“Fireworks in your brain”*

musical noteThis is the first and probably the last time I’ll ever quote Marilyn Manson, but since my topic is music, this one fits right in. “Music is the strongest form of magic.”

I’ve written about the positive effects of listening to music, based on other people’s studies. These include improving mood, reducing stress and enhancing immunity.

I started looking into the topic again, after attending a musical event in February called “Wintergrass,” in which I listened to nineteen bands or soloists playing bluegrass, folk, jazz and country music over the course of four days. An exhilarating experience, though hard on the behind.

Following this, a friend sent a TED-ED Original animated lesson called “How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain.”*

The lesson begins by saying that when people are doing math or reading, certain parts of their brains light up.  But when people listen to music, multiple parts of the brain light up, or, as the narrator says,  “Fireworks go off in their brains.” The activity in the brain gets more vigorous for musicians as they play music, and becomes “the brain equivalent of a full-body workout.” Sounds like magic to me.

Researchers believe that early music training has lasting effects on the adult brain. But if you don’t play an instrument at an early age, is it too late to learn when you’re older and is there a reason to learn?  It may not make a difference in your brain health, but I guarantee it’s fun, especially if you play with others. In the past, a friend who played recorder, one who played the flute, and I — on the piano — got together regularly to play as a trio. Since then my husband and I joined a ukulele band.

I can testify that the ukulele is a relatively easy way to begin. Besides, it’s become the “hot” instrument now. You can play simple songs knowing three chords, more difficult ones with about six. Simply playing songs with the chords will only be entertaining for you.  If you want to share your music with others, you’re going to have to sing. My husband says that the more he studies and plays, the more he appreciates what he’s listening to.

If picking up an instrument sounds like too much work, you can still benefit by becoming a regular listener. That can be magic too.

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Is tourism ruining the planet?

Is tourism ruining the planet?

After a week of vacationing in Honolulu, that is the question that niggles.

What comes to mind when you think of Oahu?  An ocean warm enough to swim in? Tropical vegetation and flowers blooming year round? Surfers? Hula dancers? Ukuleles? Snorkeling? If that’s what you see when you shut your eyes and imagine it, Hawaii is all that and more. Think sandy white beaches, roaring waterfalls, jungles loaded with exotic trees and flowers, and tropical fish lagoons, all leaving you breathless and believing you have landed in paradise.

Then there’s the other face of Oahu:  traffic back-ups, haphazard development, homelessness, deforestation, a desperate push to offer tourists more and more thrills — anyone for swimming with the sharks? — and more stores stuffed within a few blocks selling every kind of luxury DSC01022good.  And speaking of luxury goods, who would travel to a place known for its natural beauty to spend hours in an unnatural setting? Zillions of people, as it turns out. They meander down Kalakaua Avenue, heads barely visible behind arms loaded with bags labeled Coach, Tiffany and Co., Chanel, Yves saint Laurent, and Chanel. A more casual, open-air International Market has been torn down to make room for a multi-story Sak’s 5th Avenue retail store.

Just about every retired American I know is on the move, cruising, flying, biking in all corners of the world. Our travel bucket lists are long. After we check off one city/country we add a new one. Pick one city, any city where tourists flock, and think about the garbage collected from its many hotels, the water needed to wash its sheets and towels, the fuel burning in every plane, taxi, tour bus, boat and rental car to get DSC01031us to this destination and around it.

Yet there are many good reasons to travel. If I hadn’t gone to Paris, I’d still believe the French were rude. If I hadn’t spent time in Mexico studying Spanish and living with Mexican families, I’d never know how kind and generous the Mexican people were. Also, I would have missed out on wonderful career opportunities that came from learning to speak Spanish. I wouldn’t have experienced different climates, customs, and traditions in Europe and Asia. Studying about D-Day in school didn’t have the impact that visiting Normandy Beaches did.

There’s no good way to save the planet from tourism other than staying home, and that means missing out on an abundance of rewarding experiences. It might help if travelers were aware of the giant footprint they were leaving and sought ways to diminish it, from using public transportation, to re-using hotel towels, to moving around on foot. There are no simple answers, but every solution begins with awareness.




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Why procrastinate?

Thinking or procrastinating?

Thinking or procrastinating?

Once a month, seconds after my piano lesson ends, I vow to practice daily before the next lesson. A few days later I realize I have an entire month to prepare.  Why practice now?

Recently, I watched an animated presentation by educators on TED-ED about what happens in your brain when you when you play a musical instrument.  When you play, brain scans have shown that all parts of your brain light up. The conclusion: “playing a musical instrument is like a full-body workout for the brain.”

You’d think that someone whose mother suffered from dementia would take that message to heart and set off the brain’s light shows every day.  But even that isn’t enough to get me to practice regularly, even though I enjoy it. It’s called procrastination. For me, it’s putting other pleasures first.

So why procrastinate? A counselor once told me that procrastination is a habit, which you can break the same way you stop biting your nails or quit smoking. But my procrastination isn’t about stopping a bad habit, it’s about extending a good one.

