"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: Mortal Concerns (Page 1 of 3)

I’m 6 AND A HALF Years Old!

“I am 6 AND A HALF years old!” I wanted it to be noted that I am not 6. I am older than six—I’m on my way to 7! This, I know I said, as well as similar declarations about my age into adulthood. Indeed, when I was 20, I looked 14, so I probably kept up the “and one-half” routine longer than most.

Why? Because I wanted to be grown up; be a grownup.  When we are children we literally look up to adults. We inhabit a land of giants who rule over our lives, can impose their wishes on us, physically if they wish. Our natural line of gaze at the age 6 (and a half) is the midsections of the giants. Growing UP is our body’s trajectory when we are young and the aspiration of every child; to be a “Big boy,” a “Big girl.”

“My hair is grey and I can say anything I like.” This my mother said when her hair turned grey, and this she did. This was not only a declaration of her newfound freedom, but a statement about her life stage: “I’m identifiably old, no longer beholden to keeping up appearances, and am free to say what I really think without worrying about the consequences.”

Body Clocks

Our body is a biological timepiece. Born as a seedling, we sprout into saplings, then blossom into fruition. The seasons take their toll, our seeds dry up, our limbs, trunk, and heartwood wither, we creek and groan. Time inscribes itself in our bones. Like a tree, our “bone-rings” provide an accurate estimate of our chronological age. Time is not just inscribed in our bones but in our entire body; the rush and ebb of hormones, dimmed eyes and ears, unsightly changes in skin and hair, faltering brain and gait, intestinal dysregulation, these and everything else are all time-stamped. And our identity is tied to our growth rings: “I’m 6 AND A HALF!” “My hair is grey!”

Time is uniquely embodied in each of us and none escape its grip. Actuarial tables provide an aggregate estimate of life expectancy, but we each carry our genetic fate embedded in our own particular historical, cultural, and environmental niches. Time’s grasp exerts a constant tug that resides at the rim of our consciousness; the day-to-day fluctuations too small to notice, but they nevertheless exert a tidal pull on our desires and aspirations (i.e., “I want to grow UP!”), anxieties and dread (i.e., “Oh my god, grey hair!”).

At 6 and a half, growth is a biological imperative that thrusts us toward adulthood, promising us future membership in the land of the giants; to be grown up! On the distant horizon, barely visible, if at all, is our body’s demise. Most of us, if we are lucky, for many years after we reach biological adulthood are rarely confronted with the stark reality of our time-stamped bodies. Along the way, hints abound, from the round-numbered birthdays, to the remediable aches and pains that visit us, to the crow’s feet appearing under our eyes. No need to think about death yet; its prospect awaits in a barely glimpsed horizon.

I’m Coming for You

This has not been my relationship with death. For reasons I am not fully aware of, the prospect of my death has haunted me most of my life. Any moment I could be gone?! Forever?! Really?! Incredulity. Rage. Fright. Despair. Terror. Gratitude. Forgiveness. Love, oh love. My gut-level grasping of the reality that awaits prompts these reactions and much more.

My relationship with death has changed as I have aged. The actuarial projections of my expected life have framed my relation with death. When my youthful body and mind were propelled by energy, excitement, ambition, and the promises of the future before me, death loomed as the end of my future. I raged: “I could be deprived of my chance to live my life!”

As I made my way into middle age, and my actuarial future was shortened but my end was not impending, death, planted on my shoulder, insisted: “Don’t waste your chance, live meaningfully.” I was most afraid that I would squander my one miraculous opportunity at life.

Now, white-haired (that which is left), my body parts are past due, reflexes, eyesight, strength, and judgment are faltering, and even ordinary activities, like managing stairs or walking on uneven ground, are potentially life-threatening. Modern medicine has extended the due date of some bones and parts, but as I hobble along, visiting an increasing number of doctors for an increasing number of maladies, my future is much different. Even the actuarial tables offer little hope. Death weighs heavy on my shoulders and shouts: “I’m coming for you—soon”.

Roulette Wheel

My father was afflicted with Parkinson’s in his late 70’s. My mother was stricken by Crohn’s disease when she was 90, which was so rare at her age that her doctor wanted to write a medical case study. Parkinson’s!? Crohn’s!? Both out-of-the-blue surprises. Both contributing factors to their deaths. I am at the age where friends are dying at an alarming rate from an alarming number of unexpected causes: stomach cancer, dementia, heart failure, immunological collapse, and more.

Death’s roulette wheel spins in each of us, the ball skittering across an unimaginable range of possible paths to our demise. As my aging, failing body wobbles, the wheel slows, the ball clatters more loudly. What deadly surprises await? Parkinson’s? Crohn’s? What is the fated slot where my ball will come to rest? My fate is also tied to Sharon’s, my life’s love. What is our tethered future? Who will go first? How? What will be our coupled journey through the valley of the shadow of death? How shall we live our lives together in the dimming light of our December days?

Each day is a choice. In our younger years, when the actuarial future stretches into a distant horizon, it is easy to dismiss thoughts and concerns about death as an irrational preoccupation about something of little immediate consequence. In old age, however, considerable effort is required to dismiss, deny, or disregard the tightening noose.

This foreshortened future confers its own gift: The immediate, visceral experience of the precious NOW. I am on my porch. I hear the shouts and laughter of the neighbor’s kids, feel the breeze on my face as I watch the birds squabble at our feeder, hear Sharon singing in the kitchen. My breath catches. Will the ball drop today?

