Two ways to climb a mountain

Two ways to climb a mountain

Blog Entry

It can’t be just chance that the two best climbing films ever made were released this summer within a couple months of each other.

Both featured world-beating young American climbers achieving never-been-done things on the storied rock El Capitan, in Yosemite. Together — if you want them to – the two films say something about competing paradigms in the world right now.

The first film, The Dawn Wall, features two climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, who aim to spider up what’s long been considered an unclimbable face — a smooth, 3200-foot granite table tipped upright. With finger-shredding holds no bigger than the width of a credit card. Caldwell’s the superior climber, and at one point Jorgeson encounters a pitch he just can’t solve. He tries and fails for literally days. Eventually he decides to just give up and belay his friend to the top. But Caldwell refuses the gesture. They’re in this together — either they both make it or neither of them does. The film is a hymn to bro love, but more than that to the power of teamwork.

The second movie, Free Solo, involves Alex Honnold’s attempt to conquer El Cap all by himself, via a slightly easier route but without protection. This one’s about what one ubermenschalbeit one not quite right in the head — can do alone. Unfettered by gear, or rope, or other people. With the stakes as high as stakes go.

It wasn’t either filmmaker’s intention to make a political statement. But they accidentally did just that.

We’re almost talking about two rival spiritual orientations in America right now,” the journalist Anand Giridharadas said on a recent episode of the podcast On Being.

“There’s a spiritual orientation that celebrates what we each do alone. And there’s a rival orientation that celebrates what we do together. These are both very strong parts of our culture. And they map onto this idea of the celebration of a heroic, capitalist, pull yourself up by your bootstraps story.

“But that’s never been the only story. We’ve also always had this story of movements – it wasn’t individuals who got rid of the King of England. The most important things we’ve done in this culture have also been together.

“And I think these two tendencies – what we do together and what we do alone – have always vied for primacy in American life. At different moments, and for much of the twentieth century, they had a certain healthy tension. But now the relationship between them is very unhealthy. The relationship is one of mutual annihilation instead of adversarial co-operation.”

Any other year, The Dawn Wall would have been a roaring success, the water-cooler subject of every outdoor enthusiast.

But Free Solo is crushing it. The story of the daredevil individual risking everything for glory is simply burying the story of the friendship and teamwork.

Americans at our best,” said Giridharadas, “we do things together in a way that allows people to do things alone. And we also do things alone that creates the opportunity to do them together. These things don’t have to be at war with each other. But they are absolutely at war today.”

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The Cavernous World Beneath the Trees

The Cavernous World Beneath the Trees

Essays Featured Published Stories Archive

From HAKAI MAGAZINE, Nov. 20, 2018. Photos by Grant Callegari.

In the twilight hush of the fanciest restaurant in townPaul Griffiths pulls out a tiny device that looks like a primitive cellphone and sinks it in his water glass. He’s trying to figure out where the water came from—here, Campbell River, a small coastal community in British Columbia, or somewhere else?

The instrument, an electrical conductivity meter, reveals the path the water took from its source to Griffiths’s glass by measuring the charged minerals picked up along the way.

“Twenty-two, 23, 24 …,” says Carol Ramsey, reading the display.

A server orbiting past the table stops midstride and stares.

“We’re just testing the conductivity of your water,” Ramsey says cheerfully.

“Do you know where this ice came from?” Griffiths asks.

“Uh … the ice machine? I’m not sure,” the server says shyly.

“Is it possible to get a glass of just tap water?” Griffiths suspects the ice is bringing down the numbers.

Maybe the ice was shipped in from the nearest big cities to the south, Victoria or Vancouver, where drinking water comes from reservoirs. The server returns with a glass of ice-free water. Immediately, the reading climbs past 40. The higher number is a geological tell. It’s proof that the water ran underground through karst, an underground ecosystem of dissolved rock.

“That’s more like it,” Griffiths says.

Something naturally perfect happens to water when it flows through karst. It trickles and tumbles, picking up oxygen, picking up minerals, losing its acidity. The result is life-giving, luring and nurturing organisms from the tiniest microbes to humans to bears.

To be clear, karst isn’t a kind of rock. It’s a topography, one shaped by water that seeps and squeezes through limestone or gypsum or marble or dolomite, creating cavities from the size of the ones in your teeth to caverns the size of ballrooms, filigreed with delicate speleothems, dripping down and growing up and sometimes meeting in the middle. Limestone bedrock—the kind found here—was once alive and in the tropics before plate tectonics ferried it to Vancouver Island 100 million years ago. Limestone, composed of skeletal fragments of shallow-water marine organisms, such as corals and mollusks, is found in your toothpaste, your newspaper, your store-bought bread, and the cement beneath your feet—but the true worth of this karst bedrock includes more than its commercial value. A single subterranean water droplet is an ecosystem of its own. Two drops less than a meter apart have been found to harbor entirely different biological communities. For something that’s mostly nothing, karst contains an awful lot.

This is a chronicle of karst, one of Earth’s most underappreciated ecosystems, so vast and unmapped, many explorers and biologists consider it the next frontier of terrestrial and extraterrestrial discovery. NASA scientists are probing deep into karst systems as part of their research into organisms that thrive in hostile environments to better detect life elsewhere in the solar system.

If a karst landscape and its glorious biodiversity fail to grab the same attention as the Amazon jungle does, that’s because you can’t see the karst. Or can you? A karst biologist will tell you it’s right there in front of you; the forest above is an extension of the karst.

“Say you move vertically through a karst system,” says Griffiths, who is the karst biologist in these parts. “The tree canopy is an ecosystem of its own. The trees grow the way they do because of the karst, but they also influence the development of the karst—it’s a feedback loop.” Below the surface, the tree roots cradle a dense fungal web teeming with microbial life. “So when you’re talking biodiversity, you’ve got it going in both directions.”

That Griffiths has devoted pretty much every spare minute and every penny of his earnings for the past 40 years to karst, well, it’s hard to say whether that speaks more of the karst or the man.


Griffiths, who is 67 and looks a bit like The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, could be called many things. Defender of karst. Explorer of karst. Explainer of karst. He cannot yet officially call himself a karstologist—at least not until the stack of paper piled sternum-high in his Campbell River home transforms into PhD credentials, likely by Christmas. However, his colleague Carol Ramsey, who, in Middle Earth, might be the elf Galadriel’s older sister, is a karstologist—one of a handful of scientists in Canada with that title. In this country, karst studies are typically a subspecialty of geology. In Europe, karst science is well established. Ramsey got her PhD at the prestigious Karst Research Institute in Slovenia.

The PhDs are strategic. Out-credentialing everyone lends this team of two the power to influence environmental practice—in theory. Logging has forever altered much of the karst ecosystem on British Columbia’s coast, particularly on Vancouver Island with its accessible forests. And a ready, aim, fire approach to development threatens to make moot the most basic of questions: what is it about the structure of karst that makes it so sensitive to disturbance? In their fight to protect what’s left of the ecosystem, the pair’s prime tool is data.

We simply do not know exactly how much coastal karst is left. And so Griffiths and Ramsey have made it their task to monitor the bejesus out of their patch: the whole northern half of Vancouver Island. In a project that falls somewhere between a duty, a calling, and a cosmic test of character, they routinely tramp through first- and second-growth fir and hemlock forests, meticulously documenting changes in the topography. They fly over the land snapping pictures to create a photographic time series. They take soil samples from caves where they know logging will happen overhead—before and after the trees are gone. They scan newspapers for legally required notices of independent power projects and suss out whether there are implications for the karst. They lobby for toothier legislation and push for enforcement of policies already on the books. Though Ramsey is no less ferocious in her commitment, Griffiths has the bigger body of work because he’s simply been in the game longer.

Ramsey first met Griffiths while she was studying environmental archaeology at the University of Victoria in the early 2000s. Griffiths, who knew of a cave with the potential for old faunal remains on the west coast of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, volunteered to take her to check it out. They found bear bones, which were carbon-dated at 14,000 years old—among the oldest recorded bear bones in British Columbia at the time.

Together, the pair has the air of forensic accountants. Or spies. They bat around terms like “swallet” and “ponor” and “hydrostatic head.” It is not much of an exaggeration to say that they live and breathe karst. “When you guys are alone, do you talk about anything but karst?” I asked them once. There was a pause, and then they replied, simultaneously, with either masterfully contained irony or perfect earnestness: “No.”

Personality wise, they are karst and cheese. Ramsey is a quiet, sensitive soul, the person you never know is the smartest one in the room. Griffiths has the charged energy of an entrepreneur, the confidence of a history lecturer safe in his tenure. He is Noam Chomsky by way of Spalding Gray—an academic storyteller. Because stories are the most effective delivery system for big ideas.


“This is the next battleground,” says Griffiths, running his eyes to the horizon. “Or it would be if people cared about karst.” He’s talking about the old-growth conifer forest stretching out below, in a slice of the Hankin Range known as the Kinman, 150 kilometers north of Campbell River. Where he’s standing, on the mountainside, there are no trees at all—just stumps and the odd purple flash of fireweed. Until the early 1990s, this too was old-growth forest on karst. Then it was logged. Then, in July 2014, it caught fire. A fire on karst can easily become a roaring blaze—the air cavities below the ground may feed it with oxygen like a barbecue. In this case, the highly combustible piles of dry stumps and slash left behind by loggers made perfect tinder.

After the fire, the already thin soil layer soon washed through the crenellations in the rock, leaving behind the brain-like topography we’re standing on. Called rundkarren, its haunting beauty is usually hidden under a mossy forest blanket. That’s why Griffiths and Ramsey bring people up here: it’s like peeling back the skin on a cadaver in anatomy class. “I never got karst until I saw a burnt landscape,” says Ramsey. “That was when it came together for me. Okay, this is what’s underneath. Once you get it, there’s no going back.”

Intact temperate rainforest over karst is a rare thing. There’s a little left on the south island of New Zealand and some in Tasmania and a few other scattered places. But fully a quarter of what remains in the world is in coastal British Columbia. Another quarter is in Southeast Alaska.

These forests enjoy a happenstance of perfect conditions—lots of rainfall, yes, but also a way for the water to get into the rock. Tectonic activity along the Juan de Fuca plate just off British Columbia’s coast fractures the rock a little more with every sizable tremor. As a result, the karst is self-draining. The soil never gets swampy. Tree roots get a skookum foothold in the crevices and microcaves, snaking deeper, drawing nutrients out of the ground.

Merchantable timber grows like kudzu on coastal karst. In the early 1990s, Derek Ford a geologist and professor emeritus at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and his colleague Kathy Harding compared trees growing on limestone—this very limestone here, part of the Quatsino Formation—to trees growing on the adjacent volcanic formation. The karst trees grew fat. Irresistibly fat. Left to their own devices, timber companies would cream off the karst forest first.

And that’s largely what they have done. Karst in Southeast Alaska was logged at three times the rate of other areas in the state. Timber companies so reliably cherry-pick the karst landscape that you can sometimes identify the extent of karst from the air. It follows the contours of the cut blocks.

“You can understand the rationale for that kind of strategy—it’s just about the cheapest way to log,” says Tom Aley, a hydrogeologist who runs an independent consultancy called Ozark Underground Lab in Missouri and must be one of the very few people to own his own cave. But clearcutting on karst creates problems both on the surface and below it. Take away the trees and soil is cast adrift. It’s redistributed from where it should be—up top, governing the rate at which rainwater enters the underground streams—to where it shouldn’t be, in the aquifers. In these natural, underground cisterns, a dump of soil deoxygenates the water and starves aquatic organisms. More to the point, logging on karst is a killing-the-golden-goose proposition.

A 1993 paper by Ford and Harding widely recognized as the shot heard around the karst world, had an intentionally provocative title that included the phrase, “Deforestation of Limestone Slopes on Vancouver Island.” Deforestation is an aggressive word. It suggests—as in the Amazon—that once the forest is gone, it’s gone. What comes back in the regeneration isn’t forest. It’s a timber farm. In their research, Ford and Harding studied a karst landscape clearcut in 1907. Ninety years later, “it really hadn’t recovered,” Ford says. When you clearcut on karst, what little soil you had goes AWOL. And the biodiversity is lost.

The rest of the world has been a test case on this for millennia. The lesson goes back to the ancient Romans, who harvested the great pine trees on the Dalmatian karst on the southern tip of Croatia. “As soon as new trees got started, the sheep or the goats ate them,” Ford says. “The word karst means stony ground—stony because they wrecked it.” In the Middle East, the mythic Cedars of Lebanon—believed by some Christians to be the place where the resurrected Jesus revealed himself—grew on pure limestone karst very much like that of Vancouver Island. They were mowed down to build the temples of ancient Egypt and Jerusalem. The soil disappeared and never came back. Around one percent of the original cedars remain, in scattered, protected groves. Slovenia banned clearcutting on karst in 1949—but by then it was too late. There are photos, circa 1900, of babushka-wrapped Austro-Hungarian peasants hauling topsoil back onto the bald karst after it was clearcut.

The Bordeaux region of western France, once home to karst forests also much like Vancouver Island’s, was logged long ago for the wood itself and agriculture. There, too, the soil vanished. Today, Bordeaux is winemaking country, and the big vintners view the region’s thick karst as a built-in soil supplement. Machines grind up the top layer of the limestone, adding calcium to the grape’s terroir and to the Bordeaux brand. But the top few centimeters of a karst system are the biological cream, dense with life. And plowing it like a beanfield makes the karst less porous for decades. “It’s an industrial approach that takes no account of the complexity and delicacy of the environment that they’re smashing up,” says Ford.

We leave behind the grooves and fissures of the rundkarren and head south, bouncing along a logging road until we come to a trailhead pullout. Just inside the forest, an interpretive sign, containing more than a dozen typos and grammatical errorsadvertises the Eternal Fountain—a fairly spectacular waterfall disappearing into a hole in the ground.

Forty years ago, the British Columbia government, together with the now-defunct logging giant MacMillan Bloedel, tried to boost tourism on the north island by bugling the virtues of some geomorphic attractions within a 100-kilometer scenic drive called the Alice Lake Loop. The Eternal Fountain was one of them, along with the Devil’s Bath and the Disappearing River—karst formations all. The attractions were featured on recreation brochures and maps, and even included in the internal newsletters issued by MacMillan Bloedel. Employees and their families dutifully visited them on weekends. But the features have collectively become a kind of cautionary tale, a fact driven home on a cool spring morning when we pay each one a visit.

At the end of a short boardwalk, the Eternal Fountain spills into its underground den as expected. But Ramsey and Griffiths are riveted by something else: on the embankment above the waterfall is a sinkhole, or doline, around two meters in diameter.

“Most holes in a landscape fill up over time,” Ramsey says. “But dolines just continue to grow. That’s why they’re weird.”

As dolines go, the BC coast has some beasts. On Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii, there is a feature called the Great Depression. It is the size of Disneyland. Not far from here, in the Tahsish River valley 40 kilometers to the west, there’s a doline so big, a fall into its mysterious depth would probably be fatal. It’s called Paradise Lost. The doline above the Eternal Fountain is much smaller. But what’s remarkable is it wasn’t here when Griffiths and Ramsey visited two years ago. Griffiths offers his best guess on the doline’s appearance—logging upstream changed the hydrology.

Nearby, similar declivities have appeared—some smaller, some bigger. In one spot, fenced off for safety, is a karst window, a deep hole in the rock giving a peekaboo glimpse of a running freshet beneath. A sinkhole in the woods is like a big Men at Work sign, except the excavator below your feet is water—with implications hard to fully fathom from the surface.

Water runs through karst like a pinball through a pachinko machine. Its route, though tied to the glacial history of an area, is definitively unpredictable. Logging on karst is like bumping the machine, a small change that can radically affect the result. On the morning drive along the loop, between watersheds pocked with clearcuts, we keep crossing bridges over dry riverbeds that once carried the water overland, boinging up and down on roads that were once more or less flat. Rerouted water is changing the architecture below.

The effect on the topography is even more pronounced as we near the Devil’s Bath. It looks like a crater lake, similar to the cenotes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The bath was once one of the most majestic features on the north island. In 1984, MacMillan Bloedel logged right up to the north rim of the bath. In 2012, the entire area was clearcut to within 18 meters of the observation platform. People mostly stopped coming to visit after it lost its postcard charm, its disturbed setting now the feature’s main trait.

Griffiths and Ramsey have kept tabs on the Devil’s Bath since the clearcut. Two years ago, the mossy forest ground nearby was mostly flat, like a green rug pulled over a toy-strewn floor, but as we bushwhack through alders and salmonberry, across the rolling land, the ground sinks underfoot. Logging in the catchment area rerouted groundwater, Swiss cheesing the bedrock below. The whole forest feels as if it’s about to collapse.

In one spot, the earth has dropped at least three meters. But strangely, Griffiths’s mood lifts at the discovery. The collapse has revealed an entrance to a cave.

Not all caves are karst, but caves are a common feature in karst, and, like an Amazon biologist who discovers that a botfly has laid eggs under his skin, bad news, but too cool not to be excited about. Griffiths has to investigate. He’s just in running shoes because he hadn’t expected to be exploring a new grotto today; there was none here last time he checked. In a flash, he’s down the hole. The glow from his headlamp fades as he descends.

“It goes!” he calls out from inside the cave, staring into the unplumbed depths. “Oh my God!”

A few seconds later: “Woop! Woop!”

“He’s happy,” I say.

“He’s echolocating,” says Ramsey.

It’s completely fitting that Griffiths jumped into a new entrance to the underground. His introduction to karst came by way of caves.

At age six, he discovered his first cave—a one-time refuge for drifters near the train tracks of Hamilton, Ontario, where his family had moved so his father, a professor of French literature, could teach at McMaster University. His father had studied at the Sorbonne, and every summer the family returned to France, where Griffiths linked into the caving network—eventually seeking out luminaries like the famous French speleologist Norbert Casteret. Somewhere in the middle of all those visits to the karst-scapes of France, Griffiths developed a theory about French cuisine. “People can detect calcium—it’s a sixth taste,” he says. “I think about the food there: the pâté, the wine, the cheese. I’ve wondered sometimes if it’s related to the karst.”

The family moved to Vancouver Island, and Griffiths’s father soon settled in for a long tenure at the University of Victoria. For years, up to and including his 25-year-long post as head of the British Columbia Speleological Federation, Griffiths voluntarily mapped every reported new cave on the north island—a painstaking process, involving sketching and measuring in three dimensions. Griffiths attributes his digressive thinking to so much time spent in caves. “In a cave you look left, right, up, down.” His mind likewise follows every spur line.

As an environmentalist, Griffiths realized that when it comes to karst, caves were the best route into the public’s imagination, and, through this engagement, a pathway for protecting karst.

In the 1980s, when he lived in Gold River, over 50 kilometers southwest of Campbell River, monitoring environmental impacts for a timber company, he pitched to the town council the idea of selling the remote village in the middle of the island as a tourist destination—the cave capital of Canada. Then he held his tongue as city officials got a little too enthusiastic about the idea and created a summertime festival called Caveman Days, where folks dressed as Fred and Wilma Flintstone.

Another time, Griffiths and his wife, Karen, from whom he separated a number of years ago, hatched the idea to offer a one-day public tour of the underground glacier at White Ridge, a cave system in the mountainside high above Gold River. Twenty-five bucks got you a helicopter ride up and a guided tour of the caves. The offer proved so popular, two helicopters were kept busy all day long. “Our hidden agenda was, we planned to turn White Ridge into a provincial park, and we wanted to get the town onside,” he says. Mission accomplished; it became a park in 1995. Griffiths later managed to protect, or help protect, karst elsewhere on the island in the same manner: Weymer Creek, Artlish Caves, Clayoquot Plateau, and Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, one of the most popular guided-cave operations in Canada.

Yet caves, like karst, also have an intrinsic worth beyond their commercial value. The conditions inside a cave—the constant cool, photon-free darkness, the moisture buffered by dissolving salts—are perfect for preserving evidence of habitation, human and otherwise. On Haida Gwaii, expeditions into caves on the west coast uncovered ancient tools and cooking-fire ash, as well as bear bones dating back 17,000 years—even older than the ones Ramsey discovered. Partly because of those finds, the archipelago is further ahead of the rest of the province in its karst protection.

Caves are an even richer lode of rare biology. “If you monitor a cave long enough, you will find a never-before-seen species,” Griffiths says. But a cave’s potential bounty is not enough to keep it safe from disturbance and harm. If a cave fails to prove itself significant for obvious cultural, archaeological, or biological reasons and isn’t actively protected, it’s likely toast.

Back in 2006, Griffiths and Ramsey helped First Nation and activist communities when they ran out of options in fighting a massive proposed golf and spa resort called Bear Mountain, north of Victoria. In the path of the idling bulldozers was a karst cave long used for sacred rituals by the Songhees and Tsartlip Nations. After a bit of low-comedy involving Vietnam-era military logic—the unstable cave was blown up with explosives before geologists felt satisfied they could safely enter it to see if it was worth saving. Nothing of consequence turned up in the rubble. “The government had its hands tied with the legislation,” Griffiths says. “If they couldn’t find archaeology, they couldn’t do anything.”

Just before it was dynamited, Griffiths documented the cave for Chief Chris Tom of the Tsartlip Nation. Then he turned his mind to the funding of Bear Mountain. The project hinged on a half-billion-dollar loan from HSBC. After a little probing, Griffiths discovered that the bank had adopted a policy called the Equator Principles, meaning that it couldn’t lend money to a project that was ecologically irresponsible or was inconsistent with Indigenous wishes. He picked up the phone, but his appeals went nowhere. Now the closest thing to a karst cave at Bear Mountain is the sand trap on the seventh hole.

Caves are good at firing up the public’s imagination, and in a backhand way, inspire people to care about karst. But there is a dilemma.

When you talk up caves to tourists, they want to check them out. Which is a little like getting bulls excited about china shops. “In some caves, the biggest disturbance is a water droplet falling from the ceiling once every thousand years,” Ramsey says. Caves are the last bastion of stasis in a world in flux. Like quietly praying monks, their benefits are sometimes intangible, but most of us value a world that allows them to exist.

Ramsey and Griffiths may know the location of more caves on Vancouver Island than anyone else. That they sometimes hide this knowledge makes them controversial in the caving community. “For some of these caves,” Ramsey says, “the only protection they have is their obscurity.”

“Caves are perhaps .01 percent of all void spaces of a particular karst block,” Griffiths says. If you can’t get a park established, then what? Maybe you create a wildlife habitat area—if there was a cave with bats it would be automatically protected under that legislation. But then it’s about the bats, not the karst.

Still, the karstologists would take any kind of protection. Linking caves to bats is one thing, but linking them to salmon—that would be even better, Griffiths thought.


Griffiths emerges from the new cave he has discovered near the Devil’s Bath in mud-caked jeans, and we head downhill, hiking down to the river where salmon spawn. Exactly where those fish were coming from was a longtime mystery; there was no obvious path from ocean to stream.

A few years ago, Griffiths got the notion that if, as he suspected, finfish ply the subway systems deep in the karst here, then karst is actually a wetland and potentially subject to stricter legislation through Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Whole karst landscapes have been protected because they’re wetlands—in the United States and elsewhere. So, underwater camera in hand, Griffiths hung out in a cave connected to the Devil’s Bath. And waited. Just when he was about to call it quits, two fat coho salmon emerged through a hole in the rock and swam past him.

Griffiths’s amateur photo caught the attention of Canada’s national broadcaster. In 2015, CBC’s The Nature of Things devoted an episode to the biology not within the famed Great Bear Rainforest, a huge temperate rainforest spilling over northern British Columbia and Alaska, but under it. Videographers caught on film, perhaps for the first time, the passage of salmon through a karst system. Turns out Griffiths was right. People on the coast care about salmon. A lot. Back up those emotions with hard science and you have a powerful lever to save the karst as Jim Baichtal discovered in 2001.

Baichtal, the forest geologist for Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, conducted a tracer-dye study he now considers the game-changing moment for Alaskan karst—the demo that connected the dots between karst and salmon.

Baichtal and a small team injected tracer dyes into forest streams associated with karst features and caves. Within 24 hours, the dye turned up in several fish streams over a kilometer and a half away. That’s fast. And it meant that surface disturbing activities like logging and road-building could send a whole lot of extra sediment along the same route with the potential to clog spawning channels and change cave environments. Also, without the forest to regulate stream flow, logged areas more often experience high flows. Fast-moving water flowing over a layer of sediment loses out on the full karst treatment, which removes more of water’s natural acidity and offers a leg up for salmon fry and eggs.

The scientific work showed that what we do to the karst forest, we probably do to the salmon. A brute trade-off hung in the air: logs or fish.

Logging communities greeted the news Baichtal presented to state government officials with roughly the same enthusiasm as Clarence Darrow met in the Scopes Monkey Trial. “This is contentious stuff,” says Baichtal. “Because I’m not taking out so many acres of bad timber—I’m taking out the crème de la crème.”

Alaska now has fairly robust karst management practices—largely drawn up by Baichtal, with input from other experts, including Griffiths. The US federal Cave Resources Protection Act also helps. Karst in Alaska is not completely off limits to logging. If a karst system is deemed closed—well protected on the surface and relatively self-contained—then it might be tagged “low vulnerability,” and timber companies might get a green light. That’s where the tension lies. Timber companies aren’t wildly eager to okay dye-tracing studies—they worry about the results.

British Columbia, meanwhile, has limited legislation for karst; it only applies to logging and only in six districts. We’d no doubt pay karst more heed if karst water quenched most communities’ thirst. But, the percentage of drinking water in coastal communities that runs through karst is less than two percent. And since it’s tough to vividly conjure images of drought in the damp Pacific Northwest during another record February of rainfall, Griffiths has long understood that if you’re going to play the water card here, you have to play it differently.

While working for the logging company in Gold River back in the 1980s, Griffiths marched into his boss’s office with an idea: the company might make more money by not logging. Instead, he suggested, exploit the karst springs below, the way a little company called Perrier does. The future karstologist soon found himself talking to a Perrier executive in Paris. Griffiths’s timing was good. The company was near maxed out in its bottling operation near Montpellier, France, and was looking to North America. “You would not believe the springs we have on Vancouver Island,” Griffiths said. He framed up the marketing strategy: protect the forest, protect the water. In the end, Perrier decided instead to buy Calistoga Springs, a water bottling business based in California’s Napa Valley. The company had tapped the zeitgeist in the estimation of the Perrier guy. “They’re flavoring the water,” he explained, “and that’s what people want.”

Griffiths’s endless creativity in his quest to save karst has saved only a bit of the ecosystem on the island. In a quiet moment after returning to Campbell River from the Devil’s Bath, Ramsey and Griffiths allow a little frustration to bubble up.

“I keep excruciatingly detailed records of how long I spend in the field—of my data, of my mileage,” Ramsey says. And she’s harbored a secret dream of sending the government a symbolic invoice that would tally what she’s spent monitoring the resource for the past five years. “It probably runs well over half a million dollars,” she says.

From Griffiths’s perspective, the battle to preserve the karst has felt increasingly like a rigged game. Since 1982, when Griffiths persuaded the government to at least create a karst inventory in one area, the rules have continually changed. More recently, the government has put cave and karst protection in the hands of the timber companies themselves. So following the voluntary standards and best practices for karst laid out in the unofficial playbooks written by Griffiths and a few others and released by government in 2003—is something they ought to do, are encouraged to do, but aren’t actually required to do. And so they very often don’t.

Griffiths and Ramsey became karstologists thinking it would give them added pull to assess, and ultimately protect, the karst. But by current convention, pretty much anyone can call themselves a karst expert. Professional certification as a geologist seems to seal the deal regardless of karst qualifications. And, if they do have qualifications, it’s often through a three-day course Griffiths helped design in 2001.

In the mid-2000s, Ramsey was reviewing a draft protection order for karst and called up a government official.

“I assure you, we’ve had karst experts look it over,” she was told.

“With respect,” Ramsey replied, “could you please tell me the names of those karst experts?”

The return email was bracing.

“Keep asking questions like that and you will never get work in this field again.”


This summer, on August 11, lightning strikes ignited a tinder-dry forest on northern Vancouver Island, and soon wildfires were encroaching on the Alice Lake Loop. Fire threatened other nearby karst areas, including Raging River, Tahsish River, and Artlish River, which together constitute much of the island’s remaining old-growth forest. Griffiths pulled up a photographic time series of those regions and matched them against the burning fires. Recently logged areas seemed to be acting as fuses, spreading the fires from one area to the next.

It’s easy to imagine a future where British Columbia’s remaining coastal karst is unencumbered by old-growth forest cover and all trees are fully employed as logs. The land would resemble a feature in Ireland called the Burren—an expanse of rundkarren produced by overgrazing and logging, marked by fissures that hint at the fathomless void beneath. Ironically, today it is the Burren and Cliffs of Moher UNESCO Global Geopark. Travelers hike the ancient trails and perhaps inspect the alvars—plant communities unique to exposed limestone—viewing the rundkarren as a beautiful landscape deserving of preservation.

Like the Europeans, we will recalibrate to what’s left.

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Have You Heard?

Have You Heard?

Aging Essays Featured Psychology Science

 

The old and the young hear an entirely different world. And that’s becoming a problem.

From EIGHTEEN BRIDGES MAGAZINE, Summer 2018     Robert Carter illustration

In 2005, the owner of a convenience store in the tiny Welch town of Barry had just about had it with loitering teenagers driving away customers. So he installed a prototype gadget lent to him by an inventor friend. He booted it up. The kids scattered. “It was as if someone had used anti-teenage spray around the entrance,” one reporter observed.

The device, called the Mosquito MK4, burped out a loud, rhythmic chirping the kids couldn’t stand. But customers over the age of 25 came and went as before. Most of them didn’t hear a thing. That’s because its sonic pulses are in the 17 kilohertz range — well beyond the reach of people suffering even mild forms of age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis. This affliction, which the World Health Organization estimates will affect half a billion people worldwide by 2025, gradually shaves off the higher end of the aural spectrum. Presbycusis is one of the obvious physical signs of aging. The Mosquito MK4 is a Boomer’s revenge fantasy: the greybeards turning the young’s own faculties against them.

What happened next you can guess. A group of young coders took the Mosquito signal and worked it into the customized phone app Teen Buzz. High school students started using it to send text messages in class, under the noses of their oblivious teachers and supervisors.

The elders returned serve. There are now numerous apps that spit out high-pitched squeals with no purpose but to annoy young people. Some of these apps have been built by young people themselves. (The profit motive will usually trump tribal affiliation.)

This whole saga, while funny, is troubling. The wondrous human sense of hearing, weaponized for intergenerational warfare? If anything hearing ought to bind us together, not drive us apart. We have to hear to listen, after all. And hearing is the most social of the senses.

“When you lose your vision, you sever your connection to things. When you lose your hearing, you sever your connection to people,” Helen Keller said. That quote meant little to me when I first encountered it in high school. But stored in the dark potato bin of memory, it put out shoots not long ago when my own hearing began to fail.

The first signs were the mishearings.

“What’ll you be doing on your Quebec exchange?” I asked my daughter over breakfast.

Well, it’s the Winter Carnival,” she said. “We’re going to visit the Plains of Abraham and pee on them.”

That’s very disrespectful,” I said.

What she actually said: We’re going to visit the Plains of Abraham and ski on them.”

Likewise, my weary wife, Jen, who is a teacher, did not reply when I recently questioned her weekend plans to “return to the grave.”

What she actually said: “Return my grades.”

The top end of the sound spectrum is where consonants live. As we age, it becomes hard to distinguish a “v” from a “d.” So in every sentence there’s at least one word that’s a flat-out guess. Without context you guess wrong a lot. But that’s not even the most irksome thing about presbycusis – as Jen would no doubt attest.

One day the dog got into the bird feeder, which held half a pint of seed and suet. That night she whined every hour or so to be let out. Or so I was told. I heard nothing. Jen kept getting up, while I lay in bed wondering, What else am I not hearing? It was – how else to put it?—an emasculating thought. Men who can’t hear, can’t help. We are firefighters with no alarm, sleeping peacefully while the town burns. Not much later, after some prodding, I got checked out. Two hearing tests confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Full-on presbycusis. My hearing through the top third of the normal aural range was basically shot.

Now, if its consequences were limited to annoying family members by passing them a fork instead of the corn, presbycusis could be ignored as a minor irritant. Eventually, though, hearing loss becomes a mental health issue. It’s correlated with depression, born of that creeping sense of isolation. Losing your hearing is like sitting on an airplane in coach. You’re aware of the boozy hubbub coming from the other side of the first-class curtain. There’s a party going on and you weren’t invited.

But the news gets worse. Mild hearing loss, as the Johns Hopkins researcher Frank Lin discovered, doubles your chance of developing dementia. Moderate hearing loss triples it. No one knows precisely why, but there are two main theories.

The first is behavioral. Cut off from the world, people with hearing loss withdraw even further, thereby starving off the experiential input the brain needs to grow. The main stimulus to brain health is interaction with others.

The second theory involves the physics of the brain. Call it the cognitive overload theory. Your mind is working so hard to understand that it’s sucking resources from other regions, including the hippocampus, where memories are consolidated. It’s as if you’re spending every cognitive dollar trying to hear, and putting nothing in the memory bank. When memories aren’t stored, they can’t be retrieved.

Whatever the cause of the correlation, doing nothing about hearing loss is a bad idea, because we are also learning that once our hearing degrades beyond a certain point, no hearing aid can fully bring it back. Not because the machinery of our inner ear is toast (though dying hair cells are part of the story), but because the brain has changed, and can no longer accurately decode the incoming signal.

That’s the gist of the work coming out of Bruce Schneider’s Human Communication Laboratory at the University of Toronto. Schneider, a professor of psychology, leads a multi-university research group investigating sensory and cognitive aging. That includes the social implications of a dialed-down world.

“Hearing loss is a wedge between the old and the young,” Schneider told me during a recent tour of his lab, at the U of T’s Mississauga campus. A starting place for repairing the disconnection, Schneider finds, is to help people experience what it’s like on the other side.

In his undergrad class, Schneider plays an audio clip of a man talking. But the clip has been adjusted. The high-end frequencies in the signal have been dampened by as much as 70 decibels. So the students hear the clip the way an 85-year-old with significant hearing loss would. They can still hear the speaker. But no one can understand him. The consonants are anybody’s guess.

Then Schneider starts to add back the higher frequencies. “Raise your hand when you start to understand,” Schneider says. A few outliers do, followed by the rest of the class at once: the faux-elderly recovering their youth.

Not long ago, a student came to see Schneider after class. He said the exercise had brought him closer to his grandfather.

Later that morning, Schneider ran me through a couple of the same hearing tests he gives his older experimental subjects.

I took a seat in a soundproof room, between two speakers. This is the dreaded auditory interference test. If you’ve ever tried to listen to two conversations at the same time, you know how hard it is. And this task gets tougher as we age. That’s because “it takes a second or two to segregate the voices,” Schneider said.Whereas in younger people it happens almost instantaneously – within 100-200 milliseconds.” The brains of older people are always playing catch-up. Presbycusis makes things worse. You feel like you’re constantly a beat out of step, like a guy in a football crowd standing to do the wave, hot dog overhead, after everybody else just sat down.

Schneider told me I would hear two stories: a “target” story and a “mask” story. But in this diabolical trial, both would be told by the same person and would issue from the same speaker. My job was to listen to the target and ignore the mask.

Within thirty seconds I was in the weeds. I got sucked into the mask story about Mark Twain. Afterward, given a test on the target story, I failed. The whole thing left me exhausted—the way you feel at the end of a day trying to navigate in a foreign city.

Schneider is sympathetic. At 77, he suffers from the hearing loss he investigates. He knows what it feels like to be on the wrong side of that social divide.

“I was at a cocktail party a few years ago, just circulating around,” he told me, “and I thought I heard somebody say, ‘Joseph Fourier changed Canadian Society.’ I thought, Oh, I know him!’” Fourier, the French mathematician who discovered the Greenhouse Effect, also did pioneering work on harmonics. “I thought, ‘This’ll be an interesting conversation to join.’ It took me awhile to realize they weren’t talking about Joseph Fourier; they were talking about Wilfred Laurier. I got two or three minutes into the conversation. Nobody said anything to me. They must have been thinking one of two things: Either Schneider is so obsessed with signal processing that he can’t talk about anything else, or he’s going demented.”

I laughed with him at the conclusion of this story, but its implications are profound. Consider the stakes for an older person going in for a psychological assessment. Many such tests includes verbal instruction. You think exam-taking was stressful in college? Here your performance may determine where you’re going to spend the rest of your life. You’re ushered into a curtainless room with a hard floor — a reverberation chamber. You miss a couple of consonants at the beginning of words, which leaves you fishing for the meaning of whole sentences. You fail the test. A hearing issue has been mistaken for a thinking issue. And your story just acquired a new ending.

One of the strangest and most disturbing things about the early stages of hearing loss is there are times it seems your hearing is perfectly fine. In a quiet room, looking directly at my wife, I cam make out every syllable she says. Crystal clarity, ample volume.

The senses help each other out. Visual cues are vital to accurate hearing. Watching someone speak yields a fourfold improvement in comprehension. Indeed, looking into a speaker’s face is so important to perception that it can trick us into actually “hearing” a different sound than we think the lips are making. This is known as the McGurk Effect.

But get us hard-of-hearing into a crowded restaurant and even visual cues can’t save us. It’s the ambient noise – the chaos of acoustic interference — that does us in.

And interference is the new normal. The open-plan architecture our culture has decided is the most visually appealing creates a sonic environment only a whale could love. Sound pinballs around. At a recent work lunch at a Thai restaurant in downtown Vancouver, I was reduced to cupping my hands behind my ears like Mr. Magoo. I could hear my young colleagues well enough, I just couldn’t tell what they were saying.

There is a reason commercial spaces like restaurants and bars are so loud: it works. Loud works. A 2008 French study found that when bar owners turned the music up, customers drained an equal measure of beer almost 20 percent faster. The retail environment ups the ante. Hip retail chains oxygenate the air with tunes. Some of the loudest stores in the United States are Urban Outfitters, and Virgin, Katherine Bouton reported in her book Shouting Won’t Help.“Adults come out reeling, she wrote. “Kids, the target market, pull out their credit cards.”

The electronic soundscape of modern life—a chorus of the pings and whooshes of handheld devices—is optimized to the hearing of the young. “Someone who’s 80 and someone who’s 12 are going to have different responses to a sound,” Oberlin music theory professor Will Mason said recently. (Google, on this score, is more ageist than Facebook: it has higher-pitched UI sounds.)

All this ambient noise has a side effect. It doesn’t only make it hard for older people to hear, it clouds their memory. Schneider runs his test subjects through a “paired associations” test. Older people “aren’t as able to store unrelated items in memory while there’s noise,” he says. By tailoring built environments to the young, designers are handicapping the old, unwittingly or not. And so the divide widens. One could argue that the biggest architectural change in recent times is the move from physical to online communication. We no longer see who we’re talking to. Which means the McGurk Effect, the Boomers’ ace in the hole, is out of play.

A few months ago, with a heavy sigh, I signed the paperwork for a brand new set of Oticon Opn 3s, made in Denmark. They are so expensive I’m paying for them in monthly installments, like a car.

Back at home, I popped in their tiny batteries and slid the devices behind my ears. And just like that, the aural bridge between the world of the old and the world of the young was magically restored. Although not so gracefully.

Ka-runnnnnch! Whoa. Did I just run over something? No, that was my wife in the passenger seat biting into an apple. We took the kids to the multiplex to watch A Wrinkle in Time. It was hard to tell if the film was any good. All I heard was a riot of rustling Twizzlers bags and snarky comments from the teenagers two rows back.

Home life has become chockablock with the kinds of sounds foley artists insert into movies post-production. Open the freezer door and something’s crackling in there. I can hear the “ultra-quiet” new Blomberg dishwasher from the next room. I can hear body sounds I should not be able to. The dog basically gurgles nonstop. It occurs to me how annoying my casual whistling must be to everyone else.

The Bee Gees have returned to the grocery store. I’d stopped hearing them five years ago. Now here they are again, with their unconscionable falsettos. For once, I feel an affinity for rocker Ted Nugent, who offered to buy Muzak for $10 million, so he could shut it down.

The hearing aids have been, at best, a mixed blessing. I’m coming to appreciate the high-tech listening devices I already owned. They’re called ears. They pair well with that other high-tech listening device, the brain. Even the best hearing aids aren’t nearly as good at filtering what you don’t want to hear. Like the whine of bicycle brakes. The menacing grind of escalators. Your spouse filing her nails. By boosting the signal, hearing aids introduce distortion. Things sound tinny. Your own voice sounds miked. It’s like Dylan going electric in your head.

On the positive side, I’m more alert. Booting up hearing aids in the morning is like guzzling a cup of coffee. The London-based experimental artist Caroline Hobkinson found something similar when she started playing with different tones. “Staccato sounds,” she concluded, “make you much more aware and much more appreciative.” The aging brain is lulled into a kind of stupor as the senses diminish. Restoring the top third of the aural spectrum is like throwing open the blind to sunshine. The stimulated brain suddenly has more to do.

Unexpectedly, since getting the hearing aids, I’ve also lost a bit of weight. Maybe a co-incidence. But maybe not, suggested the Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence, when I reached him via Skype.

