Aging like a monkey

Sock monkey I made

I don’t usually write about — or even admit to — aging as it affects me, but after reading an article in the New York Times, “What Old Monkeys and Old Humans Have in Common,” I think it’s time we talked about getting old, and what we can expect as far as behavior changes specific to aging. Researchers are studying Barbary macaque monkeys in retirement (about age 20). From their work, we can see what we might become if we haven’t already become it.

Monkeys and humans get pickier as they get older and less interested in trying new things. Humans might eat at the same restaurant again and again. We might create schedules that call for doing certain things on particular days, for example, dine out on Wednesdays, go grocery shopping on Fridays, and clean the house on Sundays. We might get cranky around strangers (I’m assuming this means that we’ve already gotten cranky around our loved ones and have just extended this to strangers later in life).

Monkeys and humans tend to socialize less as they get older.  Monkeys pay attention to what’s going on around them, “but they don’t want to participate themselves.” Some days humans don’t feel like socializing, and map out a day around  watching TV…alone. Both humans and monkeys tend to take fewer risks as they age.

We humans are aware that we only have so much time left and prefer to spend it in the ways we choose.  No one attributes this awareness to monkeys, so researchers are looking for the roots of our common behaviors in biology. Meanwhile, if we want to know more about what to expect, we can hang out at the zoo and observe the monkey elders.

 

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The satisfaction of doing it yourself

booklets

booklets

Have you held on to something you created earlier in your life,  maybe an elementary school finger painting or a junior high wood shop birdhouse? I have collections of greeting cards I made and never sent, and booklets I made and never used. Why am I still keeping them? Because I made them.

And I’m not alone. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls feeling good about things we make the “Ikea effect.”  You can read his piece in “Why We Love Our Own Creations,” at dailygood.org.

If you’ve ever assembled a piece of Ikea furniture — despite it often being a frustrating and time-consuming experience — you’ll know what he’s talking about. When you complete the project you look at the results and feel pride. “I did this,” you tell yourself, “and it looks good.”

Ariely says that makers of cake mixes figured out this aspect of human nature a long time ago. In an earlier era, when cake mixes required cooks only to add water, they didn’t sell well. Later, when homemakers had to add eggs and oil to the mix, they became more attached to the cake. It became their creation.

In one of Ariely’s experiments, subjects folded paper cranes. Even if their creations were ugly, they liked them because of the effort they’d put into making them.

The point of the Ikea effect is that it shows us we get something in return when we do projects for ourselves, when we don’t expect manufacturers/businesses to do all the work. When I take a loaf of homemade bread from the oven, I feel thrilled.  I hover around it, stick my nose near it to inhale the aroma, sometimes take a picture. It is the most satisfying experience.

Ariely says for those creators, “the lesson here is that a little sweat equity pays us back in meaning — and that is a high return.”

 

 

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An alternative fact about the rooster

img_0454

common symbol of Portugal

I haven’t been able to write a blog for several weeks. These days I’m like the driver who can’t help but stop and stare at the horrifying wreck in the road and then wonder why she can’t focus on anything else after that.

I returned to Facebook today for the longest look I’ve taken in a while, and though on my news feed much depressing information dominates, I found FB friends celebrating anniversaries, playing with their grandchildren, enjoying winter sports, and finding ways to temporarily put national politics out of their minds. I decided I could and should return to blogging about more mundane topics in life, topics such as roosters.

The Year of the Rooster has just begun. This colorful bird, which represents loyalty, solarizeroosterpunctuality, independence, a quick mind and a warm heart, sounds like a better icon for 2017 than…well, you know.
img_0452My husband and I became interested in roosters when we spent part of several summers in Guanajuato, Mexico. As lifelong “city slickers,” we had bought into the “alternative fact” that roosters crowed only at dawn. We were wrong. The city-bred “roof roosters,” as we called them, saw fit to crow any time of the day or night. They made sleep more difficult because they sounded off at night when there were no daytime noises to mask their racket.

One exception: we were there during a total eclipse of the sun and as the sky darkened the roosters did go silent, then crowed their hearts out when the light of the day’s second dawn flooded the sky.