Old Age—The Numbers Don’t Add Up

Mathematics of Aging

In my younger years, I loved mathematics. Problems have solutions! Complex problems require more complex mathematics, but the result is the same: clarity. Rational, organized, systematic thought yields answers. What a narcotic! The world, with effort, can be ordered and understood. I spent many years being pulled deeper into the mathematical rabbit hole in a quest for clarity in this disordered world.

As I aged, however, I learned that the clarity brought by mathematics only applies to a very narrow set of problems. Indeed, many of the problems in this disordered world not only resist rational, organized, systematic thought they ofttimes are exacerbated by it.

Or so I thought. I never could have imagined that I would revisit my early mathematical knowledge (most of which I had forgotten) to make sense of my journey through old age. Every day I find myself making calculations, observing patterns, reacting to situations that draw on my prior mathematical training. I have discovered that unlike standard mathematics, in “geriatric numerology” the numbers don’t add up. Standard mathematical definitions take on new meanings in the mathematics of old age. I offer this “dictionary of redefinitions” as a guide for navigating this new math.

Statistical Concepts

Mean (Standard Math): The mathematical average of a given set of numbers.
Mean (Geriatric Numerology): How often I am able to coherently express what I mean.

Median (SM): The mid-value in a given set of numbers (i.e., 50% are higher and 50% are lower).
Median (GN): What I try not to drive on.

Mode (SM): The most frequent number occurring in a given set of numbers.
Mode (GN): The settings for my hearing aids.

Probability Distribution (SM): The likelihood of an event occurring across a range of possible outcomes.
Probability Distribution (GN): The likelihood that I will find my lost phone across a range of possible places in my house.

Symmetrical Distribution (SM): A regular, bell-shaped curve. A normal distribution.
Symmetrical Distribution (GN): When rotated 90 degrees clockwise, the shape of my belly. A normal distribution among people of a certain age.

Positively Skewed Distribution (SM): A bulge in a distribution curve positioned to the left of center. Not normally distributed.
Positively Skewed Distribution (GN): When rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise, the shape my backside. A common distribution among people of a certain age. But not a positive distribution.

Random Number Generator (SM): A device that generates a sequence of numbers with no predictable pattern.
Random Number Generator (GN): My brain that generates a sequence of thoughts with no predictable pattern.

Risk Assessment (SM): Calculation of the relative potential for harm and damage from a course of action.
Risk Assessment (GN): Risks accompany me when I take my regular walks in our quiet, little trafficked neighborhood: Should I walk in the street, which is smooth but where I might be hit by a car—a low probability event that would likely incur substantial harm? OR walk on the sidewalk, with its uneven surface and higher likelihood of tripping and falling, but a lower probability of very serious harm? Factors that enter into the calculation: Day or night? Rush hour? Gated street? Weather? Very complicated.

Number Theory

Prime Number (SM): A number that can only be divided by 1 and itself without a remainder.
Prime Number (GN): The number of prime things I can do in a day. The number is 1. There are many “prime things”, including MD appointments, dentist visits, physical therapy, chiropractor visits, medical tests, pharmacy visits, medical insurance disputes, dental insurance disputes, Medicare disputes, orthotic fittings, reading glasses adjustments, reading glasses replacements, CPAP equipment repair and replacements, hearing aid adjustments, legal advice for wills and medical directives, advance funeral arrangements, etc., etc.

Real Numbers (SM): All the numbers on the number line, including rational and irrational numbers.
Real Number (GN): My age.

Irrational Number (SM): A number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers.
Irrational Number (GN): The age I would like to be.

Imaginary Number (SM): A number without a definite numeral value. An unreal number (i.e., √-2).
Imaginary Number (GN): The age I think I am. An unreal number (i.e., “I still feel like I am 35.”).

Negative Number (SM): A number whose value is less than zero.
Negative Number (GN): My age. “Holy shit, am I’m really this old?!”

Positive Number (SM): A number whose value is greater than zero.
Positive Number (GN): My age. “Holy shit, I’m this old and still alive!!!”

Arithmetic

Addition (SM): The process of summation of two or more numbers.
Addition (GN): The process of accumulating medical conditions, diagnoses, aches, pains, medications, age spots, wrinkles, weight, bunions. Also, increase in humor, patience, gratitude, generosity, perspective.  

Subtraction (SM): The taking away the amount of one or more numbers from another.
Subtraction (GN): The taking away of my brain cells, hair, sensory acuity, muscle mass, dexterity, strength, energy, teeth, friends, family, loved ones. Also, less ego injuries, impatience, self-importance, pop culture awareness, emotional drama, fashion sense, fashion concern.

Multiplication (SM): A mathematical operation indicating how many times a number is added to itself.
Multiplication (GN): A process no longer likely to happen to me—thankfully!

The Number Zero

Zero (SM): It is nothing that creates everything. It is neither a positive nor negative number but defines the boundary between them. It is not a rational, irrational or imaginary number. It adds nothing, subtracts nothing, leaves nothing when multiplied, and destroys everything when divided by. It is a place holder: 10, 100, 1000, etc., but it holds nothing.

The concept of zero made the modern number system possible. It was developed in India and corresponds to Hindu and Buddhist understanding of “being empty.” Being is a “presence” and empty is a condition of being. Nothing is something; a pregnant void that gives rise to everything.

