Mind Over Aging

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 31, 2020

We all lie to ourselves that we’re not getting old. Unfortunately, we sometimes encounter situations that remind us of our self deceptions. Yesterday I went to IKEA to buy some Billy bookcases. After marching endlessly through their giant showroom maze I came to the warehouse section. I went over to a young woman with a vest assembling an order and asked her if it was quicker to pull my own order or let the IDEA staff do it.

“About the same,” she replied looking like she was anxious to get back to her task.

“Where can I find a cart?” I said figuring I could be faster.

She immediately changed her mind, “Oh, let me do it for you.”

“I don’t want to take you away from someone else’s order.”

“That’s okay,” she insisted, turning more friendly.

“Well, then let me help you.” I said. I wasn’t used to letting girls lift heavy things for me. I knew the boxes would weigh 72 pounds each.

“That’s okay,” and she called to another young women and they immediately started looking for my items. I thought this was great customer service. But I felt bad watching two young females do all the manual labor. (I know, I shouldn’t be sexist.)

After I paid for my stuff I rolled my cart out to my truck. Another young woman, a customer this time, driving out of the parking lot stopped and asked, “Do you need help getting that in your truck?”

I thought that was rather nice of her. I’m about a year from turning 70 and I remembered a George Carlin routine. He said when he turned 70 he never had to lift anything big again. He could try but people would rush over to do it for him. I realized the young girl thought I was old. I guess I am. George Carlin had observed some kind of social dynamic that’s not just a comedy routine.

“I think I can manage,” I said, “but that’s awful nice of your to stop and offer.”

The boxes were heavier than I wanted to lift. After hurting my back carry 53 pound speakers a few weeks ago I knew I shouldn’t lift 72 pound boxes. But I hadn’t planned to pick them all the way up. I lifted one end of the first box onto the tailgate, and then lifted the other end sliding it on the truck bed. I had visualized doing that before I left home.

I then happened to look up and saw the young woman had pulled over and was watching me from her car. I quickly put the other boxes in the truck and waved to her that I was okay.

For most of my life women expected me to pick heavy stuff up for them and kill their bugs. I guess I’m old now when they rush over to do the heavy lifting. I wonder if they still want me to kill their bugs?

When I got home I knew I couldn’t carry the boxes into the house. So I opened each box one at a time and Susan and I carried the pieces inside individually. I had visualized that before I went shopping too. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Mind over aging. It took me two days to put the bookcases together and load them up with books. I wore myself out several times. But I got the job done. Mind over aging.

But I kept chuckling to myself that those young women saw me as a helpless old guy. I realized the store clerk probably thought I was too old to too, which was why she quickly offered to help. Someday I will be too old. Or maybe I’m getting there. I feel it’s important to have the right attitude about aging.

I’ve been studying aging for many years from Ronni Bennett and her website about aging Time Goes By.

Yesterday Ronnie died. She was just ten years older than me, and I always felt she was exploring the path of getting older just ahead of me. I felt it was important to pay attention to her because she was having the real experiences I would someday go though too. I’ve learned many things from Ronni’s wonderful posts, but I think the most important was: Don’t pretend we’re not getting older. My friends tell me I’m too accepting of aging. They want to believe if you don’t think about it, aging and death won’t happen.

All us fans of her blog knew Ronni was dying. She was in Hospice care these last several months. She blogged right up to the end. Here’s her last regular post called “Old Lady Fancy Pants” about getting her first pair of adult diapers. Ronni’s last two paragraphs:

It was my first chance to try this out on Monday with my first evening incontinence pill at bedtime. I yanked a pair out of the tightly wrapped package, shook the panties open and to my utmost surprise, found they they are trimmed in – wait for it – frilly lace. Yes, you read that right: frilly lace.

Is there anything else to do but giggle? So I pulled them on, pranced around in front the full-length mirror and had a big hearty guffaw at myself – old lady fancy pants.

That is truly mind over aging. Of sure, I’m scared of getting old and feeble. I’m terrified of dementia. But reading Ronni’s communiques taught me I’ll have to take whatever comes. Laughing at wearing adult diapers is certainly better than crying. I hope I can laugh when the time comes.

I thought Ronni was the Zen Master of mind over aging. Anyone over sixty should maintain a keen awareness of growing old. Oh sure, don’t give in easily. Being aware isn’t giving up. I’m reminded of something I heard Stevie Nicks say on CBS Sunday Morning last week. She said being forced to stay home from touring was aging her. I thought that was a keen insight. No one wants to age, but I think it’s important to notice when and how it’s happening. Those two girls taught me that I’m starting to look old.

