Dakota Blues and Skyfall!

I was so excited I almost embarrassed myself in the theater, quoting enthusiastically along with M (Judi Dench).

We went to watch Skyfall on Christmas Day, and toward the end of the movie, when M is staring down a parliamentary inquiry committee, she quotes the same passages from Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson as I have in the dedication of my book, Dakota Blues. I was thrilled! I found this poetry when I was in high school, and for some reason, it stuck with me. (I was weird even back then.)

Here it is, the end of the great Ulysses:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

I didn’t expect Skyfall to have as a subtext the question of “Am I too old? Am I unable, due to my age?” Both Bond and M grapple with this debilitating question, and they answer it in spectacular fashion. How empowering for those of us who watch for evidence of the courage, wisdom, strength and determination that come with age.

My regular column will appear on Friday, and will be the last of the four in which I share reasons to celebrate your amazing, aging brain! See you in a couple days.

Your Middle Age Brain: Brilliant and Ridiculous All At Once

This is the first in a series of four posts celebrating the aging brain.

I’m looking for my glasses, but I can’t find them because they’re on my head. So I find my backups and try to put them on, but discover I’m already wearing a pair.

I would feel stupid except at times, I feel downright brilliant. This has probably happened to you, too. Maybe you’re listening to a younger person explain a problem at work or you’re reading an article in the news, and suddenly all the facts connect and you come up with such an awesome solution you want to call the Nobel commission.

Except you don’t quite trust what happened, because only yesterday you came home from the grocery store and put the bananas in the hamper. Maybe what you’re having is some kind of brain flair before the cells die. You never shine so brightly as just before, you know - pffffft.

Stop worrying. Both things really are happening. New research confirms that you’re both more addled and more brilliant than ever before in your life.

If you’re a typical middle-aged* person, the glasses and bananas are real, and so is the intellect.

The science of the aging brain is quite new; conclusions being drawn just in the past few years prove that we have more to be excited about than ever. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told brain cells only died; none were regenerated. However, that has now been proven false. The brain DOES produce new cells, primarily in the area relative to memory.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a great new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, author (and science editor for the NY Times) Barbara Strauch produces tons of evidence that, while our older brains definitely have some weaknesses, they also develop amazing, surprising, even beautiful workarounds. In fact, the older brain is gearing up, not slowing down. All during December I’ll be telling you what I learned, and – plagiarism alert! – excerpting heavily from her book. That’s because I can’t say it any better than Barbara did.

Here’s some good news: in older age, you’re smarter. This is because you’ve accumulated such a wealth of data, and the human brain has a special talent: deduction. Per Ms. Strauch:

The brain builds strength (over a lifetime) by building up millions upon millions of patterns, allowing us to “recognize even vaguely similar patterns and draw appropriate conclusions.”

One researcher, E. Goldberg, calls it “mental magic.”

“Frequently,” says Goldberg, “when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary. The solution comes effortlessly, seemingly by itself…I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight…”

According to Barbara Strauch, when faced with new information, the older brain might take longer to assimilate and use it. But faced “with information that in some way – even a very small way-relates to what’s already known, the middle-aged brain works quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical endpoint.”

This is an evolutionary triumph. We’re not called homo sapiens – thinking man – for nothing.

Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re more easily distracted and more likely to lose focus as we age. This is because as you get older, new information comes into the part of your brain that’s good at daydreaming. So when you’re trying to read a newspaper in Starbucks and somebody’s jabbering loudly on his cellphone and you can’t concentrate, it’s because the daydreaming mechanism is doing a crappy job of managing the new info.

You can mitigate this with discipline and practice, but you have to work on it. Personally, I think daydreaming is a treat, and I’m not sure I want to curtail it.

Next week: your brain actually becomes stronger as you age.

*Definition of middle age, per Barbara Strauch, is that long period between youth and old age. I like it. I like it a whole lot better than assuming you’re at the halfway point. Because as vibrant and kick-ass as I am, I’m sure as hell not going to make it to 116.

Dare to Dream: Sherry Miller

Sherry Miller

So many people were motivated by Iris Anderson in my last post. You remember that she is 80 and still avidly pursuing and accomplishing her dreams. Sherry Miller wrote after seeing my post on the Facebook page of The Boomer Broads, and she is so inspiring I want to share her 61-years-young energy and enthusiasm with you:

Lynne, I started a Bucket list after the movie by that name came out and I read a great book The Sunday List of Dreams” by Kris Radish. I have been a business professional for 34 years. Sometime in the next 2 to 5 years I will retire from the corporate life. I have been working on a plan that will leave me financially comfortable enough that I can choose to do something that benefits people rather than corporations. I also want to choose a healthy lifestyle in weight management and exercise so I will have the well being to enjoy this next stage of life. Let’s face it, ill health is more expensive than prevention.