Zero (GN): I emerge from nothing with nothing. Except with my life, my being. And at the end of my life, I return to nothing with nothing. Zero. I am of nothing, return to nothing, and this gives rise to everything.1

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The Last Great Adventure

I awake, my body is sore. Moving, the joints are stiff, the back rebels, activity requires some effort. This is happening much more regularly, is becoming routine. So, too, the general tiredness, and the fire, the energy that naturally propels me up-and-out is flagging. My eyes, despite cataract surgery, are starting to cloud, my ears need aids, my sleep requires mask and hose, my surgically repaired and reconstructed knees announce themselves when I walk.

I have been most fortunate. I am in my mid 70’s, still mobile and cognitively alert (albeit diminished). Modern medicine has left some scars, but for my age—lucky me! My physical diminishment and aches, minor though they be, are mine, experienced viscerally, personally, intimately. They inhabit me, claim me—are me! And I feel the Shadow closing in.

But they are more than that. They are my unique experience of “the dying of the light”; something experienced by all living beings, in their many forms, in their varied and unique ways. I am but one infinitesimal manifestation of life on this remarkable planet. My individual experience of youthful surge, followed by dissipation, then expiration offers me a peek through my narrow portal into the experience of the Surge, Dissipation, Expiration of all living things. Oh my! What a singular opportunity given to me in the wild randomness of my birth!1 I travel in a crowd with fellow beings, blinking into life for our brief, dynamic moment then, blink—out!

My dear friend, Bill, a pilot in the Korean war and an Air Force flight instructor, talked about death as “the last great adventure.”2 He wanted to be a witness, to be attuned to this last adventure. As life ebbed from him, so quietly in the dark night, he gave a faint sign that he was there, witnessing. Aware, he flew into the darkness.

Can I, as I dissipate toward expiration, lift my eyes from my compelling personal drama to the horizon of astonishment at being in this crowd? Can I be a witness to my expiration that shares common ground with Life? Can I be witness to this last, sacred moment?

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You Believe That?! Are You Crazy?!

Do you believe that:

1. A current race of evil, dominant people is the product of genetic experiments performed over 6,000 years ago. A spaceship, directed by a superhuman entity, has been hovering over the United States for several decades and contains bombs that will someday be dropped and kill all of these immoral people.

                                      Or,

2. If you live by rules set down by a being from outer space and, if you are male, after death you will one day dwell on your own planet where you will be able to have sex with various spirit wives. You will then become the father of many spirit children that will someday be born on earth or another planet.

                                      Or,

3. You have been defiled at birth, your thoughts and behaviors are being monitored and judged by a supernatural being who demands obedience to his commands, and you will be condemned to an eternity of unspeakable suffering should you fail to comply. If obedient, you can participate in a ceremony of eating the flesh of a deceased holy man, which allows you to gain a spiritual union and receive grace from this supernatural being.   

Do you think people who passionately hold these beliefs are crazy? This is a question Shawn O’Connor and I sought to answer (he was the lead investigator on this study).1 The answer may surprise.

The Sky and Cannibalism

But first some background. 

The sky, the cosmos, forms our primal experience of life; gives us life, sustains us, haunts us, overwhelms us. The blinding, life-giving sun that lights our days, the enigmatic illuminations appearing in the night sky, the storms that thunder and rain down upon us, the seasons that give life and take it away, have been sources of wonder, awe, fear, and trepidation for as long as humans have walked this planet. Heavenly powers hold dominion over earthly matters, and we are obviously denizens of something much greater than ourselves. Uncountable numbers of religions, spiritual practices, and sacred beliefs have arisen to fathom our place in the cosmos. The first two beliefs above are attempts to do so.

Although popular opinion holds that cannibalism is rare, it is quite pervasive and dates back into the depths of human prehistory. Many motives lead to cannibalism, starvation being a one. But there are others, including ritualistic cannibalism that is part of religious rites and sacred practices. It is often believed that by ingesting the body of the dead, the powers and wisdom of the deceased are conferred to the individual. The third belief above resides in this family of convictions.

What is Crazy?

The three beliefs and practices sure seem crazy. But what do we mean by crazy? Crazy is not an official diagnosis in the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of mental disorders. The above beliefs, however, could be labeled delusions, which the DSM defines as “fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. . . Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences.” 

Religious beliefs inhabit an indeterminate region in the DSM formulation: “Some religious and supernatural beliefs (e.g., evil eye, causing illness through curses, influence of spirits) may be viewed as bizarre and possibly delusional in some cultural contexts but be generally accepted in others. However, elevated religiosity can be a feature of many presentations of psychosis.”

Several issues to note. Delusions are not considered delusions if understandable to same-culture peers. So, what might seem very bizarre and delusional may simply be the result of ignorance about cultural beliefs that are not held by same-culture peers. Are we more likely to assess pathology when we are ignorant of the religion? And what are we to make of “elevated religiosity?” When does fervent religious belief become psychotic?

The three beliefs highlighted above are integral to 3 major religions practiced in the United States: Nation of Islam, Mormonism, and Catholicism. The beliefs are stated without including identifying information that would reveal that they are part of an established religion. Shawn and I wanted to know if simply adding identifying information (i.e., for the third belief, that the individual is Catholic who believed in transubstantiation) without changing the core beliefs would alter the assessment of psychopathology by trained mental health workers. 

