list. Most telling to me is not finishing what I aim to write.

I’ve been thinking about the nature of cognitive decline. I’m not sure, but I think we’ve always experienced it our whole lives, at least at times. I remember being young and tossing in the towel when things got hard, or struggling to recall words for a test, or being mentally impaired on dope or drink. I remember days when I could convince myself to jog five miles instead of my standard two but on other days set out to run five miles and only make two.

Cognitive ability depends on a lot of factors. When we were young, healthy, rested, well fed, we felt like we could do anything. As we age, and our body wears out the cognitive decline barrier changes. Stress is a huge factor. Like the sound barrier varying with altitude and temperature, cognitive decline varies with health and stress.

I’d like to believe I’m not too old of a dog to learn new tricks. I feel by writing this essay I’ve discovered something I can track and work at. Will I make the effort? That’s the cognitive decline barrier I have to break through.

Just look at these amazing next drawings. It tells me people can learn a lot in two years. Could I do the same thing from 66 to 68?

2014-2016

Art by DVO

What made this woman stick with drawing eyes until they are so vividly real looking? I’m only guessing here, but here’s what I think. She’s willing to work at the task for hours on end. She’s willing to study tutorials and acquire a large library of techniques that she’s programmed into her mind/body with that practice. I’d also guess she works with tutors or teachers that can critique her work. She’s also willing to forego other pursuits and interests and focus on this task as her primary ambition. Being young is probably a significant factor, but I’m not sure how critical it is. Can older folks learn to draw this well if they make the same effort?

The difference with being older is having the energy and stamina to work at anything for hours. But there’s also a difference between giving up completely, and working an hour at a time.

Since high school, I’ve dreamed of writing science fiction stories. I’ve taken a number of writing classes and even spent six-weeks at Clarion West. I’ve finished dozens of unpolished, unsold, stories, and a couple crude novel drafts. I have not succeeded in my dream because I haven’t stuck to the work. I haven’t taken my stories from 2014 to 2016 like the drawings above.

I wonder if I worked at writing short stories again could I make myself persist? Could I show improvement over time like this artist? Am I just too old? Or is the cognitive decline barrier too great to break through at 66?

Saying one of my baselines is the failure to finish is rather vague. If I can return to churning out 12,000-word stories of the same quality as before, then I haven’t declined. If I can’t, I have. What I’m really interested in, is if I can actually improve like DVO. Not just write a better story, but improve my baseline on trying, on being persistent?

(Writing this essay took more persistence than usual. That’s a good sign.)

JWH