Since then, we have photographed roosters in Portugal, Iceland, and the U.S., bought rooster memorabilia, and even purchased a loyal wooden rooster who silently guards the fireplace hearth.

Of course, like all the members of the Chinese zodiac, the person born in a rooster year has his faults.  These include: “Impatient, critical, eccentric, narrow-minded, selfish.”  This year, these don’t sound so bad.

 

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Martha Stewart and me

elephantnapkinI imagine that the first thing Martha Stewart does in planning a dinner party is create a guest list.  Of course it’s possible that, instead, she begins with an idea of some dish she’s been craving, say, pork belly and tomato aspic, and then goes through her mental list of friends, crossing off those she knows will hate tomato aspic.

Whatever Martha’s approach, it couldn’t be farther from mine.  I start with paper napkins, not any paper napkins, but those that catch my eye when I’m not shopping for them. A week ago, I was wandering through the gift shop of the Seattle Repertory Theatre and spotted napkins that featured a tastefully psychedelic, bronze elephant. The beast was in a garden setting that belonged to the India of maharajas and maharanis. I bought the napkins.

“Now that I have these napkins,” I told my husband, “we need to invite friends to dinner.” I could have entertained friends using napkins I already possessed, except that my other winter-themed paper napkins came from Iceland. If I used them, I’d run out before winter was over.  They featured the design of the Icelandic sweater. For me they are better than the real sweaters made from wool and presumably itchy. I’m meting them out very slowly, because it’s not likely I’ll find substitutes to bring back icelandsweaterthe same happy travel memories.

I pictured the bronze elephants matching my bronze placemats and could already envision my gorgeous Martha-style table setting.  That picture lasted until the day before the planned dinner, when my husband and I pulled the placemats out of the drawer.  Hmm. They weren’t really bronze, but rather a two-tone, indescribable metallic color. Oh well, the elephants were still beautiful even if they didn’t look quite right with the placemats.

“That’s not the only problem,” my husband said, “We have four placemats, not six.”  So I had no choice but to add two multicolored, multi-patterned placemats to the four metallic ones. And none of them matched the napkins.

The day of the party, we discovered another snag: we had only five bowls for the hearty soup to feed six hungry guests.

The only other obstacle to a brilliant Martha-Stewart table was the barely begun picture puzzle lying at the end of the dining room table.  I’d started to put the 750 pieces together a few weeks ago, when we were staying in a cabin in the snowy Methow Valley. The image on the puzzle was so complex that I didn’t get very far on it, so I brought it home.

I studied the table before the guests arrived: the mis-matched placemats that didn’t go with each other or the napkins, a picture puzzle filling a third of the table, and one missing soup bowl.

I asked myself what Martha would do if she found herself in a situation like this. Of course she wouldn’t find herself in this predicament, so I couldn’t answer my question.

After the meal was over, I explained to the guests that the napkins were what spurred me to invite them to dinner. They nodded, unfazed by this revelation, and urged me to keep buying napkins.

 

 

 

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2017 resolutions, goals, and life themes

imagesThe end of one year and the start of another is often a time for reflection and a belief that we can, at least symbolically, have a fresh start. When we choose what we want to do in the future, often we don’t spend enough time reflecting on our present situation. Is the life we’re living satisfying? Do we need to change ourselves or our goals to make it more satisfying? Is our current life synced with our values?  Without assessing our situation fully, we might point our future plans in the wrong direction. We might decide to make sacrifices to achieve goals that in the end won’t make enough of a difference to justify the sacrifice. For example, is looking better in a swim suit enough of a carrot to diet and change one’s eating habits permanently?

It could be time to approach our planning for the new year from a new angle. Recently, I heard a minister describe a modern tradition in Japan in which people are encouraged to vote for a word chosen from a list of words that would best embody the new year. Once votes are tallied, the winner becomes the national word for the year. In a similar vein, a writers’ blog asked the question, “What word will guide your writing for 2017?”  Different contributors came up with “enjoy” the process, “trust” my judgment and experience, “focus,” to stay on schedule, and “becoming” less hung up on worries about getting or not getting published.