When the religious beliefs were not identified, the Mormon and Catholic based beliefs were rated significantly more pathological than when they were identified. Nation of Islam was rated highly pathological in both identified and not identified conditions.2 Quite bizarre and unsettling beliefs are thus transformed from delusions to acceptable convictions simply because they are revealed to be part of religious traditions that we, as same-culture peers, understand.

Who Is Crazy?

How, then, are we to consider religious beliefs held by unfamiliar cultures we do not understand? Consider the following, which are currently being practiced somewhere in the world:3

  • Your baby is born under abhorrent planetary influences and fated to kill their spouse when they marry. To divest themselves of this curse, they are married to an animal, usually a dog or a goat, or even a tree. 
  • To celebrate the destruction of a demon army by the son of god, you must fast for 48 days, followed by piercing your body with lances and hooks, which are then used to pull heavy objects that are attached to the hooks. 
  • All conventional categories and opposites are illusionary manifestations an underlying unity. Violating social taboos is an spiritual act of asserting this unity. This includes retrieving floating bodies found in a holy river and eating them. 
  • To thank the gods for being blessed with a baby, when your baby is 3 months old, you immerse them in boiling water. 
  • If you are male, your penis is surgically mutilated to cement your contract with god.
  • You toss your baby from a 50-foot tower into a sheet to make them stronger and healthier.
  • To cure your child of a disability, on a day of a solar eclipse you bury them in sand up to their necks for up to 6 hours.
  • You anoint your baby with holy water. Failure to do so might result in the baby being consigned to eternal suffering.
  • To celebrate your faith and devotion to a god who walked through red-hot coals unscathed, you do the same, following a holy man who begins the fire walking procession with pot on his head filled with holy water. 
  • Spiritual advancement is achieved by fasting on a sacred day. The following day you paint and decorate cows and bulls, garland yourself, lie on the ground, and let the animals trample you. This ensures that your desires will be fulfilled and brings prosperity to your community. 

This is only a minuscule sample of all the beliefs and rituals that have been practiced throughout human existence. Each tribe thinks theirs are reasonable. Simply sharing common meanings, beliefs, and practices with others makes us sane; rescues us from going crazy. We seek footholds on the ineffable, desperately clutching our own ceremonies of certainty to assuage our existential angst and panic. This is our human plight.

You believe that? I do, which you might think is crazy.

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In Memory of My Father

Dad on Our Wedding Eve

My father died 20 years ago today: February 23, 2003. This post is a memorial to his life and a remembrance of his presence, which lives on in me. Here my eulogy that I gave at his funeral service:

“As I prepared this, I asked myself what my father would want me to say. He was not one for posturing, sermonizing and certainly not for long-winded eulogies. Indeed, I kept hearing him say: “Keep it short and cut the bull.” And so I shall.

He did not have an easy life. The oldest of 5 children, he came of age in the Great Depression in a family that had to scuffle and scratch to keep food on the table. Beginning at the age of 8, he spent summers on a relative’s farm, plowing fields behind a horse. He chose to go to Edison Tech, rather than the local high school, so he could learn a trade that was more reliable than masonry, which was the work of his family. He had to bike some distance to school through neighborhoods where he was harassed and chased. Characteristically, his response was to go to the gym, lift weights, become stronger so he would not be intimidated or bullied.

This spirit did not desert him. In the last days of his life, when Parkinson’s had rendered his limbs useless, a particularly insensitive nurse tried to give him his medication by forcing pills into his mouth. His response was to spit them back in her face. Indeed, I think he invented the phrase, “In your face.”

This spirit was coupled with a sense of duty and commitment to his family. Not only was he working on a farm, in difficult labor, in his earliest years, but he also rummaged through the dumps for metal, coal, and rags to support his family—and as the eldest, he assumed a role of responsibility for his family’s welfare that was disproportionate to his young age. He was drafted just prior to World War II, and throughout his tour of duty, while serving his country, he sent home most of his paycheck to help support his family.

After the war he had his own family to support and did so by working 3 shifts: 2 weeks days; 2 weeks nights; and sometimes the graveyard shift. This for 33 years. He was a fitful sleeper and this punishing schedule made rest even more difficult and infrequent. I know, I remember him forgoing buying a much needed shirt so that I could have a bike. He was quiet and of few words, but expressed his love, his care, and his commitment through everyday acts of labor and sacrifice. He worked to support us, but not avoid us. He was there for us. There was not a day in my life that I did not feel loved.

On His “Farm”

This is who he was. Tough, fiercely independent, not expecting life to be anything but a struggle, who, with tenacity and perseverance, sacrificed for his family’s well-being; first for his sisters and brother, later for his own family. Indeed, one of the most important days of the year was not his birthday, for which he cared little, but for the fall day each year when all his family—immediate and extended—came down to his “farm” in the Southern Tier of New York to celebrate being together. These were among the happiest moments of his life.

His most important gifts to us were those values, mostly unstated, expressed in how he lived his life. He strived to give us more opportunities than he had; to give us a secure and loving childhood. This he did. He had high expectations for us, not in terms of accomplishments, but who we should be as people; that whatever we did we should do it with the highest standards of excellence, pursued with honesty and integrity; to live in a way that we could be proud of—that he could be proud of.