Thinking about aging is a kind of conscious practice, a developing awareness, that allows us to surf the waves of declining powers rather than letting them drown us. We will all die. Getting old will be unpleasant. We will have to deal with an endless procession of experiences we don’t want to experience. The real goal is to figure out how to keep doing all the things we want to do – and chuckle along the way.

By the way, fans of Ronni will keep her website going, and maintain what she wrote. Visit Time Goes By.

JWH

This Song is My Heroin

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 26, 2018

I’ll tell myself, “Just one more time,” when I hit the << button to re-play “Maggot Brain” by Lili Haydn. It’s already the sixth time. I know full well it might be another six times before I’ll actually start feeling like stopping. That’s close to the one hour mark. Sometimes the song paralyzes me for a couple hours. I haven’t been able to enjoy another song for weeks now.

Here are two versions you can listen to but they won’t sound the same as I hear them. I play this song while reclined in my La-Z-Boy in the middle of four tall floor standing Infinity speakers playing it at a volume that makes the vibrating air feel solid to the touch.

This is a live performance where you can watch Lili’s facial expressions. I wish I could feel what she feels. Is it the same as what I feel? If I could play this song maybe I could know, but that will never happen. I can’t even remember the melody.

I usually play her CD Place Between Places to hear her version of “Maggot Brain” in its highest fidelity. Sadly, this CD is out-of-print. I wish I had an SACD version to hear even more sampled bits. Here’s how the album version sounds from Spotify in case you’re a subscriber.

I don’t even know what her other songs and albums sound like. I can’t stop playing Haydn’s version of “Maggot Brain.”

I wish I could express in words what this song does to my mind. One of the best things about drugs was listening to music while high. I gave up drugs decades ago. But listening to Lily Haydn play “Maggot Brain” over and over again has a drug like intensity. Her high is emotional, philosophical, sad, wistful, aching, transcendental, longing, regretful, spiritual, thankful, and so many more existential settings.

What’s funny is I play this song for my friends and they don’t like it. Some even hate it. My wife tolerates me getting high on it for a few repetitions but eventually, it starts makes her want to run away. Only my friend Mike loves this song too. However, I don’t think he plays it over and over again like I do.

Ever since I got into music I’ve saught the songs that make me want to repeat them endlessly. It was a burden in the old days when I had to jump up every few minutes to reposition the tone arm on the record. CDs with remotes were a godsend for my habit. When I find a song I love I repeat it like one of those rats with a button that directly stimulated its own brain. I think some rats pushed their button till they died. I keep re-playing songs until the high wears off. I assume it depletes some kind of chemical in my brain.

The reason I can’t allow myself to do real drugs anymore is that I can’t make myself stop. I guess listening to music is my methadone or nicotine patch.

Peoples emotional levels very greatly. I’ve always been a rather reserved person emotional. I don’t get very excited or depressed. When I see people going nuts over a football game I wonder what the hell are they feeling. I never jump up and down and shout for anything. My guess is some pieces of music make me feel an intense joy that comes to other people in so many different ways.

And what’s weird is I’m not even sure I hear music in the same way other people do. I can’t remember melody or lyrics to a song no matter how many times I hear it. When “Maggot Brain” isn’t playing I have no memory of it other than a kind of withdrawal feeling.

When I was young I used to think everyone experienced the world the same. Over the years I’ve slowly realized that’s completely untrue. I now assume any taxonomy of mental states would be as varied as all the forms of mammals.

All I can say is I’m immensely grateful for this song and how it makes me feel.

Lili Haydn violinist

JWH

What Are The Limits of Individual Knowledge?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 2, 2014

This week I watched my favorite nature documentary, My Life as a Turkey for the third and fourth time – and never gets old. Joe Hutto was given 16 wild turkey eggs which he hatched with an incubator and then let the chicks imprint on him. Hutto spent a year alone with his brood in the Flatwoods of Florida, being their mother, and becoming a turkey. The more time Hutto spent with his turkeys, the more his mind adapted to the natural world. Hutto, a naturalist, had already spent much his life in nature, but at one point he said that normally he saw three rattlesnakes a year, but when he was with the turkeys he saw that many or more a day. He eventually learn over thirty vocalizations the turkeys used to communicate with each other. While he was with the turkeys reality revealed itself to him at a level he had never known before.

joe_turkey

Now my point is not to talk turkey, but explore the capacity of the human mind. Hutto, by living with wild turkeys was able to see their minds were vaster than anyone ever imagined. He learned that animals live in the moment and see so much more of reality than we do, because our minds can’t stay focused on the present, and spend too much time dwelling on the past, or anticipating the future, places that don’t actually exist.