I found four articles in Daily Good  talking about how we might stop procrastinating. One study showed a link between lack of self-compassion and stress, and argued that procrastination might “increase levels of stress” particularly among people who are less kind to themselves. If I get any more self-compassionate, I’ll also be cutting out exercise and eating more chocolate.

Another psychologist says I’m not alone.  At least twenty percent of us are chronic procrastinators and the other eighty percent only procrastinate sometimes. Somehow that doesn’t help.

Among the articles was a piece on comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s strategies to end procrastination. He told a wannabe comedian to write jokes every day, to get a wall calendar that had a whole year on a page, and write an X over each day he wrote jokes. He predicted that soon the comedian would see a growing chain of X’s and he’d feel good seeing that chain.  It wasn’t about the quality of the jokes, but not “breaking the chain.” Not product, but persistence.

I’m not a wannabe professional pianist, but I do like the idea of seeing a string of X’s across a page. Maybe one color for practicing the piano and another for exercising.

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Law and disorder

Lady Justice from Wikimedia

Lady Justice from Wikimedia

I’m still thinking about the jury I sat on in a recent trial, and comparing the experience to legal thrillers where good and evil fight it out in high-stakes cases, the good guys win, and readers/viewers feel justice has been served.

In this civil case, two ordinary people were involved in a car accident; the driver of one accepted responsibility. The victim sued for damages beyond car repair. It was not a high-profile case, the attorneys didn’t wear expensive suits or throw smug looks to the jury, and we sat in the jury box in jeans.

I came away from the trial thinking that it wasn’t only about other people.  It could have been about any of us sitting in the courtroom.

In fact, this case concerned two traffic accidents. The plaintiff sued the driver in the second accident and the jury had to decide which accident was responsible for the damage to the plaintiff’s shoulder and how much money he should receive for past and future medical expenses, and past and future emotional damage. (As an aside, based on the evidence, the jury concluded that the first accident shouldered — pun intended –most of the blame and, therefore, the driver in the second accident didn’t owe him as much as his attorney was asking for.)

Most of us have been in at least minor auto accidents. In my most serious one, on everyone’s advice, I saw a doctor the same day. I had X-rays, the doc said I’d be sore for a few days, and sent me away. In the trial, medical reports were key to the case’s outcome. A certain date on one report was incorrect, which opened the door for arguments about the accuracy of other statements. Furthermore, witnesses had forgotten details, and had to rely on written reports often produced by people who weren’t in court to testify.

One of the attorneys appeared to have had little trial experience. His questions meandered, he brought in witnesses who were not qualified to give certain kinds of evidence, and he caused delays by having to search through his notes before coming up with questions. The other attorney was clear, focused, and to the point. Which lawyer prevailed was no surprise.

We all know that things happen, which are out of our control, but this was a frightening reminder.  My car was totaled when a teenager ran a red light and I rammed his vehicle in the intersection. A witness saw it and gave me her name and number. At first, the teen denied he was responsible, said I was to blame. I was so thankful that the witness had come forward. In the trial I sat through, the lawsuit was filed a year after the accident and the trial took place two years later.  There was no police report. The woman being sued had taken responsibility for the accident, had no idea the lawsuit was coming, lived an entire year thinking the issues around her rear-ending another car had been taken care of, end of story. Suddenly the accident loomed over her again.

Nothing about this trial lived up to the drama of criminal cases in novels and film. Yet it had more lessons for most of us than fiction normally does.





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Number 3 not so lucky

jury certLast week, I reported to the county courthouse for jury duty. I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to end up on a long trial, have to cancel plane reservations to Hawaii, forgo work on my novel. I even considered what biases I might reveal to keep me off a case.

After an orientation, a clerk called the first group of potential jurors. I was number three.  The judge, who came across as both kind and strict, promised the case would be short. By afternoon, the lawyers were giving their opening statements to the thirteen chosen jurors, including one alternate and me.  Suddenly I was a happy juror. Three became my lucky number.

Throughout the trial, I took notes and listened closely to the witnesses’ testimonies. I was so interested I never yawned, no matter how hot the courtroom became.  After all, what is a trial, but a series of storytellers sharing their accounts of what happened as it related to a conflict. The story is incomplete until twelve jurors come up with an ending that fits the evidence they’ve heard. Not a happy ending for all, but still an ending.

On day three, the lawyers presented their closing arguments, and the judge read her instructions for our deliberation. Right before we filed out of the courtroom, the judge said, “And now I’ll identify the alternate juror.” Huh? I thought it was number thirteen. She went on. “Our alternate is number three. Thank you for your service. You can hand in your notebook to the bailiff and leave the building.”

I was stunned.  Why me? I wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted to take part in the last phase of the trial; otherwise, I couldn’t help write the ending to all the stories I’d heard.

The bailiff handed me a certificate for “Loyal and Patriotic service.” She told me the judge drew number three the first day of the trial, thus determining my fate before the first witness came to the stand.