His life taught us that the world owes us nothing, that we must make the best of the opportunities that we create for ourselves and, more importantly, to have enough strength to learn from failure, to have the fortitude to not surrender ourselves for success, and to possess the resiliency to face life’s difficulties. He instilled a healthy mistrust of vested authority, skepticism of conventional wisdom, and the courage of conviction even, and especially, when these convictions are unpopular.

What is important today is not the particulars of his death, but that his death help us remember his life. In honoring his life, let us remind ourselves of the precious gift that is our life. Out, out, brief candle. Our end awaits us sooner than we imagine.

For my father, I am grateful for who he was, for what he bequeathed us, and say, one last time,

Thank you.

I love you.

Goodbye”.

Kiss of Death

“Kiss of death.” What a jarring juxtaposition of two words. Kiss: a tender, personal expression of affection, love, and life. Death: a cold, disemboweled, shutter of the grave. The union of these words yields startling reverberations of meaning. The kiss of Judas, for instance; a deadly betrayal masquerading as an act of love. Or the kiss of a mob boss given to one of his assassins to seal the contract on a targeted enemy.

Or a description of our lives. From the moment of our birth, we are kissed by death; the sweet, miraculous experience of life shot through with the looming shadow of our ending.1 The juxtaposition expresses the painful ache of love, informed, at some deep level, by our impermanence. The kiss fades. Life fades. Love intimates death within its embrace.

Still Life
Maria van Oosterwijck

Death’s kiss is at the center of much philosophical and religious practice. Memento Mori, “remember that you must die,” has a long and distinguished history. Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Montaigne (Greek, Roman, Christian) all argue that “To philosophize is to learn to die.” Judaism and Christianity direct us to “number our days”; Buddhist practice embraces suffering and impermanence as noble truths; and Islam counsels a “remembrance of death.” Much of Western art from medieval times to the 19th century contained symbolic reminders of mortality, often coded in small details like an hourglass or wilting flowers.2

Why? Why urge that we meditate on such a disturbing topic? And it is disturbing. The looming presence of death is an acid that strips away the easy familiarly, the ready-made obviousness of everyday life. It frightens, disorients, and destabilizes. Troubling questions, and reactions, are prompted by intently staring into the blinding glare of our mortality.3 But we must do so precisely because death’s kiss provokes troubling questions: How shall I live? Toward what purpose? Why? Although each tradition prescribes different answers,4 the purpose is the same: Awaken us to our fleeting presence on this earth, overcome our preoccupation with trivial matters, and live with vital, purposeful, urgency.

I have long been preoccupied with the kiss of death and can attest that it is an unwelcome, almost taboo topic for discussion; indeed, sometimes presumed to be a sign of psychological disturbance. One reason is because death has become remote. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the last century-and-a-half, so death is less likely to be encountered in the daily round of life, especially in developed countries. The United States has been further graced by good fortune, as we have not been devastated by war, famine or disease during this time.5

In our most fortunate society, in our most fortunate time, it is generally expected that most of us will live a long life. Early death is a shock, an upending of the natural order. Death, when it occurs, is personal and prompts very private grief for the loss. Denial of death is a very comfortable and comforting strategy to protect us from the angst and anguish of the kiss of death.

Triumph of Death
Pieter Brueghel The Elder

It has not always been so. Sometimes death cannot be tamed, felling cities, countries, even continents with a scythe of mortal ruin that leaves streets and country sides littered with corpses. Perhaps the most devastating of these types of events was Black Death in the 14th century where 30% to 60% of Europe died, and major cities, like Florence and Paris, became ghost towns and charnel houses. The entire medieval order was torn asunder. Serfdom ended, the economic structure based on land ownership undermined, religious authority challenged, medical practice disparaged, licentiousness and riots in the streets pervasive, and the persecution of Jews, lepers, and “Others” widespread. The shadow of death haunted everything. Death was a communal, public experience. Grief and anguish were not only for the loss of an individual, but for the loss of everything and everybody. The painting “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel evokes what it must have felt like to live in this apocalyptic time.

Black Death is an event that we might want to dismiss as a historical anomaly, a curiosity from the distant past of little consequence to our present circumstances. The human toll of today’s pandemic is microscopic compared to devastation of this plague, so trying to connect the two could be considered simply scare mongering. But the Black Death threat of today is not COVID. It is global warming. We know it is coming, and are beginning to feel the heat of it, not only in rising temperatures and widespread environmental disruptions, but in the straining of social, cultural, economic, and political ties that bind. We are past the tipping point; no longer can we halt it, and our continued collective inaction ensures speedier and more devastating consequences. Black Death gives us a peek at the kind of devastation that possibly awaits.

The world is, literally, on fire. Brueghel’s painting of the past also envisions our possible future—death communally experienced, and grief and anguish for the loss of everything and everybody. The discomfort and avoidance of discussing our individual death is magnified when it is not only our own personal ending, but the death of the world as we know it. Sleepwalking, however, is not the answer—it is the problem. We must awake, take urgent action NOW if we are to have a world where life will be worth living. We must embrace the kiss of death! 6

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Atlantis

Remembrance of things past1 is the special province of the aged, for whom the long shadow of the past looms over the present and the ever-shortening future. Everything conspires to remind: face in the mirror, alien; daily routines, upended; places, bulldozed; useful things, obsolete; friends, family, and acquaintances who peopled our world, sick, dying, dead. Our attempts to freeze time—photographs, videos, recordings—fade, as do our memories. Despite our efforts to stop time, the loves and friendships, the hardships and tragedies, the triumphs and defeats, the jubilations and heartbreaks, the full pulsing, throbbing experiences of life—are gone.