Spence is best known for his crisps study. When test subjects ate stale potato chips, paired with the sound of a lusty crunch as they bit down, the chips tasted fresh. It turns out bland or bitter foods taste sweeter and better when you accompany them with high-pitched sounds. He calls the phenomenon “sonic seasoning,” and it has implications for design soundscapes from restaurants to elder-care facilities.

When you pump music into a coffee shop, and boost the signal in the upper register, customers put less sugar in their coffee, Spence found. I told him of my weight-loss-following-hearing-aids theory. Could be true, he said. On the other hand, one might also expect the opposite: restoring full-spectrum hearing makes eating fun, a crunchy, slurpy, multi-sensory party. So you might eat more.

Oh yes. Those mis-hearings? Gone. But strangely, I kind of miss them. The world is now a little dis-enchanted. No more “pepperoni tree” in the neighbour’s yard. My daughter’s feet are no longer hot in her boots on account of her “flammable socks.” And that tailback for the Raiders I’d heard a broadcaster call “Buffalo Wildwings”? No mention of him lately. Maybe he retired.

I’d been quite enjoying the Snow Falling on Cedars soundtrack of my pre-hearing-aid life. It seemed a benediction: nature’s way of granting the middle-aged some earned peace and quiet. In the accreting stillness of wisdom, the little true voice inside you – the “target story,” not the “mask” story — emerges. And maybe that’s something you really don’t want to fix. I began entertaining the notion that I’d spent almost five grand I didn’t have to make my life worse.

“How are the hearing aids working, Dad?” asked my 13-year-old daughter one day.

“A little too well,” I said. “I hear things I wish I didn’t.”

“Welcome to our world,” she said.

Thus far, scientists’ efforts to find a cure for hearing loss – from hair-cell regeneration to hormone pills – haven’t yielded much. But that could change. “Hearing loss is becoming more prevalent,” says the North Vancouver registered audiologist Katie Daroogheh. “The next generation is going to start experiencing hearing loss in their 30s and 40s.” That’s because aging isn’t the only culprit. Environmental noise is, too. As a species, we might be at peak noisiness right now. The electric machine revolution that will, many believe, make life quieter, is likely decades away from its full expression.

If the young start needing hearing aids en masse, innovation will surge. And so will marketing. “When enough people wear hearing aids it’ll probably become something like eyeglasses,” says the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Perhaps teams of marketing creatives are assembling already, charged with making hearing aids not just less uncool but actually cool. Not “nearly invisible,” as high-end units like my Oticons are pitched now, but fashionably obvious. Even sexy.

I’d like to be listening through the wall on that ad campaign:

Who’s hard of hearing? Every peacekeeper in a war zone, every cowboy on a cattle drive, every member of your favourite rock band. Being hard of hearing means you have lived. You didn’t run from the lion. You stuck your head in its mouth as it roared.

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People are either a story or an argument

People are either a story or an argument

Blog Entry Uncategorized

There are two types of people – people who think you can divide the world into two types of people and people who don’t.”

Oldest joke in the book.

But you’ve gotta admit: even most of us who claim to be above a facile “Mars or Venus” sorting of the entire human race still privately do it. You’re a cat person or a dog person. An ally or a foe. A thinker or a doer.

Some of these A-versus-B constructions are dumb cliches.

But some are more interesting. For example:

You’re either, figuratively speaking, French or German. That is, you’re deeply superficial or superficially deep.

Or you’re either a Prophet or a Wizard. That is, you believe our species’s only hope for survival is to play massive defense (though we’re probably doomed); or you believe that we can science our way out of this mess.

Or you’re either a Hedgehog or a Fox – committed to one grand theory or grazing at the buffet of human knowledge. 

Let me add my own. You can decide whether it’s a dumb cliché or worth chewing on.

People are other a story or an argument.

If you’re a story, you crave questions, mystery, competing possibilities.

But if you’re an argument, you want resolution, answers, rhetorical victory. You treat 51 vs 49 like it’s 100 vs. 0. You fear grey.

The novelist Irish Murdoch was in the same ballpark when she divided the world into philosophers vs. artists. One seeks to clarify the world and make it concrete, the other seeks to mystify the world and expand it.

While I was working on my second book, U-Turn, the story vs. argument paradigm seemed to explain a lot of cases of midlife dissatisfaction. Story people found themselves caught in argument jobs — like lawyer, or economist. Or in argument religions (which is to say, any religion with a rigid dogma). Or in argument families. And they finally couldn’t take it any more.

Argument people say, if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t count. Things that can’t easily be measured – like cultural influences, stories, ethics – are discounted by argument people, if not outright dismissed.

Are scientists argument people? Some are. Maybe most. But occasionally one crosses the floor.

For years Michael Shermer penned the “Skeptic” column for Scientific American magazine. His brief was to debunk paranormal claims. To expose as fraudulent all stories not backed up by physical proof.

That all changed on June 25, 2014. His wedding day.

A couple months earlier his new wife, Jennifer Graf, had shipped some belongings to Shermer’s house. One was a 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio that had belonged to her beloved grandfather, Walter, who was the lone male figure in her life and who died when she was sixteen. The radio didn’t work. Nothing they could do – from replacing the batteries to opening the thing up to see if there were any loose connections to solder – would bring it back from “decades of muteness.” They gave up and stored it in the back of a desk drawer in the bedroom.

On the wedding day the couple returned from the courthouse with their marriage certificates to be feted by friends and family at the house. They said their vows and exchanged rings. Jennifer wished her grandfather were there to give her away.

Then they both heard it: music. Coming from the back room. Where just minutes earlier, before the ceremony, all was silent. Michael and Jennifer opened the desk drawer and pulled out Walter’s radio, “out of which a romantic love song wafted.”

The next day the radio stopped working, and it never worked again.

What does this mean?” Shermer asked, in his column. “Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there’s bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

“Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.”

(This rings off something writer Frank Herbert once said: “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience.”)

If we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious,” Shermer concluded.

On his wedding day, Michael Shermer became a story as well as as an argument.I don’t think he loses his cred as a skeptic by retelling this anecdote the way he does. I think he gains cred as a human being.

In his recent book Cents and Sensibility: What Economists can learn from the Humanities, Morton Schapiro recounts his involvement with a team doing research for the World Bank back in the 1980s. One of the things they studied was the treatment in Africa of a deadly parasitic disease called onchocerciasis, or “river blindness.” The disease had been robbing millions of people of their eyesight up until the mid-1970s, That was when seven West African nations got together to fight it. They created the Onchocerciasis Control Program, overseen by the WHO. Hundreds of thousands of people were saved from blindness. But the program was almost scrapped. Why? Because the people who were being helped were so poor “that the benefit of saving their eyesight didn’t have much monetary impact.” So when economists involved deployed the only tool in their kid – a cost-benefit analysis” the results were inconclusive.A traditional cost-benefit analysis could easily have led to the discontinuation of a project widely viewed as being among the most successful health interventions in African history,” Schapiro notes.

Economics is a cold and actuarial and inhuman profession. Also, the neoclassical economics I studied is based on the faulty assumption that people will act rationally to “maximize their utility” — which we now know is patently untrue.

But here’s why I really bailed on economics: It was an argument profession. It didn’t understand story.

John Lanchester is a writer who, like me, started off in economics. While a part of him kind of admires the honesty of the money guys – the amoral code – they’re like mafia bosses – another part of him is done with it, for good.

“The project of reducing behavior to laws and the project of attending to human beings in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed.

“I think that if I committed any further to economics I would have had to give up writing fiction.”

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Adrift

Adrift

Aging Essays Featured

from NEW TRAIL magazine, July 2018. Illustrations by Hugh Syme

In June 2015, Megan Strickfaden and her grad student Nicole Gaudet arrived at a little village on the outskirts of Amsterdam with a Harry Potter-ish name: De Hogeweyk. An octogenarian gentleman was visibly thrilled to see them.

This called for wine.

He took Strickfaden by the arm and squired her into the village grocery store, she recalls. He found a nice red and brought it to the till. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and paid for the wine with it. The clerk accepted the payment, bagged up the wine and gave the man back his handkerchief as change.

To its residents, De Hogeweyk — a dead-ringer simulation of a traditional Amsterdam village — isn’t a cutting-edge experiment at the frontier of humane dementia care. It is simply home. They cruise on tandem “cosy cycles” down the cobblestone streets. They munch pastries in the café, catch films at the cinema. They wander among gardens so cunningly designed as to appear limitless. They return to family-sized living spaces that closely match the tenor of the household they grew up in, whether country-cosy or artsy-cultural, full of music and light. Trained geriatric nurses and caregivers form a kind of stealth army of invisible support. They’re dressed not as authority figures but as shopkeepers, neighbours, friends, perhaps relatives.

De Hogeweyk’s reputation rests on what its residents don’t do, says Strickfaden. Based on her observations over two extended visits to the village, residents don’t fall as much or night-wander as much or take anti-psychotics nearly as much as comparable populations elsewhere.

“The place itself is medicine,” she says.

The discovery that environmental “nudges” can boost psychological well-being is one of the triumphs of the last quarter-century of social science. (One of its founders, Richard Thaler, won the Nobel Prize in 2017 for contributions to behavioural economics.) And design elements are psychological levers. By manipulating colours, furnishings, acoustics or the layout itself, architects can send the human mind back in reflection or forward in aspiration. They can slow a frightened heart or stoke curiosity or foster human connection.

Dementia is a syndrome, a deterioration in the ability to process thought beyond what might be expected from normal aging. It affects memory, thinking, language, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities.

Source: World Health Organization

People with dementia, it turns out, are especially good candidates for such interventions. “A person with dementia is suggestible,” Strickfaden says. “You work with that.”

Elements similar to the De Hogeweykian approach are being introduced in care facilities around the world. One of these is Canterbury Lane, the dementia wing of the Canterbury complex in west Edmonton. Strickfaden, a design anthropology professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, has been hired to consult on the multimillion-dollar revamp. It will include features such as a garden that allows residents access to the outdoors without having to be escorted. Hallways that don’t dead-end, but loop back into the heart of the action. Little designated spaces for purposeful activity, such as folding laundry. And a cottage system of living spaces divided by theme or feel, matched to the residents’ upbringings.

The renovations will take close to four years. Unfortunately, the resident in one room is unlikely to live to see it completed. That’s just my guess, knowing that resident quite well.

She is my mother.

 

More than 50 million people worldwide are afflicted with dementia right now. And since the human lifespan is increasing more quickly than medical science seems to be closing in on a cure (which is to say, not quickly at all), dementia will be part of all our stories: your story or the story of someone you love very much. “Its shadow lies over us all,” writes Jay Ingram in his book The End of Memory.

So what to do — beyond saying a prayer and giving power of attorney to your most trustworthy blood relative? As recently as 20 years ago, people living with dementia who could no longer manage in their homes were simply institutionalized. In that setting, doctors were authority figures and patients were the passive recipients of meds, directives — and very little in the way of treatment.

But another paradigm is emerging. Dementia treatment is coalescing around the idea of patient-centred care.

In an analysis of dementia care studies published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, researcher Hannah O’Rourke, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing, found four things are of central importance in working with people with dementia. A sense of place. Connection to others. A sense of purpose. And shoring up those three poles of the tent supports the fourth, which is linked to physical well-being: a sense of wellness.

So, while scientists continue their search for ways to prevent and treat the disease (See The Elusive Cure), caregivers are doubling down on tactics that promise benefits right now. Call it the “3 Ws” model of dementia care: focusing on the Where, the Who and the Why of the subjective experience of this devastating syndrome.

Our questions are everybody’s questions: what must it be like to be her? And what can we do to help make this a little more bearable — for everyone?

To family members, the hardest part to fathom about dementia is the staggering difference between Good Days and Bad Days. Good Days make you second-guess your decision to move your loved one out of their own home into extended care. Bad Days grimly confirm it.

On a recent visit, my mom positively lit up when I walked through her door. We spent a great day together, at the end of which I promised I’d be back tomorrow. Ten-kilowatt smile. But when I walked through her door the next day, she greeted me with a face that looked as if a bad fish needed taking out. “What are you doing here?” she snarled.

Mom was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she failed the “mini-mental” exam 10 years ago, at age 84. Though in truth, we noticed her slipping as early as her late 70s, one “W” after another. The “where” seemed to go first. On an Alaskan cruise, to celebrate her “80th year,” she struggled to find her way back to our cabin and had not cracked the nut even by our last day at sea.

Then the “when” became wobbly. On a visit to the West Coast, she became deeply concerned that we’d miss our flight if we didn’t leave right now. So I raced us to the airport, only to hear upon our arrival: “Why the heck are we here so early?”

Social filters fell away. Mom started making derogatory comments about people standing right next to her. She began repeating herself every 30 seconds. Sometimes she noticed herself slipping. “I feel like … I’m … not right in the head!” she’d say and she could barely contain her terror.

The changes in her reflected the brutally quixotic nature of the disease. Like a tornado through a trailer park, it destroys some faculties while leaving others bizarrely intact. On a recent visit, I told Mom it was our dog’s birthday — we were having a couple of the neighbourhood pooches over to celebrate.

“Penny,” she said, remembering the name of an animal she’d never met. “How old is she, again?”

“She’s four.”

“So, our 28,” Mom said instantly.

Sometimes my sisters and I leave the facility feeling gut-punched, yearning for the sweetness we know is in Mom to surface more often. And our questions are everybody’s questions: what must it be like to be her? And what can we do to help make this a little more bearable — for everyone?

 

Are We Our Memories?

Who are we without our memories? For people with dementia, recovering even some of the experience they have banked is a crucial part of feeling, well, like themselves again.

One theory of dementia-related memory loss is that it’s a retrieval issue, rather than a data-loss issue. In other words, the memories are still in there, only their tags have fallen off. In recent years, researchers have experimented with using sensory triggers to call some of those memories up.

In Scotland, aging soccer fans living with Alzheimer’s are exposed to reconstructions of big games. In North America, people with dementia are supplied with iPods loaded with personalized playlists. Out of Sweden comes an ingenious invention called the BikeAround: a stationary bicycle attached to a wrap-around movie screen onto which a moving landscape is projected. Plug in the client’s childhood-home address on Google Street View and suddenly there they are, back in the old ’hood, cruising down streets they probably haven’t since they were a kid on a Schwinn.

Reminiscence therapy, this kind of intervention is sometimes called — and preliminary research suggests it can not only boost happiness levels but improve cognitive function. This year, the Canterbury Lane staff tried a simple version of it in the run-up to Mother’s Day with a scrapbooking activity. Family members were asked to contribute photos of mom or dad through the years, surrounded, if possible, by the people they have loved the most. “You’re really trying to get them to live in those moments,” activities supervisor Mbalia Kamara told me. “And then to really validate the feelings that emerge.”

For Mom, it was pretty profound. As she turned to a snapshot of her and Dad circa 1980, both of them tanned and smiling in Hawaiian sunshine, she began to cry. A staff member allowed her to sit with that sadness for a few moments, and then steered her toward the light. “He must have been a great guy,” she said. “Tell me about your wedding day.”

The tonic here, as much as the memory work, is the attention. People with dementia often lose their voice as the disease progresses. The world stops listening. “People used to think that because there was cognitive impairment there wasn’t insight — but that’s not true,” says nursing professor and researcher Hannah O’Rourke. “People with dementia still know what they like and don’t like.” To pull that insight out is not that difficult, she says. “You ask. You just ask.”

A couple of years ago, Elly Park, a post-doctoral fellow in the U of A Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, undertook a project with researchers from Simon Fraser University and the University of Toronto on digital storytelling. Facilitators helped people with dementia create a digital story with photos, music and narration by the participant. “Storytelling is a tool,” writer Ursula K. Le Guin put it, “for knowing who we are and what we want.” People with dementia are no different from the rest of us in this way. Park’s research found that encouraging participants to think about and share meaningful stories enhanced relationships with caregivers, increased communication and interaction, and gave participants a sense of accomplishment. “In several cases, participants said they surprised themselves with the stories they were able to remember,” says Park.

With Mom, I have found that if I press her too much for family history, she often clams up. For her, the fact-finding is stressful. This is not uncommon. That’s why University of Wisconsin theatre professor Anne Basting received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a genius grant, for her invention called TimeSlips. It replaces “the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine,” as she puts it. TimeSlips is like a book club where no one has read the book, except in this case it’s a photograph. Each photograph is striking and mysterious. It looks as if it has a story to tell, so everyone makes one up. There’s no way to be wrong, which seems to loosen tongues. “The absolute key to the entire process,” Basting says in a video about TimeSlips, “is that we validate everything they say.” This sounds like — it is like — improv theatre.

Something a little magical happens when we start telling stories to each other, whether they’re true or not. Neuroscience has shown that it boosts the sense of connection between the teller and the listener. As the story unspools, the brains of teller and listener sync up — a phenomenon psychologists call “linguistic alignment.” Another bonus: for people who can no longer have out-there-in-the-world adventures, storytelling is an excellent proxy. It stimulates many of the same parts of the brain that light up when we are actually experiencing things — just as reading does.

For the scrapbooking exercise at Canterbury, not all the families contributed photos. So those residents instead received pages of their scrapbooks with stock photos of a random family. Which sounds a little sad but turns out to be a perfectly serviceable alternative. “Just the idea of family can get people talking about their own,” says Kamara.

For some reason, my own earliest memories of Mom are all tagged to scents: the cinnamon-y Bee Bell Bakery, the chlorine of the Y swimming pool, the baseball-mitt smell of Jack and Jill Shoes. We’d march into these places hand-in-hand and, invariably, she’d spot someone she knew and tractor-beam them in with her smile. She’d let go of my hand — she needed both of hers to talk — and that would be it. I waited beside her as ice ages came and went. Eventually she’d track me down in some corner of the facility. I could smell her coming.

But wait: how many of these details are true? “Every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination,” the neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote. We’re all unreliable narrators. That doesn’t mean we all have neurodegenerative disease; dementia in its various forms is a syndrome with specific physiological signatures. But it does mean that people with dementia cannot be dismissed as Other. Every time we call our kid by the dog’s name or drive off with our coffee cup on the roof, the difference between the two worlds, practically speaking, grows moot. And somewhere a busker plays There but for Fortune.

Our Purpose, Our Selves

“If the residents here were able to describe their biggest frustration, what would they say?” I asked Wendy King, executive director of the Canterbury Foundation, not long ago. “I think maybe they would say, ‘You don’t understand me,’ ” she replied.

Hence, a recent trend in dementia care toward what you might call deep client profiling. In the old days, staff received an incoming resident’s medical charts, some basic biographical data and not much else. Now, families are often asked to flesh out the story of mom or dad. The more data, the greater the likelihood a resident ends up where they belong, doing things that pluck the strings of their hidden enthusiasms.

A “sense of purpose,” as O’Rourke discovered in her analysis of dementia studies, can involve many things: the feeling of contributing to others; a belief in a higher power; some control over how your day unfolds. From a caregiver’s perspective, restoring a sense of purpose is about reconnecting people with who they used to be — placing them back in the vicinity of that intersection where, as American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner put it, their deep desire meets the world’s deep need.

Strickfaden recalls one man at De Hogeweyk who was restless and searching, and a bit aggressive and hard to approach. Staff went back into his file and discovered he’d once been a farmer. “So one day they hid a bunch of eggs all around the courtyard. And they said, ‘We need you to go collect the eggs in the morning.’ And he’d do that. And then he’d be wonderful for the rest of the day. It was something that validated who he was.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for about 60 to 70 per cent of cases. Dementia can also be caused by stroke, injury or other diseases.

Source: World Health Organization

At Canterbury, one resident used to be a millwright, so he’s routinely given things to tinker with. Another was a homemaker who raised a big family. She struggles to find words and can get frustrated and withdrawn, but she positively melts when handed lifelike “Baby Sophia.” She dresses the doll in tiny clothes warm from the dryer, whispering and cooing to her and, after a while, “she’s more open to the activities the rest of us are doing,” says Kamara.

But there’s purpose and then there is purpose — something closer to what the Japanese call ikigai. Roughly: the sense that life is worth living because we are needed here. Japanese research has found that people with ikigai live longer. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2012 found that people with Alzheimer’s who are animated by purpose staved off cognitive decline longer. No one knows quite why it matters to feel as if we matter — only that it does.

“Feeling you matter is at the core of being a person,” British dementia consultant David Sheard often says. “Knowing you matter is at the heart of being alive.” Sheard is the founder of Dementia Care Matters, better known as the “butterfly” model of dementia care. I could see its principles in action the day I visited Copper Sky Lodge, in Spruce Grove, Alta., Canada’s first butterfly facility. Copper Sky’s CEO is Phil Gaudet, well-known in Alberta as the former head of the Good Samaritan Society, a long-running non-profit care provider. But the lodge is mostly run these days by his daughter, Nicole Gaudet. The same Gaudet who, with her thesis advisor Strickfaden, was embedded at De Hogeweyk.

As dementia advances and individuals turn inward, they’re less able to seek out the multi-sensory stimulation they may need. So the stimulation must come to them — as butterflies come to flowers. “Even things like this soft sweater I have on are part of it,” Gaudet says of the fuzzy sweater she’s wearing. “I’ve been getting lots of hugs today.”

At the centre of the butterfly model is emotion. The theory: people will forget what you say, and even what you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel. That’s because feeling is processed in a more primitive part of the brain; it’s protected, in a sense, from the damage to the neocortex that dementia causes. And so the staff at Copper Sky are trained to circulate, alighting here and there, touching, affirming, offering a cup of tea or a taste of mint, introducing short activities. “Ultimately, we are all feeling beings,” says Gaudet. “So if you can connect to what somebody is already feeling, you’re four steps ahead.”

But there’s research and then there’s practice. Changing how we care for people with dementia isn’t easy. After their experience at De Hogeweyk, Strickfaden and Gaudet were gung-ho to update legislation around dementia care in Canada. They soon discovered they were facing frustrating headwinds, some of which were cultural.

A country’s dementia care can reveal a lot about its values. China, for instance, is a culture of service, notes Strickfaden. “But that can actually get in the way of good elder care. People are literally served to death.” The Netherlands is big on personal liberties. How far you want to push your limits is up to you, within reason. Quality of life reigns supreme.

Canada has made a different choice. Here a dementia-care facility gets accredited or not based in part on how safe it’s deemed to be, says King, head of Edmonton’s Canterbury Lane. So De Hogewykian elements like cobblestones, public fountains, accessible barbecues and knives, unfenced kitchens are red flags. In Canada, safety trumps freedom. So does efficiency. Funding here is task-based. “Staff have a task list and a limited amount of time to do it,” says King. “So if a resident puts up resistance, it creates stress — because the staff person knows, ‘I’ve got to go to Mrs. Jones next.’ ”

The task-based funding model is, predictably, frustrating for more progressive voices in dementia care. “You’re regulating to the point of strangulation,” says Gaudet.

After Copper Sky received a poor grade in its first effort to become a certified butterfly facility three years ago, Gaudet spearheaded massive staff retraining. The first thing she impressed on caregivers is that human connection comes first. You are not going to be fired if you don’t get this task and this task and this task done, she told staff. Even though by some measures the extra TLC means more work for them, there’s evidence that such an approach leads to lower burnout, since it puts caretakers’ actions more in line with the reasons they got into this work in the first place.

“I would abolish long-term care in Canada and start over,” says Gaudet, “because I think we’ve got it wrong. We need to be given the freedom to deliver new kinds of care in inspiring environments.”

O’Rourke is cautiously optimistic about the future of dementia care in Canada. “If we — clinicians, researchers, community members, society — can set aside our own fears, assumptions and stigmas about the disease, there is hope. People with dementia have identified many ways to achieve a good quality of life. We just need to listen.”

one recent wednesday afternoon at Canterbury Lane, residents sat drowsing in easy chairs in front of an old Jimmy Stewart movie on the big-screen TV. My mother wasn’t among them. She likes the privacy of her room and to pick her own shows — and to crank up the volume.

On this visit, I had a plan. Having steeped myself in the Alzheimer’s literature and the best ideas of countless experts in multiple domains, I was eager to try a few things. I wanted to help Mom grasp where she is, who she is and why she is. I’d brought an artifact: a tennis racket. Not one of the fancy big ones people wield now but a vintage wooden one. This is what you used in the era when Mom learned to play, gliding around the shale courts of Garneau tennis club, not long after she and my dad met. People can see it on the wall and ask Mom about tennis. And maybe some of those locked-up memories — a serve tossed into the sun, the fitz of a new tin of balls, my dad so gentlemanly out there that he actually cheated against himself — will come rushing back.

Not long ago my sister Lynn noticed Mom paging through a magazine that had a big splash about the Royal Family. Mom pointed to a gentleman in a waistcoat. “That is the man I’m going to marry,” she said. A few years ago Lynn might have laughed or corrected her. But we have learned that it’s not our job to pull Mom back into this world. Our job is to meet her in hers. Lynn raised her eyebrows in enthusiasm, nodded and asked for details about the wedding.

These days Mom’s eyes reveal a lot. There’s not much reminiscing going on. Nor is there planning. The headlights reach to the next bend in the road and that’s it. But this is what people with dementia have, most profoundly, to teach us. They are champions at living in the now. The question, for all of us, is how can we make the now better?

I believe the answer is to just be there. Or in the case of my own too-infrequent visits, make sure I’m therewhen I’m there.

So Mom and I go for silent wheelchair tours to check out the action over in the nearby manor — past the kitchen, down the long, carpeted hallways. Little bios outside each resident’s door tell of their unique strengths. That’s right out of the David Sheard playbook: “Search for the treasure in each individual.”

“I’ve learned that if I attach too much to whether she remembers my visit, I’m going to be bitter,” Lynn told me on the phone recently. So you shift the bar. A cup of coffee, a stab at a cribbage game, a trip to the atrium to hear the piano player plink out Moon River: that is a win. We are not our memories.

Even though it sometimes feels that way.

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A More Beautiful Question

A More Beautiful Question

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The Dalai Lama came to Vancouver some years ago to speak. Victor Chan, the head of the Dalai Lama Centre here, brought him in.

During one of Victor’s visits with His Holiness, he noticed the Dalai Lama starting to yawn. The Dalai Lama ordered an aide to bring him some coffee.

When the coffee arrived, Victor reached to pour it for the Dalai Lama, but was stopped. No, no, His Holiness clarified. “The coffee is not for me. It’s for you. So you’ll ask better questions.”

Ask. Better. Questions.

That should be a bumper sticker on the year 2018.

We live in a culture that overvalues answers, and so undervalues questions that asking good ones has become kind of a lost art.

Look at our media. Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose have left the building. The probing interview is dead. Now it’s all dueling answers: mine against yours, the Left’s against the Right’s.

In the Google era, answers are cheap and everywhere. There’s not much we don’t know — or at least, not much we can’t know in about two seconds. Boom, the collected wisdom of humanity right at our fingertips.

But Google, the great and powerful Oz, isn’t what it seems. Google is just a thin beam of light in the darkness. What’s revealed depends on where we point it. And mostly we just point it where other people have pointed it. So we all keep going over the same ground. We don’t know what we’re missing, because we don’t know what we don’t know.

That’s why it matters what questions you ask. Skillful questioning is a tool to help us organize our thinking around our own ignorance, as writer Warren Berger points out in his book A More Beautiful Question. It’s like a navigation App. It helps us see in the dark.

So what is a beautiful question? Often it’s the kind of question a kid would ask, if you dropped him into the middle of a dinner party of experts who thought they knew everything there was to know about their field. The kid, knowing nothing, goes right to the overlooked heart of things.

“Why is it,” a high school student in Tanzania named Erasto Mpemba asked his science teacher one day, “that when I put hot water and cold water in the freezer together, the hot water freezes first?”

This sounded so stupid that some of the students laughed. Even the teacher was pretty sure that wasn’t what happened when you put hot and cold water in the freezer. But he decided to run a test, just to be sure he was right. Lo and behold, he wasn’t right. The kid was right. So the teacher and the student published a paper on it together. The phenomenon — warm things freeze faster than cool things — was not unknown. But this student got his name attached to it. It’s now known as the Mpemba Effect. Because Erasto Mpemba was the one who asked the more beautiful question.

The world’s best questioners may be four-year-old girls. They ask, on average, 390 questions a day. “Why” upon “Why” upon “Why,” until you reach the atomic level of existence. Being a parent of a four-year-old girl is internationally recognized as the same as having a Ph.D in philosophy. It’ll drive you crazy following those turtles all the way down.

(It’s a mixed blessing that my two girls are no longer in the “Why” stage The questions have stopped. They’re no longer interested in our answers. So it’s a lot easier now. But kind of sadder.)

It turns out that the questioning drops off sharply starting the very next year . That’s because those kids are now in the school system. And now they can’t just blurt out everything you’re wondering. They have to sit on their questions until they’re called on. A lot of those questions die on the vine. And the wondering itself tapers off.

By adulthood, out in the real workaday world, people don’t ask questions much at all. Because questions are inefficient. They put the brakes on getting stuff doneWe’d rather be charging off and doing things, even if we’re doing them wrong, rather than stopping to ask questions to figure out what we’re doing.

“A Nobel Prize -winning physicist was asked, ‘Is there a difference between the way you were raised that enabled you to win a Nobel Prize?” Cal Fussman, the virtuoso interviewer, told this story on a podcast recently

“The scientist thought about this. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘When I was a kid going to school, the other kids would come home and their parents would ask them, ‘What’d you learn in school today?’

‘Nuthin,’ those kids would say. End of conversation.

But when I got home, my parents asked me, ‘What good question did you ask in school today?’”

So just by changing the question, you can change somebody’s life,” Fussman said. “Because now the kid’s gotta be thinking when he goes to school, what is my question of the day?”

There are lots of reasons to try to rekindle that spirit of promiscuous questioning we all had when we were four. But here’s one I hadn’t thought of till I heard Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly bring it up

Come the robot uprising, it’s our questions that will save us.

See, machines are already better than us at generating answers. They can crunch patterns and come up with brilliant solutions. We can’t really compete with them.

But they’re lousy at questions. Because asking great questions takes wisdom, which is different from intelligence. Wisdom isn’t about brute mental horsepower. It’s about judgment.

That’s our speciality. And our advantage. We’re experts at saying, “I wonder if” or “How might we…?” These are questions born of hunches. And hunches come from being alive in the world, just kicking the can down the road.

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Yes, Ageism is Bad For Your Health

Yes, Ageism is Bad For Your Health

Featured Published Stories Archive

from ZOOMER magazine, June 18, 2018

One of Facebook’s core values, according to its founder Mark Zuckerberg, is to promote “better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”

Not long ago, a group of psychologists from four American universities decided to test this lofty adage. They conducted the first-ever study of age stereotypes in social networks.

The psychologists looked for Facebook groups about older people — the kind of lily pads that seniors might land on as they surf social media. But the researchers were interested a particular kind of group: about older people, but not by older people. They found 84. These sites were created and managed by people mostly in their 20s. They presented a young person’s-eye-view of what it’s like to be old. A fairly jaundiced eye.

Three quarters of the individual posts “excoriated” older individuals. One quarter “infantilized” them. Nearly 40 per cent of the young posters thought older people should be banned from public activities like shopping.

Some thought older folks should just hurry up and die already. Of unnatural causes if necessary: “Anyone over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad.”

Lead researcher Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, had readied herself for some vitriol on these sites. “But I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”

Facebook says it does not tolerate hate speech. “It is a serious violation of our terms to single out individuals based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease,” reads its Community Standards policy.

Levy noticed age wasn’t on the list. Ageism didn’t make the cut on a social platform used by two billion people. Even after the Yale study was published, Facebook didn’t bother to correct the oversight. Last time Levy checked, eight of the most offensive sites were still up and running.

So this was appalling but illuminating. The Internet is the great magnifier of the human id. Ugly truths waft out under cover of anonymity. This study revealed a few: Ageism is everywhere. And social media is a convenient platform for young people to denigrate older people. Some young people don’t like old people very much — or maybe they just don’t like the idea of growing old.

But there is a bomb in the results. Prejudice, Levy has found, tends to boomerang back on the prejudiced.

Studies show most people’s views of aging are a mix of positive and negative and neutral. But people who are too negative — or have assimilated more negative age stereotypes from their culture — pay for that bias on a physical level. Whether we think of aging is an opportunity for growth or a ticket to frailty and incompetence — our bodies register that impression and deliver it as a wish, return-to-sender.

In an irony worthy of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, ageism makes people age more quickly.

Levy has built a distinguished career proving it.

Her most famous study leveraged data collected in the mid-’70s from the town of Oxford Ohio. Residents over age 50 were asked yes-or-no questions about their thoughts on aging. For example: “As you get older, you are less useful,” or “As I get older, things are (better, worse, or the same) as I thought they would be.”

Twenty-three years later, Levy entered the picture. First she checked to see how many of those participants were still alive. Then she matched the mortality data with the survey answers. She made a startling discovery. The subjects with the most negative views of aging died, on average, 7.6 years sooner than those with the most positive views. Being ageist influenced lifespan more than gender. Or socioeconomic status. Or loneliness. Or exercise.

Because it was a correlational study, there was no obvious explanation for the huge effect. But Levy knew the number one killer of people over fifty is cardiovascular disease. She wondered: what if ageism stresses the heart? She decided to test that theory with a double-barreled technique that has become her trademark.

Levy is both an experimental social psychologist and an epidemiologist, which makes her uniquely qualified to see both the fine grain and the big picture of social science. She goes back and forth. “I like to observe things in a controlled setting, and then see if that applies in a real world setting over time.”

In her lab at Yale, Levy had a number of test subjects, all over 65, take math and verbal tests under tight time pressure. But before they did, the subjects were “primed” with either positive or negative aging stereotypes. Essentially, a rosy or gloomy view of aging was planted in the test-takers’ minds before the starting gun sounded.

The negative-stereotype primed group tightened right up. Their heart rate and blood pressure soared. The test — which involved talking about a stressful experience—was hairy for both groups. But the negative stereotypes stressed the participants out further, while the positive stereotypes calmed them down.

“So then we wondered how that might operate in the community over time,” Levy says.

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, started in 1958, tracked health data of around 1500 volunteer subjects in total, aged 17 to 49, over the course of six decades. Handily, the researchers also asked those subjects what they thought about aging and older people.

It turned out, subjects who had bought into the negative stereotypes of aging suffered twice as many heart events — from mini-strokes to congestive heart failure  — as those who had absorbed more positive stereotypes. Levy had controlled for every factor she could think of, from diet to smoking to family-history to depression. The only difference was the subjects’ thoughts about aging.

“Young, healthy people who hold ageist attitudes may put themselves at risk of heart disease up to 40 years later,” Levy concluded in the study, published in Psychological Science in March of 2009.

Ageism is a utility knife of wicked versatility. It affects even things you wouldn’t expect to have a psychological dimension. Things such as balance, handwriting, memory. Even hearing loss.

In one study, Levy asked septuagenarian test subjects to think of words that described older people. Those who came up with words like “frail” more than words like “wise” saw their hearing degrade more quickly. Three years later, this group’s hearing was significantly worse than the group that had held more positive views of aging.

Just a few weeks ago, Levy, in collaboration with the scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, published perhaps her most audacious study yet — and her most personal. Levy had a beloved grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Could the course of that kind of affliction, too, be steered by our thoughts?

Levy had already produced one blockbuster study suggesting the answer is yes. In a 2016, she and colleagues compared the ageism scores from that Baltimore Longitudinal study to the autopsied brains of the study subjects who had died. The brains of subjects who had held the most negative age stereotypes bloomed with tangles of amyloid plaques, and showed significant hippocampal shrinkage.

In the new study, within a different data set of older subjects, Levy zeroed in on a particular type of dementia candidate. People who carry the ε4 variant on the APOE gene are more likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The chance is around 50 percent.

““So half of this is environmental,” says Levy. “We thought the positive beliefs might be one of the environmental factors that explain why some people with APOE4 develop dementia and others do not.”

Around a quarter of the subjects carried APOE4—as revealed by genetic testing at the beginning of the study. All the subjects were dementia-free at that point. Levy compared the attitude data to the health outcomes. Turned out, the APOE4 carriers who held rosier views of aging were less than half as likely to show signs of dementia four years later.

So what is actually going on here? What might explain the dramatic physiological effects of something as ineffable as mere “thoughts”?

For one thing, our attitudes, conscious or not, drive our behavior. This was likely a factor in Levy’s studies of stereotypes and long-term heart-health. “If people hold more negative views of aging, they may be less likely to walk the extra block or engage in healthy behaviors as they get older,” Levy said. “Because they tend to think of poor health as inevitable later in life.”

But a more potent factor — in some ways the elephant in the room in all aging stereotype studies — is this: there’s often a disconnect between young people and their future selves.

“People under forty don’t think of themselves as eventually getting older,” says the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, whose pioneering work on age primes paved the way for Levy’s. That disconnect is a problem. It prevents young people from, for instance, developing habits that would profit their older selves down the line. (Like saving for retirement, as the behavioral economist Dan Ariely has shown.) Just thinking about growing old is heart-constrictingly stressful – if, that is, you expect older age to be a time of pain and loneliness and confinement, rather than a time of leisure and discount travel and free play with tow-headed grandkids.

Ageism, at root, is about fear.

Robert Butler, the psychiatrist who coined the term “ageism,” thought ageism and elder abuse stem from “deeply human concerns and fears about the vulnerability inherent in the later years of life.” The idea of shuffling inexorably toward the grave scares the hell out of us. So we hold the shufflers at a contemptible distance – even as we ourselves, bit by invisible bit, become them.

“One time I picked up my father at the airport,” recalls Langer, “and I said ‘Dad, how was the flight?’” He said, ‘It was fine but there were all these old people on the plane.’ My father was in his eighties. Ageism is rampant among older people.”

This curious, common phenomenon of prejudice against one’s own group makes ageism different from the other ‘ism’s that Facebook actually cares about, like sexism and racism. People don’t typically diss their own gender or race. If others diss our gender or race, well, we can develop antibodies against those attacks from an early age, and ward off those poisonous judgments. Age is different. To the young, “old people” can seem almost like a different species—crotchety and frail and out to lunch. Until one day the young actually are old, and find themselves undefended against the very stereotypes they so deeply absorbed. And they sink to their low estimation of themselves.

This is all bad news for those ageist 20-something Facebook posters. They don’t know what flight plan they just filed.

But here’s the rub. Levy believes it’s possible to change that flight plan.

In fact, almost all her studies can be flipped to reveal not the destructive effects of negative aging stereotypes but the healthful effects of positive ones. Her whole  body of work, in a way, is a call for a public-health campaign against ageism.

“We know that children as young as three or four have taken in those negative stereotypes of our culture, and we know that those stereotypes are reinforced in young adulthood and middle age,” she says. “So by the time individuals reach older age the stereotypes can be pretty engrained.

“But we also have research that suggests that thoughts are malleable. If you prompt them, most people can come up with positive images. Some of those strategies we can learn. People can be taught to question negative beliefs.

“Because we know this starts at a young age, the earlier the interventions happen, the better. For example, You can make curriculum changes” in schools. “There are programs where older individuals come into classrooms and become resources.”

Langer’s work carries a similar message.

Many of her age-priming studies are about tricking the old to remember what it was like to be young — the better to tap the youthfulness that is still in them. (In her famous  Counterclockwise study, from 1979, older subjects were dropped into an elaborate re-creation of the ‘50s and emerged, one week later, measurably more spry. It has inspired the re-design of some seniors facilities and the re-thinking of elder care.)

But the rest of them are about nudging the young to think about what it’ll be like to be old.

“Let me tell you something I wanted to do years ago but couldn’t get funding,” Langer says. “I wanted to create a building that simulated life at age 70. As you get older, your body changes. You feel temperatures more intensely. Your field of vision narrows. By having a 40-year-old live in such a place — and I don’t think it’d take more than about three weeks — they’d probably develop the skill to be able to overcome, or at least adapt to, these deficits.”

For the Internet hate-mongers, it would be a powerful intervention. It might just keep them alive.

