Monday, November 14, 2011

Worried About Aging? Five Infallible Tips For Growing Older Gracefully.

A few days after my 61st birthday, I fainted.

Turning 60 last year was fun; my wife gave me a surprise party. I was stunned and touched. Sixty-one is different. This time I’m stunned at how much gravity increased in just a year.

I think a lot about aging. My clients are retirees and so I spend my working hours with folks who average about 81 years of age. They run the gamut from ballroom dance champions to wheelchair inhabitants. But my own aging? About all I considered was an ascending waist size.
Until yesterday's swoon.

I had an episode of coughing syncope, a fancy name for a cough-induced fainting spell. Happens mostly to overweight middle aged men who are heavy drinkers. I drink very little but bingo, bingo, bingo for the other three elements. Coughing presses the blood vessels in the neck against the vagal nerve—one of the twelve cranial nerves, the nervous system’s data bus. Ol’ Mr. Vagal sends scrambled instructions to Mr. Brain: slow the heart and open the blood vessels in the legs. Gravity carries blood south. Starved of oxygen and glucose, the brain goes into suspend mode. Hold On Hannah, lights out.
Coughing syncope produces what medics call a 'postural change.' All fall down. Fortunately I was sitting at my desk and merely sprawled from seated to supine. Could have been worse: I might have been at the wheel of my fine European automobile (2005 Volvo wagon, 100,000 miles) or walking a two-by-four over whitewater rapids. All I did was break my eyeglasses and end up with a knock on the noggin.

Scared the crap outta me, though. I thought long and hard about my aging clients. Here's what I've learned from them—the nonagenarian ballroom dance champions, the octogenarian scientist, the paralyzed septuagenarian.
  1. It takes less of anything to do the trick. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, etc. Metabolism changes with age. My motto used to be, “Too much of anything is just enough” but now it’ll be, “Just half of that, please.”
  2. Be prepared. My wife and I knew the symptoms of a stroke (dizziness, numbness, confusion, difficulty walking or speaking) so we could rule that out. We learned the causes of syncope in a hurry. If I have a coughing spell while driving, I’ll pull over. And I’ll be spending a few quality minutes with my physician, which will surely lead to many more minutes with specialists. The docs employ many diagnostic tools. They need to rule out any dangerous condition, including malpractice.
  3. If you hear a big crash from another part of the house, it’s OK to ask, “What happened?” and to investigate if there’s no reply. Coughing syncope usually self-resolves in about one to three minutes, but I had a bit of a struggle getting back up again.
  4. Rules are made to be broken. After the episode I lay down and wondered what the hell was going on. Jody put a beach towel on the bed—what the heck? She’s expecting surf?—and then placed Zippy the dog at my side for comfort. Dog on the bed is a big no-no…except when it isn’t.
  5. Keep a sense of humor. When I started this post, I researched quotes on age and aging. My second favorite, courtesy of actress Bette Davis: “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” My favorite? A little bon mot from the great sage Groucho Marx: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

If the dog hadn’t caught my eye would anything be different? The Butterfly Effect v. the Leash

No sense wishing it hadn’t happenedThere’s no Butterfly Effect effect. I can’t change the past to alter the future. If I tried to change anything that led to the accident, then something else would pop up, like a Whac-a-Mole, and the accident happens just the same. The Self-Consistency Principal trumps the Butterfly Effect.
A dog like Lady, before
the accident

In other words, you can’t get the shit back in the donkey.

Except when you can. There were two moments that mattered. Change either and the accident doesn't happen. First, there's the lynchpin. Without it, everything falls apart. The other moment that mattered was the Point of No Return. Take either one away and nothing happens. But it's too late now.

We were walking north on Shore Drive in Winthrop, Jody and I, when we noticed the woman and the dog playing fetch on the beach with sticks washed up from the last storm. It was going to be our last walk for a few days. Hurricane Irene was coming. We saw a heavy cloudbank.  Jody said it was only the outermost edge of the storm system. We watched the two play fetch for a few minutes and then walked on. If we hadn't stopped, would the accident have happened? 