We hold close our mementos and memories, trying to salvage fragments of a world being submerged by the in-rushing tide of time. We are denizens of Atlantis, that mythic lost world that sunk beneath the sea, leaving no trace. But not yet. This moment, right now, is our time. Hold it close.

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1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows
Not a trace can be found   

You who are living, live the best life you can
Don’t count on earth to preserve memory

Ai Qing2  

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Aliens Have Landed

The cosmos is a source of wonderment and deep mystery that rouses visions of possible celestial beings. Humans have gazed at the heavens and envisioned life beyond our earthly horizon since the first stirrings of civilization in Mesopotamia. The earliest form of this has been the worship of deities; sun gods, planet goddesses, heavenly personages, and divine beings. We are familiar with “the man in the moon”, green martins, and a host of space aliens portrayed in movies, books, comics, and television programs.

Alien Telescope Array

Space Aliens

Recently, in the last 100 years or so, we have become concerned about detecting, confirming, and contacting alien space life. UFO sightings, a subject of considerable controversy, might suggest they are already here, among us. Major efforts costing millions of dollars, including the Alien Telescope Array, search the cosmos for signals of extraterrestrial intelligence. Space probes have been sent to the moon, Mars, Venus, as well as Jupiter and Saturn’s moons, scouring for the slightest hints of life. We have even sent a space craft with images and presumed universal codes about our earthly existence into the deep unknown beyond our solar system; a message in a bottle tossed into the vast sea, announcing: “We are here!”

The chill of cosmic isolation, the yearning for companionship amidst the vast darkness of infinite space motivates the question that often accompanies these efforts: “Are we alone in the cosmos?” Our anxiety about being alone is accompanied by fear of what we might find, or what might find us. We have only developed the scientific capacities to seriously pursue these inquires in the last 50 years or so; a mere eye-blink in cosmological time. Any space alien capable of discovering us, communicating with us, or visiting us will likely be much more technologically advanced.

Will they be nice to us? Might we become their pet? Will we be exterminated as a troublesome varmint? Devoured for a snack? Hunted for sport? Killed for kicks? Our imaginings of space aliens are filled with these fears, with the amusing premise that our cosmic Stone Age weapons and technology can defend us against aliens who have  traversed unfathomable distances using unimaginably sophisticated means.

Obviously, we have no idea what space aliens might look like, should they exist, so they provide a blank screen where we project our primal anxieties. The images and stories we conjure bring us face to face, not with aliens, but with ourselves. We can learn much about ourselves through these projections. The most common images are mutant humanoids: ET and Yoda-like figures that can be wise and friendly, or more disturbingly formed humanoids that aim to destroy humanity. The default image is “something like us”, because, after all, this is what intelligent life must look like.

And then there are the horror films and stories seeking to evoke our deepest terror. These are not humanoids; they are creatures of our nightmares, often insectoids, with little outward resemblance to ourselves. Their mere form announces their malevolence, for anything this utterly foreign can only be a mortal threat.

Aliens Have Landed

We scour sky, expectant and fearful, searching for intelligent life to assuage our cosmic loneliness. Ironically, we fail to lower our gaze to our own planet. Intelligent life has landed. Millions of years ago. It swarms in our midst. Perhaps the most alien life forms among us are cephalopods; octopus, cuttlefish, and squid. No other animals have evolved as early from the all the rest of the Animal Kingdom as these creatures. Our common ancestor with cephalopods is the flatworm, from which we diverged over 600 million years ago. Unlike most other complex animals, octopuses do not have a central nervous system (CNS). Their information network is distributed along its 8 arms. Alien, indeed. And, by all evidence, very intelligent.

A crude way to assess how alien other earthlings are to us is by how distant our evolutionary ancestors are and by how they gather, organize, and use information critical to their survival. Insects also are very evolutionary distant from us; our last common ancestor is about 400 million years ago. Insects comprise the largest biomass of terrestrial animals consisting of over 30 million species. While they do have a CNS, it is quite primitive, giving rise to strange forms that can easily evoke horror.

A host of other dazzlingly bizarre creatures, also evolutionarily distant, throng our planet. The oceans, lakes, ponds, and waterways surge with over a 30,000 species of fish, many exotic and other-worldly. Birds, distant relatives to dinosaurs, fill the sky with their dazzling array of colors and songs.1 Fish, and especially birds, have  sophisticated central nervous systems and our shared ancestry with both is about 300 million year ago. While strange, they possess a vague resemblance to us that octopuses and insects do not.

Closer to home, closer to us, less evolutionarily alien, are mammals. While mammalian forms can be very different, from giraffes, to elephants, to tigers, we do share much in common with them; we are in the same biological family. We ride them for pleasure and transport, harness them to accomplish difficult tasks, hunt them for sport, food, and trophies attesting to our power, harvest them for food, wear their skins and furs for protection and fashion, train them to be our eyes and ears, even invite a select few into our homes for companionship, claiming some to be “our best friend.”  