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From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

Featured Published Stories Archive

from the NEW YORK TIMES, Sept 26, 2003

Robin Barefield photo

ON an overcast afternoon, eight snorkel divers and two guides — all of us encased in snug, full-body wet suits — gathered under a logging bridge on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and waded into the fast-rushing Campbell River. We took a few moments to acclimatize in the shallows, hyperventilating a little as the glacier-born river flooded our suits.
The women had removed their earrings; trout passing through the river tend to strike at anything shiny, whatever flesh it may be attached to. After a bit of low comedy involving the cumbersome fins and the current, I pushed out into the main flow, looked down and swallowed my breath again. A few feet in front of me was a salmon the size of a dancer’s leg. Tail forked, flanks rust-red, it tracked laterally across the river, whip-cracking the muscle of its body. This tyee was probably five or six years old and at least 35 pounds. The size was to some extent an illusion; but even allowing for the double magnification of the water and the mask, it was one big fish. And it wasn’t alone. Looming out of the shadows now were others, kings and cohos and the odd straggling pink, each salmon churning upstream, a flash of biological imperative in my peripheral vision.
It’s a strange way to see a game fish: not on a dinner plate or at the end of a fishing line, but alive and free and in your face.
The annual salmon spawn really is one of those mysterious, natural spectacles worthy of the build up. Almost half a million Pacific salmon return to the Campbell each year from the ocean, inching back to their natal streams, to the precise football-size patch of riverbed where, for them, the whole plot began.
They come in succession: the humpbacked pinks, the silver-sided coho and eventually the fiercely hooked-nosed chum. But most impressive of all is the tyee, the coastal Indians’ word for chief, a title Chinook salmon earn when they hit 30 pounds. These are the fish that have given the Campbell a reputation for almost unmatched salmon fishing — at least until recently.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, loss of habitat, overfishing and, perhaps, climate change turned the slow depletion in Pacific salmon stocks into a crisis gravely, recalling what happened to the cod stocks of the East Coast. Strict fishing regulations were imposed on most salmon rivers in the Pacific Northwest and southern British Columbia.
Almost all salmon fishing in the Campbell, therefore, is now catch-and-release. But an alternative has grown in its place. If you can’t take salmon out of the river, nothing says you can’t climb in there with them.
The Pacific salmon in this stretch of the Campbell River would all be dead within a month. Unlike their Atlantic cousins, returning Pacific salmon die after just one reproductive season. Once they hit fresh water, the fuse is ignited. They stop eating; the only fuel available to them is their own bodies, which they quickly deplete. Battered by rocks and snacked on in passing by lazy seals, they’re soon marked with open wounds. Fungus grows in the wounds. And the once gleaming silver flanks begin to fuzz over with gray. The fish start to leave bits of themselves in the water, to mix with the milt and the roe. In few other places in nature do sex and death so explicitly commingle.
The number of coho in the river on this day last October was surprising; they don’t generally spawn in deep water. But because there had been so little rain, they weren’t moving into the tributaries, Catherine Temple, founder of Paradise Found Adventure Tours, explained about the near-drought conditions on this late-season day. Typically, rainwater in the river is a signal to the fish that it’s time to move out into the spawning beds.
Ms. Temple’s six-year-old company bills itself as the only one in North America that offers snorkeling-with-salmon tours. (And a search of the Internet seems to support that claim.) Which isn’t to say that individuals around here hadn’t thought of trying it earlier. The first probably was the Canadian outdoorsman and writer Roderick Haig-Brown, who in the 1950’s donned a mask and snorkel to observe the effects of a new dam on the behavior of the fish and, not incidentally, to see where they were hiding (he was a fisherman, first and foremost). In the 1970’s and 80’s, locals started getting into the act. Only the unusual clarity of the river makes this sport possible: on some days, in bright sunshine, fish can be seen finning 30 feet away.
On this day, the big pink run was largely over and the chum run had yet to begin. Next to the tyee, the chum are the most arresting fish in the Campbell, with their lantern jaws and guard-dog teeth, which nature starts to manufacture the moment the fish enters fresh water, a signal that it will soon be needing weaponry if it is to have a chance in the territorial skirmishes.
”The chum won’t move in till the chinook are gone because they’re in direct competition for the beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”And the coho didn’t come till the pinks were gone. Apparently they don’t like their smell.”
At one point, to better appreciate what the salmon were up against, I spun around and kicked back against the current, hard, until my legs burned. I still lost ground. But I noticed, for the first time, some salmon drifting downriver with me. And the Sisyphean nature of their task sank in: a spawning salmon cannot rest without backsliding at an alarming rate; and yet, it has to rest. So its labor becomes two strokes forward, a stroke and a half back, for days, weeks, months.

A guide, Jamie Turko, grew up on Vancouver Island. As a boy, he and his pals would float like torpedoes down the whole navigable length of the river, a 45-minute run. Back then, the fish were so plentiful they would routinely collide with him. Not so now. ”I’ve only had two bump into me so far this year,” he said.

Fish stocks have recovered somewhat in the last three years but are only about 60 percent of the levels they were a decade ago. And though the tyee are still big enough to set the eyes of most visiting fishermen spinning, they’re not nearly as big as they used to be. It was not uncommon, Mr. Turko said, to have 200-pound salmon 500 or 600 years ago. (The modern record is 122 pounds.) If you belonged to the local Tyee club in the early 1950’s, you would routinely bag fish in the 65-pound range; now the biggest are pushing 50. Because no limits were traditionally imposed on how large a fish you could take from the river — only how small — the biggest tyee were removed from the gene pool. Only in the last few years have maximum limits been imposed as well as minimums. But it’s too late: the really big fish are probably gone forever.

One way to approach snorkeling with the salmon of the Campbell is to think of it as a metaphor for an ancient relationship. People in these parts have relied on salmon as a food source for as long as there have been people in these parts. Salmon rivers determined settlement patterns. To the Indians of the region, salmon were and remain sacred. (The Haida people believed the Pacific salmon were actually a race of subterranean humans who took the form of fish when they rose out of the ground and into the oceans.) ”Much of their behavior remains cloaked in mystery still,” Mr. Haig-Brown wrote of the salmon in the Campbell. ”Where exactly in the ocean do they go, when they leave the streams where they were born? How do they find their way home? What is the immediate purpose of this schooling in the canyon pool at what must be almost the end of their journey?”

Floating down the river, elbow to elbow with others, like part of an advancing line of rugby players, the snorkel diver is struck by an inevitable question: Can this activity be good for the fish?

The wager all eco-tour operators make is that whatever impact their visitors have on nature is more than offset by the impact nature makes on them, that a renewed respect for the chain of life and a diminished desire to interfere with natural processes is absorbed and passed on. It’s not clear if or how humans in the river affect salmon. There is some evidence that the fish can at least smell large mammals in the water and that they are sensitive to electromagnetic changes of the sort a human might generate.

”The main concern, however, is that the added stress of people’s floating down the river will cause the fish to die of exhaustion too soon, before they reach their spawning beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”But the fish don’t seem to be affected.”

Dave Ewart, manager of the Quinsam River Hatchery, which has been doing fish counts for more than 20 years, gives Ms. Temple the benefit of the doubt. ”I’m sure, just as with killer-whale watching, there will come a time when it’s just too much, that there will be a breaking point,” he said. ”But my experience is that when it rains and the river comes up and it’s time to spawn, nothing stops these fish. They’ll go wherever they have to go.”

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Level-3 Thinking (Or, how not to be ageist)

Level-3 Thinking (Or, how not to be ageist)

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Not long ago, an American rocket engineer named Destin Sandlin hopped on a bicycle in a public square in Amsterdam. It looked like he might be zipping off to do an errand. But something was wrong. When he tried to pedal away he couldn’t balance. For twenty minutes he tried and failed. He just couldn’t keep the bike upright for more than half a second. It got a little embarrassing. People watching thought he had some sort of disability. How else to explain why a healthy-looking guy can’t ride a bicycle?

Turns out, Destin Sandlin can ride a bicycle. Or at least he could. Sandlin learned to ride a bike when he was three years old – way earlier than most of us. But recently he’d tried a radical experiment: he painstakingly unlearned how to ride a bike. (The full version of the story is brilliantly told here. The short of it is, Sandlin taught himself to ride a specially designed “reverse” bike — which turns right when you steer it left and vice-versa — thereby effectively re-wiring his brain.)

And now, here in this Dutch square, he was trying to unlearn that unlearning. Trying to resurrect a skill that was second-nature for so long before he monkeyed with it.

“You think I’m kidding, don’t you?” Sandlin told one bemused onlooker who figured this display of ineptitude must be a put-on. “I’m not.”

This is a funny way to start a story about ageism. But stay with me, it’ll make sense.

Those Dutch bystanders weren’t quite seeing what they thought they were seeing. The thirtysomething cyclist they were watching botch this kindergarten-level skill seemed a step behind most everyone else. But in fact he was a step ahead. Sandlin had long passed through let’s call it “level 1” learning about bicycle riding. Then, after eight months of practice, he learned to ride the reverse bicycle, which took him to level 2. Unlearning that learning, which he finally managed after 20 minutes of furious concentration, took him to Level 3. Which looked to all the world like Level 1, but secretly contained layers of effort and experience — of bodily wisdom, if you like.

Sandlin’s experiment popped to mind recently as I was catching up with my friend Ellen Langer, the Harvard psychologist. Ellen has a theory about stages of growth and the judgments we make about them.

“Think about people who read the New Yorker (magazine), she says. “Level 1 is people who don’t read the New Yorker — never have. Level 2 is people who do read it. Level 3 is people who used to read it but for whatever reason” — maybe their life is so chockablock interesting that they don’t have time; or maybe they are novelists trying to distance themselves from other literary voices till they finish writing their book — “they’ve stopped.” Level 3 looks just like Level 1. To the folks on the subway with their noses buried in the New Yorker, the Level 3s look a step behind. But in fact they’re a step ahead.

Langer says she sees this particular attribution error all the time.

The four-year-old kid has no answers, just questions: Why why why? Likewise, the 80-year-old Tibetan monk has no answers, just questions. The m.o of these two individuals is the same. The difference is, they are on opposite sides of level 2 — where the rest of us are stuck, blurting out answers all the livelong day.

The thought-check “Could I be making an attribution error here?” is a worthwhile habit to cultivate before you rush to judgment of every display of apparent incompetence you see. Is this person actually a step behind, or maybe a step ahead?

Think of three caregivers. Caregiver A fails to come to the aid of a little kid or a senior who’s struggling with some problem; she’s operating at Level 1. Caregiver B notices the struggle and swans in to help; she’s at Level 2. Caregiver C also notices but refrains from helping because she knows it’s better for the person to do it him- or herself. Caregiver C’s at Level 3. Informed neglect, let’s call it. “It looks the same as level 1,” Langer says, “but it’s got more wisdom.”

Ageism happens when young people mistake Level 3 for Level 1.

Consider an 18-year-old in a Camaro, caught on the freeway behind a grey-haired woman in a Nissan Leaf. The Leaf-driver’s going pretty slow. In the head of the teenage driver all sorts of negative stereotypes bloom: This woman’s inept. Her eyesight is poor. Her reflexes are shot. “But the truth is, you can get killed behind the wheel — so it’s actually a smart thing to drive carefully,” Langer says. The tailgater muttering under his breath about this out-to-lunch driver “is assuming Level 1 but he’s actually looking at Level 3.” The kid will understand when he crashes. Or when he gets soaked paying his larcenously high auto insurance. Or when he realizes the Camaro is not actually all that cool. The senior seemed a step behind. But she was actually a step ahead.

“Some of the things that we disparage in older people are in fact things that we should admire and learn from,” Langer says.

Older people have figured a lot of things out. The solutions tend to be simple, analog, elegant, boring. A sage can look like a fool to someone who is only halfway through the trip.

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The lost art of asking questions

The lost art of asking questions

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Ken Treloar photo / Unsplash

The Dalai Lama was sitting with a journalist for a q-and-a in his home in India. But 10 minutes into the interview, it became uncomfortably clear that His Holiness was getting drowsy. He was literally nodding off. After one chin dip he snapped to attention and signaled to an attendant, who dashed to the kitchen and returned with a strong pot of tea. The journalist stood up, took the tea and started pouring a cup for the Dalai Lama. But the Dalai Lama stopped him and said, No no, the caffeine is not for me. “It’s for you. So you’ll ask better questions.”

Ask. Better. Questions.

That should be a bumper sticker on the year 2018.

We live in a culture that overvalues answers, and so undervalues questions that asking good ones has become kind of a lost art.

Look at our media. Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose have left the building. The probing interview is dead. Now it’s all dueling answers: mine against yours, the Left’s against the Right’s.

In the Google era, answers are cheap and everywhere. There’s not much we don’t know — or at least, not much we can’t know in about two seconds. Boom. The collected wisdom of humanity right at our fingertips.

But Google, the great and powerful Oz, isn’t what it seems. Google is just a thin beam of light in the darkness. What’s revealed depends on where we point it. And mostly we just point it where other people have pointed it. So we all keep going over the same ground. We don’t know what we’re missing, because we don’t know what we don’t know.

That’s why it matters what questions you ask. Skillful questioning is a tool to help us organize our thinking around our own ignorance, as writer Warren Berger points out in his book A More Beautiful Question. It’s like a navigation App. It helps us see in the dark.

So what is a beautiful question? Often it’s the kind of question a kid would ask, if you dropped him into the middle of a dinner party of experts who thought they knew everything there was to know about their field. He, knowing nothing, goes right to the overlooked heart of things.

Why is it,” a high-school student in Tanzania named Erasto Mpemba asked his science teacher one day, “that when I put hot water and cold water in the freezer together, the hot water freezes first?”

This sounded so stupid that some of the students laughed. Even the teacher was pretty sure that wasn’t what happened when you put hot and cold water in the freezer. But he decided to run a test, just to be sure he was right. Lo and behold, he wasn’t right. The kid was right. So the teacher and the student published a paper on it together. The phenomenon — warm things freeze faster than cool things — was not unknown. But this student got his name attached to it. It’s now known as the Mpemba Effect. Because Erasto Mpemba was the one who asked the more beautiful question.

The world’s best questioners may be four-year-old girls. They ask, on average, 390 questions a day. “Why” upon “Why” upon “Why,” until you reach the atomic level of existence. Being a parent of a four-year-old girl is internationally recognized as the same as having a Ph.D in philosophy. It’ll drive you crazy following those turtles all the way down.

(It’s a mixed blessing that my two girls are no longer in the “Why” stage The questions have stopped. They’re no longer interested in our answers. So it’s a lot easier now. But kind of sadder.)

It turns out that the questioning drops off sharply starting the very next year . That’s because those kids are now in the school system. And now they can’t just blurt out everything you’re wondering. They have to sit on their questions until they’re called on. A lot of those questions die on the vine. And the wondering itself tapers off.

By adulthood, out in the real workaday world, people don’t ask questions much at all. Because questions are inefficient. They put the brakes on getting stuff done. We’d rather be charging off and doing things, even if we’re doing them wrong, rather than stopping to ask questions to figure out what we’re doing.

A Nobel Prize -winning physicist was asked, ‘Is there a difference between the way you were raised that enabled you to win a Nobel Prize?” Cal Fussman, the virtuoso interviewer, told this story on a podcast recently.

“The scientist thought about this. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘When I was a kid going to school, the other kids would come home and their parents would ask them, ‘What’d you learn in school today?’

‘Nuthin,’ those kids would say. End of conversation.

But when I got home, my parents asked me, ‘What good question did you ask in school today?’”

So just by changing the question, you can change somebody’s life,” Fussman said. “Because now the kid’s gotta be thinking when he goes to school, what is my question of the day?”

There are lots of reasons to try to rekindle that spirit of promiscuous questioning we all had when we were four. But here’s one I hadn’t thought of till I heard Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly bring it up:

Come the robot uprising, it’s our questions that will save us.

See, machines are already better than us at generating answers. They can crunch patterns and come up with brilliant solutions. We can’t really compete with them.

But they’re lousy at questions. Because asking great questions takes wisdom, which is different from intelligence. Wisdom isn’t about brute mental horsepower. It’s about judgment.

That’s our speciality. And our advantage. We’re experts at saying, “I wonder if” or “How might we…?” These are questions born of hunches. And hunches come from being alive in the world, just kicking the can down the road.

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Watts in the Water

Watts in the Water

Energy Featured

tidal.turbines

Our oceans contain enough energy to power the planet — if we could just get our hands on it.

from HAKAI MAGAZINE, June 28, 2017

Edinburgh isn’t known as a hotbed of industrial espionage. But one cool and quiet spring night in the Scottish city, a high-stakes burglary was underway. Down at the old port district of Leith, thieves breached a perimeter fence and broke into the offices of a company called Pelamis Wave Power. They homed in on four laptop computers and walked right past much more expensive equipment. Pelamis, at the time (March of 2011), was riding a wave of good fortune. Company engineers had produced the first commercial-scale machine for extracting energy from waves, vaulting Pelamis to top-dog status in the marine-energy industry. Already there was interest from several European utility companies, and a Portuguese company had placed an order. So promising was the technology that just two months earlier, a delegation of 60 Chinese officials had paid a visit, with a juicy investment deal presumably in the balance. The world was getting excited about wave power. The visitors donned white hard hats and Pelamis founder and director Richard Yemm led Li Keqiang, the vice premier of China (now premier), and his charges across the factory floor during a key phase of production. Yemm was likely thinking only of the dizzying future on the other side of so much hard work, so many stillborn dreams. Protecting his company’s valuable intellectual property was not top of mind.

Yemm’s optimism was justified. At some point in 2013, the world’s energy scales tipped: for the first time, more new energy was produced by renewables than by fossil fuels. The shift is officially on. North Sea oil rigs are being dismantled. The run of coal as energy champion of Europe is over, and plans for hundreds of new coal plants across Asia have been shelved. The business case for solar is solid. One hundred percent of Dutch trains run on wind. Google just announced that its server farms and offices will be powered entirely by renewables—mostly wind and solar—by the end of 2017.

And ocean power?

Close to 200 trillion watts of kinetic energy lurk in the seas: more than enough to power the planet, if we could somehow extract it all.

It’s there in many forms, inviting different approaches. We can exploit temperature and salt gradients, harness tides and currents, and tap waves—the method that intrigued the Chinese government enough to jet a delegation to Scotland. Of course, not all of that theoretical marine energy is practically available. The European Commission, which manages the day-to-day affairs of the European Union (EU), has set a goal to have 10 percent of Europe’s energy supplied by the sea by 2050. The EU has a big head start on the rest of the world—the United Kingdom alone has as many marine-energy projects on the go as the rest of the world combined—so a reasonable target elsewhere will no doubt be lower. But we’re still talking about a nontrivial part of the energy conversation—if the regulatory stars align for this brand-new industry. That’s a big if.

“The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea,” wrote Danish author Isak Dinesen, who wasn’t thinking about knocking down carbon emissions. But she did seem to intuit that pain is the midwife of all saltwater cures. That was certainly the case for the team members at Pelamis, who, failing to secure any investment money from the Chinese delegation, were left with a nagging worry about their stolen intellectual property. And it is the case for dozens of marine-energy developers racing to produce viable, commercial-scale technology. So far, the primary thing they’ve extracted is an insight: this isn’t going to be easy.

I. Wave Energy

Neil Kermode stands atop a cliff on Mainland, one of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, watching surfable rollers pound themselves into salt mist on the craggy shore. The windswept archipelago makes more renewable energy than it will ever need. It is an ancient place that provides a glimpse of the world’s energy future.

“Wave energy is basically old wind energy,” says Kermode, head of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) and director of the world’s only test site for wave-energy technology, here near the town of Stromness. “The wind starts waves moving, and the waves keep coming even after the wind stops.” The notion that waves are a kind of wind battery, retaining the energy, is the magic at the heart of wave power.

The world’s ocean waves are thought to contain around three terawatts of harvestable juice—enough to meet the world’s electricity demands at a given moment—if someone could make the technological leap to harvest it efficiently. Indeed, that was Pelamis’s goal when it launched in 1998, and EMEC’s goal when it set up the test site in 2004. For a while, the site crackled with high hopes. Entrepreneurs arrived with their comically named prototype devices, anchored them offshore, and plugged them into power cords that sent electricity to a substation on the beach. As recently as two years ago, four devices chugged away. Today there is one. In a cautious investment climate, wave-energy development has collapsed from a torrent to a trickle, forcing most of the players—including Pelamis—into administration (court-assisted relief).

To understand the ebb and flow of interest in wave energy, you need to go back to 1973, when the Arab petroleum embargo, and the sudden quadrupling of the price of oil in its wake, prompted frightened governments to start mulling alternatives.

The UK department of energy issued a Manhattan Project-level challenge to engineers: come up with a two-gigawatt power station that runs on ocean energy. It was “like somebody in 1905 asking for an Airbus A380,” says Stephen Salter, now a professor emeritus in engineering design at the University of Edinburgh.

But back then, Salter was a young engineer too green to be discouraged. He put his head down. And what he came up with was a duck.

Inspired by the float in a toilet cistern, Salter’s “duck”—imagine a tobacco pouch the size of a cottage—would bob in rough seas, generating electricity as waves bowled it off plumb. Each duck could produce, Salter reckoned, around two megawatts of energy, so he’d need a lot of them. Early tank tests showed Salter’s duck could absorb wave energy with great efficiency, leaving flat water behind it. And a mightier duck still lay in the offing, Salter forecast. If a small computer could one day ride inside the contraption, making continual adjustments to the hydraulics, the duck would bag 90 percent of the wave energy beneath it. “A bit of weather judo,” as Kermode describes the principle. “You use the wave’s energy against itself.”

The duck made Salter a little bit famous. “He was the first to capture the public imagination with the idea that waves and energy fit naturally together,” says Kermode, who remembers watching him on TV as a youth.

But something happened on the way to a renewables renaissance.

In 1983, the government pulled the plug on wave research, and Salter’s Edinburgh duck, along with all its rivals, was dead in the water. Oil prices had come down and the need for a federally sponsored renewable-energy moonshot was over. At least that was the official explanation. Salter doesn’t believe it for a second. By his estimation, the government killed it because it was a little too promising and so represented a threat to its private crush—nuclear energy. They submitted head-scratching reports that vastly overinflated Salter’s capital costs. “They adjusted all the numbers to make it look like it was going to be terribly unreliable,” he says. A later investigation would reveal that the government had overstated the cost of Salter’s duck by at least a factor of 10.

Even today, Salter’s duck remains the most efficient wave-energy device ever designed. And that game-changing, on-board computer he dreamed of? The technology now exists. It costs about £2 (US $2.50).

Not all the expertise from that era died on the vine, however.

Salter’s doctoral student Richard Yemm went on to found Pelamis and create the promising wave-energy converter that grabbed China’s attention.

Dubbed “the sea snake,” Yemm’s device was segmented like a broken crayon, with energy ginned up at the hinge points. It was the first wave device to take the helter-skelter motion of open seawater and turn it into electrical current smooth enough for the grid. Yemm had proven that his device worked, but not that it could be profitable, and in 2014, he reluctantly declared Pelamis insolvent and bailed out into a consultancy job. In the three years following the burglary, Pelamis’s technology had failed to materialize on the renewables scene. The trail of the thieves from that March night in 2011 was cold. After Pelamis folded, Wave Energy Scotland, a newly created government research body, bought some of the company’s assets, including all intellectual property, to protect it and keep it in Britain. Just in case.

Hope for wave energy lingers in the United Kingdom. British multimillionaire Adam Norris—perhaps the closest thing marine power has to an Elon Musk—has sunk at least £50-million (US $64-million) into Wavepower, a company he launched, and last year started mustering top British engineering talent to fancy offices in Glastonbury*. But the lost years mean that wave energy lags behind every other technology in the renewables race. Meanwhile, the action in the marine-energy sector has moved to a different space: one that is deeper, darker, and more pressure packed.

II. Tidal Power

In a 45-minute window of quiet water as the tide turned one day last November, a tug towed a barge out into the Bay of Fundy off Canada’s east coast. It reached its designated berth at the Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy (FORCE), Canada’s chief proving ground for marine-energy research. A crane lowered a 1,000-tonne turbine that looked like a jet engine, and eased it into the sea, where it settled into the rocky seabed. Then everyone waited, a little on edge.

They’d seen this movie before: humans intervening in the Bay of Fundy to generate energy. The returns had never lived up to the hype.

Capturing the tides is one of humanity’s oldest energy ideas: the ancient Romans may have used tide mills to grind grain. It is a classic barrage scheme with gates closing behind the flood tide and trapping the sea, which is then released through turbines to do work or make energy. Barrage schemes on La Rance, a river in Brittany, France, and at Annapolis Royal near Digby, Nova Scotia, have been providing a trickle of electricity to those communities since 1966 and 1980 respectively. In 2011, South Korea jumped in with the only modern tidal barrage, near Suwon. But like many dams, barrage schemes are unkind to sea animals and coastlines. Indeed, it’s environmental concerns that have held up a huge tidal-lagoon play in Swansea, Wales, for more than a year. So engineers have played around with ever-inventive designs to capture the energy of moving water without corralling the water itself: a mechanical fin that wags like a shark’s tail; a raft that floats downstream, unspooling a cable from a drum/generator onshore; a device with no moving parts at all that exploits the pressure difference in the water flow. All are being tested right now. It’s like watching evolution unfold in real time: wildly different organisms competing to see which is the fittest.

But out of the design chaos, a pattern is emerging. The consensus—though it’s not unanimous—is that the most efficient way to get electricity out of the ocean, with the least harm to the environment, is to put a windmill in the water. In other words, we’re now thinking vertical, not horizontal. Where tidal-range (barrage) schemes leverage the difference between high and low tides, tidal stream projects plug into a tidal current as it flows through a turbine stapled to the seabed, like wind moving through a pinwheel. It was a tidal-stream turbine that OpenHydro, an energy company from Dublin, Ireland, was placing in the Bay of Fundy’s Minas Passage last November. The effort was a do-over of a failed try seven years earlier at the same site, which is arguably the fiercest tidal-energy hotspot in the world.

Twice a day, 14 billion tonnes of water move through the narrows between two steep headlands, Cape Split and Cape Sharp: that’s more than the combined flow of all the rivers on Earth. On the ocean floor, enormous boulders roll with every ebb and flow tide. When the Minas Basin fills, the weight of the water causes the surrounding land to measurably dip. At full flood, the passage is a riot of gyres and standing waves. The churned silt makes the water look like your latte, if your latte moved at five meters per second.

In that first instance, OpenHydro had deployed a CAN $10-million prototype in the passage. Company engineers had tested the turbine in the stiff tides of the Orkneys and it had borne up. But in Fundy, it was as useless as windshield wipers during a car wash. Within 20 days, all 12 of the turbine’s rotor blades were damaged or destroyed. OpenHydro had made this second version much more skookum. Still, nobody could be sure it could stand up to the fearsome Fundy current.

 

Recent estimates put the amount of raw kinetic energy in the Minas Passage at over seven gigawatts—more than enough to meet Atlantic Canada’s energy needs if all of it was extracted (which can’t be done for reasons of physics as we’ll see in a moment). Nova Scotia has decided that tidal energy is key to future prosperity, and taxpayers are now subsidizing the bet to the tune of $36-million. The OpenHydro turbine alone is projected, as a fossil-fuel replacement, to prevent as much as 3,000 tonnes of carbon from entering the atmosphere. And the plan is to sink a second turbine nearby as early as this fall. Much of the power will likely leave Canada’s Atlantic provinces. Right now, transmission cables are being laid to the south, to ship electricity to New York and Boston.

A potential devil’s bargain looms here. Get too greedy and you put not just sea life, but coastal dwellers at risk. As you pull energy out of a water flow, you reduce that flow. It’s unwise to just cover the seabed with turbines like you’re planting corn, because the turbines start interfering with each other. And the water level rises. Coastal modeling has killed any thoughts of a vast array of turbines in the Bay of Fundy. Not long ago, scientists at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, calculated that of the seven gigawatts of energy coursing through the Minas Channel, turbines could skim off perhaps a third. Any more and you start messing with tides in New England. In one model, a barrage raised high tide in Boston Harbor by 23 centimeters. “Even the possibility of such an impact,” an analyst’s report noted, “was seen as sufficient to draw lawsuits from every property owner with a flooded basement from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod.”

Tidal is the new frontier of clean power. Or it’s too green to bet on.

That paradox was lost on no one at the International Tidal Energy Summit in London, England last October. At one point, Tim Cornelius, CEO of Atlantis Resources, strode to the podium with a chip on his shoulder, frustrated by pessimists thwarting progress. Atlantis owns the MeyGen AK1000, the monstrous tidal turbine that had been grabbing all the headlines. In 2010, Atlantis got clearance to build the world’s largest tidal-energy plant off Caithness, at the northern tip of Scotland. Four turbines are in place there now, with eight-meter blades pushed by some of the fastest tidal currents in the United Kingdom. The plan is to step up to an eventual 269-turbine array that would cover over 10 square kilometers, generate enough power to run 175,000 homes, and provide work for hundreds of laid-off nuclear workers from the retired Dounreay nuclear plant.

Everyone is excited about this except investors.

The promise of tidal-stream energy has failed to seduce venture capitalists: it’s too risky, too costly, too pie in the sky. A moonshot. Which is precisely what’s great about it, Cornelius suggested to the crowd of a couple hundred. “When you explain tidal power, the average punter loves the idea,” he said. He’s right. There is poetry in the idea of harnessing the moon’s gravitational pull. Because water is almost 900 times as dense as air, a tidal turbine a third the size of an offshore wind turbine can deliver the same output. And turbines are sunk out of sight, so can be set close to shore with nary a grumble from property owners (and big savings in cabling costs).

Alas, troubling practical concerns keep getting in the way of the magic. As a medium for commercial enterprise, the sea is as hostile as deep space.

“Hats off to anyone who can put something mechanical in salt water and make it work,” says Keith Collins, executive director of sustainable and renewable energy for the Nova Scotia Department of Energy. If a wind turbine breaks, you send a guy up a ladder with a toolbox. It’s quite another thing to have to dispatch divers—or worse, to have to hire a big ship to schlep your turbine to the garage.

“The vast majority of faults are very minor,” says Peter Fraenkel, inventor of the first commercially successful tidal-stream turbine, SeaGen, which was commissioned in 2008 for action off the Northern Ireland coast. “It’s usually a small electrical component or some silly little thing. If you have to replace a $20 component by spending $20,000, that’s a bit of a downer.”

And a deal-breaker for investors.

So there is another approach to tidal turbine design, one many industry insiders consider the most promising way forward: make a device that floats.

One day last October, at the EMEC tidal test site in the Scottish Orkneys, a yellow submarine bobbed on the chop, snugged to its anchor lines. This is the Scotrenewables SR2000, the world’s most powerful tidal turbine. From below the surface, with its twin rotors deployed, it looks like a Klingon Bird-of-Prey. The design lends itself to on-site repair but if it’s a more serious fix, you just pull up its twin one-megawatt turbines and tow the whole megillah to sheltered waters. The company is focusing on markets in the United Kingdom, France, and Canada, although they’re also looking into opportunities in Asia. The portability brings the whole world into play, including choice sites where the water’s far too deep to put a turbine on the seafloor.

Piggybacking on the offshore wind industry’s great leaps in engineering efficiency, companies like Scotrenewables are making the dream of a world powered solely by renewables seem less far-fetched by the day.

But that dream gives grid managers nightmares. They need to know that an electron will be available at the exact moment it’s needed—not a guarantee renewables can offer. There’s often too much or too little going on at once: too much wind or sunshine when the grid is already full; breathless calm or cloud cover when you could really use some juice. Here is where tidal has an advantage. The moon has yet to miss a shift. Twice a day it pushes water and twice a day it pulls, and we know exactly when and how much. That predictability changes the math around how affordable tidal energy actually is. The trouble is, tidal still can’t provide “always there” baseline energy—until some storage solution is perfected. Whoever cracks the nut of cheap baseline power in the renewables age will author the biggest disruption story since the internet.

But if tidal stream can’t provide that coveted baseline energy right now, there is a kind of ocean energy that can.

 

III. Currents from Currents

Ocean-current energy is thought to be a 100-gigawatt global resource—about the same size as tidal stream, and with the same problem of converting that power to useable energy, yet still theoretically exciting. Currents like the Gulf Stream and the Kuroshio—the Japan current that plies the western edge of the Pacific—circulate lazily around the world, swinging by many major population centers.

“The whole Asian sphere is full of moving ocean,” says Martin Edlund, CEO of a marine-energy company called Minesto, based in Gothenburg, Sweden. Not long ago, Edlund sat down with Taiwan’s energy minister to discuss how to conquer “the black current,” as the Kuroshio is sometimes called. “If we take the numbers that they themselves pull together,” he says, “we’re looking at a 50-percent contribution to the energy mix of Taiwan.”

The Zen-like steady progress of the world’s currents—no hurry, no pause—makes them potential catnip to grid operators. The hitch is the “no hurry” part. Those tens of billions of gallons of water per minute move at a speed not much quicker than the walking pace of a human late for work. Since the kinetic energy is proportional to water speed cubed, that doesn’t amount to much juice in any given spot. Which means an awful lot of turbines, or very big turbines. Or something completely different.

That’s where Edlund comes in.

“We’ve stumbled upon a unique principle,” he says. “What we do is, we fly a kite underwater.”

Think of a whole fleet of remote-controlled kites. Pushed by the current, they turn perpetual figure-eight patterns, their flight paths continually tweaked by a computer on the surface. “So in the same way that you can sail faster than the wind, you get a flow going past the wing that’s much higher than the speed the ocean is actually moving,” Edlund says.

Minesto has deeper pockets than most marine-energy companies—its principal owners are a Swedish private-equity firm and the Saudi Arabian billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi—which arguably gives it more leash for maverick explorations. It has tested its control systems in Sweden and floated its hardware in Northern Ireland. A commercial-scale project is getting going—the world’s first low-flow ocean-energy harvesting—in Wales.

Not everyone is sold. “The idea that there’s some clever way of taking a lot of energy out of low flows is, to my mind, misleading,” says Fraenkel. “If the energy’s not there, it’s not there to be taken.” Fraenkel remains a believer in ocean-current energy, just not in any sexy way to extract it. His former company, Marine Current Turbines, holds a patent for a six-rotor machine to operate in the Gulf Stream or the Kuroshio; you can imagine an array of them slowly grinding away, just under the surface where the water flows fastest, like nodding donkeys on the Texas plain.

But at the International Tidal Energy Summit awards in London, Edlund received the endorsement of his peers. After apologizing for standing between the diners and their pudding, he accepted the award for most promising turbine design. In this field, that’s not a Miss Congeniality award—it’s the real deal. Because at this stage of the industry’s development, promise is still pretty much all there is, despite grand plans and sometimes juicy incentives.

IV. A Medley of Marine Solutions

Nine years ago, the government of Scotland announced the creation of the Saltire Prize—a kind of XPRIZE of the sea. The competition promised £10-million (US $12.6-million) to the first company to create a viable marine-energy system and demonstrate it in Scottish waters. (Viable meaning at least 100 gigawatt hours of power over a two-year period.) There was a lot of hype. Then-prime minister Alex Salmond hailed Scotland as “the Saudi Arabia of tidal power” and claimed it has the potential to match the wealth created by North Sea oil.

At the time, Fraenkel ran the numbers at Marine Current Turbines. “We tried to figure out if there was any way we could win it, and we decided there wasn’t,” he says. “To build the size of project you’d need to win the Saltire Prize, you’d probably have to spend £80- to £100-million. In which case £10-million is a drop in the bucket.” It’s now clear that nobody is going to win it, at least not as originally conceived. The Saltire Prize’s website now admits that “the path to commercialization is taking longer and proving more difficult than anyone initially expected.”

You could argue that there’s just not enough chicken on this bone, period. The technology is so inefficient, the costs so high, the risks so prohibitive, that marine energy just isn’t worth it.

Of the vast potential energy of the ocean, only a very small fraction is practically extractable, says Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba and author of the book Energy Transitions. Tidal energy, for example, is a three-terawatt resource, yet only about 60 gigawatts’ worth lies within a transmission cable’s reach of shore. That amounts to one-third of one percent of global primary energy—“hardly a notable contribution,” says Smil. “Installing triple-glazed windows and universal use of LEDs would save vastly more energy than will ever be extracted from the ocean,” he added in an email.

So if that Eeyore-ish estimate is even in the ballpark, the question is, why do this? If the sea is so reluctant to give up its treasure, why should we even bother with it?

Here’s one answer: because we have to think of energy differently now. The low-hanging fruit will soon be gone. All the other options are going to be more challenging. What will make or break the case for each of them is not so much what they are as where they are.

“Until storage gets exceedingly cheap, or social license is such that you can build wind turbines and giant hydro dams everywhere—and I don’t see that happening—you need a suite of all these different technologies,” says Bryson Robertson, a mechanical engineer at the University of Victoria-affiliated West Coast Wave Initiative in British Columbia. Blanketing the Sahara with solar panels may be the cheapest way to do renewable energy right now, but it’ll never be the answer in a temperate rainforest. Where there’s a mountain, you tap the streams spilling down it with run-of-river projects. Where there’s a pinch point in the coastal landscape, you steal energy from the tide. You buy what the Earth is selling, where it’s selling it. Indeed, to try to choose the best among renewable energy sources is as ridiculous as going all in with a single vitamin in your diet, says Stephen Salter. What’s needed is a bit of fusion cooking.

Off the coast of Argentina, a company called SeatechEnergy is making fuel from seaweed. Grown in vast farms in high-productivity zones, the seaweed is digested into natural gas, which is convertible to electricity, with no solid waste.

Off Belgium, plans are in the works for 10 to 12 manufactured protective atolls, which would guard the coast from erosion as the sea rises. The idea is that the ocean, as it sluices in and out of the lagoons, runs through tidal turbines of the same sort already built into dikes in the Netherlands. This may be marine energy’s biggest advantage over other renewables in the coming century: it naturally piggybacks on the defense barriers that every coastal community is going to need as global warming bites in.

Gunter Pauli, the “ecopreneur” who has been called the Bill Gates of sustainable energy, initiated the first idea—those manufactured islands—and is kicking the tires on seaweed power as a natural adjunct to it. This is Pauli’s so-called “blue economy”—an interdependent network of energy choices driven by carefully integrated local supply chains and meeting local needs. Cluster technologies and suddenly you have not just green solutions—that might help revive the biodiversity of coastal zones, for instance—but a solid business model. “If you do tidal plus seaweed—a strange combination to most people, because it’s not solar plus wind—you have very interesting opportunities to supply a mix of local power,” Pauli says. “That is where the future lies. It’s not, ‘Oh, we’ve got the golden egg of this new energy source.’”

Another promising turn, in a way, is suspiciously familiar. Last fall, a wave-energy converter called the Hailong (Dragon) 1 appeared at a test facility in China. It is nearly identical to the Pelamis sea snake, right down to the paint color. The Guardian newspaper pressed the Chinese government for details about the origins of Hailong 1, but received no reply. Some former Pelamis employees privately worry that Pelamis might have done an awful lot of wave-energy and development work that the Chinese are now poised to make commercially viable.

Sad for the original creators, but perhaps good for everyone?

Marine energy will never be the new coal or oil—two fossil fuels that revolutionized the world. Where it could well shine, however, is in delivering power to the 40 percent of the world that has no reliable power now. Plus, marine energy could be combined with fertilizer, feed, and food—addressing global food-security issues, Pauli notes. Even the most eccentric schemes may have value so long as they are perfectly matched to their geography and put energy decisions into local hands.

On my last day in Orkney, I woke before dawn to pack for home. As I turned on the coffee maker in the hotel room, something occurred to me. A few kilometers away at the EMEC test site, a small OpenHydro tidal turbine was quietly supplying a trickle of energy to the island.

Since the machines in Fundy and Caithness were briefly offline, and I was up before just about everybody in France, I was enjoying a staggeringly exclusive experience. With perhaps a handful of Koreans, I was one of the only people in the world drinking coffee made from the power of the sea.

It tasted quite good.

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The Ed and Earl Show: a Tortoise-and-Hare Tale for our time

The Ed and Earl Show: a Tortoise-and-Hare Tale for our time

Aging Essays Featured

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from THE GLOBE AND MAIL, May 6, 2017

Ed Whitlock, a quiet gentleman of wry British wit, an iron will and a body seemingly purpose-built to run marathons, held 36 age-group world records. He was the oldest person ever to run a marathon in under four hours, and the only person aged 70 or over ever to run a marathon in under three hours. “Ed was really my hero,” said Earl Fee, two days after attending Ed’s funeral in Milton, Ont., just west of Toronto. On March 13, Ed succumbed to a cancer only his close friends and family knew he was battling. He was 86.

Earl, who turned 88 in March, is similarly decorated in his own, shorter-distance events. He holds 15 World Masters Athletics world records. At age 66, in Buffalo, he ran 800 metres in 2:14, so demolishing the world record that officials drug-tested him twice. He is one of so few runners his age who still does hurdles that at the world championships in Costa Rica three years ago, there was no one for him to run against. So race organizers ended up pitting him against world-champion sprinter Christa Bortignon from West Vancouver, then 77. (Earl led for the entire 200-metre race, but Christa pipped him at the post. She leaned in.)

Ed and Earl, Earl and Ed. Two white guys of similar vintage and background – both loners; coincidentally, both engineers – who ran their way into sports history at an age when most of us are comparison-shopping for walkers, if we’re lucky . The two friends present a kind of natural experiment. For beyond these base traits that throw them in the same sample hopper, they are a study in contrasts – and the differences may be telling.

Earl is a devotee of HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training. He hardly ever works out for more than 20 minutes at a time, but he makes those 20 minutes count. He goes for it, typically in a series of sprint bursts – between short breaks – that leave him gasping for air. He is fastidious in his training habits – timing his intervals, salting in weight-lifting and cross-training, tweaking his regimen according to the evolving sports science. What’s more, he gets fairly frequent medical consults, eats half a pound of steamed vegetables with dinner, and takes six supplements.