The dog’s name was Lady, a young adult Staffordshire terrier with a gray coat, a curious gaze and a non-threatening face. She stood about fourteen inches at the withers, solid, maybe sixty, sixty five pounds. I like solid dogs. I like Staffies. I don't like prong collars, though, and Lady wore one.

Lady shook her stick back and forth, a display of canine pride and pleasure. She looked happy on the beach. But the woman lacked Lady’s stamina or maybe she had something else to do and she headed for the sidewalk. Maybe she knew that the Animal Control Officer would write a ticket if he saw them—there’s a “No dogs on the beach” sign that neither the woman nor Lady could have missed. Two tickets if Lady didn’t have a current license. The lynchpin event had just taken place, but it still go either way for Lady.

The woman was on the beach when Lady bolted. She ran onto the sidewalk and toward Jody and me. The woman yelled in an overly loud voice, “She’s friendly." The Point of No Return loomed closer, but the accident wasn't yet a fait acompli.

I wanted to engage Lady until the woman could reach her. I wouldn't take her collar, though. She was a strange dog who might react to me reaching toward her head. Then there was the prong collar.

Lady’s inventory—mouth, ears, head, torso and tail showed no sign of aggression. I squatted down to be a lower, non-threatening figure, and positioned my body at a 45 degree angle from Lady. Dogs consider an indirect posture to be a sign of respect and manners. I hoped she recognized my good breeding.

The woman caught up with Lady. That was the Point of No Return. She leaned over the dog, shook her finger and shouted, “Lady, sit!” Lady edged back. The woman advanced, shaking her index finger like a salt shaker, demanding that the dog sit, right now. Lady wasn't listening.

The Toyota's driver wore a freshly pressed white shirt. Maybe she was heading to work. I don’t think she’d been speeding because she stopped at the point of impact, where the headlight's rubble was piled. I thought for a moment that she was wearing a stocking over her head like a convenience store robber. I looked again and saw that it was her hands covering her face. Adrenaline can do that, make a perfectly ordinary gesture look menacing.

The sound a dog makes when struck by a car is invariably described as a ‘sickening thump’ as if this particular whoomp comes only in the vertiginous variety. Then came Lady’s high-pitched, sharp cry of pain and betrayal.
A Corolla weighs 2800 pounds and Lady,
 about 65. Toyota calls this color, "Barcelona Red"

Luck was with Lady, not counting being hit by a car, because she bounced away instead of going under the wheels. She did three end-over-end rolls on the pavement and then ran back to the beach. I didn't see any injury but shock can temporarily deaden pain. She whined when I approached and shied away from me. I wasn't surprised. I was Lady’s last experience before the woman loomed  and shouted and it all turned bad. The Point of No Return.

I fear that for the rest of her life, something will remind Lady of me, maybe a baseball cap or sunglasses. When that happens, Lady’s flight-or-fight instinct will fire. I don’t know if the woman will think, "she associates that hat with the day she ran into a car. I'd best be extra careful right now." More likely, she'll blame the breed if Lady reacts. The potential for Bad is high.

The woman finally leashed the dog. The leash was the lynchpin, the ingredient without which the accident could not have happened. Leashed, Lady doesn't bolt, the Toyota keeps its headlight intact, and none of us two-legs end up horrified at the sight of a dog running into traffic.

Jody and I left as the woman was snapping a lead on Lady. We didn’t want to be there. I was angry and upset. I wanted to yell at the woman, to scream that her body posture had been menacing, that shouting and prong collars are as appropriate to a dog as they are to a two year old child. I wanted to rub the woman’s nose in the mess, to smack her with a rolled up newspaper.

But I didn’t. Those reactions don't work for people any better than they do for dogs. I'd rack up bad karma or an assault charge.  

Besides, I don’t subscribe to the Butterfly Effect, not even in my fantasies.

Monday, July 25, 2011

I'm going crazy. Want to come? Got two tickets!