I am using examples from the natural world to think about thinking. The Inuit, the native people of the North American Arctic, were hunters who could traverse great expanses of frozen land and sea without maps or other navigational aids until they started using GPSes. The method of navigation by brainpower alone is called wayfinding, and the Inuit were highly skilled at it. I’m sure they also understood their prey like Joe Hutto understood his turkeys. Now that the Intuit use GPSes they have lost the capacity to live on the ice like their ancestors.

My guess is the maximum capacity of human brainpower is close to what humans experienced when living in nature and at the edge of survival. Becoming farmers, and then industrialized urban dwellers, provided us with ways to slack off. It’s only when we push ourselves to the extremes, in science, sports, mathematics, war, academia, business, do we get close to our operating maximum. Most people never push themselves in their day-to-day jobs, and watching television hardly taxes our abilities. It’s no wonder that video games are so popular, because they do push our minds to work harder.

We use machines and technology to make our lives easier, and even though we think we’re much smarter than those that have come before us, that might be an illusion. Our collective knowledge is greater, but probably not our individual knowledge. Just because I live in an era of computers and robots on Mars doesn’t mean I know how to create them, or even describe the science used in their creation.

We live in a time when everyone thinks they know everything, and the people who act with the most certainty seem to know the least. This is why I doubt the human race is smart enough to avoid extinction. I’m not being cynical about people, just trying to guess their real potential. I love computers, but I’m starting to think we’d be smarter without them. But I don’t think we should give them up either. It’s obvious the next stage of evolution is machine beings.

I think we need to invent ways to push our own brain capacity, and learn to amplify our individual knowledge by working together in new forms of social knowledge acquisition.  We see this in teams of inventors or entrepreneurs who apply their collective knowledge towards a common goal. We revere and praise the individual, but we might need to start recognizing great teams, and study how they work. Or how and why collaborative systems like open source software and Wikipedia succeed.

One example of that is climate science. Climate deniers tend to be individuals, but they are arguing against an army of scientists working together with billions of dollars worth of cybernetic minds  and scientific tools. It strange how often average citizens side with the deniers. Can any one individual ever understand enough to explain anything thoroughly about reality? We need to recognize the limitations of our minds, and how collective knowledge works.

JWH

Roping A Wayward Mind

In the excellent essay, “The Myth of Multitasking,” Christine Rosen opens up with this 1740s quote from a Lord Chesterfield to his son that I can’t stop thinking about:

There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.

I wished my kindergarten teacher had started every day of class with that lesson because it’s obvious that I have never accomplished anything significant in my fifty-six years because I’ve always been trying to do two things at once.  I’m a jack of all trades, master of none kind of guy, and it annoys the hell out of me.

This morning’s activities will well illustrate my need for focus and the pitfalls of multitasking.  After my shower I started ripping CDs with my second computer, rolled out my exercise mat and started doing my yoga-like back exercises while daydreaming the opening scene of a novel I’d like to write, while another part of my mind kept reminding me to work on the short story I had been fleshing out in my imagination yesterday while exercising, and thoughts of three or four blog ideas buzzed like bees around these main ideas hoping to get more bio-CPU cycles themselves, while I was also trying to remember who I wanted to see today, where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do with my Saturday.

If I followed Lord Chesterfield’s advice I would have had a single-minded Zen-like focus on my exercises and my back would be much better for it. (I just jumped over to put a new CD into the burner and ran to the kitchen to feed our cats.)

After my exercises I got up and checked my email and stats on this blog page and followed a link to a web site that mentions John Scalzi’s comments on fame, followed the link to Scalzi’s site and then found a link to Wil Weaton’s site where he discusses fame and then I found a link to Stephen Fry’s site, also about fame, but a very long well thought out essay.  This gave me an idea to write a blog post about how it’s more rewarding to read a famous person’s blog than to actual meet them for a few minutes.

(Next CD to rip, which requires getting up and using the computer on the opposite side of the room.)  Before I could start writing that blog, while doing a previous CD change, I got the idea I wanted to reinstall my Roku SoundBridge, so I could play MP3s on my computer through my stereo in living room, and got up and went looking for it.  While tearing through two closets trying to remember where I put the Roku, I got ideas for several projects dealing with organization.  I have boxes and boxes of wires for stereos, computers, televisions, DVD players, etc. that I really must organize one day.  I was slightly distracted by the tight squeeze of clothes hanging in the closet, making it hard to get to all the boxes and remembering my promise to my wife to throw some worn clothes out, when I finally found the Roku.