Intelligent humanoid life forms also share our terrestrial home. We have biological brethren, primates, which consist  of around 200 species, including gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and gibbons. We share 98% of our DNA with our closest relative, chimpanzees. They look much more like us than most alien humanoid images we have contrived, act uncannily like us, and we have even been able to communicate with some—they learned forms of human communication (e.g., sign languages); we have not learned theirs (who is more intelligent here?). We have hunted and hounded almost all to near extinction. And, to save them from ourselves, we encaged them in in zoos; jail-mates with a host of others in the Animal Kingdom we have pushed to near extinction.

Frightful Alien

If space aliens were to visit our planet, there is no reason why they would be more interested in us than, say, elephants, horses, crabs, or octopuses. If they examined earth from a dispassionate perspective, why shouldn’t they view us as a pestilence; a plague that has visited death, torture, and destruction on all the other earthly inhabitants? We have, after all, caused the extinction of many hundreds of species. Currently one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, and one in three conifers and similar plants are at risk for extinction because of our actions. Almost no forms of plants or animals have escaped our ruinous hand.2

We fear space aliens might try to exterminate us, hunt us, devour us, “domesticate” us, murder us for profit or thrill. These fears spring from the fear that they might be too much like us.  If aliens are “intelligent” in the same manner we credit ourselves, then they might well treat us precisely as we have treated our fellow beings with whom we share this planet. Blind, groping creatures, we experience existential angst about our presumed cosmic solitary existence, while annihilating untold billions of fellow earthlings. A mirror, not a telescope is needed discover alien visitors: We are the aliens on this planet. Frightful aliens. The monsters that haunt our worst nightmares are us.

Old Dog, New Tricks?

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”                     

Old Dog

My first, almost reflexive, old-doggie response to this cliché is to disagree. “What do you mean!? How old is old? 50? 65? 80? Some can be demented at 60 years and others, at 80, can be sharper than many 20-year-old’s.” Once my indignation subsides, I am painfully aware of the daily reminders of the inescapable reality that the body ages, the mind slackens, and energy wanes. Information goes in, but doesn’t stick. Recall is diminished as I root around for a familiar name, word, or past event. Attention wanders. Complex reasoning is a trial with failure a common outcome; even no-so-complex reasoning sometimes befuddles. Focus is fragmented: “What was I just doing?” “Why was I doing it?” “Where did I put it?”1

Dementia. I have witnessed family members, friends, and acquaintances fall to this dreaded outcome. The tragedy is twofold, afflicting both the sufferer as well as their family and caretakers. Dementia is one of my biggest fears and, I know, also is for many others of my generation. Diminishing capacities are not only a source of concern, in themselves, but another, more general level of anxiety pervades: “Is this a sign of dementia?”

Research on the normative patterns of cognitive decline with age helps, somewhat, to normalize what I am experiencing. Normal declines include: information processing speed and reaction times; keeping multiple thoughts in mind at the same time; memory of recent events; remembering to do things in the future; screening out distracting information, multitasking, sustaining attention; recalling words, names, places; thinking abstractly, making complex decisions, reasoning, solving new problems, and regulating behavior.2

Quite a comprehensive list! Should I be relieved that these are “normal?” It certainly suggests that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Well, let’s look at some things that remain relatively stable or improve with age: Vocabulary and comprehension of language remain stable. Procedural memory, which is how to do things, like ride a bike, ice skate, swim, drive a car, also remains stable. Older adults have a lifetime of stored information to draw on when making decisions and responding to problems and situations. They also are quicker to recover from negative experiences, less reactive to stressful interpersonal encounters, more positive in their outlook, and, surprisingly, happier.3

So, when the elderly get in a car accident, which is much more likely, they will be able to talk about it fluently and be less emotionally reactive. They retain the ability to drive, but their mental and physical reaction times are slower, they forget where they are going, get confused, distracted, lose their attentional focus, and have diminished perceptual acuity making driving at night, in the rain, snow, etc., challenging. This is hardly reassuring. And it does not make me happier…

Old Tricks, New Tricks

The diminishment of my facilities poses a new challenge: How do I manage to continue effectively performing old, necessary tasks? Answer: New tricks must be learned. Most advice about coping with aging focuses on diet, exercise, and activities. Much less is offered about specific behavioral strategies to deal with everyday tasks that have become more challenging because of cognitive decline. Here are some that I have discovered.

“Houston, we have a problem.” The first, necessary, and most important step is to admit there is a problem. Nothing can happen until this admission is made. This can be difficult, for it means admitting that I am old, vulnerable, no longer as capable, and on the noticeable downward slide into the grave. Yikes!4

Speed Kills. This phrase has been used in reference to auto safety. It also applies, metaphorically, to the elderly. Diminished processing speed and attentional focus, greater distractibility, attenuated multitasking capabilities, etc., etc., can create serious problems when performing even routine tasks at the formerly habituated speed. I chant to myself, “Speed Kills”  to slow myself down when, for example, paying the bills, collecting my belongings at the gym as I prepare to leave, or trying to save time by doing two things at once. Chanting is especially important while driving when “Speed Kills” is not metaphorical. The challenge, of course, it to remember to chant…

Remember You Won’t Remember. I know I will not remember. When I do remember that I must mail a letter, write a bill, etc., I arrange the environment to remind me: The letter goes in front of the door exiting the house, the checkbook is placed in my shoes, etc. Also, yellow sticky notes placed in unusual and unavoidable spots. ”In place of memories, memorandums.”5

New Tricks for New Tricks

Believe that old dogs can do new tricks. It is easy to get discouraged in the face ever diminishing abilities and conclude, “I’m too old” or “Why bother.” One of the biggest obstacles to learning new tricks is thinking, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” You can. It just takes more time, requires more repetition, more written notes to aid memory and focus, more practice, and more patience.