 What’s your most frustrating experience? Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
What rankles you, turns you from mild to monster, from a prince to the Prince of Darkness? Dealing with a bureaucrat raise your dander? A spouse? Waiting for the cable guy? Biting down on an unpopped kernal of popcorn and busting your new crown, the one that paid for the the dentist’s kitchen renovation?
Me—it’s dealing with Technical Support.
Big respect to the folks who answer call after call from no account thumble thumbs like me, impatient morons without the stamina to wade through a 300 page users manual, Type A SOBs who touch “0” as soon as the call connects.  We’re an unpleasant constituency and the folks in call centers who put up with us have enough patience to stare down Mother Theresa.
 But…tech support calls makes me crazy. Like this one. True story, no exaggerations.
My old copier died so I bought a new one. It arrived—free shipping!—and  a few hours later I staggered along the Stations of the Cross, a trip to the Veil of Tears known as Tech Support.
I got Nimitzed. That’s a word I coined to describe the state of being discombobulated, disconcerted and confounded. I swiped the term from the Nimitz Freeway, a belligerent strip of asphalt that connects Oakland and San Jose, California, like Chinese water torture connects you to irrational rage. In fact, the Auto Club of America dubbed it the Bay Area’s Rudest Road. To drive the Nimitz during rush hour is to be saddled with disorienting mania. That’s being Nimitzed.
I was flush with Nimitzosity as I struggled through my new copier’s “Quick Start Guide”; that term, BTW, is a triple oxymoron. The publication was written in cuneiform and imparted all of the benefit of an eighteenth century anatomy text. Imagine the the crisp prose of the U.S. tax code suffused with the warmth of Hoboken, New Jersey’s zoning regulations and you get a sense of the “Quick Start Guide” for my brand new Brother MFC-5490 copier. 
The instructions directed me to open up the top of the copier to plug a USB cable inside the machine. Don’t ask why an engineer puts the port inside of the machine—that’s grist for an different mill. My trouble was this: once I opened the machine, I couldn’t get it closed. Tried and tried. No dice. It sounds simple yet there’s nothing so uncomplicated that I can do it all by myself. It was time to call support, to cascade through an escalating series of technical agents and hold music, to enter the geek version of Dante’s Inferno. When it comes to mechanical objects, I’m naturally drawn to the ninth and seventh circles of Hell—treachery and violence.
I placed the call.
A pleasant voice advised me that my call would be on hold for no longer than the duration of the last Ice Age. Finally an agent answered. “Hello. My name is Tanya. How may I frustrate you?”
I explain the problem, then attempt to ward off an interrogation worthy of a prison guard at Guantanamo. I begged, “Just tell me how to close the thing, please”
“I’m sorry for your inconvenience. What is the serial number of the machine?” says Tanya.
“I can’t read it. The numbers are too small, and I can’t find my magnifying glass. I think Sherlock Holmes took it. But I just need to know how to close the machine.”
“I’m sorry for your inconvenience. What operating system is your computer?”
“What difference does that make? I just want to close the machine!”
“I’m sorry for your inconvenience. What operating system is your computer?”
“Windows 7,” I sighed. Defeat registered in my voice. Sensing a moment of vulnerability, Tanya pounced.
“I’m sorry for your inconvenience, but that is a software issue. I’ll transfer you now.”
“No! Wait! I don’t need software support. I just want to close the machine.”
“Yes sir. Sorry for your inconvenience, but I only deal with product registration. Closing the machine is a software support team issue.”  Software support team? What, they have intramural competitions there? Potato sack races at recess? Tanya was back. One moment sir.” Then the inevitable hold music. 
A generation later, I’m connected with a software support center located somewhere in the Mariner Valley, on the planet Mars. The man who took my call had a thick Martian accent. He said that his name was…Peter. Very Martian.
I repeat my question and Peter jumps in to help. “May I know the operating systerm, Mr. Harry?” The telltale accent is growing stronger.
I did not wish to vent my spleen on poor Peter. I did finally got the copier closed. Sheer brute force. In the meantime, as I move back and forth between the computer and the copier, my dog, Phoebe, positions herself so that I trip over her each time I move. It’s an instinct bred into Beagles. I don’t know how she can anticipate my every move, but each time I turn, she is directly in my path, stretched out,and gazing lovingly at me. She licks my face when I crash to the floor.
I’m beginning to think that Phoebe the Beagle and Peter from Mars own stock in Pfizer, the manufacturer of Xanax. I could use a bowlful about now. Meanwhile, I think I got the copier working, but I’m going to start using carbon paper, the way other people use stress balls.
Hand to God, this is a true story, except the carbon paper. (I’m quite certain about the call center on Mars.) In the end I got the machine working and, really, the spike in my blood pressure did me no good. I don’t know if the complexity of simple things or the impersonality of individual attention bothered me more. But I seem to pull a nutty more and more often when I have to deal with technical objects. Give me a barking dog to train or stinky diapers to change any day, thank you.
What about you? What are some of your most frustrating events? Tell me the story—I’d love to compare notes. I’ll even immortalize your mania on this blog.
And remember, there’s always a dog.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ancient roots for a modern celebration? Honoring National Ice Cream Day!