Ed had long followed a program of LSD – Long Slow Distance running. He tallied endless training laps under Evergreen Cemetery’s tree canopy, patiently building a “race base” – “drudgery,” he called it, but all that mileage was money in the bank which he could draw on round about mile 22, when other guys were crashing. In 2004, in the run-up to the Toronto marathon, Ed put in three-hour training runs, more days than not, for months. Then he duly turned in what was arguably the greatest marathon ever run – 2:54:48, in Toronto, at age 73. Decidedly unfastidious in his training habits, he sometimes stretched on race day, and had seen his family doctor for a check-up exactly once since Trudeau came to office – Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His diet? Ed ate “whatever they’re serving,” he once told me. At meets, he sometimes seemed to subsist on coffee and grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Ed and Earl, Earl and Ed. They were, in a sense, the hare and the tortoise. And their approach to fitness may hold lessons for the rest of us mere mortals – who aren’t aiming to topple world records, just trying to stay young – whether our working definition of that is hanging on to our muscles or our marbles or our sex drive, or even, potentially, keeping cancer at bay.

**

Youthfulness, Part 1: In their only laboratory matchup, Ed takes the lead

Certainly Ed looked older than Earl – at least off the track. But when the starting gun cracked and he broke into a run, he became almost supernaturally youthful, gliding so gracefully, so gossamer-lightly, he looked as if he could run through freshly poured cement without leaving a mark. Earl is all power on the track, but no less “youthful” for that. On appearances alone, you could call it a wash.

But was Ed younger on the inside? Or was Earl? To get a bead on that, it won’t do to look from the outside in. You have to look from the inside out.

In 2012, Tanja Taivassalo and Russell Hepple, then kinesiology professors at McGill (both are now at the University of Florida) did just that. As part of what has become known as the McGill Masters Study, involving more than two dozen participants, aged 75 to 93, they invited Ed and Earl separately into their lab. This allowed for a rare head-to-head comparison of the two athletes, who along with their fellow subjects were submitted to a battery of tests that assessed everything from cardiovascular health to muscle composition, flexibility to brain density.

Unsurprisingly, both men crushed it. More surprising, given the differences in the way they lived and trained, was that their “numbers” were often pretty similar. Both had roughly twice the mitochondria in their muscle cells as did the sedentary controls. That means twice the ability to suck in fuels such as glucose and fat, to make energy – and twice the anti-inflammatory protection against chronic disease in the bargain.

Both men also had NASCAR engines in their chests. Ed’s heart showed no signs of the hypertrophy (dangerously enlarged left ventricle) or arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that ultra-distance runners are often heir to. His blood pressure was a little high, but that was no surprise to him. “My own theory is that my heart is a bit too strong,” Ed once told me – the pushing power maybe exceeded the width of the plumbing in there, he ventured. “Or it could just be all the salt in my diet.” (Indeed, it is Earl, not Ed, who has inexplicably developed a heart hiccup in latter years. He has tachycardia, a scary condition that can cause the heart to rev for no apparent reason. The times that happens, he says, are the only times he feels his age.)

At one point in the McGill testing, Ed and Earl were ushered into a hospital room, and a scientist brandished a gleaming instrument that looked a bit like a wine corker. He extracted a little plug of muscle from each man’s thigh. (Earl, particularly, had some trouble recovering from that procedure. Back in Toronto, he visited the storied sports-medicine doctor Anthony Galea, who fashioned a little artificial divot out of Earl’s own blood plasma, and plugged the hole with it, to speed healing.) Earl, it turned out, had somewhat more “fast-twitch” fibres in his leg – which provide explosive power, but fatigue faster – than Ed. That’s understandable, since he’s a sprinter and Ed was a distance man. Fast-twitch muscle ratio could be considered a metric of youthfulness: We are young, one might argue, to the degree that we can really bring it on when we need to – even if that just means sprinting for the bus. Then again, endurance may also signal “fitness,” at least in the Darwinian sense: Back on the veldt, it may have been the most important attribute of all.

The biggest difference was their VO2 max scores. That’s a measure of the highest rate that the body can take up and use oxygen. Earl’s score was high. But Ed’s score was literally off the charts – the highest ever recorded for someone his age. VO2 max scores correlate not just with longevity but with basic health – youthfulness, if you like. So much so that a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month suggested that one’s VO2 max score should be considered a vital sign, as basic as blood pressure or pulse.

Score a point for Ed.

*

Youthfulness, Part 2: Earl catches up

Not so fast, says HIIT devotee Earl: “I believe that to stay young, intensity of exercise is more important than volume.”

Until recently, evidence for that has been circumstantial at best. But last month, data emerged to give Earl’s assertion some real teeth. In a study published in the journal Cell Biology, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., looked at how different kinds of exercise affect aging muscles at the cellular level. In one trial, three groups of older test subjects – 65 years and up – were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups.

The first group trained like Ed – long, lower-intensity sessions with no breaks. The second trained like Earl – pulses of shorter, harder effort. (The third group did weight training alone.) Biopsies revealed that both kinds of running changed those aging muscle cells – rejuvenating them, in effect – by producing more (and better quality) mitochondria while dialling up the activity levels in certain genes.

But the interval training rejuvenated those cells more than the long, slow aerobics did. The intensity seemed to be a tonic that undid some of the cellular damage that naturally occurs when we age.

Score a point for Earl.

The brain: Ed surges ahead

One hallmark of how well we’re aging is what’s happening to us between the ears. How well are we managing practical things, such as recalling names at parties and remembering that we just put a full cup of coffee on the roof of the car? In our brain, that’s largely the job of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped region in the centre that helps us make and consolidate memories.

We know that exercise beefs up the hippocampus. But recently, researchers from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland wondered whether any particular kind of exercise is better at building this part of the brain. In a study on rats published last February in The Journal of Physiology, they tested the effect of long, steady-state running (the Ed protocol) vs. interval training (the Earl protocol) vs. resistance training: weight-lifting. (The rats, if you’re wondering, pulled a weight up a ramp.)

The result? Both kinds of running grew new neurons in the rats’ hippocampus. But the Ed workout grew a lot more of them. The joggers’ hippocampus positively teemed with new neurons. The greater the distance the marathon rats travelled, the more neurons they grew. (Weight training alone, by the way, didn’t spark any neurogenesis at all.)

One point for Ed.

Wear and tear: Earl pulls up to the side

What about plain old wear and tear on the body, surely another sign of how well we’re staving off the ravages of time? Turns out, intense interval training – the Earl Protocol – does create greater “impact forces”: sudden compression that puts strain on joints and tendons.

But there’s a coda. “If you’re working out for less time in total, maybe the cumulative loading on the joints is reduced,” says Martin Gibala, head of the kinesiology department at McMaster University in Hamilton, and author of The One Minute Workout. In other words, when you work out like Earl, your moving parts get a rest and your joints are spared the sort of relentless pummelling that keeps orthopedic surgeons in Caribbean vacations.

The data are not unanimous on this, but they tip Earl’s way. Ed, says the science, was an outlier. He could do what he did because he was Ed: a 107-pound package of awesome mechanics. (He dropped to 105 in November, but generally hovered around 110.) And even Ed felt the strain – he had chronic arthritis in his knees. And the main reason he ran his training runs (relatively) slowly, he once told me, was that “my Achilles hurts if I go faster.”

Point for Earl.

Life expectancy: It’s a tie

Running is good. On average, every hour you run lengthens your life by around seven hours, a recent meta-analysis found. Aerobic exercise stresses the body, mostly in a good way. True, it does goose the production of “free radicals” – highly reactive molecules that damage our DNA (and whose accumulation is, according to one theory , the most potent driver of human aging.) But exercise is both the snakebite and the antidote: Exercise itself is an anti-oxidant, mopping up the free radicals it creates, and then some. Almost always, the medicine trumps the venom.

Almost always. Could it be that there’s some tipping point at which aerobic exercise becomes so exhaustive that it stops being protective, and hastens aging more than it slows it? Could it be that all the “oxidative stress” that Ed was subjecting himself to, with all that mileage, was aging him faster than Earl’s 20-minutes-and-done workouts are aging him?

Again, the data are murky. “The idea that oxidative stress is bad, that’s a very challenging thing to sort out,” says Dr Hepple, of the McGill Masters Study. Some studies say it is. But when McGill biologist Siegfried Hekimi increased oxidative stress in his lab mice by letting them run and run and run on a wheel, he found the opposite: They aged more slowly. “If there is a tipping point” where exercise stops rejuvenating us and starts aging us, says Dr. Hepple, “we don’t know where it is.”

Ed and Earl each score a point.

 

The cancer factor: No clear winner

Ed’s cancer diagnosis didn’t just surprise the grieving running community; it surprised Ed.

It wasn’t until last fall, around the time he was casually smashing the 15-kilometre world record for his age at a race in upstate New York, that Ed suspected something might be up. He was having trouble keeping weight on. Then, his shoulder hurt so much that he finally saw a doctor. The diagnosis: prostate cancer that, an MRI revealed, had moved into his spine and bones. “After that, things moved very quickly,” says his son Neil.

In a man with longevity in his family (his Uncle Arthur was actually Britain’s oldest man when he died at 108 in 2000), Ed’s death raises questions about the way he lived his life. Could there possibly be a link between the cancer and the training?

David Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of California, and a noted cancer specialist, is doubtful. “We know that there’s an association between some cancers and inflammation, but there’s no association we know of between strenuous exercise and prostate cancer,” he says. “Mutations happen. About half of the DNA changes in cancer just happen.”

In a 2008 study on potential links between exercise and cancer, scientists at Duke University in North Carolina found that prostate cancer grew twice as fast in mice that ran to their heart’s content as it did in sedentary mice. Exercise seemed to feed their tumours, perhaps by supplying more blood to them.

But that study comes with a very important caveat. “Those were human tumours that we planted in the mice,” notes Lee Jones, the clinical-exercise physiologist who headed that study. “The only way you can get a human tumour to grow in a mouse is if the mouse doesn’t have an immune system.” Exercise boosts the immune system, but it can’t work its magic if there’s no immune system to boost.

In a subsequent study, in which Dr. Jones’s team planted mouse breast-cancer tumours in mice – thus allowing the mice to keep their immune systems – the running rats showed the opposite result: Their tumours grew more slowly.

“If you life long enough as a man, you’re going to get prostate cancer,” Dr. Jones says. “Eighty per cent of men who are age 80 have prostate cancer. Seventy per cent of 70-year-old men have prostate cancer. The fact that Ed was 86, he probably had prostate cancer for years. But because he was in such a trained state, his body was very likely able to keep that cancer from spreading as long as it did.”

Quality of later life: Once again, a draw

We make a fetish of longer and longer life. But “lifespan” is not the most meaningful metric, argues Stephen Harridge, a respected physiologist at King’s College London. “Healthspan” is.

Actual time above ground means little if much of your Third Act takes place in the ICU. Something happens to our bodies around the eighth decade of life. Most of us tend to just start coming apart like a clock; afflictions compound, slowly choking off quality of life.

But for masters athletes, their slow, linear performance suddenly takes a discouragingly exponential plunge. Ed didn’t have “co-morbidity” issues. One single thing crept up on him right at the end. Like track-and-field legend Olga Kotelko, who died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage in the summer of 2015, just weeks after setting a passel of new world records at age 95, Ed was world-beatingly fit and feted – and then suddenly gone.

“Both of these folks” – Ed and Olga – “compressed their morbidity into a tiny, tiny fraction of their time on Earth,” says Dr. Hepple. And that might be the best definition of successful aging that we have. “Ever since Ed died,” adds Earl, “I’ve been thinking, it’s kind of a gift, what we do.”

In his heroically researched, 664-page book 100 Years Young the Natural Way he presents a kind of template for people to hit the century mark, following a protocol of exercise, stress reduction and strategic eating. Since the book came out in 2011, Earl has tweaked his diet a bit. He has almost entirely cut out fish and chicken, convinced by the data that vegetarians probably live longer. He avoids processed foods that create inflammation. He tends to his gut flora with foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt (although, he acknowledges, “some of that fermented food is not too tasty.”)

Will he justify his book’s title? He hopes so. “I’m still aiming for 100,” he says. “But life can be more fragile than you think.”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/fitness/running/running-ed-whitlock-and-earl-fee-compared/article34897068/

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One Memorable Day, Once a Month

One Memorable Day, Once a Month

Essays Featured

big.day.pt.pic

From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, Jan. 2017  For a lot of us, a typical day is so full of compromises, distractions, and interruptions that it ends up being neither productive (if it’s a work day) nor relaxing (if it’s a play day). We’re half-on/half-off much of the time, checking emails and running errands, chasing little stuff as if it were big stuff, and losing track of the difference. Days like that end up being, if not exactly wasted, at least forgettable. They run through our fingers and they’re gone. They never make it onto the scoreboard because they were about … nothing.

So for the last year I’ve been trying an experiment: Once a month, I take a day and wrap it in a mission. I give it over to one achingly neglected bit of business. I clear the decks in advance. Unplug the phone. Farm out the kids. Put an “Away” message on my emails. And then, on the appointed morning, dive in.

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The Opposite of Envy

The Opposite of Envy

Blog Entry

pine.tree

There’s an old African saying: When the water hole shrinks, the animals start looking at each other funny.

As a metaphor it certainly describes my own profession of journalism. The water hole is shrinking fast. The animals are uneasy.

See, nobody wants to pay for stories anymore. Because everything’s free on the Internet. So newspapers and magazine are folding in droves. It’s desperate times for people who make their living from the written word.

I was at a party recently and a lot of my old writer pals were there, people I hadn’t seen in many years. There was a lot of commiserating about how things have changed, and how a lot of us are hanging on by our fingernails. But not all of us. A couple of us have scored. One signed a million-dollar deal for his first novel, the other has become a sought-after keynote speaker after his book nonfiction plucked the strings of the zeitgeist; he couldn’t be here tonight because he was in Florida at a lucrative gig. These two gentlemen weren’t here at the water hole because they’re not thirsty anymore. They’re set for life.

So, as these two success stories made the rounds, an emotion sort of crept up on everybody. No one needed to name it but everybody felt it. It was complicated, because these are very good guys – talented, hard-working, standup humans; nobody would say they hadn’t earned their good fortune. But still, the fact was, they had made it and the rest of us were still struggling. And the emotion we all felt was … envy.

Envy is toxic. It’s toxic but it’s understandable. Our culture offgasses it.

We say we want other people to succeed, but do we really mean it? Because when they do, it makes us feel crappy about ourselves. The lovable loser in our life stops being so lovable when he succeeds. Now we’re the loser, right? Somebody has to be. He just handed us that script.

But I’m here to tell you, there is an antidote to envy. And this antidote has a name:

Mudita.

It’s a Sanskrit word that has no direct English translation. People sometimes define it by what it isn’t. Mudita is the opposite of envy.

If envy means, “When you win, I lose,” and schadenfreude means, When you lose, I win,”

mudita means, “When you win, I win.”

Buddhists sometimes define mudita as “sympathetic joy.” It’s one of the highest emotional states anyone can aspire to. It says: We’re all in this together. When you rise, I rise. Your happiness is my happiness.

Anyone who’s a parent has experienced mudita. The small triumphs of your children spark sympathetic joy inside your own heart. (Although it’s also not unheard of for parents to be jealous of their own kids.)

But a Buddhist might say, that’s kindergarten class. It’s easy to feel mudita for your own flesh and blood. The real test is, can you cultivate mudita for everybody else? Can you enlarge the circle of mudita until not a single living person is omitted? That’s the endgame for a truly enlightened human.

I’ve never met anybody like that; surely she exists somewhere. The question is, is this a skill that the rest of us, in our warty imperfection, can get a little better at? I believe so. Here’s a very practical way I just learned about. A simple exercise. It works like this:

Start by thinking of some thing that is really flourishing. Not some person, some thing. Say, a bush in your yard that’s in flower. Or the healthy pine tree next to it. You can’t be envious of a pine tree — it’s just … a pine tree. But it makes us feel good, right? The pine tree in my yard is alive, all’s right with the world. So feel that feeling, sympathetic joy for the pine tree.

Now, very gently, take that feeling and transfer it on to a friend. Someone you like but don’t love. Except now you kind of do love them, because you’ve ginned up a little mudita. Their win is your win. Their success if your joy.

Here comes the bigger leap. The Ropes Course. Take that mudita and, very carefully, transfer it to someone you don’t like very much at all.

This could take awhile. To feel mudita for, say, Donald Trump might be a life’s work.

But one way to approach the task — and this was suggested recently by the great Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg — is to think about this person not in terms of their recent success but rather their ongoing vulnerability. They are fragile and fighting a great battle, just as you are. Their days are numbered, just as yours are.

There you go. Feel it. In their world, and in your world now, the stump of misery just put out a radiant sprig.

And that is cause for celebration.

 

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How Could You?

How Could You?

Featured Parenting

From THE WALRUS, Dec. 2016

HowCouldYou-

 

Colette Anderson and her five-year-old son were approaching the checkout line at a Save-On-Foods in North Vancouver when she realized they’d left her shopping list at the sushi place in the mall. A hundred metres away, just out of sight. “Would you mind going and grabbing it while I pay for these groceries?” she asked the tow-headed boy. Off he went.

Two minutes later, she spotted her son coming toward her. A middle-aged man was escorting him, his hand on the child’s shoulder. The boy disengaged himself and trotted over to his mother.

“I found him alone in the mall,” the man said.

“Uh-huh,” Anderson said.

“I can’t understand how you could just let him run off.”

“He didn’t ‘run off,’” Colette replied. “I sent him on an errand.”

“How old is he?”

“He’s five.”

“Anything could have happened to your child—anything,” he said. “That’s bad parenting.”

The man was talking loudly. Other shoppers had stopped what they were doing to tune in. Anderson could feel anger rising in her but made an effort to contain it.

“Thank you, but my son didn’t need you to rescue him,” she said. “He’s quite capable of running an errand on his own. That’s how kids grow up.”

The man stalked off. Anderson reassured the rattled boy that all was fine now. But a couple of minutes later, the stranger appeared again. “I just can’t let this go,” he said. “I can’t believe you’d be that irresponsible.”

One aspect of the interaction with her confronter stays with Anderson the most: his rage. In 2010, Anthony Daniels, a former Birmingham prison physician who writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, described the kind of snap judgment that causes a stranger to publicly dress down a parent as part of a “toxic cult of sentimentality.” The phenomenon has become so widespread that a whole category of viral videos has emerged featuring mothers who return to their cars after running short errands and find themselves furiously upbraided by strangers for having left their children unattended. According to Daniels’s argument, such bystanders love kids so much their feelings curdle into a “sentimental wrath”—or a self-righteous hatred—turning them from protectors into vigilantes. In such cases, scolding an offender produces a moral high.

A study published in August seems to bear out this analysis. Researchers at the University of California presented 1,328 participants—split roughly evenly between men and women, between those with children and those without—with vignettes involving kids who had been left alone by their parents for less than an hour. The explanations for this act ranged from the selfless (parent volunteering for charity) to the selfish (parent popping out to meet a lover). The study found that the perceived peril faced by each child escalated according to the moral transgression the parents were judged to have committed. The result was a “feedback loop”: the bigger the affront, the greater the threat; the greater the threat, the louder the outrage. In other words, talk of risk was used to rationalize moral disapproval.

Humans are terrible at assessing risk. Social scientists describe an “availability” heuristic that causes us to inflate the likelihood of events that can be easily brought to mind—the dramatic, the sensationalistic, the recently seen on the news. But how likely is it that children will become victims of the kinds of snatchings that put photos on milk cartons? Of the 41,342 kids reported missing in Canada in 2013, twenty-nine were “abducted by strangers.” But “stranger” in this case just means “not a parent.” In a 2003 study, investigators looked at ninety cases of stranger abductions collected from the previous two years. After eliminating the cases in which the abductor had been known to the family, they arrived at a new number: two. Two kids. Indeed, if you left your child on the corner in hopes of having him abducted, you’d have to wait—by one calculation—200,000 years for it to happen.

This climate of fearmongering changes parental risk-calculus—it’s now driven by fear, not logic. Two years ago, Chad Brown, a Vancouver software developer, entered a hackathon sponsored by the City of Vancouver. He used government crash data, geolocated by intersection, to develop an app to help kids walking to school pick a route that avoided dangerous intersections. After Brown’s team won the competition, he learned why: they had stumbled on one of the city council’s top priorities at the time—to encourage parents to walk with their kids, or to let them walk by themselves. Since the 1970s, the percentage of Canadian children allowed to walk to school has fallen from around 50 percent to about 15. One of the reasons: fear of abduction. Studies routinely show, however, that kids are at a higher risk of getting hurt when they’re driven to school. Indeed, car crashes are among the leading causes of child death in Canada. But the spectre of an abduction—which is highly improbable—is more psychologically “available” than the more likely, if mundane, possibility of an accident.

Anderson allows that her day could have gone more sideways had the man opted to call the police. In April, officers were summoned to a Squamish, British Columbia, house after a neighbour reported that the family’s two children—a four-year-old boy and his six-year-old brother—were playing by themselves in the driveway. One year later, another complaint sent a Child and Family Services investigator to the door of a Winnipeg mom whose three children were playing alone in the fenced-in yard. (She was in the house.)

Many jurisdictions in the United States have experienced an increase in 911 calls because concerned citizens are phoning in reports of children walking, playing, or sitting somewhere alone. “I’ve had investigators testify in hearings that you can’t leave a child in a car for even sixty seconds,” says Diane Redleaf, legal director of the Family Defense Center, a Chicago-based non-profit that advocates on behalf of families in danger of losing their children to foster care. Over the past decade, the number of families who’ve turned to the fdc for help after being charged with inadequate supervision has tripled—“This is now the largest category of cases we see,” she notes. (In the US, parents who have merely been investigated for inadequate supervision can end up on a registry that can be accessed by potential employers. Canadian provinces maintain similar registries, but if you haven’t been convicted, no one can see your file.)

John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family at the University of Calgary. He sees parents as being stuck in a social moment where they can’t win. “As a society, we give parents a really large degree of discretion while we hover in the background, waiting for them to lapse and demonstrate parenting standards that fail the norms we’ve established.”

If these norms had been in place when we were kids, almost all our parents would have been targets of suspicion. (Remember “Don’t come home till sundown”? That wasn’t a suggestion; it was a directive.) “We spend so much time looking at sensationalistic news about children who are at risk,” says Boyd. “Maybe we need to reset our comfort level.”

 

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YooHoo — anybody out there?

YooHoo — anybody out there?

Blog Entry Essays

derek.sivers

There’s a famous American clown named Moshe Cohen, who goes by the stage name Mr. YooHoo. In his heyday he travelled widely, plying his shtick before children and adults alike. One time Mr. YooHoo was performing before a big crowd in Chiapas, Mexico. The show seemed to be going well. At the end of it, he announced. “And now for my last trick, I’m going to make you all disappear.” And with that, he took off his glasses.

The gag had always got a laugh. But not this time. Crickets. What was going on?

Mr. YooHoo put his glasses back on and looked out at the audience. And then he understood. No one was wearing glasses. Not a single person. They were too poor to wear glasses. So they didn’t get the joke.

The acting teacher Bernie Glassman tells that story in his book The Dude and the Zen Master (Glassman had himself been a clown, and Mr. YooHoo was his mentor), and when I read it I thought: teachable moment. The lesson is, I guess, know your audience. Make sure you’re not working blue for a Christian crowd, not leaning on pop-culture references for a group of seniors, and so on.

But it occurs to me there’s a deeper way to think about the moral of this story – not as “market research,” but as an exercise in empathy. Think of the people sitting out there. Better yet, actually go out there and sit where they’re sitting. Who are they? What private battles are they fighting? Answering that will help you answer this: What can you give them?

*

I recently exchanged emails with Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur and writer who now earns his beans on the speaking circuit. He often tells the story of how he overcame his stage fright with one simple intervention.

Derek had worked for a dozen years as a circus emcee (that’s him in the picture). In the beginning, he’d wanted to put his own stamp on the role. He tried to be all hip and ironic and Letterman-esque. It never quite clicked. He amused himself, but he never really connected with the audience. This wasn’t the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow — this was a traditional circus in the Midwest.

So one day he tried something different. He decided to be the very thing he was hired to be, a circus barker — nothing less and a little bit more. He played that role and dialed it up. People loved it.

When he returned backstage the owner of the circus took him by the shoulders. “There you go!” she said. “You’ve figured it out. That’s why people go to the circus. You gave them what they wanted.”

And that’s when it clicked for Derek. He thought, ‘It’s not about me.’ What the audience wants is to receive something of value that they can take away and maybe share with their family over dinner tonight. They want their pain salved, just for a few moments, with a pleasant distraction. Memo to self, Derek thought: Just give them what they were hoping to get when they showed up here today. But to do that means at least trying to grok, at a fairly deep level, who these people are.

That’s the step that Mr. YooHoo missed. For all his experience, he failed to understand that he couldn’t just deploy a joke that worked somewhere else and have it work here, in front of these people whose needs and whose circumstances he hadn’t really considered.

Derek’s stage fright vanished the moment he realized what his actual job was: “My role is to just be kind of invisible and deliver, like a great butler.”

Mr. YooHoo had it backwards. The trick isn’t to make your audience disappear. It’s to make yourself disappear.

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The man who changed the way people talk

The man who changed the way people talk

Blog Entry

lincoln

Americans knew they were in for a hell of a speech that November day in 1863.

The place: a cemetery in Virginia. The occasion: twenty-five thousand soldiers, killed in a single day in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, buried right there beneath the ground where the podium had been set up. So horrible was the event that people had no words to make sense of it. They needed a great speaker to give them those words.

And up stepped Edward Everett, a popular statesman, to ease their pain, to deliver the speech of his life. He’d prepared mightily and memorized the whole thing. He spoke for two hours.

What did he say? Nobody remembers. Because the guy who came up after him on that day stole the show.

The guy who came up after him spoke for two minutes. He did in two minutes what Edward Everett couldn’t do in two hours: he captured that historic moment and put it under glass forever. The second guy’s speech didn’t blow the first guy’s speech away in spite of its brevity. It blew the first guy’s speech away because of its brevity.

The second guy was Abraham Lincoln. And his two-minute speech was the Gettysburg Address.

**

Historians have made a lot of this juxtaposition of speakers, the crazy vaudeville act of these two gentlemen who couldn’t have been more different. Their speeches, too, couldn’t have been more different.

Unlike Edward Everett, Lincoln didn’t drop a lot of allusions to the ancient Greeks. He didn’t broadcast his knowledge of every detail of the battle. He didn’t name-drop every historic figure from Adam who might have had a hand in bringing the United States to that moment in time.

He just … exhaled. Two hundred seventy words. Everett’s first sentence was fifty-three words.

Historians credit Lincoln, in that speech, with summing up not just the meaning of the war but the meaning of the country. But he did more than that. He changed the way people talk. (1)

Lincoln used simple language (short words with Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots), and in so doing, he gave people who have deliver a speech even today permission to speak … like themselves.

Since that day in Gettysburg, the way we communicate has increasingly been about hacking away the ornament that Edward Everett trowelled on so liberally. Getting rid of pretention. Finding the cleanest line between your heart and the heart you’re trying to reach.

We gas on because we think we have to. The bigger the occasion, the more we think we need to say.

But speaking isn’t about telling people all you know. It’s about telling people all they need to know. And these days, most folks don’t need to know much — at least not from you or me. They can’t manage a big stemwinder. They’re busy. They don’t have the attention. They don’t have the RAM. They can handle one big idea, a little sketch portrait done while they wait. That’s it.

To me that’s the genius of the five-to-seven minute speech format of Toastmasters — a club I think everyone who has to talk in public could benefit from. At Toastmasters, the clock starts the moment you open your mouth. A traffic-light gizmo sitting on the table lights up green, then orange, then red as you approach your time limit.

At five minutes, you’d better be putting the landing gear down. At six minutes you’re preparing your close. Beyond seven minutes you’ve gone on too long, and even a polite club will “clap you down.”

Even if you fancy yourself an aspiring keynote speaker – Hey, I need to learn how to give a long speech without notes, just as Edward Everett did — the real skill is in shaving your message to its nut. A fifty-minute keynote speech is really just a bunch of five-to-seven minutes speeches strung together.

Edward Everett would have been clapped down at Gettysburg before he’d even finished clearing his throat.

 

1) Ted Widmer, “The Other Gettysburg Address,” New York Times, Nov. 19, 2013

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Short-sighted

Short-sighted

Blog Entry

blurred.visionThe other day I was on a stationary bike at the gym — part of the noontime spin crowd, all of us sweating it out. The guy next to me was really bearing down. He inspired me to give the tension knob another half-turn. By the end I was knackered.

I got off the bike, patted down with a towel, put on my glasses and took a few steps.

Whoa. This did not feel right.

The room was pitching and heaving. I had trouble getting my bearings. I thought: something’s seriously wrong. A stroke? If you can put your arms overhead — all I could remember from the checklist of red flags — you can rule out a stroke, and I could put my arms overhead. My perception was wonky, so maybe a brain injury. Possibly a tumour on the visual cortex. If that’s what it was, it occurred to me, then at my age the prognosis is not that good.

Then I realized:

I had put on the glasses of the guy on the next bike.

We got it straightened out before he put on mine. (Although it would have been interesting to see if he lapsed into the same desperate Woody Allen routine.)

Two takeaways from this:

Number one: Don’t reach for a complicated explanation when there might be a simpler one.

Number two: Don’t catastrophize. It only creates anxiety and there’s absolutely no upside, because if turns out you’re wrong, you’ve been tormenting yourself needlessly, and if it turns out you’re right, you’ve been extending the suffering unnecessarily.

Feels good to be back from the brink. Near-sighted, absent-minded, but still among the quick.

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Have Dog, Will Travel

Have Dog, Will Travel

Essays Featured

galloping.goose.5

from WESTERN LIVING, July/August 2016

photos by Jennifer Williams

 

1. Sooke dreams

As the Mazda eases through the highway curves near Cassidy, B.C. — not ten minutes into the trip — a curdly tang fills the air.

“Oh gross – Penny just barfed!” Madeline hollers from the back seat. “Lila’s cleaning it up! She’s the one who fed her cheese!”

Penny is our one-year-old golden retriever, and the reason we’re on this kind of family holiday — rural, car-based, close to home,  — rather than the more exotic kind involving air travel, big cities, high culture and people dressed in expensive black slacks.

Dogs are of course awesome, as I don’t need to tell you dog people. But a puppy can disrupt a little family in the following way: you can’t leave her alone — not in the car, not on the ferry, not outside a store. She barks, you see. So, just when you thought the ‘hot-bunking sailors’ stage of married life was over, here it is again.

“Kind of like having a toddler,” a friend suggests.

“Except toddlers grow up.”

Now, you can leave your dog at a kennel come vacation time (don’t try this with a toddler). But the cheapest option, in some ways the easiest option, and certainly the only no-tears option, is to just bring her along.

We’d planned a circle route around lower Vancouver Island — down the east coast, around the horn, back up the west coast and across the interior — but forest fires had closed that final cut-through. So our journey would more closely resemble a smile that we traced and traced again.

Front-loading the indulgence, we booked the first night at the exquisite Sooke Harbour House — a destination more befitting honeymooners, foodies, and mindfulness-meditators than a roustabout family with a big sheddy mutt. You’d normally have to sneak a dog into such a place. But they love dogs at SHH. “We often prefer dogs to kids, actually,” one of the chambermaids told me, sotto voce, as we brought our bags from the car.

Penny must have missed the Cesar Milan episode where the dog waits in the hallway while the owners spread their scent throughout the hotel room: she trots right in. Waiting for her is her own little doggie bed, plus a welcome basket with towels and treats. Outside the French doors, the grounds beckon. The two-and-a-half acres of lovingly tended gardens are locovore heaven. “Eat what you can see” is the mantra here. Penny seems to understand this a little too well; we keep a close eye on her, lest she take a chomp out of one of the driftwood sculptures.

whiffen.spit.8

2. The best damn swimming hole in Canada

The Sooke Potholes are a series of pools carved into the rock by the cascading waters of the Sooke River. They’re one of the great swimming holes in B.C. But to a dog, they must seem even more magical: like a great big toilet you can drink out of.

A bike trail called the Galloping Goose takes you right there from the city, following the gentle grade of the freight-rail line it used to be. All in all a perfect way for a family with a dog to spend a summer day. Once you get on the Goose, you’re golden. It’s finding the Goose in the first place that’s the trick.

On rented bicycles, we white-knuckle it along the skinny shoulder of the highway as five-axle traffic blasts past. I’m trying to steer with one hand and wrangle Penny on a leash with the other. You see people gaily do this in TV commercials for life insurance, but running shotgun is actually a skill the dog has to learn. Penny either wants to pull me into cars, or she wants to stop and sniff. Whenever we leave the highway and try to thread our way through the suburbs, we keep hitting dead ends. It’s not clear where the heck we are.

“Did you know that commercial jets are off-course ninety percent of the time?” I offer, buoyantly. “The whole trip is about making corrections!” Silence. The girls are wondering about the chain of command on this vacation. Even the dog is getting fed up.

But the Potholes, when we find them, are as lovely as promised — the water bracing and ferric — and the Mad and Lila wade in to their chests. Penny decides the water’s too cold and stays on shore.

It’s trendy to talk about domestic dogs as if they were wolves – wired to hunt and roam and jockey for position in the pack. There isn’t a lot of wolf in Penny. Evolutionarily, she’s probably closer to a kitchen appliance. She knows where her dinner’s coming from: a big bag, not her own predatory instincts. This makes things easier in wilderness areas. We don’t really have to worry about her hare-ing off somewhere. Eventually she grows bored, picks up one of Lila’s shoes and drops it in the river.

3. The Big Wild
Luxury digs receding in the rear-view mirror, we complete the lazy drive north, through the Sooke Hills, arriving at dusk to pitch our tent at China Beach.

Dogs are welcome here in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park — as they are, albeit leashed, in all BC parks. This makes camping a pretty good way to go if you’re travelling with the hund. (Camping, when you think about it, is actually more suitable for dogs than for humans: sleeping on the ground in close quarters in a portable den.) The girls take turns blowing into the air mattress while Penny cases the joint. Her nose twitches. A curious expression comes over her face — a cross between approval and admiration. You guys must be more important than I thought, it says. They gave you the best site in the campground – right next to the outhouse.

The big attraction in these parts lies a short drive north of here, near Port Renfrew. And Botanical Beach is indeed high-grade West Coast wild. We hike the loop trail, an easy 4km. We didn’t get the tides right, so much of the big, rich canvas of intertidal life is underwater. But the trees are amazing — not because they’re so big, but because, weirdly, they aren’t. The ancient Sitka spruce are bonsai-tiny. “In a protected area,” an interpretative sign explains, “many of these trees would be fifty metres high.” But because they’re so exposed to the punishing weather, they don’t grow. The hardship stunts them. I half-expect the girls to pick up on this. We too are a bit undersized for their age, they will claim, because of the hardship you and mom inflict on us. Lift the restrictions on screen time and candy and watch us bloom.

4. The Big Smoke

 Penny is starting to smell. In that smell are traces of the trip thus far — top notes of beach goo, the Rottie she wrestled at Whiffen Spit, whatever she rolled in on that farm in Metchosin. The car, meanwhile, is starting to smell like Penny.

But there’s a place in Sooke called Suds ‘n Pups that solves both issues in one go. We first take care of the Mazda with a pressure hose, and then usher a dubious Penny around the corner and give her the business. I can’t say she’s happy about it, but she does take a certain satisfaction from shaking herself dry on us. She has to be presentable, we tell her, for the next stop on the itinerary: a trip to the city.

Not long ago, a team of researchers produced “smellscapes” of a number of European capitals. You can use them to plot walking tours tailored to your olfactory wishes — like Lonely Planet guides, if they were written and published by dogs. Nobody has mapped Victoria yet, but I’ll bet it’ll turn out to smell like salt, tea bags, fish-and-chips and marine diesel. Whatever’s going down here, Penny seems to be thinking as we find a parking spot and disgorge into the tourist hordes on Government Street, she’s all-in.

A sax-playing busker stops her in her tracks. Some sort of mating call, is this? (Actually, yes: it’s John Coltrane.) The lunch-hour crowd eddies around us.

Which raises another issue. We can’t bring Penny into a restaurant: it’s against the Canadian health code. (Even a restaurant in Duncan called The Dog House does not actually welcome dogs, we discovered, after they marched us all right back outside again.) But we can’t leave her in the hot car. At Pagliacci’s, the sympathetic staff pushes two patio tables together on the sidewalk and the waiters serve us out there, in the midday sun. Penny takes refuge underneath while we eat.

And then, for her, the day takes a really great turn. In Chinatown, she follows her nose down Dragon Alley and pulls us right into a tiny shop. The owner, Clayton Ealey, shakes his head. “No, no” he says.

“No dogs in here?” I say, preparing to leave.

“No leashes,” Clayton says.

Penny’s eyes brighten. What is this place? No less than a bakery … for dogs.

victoria.bakery.4

In a display case up front sit rows of jewel-like treats, many of them at nose height. There’s no glass.  Penny stares at them from six inches away. It’s a cosmic test of character. “Usually, they won’t shoplift till your back is turned,” Clayton says. There are blueberry and salmon cookies wrapped in beef jerky,  “meaty muffins” with cheddar and honey and apple. “That’s peanut butter and honey with yoghurt icing,” Clayton says of the cupcake I’m appraising. “More people than dogs eat that one.” I scarf it down when his back is turned. He swings around. “Oh you actually ate it!?” he says, looking horrified. “Just kidding.”

Penny is starting to get used to sauntering right in to stores, Parisienne-style. Could be a rude shock for her to wake from this dream and return home to North Van, where dogs are expected to know their place.

5. Wally World

 Penny prefers to rise around 5am, like Donald Trump. This becomes an issue in a campground — such as this quiet one at Englishman River Falls, near Parksville, where we’ve spent our final night.

She climbs over four sleeping bags and whines to go out. She then sits sentry in front of the tent in the pre-dawn. I can’t leave her out there alone. But it’s too early to start breakfast – we’d wake the other campers. There’s nothing to be done but curl up in a blanket beside her. A light rain falls on the both of us for a couple of hours.

“So this is our last day, girls,” I put it to Madeline and Lila at the picnic table as they chow down on camp cereal. “Now you’re in a position to know: Which is better – holidaying with the dog or without her?”

Madeline ponders this. “Well, you can go more places without a dog,” she says, marshaling eleven-year-old logic. “But a dog makes it all more … enthusiastic.”

There remains one last piece of business. Penny can smell, through the cracked back window, the tidal musk of the best beach on the whole east coast of Vancouver Island. But as we pile out of the car at Rathtrevor, and make a beeline for the surf, a sign catches us up. No pets allowed. Seriously?

There is a saying within the canine resistance: ‘A good dog must not obey the law too well.’

Soon Penny is out there rolling on her back. The kids are doing that game where you strand yourself on little islands created by the incoming tide. Bliss.

Then Madeline points. Two uniformed figures in the distance, screeching to a stop in their Club Car. And now the park rangers walking briskly toward us over the sand-flats.

You know what? It was so worth it, whatever it is we’re in for.

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That reminds me of a story…

That reminds me of a story…

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storytelling

After my dad died, and we were sorting through his things, I found in his office a small filing cabinet. It was jammed full of index cards. And on each index card was a story — or at least an anecdote or an extended joke. He must have been collecting them for many years. Some were good, some corny, and some seemed designed to be deployed in very specific circumstances.

Dad, apparently, was developing an arsenal of stories for all occasions. He wanted, ideally, to be able to answer a question, any question, with a story. This strikes me now as pure parenting genius. It’s a surefire way to dispense wisdom lightly. You can impart a lesson without being preachy, be directive without inviting pushback. Because, hey, you’re just telling a story.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember my dad being particularly good at this skill of dialing up a story on demand. He was a surpassingly great guy, but not exactly a spellbinding raconteur. I think it was something he aspired to get good at after he retired and had more time to commit to the effort. Turned out he didn’t live long enough to see the plan through.

But I applaud the idea. I think he was absolutely on to something.  The best answer to any question is a story.

Now, some people are super-adept at this.

The business titans Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger — the Berkshire Hathaway founders and two of the greatest investors who ever lived — are textbook. Buffett was approached by a reporter after the financial meltdown of 2008. “So many people suffered terrible losses, Mr. Buffett, but not you two gentlemen so much. Do you care to comment?”

Buffett replied: “Well, you never know who’s swimming naked till the tide goes out.”

(Okay, that’s not really a story, just an aphorism; but I bet you don’t forget it anytime soon.)

For elected officials, it’s an indispensable skill. Because if your story is entertaining enough, you make everything forget that you didn’t really answer the question. (Abraham Lincoln was the master at this—at least if the movie version of his life is to be believed.)

Who else? Religious leaders. Rabbis, especially. Because answering questions with stories is part of the Jewish oral tradition.

It was a rabbi who, for me, pulled the curtain away on how this is done. So the story goes, there was once a wise old rabbi who seemed to have no end of stories that were right on point. One day a student said:

“Rabbi, I have noticed that you always answer a question with a story. How do you know so many stories? And how do you choose the stories to tell that are so perfect for the subject?”

“Your question,” the rabbi said, “reminds me of a story….

Once, long ago, a nobleman sent his son to the military academy in a nearby village to learn to shoot. Five years later, as the young man was returning home, he passed an old barn with chalk circles drawn all over its side. In the centre of every circle was a bullet hole.

He got off his horse. ‘Who is this marksman who can shoot a hundred perfect bullseyes?’ he said. ‘I must meet him!’