“I guess I shouldn’t buy a lottery ticket,” I said, as the bailiff hustled me out the door.

She called today. I peppered her with questions. “Who did they choose as the presiding juror? What was the decision? Was it a unanimous vote?”

I told her how fascinating the three days had been and that I was crushed at being left out. “Your experience is like most others. They don’t want to do it, but when it’s over they’ve found it to be both memorable and meaningful.”



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Dear Diary…

I have many journals to choose from

I have many journals to choose from

*Dear Diary,

“I walked home from school with Mary. We played at my house.  Then I practiced piano.”

Ann (*reasonable facsimile of childhood diary)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about journals, blushing about my own feeble attempts to fill even one page of my childhood diary, and realizing how important diaries have been to understanding the past.

I remember reading Anne Frank’s diary. As a first introduction to serious journaling, Frank’s story came as a huge shock, but it also raised the bar in my thinking about what a real diary could be. And it stopped me from ever trying to produce one again.

What got me on the topic of diaries were two books I recently read.

The first was “Boys in the Boat,” which told the story of the University of Washington rowing team that won the gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Many of the characters recorded the highs and lows of their journey from frightened, novice oarsmen to national heroes.

The second was “The Garden of the Beast,” which used diaries of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany and his daughter, as well as German leaders’ written personal records, to tell the story of events leading up to World War II.

Shortly after finishing these books, “Brain Pickings Weekly” appeared in my inbox with its “15 worthy resolutions for 2015.”  Resolution number 2: “Keep a Diary.”

Were all these recent references to diaries hinting that I should try it again? If I do, I won’t be alone.

Many friends keep journals for different reasons. Some say the best way to start their day is to follow the advice of “The Artist’s Way” author Julia Cameron to produce “morning pages,” three daily long-hand pages, which might not sound coherent, but which prime your brain for more creative activities.

One friend says, “I write every day to help clear the chatter from my head, to sort things out, to work out the day’s problems.”

Another writes that her journal “built into a close-up look at relationships, complications, and family connections.”

Even with these models, nothing inspired me to take the plunge. Until, out of the blue, someone emailed me a “New York Times” article called, “Writing Your Way to Happiness.” According to this, a variety of studies report many health benefits that come from writing and rewriting personal narratives.  In one, “College students were asked to write for 15 minutes a day either about an important personal issue or superficial topics. Afterward, the students who wrote about personal issues had fewer illnesses and visits to the student health center.” In other research, students improved their college grade point averages, heart attack sufferers showed improved health, and cancer patients experienced reduced symptoms.

That did it. I’m going to try keeping a journal once again. It could be fun to reflect on changes as I age.

Having rewritten many scenes in my novel five or six times, rewriting incidents in my life should be as easy as falling off a horse. No. Wait.  I did that already and wrote about it. I’ll have to try re-telling the story, but this time with a happier ending, maybe where we ride off together into the sunset.





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Seeing is believing

patch“Consider yourself ‘piratized,'” said the nurse as she finished taping a patch over my right eye.

“I’m nervous about this.”

“I’ll give you a pill to calm you and drops to numb your eye.”

But what if the pill didn’t work? What if I felt the incision in my cornea and screamed out in pain?  As it turned out, that scenario was no more realistic than the stories my grade school friends and I told while camping in my backyard, the ones about spider mothers laying eggs under our skin, then watching us scratch ourselves to death as the eggs hatched.

Friends who preceded me in undergoing cataract surgery assured me it would go fast and be both painless and effective.  Still, I had to experience it to believe it.  The operation took about fifteen minutes. During that time, I could hear the surgeon and other operating room staff talking. The only added sounds were mechanical; they reminded me of symphony members attempting to tune their instruments, but failing because they never agreed on the pitch. The noises were helpful distractors from the bright, white lights, and the blue and magenta colors that flashed before me. Soon, someone wheeled me to recovery — a recliner near the coffee maker — where a nurse offered me a cup of tea and, before I’d taken a sip, told my husband it was time to get the car and pick me up. I was back home in less than two hours.

tea strainerThat same day we took a walk through the neighborhood. Despite having a dilated pupil so big I must have looked like a heavy marijuana user, every few feet, sounding like an excerpt from a Dick and Jane reader, I announced, “I can see that sign. I can see that tree. I can see the sidewalk.” I experienced no discomfort, except when it was time to sleep and I had to tape on an eye guard that looked like a large tea strainer.

My vision improves a little every day.  In public I’m wearing some hand-me-down shop safety glasses, which friends tell me look very cool. I had the optician pop out one lens in my regular glasses, which I wear to drive and do closeup work.

I’ve worn glasses since I was in third grade, have been nearly blind without them. So there was never a waking moment I didn’t know where to find them. They were always on my face.  Now I scurry from room to room asking my husband if he’s seen any of my temporary glasses.

When the technician was measuring my eyes for the new lenses, she said, “This is the one procedure that truly defies aging.” Now that I can see myself clearly in the mirror, I wish there were more.








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