Preserving the Ice Cream traditions of an early people
National Ice Cream Day is the year's spiritual apogee for my people. The year’s sins are washed away by creamy soft serve swirl, a balm to our souls as we prepare for Holy Sundae, the third one of July

This family celebration follows a month of determined preparation. Children enjoy the ritual, Find the Wafer Cone--it's a way to prepare for the High Holy Day's adult responsibilities. Mothers and fathers offer a traditional responsive reading, “Hot Fudge or Butterscotch”. This moving recitative celebrates the oneness of all toppings.

Ice Cream anthropologists tell us that the holiday's roots date back to the ancient Celts, circa 800 B.C. Excavations of a two-thousand year old Mr. Softee shrine provides a rare glimpse into how the holiday was celebrated in its earliest form. Cave drawings--remarkably preserved for two milenia--depict temple priests. They were stiffly garbed in white attire with a band of black cloth that resembles a modern necktie. Many of the cave drawings show the attendants with a round white snap brim cap. The meaning of their vestal garments is yet uncertain but suggest purity or possibly vanilla. 

That the ancients could maintain a frozen custard in the July heat puzzles scientists today who have been unable to recreate the ancients' recipe. Working from fossils and fragments, the excavation team was able to recreate a device that turns out to be remarkably similar to today's ice cream scoop. It is almost certain that the scoop was used to dispense the ceremonial ice cream dessert. 

Early Celtic Ice Cream Deity?
That this rite anticipates the Passover Seder of the Jewish tradition is a theory that is hotly debated by archaeologists today. Other scholars speculate that the 'tester spoon', a small device for sampling just a mouthful parallels the Christian communion ritual. Certainly, the communion wafer and the Celtic cone share a common heritage. But to suggest a connection between the cone and topping of the Celtic tradition and the blood and body of the communion ritual strikes some scholars as unlikely. For now, this eerie correspondence will likely remain a mystery, awaiting a Rosetta Stone like decoder, before we can pronounce the universality of Ice Cream with certainty.

Some accounts of the Ice Cream ritual include mention of self-flagellation with the leaves of the now extinct Irish Banana tree. Each tribe had a  moyel--thought to be a tree trimmer or similar--who begins the festivaly when he utters the Lepontic words, "Tá mo bhríste trí thine" which translates loosely to, "My trousers are on fire"  The congregation chants a responsive interchange, "Pero la carraterra es verde," or 'but the highway is green.' 

(The exact route by which the Spanish phrase worked its way across the North Sea to Ireland is still a mystery. Proponents of the Universal Appearance school of ice cream development point to this inexplicable phenomenon as evidence that ice cream worship sprang up independently in places as diverse as Leitrim Ireland to Hoboken NJ (the site of a complete Teaneck Man skeleton that shows the distinctive forearm development of a scooper).
The fate of the Celtic
Ice Cream Cults?
Topping masters show their craft

Today’s National Ice Cream Day festivities include the Parade of Begging Dogs. While today's celebrants regard begging canines as a cheerful nod to the past, it should be noted that some the earliest Ice Cream cults died out, possibly the result of having bred ice cream loving giant Irish Wolfhounds to excess. Sic transit gloria glacies cramum.

