Fighting Off the Fog

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My local news this morning reported that a gentleman with dementia — several years my junior — is missing.  I wondered: why him? Why not me? I have watched loved ones — relatives and friends — succumb to the foggy twilight of forgetfulness, bizarre and inappropriate behavior, and poor judgment in increasing numbers in the past several years. My greatest fear at this point in time is that I will join the ranks. As I approach the age status of “codger,” I would prefer to be described as “still sharp as a tack” to “If found, please return to…” or worse, “If found, please don’t return.”

I may some time ago have mentioned that I have scheduled the following entry to appear monthly on my Google calendar: “Are people telling me that I am forgetting things? Am I getting into trouble? Do I get lost in familiar places? Have I forgotten that I have left this message for my future self? If so, I may have Alzheimer’s Disease and need to either get help or end it all.” The message recently popped up for the first time (that I can remember, heh heh) on my calendar. I could honestly answer “no” to all of the questions that my past self asked my present self (except possibly for the one about getting into trouble. It depends on your definition of trouble). It occurred to me a few months ago, however, that I need to do more than just schedule a monthly self-check on my mental status. I must up my game as I get older. I want to pass into that good night the way that Robert B. Parker did. He was busily writing at his desk when Azrael tapped him on the shoulder, clapped hands, and said: “Let’s go!”  Similarly, Bob Hope, as befits a comedian, had everyone laughing through their tears as they gathered around his deathbed. His wife reportedly asked him if he wanted to be buried or cremated. His response, filtered through a raspy gasp, was “Surprise me!” Indeed.

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I’ve been doing a number of things to increase the odds of walking the final plank in as superlative a condition as possible, writing all the way. One is exercise. I don’t like it. I find it boring. I did engage in jogging for a while, many years ago, but the rum kept spilling out of my glass. I only enjoy such activity if I can call it something else and multitask while doing so. I love walking when I am in other cities. I can take mental photographs, get writing ideas, and occasionally sharpen my survival skills if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t like walking in my own locale because for the most part the scenery is somewhat boring and I somehow always find myself wandering into a bakery, which is also dangerous. I accordingly bought a treadmill about a year ago and put it in front of the television. I have decided that I am not allowed to watch Netflix, Prime or Cinema HD (shhh!) unless I’m walking briskly on the treadmill. It works. I’m never bored, and I’m actually doing something constructive amidst the sex, explosions, and fisticuffs of what I’m watching. I walked for a couple of hours yesterday while watching American Gangster and loved every minute. The activity improves my mood which in turn helps me to think more clearly. It has increased my stamina as well.

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Reading is another intellectually stimulating activity. Reading of any sort is good, but of late I’ve been shifting at least some of my reading time away from the mystery and thrillers I love and toward literature that requires a bit more concentration.  After perusing several articles about how to start and finish Ulysses by James Joyce I located my well-worn copy and started reading a page a day while successfully resisting the urge to burn my eyes out with hot coals. So far so good.

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There is also of course writing, which I am doing right now. Maybe it’s true that a roomful of monkeys chained to typewriters will eventually randomly type the works of Shakespeare. Sometimes my contribution to this blog resembles what the chimps come up with before they produce The Tempest but my posts have to be done by a time and date certain That takes concentration, as does most writing. Another stick sharpened.

All of the above, however, isn’t enough. One thing I regret about my high school years is that I never really mastered mathematics beyond Algebra 1, primarily because I could never properly use a slide rule. Does anyone remember slide rules? It was a type of analog computer which went the way of the dinosaur once pocket calculators became so common. The last slide rule was made in 1976. I was simply born too soon. I have lived long enough to see YouTube, however, and there are all sorts of videos as well as self-instruction websites where a mathematics dolt like myself can work at their own pace and begin at their own level. I had a couple of false starts before deciding that I needed a refresher course in Algebra 1. I was surprised at how much I remembered, how much I had forgotten, and how much I still don’t understand. I am chipping away at it, however. I would like at some point to understand calculus but it’s as important for me to try as it is to succeed at this point.  I find that it helps to listen to music while I do it. I generally favor post-punk (Parquet Courts) or soul (anything that was released on the Stax/Volt labels) for pleasure but when confronting a math lesson there is something about a Louis Armstrong solo from his days with the Hot Five or a Miles Davis set from the 1950s to the early 1960s that brings a broom and dustpan to the frontal lobe.

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You don’t have to be old — by whatever definition — to start thinking about this. I know people who seemingly cannot function without a device in their hand, who haven’t read a book in years, and whose idea of exercise is adjusting the remote volume while they binge on a new Netflix serial. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Just add some things into the mix that up your thinking game a bit,  clear the cobwebs, sharpen the instruments, and generally tune up the cognition. If you are doing something, no matter what your age, please share. And if you aren’t doing anything because you don’t feel the need, bless you.