(Next CD)  I was surprised by how easy it was to put the Roku back into service but I discovered something interesting.  The Roku was listing the music from both my computers, iTunes on the main machine, Windows Media on two machines, and FireFly media server on the second machine.  This revelation inspired me to write a blog about the most efficient way to serve up MP3 files in a home network.  (Next CD)  I wondered if I booted up the laptop if it would see that machine too.  (A pause to go pet a sick cat and think about a blog about the pet healthcare crisis.)

As you can see my mind is very far from Kwai Chang Caine’s focused mind in the old Kung Fu TV series.  (I’ll stop the annoying interruptions about the CD changes and other diversions while writing, but you get the idea about how I’m constantly trying to multitask.)  If I was a Kung Fu master, I wouldn’t own a wall of CDs and be trying to convert them to my computer library because I wouldn’t be into owning things.

If I was a real writer, with a focused mind, I would get up each morning, work on my novel and not think about about a dozen blog ideas, or another dozen short story ideas, or even worry about organizing a CD collection, or care about my clothes closet or boxes of wires.  I never finished a novel because, like Lord Chesterfield says, I’m trying to do more than one thing and there’s not enough time in a lifetime to do all that.

On the other paw, I am pretty good at multitasking if I’m willing to accept that I do so many things in a half-ass way.  I have four clunky websites (not counting several I manage at work).  I read about fifty books a year, and see a hundred movies on DVD and at the theater, and watch several hundred TV shows and documentaries.  I have a big collection of computers, books, magazines, CDs, gadgets, and other crap that I maintain and help do my part to keep the economy going.  I read a zillion web pages every year, and my Karma level is excellent on Slashdot.

Task Switching

Now over at 43 Folders, Merlin Mann offers his opinion in a podcast also called The Myth of Multitasking.  Mann’s take is multitasking is impossible for humans, that people aren’t parallel processing machines like supercomputers, and the best we can do is be very good at task switching.  Furthermore, it’s his belief that some people are good at task switching and others are not.  The implication being that some people can easily bookmark their place when they switch tasks.  Mann also believes once you discover you can’t multitask, you will lose the anxiety over getting so much done and focus on getting the job at hand accomplished.

My theory is the human brain is a fantastic bio-computer that parallel processes on vast scales, but the conscious mind is just one thread that runs on top of everything else that can’t really multitask, but like Mann suggests, can task switch.  Whether this is a good feature of Human 4.0 is yet to be proved.  Maybe multitasking will be a prominent feature of Homo Superior 1.0, but for now we have to decide what’s the optimal operating expectations for who we are now.

Attention Span

Should I trade all that fun chaotic juggling to be just a guy focused on writing a novel?  Is it even possible for me to be Mr. Zen Lit Man?  This brings up the second lighthouse beacon of an article I read this week,  “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic Monthly, that only fuels the fire of my desire to seek a simpler focused life.  Mr. Carr confesses that Google and the Internet living has reduced his ability to read long works.

If we could multitask, the length of any working process could be infinite, but if we can only task switch, then the critical factor is the time segment devoted to each task.  What Mr. Carr is suggesting is the Internet is making us used to living with short task segments and we’re losing our ability to process longer tasks.  This is an interesting idea, but I have to ask:  Did people have the knack for focusing on longer tasks before the Internet?

Long before Google, magazines and newspapers were featuring shorter articles with lots of side-bars, and short attention getting blips of information.  Television, with sitcoms and more and more commercials started dividing up our attentions starting back in the 1950s.  The car radio has long had buttons to quickly switch between shows for those weak of attention.  Imagine what the television clicker has done to our minds?

I too have found that I can no longer read hours at a time on a single book or long essay.  I had a different theory as to the cause of this, and assumed I had been corrupted by audio books which allows me to listen to other people read long books.  I justified my laziness by pointing out that those people are much better readers than I am, and that I learn so much more when I can concentrate on their readings.

So now I have two theories to test.  There might be many reasons why I can no longer read books hours at a stretch.  One that comes to mind is comfort.  I get back and neck strains, and my eyes weary quickly.  Large print helps, but to be honest, I genuinely prefer audio books.  After reading Carr’s article I will strongly consider my continual effort to multitask or task switch as a cause of attention deficit.  I will admit that when I read too long on anything I get antsy for new input.  The Internet might support my addiction for keeping multiple threads of thought going.