A young boy heard the question. ‘Oh, yes, I know that man,” the boy said. ‘He’s the town fool.’ The boy elaborated. ‘See, you think he shoots bullets in circles. But actually, he shoots first, then he draws the circle.’

“And that’s the way it is for me, the rabbi told his student. “I don’t just happen to have these perfect stories that fit the subject we’re discussing. Instead, when I find a story I  like, I steer the conversation that way so I can then introduce the story.”

That’s pretty canny. I might just give this a shot.

I think my Dad would approve.

 

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Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger

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Not long ago I had lunch with my old pal James. It had been awhile.

“So whatcha been up to?” he said.

“Let’s see,” I replied. “Read a couple of books I enjoyed. Got some good runs in. Made a spaghetti sauce I was pleased with. You?”

“Well, this and that. Oh yeah: I climbed El Cap.”

That would be El Capitan.

For those of you who aren’t climbers, let me put this in perspective. El Capitan is a vertical wall of rock. It is 3,000 feet high.

When you think about climbing El Cap,  imagine it as a sequence of steps. You put on a climbing harness. You walk up to the bottom of the thing. You step up onto the rock face. And then, sometime later, you hoist yourself over the top. By sometime, I mean days later.

In James’s case, it was three days. Eighty hours on the cliff face.

I hit him, I’m afraid, with the usual questions:

How do you go to the bathroom? (answer: adult diapers.)

How do you sleep? (answer: you either carry a portable hammock with you that you drive into the rock, or you look for a little ledge, sometimes as small in area as a casket or a toboggan. That’s what James did.

I asked him how hard it was.

He was silent for a moment. “I had prepared myself that it was going to be really, really hard,” he said. “And it was harder. Not so much physically – I’d trained for it. But psychologically. Just spending whole days with nothing underneath you. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard, but it totally gets to you. You feel undermined. I don’t know how you’d train for that except maybe being dangled below an airplane for ten or twelve hours.”

There were many times when he didn’t think he and his climbing partner would make it, he said. They hung in there. They made it.

But that wasn’t even the inspirational part.

They had aimed to finish the morning of the third day, but the climb took longer than expected and they didn’t finish till dusk. The car was parked pretty far away. There was a path. They decided to go for it. Turned out the path didn’t go to the car but snaked over into the next valley. Soon it was dark, and they were lost.

That’s when one turned to the other and said:

“Look at where we are right now. If you just dropped us into these circumstances – lost in the wilderness in a foreign country in the middle of the night, hungry and exhausted, we’d be terrified. But because of what we just accomplished, this is nothing. This is not stressful. The sun’ll be up soon and we’ll get our bearings and we’ll be fine.”

If ever there were a case for making a habit of nosing out of your comfort zone, this is it. The more you do, the more you can do. Whenever you do the more difficult thing instead of the easy thing, you’re making tomorrow more interesting. Make a habit of this and you’re liable to become dangerously impressive, like James.

He and I said goodbye to each other.

And then I went home to make a really dangerous spaghetti sauce

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Eureka!

Eureka!

Featured Published Stories Archive

Flashes of insight can be personally transformative, creatively inspiring, or even spiritually transcendent. Is there a way to manufacture an “aha” moment,” or at least improve the odds of having one?

From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY (cover story), March 2015

Simon Lovell was 31 and a professional con man who had spun the gambling tricks he’d learned from his grandfather into a lucrative if bloody-minded business fleecing strangers. Without hesitation or remorse, he left his marks broken in hotels all over the world.

Nothing suggested that this day in 1988 would be any different. Lovell, in Europe, had spotted his victim in a bar, plied him with drinks, and drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of a foolproof get-rich scheme. The con went perfectly. “I took him for an extremely large amount of money,” Lovell said later.

Lovell hustled the drunken man out of the hotel room and left him in the hallway for security to deal with. But then something unexpected happened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell recalled. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing.”

What followed was a moment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light suddenly went on. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for someone.”

Lovell’s next move was hard even for him to believe. He returned the guy his money. Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured a drink, and declared himself done with this dodge. “There was an absolute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it anymore.” The next day he felt different. Lighter. “I had become,” he said, “a real human being again.” He never ran another con. Continue reading

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Why everyone needs an Old friend

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Show of hands: who has an old friend?

 

I don’t just mean a friend from middle-school whom you’re still in touch with. I mean an old friend – a friend who’s thirty, forty, fifty years older than you. And who’s not a blood relative.

 

Not many. And that’s a shame. Because the old have something incredibly rare, and perishable, and irreplaceable to offer: actual, firsthand knowledge of the world.

 

There’s a gripping memoir I read recently by a gentleman named Harry Bernstein. It’s his first book. He published it at age 96.

 

But here’s what’s kind of amazing. When the book became a hit, a New York Times reporter asked Bernstein how it came about. This is what he replied:

 

“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.”

And then he leaned forward and said:

“God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”

 

Now that’s a radical idea. That old people could still have potential. That they’re still, in some sense, ripening. Life experience works like compound interest, delivering a rich back-end payoff in wisdom and insight. That ought to make really old people the most sought-after dinner companions in the world.

 

But it doesn’t. Maybe in Japan in does, but not here.

 

Here’s what most people under 25 think about most people over 75: nothing. They have no idea what old people have to offer because they don’t know any old people. Outside grandparents and uncles and aunts – who you have to visit at Christmastime – theirs is a seniors-free world. Old folks aren’t much walking the streets; they aren’t represented in the mass media. They’re ghosts. We warehouse them, out of sight, out of mind.

 

That’s a really worrisome development on a lot of levels. Not just because all that firsthand knowledge is dying on the vine.

 

What old people do for us, one of the many things, is they remind us of where we’re headed. Without old people in our lives, there can so easily be a disconnect between our present selves and our future selves. And that affects the way we live, the choices we make. It creates the conditions for ruinously short-term thinking.

 

Some ingenious studies have revealed how this works. Turns out that if we’re shown photos of ourselves digitally aged, it’s a jolting wake-up call. We change our behavior. We save more for retirement, we eat a healthier diet, we behave less recklessly. The same thing happens if we’re asked to sit down and write a letter to our “future self.” Our mortality snaps into focus. It is a Jacob Marley moment. We go, holy crap, that’s going to be me.

 

If you visit the Aging Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and you put on the leg braces, and the big cumbersome gloves, and the vision-impairing goggles that simulate glaucoma, you get a hint of what frailty feels like. And it changes you. Now the wall between you and the old guy in line at the grocery store crumbles. You see him differently. That is, you see him. His trembling hand putting a can of beans down on the counter. He looks old to you, but the picture he has of himself, from the inside, is quite different. He’s probably astonished to look in the mirror and see that wrinkled face looking back. He’s thinking: how did this happen? Old age came for him like a thief in the night, and it’s coming for us, too.

 

Now, I was lucky enough to have a staggeringly great old friend. When we met, Olga Kotelko was enjoying this fantastic, unlikely career as a master’s track-and-field star. She was like Harry Bernstein; she was cashing in the potentials lurking inside of her because something had kept her alive into her Nineties. I didn’t have to write a letter to my future self, because I had Olga. She was what the high road looks like.

 

But one of the differences between us, I noticed, is that she burned hotter. By which I mean, she knew she had less time. And so she lived differently. She was gorging on life. She knew what things are important and what aren’t, and so she didn’t squander even a minute on stuff that’s merely urgent, or worse, trivial. She used the whole day, and dropped off to sleep every night with gratitude. Olga suffered way more sadness and hardship than I have, which sharpened her appreciation for what was right in front of her. She was alive to a degree that put me to shame.

 

I started out writing a science book about her –what physiologists are learning from her crazy, age-defying ways. It ended up being about what I have learned from her.

 

May you all have an Olga in your life.

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Behind the Cover Story: Bruce Grierson on Ellen Langer

Behind the Cover Story: Bruce Grierson on Ellen Langer

Aging Essays Featured Psychology

NYT

from the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE

Bruce Grierson wrote this week’s cover story about Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who has conducted experiments that involve manipulating environments to turn back subjects’ perceptions of their own age. Grierson’s last article for the magazine was about Olga Kotelko, a 91-year-old track star, which became the basis for his book “What Makes Olga Run?”

How did you first hear about Ellen Langer or grow interested in her research?

Ellen must have been hiding in my blind spot. She’s been doing her thing for almost four decades, but I didn’t stumble across her until I was researching my book, What Makes Olga Run? A chapter of that book deals with human limits and the role of the mind therein. I called Ellen up. She told me the story of her mother’s and grandmother’s afflictions. Then I learned she was contemplating this cancer study. It started to feel like a story.

Did she surprise you in any way?

About 20 seconds into a conversation with her, you know she’s different. She doesn’t sound like a scientist. She speaks in the rhythms of one of those old borscht-belt comics — punch, punch, punch, stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-before. There’s almost a narrative intelligence — if that’s a thing — that’s more obvious than her scientific intelligence. She’s an artist — literally (she paints) and also in sensibility. She’d surely agree with Einstein that not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured. She’s fun to be around, but she kind of wore me out.

read the rest of this story here:

http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/

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What If Age is Nothing But a Mind-Set?

What If Age is Nothing But a Mind-Set?

Aging Essays Featured

from the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, OCT. 22, 2014

26counterclockwise2-master1050-v11One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment, cooked up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.

The subjects were in good health, but aging had left its mark. “This was before 75 was the new 55,” says Langer, who is 67 and the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard. Before arriving, the men were assessed on such measures as dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition — probably the closest things the gerontologists of the time could come to the testable biomarkers of age. Langer predicted the numbers would be quite different after five days, when the subjects emerged from what was to be a fairly intense psychological intervention.

Langer had already undertaken a couple of studies involving elderly patients. In one, she found that nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss were able to do better on memory tests when they were given incentives to remember — showing that in many cases, indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration. In another, now considered a classic of social psychology, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.

To Langer, this was evidence that the biomedical model of the day — that the mind and the body are on separate tracks — was wrongheaded. The belief was that “the only way to get sick is through the introduction of a pathogen, and the only way to get well is to get rid of it,” she said, when we met at her office in Cambridge in December. She came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself. Gathering the older men together in New Hampshire, for what she would later refer to as a counterclockwise study, would be a way to test this premise.

read the rest of the article here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/magazine/what-if-age-is-nothing-but-a-mind-set.html?_r=0

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Hollywood called. They want to turn your book into a movie.

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Imagining the movie that Hollywood’s going to make of your book feels a bit karmically dangerous – a “counting your chickens before they’ve hatched” dodge for the modern creative class.

But what the hell. Every writer does it. It’s fun to dream. It’s especially fun to imagine yourself as the casting director, armed with an unlimited budget and access to all the world’s acting talent. Who would play your protagonist? Your villain?

Marshal Zeringue terrific blog My Book, The Movie scratches just this itch. Marshal, an American screenwriter and champion of literary efforts high and low, asks writers to “dreamcast” their book.

You’d think writers would be the best people to consult on this – they cooked up the characters, after all. But for some reason their opinions are not warmly received – or even solicited – by film producers. Elmore Leonard, whose novels are so dialogue-driven and cinematic they routinely make their way to the screen, doesn’t even bother offering candidates anymore. The first few times, “They would ask me what actors I saw in the roles,” Leonard says, in Marshal’s blog. “I would tell them and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’”

It’s a bit of a Walter Mitty exercise, imagining you’d ever have the power to shape a big-budget movie. It’s pleasing to be asked questions that make you feel important. ‘In the movie of your life, who would play you?’ ‘What novel would you assign to the Prime Minister to read?’ Who would you invited to your literary dream dinner party?’ When you dreamcast, no one ever says no to your entreaties, even dead folks. “You might speculate what, say, Cary Grant or Grace Kelly would have done with the role,” says Marshal.

Most of the posts on his site are for works of fiction, but there are some great non-fiction ones, too.

My own stab at dreamcasting What Makes Olga Run? can be found here.

 

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Squaring the Curve

Squaring the Curve

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Folk_dancesAs many of you now know, Olga died suddenly in the early morning of June 24. She got up to use the bathroom and a blood vessel feeding her brain burst. Doctors say she likely went unconscious in about a second – like the flip of a light switch.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about what it means that she died. “I thought she was going to live forever!” people said, only half-joking. A couple of weeks before her death she taped a segment for the Dr. Oz show. The episode was called, “How to Live to 100.” It aired a few days after she died. “I guess it was too late to pull her spot,” a friend said.

Too late to pull her spot. As if her death had shattered the magic, and sort of undermined the example of her life.

I don’t see it that way. On the contrary.

I think Olga dying when she did, the way she did, reframes the conversation around her. Her story’s no longer just about longevity, but also quality of life.

In a lot of ways, crazy as it sounds, she was peaking. She’d just smashed the world records in eight events at the world outdoor championships in Budapest. She came home to be love-bombed by her friends, and congratulated on the new memoir she’d just published. Then for good measure she set seven new outdoor world records. Then she tackled the garden.

If you think of life as a poker game – and figure that the currency isn’t money, it’s health and energy and purpose — then by those terms, over 90 years Olga amassed just about the biggest pile of chips anybody ever has. And then she walked away from the table. On this incredible winning streak she bowed out.

Now it could be she’d have kept on winning, in this poker game, for months or years or a decade or more. But the odds are against it. Beyond a certain point there are trade-offs in length of life vs. quality of life – for everybody. So for Olga, was that tipping point a year away? A day away? All I know is, she thought of her life as a miracle. It was beyond her wildest imagining.

Gerontologists have a term: “squaring the curve.” It just means, if you think of your physical and mental health plotted as a line on a graph, what you want is for that line not to be one slow long decline. You want it to stay high for as long as possible, until it plunges sharply at the very end of your life, as illness or something else takes you out quickly.

Olga squared the curve with a ruler. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example. You blaze for 95 years and then die instantaneously with no pain and no regrets no burden on anybody else. I think this is what we all aspire to – to live right up to that tipping-point moment. Whether it comes at age 75 or 85 or 95. I think that’s a way better goal than living as long as humanly possible. We make a fetish out of this quest for super-longevity; we try to concoct ways to “solve” aging, as if it’s a disease. But squaring the curve: that’s what we should be thinking about.

In some ways our whole culture and economy depends on us embracing that idea – that it’s the “life in your years,” as Olga liked to say, rather than the “years in your life.” Because otherwise the so-called grey tsunami is going to be real, and it’s going to swamp us. Most people cost the health-care system as much in the last six weeks of their life as they do in the entire rest of their life. It’s the decline into decrepitude that does us in. Gotta square the curve. Live well and live long enough and then kick the bucket – boom.

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Olgas Among Us – Part 3: Sven the Frontiersman

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A guest post by SID TAFLER

 

There are two important things to know about meeting Sven Johansson.

The first is, don’t shake his hand. At 90, he still has an iron grip, so my advice is, avoid the pain and offer a fist pump.

The second is, if you ask him how he’s doing, he’ll invariably say in his high-pitched Swedish lilt, “Never had a bad day yet.”

With the glint in his ice-blue eyes and an impish smile, you have to take him at his word, even though he’s known many dark days living in a tent with ice-cracking temperatures in Canada’s far north. And more recently, many days trying to break through the barriers facing a struggling new arts company.

His denial of the downside of life is long-living proof that healthy longevity is as much about attitude as it is about genes and lifestyle.

“If you want to preserve meat you put it in the freezer,” he chuckles. “I lived in the Arctic in 40 below, 50, 60 to 72 below for 25 years–frozen solid. So the meat never went bad.”

Sven is a solidly built, compact man who immigrated to Canada in 1962 and spent much of his life herding reindeer (he won an Order of Canada in 1994 for reviving Canada’s herd) and sailing his ship the North Star in the Beaufort Sea for the Geological Survey of Canada. Then in his 60s, he developed a new form of aerial dance, moved to Victoria and established the Discovery Dance Society, reigniting his life-long interest in the arts.

With proper lighting, Sven’s dancers appear to fly in the air, suspended on a boom, with the performer at one end above the stage and an operator on the floor at the other, the two working as a team to defy gravity and delight the audience.

Sven calls his technique ES (for Excedere Saltatio, or exceeding the limits). He says it releases dancers from the limits of their own bodies as well as the force of gravity and encourages new forms of choreography and performance.

Even disabled people confined to wheelchairs have experienced the thrill of dancing in air, strapped into his crane-like device which he calls a dance instrument.

Sven has presented more than 20 of his own dance productions, including one at the closing ceremonies for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. His work has been featured in six films and is showcased at the summer Shakespeare by the Sea festival in Victoria and at performances in Winnipeg, Vancouver and other centres.

In his tenth decade, he says his ever-active mind is as sharp and agile as it was in his 20s. His hearing has weakened, but he still lives on his own and walks without a cane with occasional rest stops.

In his book-lined bachelor apartment in downtown Victoria, he works on upcoming dance performances and his ever-expanding autobiography. He has no plans to retire for another ten years, but knowing Sven, he’ll probably find the motivation to keep going into his 100s.

There’s a lot to accomplish. Despite some successes and awards, ES Dance hasn’t achieved the recognition he believes it deserves, perennially rejected for funding by the Canada Council and the BC Arts Council and given short shrift by the local news media and “the very archaic dance community.”

He’s not the first outlier to be slighted in his own lifetime. He mentions Emily Carr, considered in her day as “just a funny old lady with a monkey in a baby carriage–not the great Canadian artist she in fact was.”

Looking ahead, Sven is searching for a young person “talented in all the arts” to lead Discovery Dance to new heights in the next 30 years.

“It often takes two generations for innovative artists to be recognized. By 2044, the second generation of ES Dancers may do it.”

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Can you judge a book by Page 99?

Can you judge a book by Page 99?

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page.99.logo

The 19th century novelist Ford Madox Ford, beloved of literary types for his perfect gem of a novel The Good Soldier, has lately seen his name appear more widely, attached to this quote:

 

“Open a book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

 

Ford never explained why he picked that particular page at the litmus, but his “Page 99 Test” is quickly becoming better known than Ford himself — thanks partly to an American playwright and screenwriter named Marshal Zeringue, who founded a blog devoted to the idea. Since starting it in 2007, Marshal has run more than a thousand of these mini-reviews, which together serve as both an informal test of Ford’s theory and welcome press for the authors of deserving books that are underexposed because they don’t, you know, involve vampires.

My own stab at the Page 99 Test can be found here.

The Page 99 Test is an idea for our age. Everybody’s falling-down-busy and desperate for cheats and life hacks that will let them do stuff and learn stuff in a fraction of the time, in the cracks and margins. The only thing that scares us more than vampires is wasting time. Having a sneaky way to assess in 90 seconds whether a book is worth the effort? Priceless.

Unless there’s some sort of Masonic significance to the double-9s, it’s probably an arbitrary number. But it makes sense to pick a page around there, in the early middle. For sure it’s better than judging a book by page 1. Every author spends inordinate time shining up those first few paragraphs to lure you in, and often as not there follows a dropoff in quality. (Because, hey, you’ve already bought the book!) By page 99, the scene is set, the characters are established, the narrative engine is starting to rev. The story is going somewhere — or not. Philip Larkin once famously claimed that British novels are generally made up of “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” Most books are. Middles are hard; sustaining momentum is a feat of magic.

Something else page 99 has going for it? It’s a perfect place for the author to step back and reveal the whole landscape. Sometimes you will find the whole book in microcosm on page 99 or thereabouts. Sometimes there exactly. In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, page 99 “takes place at exactly the moment Waverly has started winning chess championships and the community is rallying around her,” one critic found. In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, page 99 is the moment the hero’s dual identity is revealed. I flipped to page 99 of Fifty Shades of Gray the other day while waiting in the grocery line. (I didn’t pull my own dog-eared copy from under the mattress, honest.) It was a bit shocking. That page so perfectly aces the Page 99 test that you almost suspect the author knew that browsers would be kicking the tires there, and so built the page to contain the nut of the story, plus a tantalizing hint of what’s to come. Even the writing wasn’t terrible. I almost jettisoned my avocados to buy the book. At the very least, it made me think of other uses for avocados.

Marshal runs his Page 99 Test blog out of a mothership called the Campaign for the American Reader, “an independent initiative to encourage more people to read more books.” Marshal himself is a bit of a man of mystery. He appears to be among those rare folk who are genuinely here to help. He has created this great vehicle for other writers to advertise themselves, but he is himself “internet-shy.” This of course makes you want to know more about him. He trained to be a political scientist (at Tulane and UVA) but stopped just short of getting his Ph.D. to pursue the creative-writing dodge. You can see the depth/breadth of his tastes in his book selection. There are a lot of smart and worthwhile titles here you’ve never heard of – just as you’ve never heard of Marshal.

“I suppose getting out front and pimping my blog would be good PR,” he said in an email, “but I feel like the work I do on the site already sucks up too much of my reading, writing & movie-viewing time, and have resisted (the relatively few) invitations to promote my sites.”

The other site of Marshal’s worth noting – and I won’t note it at length cause I plan to do another whole blog post on it – is called My Book, The Movie.

I think of Marshal as a kind of literary superhero, moving incognito among us. Maybe someone should write a book, or make a movie, about him.

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Olgas Among Us – Part 2

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While working on the Olga book, framing up Olga as a model of someone living the Exemplary Life, I sometimes wondered: why am I privileging physical health over mental health? Don’t get me wrong: she was sharp and funny and wise, a puzzler and a careful reader. But she wasn’t an intellectual. Hers was a life of the body much more than it was a life of the mind.

Surely there are some old souls out there whose lifelong devotion to intellectual pursuits rival Olga’s to devotion to staying fit and in motion; people who remain, even as they approach 100 years old, Olympians of the neocortex?

Look no farther than Eric Koch.

A longtime producer and executive at the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster), Eric also taught social science at York University in Toronto. I learned this from his blog, called “Sketches,” which he began five years ago, at the age of 90.

If you want to read Eric’s archive of posts, prepare to set aside a week. There are close to fifteen hundred of them. (Honestly, I lost count). A daily-newspaper columnist who managed that kind of output would be in a good position to ask for a pay raise. Together, Eric’s posts — or “feuilletons,” as he calls them — display the breadth of his interests, and the acuity of his mind. Some are links to provocative articles found elsewhere, and some are original musings. The canvas is wide: world affairs, history, economics, literature, Hitlerology, soccer, philosophy, politics, music, language, bees. He also has links to short videos he created and posted on YouTube, in which he sits musing in front of a webcam in his home – like John Green, but with less hair and more gravitas. If you read all of his entries and watched all of those films, you’d get a good picture of Eric, and fine snapshot of Canada, and a decent liberal-arts education. This is all the product of a ferocious curiosity indulged with the time and will to roam, for decade upon decade.

The legendary New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell, a fabulous prose stylist still at 93, told a reporter recently that he churns out personal blog entries partly to keep his mind sharp. There’s good evidence that a habit of writing — letters, blogs, diary entries, novels, whatever —is a bulwark against dementia. I’d assumed that writing was actually a better bulwark against dementia than even reading, because writing is for most people a more active process than reading. But there’s no good data to support that. Writing’s good, reading’s good, learning other languages is good, doing puzzles is good.

A new study out of the Mayo Clinic, however, seems to speak directly to the earned cognitive horsepower of people like Eric Koch. As Pacific Standard Magazine summarized the findings: “The best medicine, for brain health, is living a life of the mind.” (I would actually quibble with the word “best,” here, since we now know that nothing, but nothing, promotes overall brain health like vigorous exercise.)

“Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment,” notes the scientist who led the research team. How much? Three to six years, on average. For people born with the APOE4 gene variant, which carries a high risk for dementia, the difference is even bigger. For such unlucky folks, a lifetime habit of ongoing intellectual enrichment delayed cognitive impairment “by more than eight and one-half years, on average.” So there it is. “Lifelong learning,” so often touted as a better alternative than sinking into the barcalounger with a beer for your post-retirement decades, emerges as a prescription for the impending dementia epidemic. You can almost see the wheels turning in the mind of policy-makers. Make university courses free for seniors. Subsidize travel for them. Forgive their library fines.

Here’s the funny part. Eric tells me he doesn’t write his blog to “stay sharp.” (Also: “I leave solving puzzles to my wife.”) “I do it because I want to be loved,” he says. “And to prevent boredom. And to cheer me up.”

The blog entries, he says, are a good “counterbalance” to his real work: writing books. He has authored thirteen books of fiction and five of nonfiction. “The blog posts are quick and easy, which books are not.”

This week, instead of banging out an original piece, Eric linked to an article, from Slate magazine, about the hemlock plant and the poisoning of Socrates. He has bigger fish to fry.

“I am working on a murder mystery and have to find out who did it.”

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Using Your Whole Life

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I’ve been enjoying Harry Bernstein’s memoir, the Invisible Wall, which crackles with details of life, and religious prejudices, in the hardscrabble mill town of his youth in Northern England. In a weird way, almost more impressive to me than the book itself are the circumstances of its existence.

Bernstein finished it when he was 93. He published it when he was 96.

“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book,” the author told a New York Times reporter after the book hit the bestseller lists. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.” And then he added this kicker: “God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”

Now that is a radical idea in this culture: that really old people still have untapped potential. That not only are they not sitting around decaying, they’re still ripening. It’s not a radical an idea to me, though. Because my pal Olga Kotelko has convinced me it’s true.

Olga turned 95 in March. Like Bernstein, she had a rich and tricky upbringing, from weathering the Depression on a Saskatchewan farm to raising two daughters as a single mom to teaching elementary school for three decades in British Columbia. But it was only post-“retirement” that Olga’s life really got cooking. At age 77 she took up track and field. Competing in 11 events, she re-wrote the “masters track” record books. This spring she graduated to a new category – women aged 95 to 99  — and promptly bagged nine new world records at the world indoor championships in Budapest, bringing her total up over 40. She’s currently experimenting with a new high-jump technique.

People like Harry Bernstein and Olga Kotelko serve a valuable function in the lives of the rest of us. They show us what using a whole life looks like. Their stories exist as a kind of counterpoint to the dire warnings of demographers of how the population is aging at an accelerated rate, which means (we’re told) that a train wreck awaits in our lifetimes.

Last month the US Census Bureau announced that by 2050 fully one-fifth of Americans will be 65 or older. That’s double the proportion of seniors in 1970, when the baby boomers were still young and massing under cover in the TV rooms of suburban households, their eventual needs — their burden — still beyond imagining. Longevity is up; birth rates are down. Those two conditions are quickening the pace of the greying of America. (And hey: if you think these numbers are scary, just be glad you’re not Japanese. By only 2030 the proportion of their population aged 65 and older will be one third.)

The oldsters are going into the liability column. We have a hard time thinking of them as individuals, obsessing instead about the collective dent they’re going to make. When we can puncture the denial and imagine becoming old ourselves, it’s very often fear that floods in — fear and a kind of advance mourning. We are saying goodbye to our life well before it’s actually over. Because those are what the statistics suggest too. We’ll likely become fragile and unsteady, as sarcopenia robs us of muscle mass and osteoporosis makes us vulnerable to shattering if we slip up even once. It’s a coin toss whether we’ll lose our marbles.

But that’s the story the average numbers tell. As individuals, there are things we can do – lifestyle changes involving diet and exercise and risk exposure even cognitive strategies (the stories we tell about ourselves influence what we think and do) – that tip the odds in our favor.

We may never pull off a Third Act as brilliant as Harry’s, or Olga’s. They likely have some genetic protection that we don’t yet fully understand — not to mention the rare ferocious desire to realize those potentials lurking within. But for sure we can be more Harry-like, more Olga-like, if the will is there in us. We can “square the curve” of our decline, as the gerontologists say, so that our final years are productive in whatever way we choose to make them so. Thus do old people become assets and not liabilities – which was their customary place of course, most everywhere but in the contemporary West.

I’m almost embarrassed now about how gloomy I was about aging before I met Olga — before she and I began researching a science book on why she is the way she is — five years ago. I felt acutely what the Germans call torschlusspanik – a fear of gates closing, horizons narrowing to a pinpoint. Clearly my best thoughts, feelings and 10k times were so far behind me even the memories of them were hazy. Soon my options would be limited to whatever the care facility was offering that day. I was not yet fifty.

You can choose that outcome, Olga said — but just be honest that it’s a choice.

And then she laughed. It’s fun to be Olga, right now.

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Chicken Suit for the Soul

Chicken Suit for the Soul

Essays Featured Published Stories Archive

from READER’S DIGEST, June 2014

chicken.suitIt promised to be the best job so far that summer—which wasn’t saying much. I’d been scanning the “casual labour” postings at the local employment office, vowing every visit to take something, anything. Already I had unpacked shipments of underpants, been pulled through an active sewer on a rolling sled with a bucket of caulk and a trowel, to seal cracks, and delivered flower arrangements in a car so small half the buds got crushed when you closed the hatchback. At 18, you take what you can get.

That’s why this particular gig looked so beguiling: “mascot.” To celebrate the grand opening of a new Edmonton location in the Red Rooster convenience store chain, the employer needed to catch the eye of passing motorists and was offering two days’ work to a self-starter who could bust a few dance moves on the corner.

I fit the suit. I got the job.

The outfit had clearly been washed fewer times than it had been worn. The oversize head—more chicken than rooster—was sculpted out of wire and foam and sat heavily on shoulderpads, which had been shined and flattened by sweat and compression. The moony eyes didn’t line up right with mine.

It was mid-July. Even the mosquitos were sluggish. A high-pressure system had settled on the city and forecasters were calling for record-breaking temperatures by Sunday. The suit had no ventilation. There was no relief unless you removed the head, which was only allowed during one of two 10-minute breaks, out of public view—lest any children (delicate creatures) be forever traumatized by the sight of decapitated fake fowl.

It didn’t take long for the welcome party to show up. Kids can smell the stress hormones in adult sweat even upwind, and soon half a dozen pre-teens were orbiting as I staked out a spot on the sidewalk and tried to get into character. “Hey, chicken!” one kid taunted. This was a part of town that might charitably be called “emerging.” These were tougher kids than I was used to. “Hey, chicken legs!”

My best defense was to concentrate on the job. I improvised a dance that involved standing on one leg and helicoptering the other leg and the opposite arm—er, wing—more or less in sync. It wasn’t particularly roosterly and it certainly wasn’t manly. Immediately, I could feel a change in the energy of the kids. They were homing in on a new frequency of vulnerability.

The first rock hit me in the back. I figured they were aiming for the head and I actually re-oriented to give them that bigger, softer target.

No cars slowed. A manager briefly emerged from the store, was hit by a blast of heat that lifted his toupee, then quickly darted back into his air-conditioned cave. During break time I closed the door of the store’s stock room, removed my head and hyperventilated.

That night at the supper table my dad said grace. “Lord, bless this food to our use and us to Thy service” — the same grace he had grown up with as a missionary’s son, said quietly to himself in wartime mess halls and still trotted out for his four kids, who were mostly just glad it was so short. Then he asked: “How’d it go?”

To everyone’s surprise—but mostly mine—I started to cry. I described the heat, the stench, the rocks, the sticky pavement under my chicken feet.

“And the worst part is,” I said, “I have to go out there tomorrow and do it all again.”

My father was quiet for a full 10 seconds. Then:

“No you don’t.”

This was unusual. Dad had always believed we kids should keep our commitments. The store had hired me in good faith to be a chicken (rooster) and it wasn’t cool if the chicken (rooster) didn’t show up.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean, you’re not putting on that suit tomorrow,” he said. “I am.”

Dad had wiry black eyebrows and, under them, the kindest eyes. He was 60 years old. “Look, we’re about the same size,” he said. “Who’s to know?”

We’re only lent to each other, the short-story writer Raymond Carver once said. We get to have moments, and all we can do is savour the best ones as they happen: here, now… gone. The part of me that relished imagining my father out there doing the Twist or the Bus Stop, maybe even kind of enjoying himself in the anonymity of the costume, was hard to deny. But there was no way I was letting him be the chicken. The fact that he was willing to be the chicken was enough. The gesture blew new strength into me.

The next day went well. Nothing was different, but everything was. At the end of it I deposited a cheque from Hormel Foods for $86, and felt like a king.

http://www.readersdigest.ca/magazine/ode-dad-three-memoirs

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Meet the “Warrior Mensch”

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No more than twenty minutes after we first met, I was struck by the Second Mystery of Olga.

The First Mystery of Olga was, Why is she aging more slowly than other people?

The Second Mystery of Olga concerned her temperament. I simply could not reconcile this sweet, grandmotherly woman who was inviting me in and offering me tea with the athlete so ferociously competitive on the track that she gets tunnel vision before meets? How can those two people live in the same body?

Certain personality traits incline us to certain lines of work, and certain levels of success within those lines of work. Turns out, there is a ‘performance personality’ and a ‘longevity personality’ and perhaps also a ‘happiness personality’. And at the junction of all three axes sits Olga.  Think of that zone as the place where Performance and Staying Power and Life Satisfaction meet. It’s a rare place to live, but Olga’s not quite alone there. Mariano Rivera is there beside her.

Rivera is the New York Yankees pitcher, the best closer in baseball history, who retired recently at age 43. Rivera is obviously nowhere near Olga’s age bracket, but 43 is paleolithically old for an active professional baseball pitcher, especially one who relied on heat instead of canny knuckleball movement. Rivera not only played into his mid-forties, he dominated. Not long ago, New York Times books columnist Michiko Kakutani was inspired to weigh in on Rivera. She memorably summed up his personality in three words:

“Gentleman, Warrior, Mensch.”

Rivera was every bit as universally loved, off the mound, as he was feared by batters while on it. He was thoughtful and gracious and well-spoken and did heroic work in the community. Some other force seemed to be giving him energy, extending his warranty, stretching his years of high performance and giving him the ability to turn his ferociousness off and on like a light switch.

For Rivera – and for Olga too — that force, I believe, is faith.

Many elite older athletes profess deep faith—the subject came up again and again in my discussions with masters tracksters. Now, this is partly a generational story: most older North Americans were raised in a faith, which means if you’re without belief at Olga’s age you probably had to actively give it up at some point. But there are other ways in which the overlap between belief and high-level sports might not be coincidental.

Athletes get better by pushing themselves to their “ultimate limits.” They emerge stronger than they would have been without that test, just as the repentant sinner is often said to be “closer to God” than the righteous soul who always stared straight ahead, and so never glimpsed the temptation that was shadowing him in his blind spot. Adaptation is a physiological fact, but it’s also a spiritual notion.

Whatever your position on faith, there’s no denying it gets results. The faithful are on to something, in that they live longer and apparently happier lives, moment to moment. There’s evidence that they use their time better and are better long-term planners.

Athletes running with the tailwind of faith have an almost unfair advantage, it seems to me: spiritual doping. “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure, said Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddell, in one of Olga’s favorite lines from the movies. When you believe you’re running for a higher purpose like that, there’s almost a duty to marshall all the competitiveness that is in you.

This explains the ferociousness of the Warrior Mensch — the Warrior part. The “Mensch” part comes from the obligation to help other people similarly tap everything that is in them, not just on the track but in their lives. You don’t have to be religious to have a high degree of menschness – but you do have to have lots of humility, and a healthy appreciation that it’s not all about you.

 

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Aging is an art. Meet three modern masters

Aging is an art. Meet three modern masters

Aging Essays Featured

jean.vanier

From READER’S DIGEST, January 2015

Dr. Ephraim Engleman is often asked for his advice. The American rheumatologist, who sees patients when he’s not at the prestigious research centre he heads up at the University of California San Francisco, will turn 104 in the spring. A common query: “What’s the best way to stay as cheerfully, productively, healthily above ground as you?” “Choose your parents wisely,” he quips back.

Like many jokes, it contains a grain of truth. Genes matter. But they’re not the whole story, or even most of it. Scientists say longevity is around 30 per cent DNA and 70 per cent other factors, including lifestyle choices and psychological strategies.

We now have reams of data from longitudinal studies and twin studies and analyses of the super-seniors who inhabit the world’s so-called “blue zones” — pockets were healthy centenarians thrive. To boil down all the wisdom found therein to one word seems folly, but here goes:

Adaptation.

Humans need to be challenged. Continually. When we are, everything in us becomes a little more durable. You could say super-aging is about finding ways to grow, even into our advanced years, to offset the forces of nature trying to diminish us.

The principle applies in all dimensions of our lives, even the ones not easily measured by a heart test or a brain scan. Wisdom, character, spirit: whatever these qualities actually are, pretty clearly they anneal in the fire of “just-manageable difficulty,” no less than a marathoner’s cardiovascular system or a chess grandmaster’s frontal cortex. People who find ways to live on what poet Sam Keen called the “green, growing edge,” in all they do, are youthful — no matter what their birth certificate says.

*

Betty Jean “BJ” McHugh’s adaptation involved flipping the usual parent/child motivational paradigm on its head. We try to inspire our kids. But McHugh’s daughter inspired her. Jennifer was a swimming prodigy, a butterfly specialist who competed for Canada in the 1972 Munich Olympics at the age 15. When Jennifer announced she was done with competitive swimming three years later, her mom — who had quietly jogged on the seawall while her daughter churned laps in the pool — realized it was now her time to see how far she could go.

BJ is 87 years old. She is the fastest marathon runner on the planet in her age group by an astonishing margin: during the 2012 Honolulu marathon, she crossed the line in five hours, 12 minutes, smashing the old record by nearly half an hour. (Whereupon she did not light up a smoke to celebrate – as she had after her first marathon almost thirty years earlier. Instead she feasted with her son and granddaughter, who were also in the event.) Since her first road race at age 51, the sprite-like mother-of-four from West Vancouver has set more than 30 world records.

Aging runners are no rare sight in big-city marathons. But there comes an age point—around 80—where the numbers drop right off. Not coincidentally, it’s around the same point that human athletic performance craters. For reasons scientists can’t quite pinpoint, the body starts wearing down in double-time. Muscle mass falls sharply. Lungs lose their elasticity. Mitochondria—the tiny power plants in our cells—degrade. Bones thin. Balance falters. Old age clamps around us like a suit of armour. Anyone who has found a way to stay youthful in the face of this formidable headwind—the BJ McHughs of the world—seem mystical.

So what’s the secret?

For starters, the very exercise that becomes such a struggle when we age. The marathons McHugh runs now are far harder than the first one she ran 30 years ago, even though she’s slowed the pace significantly. Round about mile fifteen, “there’s a little war going on in my mind,” laughs BJ. It takes a mighty will not to stop and walk.

The good news: for most of us, walking is more than fine. National health associations in both Canada and the United States recommend 150 minutes brisk walking — or its equivalent — a week. While some studies maintain that working up a sweat delivers outsized benefits, the secret is finding an exercise you will actually continue to do, one that is pitched at a level that’s challenging but not overwhelming. Most sports-medicine experts recommend adding resistance training as we grow older — to strengthen bones, improve balance, and combat frailty.  After her morning run, McHugh will sometimes peel away from the tight company of her training group and pop into a yoga class. There is a level of productive restlessness about her — the same restlessness that got her into running in the first place, rather than wait in her car for her daughter to finish swimming. And that shark-like need for constant motion may be as important a key to longevity as the exercise training itself. 

McHugh doesn’t park her body for long stretches. She doesn’t sit for long without changing position. The television never comes on before the six o’clock news. She prefers walking to driving, even to her bridge games, which are five kilometres away.

Increasing evidence suggests we need to just move around as much as we need to exercise. Joan Vernikos, the former director of life sciences at NASA and godmother of “sedentary studies” suggests the single best exercise we can do, bang for buck, is standing up frequently. Again, it’s about challenging the body—in this case, with gravity. And standing up repeatedly maintains circulation by keeping blood-pressure sensors in tune. With moving comes energy, and with energy comes, well, if not eternal youthfulness, at least the mojo to be a powerful role model.

“One day out running I saw a truck pull over,” McHugh recalls. “This guy got out and said, ‘You’re BJ McHugh aren’t you?’” She recognized him. A couple of years previous, he had stopped her as she was finishing a long run. “How old are you?” he’d asked. He’d looked rough. But this time he was beaming. He said: “I’ve changed my whole life around and I’ve qualified for Boston.”

Ephraim Engleman isn’t taking on any new patients, and has begun to feel obliged to suggest to his regulars that “perhaps the time has come that you ought to think of getting another doctor.” No thanks, they say: they’ll stick with him. Experience and wisdom are things you can’t just Google.

Engleman, who is likely safe in his guess that he’s the oldest practicing physician in America, enjoys dispensing slow, dry witticisms, eyes twinkling under storks’-nest brows. He recently renewed his driver’s license (“so I’m good now until 105”), but in a nod to his family’s wishes, he sometimes lets a driver take him the 30 kilometres to work at the Arthritis Research Medical Center at UCSF, of which he is founding director. Once there, “Eph” answers correspondence, consults with colleagues, and just generally bucks the odds surrounding aging and cognition.

The chances of an individual getting dementia double every year beyond age 65. Of those lucky enough to reach 100, only 15 to 25 per cent arrive with all their marbles. The brain of the average 90-year-old is about the same size as the brain of the average three-year-old: typically the shrinkage comes in the frontal cortex and the hippocampus, headquarters of planning and memory filing, respectively.

Very old folks like Engleman whose wetware is still high-functioning owe much to what brain scientists call “cognitive reserve”—renovations that keep the brain humming even as senescence sets in.

Cognitive reserve is the key to aging very well from the neck up.

There are a few ways to build it.