If you were describing a life you aspire to in 2017, what words would you put on your list? Mine would include “give up,” the foolish idea that I can control everything; “create” art, music, and words; and “stop” imagining the worst is yet to come. Just saying the words won’t mean anything, unless I also reflect on what I would have to do to make sure they direct my actions.

Another approach to reflection comes from the website dailygood.org, which asks the question, “What Will The Theme Of Your Life Be in 2017?” by Kira M. Newman. The entire piece is worth reading, but for now, here’s the CliffsNotes version.  Newman says that from childhood forward, we create stories about who we are and the past experiences that shaped us. “Stories are the way we make sense of the world, and we’re constantly narrating and revising in our heads, sometimes without even realizing it..Although our life story is based on real events, it is also highly personal and subjective.” For example, two people might have lost a parent at an early age, but describe the impact of that experience on their own growth and development differently.

Newman goes into detail about three life themes “linked to well-being”: 1) those that revolve around social relations and community, 2) ones that emphasize personal achievement and status, and 3) those that focus on redemption. We don’t have to limit ourselves to one, because they can change over time.

And she talks about the need to weave together our goals and life themes.  “Goals and New Year’s resolutions don’t have to be isolated aspirations, failed and forgotten. Instead, they can contribute to crafting a life theme and an identity that endure.”

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Which is better, a city or a town?

9 am, that is

9 am, that is

Which is a better place to live, a small town or a city? That was the conversation my husband and I had while enjoying a white Christmas —  though not the single-digit temperatures — in Winthrop, Washington, population 415, or 1,916 if you consider the outlying areas.

I should clarify “small town” to mean a thriving small town. Sadly, there are plenty in the state with buildings boarded up, and the thrift store and food bank the anchors. Thriving towns often are those whose leaders have come up with a gimmick to keep the tourists coming, if not new residents. Winthrop, with its faux wild west architecture and its honest reputation as the nation’s largest cross country ski area is one of them. The excellent “Trail’s End” bookstore describes the town’s residents as highly literate outdoor enthusiasts.

After spending two days there, in a cabin in front of a gas fireplace reading, writing, snacking as well as soaking in our private hot tub, we ventured into the streets, the stores and onto the ski trails. At the bookstore, I had a long and pleasant conversation with a clerk about books we had both enjoyed.  At the ski shop, we waited a long time for an employee to listen patiently to streams of questions, doubts, and other insecurities from a potential ski shopper. When our turn came, we received the same thorough and thoughtful attention. When we discovered that the restaurant where we’d made an on-line reservation for Christmas Eve dinner was not where it had been a year ago, someone we talked to on our rambles gave us good directions on how to find the new location. At the same restaurant, the hostess and our server both spent time asking how we’d passed the day and actually listening to our answers, while also sharing local information, and just generally chatting us up.

In no way did these experiences match those of our lives in a city, where everyone is busy. Normally efficient, but always busy. The pace is wearying.  “Rush hour” is not in the vocabulary of people who live in Winthrop.  On the ski trail, we met a couple from a city north of where we live who were considering relocating to Winthrop. Too much traffic, too many people, and too much development were some of their reasons. They’re right. The Puget Sound region is experiencing enormous population growth.

We were quite content to spend five peaceful days in the quiet of nature, the only sounds being the swoosh of skis on the tracks, the hum of the occasional light plane overhead, and the gurgle of the jets in the hot tub.

But would we want to live here? After considering the possibility from different angles, we decided we wouldn’t. Why not?  The clinic there couldn’t do what the hospital a few blocks away from our home could.  Dining out options were good but limited. Making new friends might take time, and we would miss old friends who live near us now. We enjoy museums, art galleries, and lectures, which would be harder to find without driving some distance. We knew that all of these objections could be overcome. We realized that the biggest reason not to move was that we are fair-weather outdoor enthusiasts. When the man on the street gave us directions to the restaurant, he added that it would be easy for us to walk there.  As we drove the mile home in well-below freezing temperatures, we were happy we hadn’t taken his advice.