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

42 thoughts on “Fighting Off the Fog

  1. Good points, Joe, about finding the kind of exercise that works for one–human uniqueness is our stock-in-trade, after all, so it’s good to apply that principle to ourselves. Also good point about stretching our reading (I’m doing Jane Eyre right now) and taking up new intellectual challenges (like learning to write fiction, in my case).

    Your self-check worries me, as I totally forgot to go hear Ian Rankin at Cuyahoga City Library Writing Center last night. I hope it’s a valid excuse that I was in the middle of formatting and proofing a Scrivener compile of my novel to send to a beta reader. I’m really bummed. So that means I haven’t forgotten that I forgot.

      • Thank you, Eric. Do you ever use the slide rule, just for old time sake? Jane Eyre would be a fine book to read to sharpen the mind. Thanks for the reminder. And, other than for head-palming yourself for forgetting about Ian Rankin’s appearance, I wouldn’t worry. If you had left the house intending to go and wound up in the Flats five hours later, with no idea how you got there…well, that would be another story. But you’re great for now!

  2. Wise words, Joe. Mental exercise is good at any age. I have a theory about classic comedians, how sharp they are/were well into old age. George Burns, Groucho, Red Skelton, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, etc. That’s because every day they are working on jokes and being rapid fire with their brains in social situations.

    Writers can do that, too. Be asking What if? all the time, develop projects, stretch your comfort zone and, naturally, write regularly.

    Of course, mental concentration can also have side effects. The great G. K. Chesterton, one of the most prolific writers and thinkers of his day, once mistakenly got off a train in Glasgow. He had to fire off a telegram to his wife: “Am here. Where ought I to be?”

    • Jim, thanks for your comments and particularly that great G.K. Chesterton story. His Father Brown mysteries — not to mention every word he ever wrote — stand up well to this day. Time to reread! Thanks for the reminder.

  3. My hat is off to anyone who willingly studies algebra (or any other math). I’m more like the cartoon I saw of a man lying in the hospital bed, his family and physician surrounding him in his last moments, but his fist is raised and he says something like “I KNEW it! 97 years and never used algebra once!” 😎 Dang I wish I’d kept a copy of that cartoon. 😎

    I do love exercise & wish I had even more time for it. Love lifting weights & find it a wonderful time to disappear into myself and do my workouts. As a late bloomer, I discovered kickboxing (using a heavy bag) which I love. I would like to see kickboxing studios spread across the U.S. like a firestorm. That is the best mind/body/health exercise–keeps you flexible (especially the hips), improves cardio fitness, and who doesn’t need to get out their frustrations on a bag?

    I don’t know the secrets to staying sharp, but I hope that being interested in a variety of things helps. Always reading, learning new things, painting, drawing, writing, & want to do projects out of leather and wood, all of which help your brain keep coming up with new ideas.

    Your reflective posts are wonderful. And you always keep us thinking!

    • Thank you, BK. You’re very kind and easy to please. I agree…having varied interests helps. It will also occasionally get one into trouble, but it keeps the mind working!

      • “…it keeps the mind working…” if for no other reason than having excuses and alibis ready when questioned (or interrogated).

  4. Wow, Joe. Studying algebra seems like punishment to me. I bow to your awesomeness. Forensic classes are my go-to courses when time permits.

    I read thrillers & mysteries, lots and lots of thrillers & mysteries, with the occasional mashup and true crime thrown in for good measure. Even though I should probably widen my scope to other genres, I can’t help myself. Reading is my reward for writing all day. As for exercise, I can’t take long walks anymore due to damage in both feet, so I just ordered yoga tapes. We had a place nearby that taught classes, but it moved an hour away. It might be worth the trip to practice yoga with baby goats, though. Ever hear of baby goat yoga? Adorable!

    • I used to keep a book, one I liked, in the basket of my exercise bike, and I was only allowed to read it while pedaling. Then we moved to the mountains, got a dog, and she seems to think a day requires a walk. Because we’re in those aforementioned mountains, ‘walk’ is really a hike, I confess I’m a slacker if the ground is icy or covered with foot deep snow, but Hubster doesn’t mind, so he braves the slick and the cold and I’m back downstairs on the bike. The FitBit helps.
      I’m also at a writing conference now, and is that EVER keeping the brain cells active.
      BTW, Sue, Jeffery Deaver is one of the featured speakers, and he says the BIG thing now is a youtube video of baby goats in pajamas. I haven’t had time to Google it, but maybe you will.