You eat a heart-healthy diet, because fatty plaques affect both the heart and the brain. Which Engleman does.

You exercise, preferably vigorously. Which Engleman doesn’t. (“I don’t even do the walking I used to do,” he says, because of increasing back trouble that’s led to his hunched-over gait.)

You keep the brain continually challenged with reading, writing, blogging, puzzling, bridge-playing, travelling, language-learning, storytelling. The more interventions you pile on the better: the benefits seem to compound. “The principle of synergy — you know, one plus one equals three — has been shown time and time again” to forestall dementia, says Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Having more brain activities is good for the backup system,” Isaacson says. When the brain encounters novelty it’s forced to adapt. Neurogenesis, the hatching of new grey-matter cells, has no known age limit. So not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, it’s essential if you want that dog to stay sharp. (Engleman, among other non-work-related diversions, emcees at a local social club, at writes his own material.)

You go to school: education levels correlate with brain density. Then you keep going to school, even when you’re out of school. “Lifetime intellectual enrichment” seems to delay the onset of cognitive impairment, notes Prashanthi Vemuri, the lead researcher of a new study out of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn, published in the journal JAMA Neurology. By how much? Three to six years, on average.

So far, so good for Ephraim Engleman. But he may have a secret weapon on his side as well: music.

Engleman is a former violin prodigy. He put himself through school in the 1930s partly by playing in vaudeville orchestras. He still jams with a chamber quartet once a week in his San Mateo, CA, home, where he lives with his 99-yearold wife, Jean. “Playing music,” he says “is a real stimulus—and very, very good for the soul.”

The science bears out his statement—the first part, at least. Playing music seems to challenge brain in ways that offer significant protection from cognitive impairment and dementia, studies suggest. Richard Isaacson, of Cornell, rattles off five studies that have helped build the case: In one of them, six weeks of “music therapy” increased the level of neurotransmitters in the bloodstream of Alzheimer’s patients. “Right there is the biological basis for music, in some ways,” he says. In general, “the deeper your relationship with music, the better the effect.” Indeed, Isaacson was so persuaded by the data that he picked up his guitar again—and now plays bass in a band of neuron scientists. They’re called The Regenerates.

*

In the French village of Trosly-Breuil, just north of Paris, 86-year-old Jean Vanier lives a simple life. Each day, he walks from his house to the group home he established 50 years ago, where he eats, laughs and prays with his adopted family. This is the first L’Arche community. Founded on Vanier’s vision, the organization is built around the idea that if adults with mental disabilities were settled in private homes alongside non-disabled people, the result would be a boon to both sides.

The son of former Canadian governor general Georges Vanier, he had once seemed destined for a different kind of life. Having written his PhD dissertation on Aristotle, he briefly taught philosophy at the University of Toronto. But there was a spiritual curiosity in Vanier that academia couldn’t satisfy, and he followed his mentor, a Dominican priest named Father Thomas Philippe, to France, taking on a life of voluntary poverty and daily challenge. It irks Vanier when people call him, as many are inclined to, a living saint. The sacrifice he made is no sacrifice at all, he insists, since the disabled offer us a great gift: they teach us how to become human. More generally, having to accommodate the wishes and quirks and demands of others tests our patience and, in the bargain, strengthens it. Would he be the person he is now had he remained on that earlier trajectory? “God knows,” Vanier says. “All I know is I’m here now. I have grown. I still have things to grow into—to have fewer barriers, to be more open to people. The story’s not finished. I’m 86, but the story goes on.”

Unlike physical and cognitive aging, there is no identifiable point where people start to break down spiritually—and no reliable prescription if it happens. Studies have found that those who attend religious ceremonies live longer, although who can say for sure if the active ingredient is the spiritual part and not, say, the routine, or the power of social networks, or the fibre in the little wafers (okay, we can probably rule that one out).

We tend to think of spirituality in terms of meditation or perhaps prayer, a private inward journey. To Vanier, that is only half the story. A second current nudges us in the opposite direction, out of ourselves and into meaningful contact with others. In effect, at a phase of life when many people start closing themselves off, Vanier counsels opening up. Instead of spending our later years cementing our own comfort within tiny tribes, we should be reaching out. In what one could call an adaptation response of the soul, empathy begets empathy.

In his famous Grant Study, which began in 1938 and followed a group of male undergraduates from Harvard for the rest of their lives, psychiatrist George Vaillant found that the ones who thrived into old age were the ones who, among other things, figured out how to love and be loved. If there is a reliable prescription for aging well cordially—from the heart—it’s this: the company of people you care about, and who care about you.

*

It’s not quite fair to prop up B.J. McHugh, Ephraim Engleman and Jean Vanier in their respective shop windows as models of brilliant aging of the body, brain, and soul. The ways in which people age brilliantly aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, these three —as with spectacularly robust old men and women of all stripes — have a fair bit in common.

All have a strong sense of purpose that pops them out of bed every morning. And while all are extraordinarily conscientious, the drive is directed outward—all three were drawn to helping professions (McHugh is a retired nurse). When Howard Friedman, a psychologist at University of California, Riverside, was crunching the data for the famous Longevity Project—a study that was published in book form in 2011 and followed more than 1,000 American children to their dotage or their grave—he discovered a pattern. The hardest workers had the longest lives.

And so we return to the old formula: strive, adapt, live on. The kites that remain in the sky the longest are pinned there by resistance.

 

 

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Olgas Among Us — Part 1

Blog Entry

I was having lunch with my friend Michele one day recently when the other shoe dropped. There are stealth Olgas among us, and I was looking at one.

Michele is from the Italian island of Sardinia. If you’re into longevity research, you’ll recognize Sardinia as one of the “Blue Zones” – those incubators of centenarians scattered here and there across the globe.

Actuarially speaking, the perfect profession might be a Sardinian shepherd. It ticks all of the longevity boxes. It’s rugged and serene and exhausting and joyful. You sweat buckets in the fresh air and sunshine, trudging up and down those mountainsides, but there’s about zero stress, and you come home to a healthful meal rich in life-extending nutrients (the tannens in the wine, the anti-inflammatories in the goat’s milk) and the loving embrace of your family. Many if not most Sardinian men enjoy the added benefit of a mutation on the Y-chromosome that offers protection from much chronic disease.

That’s the hothouse Michele grew up in. He is closer to ninety than eighty. He looks sixty. He has a lot in common with Olga. I don’t think I realized just how much until Michele started talking about the life of his body.

As a boy he rode his bicycle 60 or 70 kilometres a day — mostly because there wasn’t much else to do. The exercise became a form of meditation; over the gentle hills to the sea, he let his mind wander. Later, after moving to Canada, in the late-1950s, he found it frustrating to cycle in the city — too many starts and stops.

So he took up running. He ran long distances. Nobody ran long distances at that time. So Michele was ridiculed, which he didn’t mind and actually rather liked. He never timed himself or set goals: he just floated along, that dreamy Sardinian boy again. Then came the jogging craze. When he noticed other people out there in their sweats and their headbands, that’s when he stopped. He lost the heart for doing something that other people seemed to do because they thought it was good for them. “If there is a motive behind something,” he laughs, “I’m immediately suspicious.”

(It’s not that all rules and laws must be prima facie rejected – only the ones that don’t make sense. There’s actually quite a ferocious level of discipline involved in figuring out the difference. At every turn he asks himself, is his position “beneficial”? And he doesn’t mean physically beneficial, he means spiritually beneficial.)

With his aerobic base, and his habits, and his genes, Michele could easily be another Olga, racking up world records, submitting to muscle biopsies, peeing in a cup, and just generally serving as another data point in our quest to understand what it means to age well. But to be in that game you have to join it. And Michele is not a joiner. Which is actually one of the things I like best about him.

“I suppose I am an anarchist in my heart,” he allowed. “But at the same time I’m part of a community.” Michele had arrived late to lunch because he’s on the board at the local Italian cultural centre, and he had some last-minute business he needed to sew up there. “We do the things that are inborn in us to do to benefit someone — our community – not just ourselves.”

Michele had done yeomen translation work for What Makes Olga Run?, and at a certain point, in a café, over bean soup, I passed him an envelope with some small compensation in it. His expression changed. A heaviness came over him. “It has been my great pleasure to help you with this,” he said. “But now you have taken the poetry out of it.”

 

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A Positive Choice

A Positive Choice

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Olga’s often asked how big a part attitude plays in the story of her crazily youthful vigor. Her answer is always the same: it’s huge. HUGE. Staying relentlessly focused on the positive keeps any doubts or criticisms from pulling her down.

On one hand, her faith in positive thinking is unsurprising. Plenty of research – including Yale psychologist Becca Levy’s work on aging stereotypes —suggests that optimism correlates strongly with health and longevity.

But I have sometimes heard grumbling from skeptics that the Don’t Worry Be Happy rule for living is too pat, too simplistic, and too specifically tailored to the lucky and the blessed.

“I’d be optimistic too if I were in Olga’s shoes!” goes the refrain. It’s easy to look on the bright side when you have no real aches and pains or health issues, you’re not radioactively lonely, not depressed, not burdened by money woes. The luxury of optimism, by this way of thinking, falls to those who have led charmed lives.

But here’s the thing: Olga’s life has been anything but charmed. She grew up on the hardscrabble Saskatchewan prairie and her early years were full of struggle (she fled a terrifying marriage and raised two daughters as a single mom; one of those daughters she lost to cancer.) She earned a teaching degree at night school while working days. She spent a lot of time trudging into a headwind. Clearly, optimism isn’t some default position she arrived at because she realized, like Dr. Pangloss, that “everything is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.” Optimism, for Olga, is a choice.

She chooses it for a lot of reasons. Because it’s how her parents raised her. Because gratitude sits better with her strong faith than grumbling does. Because it’s more fun. And, maybe mostly, because it works. Optimism helps us take a wide perspective and feel connected to others (as the University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has noted.) There’s plenty of evidence now that where our minds go, our bodies tend to follow. And since Olga intends to keep competing at a high level until age 100 or beyond, she figures she might as well run the software that will help, not hinder, her movement along that trajectory.

This week she’s in Budapest competing in the world outdoor championships in a new category: women 95-99. She has already bagged a new world record in the high jump and it would surprise no one if she walked away with eleven new entries in the record books. “Why not?” she says.

THIS BLOG POST ALSO APPEARS HERE:

http://www.ageismore.com/Ageismore/Blogs/2014/March/Optimistic-Like-Olga-.aspx

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Keeping Up With Your Joneses

Keeping Up With Your Joneses

Essays Featured Nonagenerians Psychology Science Sport What Makes Olga Run?

From PACIFIC STANDARD MAGAZINE, Jan/Feb 2014

TO A CERTAIN kind of sports fan – the sort with a Ph.D in physiology – Olga Kotelko is just about the most interesting athlete in the world. A track and field amateur from Vancouver, Canada, Kotelko has no peer when it comes to the javelin, the long jump, and the 100-meter dash (to name just a few of the 11 events she has competed in avidly for 18 years). And that’s only partly because peers in her age bracket tend overwhelmingly to avoid throwing and jumping events. Kotelko, you see, is 94 years old.

Scientists want to know what’s different about Olga Kotelko. Many people assume she simply won the genetic lottery – end of story. But in some ways that appears not to be true. Some athletes carry genetic variants that make them highly “trainable,” acutely responsive to aerobic exercise. Kotelko doesn’t have many of them. Some people have genes that let them lose weight easily on a workout regime. Kotelko doesn’t.

Olga’s DNA instead may help her out in a subtler way. There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined. It’s an advantage that could help explain the apparently Mars/Venus difference between people for whom exercise is pleasure – the Olga Kotelkos of the world – and the coach potatoes among us for whom it’s torture.

In a spacious cage in a cramped lab in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside, there lives an albino lab mouse who has no name, so I will call him Dean. Dean is small and twitchy, with slender musculature. He may be the world’s fittest mouse.

Dean is the product of a long-running study of voluntary exercise. Twenty years ago, the evolutionary biologist Ted Garland, then at the University of Wisconsin, gave a small group of mice access to a running wheel. The mice who liked using it the most were bred with each other, so that the trait of running fast and far was amplified in each successive generation until, almost 70 generations later, Dean emerged. When Dean wakes up in the evening (mice are nocturnal) he typically goes straight to his wheel – before eating, even – and just runs full out, making the wheel squeal. He has run as much as 31 kilometers in a night.

Garland and his colleagues believe that, genetically and physiologically, Dean is different from other rodents. “Marathon mice” like Dean seem to find exercise uncommonly satisfying – likely because of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry. Exercise stimulates dopamine production, which in turn causes a cascade of other molecular effects – a process known as “dopamine signaling.” Dean’s dopamine signaling is unusual: when he runs, some as-yet-unidentified molecule, downstream from the dopamine receptor, gets altered so that it now provides reinforcement that normal mice don’t get.

Those differences, the scientists believe, may help explain why some of us merely tolerate exercise and why others, like Olga and Dean, love and perhaps even need a whole lot of it. If your genes predispose you to loving your workouts, as Olga’s appear to do, and if your environment offers the opportunity to work out constantly, as Dean’s wheel does for him, a certain chain reaction can start. Physical effort feels fantastic, which prompts even more effort, which delivers even bigger dose effects in mood and energy.

How does any of this matter for the rest of us schlubs, who may not be similarly endowed? File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?

“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population, says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?” An up-and-at-‘em drug might increase our desire for exercise or, conversely, create uncomfortable restlessness if we sit too long.

It’s pretty clear that Dean the mouse experiences something way beyond uncomfortable restlessness if he sits too long. He is a full-on exercise junkie. When researcher Justin Rhodes, an experimental psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who joined the study at generation 20, took away his wheel, depriving him of his fix, Dean was miserable. Rhodes scanned Dean’s brain and found high activation in the area associated with cravings for drugs such as cocaine. Both “drugs” – indeed, all drugs – goose similar reward circuitry. “But I think there’s got to be some differences,” says Rhodes. “Because it’s not as if an animal that’s addicted to running is necessarily going to be addicted to cocaine or gambling.”

And therein lies another weird direction for the research to go. What if addicts could take a pill that exploits those minute differences, redirecting their jones from a harmful one to a positive one – a kind of running-as-methadone plan?
Such a pill is conceivable in principle, says University of Michigan psychologist Kent Berridge, who studies how desire and pleasure operate in humans, but developing it presents an enormous challenge. Without knowing exactly how the brain assigns urges to specific objects of desire, how do we ignite a yen to exercise without also stimulating the yen to do things that will land your customers in rehab? Or blunt the urge for drugs while leaving healthy urges untouched? Scientists within the big pharmaceutical companies are no doubt working on it, nonetheless. “I’m waiting for them to contact me and offer me funding,” Garland says dryly.

It’s the kind of drug that Olga – normally one to Just Say No – might even endorse.

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What a 94-Year-Old Track Star Can Teach Us About Aging

What a 94-Year-Old Track Star Can Teach Us About Aging

Featured Uncategorized

From THE GLOBE AND MAIL, JAN 11, 2014

Not long ago, I came across a little list I’d scribbled in a notebook.“Here is what 47 feels like on a bad day”:

• You prepare a little milk, with a dash of vanilla, in a mug, which you go to heat up in the microwave. There is already a mug of milk, with a dash of vanilla, in there.

• You discover in the bathroom drawer a product you remember buying to give hair more “volume and energy.” You have no hair.

• You run into people you know, but can’t remember the level of intimacy you have with them. (Do we hug? You approach fearfully.)

• You worry you have become too unfit to successfully perform CPR on someone like you.

There were more items on the list, including one that started and simply trailed off. I’d either forgotten what it was or grown too depressed to continue.

Aging happens, of course – I just hadn’t expected its sour breath so soon. Isn’t 50 supposed to be the new 30? Apparently not for me. For whatever reason, I’d gotten old the way the way Hemingway said people go broke: slowly and then quickly.

And then came a stroke of amazing fortune. Olga Kotelko dropped into my life.

Read the rest of the article here:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/what-a-94-year-old-track-star-can-teach-us-about-aging/article16286101/?page=all

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The Best Habit of All: Self-Correction

The Best Habit of All: Self-Correction

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THE MARGINS of Olga’s Sudoku digests are studded with little notes to herself, in tiny perfect penmanship. “Careless errors!” she might have rebuked herself. Or “Getting better — or are they getting easier?” Very little that Olga does escapes her own immediate and systematic appraisal. In the private moments of her own life she is her own coach, doling out approval or gentle criticism and making immediate tweaks to the process. In her bowling league, “When I get a strike, I take note of where I was standing and how hard did I throw it,” she says, “and then try to duplicate those conditions.”

Call it the Olga recipe for perpetual improvement.

Turns out, Nature has an app for that. On chromosome 11 sits a gene called DRD2 that is linked to the brain’s “reward” circuitry, and partly governs how we learn. Some people have a variant of this gene called RS 1800497, and those people tend to be good at learning from their mistakes. They are highly motivated to turn wrong answers into right ones, faulty lines of thinking into sound ones, lousy habits into good ones. Such self-renovation makes these people happy.

Olga was born with this gene variant. (And I, for what it’s worth, wasn’t.)

So that’s pretty cool, but also a little dangerous – because it not only undersells the work ethic of those who have that polymorphism, but it gets the rest of us off the hook.

The truth is, we can all learn to learn from our mistakes. And we must if we hope to appreciably improve.
Maybe you’ve heard of this fellow from Portland named Dan McLaughlin who’s trying to become a pro golfer starting from absolute zero. Until recently – he’s now in his late twenties – he was a commercial photographer. He’d never picked up a club before April 2010. He’s starting slowly and methodically; he’s only been using a full set up clubs since January of 2012. McLaughlin hopes to enjoy a kind of accelerated development through super-efficient practice — -time feedback and immediate review and adjustment and repetition. He has calculated, based on Anders Ericsson’s rule-of-thumb that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become an expert at something, that he should theoretically be good enough to enter Q school by October of 2016.

Not all practice is created equal. Elite swimmers practice better than merely good ones. Ditto elite backgammon and poker players.

It’s qualitative, not quantitative, practice that matters. “A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it,” noted sociologist Dan Chambliss in an academic paper called “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Elite swimmers don’t necessarily practice more than merely good swimmers, Chambliss noted, but they sure do practice better.

If the golfer Dan McLaughlin is motivated to practice better because he’s getting a late start, that goes triple for Olga.

Thinking about all of this made me remember Bruce Pandolfini, whom I spoke to a few years ago while working on a cover story for Psychology Today about the virtues of failing. Pandolfini is a chess teacher. In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, about a chess prodigy named Josh Waitskin, the kid’s master teacher, played by Ben Kingsley, is based on Pandolfini.

I dug out my transcript of my interview with Bruce. (If you want to really learn from people, tape the conversation and review it!) A revelation! There was in there all kinds of cool stuff I’d forgotten, just about all of it relevant to Olga and her self-correction strategy.

Losing is always more valuable than winning, Pandolfini told me – especially for younger players. Because it’s an opportunity for learning: a weakness was very specifically exposed, and now you can fix it. Whereas winning prompts all sorts of lazy habits. “Often students don’t realize how lucky they were to win. And because they won they didn’t think they had to change anything about their play. Then next time they played a superior opponent, and they played this same way, they’d get crushed.”

Great chess players are like two people in one — the person playing and the person analyzing the person playing. They develop the discipline of asking themselves a series of questions not just after every game but after every move. “Does this threaten me? How many possible ways can I deal with the threat? How well did my opponent deal with my previous move?” This forensic analysis happens at a higher speed than Olga – or most other mortals – can manage, but the principle of systematic review is the same.

All that review helps chess players develop spectacular memories for past moves in past games, good and bad – the better to apply those lessons in future.

Bruce remembered coming up against a strong opponent in a best-of-three series. In the first game he found himself in a tight spot that seemed vaguely familiar. He was, he realized, in the exact position he’d been in twenty years earlier, and back then he had escaped by deploying a trap he’d learned from Russian playbooks from the 1960s.

“And then I realized, as I looked up, I was facing the same player I’d played twenty years earlier.”

I guessed where this was going. Presumably a player of his opponent’s calibre would also have remembered being in this position, and remember the sting of losing, and this time would avoid that ignominy by making adjustments against Pandolfini’s ploy.

“Nope,” Bruce said. “He fell for it again.”

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From the archives: Fishing for Madeline

From the archives: Fishing for Madeline

Essays Featured Kids Published Stories Archive

sturgeon

From READER’S DIGEST, Dec. 2010 – Quinton Gordon photograph

Today was a big day, I’d reminded my daughter. Right after kindergarten we had a date. “Rick’s taking us fishing. He’ll teach us about fish.”

Madeline, who is five, looked unmoved.

“I already know everything about fish,” she said.

“You do?”

“Yup.”

“What do you know about fish?”

“They need to eat to stay strong, and they need to be wet to stay alive. They swim with their mouth open so they never get thirsty.”

It wasn’t a bad start.

“Rick” is Rick Hansen, the renowned wheelchair athlete who, outside of his charity work, happens to know everything — or close to everything — about one particular fish. Hansen is director of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. And as he loomed into view through a misty rain, from the deck of his boat bobbing at the public wharf in Steveston, B.C., she recognized him as the “man in motion” guy in one of her kids’ books.

Madeline had never really been fishing. Oh, I’d taken her to the Father’s Day derby at nearby Rice Lake, where about a million little kids lily-dip their lines in hopes of snagging one of the timid little trout in there. But this was something else. White sturgeon are a species so big and old and storied that catching one is almost as much of a life-changing experience as tagging it and putting it back—even for adults. The sturgeon that swim in the Fraser today are evolutionarily unchanged from the ones that swam before the ice age before the last ice age. No joke: we were going fishing for dinosaurs.

His folded wheelchair tucked between the seats, face flush with the pleasure of being out of the office, Hansen throttled up and we nosed out of port. The wind, here in the estuary, carried the tang of sea salt. The working river was doing double-time – seiners schlepping their heavy nets, tugs towing barges of sawdust, a crane lowering a tankerload of cars from Asia onto the dock. None of this interested Madeline much. Look, there were two TVs on board! When it became sadly clear that neither was going to pick up Babar, she tuned in to Rick’s explanation. One screen mapped where we were. The other was a fishfinder. “In the old days you used to be able to say, well the fish just weren’t around,” Rick said. “Now you have to admit, we just weren’t smart enough to catch them.”

Madeline sat on my lap. I could feel the warmth of her right through the yellow rubber rain pants. It was kind of blissful. To busy parents of little kids, life too often seems like a string of teachable moments squandered. By the time we realize what we should have said to help decode their wonder and give it a name, the door has slammed shut. But a day spent fishing for sturgeon is one long master-class in pretty much everything that’s important to know. The teaching goes both ways. Adults make fishing complicated, but a kid’s appreciation of it—as of most things—is big-picture simple. Today we would learn not how different a prehistoric fish is from a five-year-old girl, but how similar.

“What do you think sturgeon like to eat?” I’d queried on the drive south through Vancouver. “Worms,” Madeline said, definitively. Turned out she was right: many a novice fisherman casually dangling an earthwormed hook into the Fraser has had a near heart attack when a sturgeon the size of a dancer’s leg takes that bait. But there are things a sturgeon likes even more. Fred Helmer, a veteran BC fishing guide who was along with us, had prepared four rods—including one for Madeline and one for me. And now as we dropped anchor in Rick’s secret favorite spot near the Alex Fraser Bridge, he cast the hooks in and they sank without bubbles. On the menu today was choice pink-salmon parts and —the special of the day — a syrupy clump of skein roe that Fred called “magic bait.” These are protein-rich eggs harvested from a mama pink salmon just preparing to spawn: superpremium catnip.

Fred held his hands a foot or so apart. “How big is the fish you’re going to catch?” Madeline shook her head. He went wider. “This big?” Madeline knew exactly how big. In her kid logic, a successful fishing outing is one in which you land a fish that would fit your clothes. Madeline’s sturgeon, by that reasoning, was going to be 109 centimetres long– three foot seven. Mine would be 175 centimetres—five foot nine.

What’s cool about sturgeon fishing, though, is that it’s not about size. Every fish has equal merit. Nobody would be taking a sturgeon home for dinner tonight. Earlier this century they were fished almost to extinction—twice—and while their numbers recover, the white sturgeon of the Lower Fraser are protected. But this is more than a catch-and-release enterprise: it’s catch-and-tag-and-release. Sturgeon fisherman are tracking the population: where they’re going, how they’re growing, how many of them are out there — and data on the juveniles is just as valuable as data on the old soldiers. To fish for sturgeon is to be an adjunct scientist. Everyone who catches a sturgeon becomes part of the conservation effort, and in this sense a five-year-old’s contribution is as valuable as any biologist’s.

 

An hour of fishing under the bridge yielded but one tiny sculpin, which Madeline took great joy in setting free. But now the tide had turned. The rising sea was pushing boats upriver, giving the Fraser the appearance that it was running backwards. We were entering a dreamscape where the normal laws of physics were suspended.

The scent of that gorgeous bait was carrying on the current. For the fish, the wind had just picked up outside a bakery.

Madeline’s rod-tip twitched, subtly. Rick took the rod gently, reefed up hard on it, once, then handed it to me. A fish was on.

 

It felt big. Or at least mad. I struggled to keep too much line from peeling off the reel. “So, Rick has a couple of rules,” Fred said. “You cannot let go of the rod no matter what. If you do go over the side, hang on to the rod and we will come and get you.”

For some long minutes the tug-of-war continued. Then out of the brackish depths of the Fraser it came, Madeline’s sturgeon, tigerish stripes on its back visible first, then the sharklike head and the flicking tail defining the two ends, establishing its size. I had been trying to stay strong for Madeline—the great stoic hunter little girls expect their dads to be—but my arms were blasted. I was shaking and frankly not too far from tears.

“What’s the most humane thing to do with this fella?” I croaked as we brought him alongside.

“Just keep him in the water, relaxed,” Rick said. “We have to set up.”

The fish was still. “Is he dead?” Madeline asked.

“No, Sweetie. He’s had better days. But he’ll be fine.”

Fred guided Madeline’s sturgeon into a hammock-like sling in the water, which Rick then winched up into the boat. Madeline put on gloves. She came up to her fish. It seemed less like a fish than some kind of farm animal with body armour. Something in a medieval petting zoo. We watched the gills opening and closing, flashes of crimson beneath. Was it suffering?

“Sturgeon aren’t like some other fish, where after five minutes out of the water they’re done,” Rick said. “They are incredibly hardy.”

“Back in the day when you could catch and keep sturgeon, my dad would store them on the lawn, for three or four days, with the sprinkler on them – and then go sell them in Chinatown,” Fred said.

“Here’s the mouth—see how leathery it is? Look how it comes out – like a vacuum hose. And these things on its nose are chemical sensors for detecting prey.”

Rick turned in his chair. “They have the ability to locate food that’s way more sophisticated than ours, using vibrations,” he said. Madeline, who sometimes has trouble locating the snacks in her backpack, stroked her sturgeon, its sandpapery skin, incredibly gently.

 

I picked her up and held her, lengthwise, over top of her sturgeon. It was her size. A measurement confirmed it – within a centimeter. It was probably a few years older. Fred produced an instrument, like the little retail-store gun that scans the barcode tags, and passed it over the fish. BEEP! A microchip under the fish’s skin sent a signal, and a number popped up in the scanner viewscreen.

The fish had been caught once before – on November 22, 2006. Since that day, we would learn, the fish had grown nine centimeters in length but only one in girth – taller but not much fatter. Like Madeline herself. I had a flashback to St. Paul’s hospital, our daughter emerging grey-pink and slimy and a doctor moving her under a warm light and producing a tape measure. Madeline stuck out beyond the last mark, off the charts. “Our child cannot be measured by science!”)

“You can check on your fish once a year,” Rick told Madeline. Thousands of BC schoolkids, from grade two to grade seven, are monitoring the sturgeon stocks by following the stories of individual fish like this one.

As Madeline’s fish rested in the sling, a second sturgeon was brought aboard. This time the scan was beepless. So: a new capture. This fish had never been above water. Fred loaded a little glass tag the size of a grain of rice into what looked like a hypodermic needle.

“I’ll try not to get this needle in my hand—that has happened before,” Fred said. “Now, Madeline, we put the tag right under the surface of his skin, so when the fish grows the tag can move around in his body.”

We tipped both fish toward the river and they slipped in, headfirst. I thought, romantically, that Madeline’s fish might look back at her before swimming away, but it didn’t. Madeline asked to be picked up. She was dead weight. I had the notion that she was drained of energy in sympathy with her exhausted fish.  (Or, less likely, in sympathy with her exhausted dad.) Probably it was just a perfect storm of a couple of late nights, fresh air and a glucose crash from the nut bars.

But clearly, this was all almost too much for her to process. She didn’t have the language for it.

I wondered what new fears we had introduced on this trip. The idea of a whole teeming subsurface world: monsters under the bed. Her fish had been brought up gasping into the air. It looked bad, but it really wasn’t, we insisted. Did she buy it? (You could see her searching for the right analogy and later she found it. “How would you like to be holded under water?”) A million mind-blowing factoids swirled: Dinosaurs are real. Dads are weaker than they let on. And the people we read about in books might one day step out of those books and take us fishing.

She had been a motormouth on the car ride over. From the back seat issued strong opinions on how Beethoven lived in China, how things were better in the days when dads like me weren’t underfoot and moms played with kids and gave them treats. (Also: could she have a horse?) But now she was silent. I looked down at her in my arms. She was asleep.

 

You can guess how the rest of the story goes. Kid logic prevailed. The sun broke through. Soon after my own fishing rod twitched with a bite. After a monumental struggle that ensured I’d be sleeping with a heating pad for days, I brought this last fish in. Madeline was awake now, saucer-eyed, trying to get close without getting in the way. Fred’s hand got raked by the pointy scutes and was trailing blood as he scanned it.

This fish was monstrous. It measured 93 centimetres around, its belly probably full of pink salmon. It was between sixty and eighty years old – the age of grandpas and grandmas. Now it was going back. With great luck it will still be here a generation from now, and maybe Madeline will catch it again with her own five-year-old son or daughter on a fine fall day like this one.

But there was one thing that didn’t square. Madeline’s fish was Madeline-sized. Mine was supposed to be my dad-sized: that was what she’d ordered. We measured it. From its nose to the tip of its tail it was around 215 centimetres. Madeline leaned close.

“That’s you?” she said.

I shook my head. “It’s taller.”

Then it clicked.

“That’s you on my shoulders.”

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Time is a Hunter

Time is a Hunter

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SOME PEOPLE, after hearing about Olga for the first time, go to YouTube clips expecting to see her tearing down the track like Flo-Jo. She doesn’t.

Let’s put this in perspective: Olga is one of the fastest 94-year-olds who ever lived. But she is 94 — and there are certain things that happen to the human body that are simply inevitable and non-negotiable. Time is an unforgiving hunter. Beyond age 75 or so, the performance curves crater for everybody, no exceptions. Age steals away fast-twitch muscle, and then it steals away slow-twitch muscle. It changes the way we look when we move. The process usually happens too gradually to see — unless a vivid demonstration like this one is cooked up.

On the last day of the world outdoor masters athletics championships in Lahti in 2010, organizers staged a crowd-pleasing contest called a “unique handicap race.” All of world-record setters in the 100-metre dash gathered on the track. Six women lined up, youngest (35) to oldest (90). The youngest, Czech Stepanka Gottvaldova, began at the starting line and everyone else was given a progressively bigger head start. Olga’s starting block was a good thirty metres downfield.

Here’s what happens:

At the snap of the gun. Olga is off. But she’s soon caught by New Zealander Margaret Peters, 75. Then the rest of the field reels her in. The 50, 70, 60, and then 80-year-old champions overtake her. By the 80-metre mark Olga is dead last. If you keep pushing the pause button on the video, reducing the race to a set of stills, the sense is overwhelmingly of a kind of time-lapse depiction of the aging process. In the older runners the stride length shortens, the posture changes. It looks like those hominid-from-ape evolutionary charts, but in reverse.

To me, a few things jump out from those results. (Apart from the fact that the race wasn’t quite handicapped properly. If it were, all the runners would have finished in roughly the same time.)

The big difference between the runners is not the turnover rate, the actual number of steps each athlete is taking; the difference is power. The dropoff in muscular force isn’t something you necessary notice in the longer distances, but it’s obvious in the sprints. The sheer electric force of the younger runners is just not there in the older ones. It has to do with the rapid loss of muscle mass beyond age 75 or so, and other factors, such as the loss in number and quality of mitochondria in that muscle. Scientists such as Tanja Taivassalo and Russ Hepple are investigating what else might be involved, and why certain people (like Olga) seem naturally better protected from the ravages of time than others.

But to me, that clip evokes something much bigger than sport. It strikes me as a metaphor for what aging must feel like, in those upper registers. The old are getting reeled in by the young. They are simply getting overtaken by the trappings of youth culture – the pace of media, technology, data movement, processing speed; the primacy of sex appeal and immediately gratified appetites. You have to be a pretty strong person, comfortable in your own skin, to stay in the race under those conditions. To keep pressing, without letting up in discouragement, right to the tape.

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Sunday in the Museum with Olga

Sunday in the Museum with Olga

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OLGA WAS SCHEDULED for a battery of cognitive tests at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana. But the flights in and out of there were tricky, so we built in a buffer day in Chicago. Before leaving we had a pow-wow of what she might like to do there.

I encouraged her not to edit herself. It was wide open. A full day in one of the world’s great cities, a place bursting with peak experiences waiting to be had. Her choice, I reckoned, would tell me something about her strategies for squeezing maximum life out of this life. What was begging to be fed inside of her: body? Mind? Soul? Which of the three mortality-beating virtues – empathy, mindfulness, and gratitude – would she bring into play?

I threw a few options on the table.

There was a morning service at St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukranian Catholic Church – one of the most striking churches in the world and right up her street, theologically. She was lukewarm. She felt no need to get her attendance in; she’s in pretty good standing with her God.

The Botanical Garden? Well, there are pretty great gardens in her own town. Thanks.
The Field Museum, with its famous, fabulous T-Rex skeleton? Maybe if we had more time.
Okay, I said. You love your food. What about a transcendent meal at Modo, the experimental restaurant where the fare is like art and you eat the menus? She was intrigued. But she admitted she wouldn’t really be happy eating there. At some level it could never square with the prairie frugalness still in her. Her enjoyment, she said, would always be diluted by the little voice of conscience saying: “Is it really worth it?”
She was keen seeing a Cubs game, but the team was scheduled to be on the road that day.
So we pressed pause, agreeing to scout conditions and make the call on the fly.

And come Monday morning, as the city heated up like a griddle, we ended up at the stone steps of the city’s great cultural jewel, the Art Institute of Chicago.

Olga is a self-taught painter. As a girl she liked to park herself in the corner and quietly draw her family. (She once sketched her maternal grandfather, Michaylo, on a cold winter day with his feet up in the oven to keep them warm.) A number of her landscapes dot the walls of her granny-suite back in Vancouver. But she hadn’t painted in a long time. She hadn’t even set foot in a museum in years.

The big showpiece exhibit was a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective: walls and walls of those one-panel cartoons, which left her cool. We skipped contemporary art altogether, moving briskly through ancient Eastern art, and modern sculpture. Even the art I felt sure would appeal to her — heroic religious paintings, folk art, the Renaissance masters – didn’t, particularly.

Then we hit the Impressionists. And here, in the Monet room, Olga came alive.

Monet invented “series” landscape art – the same subject captured over and over, on different days, in different seasons. In his river scenes, and in the famous water lilies in his backyard pond in Giverny, you can sense the furious intensity with which Monet tried to bag this moment, and then the next, and then the next. The master trying to catch time even as it slips through his paint-stained fingers.

On the back wall were several of Monet’s wheatstacks. Olga stood transfixed before them. What was so arresting her? The glorious pastel colours of the changing sky?

Partly. The part of her brain beyond words was soaking this up; and her eyes actually flashed a bit of annoyance when I kept yakking, breaking the spell. But at the same time she was working something out. It was the … architecture of that pile of wheat.

She herself had stacked wheat, back in the day, on the Saskatchewan farm. And as she gazed at the paintings it all came flooding back: how the “binding” machine would leave a row of grain sheaves as thick as barrels; and how she’d carry one under each arm. She’d stack them upright against each other, on end. The idea was to made a little cone of them, like firewood, no more than six to eight to a bundle, and leave them like that to dry so they’d be ready for the thresher. And back then you knew they would dry. The weather was more regular then. Global warming, Olga mused, has messed with a lot of things you used to be able to count on.
But Olga’s wheatstacks never looked like these. “How is that possible?” she mused. “How are they holding together?”

“Maybe it’s not accurate,” I tried. By this stage of his career Monet, after all, had terrible vision; his world was clouded by cataracts. “Maybe he was seeing what he wanted to see.”

Olga nodded.” These look like muffins,” she said.

Here’s what is tonic about spending the day with Olga. There is zero guile. There’s never any attempt to appear better, or other, than she actually is. It’s refreshing to spend days with someone who is not subtly trying to score status points. The arms race of cool is not part of her world.

No one has yet tested how well “comfort in our own skin” correlates with longevity. But it probably does, if we can figure out how to measure it.

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This is the Face of Optimal Health

This is the Face of Optimal Health

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People hear about Olga, before they’ve seen her, and understand her to be a kind of superhero – which she is. And they expect her to look like Betty White.

I’m sorry: even Betty White doesn’t look like Betty White. People wrinkle.

Olga has some wrinkles. But she’s still incredibly youthful looking. Look at her face. Look at it. It’s not wrinkle-free. But as close to wrinkle-free as a 95-year-old who has spent much of her life outside is ever going to be.

Truly, when you think about it, someone who grew up on a farm and spent a big chunk of that century in the sunshine should look like Spanish Banks at low tide. She should be positively fissured. That she looks the way she does – like a 65-year-old or so — I find amazing. I mean, I’ve got more frown lines than Olga does. My kids try to calculate my age by my wrinkles, like counting the rings of a tree.

I think we wear our outlook to life on our faces. You can tell the kind of person Olga is, the delight she takes in life, the way she leans into experiences that leave their mark on her inside and out, it’s all there on her face.

Olga is aging like Clint Eastwood. Instead of fighting the years, she’s tapping aging itself as a source of drama. The drama is the difference between the potential old people still have and the limits they think they have.

When people see Olga run, they’re sometimes surprised, by the way I and others have built her up, that she’s not faster.

Look: she’s 94. The fact is, she runs. No “chicken steps” here, as she puts it. She runs. She runs without stiffness and without pain. When you can do that at 94, you are, mechanically, in a class of your own.

Add to that her energy levels, and how strong she is emotionally, spiritually, and I think we have something here that you want to document and send into deep space as a snapshot of this species at its best.

That’s why she’s so fascinating. It’s not the sporting medals: it’s the whole package. This is what optimal health looks like.

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The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian

The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian

Featured Nonagenerians

From THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, Nov. 28, 2010

On the third floor of the Montreal Chest Institute, at McGill University, Olga Kotelko stood before a treadmill in the center of a stuffy room that was filling up with people who had come just for her. They were there to run physical tests, or to extract blood from her earlobe, or just to observe and take notes. Kotelko removed her glasses. She wore white New Balance sneakers and black running tights, and over her silver hair, a plastic crown that held in place a breathing tube.

Tanja Taivassalo, a 40-year-old muscle physiologist, adjusted the fit of Kotelko’s stretch-vest. It was wired with electrodes to measure changes in cardiac output — a gauge of the power of her heart. Taivassalo first met Kotelko at last year’s world outdoor masters track championships in Lahti, Finland, the pinnacle of the competitive season for older tracksters. Taivassalo went to watch her dad compete in the marathon. But she could hardly fail to notice the 91-year-old Canadian, bespandexed and elfin, who was knocking off world record after world record.

Masters competitions usually begin at 35 years, and include many in their 60s, 70s and 80s (and a few, like Kotelko, in their 90s, and one or two over 100). Of the thousands who descended on Lahti, hundreds were older than 75. And the one getting all the attention was Kotelko. She is considered one of the world’s greatest athletes, holding 23 world records, 17 in her current age category, 90 to 95.

“We have in masters track ‘hard’ records and ‘soft’ records,” says Ken Stone, editor of masterstrack.com — the main news source of the growing masters athletic circuit. “Soft records are like low-hanging fruit,” where there are so few competitors, you’re immortalized just for showing up. But Stone doesn’t consider Kotelko’s records soft, because her performances are remarkable in their own right. At last fall’s Lahti championship, Kotelko threw a javelin more than 20 feet farther than her nearest age-group rival. At the World Masters Games in Sydney, Kotelko’s time in the 100 meters — 23.95 seconds — was faster than that of some finalists in the 80-to-84-year category, two brackets down. World Masters Athletics, the governing body of masters track, uses “age-graded” tables developed by statisticians to create a kind of standard score, expressed as a percentage, for any athletic feat. The world record for any given event would theoretically be assigned 100 percent. But a number of Kotelko’s marks — in shot put, high jump, 100-meter dash — top 100 percent. (Because there are so few competitors over 90, age-graded scores are still guesswork.)

In Lahti, watching Kotelko run fast enough that the wind blew her hair back a bit, Taivassalo was awed on a personal level (she’s a runner) and tantalized on a professional one. She hoped to start a database of athletes over 85, testing various physiological parameters.