Adjust expectations. I will not write a novel in a new language, become a concert pianist or an IT expert. Time and ability impose limits. But I can, if I chose, learn a new language, acquire skills at the piano, or setup my own blog site. New tricks are possible within the compass of my energy, abilities, and interests.

Seek joy. I have less energy to sustain prolonged, intense tasks. This means it is absolutely essential that the new tricks I undertake, tricks not necessary for my welfare and health, bring me joy. Joy is my “Geiger counter” to detect those tricks that are worthy of my precious, dwindling, and ever more limited energy. Joy creates energy, passion, engagement in the world. Joy is what keeps me motivated to keep at it, to seek mastery—but at a level that does not seriously diminish joy.

Coordinating activities to maximize joy. I simply cannot sustain focused energy as I once could. Furthermore, if I attempt complex tasks when my energy is low, problems, frustration, and mistakes abound. Not much joy in that. So, I try to match my tricks with my schedule; difficult ones in the morning, and reserve the afternoons and evenings for less taxing and more entertaining activities, like reading novels, listening to baseball games, talking with friends.

One Big New Trick for an Old Dog

The new tricks above involve developing specific cognitive and behavioral strategies to cope with the loss of old tricks. A completely new challenge also arises that requires a new trick: The trick of making peace with old age. This is unlike other tricks; it does not entail learning new skills, acquiring more know-how, or improving proficiency. It requires a new attitude towards oneself, one’s life, one’s past, one’s future. It involves acceptance.

Acceptance is not surrender. Surrender is passive. Acceptance is much harder— it calls us to  actively embrace our plight. This challenge encompasses humility, forgiveness, and gratitude; to live vitally in the face of impending demise. I have witnessed family, friends, and acquaintances grow old and have learned from each. Some I admire greatly, and they have tutored me how to approach my end. Others offer a cautionary note to the dangers, traps, and pitfalls that I could so easily succumb.

So, can you teach an old dog new tricks?  Depends on the dog.

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Forgetfulness

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.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
—Billy Collins

Wrinkles

W. H. Auden

Wrinkles

Wrinkles. When I look into the mirror I see accordion folded eyelids, furrows, north-to-south, in my cheeks, baggie eyes, sagging mouth, lined forehead, and spots of brown, large and small, splattered across my face. 74 years of life displayed on my face.

Mother Teresa

Rebecca

Rebecca is the daughter of a neighbor who, when she was young, I would meet as she walked her dog in our neighborhood. She always was a sunbeam; engaging, mature beyond her years, thoughtful, and I delighted in our chance meetings. Rebecca’s life took her to Columbia University, where she received a degree in English, which was followed by a Master’s degree at Oxford, a Ph.D. at Berkeley, and then a position at Princeton. Obviously brilliant. But much more than that. She was kind, made life-friends at every stop, and possessed a generous spirit and a deep commitment to education.   

Rebecca died, this August, of a rare cancer. She was 37 years old.1

Wrinkles. I gaze into the mirror and I see wrinkles. No longer smooth-faced, filled with youthful promise, but old.

Lincoln

Richard

Richard was my best friend in high school and college. We were joined at the hip; he was the yin to my yang. We lived together for several years and joyfully participated in many youthful antics that are the source of fond memories. Richard had no enemies. He was affable, smart, funny, and unpretentious. He conferred humorous nick-names on me that many of our friends adopted. In our later years he still referred to me by one of his favorites: Bag.

Richard died 9 years ago. He has missed the last 9 years of his daughter’s growth into adulthood.

Wrinkles. I peer into the mirror and see wrinkles. Time’s signature on my body, alerting me to the time, past.

Maya Angelou

Bill

Bill was my best friend for 50 years. He was a pilot in the Korean war, a flight instructor for the Air Force, an accomplished classical musician, and returned to school to complete a Ph.D. in psychology at 48 years of age. His father died when he was 14 and he had a special sensitivity and understanding of the struggles of youth. He touched the lives of several generations of young people, both aspiring pilots and troubled college students. We spent many, many hours in conversation for many, many years. He changed my life. Profoundly. He is grafted onto my very being.

Bill died 3 years ago.

Wrinkles. I examine myself in the mirror and see wrinkles. Creases of laughter, grief, worry, joy carved into my skin.

Einstein

Roland

Roland graced my life with his friendship for over 35 years. He was a Marine lieutenant for 2 tours of combat duty in Viet Nam, returned and acquired a Ph.D. in French philosophy, and became a widely published professor. We shared much: Firstborn sons, born into blue-collar families, surviving in rather rough neighborhoods, and the first to attend college of anyone in our extended families. And we loved baseball. We sought wisdom, solace, and understanding to life’s dilemmas and challenges by reading, discussing, and arguing our way through the works of some of the West’s greatest thinkers. We also were both haunted by death.

Roland died last year.

Three dear friends and  a remarkable young woman. Dead. Gone. Forever.

Wrinkles. I contemplate my image in the mirror. I am grateful for having lived long enough to have known these fellow travelers, and to have my face etched with wrinkles. And, as my journey’s end rushes toward me, I am comforted by my wrinkles.

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Shakespeare Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

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