      • Terry, thank you for the reminder that an active pet will keep you mentally alert. They listen, are empathetic, and like your doggie, are adorably demanding. Please give her a pet from me when you get home. And please tell Jeffery, a terrific speaker and author, that I said hi.

    • Sue, the important thing, I believe, is to keep reading. As far as studying algebra goes…it is a punishment, in a classroom where the instructor has to teach a difficult subject to students of wildly varying abilities in a limited amount of time. That is what is great about all of these videos. If I don’t understand the first time through how the coefficient of xy divided by z squared equals zippidy doo-dah, I can stop the video and go over it again and again until it makes sense. Maybe.

      I wish you a speedy recovery from your foot problems. And interestingly enough I just read an article about baby goat yoga. If I ever find a class titled “old goat yoga” I might participate. Thank you, Sue!

  5. Joe, my attitude toward algebra is similar to when I fell off a horse as a kid and suffered a concussion–did it once, don’t need to do it again 🙂 But I admire your resoluteness. Maybe combining algebra with Isaac Hayes or Booker T and the MGs makes it less excruciating.

    What will today’s device addicts be like in 40-50 years? Chronic crooked neck syndrome, worn-out thumb joints, and brains hard-wired for ADD?

    As always, you blend lots of wisdom with humor. Thanks for a Saturday morning smile.

    • Thank you, Debbie, you’re easy to please. That’s high praise considering that your posts are must reads at casa del Hartlaub. Re: the gadgets, I think that the effect of the gadgets will ultimately be the need to be constantly entertained in short bursts and on demand. Not good.

  6. As always, Joe, love your sentiments.
    For me, ‘staying active’ has several fronts, but the most notable, by far, is that I didn’t have the first of my two children until I was almost fifty. They’ve kept me so ‘young at heart’ that I seldom consider how old I am (except when I stop and really look in the mirror.) Even now, as one child is 19 and the other is soon to turn 17, I marvel at how lucky I am and have been, to be surrounded by their youthful energy.

    • Thank you, Edward, you’re very kind. It’s always great to hear about a gent who still has fire in the chimney past a certain age. A friend of mine, when in his twenties, was told by an uncle who had just turned 90 that “Kid, when you’re 90, you’ll still want to (keep the intimate company of women).” How true! It’s not the point you made — at least not directly — but thanks for noting that there are still some of us out there!

  7. My entire extended family died of various forms of dementia, and my mom has been terrified for years that it’d get her, too. So she’s spent 15 years watching all the latest research coming out on dementia. Turns out, people who eat a diet with a lot of protein and good fats (like omega oils) tend to never have brain issues. On the other hand, people who eat a lot of sugar and bread tend to develop dementia at younger and younger ages. Seeing as your brain is basically made of cholesterol, this makes sense. Like how they say eggs are brain food? They’re right.

    • Kessie, everyone on my dad’s side of the family died with dementia, while everyone on my mother’s died of cancer. I hope to die at the hands of a jealous husband. I occasionally behave as if hamburgers, french fries, coffee, and donuts are the four basic food groups, but I’ve actually thrown vegetables into the mix for the past several years. Hope it’s not too late. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Joe,
    I have been walking 1/12 – 2 hrs. a day, seven days a week, for the past thirteen years. What makes it work for me is that 1-3 other people in my loft building walk with me–it’s social and fun. If I skip a day or two, I really miss both the exercise and the camaraderie.

      • T.L., that’s great. It’s nice that you have friends and companions that you can do that with. It also helps that you all indirectly keep an eye out for each other as well. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thanks for mentioning Miles Davis. He is now playing on my speaker. 🙂

    A little girl came home from school and told her grandfather she’d learned about the slide rule that day. Pleased that the school was teaching something about math, he beamed at her and asked what she learned.
    She smiled at him and said, “Only one person on the slide at a time.”

    • Patricia, I read an article several years ago that stated that an entire generation was growing up without ever having heard a jazz album. I made my younger daughter — who was in high school at the time — listen to Kind of Blue by Miles one morning as I drove her to school. I’m surprised that she didn’t call Children’s Services. BTW…if you get a chance, you might want to check out Both Directions at Once, the “lost” John Coltrane album that was released last year. It’s a lot more than a historical curiosity piece.

      Thanks for coming by and for sharing the “slide rule” joke!

  10. Speaking of Rankin (see my post above) brings to mind the array of aging detectives out there such as Rebus, Bryant and May, and Bosch. Sadly, both Bishop Blackie and Kinsey Milhone died young.

  11. My own physical capabilities are becoming limited. I am researching prices for a ole-boys’ scooter only three years after having to start using a walker, and I need a heavier-duty cane.