Scientifically, this is mostly virgin ground. The cohort of people 85 and older — the fastest-growing segment of the population, as it happens — is increasingly being studied for longevity clues. But so far the focus has mostly been on their lives: the foods they eat, the air they breathe, the social networks they maintain and, in a few recently published studies, their genomes. Data on the long-term effects of exercise is only just starting to trickle in, as the children of the fitness revolution of the ’70s grow old.

Though the world of masters track offers a compelling research pool, Taivassalo may seem like an unlikely scientist to be involved. Her area of expertise is mitochondrial research; she examines what happens to the body when mitochondria, the cell’s power plants, are faulty. Her subjects are typically young people who come into the lab with neuromuscular disorders that are only going to get worse. (Because muscle cells require so much energy, they’re hit hard when mitochondria go down.) Some researchers now see aging itself as a kind of mitochondrial disease. Defective mitochondria appear as we get older, and these researchers say that they rob us of endurance, strength and function. There’s evidence that for young patients with mitochondrial disease, exercise is a potent tool, slowing the symptoms. If that’s true, then exercise could also potentially be a kind of elixir of youth, combating the ravages of aging far more than we thought.

You don’t have to be an athlete to notice how ruthlessly age hunts and how programmed the toll seems to be. We start losing wind in our 40s and muscle tone in our 50s. Things go downhill slowly until around age 75, when something alarming tends to happen.

“There’s a slide I show in my physical-activity-and-aging class,” Taivassalo says. “You see a shirtless fellow holding barbells, but I cover his face. I ask the students how old they think he is. I mean, he could be 25. He’s just ripped. Turns out he’s 67. And then in the next slide there’s the same man at 78, in the same pose. It’s very clear he’s lost almost half of his muscle mass, even though he’s continued to work out. So there’s something going on.” But no one knows exactly what. Muscle fibers ought in theory to keep responding to training. But they don’t. Something is applying the brakes.

And then there is Olga Kotelko, who further complicates the picture, but in a scientifically productive way. She seems not to be aging all that quickly. “Given her rather impressive retention of muscle mass,” says Russ Hepple, a University of Calgary physiologist and an expert in aging muscle, “one would guess that she has some kind of resistance.” In investigating that resistance, the researchers are hoping to better understand how to stall the natural processes of aging.

Hepple, who is 44 and still built like the competitive runner he used to be, met Taivassalo at an exercise-physiology conference. She did her Ph.D. on people with mitochondrial disease; he was better acquainted with rats. They married. In the room at McGill, Hepple leaned in to the treadmill, barking encouragement to Kotelko as needed as she jacked her heart rate up beyond 135. In the end, Kotelko’s “maxVO2” score — a strong correlate of cardiovascular endurance — topped out at 15.5. That’s about what you’d expect from a “trained athlete of 91,” if such a type existed.

In truth, there is no type. Though when you hear the stories of older senior athletes, a common thread does emerge. While most younger masters athletes were jocks in college if not before, many competitors in the higher brackets — say, older than age 70 — have come to the game late. They weren’t athletes earlier in life because of the demands of career and their own growing families. Only after their duties cleared could they tend that other fire.

That’s Kotelko’s story, too. She grew up, with parents of Ukrainian descent, on a farm in Vonda, Saskatchewan, No. 7 of 11 kids. In the morning, after the chickens were fed and the pigs slopped and the cows milked, the brood would trudge two miles to school, stuff a broken old softball with sand or rags and play ball. Kotelko loved the game and played through childhood, but as she got older, the opportunities just weren’t there.

As an adult she taught grades 1 through 10 in the one-room schoolhouse in Vonda, married the wrong man young and, realizing her mistake, fled for British Columbia in 1957 with two daughters and brought them up alone, earning her bachelor’s degree at night. Much of her adulthood had run through her fingers before she could even think again about sports.

She picked up softball again after retiring from teaching in 1984 — slow-pitch, but pretty competitive. (“We went for blood.”) And then one day when she was 77, a teammate suggested she might enjoy track and field.

She hooked up with a local coach, who taught her the basics. She found a trainer — a strict Hungarian woman who seemed as eager to push her as Kotelko was keen to be pushed. Juiced with enthusiasm, Kotelko hit the gym hard, three days a week in season. For up to three hours at a stretch, she performed punishing exercises like planks and roman chairs and bench presses and squats, until her muscles quivered and gassed out.

Though she still does some of these things — the push-ups (three sets of 10), the situps (three sets of 25) — she doesn’t push herself the same way anymore. Apart from Aquafit classes three times a week, she pretty much takes the whole dreary Vancouver winter off. Then, come spring, four weeks or so before the first competition of the season (she’ll usually enter five or six meets each year), she starts her routine. She carts her gear to the track at the high school. She dons her spikes, takes a spade and turns the middens of teenage recreation into long-jump pits. And then goes to it — alone. On the track she will often run intervals: slow for a minute, then full out for a minute. At the beginning of each year she figures out where to put her energy. This year it’ll be throws and jumps and the 100-meter dash — the only meaningful world record missing from her résumé. She says she may not run the 200 and 400 again until 2014, when she moves up into the 95-plus age category. (Her current world marks in those events, she reckons, will be safe for four more years.)

She does deep breathing and reflexology. She has developed a massage program, which she rolls out most nights, called the “O.K.” routine, after her own initials. It involves systematically kneading her whole body, from stem to gudgeon, while lying in bed. Sometimes she’ll work one part of her body while stretching another with a looped strap. (“I don’t like wasting time,” she says.)

Ken Stone calls her “bulletproof,” and her history even off the track bears the label out. Apart from two visits to give birth to her daughters, she has seen the inside of a hospital once in her life, for a hysterectomy.

Kotelko acknowledged her good luck as she put away a big plate of pasta and a glass of red wine one evening, midway through the world indoor championships in Kamloops, British Columbia, this spring.

“How old do you feel?” I asked her.

“Well, I still have the energy I had at 50,” she said. “More. Where is it coming from? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s a mystery even to me.”

The previous day, on a patch of grass tricked out as a javelin field, I watched Kotelko come forward for her turn to throw. Kotelko, who is five feet tall, took the javelin offered by an official with quiet dispatch, like a hockey player accepting a new stick from the bench. There was a bit of a crosswind; it didn’t affect her too much. She picked a cloud to aim at (a tip she first read about in a library book). Ritualistically, she touched the spear tip, rocked on the back foot and let fly, all momentum. It traveled 41 feet.

Later, in her favorite event, the hammer throw, Kotelko took her place on the pitch with the other competitors — younger women she competes alongside, though not strictly against, since at this meet she was the only woman in the 90-and-over category. She removed her glasses. She swung the seven-pound cannonball around her head — once, twice, three times — and the thing sailed, landing with a thud, 45.5 feet away. “If I spun I could throw it farther,” she admitted later, but after watching somebody very old fall that way, she has decided not to risk it.

EXERCISE HAS BEEN shown to add between six and seven years to a life span (and improve the quality of life in countless ways). Any doctor who didn’t recommend exercise would be immediately suspect. But for most seniors, that prescription is likely to be something like a daily walk or Aquafit. It’s not quarter-mile timed intervals or lung-busting fartleks. There’s more than a little suffering in the difference.

Here, though, is the radical proposition that’s starting to gain currency among researchers studying masters athletes: what if intense training does something that allows the body to regenerate itself? Two recent studies involving middle-aged runners suggest that the serious mileage they were putting in, over years and years, had protected them at the chromosomal level. It appears that exercise may stimulate the production of telomerase, an enzyme that maintains and repairs the little caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep genetic information intact when cells divide. That may explain why older athletes aren’t just more cardiovascularly fit than their sedentary counterparts — they are more free of age-related illness in general.

Exactly how exercise affects older people is complicated. On one level, exercise is a flat-out insult to the body. Downhill running tears quadriceps muscles as reliably as an injection of snake venom. All kinds of free radicals and other toxins are let loose. But the damage also triggers the production of antioxidants that boost the health of the body generally. So when you see a track athlete who looks as if that last 1,500-meter race damn near killed him, you’re right. It might have made him stronger in the deal.

Exercise training helps stop muscle strength and endurance from slipping away. But it seems to also do something else, maintains Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (who also happens to be a top-ranked trail runner). Resistance exercise in particular seems to activate a muscle stem cell called a satellite cell. With the infusion of these squeaky-clean cells into the system, the mitochondria seem to rejuvenate. (The phenomenon has been called “gene shifting.”) If Tarnopolsky is right, exercise in older adults can roll back the odometer. After six months of twice weekly strength exercise training, he has shown, the biochemical, physiological and genetic signature of older muscle is “turned back” nearly 15 or 20 years.

Whether we are doing really old folks any favors by prescribing commando-grade training, well, “that’s the million-dollar question,” Hepple says. “Olga can obviously handle it. But most people aren’t Olga.” In general, kidneys and other organs tend to have trouble managing the enzymes and byproducts produced when muscle breaks down. Inflammation, which produces that good kind of soreness weekend warriors are familiar with, “also damages a lot of healthy tissue around it,” notes Li Li Ji, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “That’s why I usually discourage older people from being too ambitious.”

Yet if there’s a single trend in the research into exercise and gerontology, it’s that we have underestimated what old folks are capable of, from how high their heart rates can safely climb to how deeply into old age they can exercise with no major health risks.

The conundrum for masters athletes — though it seems Kotelko’s great fortune to have largely escaped the phenomenon — is this: Big physiological benefits from exercise are there for the taking. You just have to keep exercising. But you can’t exercise if the body breaks down. To avoid injuries, aging track athletes are often advised to keep to their old routines but to lower the intensity. The best advertisement for that strategy was a race turned in five years ago by a 73-year-old from Ontario. Age-graded, Ed Whitlock’s 2:54 marathon (the equivalent of a 20-year-old running 2:03.57) was the fastest ever run. When people collared him afterward to find out his training secret, they learned that he ran every day, slowly, for hours, around the local cemetery.

Kotelko herself speaks often of the perils of getting carried away. “If you undertrain, you might not finish,” she says. “If you overtrain, you might not start.” But there’s some evidence that, in trying to find the sweet spot between staying in race shape and avoiding the medical tent, a lot of seniors athletes aren’t training hard enough — or at least, aren’t training the right way to maximally exploit what their body can still do.

Recently, Scott Trappe, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., published a study on weightlessness and exercise in The Journal of Applied Physiology. Using M.R.I. and biopsy data from NASA, he looked at the exercise program of nine astronauts from the International Space Station. In many ways, an astronaut in zero gravity is undergoing an experiment in accelerated aging — muscles atrophy, bone-density declines. That’s what these astronauts were finding too, even though they were using a treadmill, a stationary bike and a resistance machine.

Trappe concluded the regime wasn’t nearly hard-core enough. His prescription for NASA: heavier loads and explosive movements. “It’s pretty clear that intensity wins up there,” he says. “And I would predict this to be the case as we age. Part of the challenge is the mind-set or dogma that we need to slow down as we get older.” For example, the belief that aging joints and tendons can’t take real weight-training is dead wrong; real weight-training is what might just save them. Seniors can work out less frequently, Trappe reckons, as long as they really bring it when they do.

Kotelko used to train like that — spurred on by her severe Hungarian coach. Strangely though, since easing off the throttle the last few years, she’s getting some of the best results of her life. It’s hard to know what to conclude from that, except perhaps that the gene-shifting theory is true, and Kotelko is still enjoying the compound interest from that earlier sweat equity. “What I do now seems adequate,” she reasons. “It must be. I keep getting world records.”

THE DAY AFTER the treadmill test, Kotelko was ushered into the free-weight gym at McGill University. She lay down at the bench press. Taivassalo was interested in the composition of Kotelko’s muscle fibers. We all have Type 1 muscle (slow-twitch, for endurance) and a couple of varieties of Type 2 (fast-twitch, used for power). Most people are born with roughly half of Type 1 and half of Type 2. Around age 70, fast-twitch muscle begins to stop responding, followed by the decline of slow-twitch a decade later. Power drains away. Trappe calls this the “fast-twitch-fiber problem.” It helps explain the frustration that aging sprinters feel when their times drop off despite their dogged efforts. And no matter how high-tech their exercise program, how strong their will, how good their genes, nobody escapes. Often, the drop-off happens too gradually to notice. But sometimes little moments of perspective pop up.

In Kamloops, Kotelko jumped 5.5 feet to trump her own indoor long-jump world record. Afterward, the sexagenarian pentathletes took to the pit. Among them was Philippa (Phil) Raschker, a 63-year-old from Marietta, Ga., legendary on the masters track circuit. Raschker holds, or has held, more than 200 national and world records — sprints, jumps, hurdles. She was competing in nine events in Kamloops. (This despite being pretty much exhausted from working late into the night filing clients’ taxes for days on end. She’s an accountant; it was March.) When I first saw her high jumping, from a distance, I thought she could have been 25. You could see, below her stretch top, the six-pack. But it wasn’t how Raschker looked that arrested; it was the way she moved. Raschker Fosbury-flopped over the bar like water pouring from a jug. The flop allows you to jump higher than other methods do because your center of gravity never actually clears the bar. But the severe back arch demands a suppleness that’s alien to the aging body, which is why pretty much no one over 65 does it. Kotelko was already too old to flop when she took up track at age 77. Instead, she sort of bestrides the bar. Her world record of 2.7 feet is just a little higher than the superfoamy mat. Overall, Kotelko’s high jump gives the impression of someone taking a run at a hotel-room bed.

The difference between the world’s greatest 60-year-old and the world’s greatest 90-year-old was clear. On view was the march of “sarcopenia” — the loss of muscle, the theft of that once-explosive power that makes the very old seem subject to a different set of physical laws.

It is irresistible to think of Olga Kotelko and Phil Raschker as twins separated by time. Except that Raschker has the potential advantage of a much earlier head start on the track. Given all that extra compounding interest, might she in 30 years become a kind of super-Olga?

“Hard to say,” Hepple says. “She’s obviously at a point that precedes many of the big changes that usually happen. And we don’t know how resistant she is — and that resistance is something we do think sets Olga apart.” Those extra decades of pounding might break Raschker down or burn her out.

Motivation may ultimately be the issue. Finding reasons to keep exercising is a universal challenge. Even rats seem to bristle, eventually, at voluntary exercise, studies suggest. Young rats seem intrinsically driven to run on the wheels you put in their cages. But one day those wheels just stop turning. The aging athlete must manufacture strategies to keep pushing in the face of plenty of perfectly rational reasons not to: things hurt, you’ve achieved a lot of your goals and the friends you used to do it for and with are disappearing.

But competition can spur people on. “Maintaining your own records in the face of your supposed decline, providing evidence that you’re delaying the effects of aging — these are strong motives,” says Bradley Young, a kinesiology and sports psychology professor at the University of Ottawa. Young studies the factors that make track athletes want to continue competing into old age. A big one is training partners and family — both the encouragement they offer, and the guilt you’d feel letting them down if you quit. But the strongest motivating driver, Young found, was one’s spouse.

In this way, too, Kotelko is unique. She has no husband, and though she does have some family — her daughter Lynda and son-in-law Richard, with whom she lives in Vancouver — they are not involved in her training.

IN ONE OF HER last duties to science on the Montreal trip, Kotelko lay serenely, under local anesthetic, on an examining table in the storied Montreal Neurological Institute, where Wilder Penfield mapped the human brain. “Contract your thigh muscle, please,” Dr. José Morais said. The muscle shrugged up visibly when she tensed. The doctor began to draw out a little plug of tissue with a gleaming silver instrument that looked a bit like a wine corker. The sample would be frozen, and the fibers would later be examined.

Muscle is a decent barometer for the general health of a body. It contains what Hepple calls biomarkers of aging — changes over time in its structure, biochemistry, protein expression. These mark the body’s decreasing ability to withstand the stresses it encounters — “some from outside us, like infections, and some from inside us,” like the cellular trash that builds up through normal body functions like breathing and metabolism. “In essence, they tell us how well Olga has handled the very things that cause most of us to age and die at or around age 80.”

Hepple, in Kotelko’s tissue sample, would be looking for the little angular muscle fibers that typically stop working as people age because they have come unplugged from the motor neurons, nerve cells that tell them to fire. Many researchers assume the problem is within the muscle cells. Hepple disagrees. He says those neighboring motor neurons aren’t activating the muscle as they should, and he speculated that more of Kotelko’s would be functioning properly.

Ideally, these two scientists would like to run a sample through genetic testing. Perhaps there are clues in Kotelko’s genome that will help explain the thing that is so singular about her — not speed or power or prowess in any one event, but the resilience to endure all the stress of hard physical activity, year after year, without a hint of breakdown, and no end to the pattern in sight. “There could be a lot we find out in that biopsy,” Taivassalo said, “that tells us what to ask next.” Taivassalo intends to put together a larger sample size, at least 20 or 30 subjects, all old athletes. At that point the information starts becoming statistically significant, and patterns emerge. If the prospect of 30 more nominal Olgas spraying data points into unmapped space is enough to set the hearts of gerontologists aflutter, to Kotelko, the idea that there may be, somewhere, even one more older track star — a genuine rival — is tantalizing. She yearns, she insists, with semiplausible conviction, to be pushed. There’d be no talk of low-hanging fruit and meaningless medals if there were someone she could race close and beat in real time. “I’d love that,” she told me more than once.

She may get her wish. Mitsu Morita, an 88-year-old from Japan, is faster than Kotelko was at that age and is breaking all of Kotelko’s records in that age bracket. A Nike ad featuring Morita made her a minor phenomenon in Japan; there are clips of her orbiting the track, followed by laughing teenagers trying to keep up. In the 200, Morita’s world-record time is almost 10 seconds faster than Kotelko’s time in the 90-to-95 category. She claims she gets her strength from eating eel.

Morita is not a big traveler. If she can be persuaded to come to America for the world outdoor championships in Sacramento next summer, Kotelko will have her hands full.

In October, the first of Kotelko’s muscle samples came back from the lab. The results were compelling. In a muscle sample of a person over the age of 65, you would expect to see at least a couple of fibers with some mitochondrial defects. But in around 400 muscle fibers examined, Taivassalo said, “we didn’t see a single fiber that had any evidence” of mitochondrial decay. “It’s remarkable,” she added.

As the data on Kotelko gather, it’s hard to avoid a conclusion. “Olga has done no more training than many athletes, and yet she’s the one still standing,” Hepple says. “Why? In my mind, it has everything to do with her innate physiological profile.”

This sounds like discouraging news: she is not like us. But understanding Kotelko’s uniqueness may provide benefits for others. We could learn a lot about why, for example, nerve cells die by studying someone in whom, for whatever reason, they seem to live on. And that, Taivassalo explains, may have implications for neuromuscular diseases like ALS — for which no current therapies have a meaningful impact. Drugs might be developed to, for example, somehow dial up the signals at that junction where the neurons are supposed to be telling muscles to move. Small molecular agents could target specific problem areas in aging muscles to make them more resilient. “At this stage it’s all speculation,” Hepple says. “But that’s the direction we’re moving. Because all the usual things don’t seem to apply.”

Presumably, at least some of the interventions that emerge will help mimic, for ordinary people entering their very old years, if not exactly Kotelko’s performance on the track, at least something approaching the quality of her life.

This is the other story of the future of aging. When the efforts of medical science converge to simply prolong existence, you envision Updike’s golfer Farrell, poking his way “down the sloping dogleg of decrepitude.” But scientists like Taivassalo and Hepple have a different goal, and exercise — elixir not so much of extended life as extended youthfulness — may be the key to reaching it. James Fries, an emeritus professor at Stanford School of Medicine, coined the working buzz phrase: “compression of morbidity.” You simply erase chronic illness and infirmity from the first, say, 95 percent of your life. “So you’re healthy, healthy, healthy, and then at some point you kick the bucket,” Tarnopolsky says. “It’s like the Neil Young song: better to burn out than to rust.” You get a normal life span, but in Olga years. Who wouldn’t take it?

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If Tomorrow Comes

If Tomorrow Comes

Blog Entry

HANGING AROUND with someone in her nineties, you can’t help thinking a lot about mortality. You wonder how much time they have left, and then, inevitably, how much time you have. I always kinda knew my odds of reaching Olga’s age are low. But I didn’t know how low until I took a peek at the actuarial tables.

Simple versions of these are available on-line. You plug in age, gender and some pertinent lifestyle habits, and then you sit back, holding your breath, as the computer comes up with a number. A sobering one.
The odds that I will live to Olga’s age are . . . around three percent. Where she is, I will very likely never go.

There’s another number you can calculate that’s in some sense even more interesting. Actuaries have an expression they call “the force of mortality.” What it means is “the fraction of people who will not reach their next birthday.”

Better news here: the odds that I will not be here in a year’s time are only about one half of one percent. The odds that Olga will not be here in a year are somewhere around 20 percent.

Of course, it’s likely to be significantly lower than that, since it’s based on a typical 94-year-old woman, and Olga is anything but typical. I’d be surprised if, for Olga, the actual odds are even ten percent. Let’s say they’re five percent.

Even at that, I have ten times as much chance as Olga does of not having my birthday-dinner reservation cancelled because I died. My sword of Damocles is hanging by a string; hers is hanging by a thread. I wonder: does knowing these numbers change the way we live? Does it help us, you know, enjoy every sandwich?
Life is precious and evanescent: I think we know that without crunching any numbers.

In an old joke, a priest, a minister and a rabbi are discussing what they’d like people to say after they die and their bodies are on display in open caskets.
The priest says, “I’d like someone to say, ‘He was rightous, honest and generous.”
The minister says, “I’d like someone to say, He was kind and fair, and he was good to his parishioners.”
The rabbi says, “I’d want someone to say, Look, he’s moving.’

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From the archives: To Snip or Not to Snip

From the archives: To Snip or Not to Snip

Essays Featured Kids

The complicated questions a vasectomy can pose

FROM TODAY’S PARENT, October 2009

Not long after our second daughter was born, my wife, Jen, began leaving vasectomy pamphlets around. This is the way parents sometimes introduce important conversations to teenagers, whose notorious sensitivity prevents things from being discussed more openly. And I can’t claim it was a bad approach, because the end of a man’s reproductive life (and so abruptly!) is a flinchingly uncomfortable moment; it feels like being fired from the only job you were ever really qualified to do. And then there is the thing itself, the idea of a knife at work down there. All that barnyard poetry comes flooding back: the farmer snipping off the tip of the scrotum like he’s scissoring the tip of a cigar. Jay-sus.

But Jen was right. It had to be done. I’m 45 years old. We’re happily married. It’s the responsible thing.

“I’ll start saving up for it right now,” I told her.

“Um, it’s covered by your health insurance, my friend.”

Here in Vancouver, when you think of vasectomy operations one name pops to mind. Neil Pollock is not so much a doctor as a brand. His ads for “virtually painless,” “no needle, no scalpel” amount to a bloodless severing of a man’s more visceral qualms. Seven minutes and you’re done. Up to 25 men move through his clinic a day. Pollock has cut more ribbon than the mayor. There’s even a “premium” option for guys who fancy themselves too busy for the follow-up visits. (You pay a little surcharge for unlimited post-op phone access.) It all seems perfectly packaged for the modern, hyperdecisive guy: get your snip, get back to work, and don’t think about any of this ever again, buster.

Except that when you go to the website, you discover that Pollock also performs circumspection. What if you change your mind? It turns out that “up to seven percent” of men, “within a few years of having the surgery done,” wish they’d never been cut. At which point they’re stuck. Reverse-vasectomies cost about $5,000 and work maybe half the time. But Pollock isn’t talking himself out of business, just suggesting an elegant option, an escape hatch that makes the commitment seem less permanent: Freeze your sperm. A couple of local facilities, unaffiliated with the clinic, will keep it for you in cold storage. While many vasectomy docs don’t even mention the possibility of freezing sperm, Pollock strongly promotes it as a kind of cheap insurance policy. (It’s not that cheap — $500 for five years in the bank. But then, it’s not practical to cut costs by doing it at home, in your own freezer. The cells die, and anyway, you know the spooge is going to end up in someone’s scotch.)

“I’d do it,” Pollock told me during our telephone consultation, when I asked him about freezing sperm. “At your age, you never know.”

At my age — which is also Pollock’s age — terrible, unforeseen things can happen and do, yet a man is still young enough to rewrite a workable script for the second half of his life. I don’t feel particularly young; I frankly can’t see myself ever again touching my toes. But apparently it doesn’t matter if the flesh is weak as long as the swimmers are willing. And there’s no social stigma against embarrassingly old guys siring kids. On the contrary.

“Do not forget,” Pollock’s website points out, “Aristotle Onassis had his last child at 85 years old. David Letterman at 58.”

And so, quite suddenly, what had seemed such a straightforward decision wasn’t.

“It really would be a shame to lose this sperm,” I said to Jen, offhandedly. “Because it’s no ordinary sperm. As soon as we pulled the goalie we conceived — every time. Do you know what the odds of that are? We’re incredibly fertile. You have Fabergé eggs. And my guys are like a billion little Ian Thorpes. Not saving this stuff, it’d be like being blessed with 60/20 vision and giving away your eyes.”

This is called rationalization.

Jen’s expression said, Please get a second opinion.

And here is where a man gets gold-standard advice from his friends, because I guarantee you any guy older than 40 has thought about vasectomies — a lot. What emerged in these discussions was a strong case against saving sperm, at least for couples like us.

One wise friend pointed out the canny salesmanship of that whole insurance-policy metaphor: You may not ever use that sperm, but you want to know that you could. That touches something very deep in the male psyche. There is a German word that captures what a lot of guys feel in midlife: torschlusspanik. Fear of the gates closing. Fear of options evaporating. The option to store sperm exploits those fears quite perfectly.

The middle-aged guy tends to feel that he hasn’t really amounted to what he wanted to amount to — but he could still find his groove, and when he does he’ll want to share the mojo. His sperm, too, will become golden. “They’re playing around with the mythology of what it means to be a man,” my pal said. “And what a time to do it. Because, literally, they’ve got you by the balls.”

Another wise friend came in from another angle with advice that’s hard to refute. “Look, if you’re in a position to use that frozen sperm, it’s because something very bad has happened — in which case, having another baby is probably the last thing that should be on your mind. And anyway, do you really want to be changing diapers at 50? I sure as hell don’t.”

Jen and I were inching so gingerly into this discussion, it was clear, because we both sensed how fraught it was, what power it had to change the ecosystem of a marriage. Freezing sperm surely has something of the same impact that a pre-nuptial agreement does. It’s as if part of you has already disengaged and is surfing the dial for an alternative future, with a different house and a different dog and a different name you call out in bed. Yes, it’s naïve to think it couldn’t happen. But wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent with your partner, right now, digging in?

The next night we peeked in on Madeline. She’d fallen asleep with a yellow helium balloon from a four-year-old friend’s party wrapped around her wrist, suspended two feet above her head like a small, still moon.

We stood there in the doorway just looking at here. “This is far and away the best thing that has happened to us,” I said. “I can see why people just want to keep going.”

“But…”

“But. Yes.”

“We got two great ones.”

“We got lucky.”

“Yes.”

“We should walk away from the table.”

The next morning I called Pollock Clinics and booked the appointment. Would we be freezing sperm? No, I didn’t think so. No.

The receptionist slotted me in for two weeks hence. “Oh, and don’t forget to shave.”

This was an unwelcome little tic amid the bigger issues: You gotta shave the huevos.

All in all we were peace with the decision. Ready to go.

And then something happened.

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Jen asked one morning. She’d been having second thoughts. About the frozen sperm? About all of it.

“What if our ship came in tomorrow? What if we won the lottery?”

She was feeling particularly in love with her three-month old girl. They are unbelievably charismatic, babies, you know?

Something was up. It turned out that, at that birthday party, the kids had been exposed to whooping cough. (The boy’s chagrined parents phoned Jen to warn us.) That’s no big deal for vaccinated toddlers, but if a tiny baby contracts it, the mortality rate is one in 200. Lila’s exposure was limited; the odds against serious problems seemed small. But fear doesn’t know from the odds. Fear was now driving.

“What if….” The idea was too terrible to finish.

“We’d try again.”

“How?”

“I’ll freeze sperm.”

“But … that seems silly when we could get it fresh.”

The clock ticked. Stars were born and died.

“This isn’t going to happen, is it?” I said.

Jen shook her head no.

I called the clinic. You can avoid the cancellation fee if you call 48 hours in advance. We didn’t quite make it.

“Two hundred dollars,” the receptionist said.

I fished out my Visa card.

“I guess this happens a lot, eh, cold feet?”

“No, actually” she said. “Maybe once a month.” The put us among the one-fifth of one percent of couples who flake.

As least I didn’t shave the huevos.

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From the archives: This Won’t Hurt a Bit

From the archives: This Won’t Hurt a Bit

Featured Psychology Science

From the archives: East Meets West in the Dentist’s Chair

From SATURDAY NIGHT magazine, 2002

For whatever reason—and there’s endless scope to speculate – pain is a hot topic these days. “That’s gotta hurt!” we say of the extreme snowboarder who lands face-first while jumping a Volkswagon, or of our friend’s kid who flashes her tongue stud or lumbar tattoo. But we’re fascinated. In an age where pain is optional, it has acquired a strange new cachet.

On today’s maternity wards, experiments in mystical stoicism have replaced old-style epidural-aided childbirth (which at least offered mothers-to-be some relief) with “natural childbirth, where lucky women get to sweat and holler and squeeze the doula’s hand, the pain simply the price of being fully present in the moment. The Dene and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories would understand. Many of their traditional games – the mouth pull, the knuckle hop – involve the mutual affliction of pain. “If we know how much pain we can take,” an elder named Big Bob Aikens explained to writer John Vaillant not long ago, “we know we can survive if we are injured.” Most of us below the tundra line are so far away from needing pain for that reason that it’s hard to fully appreciate what Big Bob is getting at. But the possibility glimmers on the periphery of awareness that maybe the Inuit are onto something. Maybe anesthetizing pain is a bad idea, evolutionarily. Maybe learning to feel pain, to take it, to “live inside” it, to study it, to re-engineer our relationship with it, is part of the secret of advancing the species.

There is, of course, another, more immediately relevant reason to study pain: as pain treatment goes, so goes the future of medicine. How we decide to deal with pain matters, now possibly more than ever, because pain disproportionately affects an enormous and growing number in an aging population.

And it’s hear that a clear division has emerged on which direction we ought to pursue. Ask a Western doctor what the future of pain relief is, and he or she will probably start naming drugs that end in x. Western medicine has cast its lot with pharmacology, and, increasingly, biotechnology.

But at the same time, and in record numbers, the afflicted are looking for something different. Collectively, we seem to be letting our guard down about those crazy Eastern remedies that at least do no harm, and may do some good. (British Columbia, where I live, was the first province where traditional Chinese medicine was recognized as a regulated discipline.) Herbs, guided fantasy, acupuncture, magnets, hypnosis, virtual reality, prayer: people will reach for anything when they’re in pain and the old standbys haven’t done the job. The “proof” that any of these “natural” remedies is effective – that is, double-blind controlled-study proof, Western science’s standard – is scanty at best, but the nature of the target, pain, is ephemeral enough that the phrase “controlled study” can seem hopelessly paradoxical.

What is clear is that the mind, when it comes to pain, is more powerful than we ever imagined. Pain, like, time, is an illusion. We interpret it as discomfort because discomfort is nature’s way of ensuring a damaged area gets attention. But is there anything to say that we can’t learn to “read” pain signals dispassionately, as just so many lines of source code, and remove the discomfort from the equation? Or even learn to interpret pain signals as pleasurable – so-called “eudemonic” pain? Hindu mystics have done it for centuries. As that stoic philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger put it in The Terminator, “Pain can be controlled – you just disconnect it.”

Was Arnie right? I have decided to find out.

It happens that I am one of those people who never had their wisdom teeth removed. Now all four of mine sit like tiny thrones sunk in soft tissue – inviting a controlled test. I will have the teeth on the right pulled the Western way (which is to say, by an oral surgeon and with ample drugs before and after) and the teeth on the left pulled the Eastern way (by a holistic-oriented dentist using a cocktail of New Age measures, no anesthetic.) My own theory is that since the more soulful, creative right brain controls the left side of the body, I ought to be able to recruit some natural pain relief from there. Or at least draw on reserves of faith.

I will turn over my body – my mouth, at any rate – to science. East vs. West: may the best side win.

WEST

Dr. Martin (Marty) Braverman is one of the top oral surgeons in B.C. His office is in a mall.

Braverman can extract a couple of teeth in the time it takes to get your oil changed. On a busy day he might pull a hundred teeth. You pay a little extra for a guy like Marty Braverman, because he is a specialist and because he boasts a very low dry-socket ratio. (A dry socket, in which the bone holding the tooth becomes exposed to air, is the very definition of pain.) “Will I be able to drive afterward?” I’d asked the receptionist.

“Can you drive now?” she said.

“Yes.”

“Then, yes.” Ba-rum-bum.

Sitting in Braverman’s chair, I survey a rolling cart with a few silver instruments on it. The smell of a dentist’s office provokes a kind of primal fear, and, fast on its heels, the urge to bolt. I have to remind myself: This is the easy side.

Braverman is short and bespectacled and almost alarmingly casual in manner. He’s wearing khakis. With a needle as fat as a fountain pen, he injects, lidocaine, but as he has applied topical anesthetic to numb the gum first, I don’t feel the needle go in. I don’t feel a thing.

“Now, lidocaine usually has about a three-hour duration,” Braverman says, “so in three or four hours you’re going to experience some discomfort.” A nurse pokes her head in to remind Braverman that he has a lunch date in twenty minutes.

He goes to work on the lower right-hand tooth, the trickier one because it’s half-buried. He makes an incision. “What we’re going to do is push the gum back away from the tooth,” he says. “You’ll feel some pressure as we do that.” A scratching sound, a cat at the door. He removes a bit of bone to create some space to lever the tooth up and out. The drill roars. Through the window, I can see the traffic light, hung on a wire over the intersection, being blown so far off plumb by the wind that the motorists can’t tell what colour the light is.

Braverman has the tooth out in two minutes, 35 seconds. He asks for a needle-driver, so that he can “re-approximate” the gum with some stitches. He packs the hole with a dissolving sponge and packs my cheek with dexamethasone, an anti-swelling drug.

The top tooth ought to go even faster, and it does. Braverman levers an instrument called an elevator – essentially a primitive wedge – between the tooth and the bone, grabs onto the tooth with the forceps, and, boom: done. One minute, 25 seconds. I have barely warmed up the chair for the next person. Pain? There has been none. The procedure is over so quickly as to be disorienting. This feels like cheating, the way plane travel feels like cheating, bridging distance you somehow haven’t earned.

Braverman prescribes Tylenol 3 and the antibiotic amoxicillin – a prescription I fill one floor down in the mall, before driving home. The cost is $250. There’s an industry joke about a guy who receives the bill from his oral surgeon. He’s outraged. “Three hundred dollars for 15 minutes’ work?!” The surgeon replies, “Would you rather I’d taken an hour?”

A problem arises as I try to monitor the degree of pain I experience during recovery: how do I measure it? Most doctors acknowledge that the task of calibrating pain is almost impossible, since the amount of pain people feel is ultimately subjective, varies wildly from patient to patient, and is influenced by factors such as mood and expectation. All of the pain scales thus far devised are imprecise, and in fact no one has improved on the old “On a scale of one to 10, how much does this hurt?” The pain I feel on Day 1, after the extraction, is about a 2.

On day 2, the pain climbs to three, and requires a couple of T3’s to keep it in check. I try to pay attention to the pain. It diminishes, narrowing to a little, lingering ache just below the right temple, then migrates to the hinge of my jaw. By Day 4, it is largely gone. For all intents, the right side, the Western side, is over – hardly more psychically disruptive, overall, than a bad haircut. The persistence of a very low-grade headache makes me wonder if there isn’t, just possibly, a little infection, so I start taking the antibiotics again, three a day. A week later I take a closer look at the label on the bottle: “Three a day until finished, as directed by Dr. Salzman.” Dr. Salzman? Oh yeah: the guy I sometimes see from the travel clinic down the street. I have been taking pills for altitude sickness.

EAST (The Preparation)

Canadians spent about $4 billion on alternative therapies last year, and more than two in five say they use some kind of “complementary” medicine. In most cities you can now find a holistic dentist who will manage pain with hypnoanaesthesia or herbology or acupuncture instead of burying it with sedatives or anesthetic. It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that the masses are flocking to these folks.

“People don’t like to feel pain,” says Dr. Craig Kirker, the founder of Biological Dental Investigations, a consultant at the Integrative Medicine Institute of Canada in Calgary – and the practitioner who has agreed to take me as a test subject. Kirker often uses acupuncture in his treatment of patients, usually ones who are terrified of the kind of big dental needles that deliver lidocaine (and for whom, therefore, the reduced pain felt with acupuncture is preferable to the full-throttle pain of no treatment at all). “When you’re frozen with anesthetic, you’ll feel, on a scale of one to 10, zero, maybe point-five. If you have no freezing you might feel a nine when it gets close to the nerve. With the acupuncture you feel about a four. And it’ll peak to about a six. Just once in a while. You know, just kind of like: ‘zing.’”

Regarding my own personal experiment, Kirker is curious, even keen, but offers no guarantees. No painkillers before, during or after? “If you’re just popping a tooth out, it’s not such a big deal,” he says. “If they have to touch the bone, you’re probably going to want freezing. It’s a little different kind of pain down there. But it’d be interesting.”

Kirker sets up the extraction for three weeks hence. He recommends a couple of ways I can prepare. One is a visualization exercise popularized by Jose Silva in a classic of New Age literature called You the Healer. Basically, the subject relaxes by counting backwards from 50. You imagine your hand immersed in a bucket of ice water. You leave your hand in the water for 10 minutes. Then you withdraw it, stiff and numb, and apply it to your face, where the numbness transfers to the jaw and settles deeply into the bone.

“Here’s another little tidbit,” Kirker advises by e-mail. “Get into your quiet space and have a little conversation with your wisdom teeth and jaw. It would be nice if they felt OK about parting ways as well. I know it sounds a little flighty, but I have actually run into cases where this could have prevented a lot of trouble if we had listened more carefully.”

And so Jose Silva joins my night-table stack, atop Mark Salzman’s novel Lying Awake. In that book, a nun named Sister John has been suffering from killer migraines, which we later discover are linked to epilepsy. “I try to see pain as an opportunity, not an affliction,” she explains to a neurologist. “If I surrender to it in the right way, I have a feeling of transcending my body completely. It’s a wonderful experience, but it’s spiritual, not physical.”

EAST (The Indoctrination)

The IMI, a cozy little brick building not far from downtown Calgary, is on the frontier of the field of “integrated medicine.” Its mandate is similar to Andrew Weil’s bailiwick at the University of Arizona – to get the two solitudes, Western and Eastern medicine, to meet for lunch. Mind-body medicine is about breaking the old dichotomy – not “East” or “West” but “the medicine that works at the right time for the right reason.” “The body is capable of healing itself,” the Canadian alternative-medicine pioneer Wah Jun Tze often said. IN fact, perfect health is the body’s natural state, and anything that interposes itself in that process, the mind-body tribe says, is probably hurting more than it’s helping in the long run.

I arrive the day before the scheduled extraction. My vow to do this side the Eastern way forces the direction of treatment somewhat. Kirker will work as part of a team: he’ll do the prep work and the acupuncture while a colleague named Bill Cryderman, a dentist who is on the same page with IMI philosophically, will pull the teeth. “We could have gone with an oral surgeon, but I thought you’d have a more exciting experience with Bill,” Kirker says. But before I meet Cryderman, there’s a little “tuning up” to be done.

“Here in the West we’re hunt up on the double-blind placebo study,” Kirker says as I frump into the chair next to a “bioresonance” machine called a MORA. “First we observe. We make theories. Then we test those theories, and that’s science. When Newton proposed an invisible force called gravity, they almost threw him out of the institute – but then they started testing and found out he was right.”

Craig Kirker is a nice guy. If Mr. Rogers ever decided to have a dentist on his show, Kirker would be the man he’s invite. He has a habit of telling an anecdote with a surprise ending involving spontaneous or dramatic healing, and punctuating it with “Interesting.” The MORA machine is making high-pitched squeals. Its job, Kirker says, is to detect imbalances in my body’s “harmonics” and try to kick me back into plumb. A nurse jots down the readings she’s getting. Apparently I’m a little out of balance,” “possible from the plane ride,” Kirker offers, charitably.

Next, in another room, my autonomic reflexes are tested to determine how much my body reacts to anesthetics the dentist might have if the pain proves too much to bear. Kirker puts a number of different samples in a little receptacle, one by one, and determines how they conduct energy through an acupressure point in my finger.

In still another room, I lie on a massage table with an oxygen mask over my mouth. I get a fix of ionized oxygen for 16 minutes – eight minutes of positively charged ions followed by eight minutes of negatively charged ions – which Kirker tells me has a general “detoxifying” effect and boosts my immune system. (If you could take a picture of the energy field around my body, he says, you’d see that after the oxygen had saturated the cells, the energy field would have expanded to Michelin Man dimensions.)