 

 

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Resolving the problem of extreme list making

Were you one of the gazillion readers who pushed sales of The Lifetime Magic of Tidying Up through the rooftop? For those who didn’t read the book, author Marie Kondo shared tips for the sport of extreme decluttering. Kondo gave one piece of advice I’ll never forget: “Believe what your heart tells you when you ask, ‘Does this spark joy?'” If an item doesn’t give you joy, she advises getting rid of it.  I tried to apply this rule to my efforts to declutter kitchen utensils, my underwear drawer, and linen closet. Although using the items in each of these locations does not make me want to clap and sing aloud, I  find them to be very useful and, consequently, felt compelled to shove the drawers closed.

I bring up this topic, because it reminds me of a blog post I just read about overcoming another bad habit, titled “How To Only Do Things You Actually Want to Do.” In this, writer Christine Carter takes on the topic of things-to-do lists. She says, “Ineffective task lists make us feel like we have too much to do in too little time, which makes us feel overwhelmed. Ironically, this makes us worse at planning and managing our time.” I agree with her on this point. But then, she asks list makers to highlight any items they dread doing, and delete or delegate these items. Cleaning my oven, a task I dread, seems to never make any of my lists. So far so good. But notice the next step. Delegate what you dread?

Even to delegate what I’d rather not do, as in shopping for groceries, doing errands, cooking and cleaning up the kitchen, would be impossible to achieve on a daily basis. I don’t want to try to push off anything more to my husband who does his fair share.  uke-and-gordonAnd Gordon the cat hardly has the energy to wake up from his long winter’s nap except to make it to his food bowl, and filling it every ten minutes is also a hard job to delegate.

Sure, I could pay someone to do everything I don’t want to do, but that seems more like hiring a household staff comparable to the one that reigned in Downton Abbey. Rather than resort to extreme editing and costly delegating, I believe I’ll skip list making. If on occasion I feel pressure to create one, I’ll do it the day of and fill it only with activities I love.

 

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Narrow escape from Grinchiness

family fun away from the shopping malls.

fun on the ice

I think I’m becoming a Grinch, the Doctor Seuss furry recluse character, who scorns the Christmas season in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

What has caused my grumpiness towards a holiday beloved by nearly all children and many adults? I guess it’s the ubiquitous push to buy more and more stuff. This comes as heaps of separate ads tucked in the daily newspaper, the catalogs that clog my snail mailbox, and the dozens of unwanted junk emails that arrive in my inbox every few minutes.

Yesterday, to try to get into the spirit of the season, I read through the “Shop NW” section of “The Seattle Times.” This issue featured suggestions for the late shopper: a set of four bottle stoppers in different geometric shapes for $49, an agate cheese board for $78, a $395 customizable pet blanket, and a custom pair of baggage tags for $81.

The “Shop NW’ gifts are not for the very wealthy. Shoppers in that class are probably considering one of the Neiman Marcus fantasy gifts, which include a walk-on role in a Broadway hit ($30,000), a week of luxury living at three English estates ($700,000), a one-day private quarterback camp with Joe Montana ($65,000), or an exclusive Grammy Awards appearance ($500,000).

But wait. There is more to Christmas than gifts.* Is there nothing that can stop me from sliding into total Grinchhood?  Hmm. Last night, we did enjoy watching kids and adults trying not to fall as they skated around a holiday ice rink.  A few days ago, I had lunch and exchanged gifts with longtime friends.  This week, I’m having lunch with another group of friends. We go to the same lovely hotel every year.  It’s a real tradition. Then there’s the annual gag gift party coming up; oh, and breakfast in a bookstore with fellow writers. Lots of affirmations of long-time friendships I hadn’t thought about as I thumbed through advertisements.

The other day, I saw some wonderful lighted decorations I’m taking my husband to photograph. We’re going skiing later this month. He even brought home eggnog, a treat we only allow ourselves once a year. And it’s not as if we’re spending much time searching for the perfect gift. We already have it: a cozy house complete with fireplaces and plenty of supplies for making hot chocolate, close friends, a large orange cat, and each other. Maybe I’m not becoming a Grinch after all. It all depends on how you look at the situation.