However you celebrate National Ice Cream Day, please, allow me to extend the fullness of my heart and belly in friendship. May your hot fudge pot never become congealed, may your whipped cream dispenser always have spare whippets.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Killing For Art: Can a Snuff Filmmaker Be Redeemed?

How do I square dog love with Tom Otterness’ sculpture?
I love dogs and I enjoy the sculptor’s cartoon-like creations. That’s a combination that recently put me in the crosshairs of my fellow animal lovers.
Killing For Art? Sculptor Tom Otterness
Brooklyn based Otterness’ installations dot the New York city landscape, subways and parks. But according to animal activists, Otterness is a murderer, a charge that the artist would like to see go away.
Thirty five years ago, the sculptor, whose whimsical creations have made him one of the most successful commercial artists alive, adopted a young dog from a city shelter. Then twenty five, Otterness chained the small black and white dog to a fence, shot the animal and filmed its slow death for a movie he titled, “Shot Dog Film.”
Thirty one years later, Otterness apologized and called the shooting a ‘mistake’. The horrific act came to light recently when Otterness received a $750,000 private commission to install one of his pieces at the Battery Park City branch of the New York Public Library.
As word of Otterness’ crime and lack of punishment travelled throughout the blogosphere I  began to wonder, Can an animal abuser be redeemed? Could the apology have been sincere? His contrition genuine, although private?
I posed the question on Facebook, where my friends include fellow dog trainers and animal lovers. Not one of the 50 or so comments on Facebook allowed for the possibility that Otterness’ apology balanced the killing. Many heatedly questioned why I would even consider the possibility that the deed could be forgiven. A behavior expert at a Boston animal shelter told me that it is the shelter’s policy to monitor abusers, not rehabilitate them. A psychiatrist told me that that kind of violence requires a considerable core of rage. My wife refused to discuss it with me.
The problem is widespread but unmeasured and it is poorly defined. Is animal abuse limited to cruelty? What about neglect? Hoarding? Dog fighting and cock fighting? Animal abuse, child abuse and spousal battery are closely related with cruelty to animals often leading to violence to people.
Can Otterness be redeemed? How about Michael Vick? Did his 21 months' incarceration balance hanging or electrocuting the dogs in his kennel? Can any abuser be rehabilitated? Or we a world condemned to tolerate, if not nurture, the Bad Seed? 
Comments, anyone?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What the caveman saw--lessons from a 17,000 year old blog post

 In 1940, four teenagers and a dog named Rocket stumbled into a warren of caves in southwest France. Inside, they discovered Paleolithic man’s most elegant blog, the Lascaux Cave Paintings.
When I googled the term, “Lascaux Cave Paintings”, the legend below the search box showed over 175,000 results. If the Lascaux art is a pre-literate kind of blog, then it must be the all-time, most upon commented blog.
What is it about these animal, human and abstract images that compels our attention? What did the Cro Magnon storyteller-artist know that we don’t? And can we use Alley-Oop’s technique to enhance the quality and popularity of our own storytelling?
The answer comes from an unlikely source, a small, brown macaque monkey with a hairless pink face that wanted a peanut.