    My wife thinks it sort of silly for me to want a scooter to ride down to the exercise room in our senior housing apartment building, but I learned when I used to run 70 or so miles a week, that after running 12 miles, you might need a way home from end of the 12th mile.

    But it is the mental that keeps me challenged, as well. Respecting your monkey-Shakespeare question, I pose the opposite: if you chained a roomful of Shakespeares to a roomful of typewriters, would you ever get volumes of monkey literature?

    Ride, ride into the fray. Before they move it and not tell you where it is now.

    • Jim, I don’t have any skin in the game but my opinion is that if you want to ride to the exercise room you should do it. We’re at the age where falls have more serious repercussions than they used to and if you can avoid that then go for it.

      Interesting question about the Shakespeares. As with most things, it’s above my pay grade.

      That line about riding into the fray is excellent. Makes me jealous. You wrote that, right? Great stuff.

  12. Sound advice: Use it or lose it.

    Here’s another way to exercise aging neurons: My wife and I play Pente several times a week. Pente is a board game with simple rules that generate situations more complex than chess. My wife and I are both first born, and compete ferociously. I think the competition adds a little extra incentive to master the game.

    • Mike I’m not much on games but this sounds fascinating. I just looked Pente up and it was invented by a dishwasher. Good on him. I hope that his life has changed dramatically. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Good afternoon, Joe

    Great post. Loved all your ideas (and the ideas of those who’ve responded). My wife and I each have an old ski machine sitting in the basement, in front of the TV. We watch the news and exercise five nights a week. We can each exercise at our own pace, but exercise together. (In addition to the skiing, I’m yelling at the politicians and coming up with creative names for them.)

    And I still have my old slide rule from high school (although I don’t have a clue how to use it anymore – think it had something to do with adding and subtracting logs) Now you have my curiosity aroused. I need to relearn how to use it.

    Have a good weekend.

    • Good afternoon, Steve. Thank you, you’re easy to please, as always. Thanks for sharing your exercise regimen, which is inspiring. There are a plethora of websites that teach how to use a slide rule and I think there is even a club or two that gets together online. Sounds cool to me!

  14. I always did well in all maths – until my last year of high school, when we had a substitute teacher trying to teach us pre-calc for nearly a whole year. I got so lost, I stayed away from math for 13 years, until I decided to take computer science. It wasn’t easy, but something that helped me attune my brain to math again was number puzzles like Sudoku and Kakuro. It kind of makes the math portion of the brain sit up and take notice. Like a warm up for creaky math skills.

    Puzzles of all kinds can keep your mind sharp.

    • Thanks, BJ. Sudoku is a good idea. I cannot complete one of those to save my life. Maybe I should try again!

  15. I have heard/read that reading fiction is better for memory than reading magazines and history ~ but that reading anything is better than not.

    In my day-job I’ve learned that there are optics and physiological things that the blue light wavelengths of various screens can have disruptive effects to the quality of sleep, especially after 9:00 pm or so, even if we think we’re getting enough shuteye. Besides the obviousness of turning the fool things off, there are amber screens for night owls that mimic our evolutionary predeliction for sunset, fire light, and embers. We’re studying using light controls on LED’s at the hospital to mimic these wavelengths to improve recovery times.

    As to higher math ~ despite doing 4 to 6 at GA Tech, I find I only use calculus in crossword puzzles.

    • George, I’ve heard the same things about screens disrupting sleep. Thanks for the update on the use of light controls in hospitals to improve recovery times. I’m going to look that up. I bet it could be the basis for a novel. Someone hacks into the light controls, adjusts the wavelengths, and suddenly you have an army of the ill which…hmmm…

  16. I avoided math in high school, didn’t take Algebra 1 until my senior year and barely passed. Years later (after I learned that Everything In Math Boils Down to 1 Divided by 1) it became easy for me, and a fun game to boot. I ended up teaching Algebra 1 in a two-year junior college. (grin)

    • Harvey, thanks for the great story. Sometimes it takes a little age and the wisdom that comes with it to conquer a task. I really love that you wound up teaching the subject that initially blocked you. You’re The Man!

  17. Joe, I loved your post. You made me laugh with Bob Hope and rum spilling from your glass when you jogged. Yes, I remember Algebra. I was not a math lover, but with a sister who was a high school valedictorian, I aced my classes. Dementia hit my mother and she suffered for 8 years, BUT, she loved music and could still dance and not miss a beat. I believe as we age we need to remain active, read and write a lot, enjoy friends and sit by the lake with your favorite glass of wine. Wine is inspirational!
    Again, a great post.

    • Thank you so much, Frances for your kind words as well as for sharing your personal story. And if I can make someone laugh, well…my job is done. Just so long as they don’t point!

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