*Of course, it’s a religious holiday, but commerce has pushed that into the background.

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Reining in post-election anxieties

scan-2A few evenings ago, I was enjoying a music program by three baritones in an intimate setting, enjoying it, that is, until the singers descended upon the small audience in search of one or two women willing to join them for their next pieces. One of the performers strolled my way, pointed to me, and invited me to come up to the stage. Immediately, I blurted, “No!”

Friends who were there asked why I hadn’t been willing to play along with them.  “Control,” I said. “When I’m standing up in front of a crowd, I want to be the one in charge.”

After I said this, I started to consider my ongoing angst in response to the outcome of the presidential election and my utter lack of any sense of control. The feeling continued the next day when I attended a memorial service for a good friend.  Talk about one thing none of us can control.

Many commentators advised those of us dismayed by the results to stop worrying and to let go of negative feelings. They cited research that suggests that control is a human illusion and our spheres of influence smaller than we might think.

It turns out that feeling in control, whether it’s an illusion or not, is a very important mental condition.

From Glenn Croston, PhD., Psychology Today, “A persistent lack of control in a person’s life often leads to depression and anxiety.  Anything that makes us feel helpless, lacking fundamental control over our surroundings, can have a lasting impact…”

On another website, IQ Matrix, Adam Sicinski speaks to The Universal Law of Control “When we are physically, mentally and emotionally controlling the changes in our lives, then this naturally leads to higher levels of achievement, emotional satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment.”

And from the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need for Control,” three researchers conclude that, “…the perception of control is not only desirable, but it is likely a psychological and biological necessity.”

After reading these, I reminded myself that when I was working I had a great deal of control over how I did my job, and even in retirement still have influence in my local community, and with my husband and friends. My sense of personal control hasn’t changed. It’s true that I can’t control the choice of a Supreme Court Justice, changes in health care laws, or immigration regulations, but then, I never could before.

 

 

 

 

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Old Year’s resolutions

1024px-great_wave_off_kanagawa2

Hiroshige’s Wave-public domain  from Wikipedia

I’ve been riding an emotional wave this month, sinking deeply into the troughs and rising skyward with the crests.  The trough came on election day, the same day I received a rejection letter from an editor who had acted very interested in receiving my manuscript when I spoke with her last summer. The gloom continued for days after. Then last week, I was swept up to the crest as I completed a huge volunteer project.

I’m ready to sacrifice the waves for smooth seas, to tackle small projects — the antithesis of the recent one involving coordinating a retirement party with 425+ guests — and move more slowly. I’m now dreaming about spinning a cocoon around me during the December days ahead, and finding my way onto a different path, one more tranquil and less hectic.

Is this possible with the parties, shopping expeditions, and holiday celebrations that are part of every December? The weather, the addition of a few more minutes of darkness each day, and on-line shopping will support my dream.

Heavy rains and high winds — hallmarks of this time of year — make staying home more appealing.

A few days ago, malls started to fill with not-yet-harried shoppers. Enthusiasm for thrusting myself into the buzzing crowd to achieve the goal of making everyone on my list happy, is already waning.  I can keep warm and dry at home and shop with the help of the internet.

Finally, the receding hours of daylight inspire inertia.

Yes. It would be theoretically possible to stop and smell the gingerbread. What could possibly keep me from realizing my dream of pulling a throw over my lap, sitting down with a few good books, and chilling now and then?”

I know the answer: I am the one who gets in my way. I’m the one who fills my calendar with a hundred and one activities, and who chooses doing an errand over sitting still.

Here’s my December experiment:  I’m going to cut back a little on my social life, go cross country skiing, read a pile of books, meditate, and do yoga. Not all at once and not every day, just enough to see what happens, find out if I change in any way.  Calendar control will be the biggest challenge. I also want to know if what I fantasize about is not the road to smooth sailing but the road to boredom.

There are no serious consequences if I fail. I can think of my experiment as getting my usual unfilled New Year’s resolutions out of the way in the old year, thus saving myself time in 2017.

 

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