Then we add light. From the hood of a “biophoton machine” poised over my scalp, tiny red pulsing diodes send light energy into my body, filling me, Kirker says, with qi energy. A magnetic ring around my ankles catches energy that would apparently otherwise be lost, and sends it back into my body.

Finally Kirker puts a tiny vial of liquid in the “honeycomb” – a device that takes the frequency signature of whatever you put in it and feeds it through the lights. The liquid is a homeopathic remedy created from a flower essence – an ultradilute solution of dew collected from a flower petal in a meadow in Western Canada just as the light of dawn struck it – selected for me by an IMI staff “intuitive” named Iris.

“We’re working on you from all levels,” Kirker says.

Now, there is plenty in New Age medicine to be suspicious of. In my suitcase is a thick folder full of articles that take the air out of exactly the sort of thing we’ve been doing. But I haven’t read them yet. I’m highly motivated to believe. What’s going on here seems nutty, but my job is to take my own cynicism out of the equation at least until my teeth are handed to me in a sack. No theories, no baggage, just direct experience.

As he finishes the tune-up, Kirker tells the story of his own drift from hard science to the speculative fringe. How, almost as a lark, he played along with the leader of a workshop called “Body Symptoms as a Spiritual Process,” and allowed the possibility that symptoms happen for a reason and that the painful kink in his neck was just his body’s subconscious trying to tell him something. (The kink vanished.) And how, a while later, a naturopath using a similar technique managed to cure him of chronic abdominal pain. As far as extra-normal talent goes, for that matter, Kirker’s associate Iris, the “medical intuitive,” has a reputation for being downright psychic. Sometimes she turns up in pictures of gatherings she wasn’t even at. And here she is now, poking her head into the treatment room. “Will you be there tomorrow?” I ask.

“Not in body,” she says.

“Then how will I know if you’re around?”

“I’m a little clumsy,” Iris says. “If somebody knocks something over, that’s me.”

EAST (The Extraction)

Bill Cryderman’s workplace feels less like a dentist’s office than like the “pioneers” wing of a museum of natural history. Water rills down a slate waterfall and trickles lazily into a catch basin. Fire blazes in a hearth. A pair of snowshoes sits propped in a wall niche. And overhead, positioned so that its ribs fill the field of vision of the prone patient, is a ‘40s-era wide-bodied wooden canoe.

Cryderman himself is a small man with a sort of jocular confidence. “Good to meet you,” he said, emerging from behind a partition and pumping my hand. “Are you all psyched?”

I am lying in his high-tech dental chair. With a low hum, parts of it move to adjust to my contours. Some money falls out of my pocket onto the floor. “That’s the automatic coin-remover,” Cryderman says.

He draws himself in close, trying to gauge my level of trepidation. “You know we have a backup, right?” He means lidocaine. “It’s just for your mental security. I don’t want to give you a back door. This is going to work.”

It’s hard to tell whether Cryderman’s as certain as he seems to be, or as certain as he needs to be fore me to believe him.

There comes a point – and actors and speakers must feel this – when apprehension becomes a bigger burden than the thing you’re apprehensive about, and you actually wish yourself forward in time to meet the event. I felt that way this morning. But now I’m in full retreat, my stomach in coils.

For the past week, I’ve been practicing the ice-bucket exercise. In theory, I should be able to effect an actual physiological change. In other words, I’m not just fooling myself into thinking the area’s growing numb – it IS growing numb. Neurons generate electrochemical charges that actually block the pain messages coming back from the brain. In theory.

Craig Kirker is beside me. He seems quietly stoked. He is the pit crew, the doula, overseeing the acupuncture. Carefully, he hooks up tiny needles to acupressure points in my right ear, left hand, left food and face. Some of these needles are basically just electrodes, through which a mild current (called, oddly, a tsunami) will run from a machine called, unpromisingly, an Accu-O-Matic. There’s very little sensation: the needles hardly feel as if they’ve penetrated the skin. This could easily be a total ruse. “Now I’m just going to dial it up,” Kirker says. “The frequency you’re on right now is for healing.”

What am I doing here? No, really, literally, what am I doing here? Trying, in a sense, to reprogram the body. Pain is the fire alarm of a healthy, functioning nervous system. So the question becomes, can we make the mind aware that, yes, we’ve heard the alarm, we’re aware of the fire – but it’s a controlled burn, a regeneration burn, and therefore there’s no need to ring anymore. Can we tell it that? And will it listen?

“Ok,” Kirker says, “now start counting yourself down.”

I close my eyes and move slowly backwards from 50, breathing deeply, rhythmically. The idea is to slow down the brain activity and drift toward an alpha state, where the right brain, the creative, intuitive side, predominates.

“We’re going to just allow the body to numb,” Kirker says, “and we’re going to give the release to the teeth. We’re going to allow them to leave, and we’re going to allow the process to take place without invasion. The tissues will adapt if they need to, and healing will begin to take place as soon as the tooth is gone. We’re going to do the same visualization we’ve been doing, with the ice water, but we’re also going to draw our consciousness back from the body. To do that we’re going to go up some stairs in the mind. Only a few stairs until we reach a landing. Now look back and see your body in the chair.”

I can see it. The body. It’s me but it isn’t. It looks like an exhumed mariner from the Franklin Expedition, mummied in ice. The eyes are buried like bulbs under the skin, the whole left half of the face is crusted over with thick, white frost. This guy is dead.

Kirker reinforces the image with another. There’s a thermostat in the wall. The thermostat will be used to put the jaw into a deep freeze. At “1” the jaw is already numb. “When we turn the dial to the number 2, the numbness deepens, becomes more pervasive. Now turn the dial to 3. Turn it to 4. Deepening almost to the very tip of the root, now. Five. It’s starting to feel almost like stone. No sensation. Numb and very dense. You’ll still feel pressure, but nothing other than pressure.”

Image-making. In repressive regimes, the room where victims have been tortured has often been given a nickname. In the Philippines it has been called “the production room.” In South Vietnam “the cinema room.” In Chile “the blue-lit stage.” The very thing that manufactures and heightens sensations of pain – the projection booth of the mind – can be recruited to do propaganda for the good guys. In theory.

Somewhere across the room Cryderman is laughing. He and the receptionist strike up the Johnny Cash tune “Ring of Fire.”

I can hear things being unwrapped, instruments.

“Breathing in numbness,” Kirker says, “breathing out tension.”

A machine issuing three tones: GEG…GEG…

Cryderman is standing, for better leverage.

“Bruce is wired for sound,” he says, surveying the electrodes on my face.” “Second floor: lingerie.”

The top tooth is lying at an angle, like a newspaper box that’s been tipped over and frozen into a snowdrift. “It’s pointing a little sideways, but it’s manageable,” Cryderman says. His assistant, Monica, is at his flank. “I’m going to apply some pressure now around the upper wisdom tooth.”

You’ll feel pressure, but no pain.

Extracting a wisdom tooth is like prying an oyster off a rock. You’re pulling ligaments away from the bone, and attached to each ligament are nerves.

“Try and shift your lower jaw towards Monica,” Cryderman says. “Good for you.” The man is relaxed. He’s selling this. A little probing, a little digging – pressure, as promised, but pressure is not pain. Stone cold, bone numb.

“I’m going to try a straight elevator,” Cryderman says. “That was too easy.”

So far, so good. The dentist is smooth. He’s in there working on my mouth, and I haven’t really felt much of…

Mother of God.

Cryderman has leaned on the tool as if it were a tire iron. There’s a sick-making twisting, each sucker being yarded off the rock like snot till it pops free. Painwise, that was a six at least. Or was it? The lateral motion was what got to me, that unfamiliar sensation I interpreted as pain.

“You OK?” Cryderman says. “Yes? He’s going to be fine, then. You are going to be just fine.”

Pain is a private experience. To feel it even for a moment is to glimpse how it must, for chronic suffers, be a brutally estranging force. The human being is affiliative by nature, constantly reaching out; but the human being in pain is isolated, constantly looking in, drawing on reserves, spinning down to a hidden centre.

Quell the fear. Most of pain is fear. Breath in numbness, breathe out tension. Hey, this isn’t so bad. On the other hand, if the same procedure were happening in a different circumstance – the Tower of London in the 18th century, say – my subjective experience would likely be different.

“Hang in there, buddy,” Cryderman says. “Good show. So, we’re done there.” The top tooth is out. In seven minutes. Not exactly a slow float in the shallow end of the kidney pool, but manageable, surprisingly so. One down, one to go.

If I could somehow have known what was to follow, I might have bailed right there – paid up and been on the next plane home.

“I’m going to enlist your aid here, OK?” he says. “I want to control the bleeding in the lower left. I want you to imagine that the blood supply to that corner of your mouth is delivered by a garden hose. I want you to turn the tap off. Imagine yourself turning it right off. Cinch it down tight and shut the blood supply off to that wisdom tooth area. That’s it. Just imagine that you’ve stopped it altogether.”

Most of the tooth is covered by a crown of skin, which will have to go. Cryderman picks up a scalpel. Its blade is as long as my thumb.

“For all I know, this is the part that will bother you more than the actual tooth removal.” He pushes the blade in deep, drawing it down nearly a quarter of an inch and all the way forward, creating two flaps he then peels back on either side to expose the bone. It feels like a scraping, a scouring, a beating of rugs, uncomfortable for sure, but by now I have defined pain down – anything that doesn’t involve twisting is OK by me – and I let him go on.

“So we’re going to make some noise just like for a filling.”

Constant suction. Cryderman needs a point of leverage to get the tooth out of there. He starts to drill. Now he is digging a little trench in the bone. What helps stave off panic is that the drill, I discover, is preferable to the elevator, whose sudden, stump-uprooting action creates a more mentally vivid and therefore more flinchworthy sensation.

I can feel him moving back there. He’s a long way back, so far back that maybe he’s working on somebody else’s mouth. The mouth of the dead guy, Franklin’s man in the ice.

The tooth is butted up to the next molar too tightly. It’s not going to come out in one piece.

Cryderman starts to drill. He burrs down from the top of the tooth at an angle, the sound of a jet plane on takeoff heard through earmuffs. He brushes the pulp – a zing of pain, electric, a fist flying open. “Hang in there,” he says. “We’re making great headway.”

Whenever the rational mind is activated, there is suffering. Cryderman can tell when I am in my rational mind. He knows the circuit is open, two people receiving each other. He’s talking to me now, engaging directly. He knows I’ve gotten off the lift and am taking the stairs, and he is helping me up those stairs.

I fall back on the Jose Silva technique. The trick, Silva figured, is to concretize the pain, make it a physical thing. The right brain, which creates pain sensations, deals with subjective constructions. It can’t deal with things. So once you’ve given pain dimensions, you’ve taken it out of the right brain and put it into the left, which feels nothing. Concretize the pain. It is the shape of the sun, the sudden weight of a wheelbarrow full of rocks.

“Thanks for opening so wide,” Cryderman says. “I had a little girl just before you, and I keep wanting to say, ‘Bruce is being a big helper.’”

With a loud crack the corner of the tooth shears off. The idea is to plug the elevator in and try to level the tooth out. But again, it refuses to budge.

Strategy changes. Cryderman and his assistant have a little conference. Kirker, who has been down at my feet massaging the acupressure points, pops up to have a look. “OK, let’s try it,” Cryderman says finally. “We’ll just go really slow and see how we do.” He begins to drill straight down into the pulp chamber of the tooth. If lidocaine were ever going to be needed, it’s now. I can feel the burr going in, but the pain is more a frisson than a jolt, no worse than some of the bad dentistry I had as a kid, nothing I can’t handle. If the other “pain” sense cues were absent – the scraping of the scalpel, the cracking of the teeth, the smell of burning pulp – there would be almost no sensation. At intervals Cryderman stops drilling and tries levering. I can hear myself making whale sounds. “Let’s give him a rubber bite-block – that should improve his ability to stabilize his own jaw,” Cryderman says. “I think that’s going to help you, Bruce, because I’m torquin’ on ya.”

The roots of the tooth have grown together into a kind of monoroot, which means Cryderman will have to bore down almost all the way down to the jawbone before the tooth splits. Then all that will remain is to slip an elevator into the crack, twist it, and the two pieces should split like cordwood, free to be lifted out. In theory.

Light blooms periodically as Cryderman’s headlamp beam passes over my eyelids. I can feel tight skin near my temples where the tracks of tears have dried.

The steady trickle of the waterfall. Kirker has turned up the current on the electrodes on my face so I will feel a reassuring buzz, but I don’t feel a thing.

A hazy notion is born and forms and tries to take hold. It’s the sense that there are two worlds in opposition – the world I normally live in, the grasping world, self-centred and busy and messy, my brain full of way too much pop-cultural arcane; and the other world I am beginning to glimpse, a letting-go world, a place of acceptance and submission and yes, faith, where the real show is happening beyond conscious awareness, your biochemistry sensitive to toxins at almost an atomic level, dead relatives along with you for the ride and every organic thing pulsing at an almost audible frequency, giving off a visible light. A place that, once you decided to live in it permanently, would probably make the other world look like the restroom of a gas station next to the beach.

How we experience pain, eventually, falls into the preverbal realm, or possibly postverbal – casting us back into the frustrating limitations of infanthood or forward to the final mumblings in the vapour tent before the ventilator is turned off English has no words for it. At best our descriptions are crude approximations. Pain is the original language, not what the body speaks to the world but what the world speaks to the body: you are still alive.

Cryderman is almost entirely through the tooth. “Hang on,” he says. “I think I’m going to have some good news for you pretty quickly.”

The tooth splits with a crack. “OK, let’s see what we’ve got.” The two pieces should lift out easily. But they don’t. They are fused to the bone. Akylosis. Cryderman will have to pry each out individually.

At this point let me collapse the story. Plenty of things happen in my mouth, and plenty of things happen in my mind, not least of which is that I adopt a new strategy, leaning not on images, but on fact (“Look, this is the way it was done for thousands of years”) and affirmations (“The only way out is through”). Cryderman describes a required manoeuvre to Monica as a “dipsy-doodle.” He tells her to be a little more aggressive. At a certain point, I find myself talking to the tooth: “Let go, pal.” The tooth and I have fairly clear communication going. We are staring at each other across the table of a bad Mexican restaurant on the night, after 25 years together, that it all ends. The tooth says, “Why are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to you?” It senses an impure motive. This is not a diseased tooth. It wasn’t causing any trouble. Strictly speaking it did not need to come out. Was the thrill gone? Was there another, younger tooth in the picture? No. I was doing this for the money.

“OK, Bruce,” Cryderman says. “You made it.”

Sixty-five minutes after he began to tackle it, the last piece of this tooth is out. Cryderman’s face is filmed with sweat. “Holy mackerel,” he says. He puts a couple of stitches in. I don’t feel them. I am floating on endorphins.

This has turned out to be one of the most stubborn extractions Cryderman has ever undertaken.

“OK, I’m not ordering anything with sun-dried tomatoes on it this weekend,” Cryderman says “Monica is destroyed on sun-dried tomatoes now. Possibly forever.”

In his byzantine excavations, Cryderman managed to miss the major nerve that runs under the wisdom teeth – if he’d hit it I doubt any amount of acupuncture or guided imagery would have prevented me from jumping out of the chair. But even so, this was a pretty sensational bit of trauma. And with acupressure, and what amounts to positive thinking, I was able to endure it. the dissociation from my own body in the chair – not “astral travel,” but something closer to a state of light hypnosis, suggestibility with awareness – worked. “Turning off the tap” worked. Cryderman removed only two gauzes’ worth of blood – way less than there should have been for a wound that size. A dental patient who’s not completely frozen will typically feel pain the moment the drill penetrates the enamel, moves into the dentin and brushes the pulp. Cryderman drilled right through the pulp. “That,” says Kirker, “is like doing surgery.”

Here’s the truth. I am not a tough guy. I cry at track meets. And I’m easily distracted. A stronger person with a more disciplined mind could almost certainly enjoy something close to a pain-free experience.

“Western medicines definitely have their place,” Kirker says as we make our way back to the IMI in his minivan. “They’re very useful for some things. It’s hard to beat a good nerve block.” I know what he means. Strictly in terms of quantifiable pain, the Western side of this experiment “won” hands-down. But the Eastern side was a lot more interesting.

No doubt Silva made some mistakes, and Iris misses the barn some days, and Deepak Chopra bends some facts to fit his myths, and a lot of the “Kirlian photography” people you see at science fairs are charlatans, waving the Polaroid over a 60-watt bulf before handing you back an aureole-ringed picture of yourself. But somewhere in the fog is the right way forward – to a future where doctors are paid even if they don’t make a referral or prescribe a pill, and patients are encouraged to do all they can for themselves, and Western and Eastern medicine collapse into something we call ‘using what works.’ And pain still exists though we all start thinking about if differently, trying to answer the question of why it dogs us from a little further upstream.

The healing curve on this left side is steep. Kirker gives me a couple more sessions of the oxygen and the lights. He makes a liquid homeopathic out of the pieces of my own tooth. He feeds into the bioresonance machine he’s using on me the signature of healthy tissues from pigs raised on an organic farm in Germany. (Using healthy human flesh would no doubt present, um, ethical issues.) There is very little swelling, which surprises him. “When you touch bone,” he says, “almost invariably you swell up like a chipmunk.”

The night of the operation there’s a little low pain, maybe a Two, not enough to prevent me from sleeping. The next morning it is gone.

On Monday, Kirker and I shake hands goodbye.

“Oh. Iris phoned,” he says. “I asked her if she was there. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘Dragged on awhile, eh?’”

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The Library of Flesh and Blood

The Library of Flesh and Blood

Essays Featured Psychology

From THE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT, by Liberty Mutual

The sign just inside the doors of Surrey City Centre Library was small enough, or strange enough, that most of the patrons who’d been waiting outside filed right past it without even noticing.

Human Library—Open Today

Surrey City Library, in a bedroom community of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a just-opened Modernist gem, and it has all of the things you’d expect in a library — books and magazines and scores of multimedia options —plus one rare new thing: a small collection of “human books” that you can “sign out” for 30 minutes at a time.*

Human books are, simply, people. They are volunteers who have made themselves available to the public, as stories. They were chosen because they have something unique to say and a compelling way of saying it, and because they reflect the cultural diversity of the community. Theirs are stories that – because they don’t involve vampires or boy wizards or ladies’ detective agencies— might otherwise be lost, in the blockbuster-or-nothing climate of today’s publishing world.

The books sat at tables, waiting for readers. About half of them were mustered in a big room. Beside each was a glass of water, a timer, and a little box of breath mints. (Aesthetes might argue that printed books “breathe” – and indeed the subtle smell of paper and glue is a crucial part of the reading experience that’ll be lost when we all go fully digital. But actual bad breath would surely be a bringdown for any reader.) One book stood out. It wore a vest bearing a sign in thick black block letters: I AM A BOOK.

The vested man was named Abdifatah. He had an easy smile and red-rimmed eyes —the badge of new-fatherhood. Abdifatah was a Somali refugee who had fled that country’s civil war in the mid-1990s and resettled in Canada. His story was ostensibly about “the immigrant experience” – but that title, I discovered after checking him out, barely scratched the surface.

You don’t read a human book the way you read a regular book. The exchange is, in principle, more like a dialogue. “Ask any question that occurs to you,” Ravi Basi, the project’s co-coordinator, put it, by way of instruction. But once Abdifatah got rolling, I didn’t dare interrupt him. Around ten minutes in, the poetic heart of his tale breathtakingly emerged.

When Abdifatah was 11 years old, growing up amid growing chaos in Mogadishu, he and his older brother were kidnapped and held for months by rebel soldiers. The boys were forced into servitude, given chores like making meals and laundering bloodstained clothes. It was corrosive stuff for a little kid, and Abdifatah’s brother was determined to protect him from the worst of it. He would soften the nightmarish edges of day-to-day life by confabulating stories that sanitized the truth.

“He’d make it like a fairy tale,” Abdifatah said. “He would say, ‘Abdi, they’re hunting animals – that’s how the blood got on these clothes!’”  (In actual fact Abdifatah’s brother had stripped those bloody clothes off of dead soldiers himself.) The older boy kept the younger boy’s spirits up, day after day. It became clear that this human book wasn’t really about a young African man’s transition to Western culture, as advertised. It was about brotherly love.

It is the responsibility of a community to protect its stories. So an anthropologist might argue. It is the responsibility as human beings to step into each others’ shoes on a regular basis. So a philosopher might argue. Actually, that’s one of the reasons we read books. But it’s not the only one.

We read to confirm our biases. We read to bore deeper into an area of interest. Sometimes – though not often, it must be said – we read to “challenge ourselves,” says Basi, with a book that relates experiences or beliefs that oppose our own.

That, indeed, was the founding principle of the first-ever human library experiment, launched a dozen years ago in Denmark after a tragic event. A young man had been stabbed in a nightclub, and five of his friends were grasping for answers. Violence, they concluded, is a product of ignorance and misunderstanding; it melts in light. So if potential adversaries could sit down with each other—the book and its hostile reader, so to speak — anger and mistrust could be defused. The project was born. One of its first “books’ was a policeman, and one of his first readers was an illegal graffiti artist.

Since then, a handful of other human-library experiments have sprung up here and there – notably in Australia—each nodding to the original concept, but broadening it to scratch other, less political, itches of curious readers.

After the timer on Abdifatah’s desk buzzed, signaling my time with him was up, I thanked him and moved, a little stunned, out into the main stacks. By this time more readers had found their way to the human library. One was a man who had just come to drop off a book, then co-incidentally discovered a kindred spirit in a human book named Sara Grant, the mother of an autistic boy. He promptly signed her out, and the two settled in to a quietly intense discussion. (The man’s grandson is autistic; he had done a lot of book-reading, but had spoken to precious few people in similar circumstances.)

I started giddily signing out other human books.

One was about  “laughing yoga,” by a teacher of that emerging discipline. Another concerned an East-Asian woman named Anita who had remained defiantly single, despite her parents’ best efforts to marry her off. A third was about the world of competitive crossword-puzzling, told by an international champion. All of my books were chatty and unguarded –qualities of temperament that the organizers selected for. At least one book – Anita– was unaware of how great a premise she was, and unsure if she’d make a compelling read. “I was kind of worried no one would check me out,” she admitted. More than once I thought: this is the real thing, a tale told around the primitive fire—no editing, distribution or downloading required.

Moving from table to table felt dizzyingly promiscuous, like literary speed-dating. But my mind kept returning to Abdifatah and his brother.

I confess I can’t tell you the brother’s name. I forgot to ask, and now it’s too late. There’s no going back to Abdifatah to check.

Unless I renew him.

* Note that Surrey library’s human books, unlike its print books, aren’t continuously available. (That would be a lot to ask of volunteers.) Rather, they will be made available periodically. Staff have yet to decide how frequently to run human library days.

Postscript: Abdifatah has checked in. His brother’s name is Mohamed.

— Bruce Grierson

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The Great Fossil Feud

The Great Fossil Feud

Featured Science

from DISCOVER MAGAZINE, Dec. 7, 2011

The first shot across the bow came in 2002, when Oxford paleontologist Martin Brasier challenged the authenticity of what were then widely regarded as the fossil remains of some of Earth’s first life-forms. In the bargain he took on one of paleobiology’s great lions, J. W. “Bill” Schopf of UCLA, who made that find and still defends it. “It was like tackling Jesus or Moses,” Brasier says.

Now Brasier has emptied his second barrel. In August he and David Wacey of the University of Western Australia staked their own claim to a candidate for the oldest known fossil: a set of Slinky-shaped cells found on an ancient beach in western Australia, just 20 miles from the site of Schopf’s discovery. Brasier asserts that his fossilized cells are the remains of primitive anaerobic bacteria that lived 3.4 billion years ago. Schopf’s samples, he believes, are just ancient, patterned rock, with no fossils at all.

Settling the debate matters a great deal. At its heart is one of the biggest questions in science: When and where did life begin? Brasier’s find suggests that life on Earth started not near some oceanic thermal vent but rather in a warm, oxygen-depleted bath near the surface. It also bolsters the case that there once was life on Mars.

But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the late Carl Sagan once said, and that is a hard standard to meet in a field so rarefied that all of its top experts could probably fit in a Volkswagen. After a decade of mapping rock formations and analyzing samples, Brasier believes he has attained the extraordinary evidence that Schopf has not.

Both scientists used light-
scattering lasers to dust for chemical fingerprints, but Brasier bundled several techniques to attain detailed 3-D images. He found sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen, suggesting biological origins. Schopf detected carbon too, but Brasier argues that it is unrelated to life. Schopf counters that no one has ever found carbon in the geological record that is not a remnant of life.

Context may matter just as much as chemistry. Schopf’s cells were free-floating in rock like raisins in raisin bread. Brasier’s fossils appear in tangled clumps stuck to sand grains. “And that’s much more what biology does,” he says. “Bacteria cluster together in great populations.”

Schopf, 70, stands by his fossils as “the most thoroughly studied
—by the most workers, using the largest array of analytical techniques that have provided the greatest assemblage of relevant data in the history of science.” Naturally, Brasier disagrees with that, too. It will be up to their small group of colleagues to resolve the debate, or to make it moot by finding something even older.

http://discovermagazine.com/2011/dec/02-big-debate-over-oldest-life-on-earth

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Congrats, you’re a Dad. Time to dial back the risk-taking?

Congrats, you’re a Dad. Time to dial back the risk-taking?

Essays Featured Kids Psychology Sport

From THE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT by LIBERTY MUTUAL, June 29, 2011

Not long ago, a French-Canadian skydiver named Pascal Coudé, who hopes to break a world record by freefalling for 6 to 7 minutes from an altitude of 30,000 feet, was telling me about his preparation. He plans to make the jump in a baggy costume known as a “wingsuit” – a specially designed jumpsuit with webbing that catches wind and creates massive air resistance. Sounds fun, but in fact it’s incredibly dangerous. If you tire and lose your stable position, you can start tumbling uncontrollably.

When the time seemed right I asked Coudé: “Do you have kids?” He replied that he does – a 19-year-old son.

“Do you think about him as the plane nears the drop zone?”

No, Coudé said. “I’m thinking only of the jump: nothing else.” There could be no distractions up there, in the brief prelude to glory.

Everything about “adventurers” tends to be writ large – which is what makes them such appealing profile subjects. Over the years I’ve covered a guy trying to skydive from the troposphere; a woman diving unprecedentedly deep in the ocean on a single breath; a Norwegian explorer walking across remote northern Canada, without support or even a phone. These are seriously brave people, and very often there’s poignancy to their motivations.

For years I never thought to ask such people, the takers of ungodly risk, if they have children. But now I always ask. It strikes me as an essential question. Seven years ago, when my wife called her dad to tell him his first grandchild – our daughter – had just been born, his first word was: “Congratulations!” He left a beat, and then said: “Your life is no longer your own.” Welcome, in other words, to the world of real, adult responsibility. His statement raised questions about the costs of adventuring. Did morally defensible risk now begin and end with serving past-the-date spaghetti sauce once in a while?

British mountaineering writer Robert Macfarlane makes the distinction between “acceptable risk” and “gratuitous risk.” The moment you become a parent the dividing line shifts, he suggests, and those life-threatening ascents that once earned you praise for courage now fall into the zone of indefensible. On this subject utilitarian philosophers are likewise pretty clear on the rules. To put it in Spock-ish terms: the needs of the many trump the needs of the one.

And so when my daughter Madeline was born I decided, with some encouragement from my wife, that my own Darwin-baiting escapades were over. No more aimless multi-day rambles in the British Columbia wilderness; no more solo kayaking across the Strait of Georgia or scrambles across snow bridges on Rainier. It was an easy choice for someone like me, who really was just goofing around under the flag of extended adolescence. Risk was a hobby, not a calling, and I happily let it go.

But what about professional adventurers like Coudé? For them it’s not about growing up: they’re grown. It isn’t really even about choice. Risk is so much part of what they do, and what they do is so much part of who they are, and who they are is so closely linked to a script that they feel was written for them, that thinking about stopping doesn’t compute. Force them to change and they would simply … cease to be.

“How could I have stopped her?” responded James Ballard when reporters asked what business his wife, Alison Hargreaves, had in summiting K2 – a far more treacherous peak than Everest – when she had young children waiting patiently for her to return. Hargreaves, considered by many the world’s best woman climber, was blown off the mountain in a violent storm in 1995. Hers became a morality tale for the issue of acceptable risk. Harsh judgment tarnished her legacy – harsher, arguably, than it would have been for a man. (Putting a mountain ahead of one’s kids struck many as antithetical to the natural mothering instinct.)

But Hargreaves had her defenders. After the climb that left him a widower, Ballard received letters from women who praised her for not capitulating to domestic life and setting down her ambitions. Her life, even shortened, was a victory for women, they said; becoming a parent doesn’t foreclose on our questing human nature, or at least it shouldn’t. We’re here to see what we can do. Hargreaves had inspired them to follow their own trajectories, these mothers said, no matter what anybody else thought or said.

Of course, Hargreaves’s children never got a vote in the matter. Their mom went to work and one day she didn’t return, plain as that. But her daughter, Kate, and son, Tom, 20 and 22 respectively, are now in a position to weigh in. Both say they are proud of their mother. Tom in particular has become a seriously skilled mountaineer. He’s currently in training to summit the peak that killed his mom, and he may become the first to scale it in winter. He understands her compulsion to push the limits of the sport because, he says, it’s in him too.

Maybe the Spock doctrine about “the needs of the many” and the “needs of the one” is insufficient. It gives equal weight to every life without measure of the quality of that life – how enhanced or impoverished it becomes when you add or subtract risk. The question What do we owe to others? is incomplete without its corollary: What do we owe to ourselves?

Sometime this summer, probably over Arizona, Pascal Coudé will leap from a plane in his wingsuit. And I’m positive that, as he falls — a flying squirrel fighting to hold position in the sky —he won’t be thinking about moral calculus, or utilitarian philosophy. Neither will his son.

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What does the future hold for the Twins Who Share a Brain?

What does the future hold for the Twins Who Share a Brain?

Featured Kids Psychology Science

from VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, Sept. 1, 2011

The moment they were born, on October 25, 2006, in Vancouver, this much was known about Krista and Tatiana Hogan. The girls were conjoined—what used to be called “Siamese”—twins. Their skulls were fused such that their tiny bodies together made the shape of an open hinge, the girls facing the same direction but essentially away from each other. Each had her own organs and limbs, but they shared plenty of blood vessels in the netlike sheath beneath their scalp. And they shared something else, too, something believed to be unprecedented among living twins: a “bridge” of tissue connected their otherwise-separate brains amidships, at a crucial relay station called the thalamus.

Eight hours after the twins’ birth, a remarkable thing happened, and it immediately transformed the story of two little girls from Vernon, B.C., into something almost mythic. Tatiana got a shot and Krista flinched. Clearly, the girls were not just attached but connected. Sensory information passed between them.

“This is not telepathy. This is not ‘sixth sense,” says Douglas Cochrane, a veteran pediatric neurosurgeon at BC Children’s Hospital who has been the twins’ wingman—their doctor, advocate, and, in a sense, protector—since they were in utero. “The girls send chemical messengers in the bloodstream between each other. They send electrical impulses and information between each other along this bridge”—on the CT-scan image he’s pointing to, it looks like a long kidney bean—“and I’m sure along the coverings that they share.”

The bridge has been likened to a FireWire connection between their brains, and its bandwidth appears broad. Months after their birth, tests confirmed that images falling on the retina of Tatiana were processed in the visual cortex of Krista. What one girl looks at, the other girl sees.

This development, bordering on miraculous, had a flipside: separating them would be a bear. The risks were extraordinary. At best it would likely mean, at the end of many complicated operations teasing apart bone, skin, and vessels, some vision and speech impairment for both girls. Plus: “Given the way the brains are packed together—they’re physically separate but they sort of interdigitate like the teeth of a zipper—it was clear to me that we’d end up with weakness on one side for one twin and on the opposite side for the other,” Cochrane explains. “What else would happen no one knows.”

A semi-crazy-sounding philosophical question presented itself: Is it better to be healthy and fused to someone at the head, or to be impaired and partially paralyzed but on your own? To answer means having to assign a value to independence. Do we perhaps overvalue it? And undervalue—because no singleton can appreciate it—the presence of someone who gets you because they are in you, of you?

Cochrane viewed his job, in those early days, as articulating what splitting the girls up would mean (in terms of gains and losses), and then stepping back and letting mother Felicia Simms—then just 21—and the rest of the family make the call. The family chose not to separate. The twins would move into the future as one.

Brain surgeons have a reputation for an appalling bedside manner—almost as if they’re unwilling to devote even a bit of RAM to niceties that could go instead to saving lives. But David Douglas Cochrane has somehow found space inside himself for both. He is a big man with softly recessed eyes and a cultivated patience. On the consumer website RateMDs.com, where patients can describe their experiences with physicians, a father weighed in. Cochrane had successfully excised a bone cyst from his son’s skull. “Dr. Cochrane is the most professional, talented, kind, humble man I have ever met,” he wrote. Other comments strike a similarly devotional tone. (Alerted to the praise, Cochrane laughingly dismissed it because the sample size isn’t statistically significant.)

Cochrane became a doctor for some of the usual reasons: he wanted to help people, a family friend whom he idolized practised family medicine in hometown Cambridge, Ontario, and he (Douglas) had the brains and the stamina to get through med school. His ambitions drew him into the wider world. At the University of Toronto, he won the Faculty of Medicine’s Cody gold medal, then struck out for Angola and worked under the medical missionary Robert Foster at the tail end of a brutal civil war. Foster’s resourcefulness under fire (literally) provided a new benchmark. Cochrane decided there to specialize in neurosurgery. Neurosurgeons are medicine’s bomb squad—brain disorders are among the most threatening to patients, and treatments carry the most risk. Family medicine it isn’t, but for Cochrane that combination of complexity and high stakes was exactly the appeal. “I found I enjoyed trying to solve tough problems,” he says. Pediatric neurosurgery is the no-limit table: the highest stakes of all. If your itch is to help, life offers few more useful places to scratch. He has been at Childrens’, where he specializes in fetuses with congenital neurological malformations, for 25 years.

But nothing in his background, he says, prepared him for a case like the Hogan twins. Cochrane is watching and listening like everyone else to see what the girls reveal about who they are.

The twins, chestnut-haired and blue-eyed, are nearly five years old. Developmentally they’re closer to four, Cochrane says, but that may just be the Ginger Rogers syndrome: they do what other kids do, but backwards and in heels, so to speak. “They have had to learn motor movements differently,” Cochrane says. “They had to work on how to sit and stand and cruise and walk.” (Even bum-scooting required heroic teamwork.)

Their language has come slowly. Cochrane admits he doesn’t quite know why but reckons the answer might be social rather than physiological. The twins are the not-so-still centre of an extended family of 14 people, all mustered under the roof of a 10-room rented house, all more or less devoted to the insatiable needs of the world’s rarest craniopagus twins. “You could say that there’s a household there that’s so full of adults and kids communicating that they’re kind of communicating for them,” Cochrane says. “It’s like the third child: he’s not going to talk until he’s three because the other two are doing all the talking for him.”

Exactly what the girls’ internal landscape is like we can’t yet know. The best tool for getting a real-time snapshot of what’s happening in the brain is an fMRI scan, which measures changes in blood flow (which correlate to changes in neural activity). For those pictures the girls will need to go into the scanner without anesthetic, which means getting their cooperation. It’ll likely be at least a year before Cochrane lets that happen. For now everybody is guessing.

Some things are established. It seems clear that Tatiana will “see” the sickle moon that Krista is looking at (and vice-versa). Very likely, in some fashion, she will hear the Bruno Mars song piping into Krista’s ear bud, and taste the Tin Roof ice cream Krista just licked, and feel the give of the soft-shelled crab Krista just picked up. (One exception: she may not smell the chrysanthemum Krista has leaned down to sniff; olfaction appears to be the one sense that routes around the thalamus.) The fear Krista experiences in her nightmare will agitate sleeping Tatiana, too. And when Krista jars awake, so will Tatiana. (The thalamus governs wakefulness.) So they will save money on alarm clocks.

It’s not clear how their brains will sort out the interference from the two-way traffic on the bridge. If they are both reading a book, will each see both sets of words? (Some neurologists wonder if the twins will have an increased chance of synesthesia—a blending of senses disproportionately common in visual artists.) The communication between them will likely prove to be a uniquely intimate call-and-response. But can we say what they are sharing are actual thoughts?

The thalamus relays not only sensory information but also some memory information to a part of the midbrain called the cingulate cortex, which is involved in, among other things, processing emotion. So the exchange is bound to have at least a dimension of what we think of as “thoughts.”

Felicia Simms is convinced her girls are playing a sort of private game of tennis, mentally. Kelowna filmmaker Alison Love, who spent a year with the twins while helping create the documentary Twins Who Share a Brain, believes it, too. “In the beginning we weren’t sure ourselves,” she says. “Is it just Mom hoping that the kids are really more special than they are?” But then both she and filmmaking partner David McIlvride began to see the same thing: a tight, coded link between the girls’ behaviour without a sound passing between them.

Cochrane, for his part, is somewhat a kindred spirit to Atul Gawande, a Boston-based endocrine surgeon and popular writer. Both men crusade for patient safety, ensured by systems of checklists and protocols for doctors to work more efficiently and limit catastrophic errors. Gawande wrote a book called Better, which promotes these issues; Cochrane co-directs the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and was recently appointed to chair the inquiry into thousands of medical scans performed and interpreted by a couple of B.C. doctors unlicensed to do so.

But Cochrane is like Gawande in another way, too. Gawande has an oft-quoted line that could easily be Cochrane’s mantra: “The social dimension turns out to be as essential as the scientific.” Cochrane is a listener above all else. Patients know better than doctors do whether their treatment has been “successful,” but that’s not the way the equation works now. Correcting that thinking, Cochrane says, “becomes more important to me the older I get.”

A powerful social lens may prove one of Cochrane’s best assets as far as the girls are concerned. (For theirs is going to be as much a social story as a medical one, a story of standing out and fitting in.) Cochrane is a curator of the twins’ uniqueness who emphasizes their ordinariness. “My sort of mental model of these kids is that they’re two kids who come to visit me,” he says. “I’m involved in the care of many kids with deformities and malformations, kids who don’t look normal and their arms and legs don’t work normally.” In this sense, the twins are like any other of his patients. “I see them as children.” If this case were special, the other ones wouldn’t be.

Cochrane doesn’t burn much daylight thinking about the philosophical and poetic implications of the girls who share a brain. Even the twists and turns of the neuroscience don’t preoccupy him. “I am interested,” he says, “and when the time is right we’ll try and put some sense to this. But I’m not prepared to put the girls out as medical curiosities. I mean, where historically did these people end up? In circuses.”

This is Cochrane as protector—trying to create normalcy around a family circumstance that would quicken the pulse of a reality-show producer. That 14-member extended family—including mom Felicia and father Brendan, five kids (the twins have an older brother and a sister, plus a baby sister called Shaggy), grandmother Louise, and various aunts and uncles and cousins—are stretched impossibly thin. The monthly budget doesn’t cover the frequent car trips to Vancouver for medical tests, which are only partly subsidized by the provincial health ministry. Some of the adults, at least three of whom have health issues of their own, report that they sometimes go hungry so that the twins can eat. To manage the twins’ exposure and drum up income (through things like speaking gigs for Felicia), the family has retained Los Angeles agent Chuck Harris. The self-described “Wizard of Odd,” Harris counts among his other clients “Lizard Boy,” “Wolf Boy,” and a guy who balances a car on his head. (Not to mention 49-year-old Lori and George Schappell of Reading, Pennsylvania, the world’s oldest set of craniopagus twins.)

The frenzy of academic interest in the twins is its own kind of P.T. Barnum scrum, in Cochrane’s view. “It’s ‘Who’s published about it? Show me the article!’” he says. And here the face of this perfectly controlled man clouds with frustration. (Cochrane has published no papers on the girls himself.) “The kids need to develop in order for us to understand some of the things that they’re asking. And the case study of these two twins will in fact be important when we can do it.”

The Hogan twins—the fact of them—is a little like the fact of life on Earth: a series of odds-defying events compounded to a level of staggering improbability. They weren’t supposed to make it this far. Early fears were that Tatiana’s heart, which was doing almost the work of two hearts, might fail. But now that the twins have grown, and grown stronger, that fear has faded and they are thriving beyond all expectation. Cochrane heaps credit on the family. “The support I remain in awe of,” he says. “That family has remained absolutely committed and absolutely strong. Without them the girls probably would have ended up in foster care.”

Out in public the girls still generate strong reactions. That’s not likely to change. “People’s immediate response is, ‘The twins should be separated—let’s make them like us,’ ” Cochrane says. Whatever the motives for that reflex—to spare the girls an impossibly complicated life or just to spare ourselves the uncomfortable feelings they might arouse in us—it’s not likely to happen now. “The only two other twins I know of who had this form of joining, though not the bridge, were two Iranian sisters,” Cochrane says. “They chose to do it in adulthood. And they did not survive.”

So, barring some game-changing microsurgical advance 30 years down the road, these two British Columbian sisters, bred in the bone, will move through life together, communicating in ways they’ll probably never be able fully to articulate. No one else will understand. But one man will understand better than most.

www.vanmag.com/News_and_Features/The_Worlds_Rarest_Twins?page=0%2C0

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