Conversely, if I’m going to be a real writer, as opposed to a blogger, I’d need to focus on one piece of writing at a time, and keep focused on that piece, draft after draft until it’s perfect and I could sell it.  In other words, I’d be forced to do ONE thing for weeks at a time.  I don’t know if I could handle that.  Task switching might be natural, and the ability to focus on a single task may be a special talent.  My friend Mike who is also a programmer says when he programs he feels like he’s in a deep well and all distractions are far away.  I truly envy him for that gift.

I can’t take a crap without reading a magazine while thinking through a handful of ideas about what I’ll do when I pull up my pants.  What if I got up this morning and just worked on writing that short story I’ve been meaning to finish for years.  The one I come back to the most often?  And what if when I needed to consume or evacuate I’d continue to think on that one story.  It certainly would help if I lived in a studio apartment with little beyond a bed, desk, writing equipment and four white walls.  No wonder Pride and Prejudice was so great, there just wasn’t that many distractions back in Jane Austen’s time.

I guess the real question is whether or not I could do the focused thing just one hour a day?  It’s an obvious compromise of where to start.  However, I think real writers probably sacrifice a giant pile of fun diversions to get a quality book finished.  Maybe I just don’t have that kind of mental makeup.  If I found a magic lantern and the Genie granted my wish to concentrate, would I be happy trading in a year’s worth of active diversions to produce one science fiction novel?  That scares me.  It sounds boring and lonely.

Dedication to Details

Last night I saw an episode of Nova about making Japanese samurai swords, and Friday night I saw a documentary that included a piece about a Chinese guy making traditional bows and arrows.  In each case, these were complicated skills handed down from the past and required the artisan to devote his life to his work.  Both documentaries pointed out that these acts of devotion to extreme details were being destroyed by modern culture.  Few people in our society dedicate as much of their time to a single-minded objective, but there are some.  Olympic athletes, classical musicians, and other successful people in any discipline.

There is always the chance that multitasking and Googling is common in society because that’s how the brains of most people work.  If I had a brain for single minded focusing I would be a person pursuing something very focused.  We see all those enchanting martial arts fables, like Kung Fu Panda where a slob of a mind can be polished into a diamond-point jewel of focused attention.  Is that really possible?  Maybe such training is possible if we start as children, but I doubt it for middle-aged adults.  Can I and others improve our minds with incremental improvements, especially late in life, well I think there’s plenty of evidence for that.

We know that doing the crossword puzzle or the sudoku will exercise our brain, so I would imagine reading long articles from The New Yorker and The Atlantic will condition our mental focus towards longer attention spans.  I would also assume we could follow Lord Chesterfields’ advice by starting the day by making a short list of things we want to do, and then work on them one at a time.  My closet is still a mess, but if I stuck with it, focused my mind, and only worked on my closet, it would be finished with an hour’s effort.

A New Theory of Multitasking

I think some kinds of multitasking are possible and aren’t bad.  I wouldn’t want to sit and burn CDs until I had finished all 1500 of them.  I think I could safely work on cleaning out my closet, listen to an audio book and burn CDs and be a success if I finished the closet in a reasonable amount of time and did a perfect job.  Actually, this may be a form of true multitasking, because my mind would be focused on the audio book story, and my body would be working to organize the closet and rip CDs.

People can do two things at once physically, but it’s uncommon – like rubbing your abdomen in a circle with your right hand and patting your head with your left.  I can’t sort speaker wire and switch out CDs, so that would be task switching.  But is it task switching or multitasking to listen to a book and do something physical that doesn’t require much mental processing like walking, doing the dishes, sorting wire or swapping out CDs?

The Good Old Days

I think many people would like to return to the good old days of a less hectic life.  They feel that life would be better if they didn’t have so many programming events demanding time slices.  Makes me wonder what my Main() loop looks like.  The belief is we’d be happier with fewer function calls and more time where our CPU usage falls to 0%.  Personally, I’d be philosophically happier if my log files showed more completed jobs, and fulfilled if I routinely shipped some fine 1.0 products.  I have learned that achieving a zero email inbox is very satisfying.  I don’t think we need to become Amish or Tibetan to find happiness.  I do think that learning to tame the mind is a worthy goal and all these mental lessons that are a byproduct of computer usage and Jetsons-fast living is helping us evolve.

I am reminded of some odd advice.  A modern day guru, or maybe it was a comedian, suggested getting up every morning and pistol whipping yourself if you had crippling fears of being mugged.  I wonder if I got up every morning and focused my mind intently on any kind of mental exercise, if I wouldn’t build up some focusing muscles?  If my flitting attention ever settles down to allow me to pursue such an experiment, I’ll let you know the results.

Jim