The aging brain

aging brain

I used to love my brain. It was very dependable. It had tremendous capacity, and a very quick response time.

But all that has changed.

I began to notice it about two years ago, at the advanced age of fifty-three. Proper names were suddenly less easy to remember. Simple facts – Who starred in which movie? What do you call that thing you use to eat ice cream with? – were eluding me.

The pace of the decline has quickened. I was introducing two people to one another not long ago – people I knew very well – and I suddenly couldn’t remember one of their names. I tried to cover for myself, fumblingly. I admitted it to one friend later, and he just grinned. “I noticed,” he said. “You forgot my name!”


Thank god he thought it was funny.

I told my doctor about it, sure that he would say it was more-or-less-early-onset Alzheimer’s. He shrugged. “It’s the aging brain,” he said.

The aging brain.


It progresses. The other day, I looked at a regular analog clock with hour hand on two and minute hand on six. One voice in my head said: “Two-thirty.” And another voice, achier and feebler, said: “What in the hell is that thing?”

Time ticks by, and I get dimmer and dimmer, and more and more feeble.

It’s only a matter of time.

What were we talking about?

Getting old: a very brief anecdote


I overheard this conversation in a restaurant a while back. It is very brief, and pretty much perfect the way it is.

I was finishing my mixed-green salad with balsamic dressing when I overheard the waiter speaking to some older people at the next table. “I don’t need to write the orders down,” he said. “They just sort of soak into my head. I go over to the register, and they all come back to me like magic.”

“Good for you,” one of the women said. “Wait until you get older. Sometimes I walk into the kitchen and can’t remember what I wanted to do.”

“Big deal!” the man next to her said. “Sometimes I walk into the bathroom and can’t remember what I wanted to do.”


Never, never, never, never, never


I made contact with an old friend recently, and she informed me that she intends to climb Kilimanjaro in 2013. Imagine!



My first thought was: I’d love to do that.



My second thought was: I’ll never do that.



And, for the first time in my life, the word “never” suddenly took on a new and terrible meaning.

I will never use up those stupid greeting cards I bought six years ago.



I will never see Timbuktu (though I certainly had the chance a long time ago), or Nepal, or Kazakhstan.




I will never conduct a real symphony orchestra, or win a Nobel Prize, or even a Pulitzer Prize.





Never, never, never.






That’s from “King Lear,” isn’t it? The lines that Lear speaks, holding the dead Cordelia in his arms:



Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never.



I will never return to the house I grew up in; it’s been sold and belongs to strangers now, who have almost certainly changed it beyond recognition.



I can never revisit my old elementary school; it  burned down a few years ago.





I will never speak to my late mother or father again, nor to my late sister Darlene from whom I was estranged at the time of her death, nor to my late sister Susan of whom I was very fond.




Never, never, never, never, never.



When we’re young, we are full of hope.



Later, we come to terrible realizations.



I have written about Apollonia and her sister Augusta. There is also a third sister, named (for the purposes of this blog) Agrippina.

(All great comedy groups come in threes. Think of the Ritz Brothers. Think of the Marx Brothers. Think of the Three . . . well, you know who I mean.)

Anyway: “So we’re in the hospital,” Apollonia says. “It’s very late. Agrippina says, ‘Go get me some candy. Licorice. I want licorice.’ I said to her: ‘It’s after midnight. Where in the hell am I going to buy licorice for you?’ And, very calmly, she says: ‘Go to a movie theater.’”

Apollonia and I are silent for a moment. “That’s brilliant,” I said. “I never would have thought of that.”

“Yeah, well,” Apollonia said wearily, “listen to this. I said: ‘You think I’m gonna go out to a movie theater and get you licorice?’ And she says: ‘Yeah. And I want that kind – you know? – with the pieces that are all different shapes. You know. With the little candies stuck to them.’” Apollonia goggled at me. “What in the hell was she talking about?”

“Allsorts,” I said, quick as a flash.

“What?” Apollonia croaked.

I was sitting in front of my desktop computer at the time, so I quickly Googled an image (see above). “Licorice allsorts,” I said. “My favorite. I loved them as a child. Not commonly available. Buy them when you can.”

“Oh my God!” Apollonia moaned. “You know about this stuff too!”

That same day, I went to two CVS locations, and a Bed Bath & Beyond, and a RiteAid, and two other places, and I’m still looking for licorice allsorts. (I’m sure they’re available online, but that’s like shooting fish in a barrel. I want to find them in the wild, in their natural environment.)

When you’re a child, what do you want? Candy. But adults won’t let you have it.

The most wonderful thing about adulthood is that you can buy yourself all the candy and toys you like, and no one can stop you or say no.

I will find licorice allsorts. And I will buy a package for Agrippina, and five or six packages for myself, and maybe some bubble gum for Apollonia (she’s a big Bazooka fan, although she’ll settle for Dubble Bubble).

And we will all be childishly happy.



A few months ago, I ran into my old friend Violet. Violet retired from the University only a few years ago, after working there for over thirty years. She was one of those people who knew everyone, and knew how to do everything. She was smart, and quiet, and calm, and always seemed to be completely unfazed by everything.