I will be downsizing and reducing my material footprint. This is to leave me free to allow other things into my life. I want to be more involved in church missions, available to family (grandchildren), to travel, more time to read, spend quality time with my network of women friends (I have 12 friends from HS who email daily even tho we may only see each other every 5 -10 years).

I love to work but not at the time-commitment level that my profession as a Financial Project Manager requires. So I am still seeking my next passion. Lately I have been looking into Aging Gracefully (aka In Place) and the support services Seniors need to help them plan and stay in their homes. I am also looking to my spiritual life and what God would have me do with this next chapter.

I don’t think I am much different from my peers. My 12 friends who are my age are all relatively healthy with different economic means but we all want to be engaged with our families, communities and each other. That engagement is the biggest contributor to successful aging per the Blue Zones study. So I think we are on the right track.

I would add looking at your current posting that I would also like to continue education as I am a lifelong learner. Universities offering senior discounts are much appreciated.

I also will stick with my husband. This is my 2nd marriage and his first. After more than 30 years of being together it would take a break in trust (aka Maria and Arnold) to change my commitment. My husband is 10 years older with health issues so more than likely I will out live him by at least a decade. We accept that possibility and enjoy our companionship now.

Lynne here: One of the gifts I received in maturity was realizing that I wanted to surround myself with positive people, and Sherry is one of those people. I feel energized just reading her post, and I hope you do, too.

Kindle readers can comment by emailing me at Lmspreen@yahoo.com.

Do You Ever Think About What YOU Want?

What drives you? What do you want out of life? What do you want out of every day? Do you even know? Sometimes we get so caught up in the daily grind, taking care of everybody but ourselves, that we forget to think about it.

Some years ago I was looking forward to a weekend of alone-time because hubby was going fishing. I delighted in the thought of attacking my to-do list, not hearing the TV, not smelling cigarette smoke – well, this is my ex-husband I’m talking about so I’ll leave it at that.

Problem was, as soon as his truck disappeared around the bend, I sank down on the couch in such a funk. Completely lethargic. Blue, for no reason. Couldn’t motivate myself to do anything. It worried me. Was this depression, and where had it come from? Eventually I got up, walked from room to room, snacked on junk food, watched TV, and basically killed time until he returned. What a waste of a perfectly good weekend!

Eventually, we split for other reasons. As I worked through the divorce and learned new life skills, I came to realize that, much like women everywhere (and not a few men), I had been trained to place the needs of others before my own. I was reactive, not proactive, and when my motivation (other humans to serve) went away even for a short time, I was left with the question: “What now?”

And I had no answer. Back then, I had no idea what books I wanted to read, vacations I might want to take, movies I might want to see, or hobbies that lit me up. Nothing.

I wasn’t exactly wasting my life. I worked fulltime in a demanding job and commuted an hour each way, so I used up every bit of energy I had. When I had free time I tackled my to-do list. Given that reality, everything I “wanted” to do sounded like this: I want to clean out the linen closet. I want to organize my files. Yuck, right? But until this moment of clarity I hadn’t seen it.

I was unhappy to think that I had been so unsupportive of myself, that I was sleepwalking through my life, not appreciating the gift that it is. Time passes. You can’t get it back.

In the years since, I have changed. I now try to ask myself these questions regularly: What do I want? What would make me happy right now? The answer is usually simple: I would like to sit on my patio and read a magazine. I would like to phone my sister. Sometimes plans are longer term: I would like to play that golf course over in the next town. I would like to stay in Sedona a couple days. And maybe I plan it, or maybe not, but at least I’m more in touch with who I am as a person, as an individual.

Another tactic: Every night before I fall asleep I list five things that made me happy that day. Even if it’s simple (“I enjoyed the camaraderie at my book club”) it qualifies. I usually end up running way past five. By thinking about what made me happy I am able to value my days more powerfully, and again, be more in touch with what I enjoy.

I am not a selfish person, but it’s good to get in the habit of finding reasons to live for yourself. Even if you share your life with others, you have to be able to answer the question: What do YOU want? What would make YOU happy? Otherwise you might be in the same spot I was, having to respond: I don’t have the faintest idea.