You’ll find the legume loving monkey in the late 1980s, about a half century after the Lascaux discovery. It’s a time when women dress fashionably in power suits—big shoulders with big hair. Men sport the Miami Vice look, and, sadly, mullets. Drive ten hours east to Parma, Italy. Find your way to the university research laboratory of Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti. There you’ll spot the macaque, amid a tangle of computers, microscopes and arcane gizmos with unpronouncable names. Electrodes, pasted to his skull, trail wires to a monitor like a simian bridal veil.
Dr. Rizzolatti was measuring the primate’s brain activity to understand the role of neurons—nerve cells that carry information to and from the brain. Rizzolatti’s goal was modest—he wanted to learn which specific neurons fired when the monkey reached for a peanut.
Another round of testing was about to begin when the monitor’s alarm buzzed—an alert cued to sound when the monkey reached for the peanuts. But it was Dr. Rizzolatti, not the monkey, going for the goobers. This was an “Aha!” moment. Rizzolatti realized that the monkey’s “reach for a peanut” neurons fired simply because the critter watched someone else reach for the treat.
Scientists dubbed the nerve cells that fired mirror neurons. They fire not only when we perform an action but also when we see someone else perform the action. About twenty percent of our neurons are mirror neurons and many experts believe that their appearance is related to the explosion of human language and culture some 75,000 years ago.
Understanding a bit about mirror neurons can make us better storytellers. What the Lascaux cave artists did is exactly what you do when you write or tell a damned good story. You paint a picture of an experience, fashioning words on a keyboard rather than daubing paint on a cave wall. The word picture causes the reader’s mirror neurons to fire. She feels exactly what you are feeling. Author and audience share a biological experience to complement the literary one.
When Paleolithic storytellers donned pelts or painted themselves in the guise of animals, they wanted to look like the subjects of their campfire stories. Intuitively, they happened onto the neurobiology of a compelling story.
The action of mirror neurons extends beyond the campfire. An amputee can sometimes relieve the phantom pain in a missing limb by watching the limb of another person being massaged. When an athlete takes a nasty spill, spectators wince.  A lack of mirror neurons, experts now believe, may be the cause of autism, the condition characterized by difficulty in forming social relationships. 
Mirror neurons are most active with face-to-face observation. But reading can fire them. Science writer and deputy editor of Time magazine James Geary told me, “Neuroimaging studies show that when we read or hear stories, we mentally simulate the action described… Many of the brain areas active while reading are also active when we actually take part in or observe similar situations in real life.”
What’s this got to do with successful storytelling? Everything. The more word pictures you create, the more your reader experiences what you feel. Writing coaches beg us to create word pictures. They say, “show, don’t tell”. The researchers’ findings explain why this is crucial. The reader must see the action for her mirror neurons to engage. No word picture means no visual experience for the brain. That means no mirror neurons firing, no shared biological experience.
The implications are staggering. To write without word pictures is to ignore millenia of storytelling success and to create a “So what?” tract fated for the slush pile or delete key.
Look at this blogpost as an example. Compare your reaction to a visual phrase like, “a small, brown macaque monkey with a hairless pink face,” with, “a condition characterized by difficulty in forming social relationships.” Not only does the first example carry more oomph, but scientists say that reading it triggers something in your brain that was triggered in mine.

Science makes art fun for me. Know why something works, and I believe that you can better your craft.  I won’t guarantee 175,000 comments to your own blog, but I predict that you and your readers will enjoy your writing even more.
Like the four French teenagers and Rocket the dog at Lascaux, I’ve stumbled into my own warren of caves, filled not with primitive art, but with the science that explains why some writing is so darned compelling.
What about you? Do you have a good story that’s been spiced up by mirror neurons? Comments? Do say.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Top this one? Who doesn't love a good story.

Zippy the Dog. 

I love a great story.
"There's Always a Dog" is a collection of great stories—mostly true—and there's always a dog somewhere in the tale. Think, Where's Waldo? with Fido.
Sometimes the dog is a just a quick but unforced mention. My blogpost, "What the caveman saw—lessons from a 17,000 year old blog" begins with the words, "In 1940, four teenagers and a dog named Rocket stumbled into a warren of caves..."
Or a dog may be the point. Check out, "Killing for Art: Can a Snuff Filmmaker Be Redeemed?" It’s a creepy, fact based account that provoked a firestorm of discussion in a writers group.
I enjoy writing about science as well as writing stories, and you'll find the occasional post about storytelling with a science based theme. The aforementioned, "What the caveman saw..." is about mirror neurons, which, if they really exist (I'm a believer) explain why writing coaches beg us to 'show, not tell'.
Guest posts are welcome. Just figure out how to get a dog in there, meaningfully. Comments,  passionate disagreement—always welcome.
It’s 7:21AM here in Beantown. The sun is shining—not always the case in Boston—and the dogs, Zippy & Phoebe, keep poking my knees with their noses. Time for walkies.