So, after we exchanged a few pleasantries, she asked me: “What are you doing now?”

And I said: “I’m you.”

And we both laughed.

But it’s true. I’ve been there for over twenty-five years. I know everyone, and I know how to do everything. And, if I don’t, I know who to call. And I know their phone numbers by heart.

I have a funny little gadget on my office wall, which was given to me by a pension firm. It’s headed YEARS TO RETIREMENT, and it’s a big stupid dial, which you can turn from 2015 to 2040.

Naturally I have it set on 2040. I point it out to people from time to time, just for laughs.

Do you remember the Harry Potter character, the professor who’s actually a ghost? He was a regular professor once, but he died while teaching, and his ghost just kept teaching. So he’s still there.

I have a tiny fear that this is exactly what might happen to me.

When Violet first told me about her decision to retire, a few years ago, here’s what she said: “One day last week, I got up at 5:00 am because I wanted to work in the garden. And I was out there on my hands and knees, and I watched the sun come up, and I thought: I’d better start getting ready for work. And then I thought: I don’t have to do that if I don’t want to. And I made up my mind right there and then.”

Maybe someday, like Violet, I will pack it in, and turn in all the necessary paperwork, and go do some serious gardening and reading and writing.

But not just yet.


Human frailty

I have my kidney stones, and my ischemia. I told you about my tennis elbow.

What else can go wrong?

We came back from France a few months ago, which means hoisting things in and out of overhead compartments on airplanes. Then, a few days after arrival, I went to the Providence Public Library without my sweet-little-old-lady library bag and came out with four heavy books and two “I LOVE MY LIBRARY” t-shirts. I walked for at least twenty minutes balancing thirty pounds of cargo – oh, that’s right, I stopped at CVS to buy some candy.

Two days later, my right shoulder began to ache.

Two days after that, I couldn’t raise my arm. I couldn’t put on a shirt without screaming with pain. I couldn’t lift a box of Junior Mints from the table.

I reconciled myself to this, though the blinding pain. I assured myself that I could make it through life somehow with one arm.

Then, after consulting WebMD and applying a heating pad and doing some physical-therapy exercises I learned from Partner, most of the pain went away.

It still twangs once in a while, and reminds me that it’s there. Naturally the words “rotator cuff” peal in my head.

And I remember what I heard a health professional say once: “Once you begin going downhill, you might slow down a bit here and there, or delay, but you never really stop going downhill.”

How cheerful!

Here’s a toast: to going downhill.

I hope the scenery along the way is nice.

The piano music of Frederic Chopin


My routine over the past year or so has been to spend my last few hours before bedtime writing this dreadful blog.

I need background music to do this. Fortunately, I have a huge CD collection.  Since Partner’s in the next room watching “The Good Wife,” however, noisy orchestral music, and opera, and organ music seems inappropriate.

So I listen mostly to chamber music, and solo keyboard music.

I’ve gone through the Beethoven sonatas, and the Bach suites, and the Beethoven quartets, and the Mozart sonatas and quartets (and quintets).  I tried the Scarlatti sonatas (I own about two-thirds of them – you know I’m a maniac for complete sets of things), but it was like listening to the same thing over and over again.  I got out my set of the complete piano music of Federico Mompou and listened through that.  And the sonatas of Prokofiev, and Scriabin, and Shostakovich.

Finally, feeling bored and disdainful, I pulled out some ancient ultra-cheapo recordings of “The Favorite Music of Frederic Chopin,” which I seem to recall buying for a dollar per CD.

After a few days of that, I went on eBay and bought a thirteen-CD set of the complete Chopin piano music for sixty bucks (which is a pretty good price, if you ask me).

Chopin I used to associate with everything that people hate about classical piano music: frilly, arch, virtuosic, all style and no substance, ornate frippery.

Oh how wrong I was.

This is music written in the first half of the nineteenth century – Beethoven and Schubert were only recently deceased, and Verdi and Wagner were just getting started – and it’s still incredibly fresh and energetic and daring. It changes key all over the place. The virtuosity is never just for show; it’s part of the structure of the piece.  The individual pieces are short; even the sonatas feel like suites.  The melodies are soulful and beautifully constructed.

And the harmonies! They are amazing. Chopin tells stories with chord progressions. There’s often solmething wild going on over the surface – some fancy figuration – but the progressions beneath them are telling the real story. Here, as an unvarnished example, is the C Minor Prelude (you may recognize it as a Barry Manilow song).

I’ve got the Polonaises going in the background as I write this.  I’ve worked my way through the Etudes, and the Preludes, and the Mazurkas, and the Sonatas, and the Scherzos.  (I still have the Waltzes to listen through, but I pretty much know those.) The performer is a Russian namedNikita Magaloff, whose claim to fame is that he did the complete Chopin piano music over and over again. He is precise, and unfrilly, and really very good.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like vegetables.  Now I love them.

Ditto Chopin.

How our tastes change as we get older!

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